home | 1000 BCE to 500 CE | The Roman Empire

HELLENISM and JEWS (5 of 6)

previous | next

Loss of Independence to Rome

The Maccabees family was renamed the Hasmonaeans, and among them, as among other ruling families, conflicts developed. In 134 BCE a son-in-law of Simon Maccabeus assassinated him and his two elder sons. A third son, John Hyrcanus, escaped the assassination. He was in command of a military force, took power in Jerusalem and became recognized as Simon's heir and made High Priest.

The Seleucid monarch, Antiochus VII, seeing Judea weakened by inner turmoil, regained with military force his family's control over Judea. But when Antiochus died in 129 BCE, John Hyrcanus renewed the treaty between his family and Rome, and fear of Rome left both Antiochus' successor and the Ptolemies of Egypt reluctant to violate Judea's borders.

With Rome as an ally, John Hyrcanus was able to expand Judea's frontiers. He destroyed the city of Samaria, having disliked the Hellenized city for what he saw as its heretical form of Yahweh worship and its opposition to the Maccabaean revolt. Then, in a series of military campaigns, he won territory that the Jewish state had lost during Nebuchadnessar's invasion some 470 years before. He annexed Idumaea and forced its population to adopt Judaism, including circumcision. He overran and annexed Galilee, and there, where Jesus was to preach a hundred a fifty years later, he forced conversions to Judaism – conquest again to influence belief.

More Civil War


In 104 BCE John Hyrcanus bequeathed rule to his wife and died. Their son, Aristobulus, was High Priest. He became king after having his mother thrown into prison and starved to death – the first of Judea's monarchs to be both king and high priest. He consolidated his power by having one brother assassinated and his other brothers jailed. Then, after less than a year as king, he died, and his widow, age 37, released his brothers from jail and married the eldest of them: Jonathan, 22. Jonathan became king and high priest in the year 103 and was named Alexander Jannaeus.

With Rome distracted by their civil war, Alexander Jannaeus did the king thing and launched campaigns of expansion against Judea's neighbors. Although he was a Pharisee, he allied himself with the aristocratic Sadducees and showed contempt for the Pharisees, and this precipitated an uprising against him and another civil war. The Pharisees made an alliance with the Seleucid monarchy in Syria. The Seleucid monarch sent an army of both Syrians and Jews southward to overthrow Jannaeus, but the Jews who came south deserted and joined Jannaeus' forces. Jannaeus crushed the rebellion against him and took revenge against the Pharisees. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, in the year 88 Jannaeus had eight hundred of the rebels crucified. He watched some of the crucifixions from a window while dining with his harem, and in front of the crucified he had the throats of their wives and children cut. The executions helped to make Alexander Jannaeus unpopular. Independence had proven of little benefit for common Jews, but with the increase in their misery they intensified their hope for the coming of a great king – a messiah – and a future life in a spiritual kingdom in heaven.

Ascent of the Herods

An attempt to improve matters followed the death of Alexander Jannaeus at the age of 37 in 76 BCE. Alexander Jannaeus was succeeded by his widow, Salome Alexandra, now 64. As queen of Judah she reversed the policies of her late husband and supported the Pharisees, and the Pharisees in turn recognized her right to rule, even though she was not a descendant of David as they believed a monarch should be.

Salome Alexandra died in the year 67 and her son John became John Hyrcanus II. Three months later John's brother, Judas Aristobulus, overthrew him, becoming Aristobulus II. John sought help from an Arab chieftain named Antipater, who was from nearby Idumaea and the head of a family called the Herods. Seeking an increase in influence in Judea, Antipater convinced John Hyrcanus II to wage war against his brother. Another bloody civil war followed. The Hasmonaeans still had an alliance with Rome, and the two brothers sought arbitration there.

Rome responded by allowing its army in the East, under the command of Gnaeus Pompey, to intervene. Pompey marched into Jerusalem. The warring brothers remained willing to let Pompey arbitrate their differences, but their followers were not, and Pompey took military action to assert what he thought was his authority. Supporters of Aristobulus held the ground around Jerusalem's temple, and for three months they held off Pompey and his army. Then Pompey's army broke into the temple, slaying the Sadducee priests they found there dutifully at prayer. The following year, 63 BCE, Rome made Syria and lands south to Egypt, including Judea, a single Roman province. The homeland of the Jews had lost its independence – not to be regained until 1948.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.