Who Is Bacchius the Jew?

Draft, Feb 29, 2012. Comments welcome.
William Storage Comments welcome

In about 55 BC the Roman moneyer Aulus Plautius issued a denarius with a peculiar reference to Judaism in its reverse inscription. Its obverse bears a turreted head of Cybele, probably a reference to the Megalesian games, sponsored by Rome's curule aediles, a title Plautius included on his coin. The reverse shows a man kneeling aside a camel, extending an olive branch to a Roman soldier. The legend inscribed on the reverse, of which 150 different die types are known, is "BACCHIVS IVDAEUS" (Bacchius Judaeus).

The inscription puzzled early numismatists, who conjectured that it might refer to Pompey's execution of the pirate, Dionysius of Tripoli, an event know only from a mention by Josephus. Another possibility offered was that Plautius, an officer in Pompey's army when he invaded Palestine in 63 BC, may have personally been involved in the capture of a general or Arab king named Bacchius (e.g., Morgan, 1832). These interpretations fail to take into account the nature of propaganda employed by moneyers on Republican denarii. As noted by Michael Harlan, Rome provided holders of the unpaid, appointed, government position of moneyer-triumvir the perk of being able to stamp whatever they wanted on both sides of their denarii. Harlan shows well that this advertising opportunity was invariably used to communicate a triumvir's qualifications for a more prestigious elected position. The imagery on a denarius, therefore, either demonstrated the moneyer's aristocratic lineage - and possible ties to mythical, heroic ancestors - or, where this couldn't be shown, attempted to connect the moneyer with a virtuous and popular government figure.

Our interpretation of Plautius's campaign message is further assisted by its date, shown to be 55 BC by hoard evidence and prosopographical research, and its relationship to another denarius minted three years earlier by Marcus Aemelius Scaurus. Scaurus's denarius bears an image nearly identical to the Plautius reverse, complete with kneeling captive and camel. The inscription below the camel reads, REX ARETAS, recording a slightly exaggerated version of a story told in detail by Josephus in both Wars and Antiquities - the surrender of King Aretas of the Nabataeans to Pompey's army. 

Aulus Plautius, Bacchius Iudaeus M Aemilius Scaurus, Rex Aretas
Denarius of Aulus Plautius, 55 BC
Reverse inscription - BACCHIVS IVDAEUS
Denarius of M Aemilius Scaurus, 58 BC
Lower obverse inscription - REX ARETAS

When Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, the two sons of Alexander Jannaeus, were engaged in civil war over the office of High Priest of Judea, Herod Antipater intervened on behalf of Hyrcanus, convincing Aretas to provide an army to assist Hyrcanus. The Roman general Scaurus, military tribune under Pompey, was at this time in Syria, having just taken part in the campaign resulting in the surrender of Tigranes the Great. Freed from this task, Scaurus took the opportunity to enrich himself by intervening in this Judean dispute. Just when Aretas had mobilized troops on behalf of Hyrcanus, Scaurus arrived and threatened Aretas with Pompey's army. There was no actual battle between Scaurus and Aretas; the King merely paid a tribute/bribe of 300 talents to Scaurus, who then moved on to Damascus. Pompey later arrived in Jerusalem and heard arguments from the rival brothers, eventually siding with Hyrcanus. Aristobulus fled, but was tracked down, captured, and taken to Rome as a prisoner. 

A few years later in 57 BC, Aristobulus escaped from Rome, returned to Judea and raised another army. He was again defeated, captured and sent to Rome in late 56 or early 55 BC, where he was imprisoned by decree of the Roman Senate. Thus Aristobulus was in the Roman news right at the moment when Aulus Plautius issued the second Roman coin to show an eastern leader submitting to Rome by extending an olive branch next to a camel. This current event allowed Plautius, general under Pompey at the time of the first capture of Aristobulus, to link himself with the war hero Pompey through a conquest now fresh in the minds of the Roman Senate and through parallel association with Scaurus's coin of three years earlier.

The message of this denarius in the context of Plautius's career is now clear: "I, Plautius, took part in the conquest of Judea and had a role in the capture of the high priest of Bacchus in Judea, recently in the headlines. I am endorsed by your beloved Pompey the Great. Support me in my campaign for the office of praetor."

