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Coins, Continuity, and Change: “Hellenization” in the Post-Seleucid Levant

Tal A. Ish-Shalom

Columbia University

Classical scholars and ancient historians have long been concerned with issues of cultural interaction, performance, and change, especially under the often-problematized appellations of “Hellenization” and “Romanization.” The current vitality of research in this field, characterized by utilization of new evidence and increasing use of theory, is evident in recent works (e.g. Andrade 2013; Chrubasik 2017; Quinn 2018). These studies, however, tend to neglect the late and post-Seleucid Levant (c.164-63 BCE).

Filling this gap may improve our general understanding of cultural interaction and change, by treating a period that is qualitatively different in some key respects from those most often considered: by contrast to other periods of study, this is a period of neither stable Greco-Roman hegemony, nor the pre-Hellenistic age. Rather, it is an era characterized by memory of former Hellenistic power, contrasted with a reality of increasingly anarchic, multi-polar, geopolitics.

I argue that, in this period, rising local polities in the Levant, led by native elites (Phoenician states, the Hasmoneans and the Nabateans), paradoxically tended to adopt more Greek cultural idioms even as they became more independent of Hellenistic empires. I explain this phenomenon by arguing that these states, rather than acting within a dichotomy of accommodation or resistance to imperial power (Cf. Bagnall 1997), gradually came to see themselves as the successors of this power, and adopted Greek idioms to advertise and legitimize these imperialistic ambitions. Methodologically, I prioritize a regional, comparative approach, utilizing numismatic evidence, extant from all these states, to ameliorate the dearth and imbalance in the surviving literary record.

Starting in 169/8 BCE Phoenician cities began issuing “quasi-municipal” coinage, with legends advertising rival claims of “motherhood” over their neighbors, alluding to an imagined, common, and implicitly pre-Hellenistic, past, and doing so in the Phoenician language only. Contrary to the views of some, it is becoming increasingly clear that these coins were a product of a top-down policy of Seleucid Antiochus IV, and, despite their supposed discourse of autonomy, are in fact artefacts of Seleucid power (cf. Duyrat 2005; Houghton, Lorber, and Hoover 2008; Lorber 2015).  

Similarly, though the Hasmonean state was formed in the aftermath of the Makkabean revolt against the Seleucids, the first Hasmonean coins were produced under John Hyrcanus (135-104 BCE), who experienced periods of vassalage to the Seleucids. These coins, however, included only Hebrew legends (in Paleo-Hebrew script) using traditional terminology of high-priesthood and a Jewish communal structure (Meshorer 2001; Rappaport 2013).

By contrast, when the Phoenician cities and the Hasmoneans gained greater independence, they started issuing coins that appear far more Greek, abandoning or tuning-down public discourse of particularism and references to the Pre-Hellenistic past: in the turn of the second-century BCE, civic Phoenician coins introduced Greek legends, abandoned all “nationalistic” elements alluding to a pre-Hellenistic past, and, at best, relegated Phoenician script to secondary position (Hill 1910 cf. Kushnir-Stein 2001; Iossif 2011). The Hasmonean leader Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE) issued new types featuring bilingual Greek and Hebrew legends, rather than purely Hebrew as previously, in which Jannaeus is entitled “king” (מלך, βασιλεύς), rather than using the traditional designation of high-priest like his predecessors (Meshorer 2001; Rappaport 2013).

The Nabateans, who, like Jannaeus, began exploiting Seleucid weakness for territorial expansion, also began issuing coins bearing Greek legends, in which Nabatean king Aretas III (c.84-71 BCE), termed himself “philhellenos,” thereby hoping to legitimize himself to his new subjects (Meshorer 1975; Schmitt-Korte 1990; Kushnir-Stein 2001; Schwentzel 2013). Aretas’ policy seems to add plausibility to interpreting the discourse of his contemporary Jannaeus, and of Phoenician cities, in a similarly imperialistic vein. This, in turn, suggests a re-interpretation of the history of the era as that of a multi-player competition for Seleucid succession. A rivalry whose significance was obscured by Rome’s later, long-lasting, conquest of the area.

If accepted, my argument would reveal new aspects of the late-Hellenistic period, demonstrate the potential of additional interdisciplinary studies, and further nuance our understanding of “Hellenization”.

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