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date: 04 December 2022

Alexander Jannaeusfree

Alexander Jannaeusfree

  • Katell Berthelot

Summary

Alexander Jannaeus was a member of the Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly family that ruled Judea from 152 to 63 bce. He became high priest and king in 104/3 bce and waged numerous wars that were both defensive and meant to enlarge Judea’s borders. It was under his rule that Judea’s territory reached its maximum extension. Yet both Josephus’s works and rabbinic writings convey a rather negative record of his rule, mainly because of the violent suppression of his Judean opponents. He ruled for roughly twenty-eight years (from 104 to 76 bce) and left his kingdom to his wife, Salome Alexandra, who became the first Judean queen.

Subjects

  • Greek History and Historiography
  • Jewish Studies

Alexander Jannaeus was a member of the Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly family that ruled Judea from 152 to 63 bce—from 63 to 37 bce they remained in charge to some extent, but under Roman supervision.1 Jannaeus was the son of John Hyrcanus and great-grandson of Mattathias, who had started the “Maccabean revolt” against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV in 168 bce. He ruled from 104 to 76 bce, both as high priest and as king. The combination of priestly and royal powers in the same person ran against Israel’s traditions as described in biblical books such as 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings, but it had been foreshadowed by Alexander’s predecessors, who from 152 bce onward had held political and military functions in addition to their priestly role.2 Jannaeus’s coinage shows that he used his Hebrew name Yehonathan/Yonathan as well as the Greek name Alexandros, not only in the Greek inscription basileōs Alexandrou (“of the king Alexander”) found on the obverse of some coins, but also in the Aramaic inscription malka Alexandros (“king Alexander”) on the reverse.3 In rabbinic sources he is also referred to as Yannai (Alexandros), a nickname that Josephus seems to have known as well, for he occasionally refers to him as Ianaios rather than as Iōnathès.4

During Alexander Jannaeus’s reign, Judea was impacted by conflicts that involved not only Seleucid protagonists such as Demetrius III and Antiochus XII Dionysus, but also Lagid ones, especially Ptolemy IX and Cleopatra III, who fought against each other in the Levant. Moreover, the entanglement between the Lagid and Seleucid dynasties at that time became so close that Paul Kosmin suggests looking at them as “a single, if internally fractious, Ptolemaic-Seleucid complex.”5 In addition, the region witnessed the emergence of several local dynasts, such as those of Iturea and Nabatea in the vicinity of Judea. The period was also marked by the rise of Tigranes II, king of Armenia, who conquered what remained of the Seleucid kingdom in 83 bce but did not threaten Judea directly during Jannaeus’s lifetime. The Roman Republic, which at that time became increasingly involved in the affairs of the Syro-Levantine region, also did not directly interfere with Jannaeus’s rule. Rome’s direct involvement in the affairs of Judea would have deleterious effects for the latter, but that happened only under Jannaeus’s sons.

Jonathan’s Rise to Power

Jonathan was not Hyrcanus’s favourite son. His elder brothers Aristobulus and Antigonus were in a better position to claim the throne. Josephus reports that God revealed to Hyrcanus that Alexander would be his true heir. Hyrcanus was so displeased that he sent the child far away from him, to be raised in Galilee (AJ 13.322), which suggests that at least part of Galilee was connected to Judea during the high priesthood of John Hyrcanus. After Hyrcanus’s death in 105 bce, Aristobulus became high priest and king (a title that his father had not used, at least officially). He put his mother and his brothers in jail, except for Antigonus. However, he had the latter killed out of jealousy, and Aristobulus himself died soon afterward, having reigned for only one year (BJ 1.70–84; AJ 13.301–319). Upon Aristobulus’s death, his widow released his brothers and helped Alexander become king. Alexander immediately got rid of one of his brothers, whom he perceived as a threat, but he let the other one live (BJ 1.85; AJ 13.320, 323).