The modern problem in reading Plautius's coin is not its message, but his equation - and presumably that of the Senate - of Aristobulus II, High Priest of Judea, with a high priest of Bacchus. Clearly, these Romans equated YHWH, god of the Jews, with Bacchus, god of wine, harvest and ecstasy. They may have reached this conclusion out of clumsy syncretism or through the knowledge that some Jews - presumably including Aristobulus - honored Bacchus in addition to or instead of YHWH.

This latter possibility is immediately dismissed by many through its lack of accord with rabbinical Judaism and Jewish sacred writings, even given the diversity of belief in Hellenized Judea. However, textual and archaeological connections between YHWH and pagan gods in Second Temple Judea require a closer look. Some of this evidence points to errors in Roman thoughts on what Judaism was all about, but part of it lends credence to the possibility that certain Jews, even in Jerusalem - possibly including Aristobulus - may have embraced the equation of Bacchus and YHWH.

The equation of YHWH and Bacchus/Dionysus inferred from ancient writers who report ass worship by Jews can generally be dismissed as confusion or early anti-Semitism. Mnaseas, Democritus and Suidas reported that Jews revere the head of a golden ass. Plutarch wrote that Jews don't eat rabbits because they look like donkeys, an animal Jews worship. Tacitus wrote that Plutarch was in error, noting that Jewish have purely mental conceptions of deity, and that Jewish worship has no gaiety. Florus, writing mid 1st century about Pompey's conquest of Judea, reported that below the golden vine in Jerusalem in a secret place was the golden head of an ass. Epiphanius of Salamis mentioned a vision of an ass's head in the temple, though his writings on the subject are suspect and may be based on Florus.

The golden vine mentioned by Florus was also described by Josephus, He reported that Aristobulus gave Pompey the golden vine of the temple, bearing the inscription, "The gift of Alexander, the king of the Jews," which was sent to Rome to be displayed in the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus (Antiquities, Book 14, Ch. 3). From this apparent reference to wine, some Romans may have inferred that all Jews worshipped Bacchus.

For a more substantial investigation of the possibility that Aristobulus - as opposed to late Second Temple Judaism in general - might have equated YHWH and Bacchus, we must look at Jewish politics during the Hasmonean revolt. The author of 1st Maccabees describes the revolt in terms familiar to rabbinic tradition - Judas Maccabeus leads a rising of pious Jews against the sadistic Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV. 2nd Maccabees views the conflict somewhat differently, implying the root cause was conflict between traditionalist and Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem. Josephus is often cited as more supportive of the former view, but a straightforward reading of his short introduction to the conflict in Wars clearly supports the latter view, though he soon moves onto Antiochus's exploitation of the conflict, which he describes in great detail:

At the time that Antiochus Epiphanes was disputing the control of Palestine with Ptolemy VI, dissention broke out among the leading Jews, who competed for supremacy because no prominent person could bear to  to be subject to his equals. Onias, one of the chief priests, forced his way to the top, and expelled from the city the sons of Tobias. They fled to Antiochus, and implored him to use them as guides and invade Judea... He stormed the city, killed a large number of Ptolemy’s adherents... The high priest Onias fled to Ptolemy, from whom he obtained a site in the district of Heliopolis. There he built a little town on the lines of Jerusalem. (G A Williamson translation)

In this telling, the dispute between Onias and the Tobiads is no mere partisan squabble that spilled onto the streets of Jerusalem. The Tobiads have committed high treason and Onias has provoked them to do so by driving them from their homeland. Unrest in Jerusalem was complex, having social, economic, political and religious components. It can be seen variously as Ptolemies vs. Seleucids, orthodox vs. reformists and foreign religions, Pharisees vs. Sadducees, Hellenists vs. conservatives, or Hasmoneans vs. Davidic dynasties. Contributing to all this was the scheming of the outsider, Antipater, also plotting for control of Judea, and the strain of Roman involvement initiated by Judah Maccabee. Modern scholars  differ in their assessment of which of these factors may have dominated, but generally agree that the traditional view of the revolt as being a Jewish response to religious persecution is inaccurate. Helmut Koester, Lee I Levine and Elias Bickerman, while disagreeing considerably on details, all conclude that radical Hellenization in Jerusalem extended beyond language and philosophy into culture, politics and religion. By the time of the revolt, the High Priest Jason had already introduced gymnasia to Jerusalem, which was now more or less a Greek polis (2 Maccabees 4). It appears likely that a Syrian cult was already in place in Jerusalem by the time that Antiochus arrived and exploited it.

