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Photo by Rhonda Spivak


Photo by Rhonda Spivak


Photo by Rhonda Spivak


Photo by Rhonda Spivak

 
A Chanukah Story: Caesarea, A Roman Coin and The Last Macabee

by Rhonda Spivak, December 4, 2016

 

When my son was almost 8 years old, we went to a shop in Caesarea, Israel owned by an archaeologist who was also a jewelry maker. We were the only ones in the store and there were a number of Roman vessels and other archaeological items on display. My son looked at the price of one of them and asked me, "Why is this small vase so expensive. It's got a big crack in it?" The shop owner laughed as I explained to my son that this small vase was a couple thousands of years old, from Roman times, and because it was so old, it was still valuable even if there was a crack in it. I then explained to him about the fact that the Romans had ruled over this area for many years and archaeologists were still digging up vessels from the time they were there.

 

My son asked some more questions, enough that when I couldn't answer, the owner of the shop came over and explained what an item was and why he had priced it accordingly. One of the items in the shop which I remember sitting near a window ledge was an ossuary, a container where the bones of a dead person are placed (which was used when burial space was scarce). “Mommy, why is it so expensive when there's no bones in there?" my son asked.

 

By now, the shopkeeper was laughing enough that he came over again and asked my son if he could give him a gift since he had been so curious to learn about everything in the store. My son gladly accepted and the owner gave him a small bluish green Roman coin, which he explained was over two thousand years old. My son then explained to the owner that he'd need to give a gift to my daughter, who was just outside the shop playing. The owner gave her some Roman glass shards, also 2000 years old.

 

The next time we were playing nearby the shop the owner came out and told my son that if he looked carefully around Caesarea it was possible that he could find Roman coins. When my son wasn't looking, he motioned to me to take these two-small circular black items (I had no idea what they were) and hide them somewhere around the Roman amphitheatre in Caesarea. I did as told and hid them under a seat in the second row near the bottom of the amphitheatre, which has 5000 seats.  At the shopkeeper's insistence, my son went to look around the amphitheatre to see if he could find any Roman coins or other treasures. He climbed the steps to the amphitheatre and decided to begin his search at the very top row, meaning that he had to look under each of 5000 seats before he found the circular black items under the lower seat where I hid them. It took him almost 3 hours in the heat to do this. I'll never forget that afternoon, and how excited he was when he found the miniscule circular black items. “Could these be Roman coins, Mommy?" he asked gleefully. I told him I wasn't sure and took him to the shopkeeper- archaeologist to see. The shopkeeper explained to my son that he had found very special items-they weren't Roman coins but a set of Roman weights to put on each side of a scale that enabled the Romans to weigh items.  

 

For my son's 8th birthday we went back to the shop so that I could purchase a coin from antiquity for his birthday. “Would you like to buy a coin minted by the last Macabee?” the shopkeeper asked my son, who knew the story of the Macabees and Chanukah. He said, yes and we proceeded to purchase a coin issued by King Herod Agrippa (also known as Agrippa 1) who was the grandson of Herod the Great and his wife Miriamme, the princess from the line of the Macabees, and ruled over Judea. (The shopkeeper didn't tell my son that it was rather miraculous that King Agrippa was alive at all since his despotic grandfather Herod had murdered Miriamme and most of her family, due to paranoia that they were a threat to him.)

 

Agrippa was a proud Jew, notwithstanding that he was implanted firmly in the world of Rome and had been appointed by Roman Emperor Claudius in 41 C.E., and was a popular among the Jews of Judea. Since he was tainted by Herod's lineage, Agrippa I had doubts about his Jewish pedigree to be King of Judea, but the Jews of Judea loved him. The Jews of Judea hoped that through Agrippa I, somehow Jewish rule could be restored over Judea. He was unlike the other Roman governors who ruled Judea directly and were hated by the Jews since they were not at all sensitive to Judaism or the Jerusalem Temple. Agrippa was the last hope that Jewish reign could be secured and when he died under mysterious circumstances in 44 C.E the Jewish people mourned.

 

 On the coins minted by him Agrippa I carefully avoided placing any symbols which could offend Jewish religious sentiment. For about $ 40 we bought my son the coin minted by Agrippa I which has an umbrella-like royal canopy with fringes on one side surrounded by the Greek inscription "King Agrippa" and three heads of barley between two leaves on the other side.  After Passover in 44 C.E., Agrippa went to Caesarea where he had games performed in honor of Roman Emperor Claudius.

 

With Agrippa I's death, Jewish hopes for the revival of the glory of the Maccabees were dashed. 

 

I don't know that at the time my son was able to grasp all of the history lesson that came with the coin we bought him, but he still has the coin and he will have lots of time to learn the history. 

 

After Agrippa I's death, the Roman governors continued to arouse the anger of the Jews by favoring the gentile populations in Israel, offending Jewish religious sensibilities, and using violence to quash any stirrings of rebellion. When the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire broke out in 66 C.E., Agrippa’s descendants sided with Rome urging the Judeans not to rebel. The Jewish revolt failed, and the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E.

 

A couple of years after purchasing the King Agrippa coin, I returned to Caesarea, but the shopkeeper and his store were no longer there. I was disappointed, as I had wanted to buy another coin from him.

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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