The beginning of Jannaeus’s reign is commonly dated to 103 bce, but it probably started in 104 bce. The evidence from 1 Maccabees and Josephus concerning the dates of Hyrcanus’s high priesthood is debated because of the uncertainty concerning the authors’ use of the Macedonian or Babylonian starting point for the Seleucid calendar (see John Hyrcanus). It is the documents from Egypt associated with the “War of Sceptres” of 103–101 bce that tend to indicate that Alexander was already king in the year 104 bce.6 Josephus’s list of high priests (AJ 20.242) indicates that Jannaeus was king and high priest for “twenty-seven years,” but this may need to be corrected to twenty-eight years if the date of his death in 76 bce is to be maintained.

The “War of Sceptres” (103–101 bce)

The first action taken by Alexander, no later than the spring of 103 bce, was to besiege the great port city of Ptolemais-Akko, thereby continuing the wars of conquest of his brothers Aristobulus and Antigonus in Galilee, but this time in the direction of the coast.7 Ptolemais’s inhabitants turned to Ptolemy IX Soter II (Lathyrus) for help, because the Seleucid rulers Antiochus VIII Grypus and Antiochus IX Cyzicenus were too busy fighting each other to care about Ptolemais’s fate (AJ 13.325). At that time Ptolemy Lathyrus was based in Cyprus because he was in conflict with his mother Cleopatra III and his brother Ptolemy X Alexander I. Jannaeus tried to forge an alliance with Ptolemy Lathyrus but secretly asked Cleopatra III for help. He thus became involved in a war between members of the Ptolemaic dynasty, commonly known in scholarship as the “War of Sceptres.” Angered at Jannaeus’s duplicity, Ptolemy Lathyrus attacked Asochis in Galilee, failed to seize Sepphoris, defeated Jannaeus at Asophon (a locality close to the river Jordan), and invaded Judea (AJ 13.337–347). At this point, however, Cleopatra, who had made an alliance with Jannaeus, put an end to Ptolemy’s campaign. She also besieged Ptolemais and conquered it. It seems that she was in fact hoping to annex Coele-Syria and that Josephus embellished Jannaeus’s role by suggesting that he was an “ally” of Cleopatra, although he was more likely her vassal.8

Jannaeus’s Subsequent Wars of Conquest

Once freed of Ptolemy Lathyrus, Jannaeus laid siege to Gadara in Galaaditis (Gilead) on the eastern shore of the river Jordan, a strategic location that allowed him to control several roads. The siege lasted for ten months but in the end proved successful. He also seized the citadel of Amathus, located in the Jordan valley. (In addition, he had the fortress of Machaerus built on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea [BJ 7.171], but probably at a later stage.) Then Alexander proceeded to launch a new series of military campaigns on the Mediterranean coast and succeeded in conquering Raphia, Anthedon, and Gaza—which means that Egypt had loosened its control over the coast.

Josephus dates the siege of Gaza roughly to the year of Antiochus VIII Grypus’s death, namely 96 bce (AJ 13.365). Since Gaza stopped issuing autonomous coins in 95/4 bce, Alexander’s siege of the city must have occurred in 95/4 bce at the earliest. Josephus presents Jannaeus’s attack against Gaza as meant to punish the city because it had forged an alliance with Ptolemy Lathyrus. He reports that Jannaeus had the city’s councilmen massacred in the temple of Apollo and that he destroyed the city, but in view of the wealth that this strategic port could provide, it is very unlikely that the Judean king destroyed it completely.9

