Image: laureate head of Trajan looking right
Inscription: ΤΡΑΙΑΝΟΣ ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑΤΩΡ ΕΔΩΚΕΝ
"Trajan the Emperor bestowed"
Image: Palm tree
"of the people of Sepphoris"
RPC III, no 3937, p. 511.
This large bronze city-coin of Sepphoris, minted between 98 and 117 CE, during the reign of Trajan, depicts on the obverse the head of the emperor, and on the reverse a palm tree flanked by two bunches of dates. The inscription in Greek on the obverse states that Trajan the imperator “bestowed,” while the inscription on the reverse refers to the city of Sepphoris: “of the people of Sepphoris” (Meshorer, City-Coins of Eretz-Israel and the Decapolis, p. 113, no. 88).
After the death of Agrippa II, possibly during the last years of the reign of Domitian, or possibly, as stated by Photius (810-893 CE, the author of the Bibliotheca), in 100 CE, at the very beginning of the reign of Trajan, Sepphoris was annexed to the province of Judea with the rest of Galilee (Kushnir-Stein, “The Coinage of Agrippa II,” p. 123-131; Kokkinos, “Justus,” p. 163–180). Yet, it seems that the Roman provincial administration was careful to show respect to the Jewish population’s sensitivity. When Vespasian attacked the Galilee in 67 CE, the city of Sepphoris wisely preferred to surrender, and it was spared the grim consequences of a siege. Thus, Vespasian elected the city as the seat of his headquarters. Subsequently, the local Jewish authorities minted coins, which were to be used in the area under his jurisdiction. These coins, as they were directed to the Jewish population, depict the double crossed cornucopia with a caduceus.
The latter symbol also appears on the obverse of the third middle-sized denomination of this issue. Under the rule of Trajan, the city council minted an issue which included four denominations, all in bronze, two bigger denominations, weighing 10 grams (the coin presented here is one of these), a middle-sized denomination, weighing around 4 grams, and a small denomination, weighing 2.5 grams. The obverse of all these denominations depicted the head of the emperor. While the first, second, and fourth denominations sported on the reverse Jewish symbols (actually the vast majority of the population of Sepphoris was Jewish), namely a wreath, a palm tree and two ears of grain, the third denomination sported a caduceus, which could be interpreted as a Jewish as well as a pagan symbol. The palm tree, like ears of grain and barley, was one of the Seven Species which characterized the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 8:8). Thus, the palm with seven branches, shaped akin to a menorah, came to symbolize the province of Judea. Moreover, the palm tree stood for righteousness (Psalms 92:13). Moreover, according to a late midrash (Midrash Rabbah on Numbers 3:1), the dates of the palm tree, as evidenced on the palm depicted on this coin, can be compared to the Jewish people. As the dates can be of good, average, and bad quality, also the Jewish people includes in its midst “righteous, upright, pious and learned, but also plain and boorish people” (Meshorer, Ancient Jewish Coinage 2, p. 120-121).
The palm tree had a long history on Judean coins, often minted by the Roman authorities. It first appears on the reverse of coins minted by governors of Judea, such as the prefects Coponius and Felix, the procurator, as well as on coins minted by Herodian rulers, such as Antipas and Agrippa II. It also appears on issues minted by the rebel government during the Jewish War, as well as on a denomination minted by the Roman administration of Judea, under the rule of Domitian. The palm tree, together with captives, also appears on the reverse of the series Iudaea Capta, minted by Vespasian and Titus, which celebrated their victory over the Jews (see Sestertius depicting Vespasian and a couple of Jews mourning under a palm tree (71 CE)). However, the fact that on this issue the palm tree is depicted with no prisoner at its feet, in contrast to the image found on the Iudaea Capta series, may have symbolized a certain policy of pacification.
Sepphoris ceased minting coins towards the end of Trajan’s rule, maybe as a punishment for having taken part in the rebellion of 115-117 CE. Indeed, some rabbinic sources (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta‘anit 18b; Qohelet Rabbah 9:10 etc.) mention that the Jews living in the province of Judea, under the leadership of Julianus and Pappus, stood up together with their brethren of the Diaspora of Cyrenaica, Egypt, and Cyprus, who rebelled against Rome’s yoke. If these sources are to be trusted, the cessation of minting at Sepphoris could be interpreted as an indication that the Diaspora’s rebellion extended to Galilee (Meshorer, City-Coins of Eretz-Israel and the Decapolis, p. 36; this idea is contested, however, in RPC III, no 3937, p. 511). The minting of coins at Sepphoris resumed only during the reign of Antoninus Pius, this time with pagan symbols and images.