The Coins of Herod the Great

by Andrew McIntyre

Herod I, or better known as Herod the Great, was a King of Judea from 40 BC to 4 BC. He was completely beholding to the power of Rome. He came from a powerful and wealthy Idumaean family who had strong connections among the elite of Rome. Herod's father had been the Roman governor for Judea. Herod received the position of governor of Galilee during his father's rule around 43 BC. After his father's death, Herod was forced to flee to Rome when a rival, Antigonos, took control of the Jerusalem with a foreign invading Parthian army in 40 BC.

Rome appointed Herod King of Judea and supported him militarily in his recapture of Judea in 37 BC. Herod married ten times and had several children by these marriages. He was paranoid about conspiracies against his life and he had several of his children and his first wife executed. As King, Herod went to great lengths to project his power in the region including rebuilding the temple of Jerusalem, public works projects, building cities and ports, and providing food aid during times of hardship. Most biblical scholars accept that Jesus was born under Herod the Great. However, historical record shows that Herod died in 4 BC which means Jesus Christ would have been born around 4 BC or before. Rightly or wrongly, it is the monk Dionysus Exiguous (c. 470 – c. 544) who is credited and blamed for the error in the AD dating system.

King Herod, although nominal Jewish, was not liked by his Jewish subjects due to his heavy taxation, his orientation towards Hellenistic culture, and his subservience to Rome. Herod did try to accommodate Jewish sensibilities; his coins for the most part did not have graven images. The inscriptions on his coins are in Greek which was the language of the ruling elite.

It should be remembered the Greek speaking dynasties of Egypt (Ptolemies) and Syria (Seleukids), derived from the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, had at various times controlled Judea. There were five different coin types denominated by weight. All the coins issued by Herod were bronze. The largest coin is known as 8 prutot (Fig. 1) and weighs around 6 - 10 grams. The obverse of this coin has a Greek styled military helmet with a star above and a wreath. A similar styled starred helmet is found on coins of Macedonia and on Greek coins depicting the Greeks heroes, the Dioscuri twins. On the reverse of many of Herod's coins are the inscriptions HRWAOU BASILEWS = [coin] of King Herod. In the center, to the left of the center symbol, is LG which stands for Year 3. This commerates his capture of Judea in 37 BC, three years after Rome appointed him King of Judea. The monogram PT in the right field is of uncertain meaning.

The obverse of the 4 prutot bronze coin (Fig. 2) has a Macedonian type shield on the obverse and a crested helmet encircled with Herod's inscriptions on the reverse. The obverse of the 2 prutot coin (Fig. 3) has a poppy while the reverse has a cadeucus surrounded by Herod's inscriptions. The single prutah coin comes in several varieties with (Fig. 3) & (Fig. 4) being just two examples. The Lepton coin (Fig. 6) is the smallest bronze denomination weighing less than 1 gram. Many biblical coins, including Herod's coins, are well written about and demonstrated in David Hendin's book "Guide to Biblical Coins".


Guide to Bibical Coins (David Hendin 2001)
Photos by A.P.McIntyre ( 8 & 4 Prutot) & CNG (remaining photos)