Jannaeus benefited even more than his father John from the divisions within the Seleucids and the dynasty’s overall weakening. He was not the only local ruler to do so, however, as the Nabateans also expanded and thus came into conflict with Judea when Jannaeus launched an offensive against Moab and Galaaditis and forced their inhabitants to pay a tribute (AJ 13.374). The Nabatean king Obedas I defeated Jannaeus further north, in Gaulanitis, and inflicted a severe blow to his army.10 Judea was then caught in the line of fire between Antiochus XII Dionysus, who succeeded to the Seleucid throne in Damascus in 86/5 bce, and the Nabatean kings Obedas I and Aretas III, successively (Aretas became king in 85/4 bce). At that time Judea was so much weakened from a military perspective that Antiochus XII chose to cross it to fight his Nabatean foes (AJ 13.390–391) and the Hasmonean king was unable to withstand him.11 Jannaeus also experienced defeat against the Nabatean king Aretas III (AJ 13.392). Yet after concluding a truce with Aretas, he managed to gather new forces and to launch new expeditions again. In three years he conquered several places on the eastern shore of the sea of Galilee, in Gaulanitis and Galaaditis (AJ 13.393–394). Josephus states that despite being sick during the last three years of his reign, Jannaeus was still actively waging war, and that he was in the middle of a campaign when he died (AJ 13.398).

In short, Jannaeus initiated numerous wars of expansion but also had to defend Judea against offensives led by various protagonists (Ptolemaic, Seleucid, and Nabatean). Ultimately, he succeeded in expanding Judea’s borders significantly. As a consequence, his kingdom came to include various non-Jewish groups, including Hellenistic cities such as Hippos and Pella. The fact that he minted coins bearing a legend in Greek with the title basileus (king) was probably in part a consequence of these non-Jewish populations’ presence within his kingdom.

The question of the fate of the Hellenistic cities conquered by Jannaeus has been much discussed in scholarship, mainly because Josephus mentions that the city of Pella was destroyed “because the inhabitants would not agree to adopt the national customs of the Jews” (AJ 13.397).12 In the same paragraph, Josephus also states that there were “other important cities in Syria which had been subdued.” At first the contrast between these other cities and the case of Pella suggests that all the other cities that Jannaeus conquered did adopt Judean customs (after having been forced to do so). However, beyond this particular paragraph there is no hint in the extant sources of such a policy of Judaization on Jannaeus’s part. Moreover, the Greek text of Jewish Antiquities 13.397 is disputed: on the basis of some manuscript evidence, Benedictus Niese chose to omit the negation and read that the city was destroyed because Pella’s inhabitants promised to adopt the Judeans’ ancestral customs—in which case the destruction of the city should be understood as a punishment for breaking their promise.13 To further complicate the matter, Josephus himself writes in the Jewish War that Pella was one of the cities that Pompey “liberated” in 63 bce (BJ 1.156), suggesting that it was still standing at that time. Archaeological and numismatic evidence tends to show that it was in fact destroyed and not resettled until quite late, but the exact circumstances of its destruction remain unclear.14 All in all, despite the mysterious case of Pella, it is unlikely that Alexander Judaized the inhabitants of the newly conquered territories; he probably reduced them to subjection and tribute.15

That Jannaeus’s wars of conquest were motivated by the desire to “reconquer the Promised Land” is highly unlikely.16 In particular, the expeditions in territories located on the eastern shore of the Jordan, such as Moab, do not match the conventional borders of the Promised Land. Josephus often mentions that there was a dimension of revenge in Jannaeus’s campaigns of destruction. In addition, military expeditions were probably also a necessity for Jannaeus in order to maintain his mercenary troops and keep control of his kingdom.

Jannaeus’s Coinage

Alexander’s coinage shows significant evolutions in comparison to that of his father Hyrcanus. According to the classification proposed by David Hendin and Ilan Shachar, his first coins followed the pattern inaugurated by his father: they bore the Hebrew name Yehonathan and the title “high priest” in Hebrew, and they featured cornucopias and a pomegranate on the obverse and an inscription within a wreath on the reverse.17 On subsequent issues, however, the title “high priest” tends to disappear, to be replaced with that of “king” in Hebrew, Hebrew and Greek, or Aramaic and Greek (obverse: basileōs Alexandrou, “[coin of] king Alexander”; reverse: Yehonathan/Yonathan (ha-)melekh, “Jonathan the king” or “king Jonathan”)—though a few coins bear the double title kohen (ha‑)melekh, “[high] priest (the) king,” on the reverse.18 The symbol featuring on the obverse becomes the anchor—the Seleucid dynasty’s emblem, which was probably meant to emphasize Jannaeus’s status as king. For Ya’akov Meshorer it had a dual significance: “the original Hellenistic one and a political significance connected with the military conquests of Jannaeus” (which included several coastal cities, and thus harbours).19 On the reverse, we first find a lily (symbol of Judea and Jerusalem) and then a star surrounded by a diadem or a border of dots, with the name and title of Jannaeus inserted between the rays of the star.20 In some cases (group M) there is only an Aramaic inscription on the reverse.

