When the hedonistic emperor Nero was made an enemy of the state and ultimately forced to commit suicide, the revolt of the Jews was already in its second year. Uprisings were not uncommon during the reign of the notorious ruler. An entire province, Britannia, had almost been lost a mere decade earlier. Had it not been for the tenacious resistance of a massively outnumbered Roman force, Boudica’s revolt would have seen the end of the Romans in Britain.
The people of Judaea revolted in AD 66 – the culmination of years of Roman-Jewish animosity over occupation, religion and tax. Full scale rebellion spread like wildfire across the holy land. The general Vespasian was sent to quash the rebellion. Banished by Nero for the crime of falling asleep at one of the emperor’s tedious theatrical performances, he was called back to lead a campaign with the intention of crushing the revolt in Judaea. Vespasian’s military career was one of many successes, and he had led one the three legions during the invasion of Britain in AD 43.
The First Jewish Revolt saw Jewish Zealots expel Roman forces from Judea and the formation of a provisional Jewish government in Jerusalem. This regime issued coins which have become extremely collectable in recent years. Silver shekels, half shekels and bronze pieces of various denominations were struck promoting Jewish cultural iconography, with inscriptions in Palaeo-Hebrew.
During the power struggles which erupted after Nero’s death, Vespasian was still stationed in Judaea. His Galilee campaign was a success by all accounts; rebel strongholds fell time and time again. Nero’s demise saw three emperors vying for control in AD 68 and 69. Galba, the general stationed in Gaul, was the first. His mobilisation and march on Nero in Rome was the final nail in the coffin for the mad emperor’s regime. Galba’s short rule was followed by that of Otho, the wealthy wig-wearing patrician, who shortly fell to Vitellius, the glutton. By this time, Vespasian had been proclaimed emperor by his troops and, leaving his son Titus in Judaea, marched on Rome and, upon the death of the ever-unpopular Vitellius, Vespasian assumed the purple.
The general-turned-emperor had unfinished business which would surely harm his popularity. The Jewish revolt was still not yet over. Jerusalem, the capitol, was finally besieged by the Roman army under the control of Titus in April of AD 70. Sieges were an art of war to which the Romans were adept. After four months of struggle, the colossal city of Jerusalem, with its massive walls, fell. The great Temple of Herod (either accidentally of deliberately) was burned to the ground. This saw the end of the main rebel forces in Judaea, and thousands of Jews massacred or sold in to slavery.
This was exactly what Vespasian needed. He had been the architect of the four-year-long campaign, and his celebrated son had finished what he started. No time wasted issuing what was essentially a commemorative coin series, to celebrate the victorious Romans. It is likely some of these coins were issued from in the earliest months of his reign, suggesting that to the Romans, victory in Judaea was already assured. In any case, the most well-known of the ‘Judaea Capta’ coinage features a simple but resonating design.
A mourning female Jew (or perhaps a personification of the entire province of Judaea) sits in a state of mourning, beside a large Roman trophy. Beneath, the inscription JVDAEA, in Latin, leaves no doubt as to the meaning of the design – a subjugated province defeated by Rome and again subservient.
As Vespasian’s most significant military campaign, coins celebrating victory over the Jews were issued numerously during the reign of Vespasian. His son Titus, who had been awarded a military triumph in Rome following the victory, had coins struck in his name, in celebration. He would go on to be made sole emperor following his father’s death in AD 79, cementing the Flavian Dynasty in Roman history.