Some aspects of this complex state of unrest may be relevant to establishing Aristobulus's actual beliefs and religious/political leanings. Josephus and other sources indicate that while neither brother may have belonged to the rival parties, Hyrcanus generally supported the Pharisees, whose beliefs included resurrection of the dead, Aristobulus supported the Sadducees who, like the Epicureans, rejected the concept. Though it seems unlikely that Sadducees would have honored Greek gods, radically-Hellenized Jews may have found more common ground with Sadducees than with Pharisees in the area of religious belief. Supporting this possibility is the view that an Antiochus would not have attempted to complete Jerusalem's conversion to a polis unless he had significant local support for such a move. While Antiochus mandated Zeus/Dionysus worship at the exclusion of YHWH worship in Jerusalem (though not elsewhere), he likely did not originate it there. Thus, elements of Greek worship may have survived in Jerusalem until the time of Hyrcanus and Aristobulus II, whose differences extended far beyond dynastic greed.

There are other indications of radical Hellenization and syncretism in Judea around the time of Aristobulus. The pseudepigraphal Epistle of Aristeas, written by a Jew, likely during the Hasmonean period, though claiming to be earlier and Greek, states that Jews and Greeks worship the same god: "They worship the same God - the Lord and Creator of the Universe, as all other men, as we ourselves, O king, though we call him by different names, such as Zeus..."

A passage from Valerius Maximus, writing during the reign of Tiberius, reports that Cornelius Hispalus (or Hispalus) expelled certain Jews, accusing them of infecting Rome with the cult of Jupiter Sabazius. Eugene Lane proposes that this passage contains a scribal error that combines the subjects of several expulsions, one Jewish and one of  a cult of Sabazius. He along with others posit that Hispalus or Valerius Maximus had confused "Sabazius" with "Sabaoth," thereby perceiving syncretism where none existed. Lane's arguments on these points are certainly plausible. Lane also rejects the tomb of  Vicentius, a priest of Sabazius, in the Praetextatus catacomb, as evidence of syncretism. The inscription contains the phrase “numinis antistes Sabazi” with an angelus bonus scene. Lane suggests that this associates Vicentius with Sabazius but not with Judaism, and notes that angel belief is not restricted to Judaism. I find this argument unconvincing. Angel imagery is inconsistent with pagan iconography that might appear around the city of Rome. Furthermore, the religions of those buried in the vicinity of Praetextatus, whether Jewish or Christian (and possibly a few Mithraic), are easily identified by their funerary iconography. The tomb is Jewish, despite the lack of other Jewish tombs in that particular catacomb.

Bacchius of Judea, on the reverse of the denarius of Aulus Plautius, can with confidence be identified as Aristobulus II, High Priest of Judea. The coin shows that Plautius and the Senate either equated YHWH with Bacchus or believed that Aristobulus worshiped Bacchus or equated these gods. That Aristobulus did in fact equate Bacchus and YHWH seems plausible, if not probable, based on Josephus, 2nd Maccabees and archaeological evidence. Thus it is likely that the coin's reverse inscription, "BACCHIUS IVDAEVS," accurately reflects the defeat and capture of a Jewish high priest of Bacchus.

Bacchius the Jew


Sir Henry Morgan, "Roman Coins illustrative of History" The gentleman's magazine, and historical chronicle, Volume 102, Part 1, January, 1832.

Michael Harlan - Roman Republican Moneyers and Their Coins, 63 B.C.-49 B.C., Seaby, 1995, pp xvi, 115 -118.

Elias Joseph Bickerman - The Maccabees, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1947, pp 13-15

Helmut Koester - Introduction to the New Testament, Fortress Press, 1982. pp. 211-215

Lee I. Levine - Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence. University of Washington Press, 1998, pp 38-60

Florus - Epitome de T. Livio Bellorum omnium annorum DCC Libri duo

Josephus - Antiquities, Book 14, Chapter 5 and Jewish Wars, Book 1, Chapter 6

Eugene N. Lane - "Sabazius and the Jews in Valerius Maximus: A Re-Examination" The Journal of Roman Studies,  Vol. 69, (1979), pp. 35-38 

Thanks to Jencek Historical Enterprise for providing access to the coins.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by William Storage. All rights reserved.