The emphasis laid on the royal title and symbols (star, diadem), the use of Greek, and the reemployment of the anchor emblem indicate that Jannaeus’s coinage was elaborated with both his Jewish and his non-Jewish subjects in mind, and probably also as a way of positioning himself vis-à-vis the neighbouring kingdoms of the Itureans and the Nabateans. Some scholars have interpreted the disappearance of the high priestly title from Jannaeus’s coinage in light of a story found in the Babylonian Talmud in which one of the king’s guests asks him to give up his high priestly function (see “Judaean Opposition to Jannaeus’s Rule”). Yet Josephus says nothing of such a move on Jannaeus’s part, and the relative absence of the title “high priest” on his coinage does not mean that he ceased to be Judea’s high priest. Strabo wrote that Alexander was “the first to declare himself king instead of [high] priest” (16.2.40) but Jannaeus’s coinage and Josephus’s testimony (in particular AJ 20.241–242) prove him wrong: Aristobulus I was the first to officially endorse the title “king” and Alexander did not give up the high priesthood when he became king of Judea.

Some of Jannaeus’s coins actually display a strange phenomenon: at an undefined moment during Jannaeus’s reign, his mint overstruck his anchor/lily type bearing the title “king” with a cornucopias/inscription type bearing the title “high priest.” Yet this change did not endure, as subsequent coins bear the title “king” again. One coin that had been overstruck with the title “high priest” was even reemployed and overstruck again with the title “king.”21 The reasons that motivated this evolution remain obscure, but probably had to do with inner challenges to Jannaeus’s rule and his desire to reaffirm his legitimacy as high priest, in continuity with his father’s communication strategy. On the whole, however, what Jannaeus mostly emphasized through his coinage was his kingship.

Alexander Jannaeus’s Relationship with Rome

According to Josephus’s testimony, or rather his silence on this issue, Jannaeus departed from his ancestors’ tradition of diplomatic relationships with Rome and did not send an embassy to renew the alliance and the friendship between the Romans and the Judeans.22 The explanation for such a decision probably lies—at least in part—in the nature of the geopolitical situation in the Levant at the time of Jannaeus. Roman support would have been of little help in the negotiations with the Nabateans, for example. Yet it would not have been irrelevant in the conflicts with Demetrius III and Antiochus XII.23 The Romans, on the other hand, were busy dealing with piracy in the eastern Mediterranean but apparently did not see the Hasmonean kingdom as a partner in this policy. Moreover, they faced other challenges that required energetic action, such as the Social War in Italy (91–87 bce) and the wars against Mithridates, king of Pontus, from 89/8 bce onward. They do not seem to have had a great deal of interest in Judea before the conquest of Syria by Pompey.

In addition to this general context, Chris Seeman formulates the hypothesis that Jannaeus may have opted for not renewing the relationship with Rome because of internal political factors: “dispatching potentially hostile aristocratic representatives to Rome, thereby reminding the Judean people of the Republic’s alliance with them—not their rulers—may have come to be regarded as politically risky.”24 The criticism of the Hasmoneans uttered by Judean members of the elite who had an audience with Pompey in 63 bce tends to corroborate this hypothesis.25

