The Sabbatical Year Coinage of Herod the Great

Written by Claire Pfann

April 19, 2008

Herod the Great (40–4 BCE). Sabbatical Years: 37/36, 30/29, 23/22, 16/15, 9/8

L G, Year three = Sab Year 37/36.

Herod the Great was appointed King over Judea by Augustus in 40 BCE. However, it was not until 37/6 BCE that he managed to take Jerusalem by siege and to oust Antigonus from his throne. According to Josephus the siege was during a Sabbatical year, utilizing the cities foodstuffs for his troops, which added to the plight of the people of that city. His bronze coinage no doubt signified his victory but also would have been intended to alleviate the financial crisis that prevailed in the city. The Year 3 Sabbatical Year coin set which covered nearly every denomination, 8 prutot, 4 prutot, 2 prutot, 1 prutah. No dated version of the smallest denomination, the lepton, was produced (perhaps due to the paucity of surface area on this coin for a date). However, one candidate for a non-dated version could be the eagle lepton (Hendin 501) which reflects a similar boldness in the use of non-Jewish iconography as the dated denominations, and a single cornucopia linked to the coins of his predecessors the Hasmoneans (cf. Antigonus).


8 prutot, 4 prutot, 2 prutot, prutah, lepton


X, Year ten? = Sab Year 30/29.

Herod the Great may have minted coins throughout his reign. However the major occasions to mint coins included commemoration of major events, including the completion of the harbor of Caesarea (Hendin p. 168 no. 502). However the apparent abundance of coins whose dates coincide with sabbatical years would imply that sabbatical years were key occasions to produce coins, for reasons already mentioned.

As in the case of the Year 3 Sabbatical Year coin set which covered nearly every denomintation, 8 prutot, 4 prutot, 2 prutot, 1 prutah, it appears that another set, the tripod series, may have been produced for Year ten, each with and “X” or “+” prominently displayed in the center of the verso within a royal diadem (suggested by Donald Ariel). This series included only the smaller denominations, 2 prutot, 1 prutah, 1 lepton. The motifs that unifies this set is the diadem and the tripod. (A lesser number of the leptons of this tripod series were minted, without the diadem, but with a palm branch.)

The Sabbatical Year 30/29 followed on the heels of a number of disastrous set-backs during the preceding years, each, in itself could lead to a difficult Sabbatical year. These were: 1) Anthony and Cleopatra were defeated at the Battle of Actium; 2) Herod was defeated by the Nabateans; and most importantly, 3) a devastating earthquake destroyed much of Judea and took the lives of thousands of its inhabitants.


2 prutot, prutah, lepton (two types)

The most abundant coinage of Herod’s reign, likely numbering in the hundreds of thousands, was the light prutah bearing an anchor and double cornucopia with caduceus carries forward the motifs common on the Hasmonean coins and, though undated are likely candidates for Shmitta year coinage during the last 20 years of his reign. Since other sabbatical years produced prutot with different motifs, this prutah likely is associated with the three latest Sabbatical Years, including the years 23/22, 16/15 or 9/8 BCE. This is especially since on these later issues the anchor was prevalent during which time Herod was either planning or building his prize harbor at Caesarea (21-10 BCE).


Two prutot and three lepta from the last two decades of Herod’s reign

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