Judean Opposition to Jannaeus’s Rule

Josephus depicts Alexander as a ruthless ruler who showed no pity to his adversaries, be they from outside Judea or from within. As a matter of fact, the inner opposition to the Hasmonean dynasty appears to have been significantly more intense under his rule than under his father Hyrcanus. Jannaeus faced a first revolt in Judea c. 92 bce. Josephus records that during the Festival of Tabernacles, while Jannaeus was about to sacrifice on the altar, the people threw citrons at him and accused him of being unworthy of the high priesthood because his mother had been a captive. Jannaeus then had 6,000 people killed (BJ 1.88; AJ 13.372–373). A similar episode features in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 48b, where the priest pelted with citrons is an anonymous Boethusian/Sadducee. Yet the reasons for the conflict differ: in the Talmud, halakhic rather than political issues are at stake.26 It is certainly not by chance that Josephus, after referring to the first revolt against Alexander in Judea, recalls that he had hired Pisidian and Cilician mercenaries (AJ 13.374). In Jewish War 1.88, Josephus explicitly states that Jannaeus would not have been able to foil the plots hatched against him without these foreign mercenaries. But conversely, the king’s use of foreign troops may have fuelled the hostility that part of the Judean population felt toward him.27

Following Jannaeus’s defeat by Obedas I (probably in 89/88 bce), another civil insurrection occurred which lasted for six years and caused the death of a great number of people. The conflict had worsened to such an extent that Jannaeus’s Judean enemies urged the Seleucid king Demetrius III Eukairos to come to Judea and put an end to Alexander’s rule (BJ 1.91–92; AJ 13.377). Jannaeus and his troops—including 6,200 foreign mercenaries (or 8,000 in BJ 1.93)—clashed in Sichem with Demetrius’s army, which, according to Josephus, included many Judeans who were hostile to Jannaeus. The Seleucid king won the battle, but 6,000 of the Judeans who had supported him defected and joined Jannaeus’s side, forcing Demetrius to withdraw (BJ 1.95; AJ 13.379). Josephus claims that once Demetrius was no longer a threat, Jannaeus had 800 of his opponents crucified (or hanged or impaled) in Jerusalem and that he executed their wives and children before their eyes while he was having dinner with his concubines (BJ 1.97; AJ 13.380).28 Josephus condemns the cruelty of this punishment but also considers that Jannaeus’s reprisal was not entirely unjustified, since he had nearly lost his life and his kingdom and had also been forced to cede the territories and citadels of Moab and Galaaditis to Obedas I in order to obtain the neutrality of the Nabatean king during the war (AJ 13.382). He further mentions that 8,000 opponents of Jannaeus fled the country and returned only after his death (BJ 1.98; AJ 13.383).

The pesher Nahum (4Q169) from Qumran probably alludes to Jannaeus’s cruel chastisement of his enemies. It mentions a “Demetrius king of Greece (Yavan),” who is certainly to be identified with Demetrius III, and evokes Jannaeus’s vengeance against his opponents in fr. 3–4, col.1, calling him a “lion of wrath” who took vengeance against the “Seekers-After-Smooth-Things” and “would hang men up alive [on wood]” (lines 4–8).29 Scholars generally identify the “Seekers-After-Smooth-Things” in the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Pharisees. The notion that the conflict between Jannaeus and his opponents involved the Pharisees also arises from the conjunction of two other sources: Josephus’s testimony that Alexander advised his wife to make peace with the Pharisees (AJ 13.400–402) and the story found in the Babylonian Talmud, Qiddushin 66b, which tells of a dispute between the king and the Pharisees at a banquet.30 One of the guests insulted him by suggesting that he was not worthy of the high priesthood because his mother had been a captive. The king believed that this opinion reflected the point of view of the Pharisees and began to persecute them. This story has a parallel in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities (13.289–292) but in Josephus’s version the high priest is John Hyrcanus and not his son Jannaeus. According to Vered Noam, Josephus’s narrative and the Talmudic account draw on a common source dating back to the Second Temple period. Noam sees this story as “an etiological tale whose purpose was to explain the evolution of certain historical circumstances, namely, the beginnings of the enmity between the Hasmonean dynasty and the Pharisees,” and she identifies this tradition as “a lost fragment of an apologetic Pharisaic work.”31

Jannaeus’s Legacy

The Jewish sources’ portrayal of Alexander Jannaeus is rather negative. The least we can say is that he enjoys a bad reputation. Josephus, the pesher Nahum, and rabbinic sources all depict his reign as marked by unprecedented divisions in Judea—to the point that his opponents turned to a Seleucid king for help and initiated a civil war. It is only because his widow, Salome Alexandra, did everything she could to appease them after his death that the Pharisees claimed to have lost a “righteous king,” so that in the end he received “a more splendid burial than any of the kings before him” (AJ 13.406).

Despite his bad reputation, the fact remains that he extended the borders of Judea considerably and left to his wife a rather strong kingdom which included several coastal cities, from Straton’s Tower to Rhinocolura, as well as many fortresses in the east such as Machaerus, Gamala, and Ragaba (BJ 7.171; AJ 13.393–397, 398, 405). That these conquests were perceived positively by part of the population is shown by Megillat Ta’anit, a list of days on which it is forbidden to fast because they commemorate joyful events, which Vered Noam dates to the 1st century ce. This list commemorates one of Jannaeus’s victories, the capture of Straton’s Tower, on 14 Sivan.32

Ultimately, one of the most surprising and original political acts of Jannaeus was his decision to name his wife as his successor to the throne, thereby granting her the right to designate the next high priest, something that was unheard of in Hellenistic Judea up to that point. This political move, whatever its motivations may have been (Jannaeus may have mistrusted his sons), says a great deal about the Hellenization of the Hasmonean dynasty under Alexander, for both the Lagids and the Seleucids counted among their ranks powerful queens such as Cleopatra III and Cleopatra Tryphaina, the sister-wife of Antiochus VIII Grypos.33

The adoption of both the high priestly and royal titles by Jannaeus reflects a real mixture of Judean and Hellenistic traditions, reaching back, mutatis mutandis, to the simultaneous holding of the high priesthood and the role of stratēgos by Jonathan from 152 bce onward.34 The high priestly title was the basis of the Hasmoneans’ legitimacy and gave its holders control over the Jerusalem temple, which was Judea’s symbolic centre as well as an important economic institution. The royal title, together with the use of a Greek name, the use of Greek on coinage, the active participation in military campaigns (which was foreign to Judean high priests, who were constrained by rigorous purity concerns), the constant longing for new conquests, and the massive recruitment of mercenaries all point to the influence of Hellenistic models of kingship on Jannaeus.35 Vasile Babota has compared Jannaeus’s combination of the high priestly and royal titles to “Seleucid, Ptolemaic, and even Nabatean sacral monarchs” and to high priestly dynasties in Asia Minor whose rulers took the royal title or acted as de facto kings; at the same time, he insists that in the Judean context it led to “an institutional clash.”36 Jannaeus’s kingship may indeed have triggered new developments in Jewish views of kingship and messianic ideals.

Primary Texts

  • Horgan, Maurya P. “Nahum Pesher.” In The Dead Sea Scrolls: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek Texts with English Translations. Vol. 6B, Pesharim, Other Commentaries, and Related Documents. Edited by James H. Charlesworth et al., 144–156. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2002.
  • Marcus, Ralph, ed. and trans. Josephus: Jewish Antiquities, Books XII–XIV. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957. 1st ed. 1943.
  • Meshorer, Ya’akov. A Treasury of Jewish Coins from the Persian Period to Bar Kokhba. Nyack, NY: Amphora Books, 2001.
  • Niese, Benediktus. Flavii Iosephi Opera. 6 vols. Berlin: Weidmann, 1888–1895.
  • Noam, Vered. Megillat Ta’anit: Versions, Interpretation, History, with a Critical Edition [in Hebrew]. Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 2003.
  • Thackeray, Henry St. John ed. and trans. Josephus: The Jewish War, Books I–III. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956. 1st ed. 1927.

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Notes