The year is 150 BCE. For all who live in the southern Levant, life is calm and prosperous. Along the coast are busy ports whose harbors welcome ships carrying imported wine, exotic foodstuffs, and fancy tablewares. People’s homes boast luxurious interior décor: brightly painted walls, mosaic floors, stone furniture, etc. Commercial exchange, imported goods, comfortable lifestyles—all by-products of a connected, cosmopolitan world.
That world is overseen by two great powers. To the south, in Egypt, are the Ptolemies, dynasts of a royal house founded by one of the generals of Alexander the Great. To the north are the Seleucids, a dynasty founded by another of Alexander’s generals. At this moment the Seleucids are in charge. Their capital at Antioch (modern day Antakya in southern Turkey) is distant, but their authority is omnipresent, thanks to the movements of imperial officials, the assertive presence of stone inscriptions, and the regular use of silver coins that carry the king’s face into the hands and homes of individuals throughout the land.
Fast-forward 40 years to 110 BCE. The center of this crowded, polyglot, multicultural world has become a singular polity: the Hasmonean kingdom. That kingdom includes the coastal plain from Ashdod to Joppa, east through the Shephelah (Judean foothills) to the Jordan River, and north to the lower Galilee. Within the kingdom, Mediterranean goods have disappeared along with the life- styles they adorned.
The Hasmonean success story is neatly summarized in several ancient historical accounts: 1 Maccabees, the Hasmonean’s own court history; 2 Maccabees, a précis of a longer work by the otherwise unknown Jason of Cyrene; and the extended narrative of the first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus. These works are invaluable—and also biased. Understanding what happened from the texts alone is akin to viewing the past through a pair of glasses with a single lens. We need a second, companion lens to bring the view into focus.
In the case of the Hasmonean rise to power, archaeology provides that second lens. A wealth of new and newly understood remains shows us what was happening on the ground during the precise 40 years in which the Hasmoneans made their move onto the world stage. Taken together and set in context, they reveal the circumstances in which a kingdom came into being.1
As recounted by ancient authors, the Hasmonean rise began in 167 BCE, the eighth year of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV. It was, initially, an internal affair: a conflict between Judean insiders, who played the game of imperial accommodators, and pious outsiders, who wanted no part of the Seleucid regime and its Greek-inflected lifestyle. The trouble began when Antiochus IV, returning from a failed invasion of Egypt, raided the Jerusalem Temple, attacked the city, and built a citadel, called the Akra, in the City of David, a place where “sinful…lawless men” lived (1 Maccabees 1:34).
Next came an edict to offer swine to pagan deities, forgo Jewish laws, and cease Temple sacrifices. When an imperial official came to the town of Modi’in to enforce this new edict, a priest named Mattathias confronted and killed him, then took to the hills with a group of supporters and his five sons, including Judah who became his successor. Antiochus sent generals and forces, but Judah and his men defeated them and soon reclaimed and rededicated the Temple. Judah’s success enraged those who lived around Judea, requiring a series of battles against “the nations all around” (1 Maccabees 5:38).
In 160 BCE, Judah died and was succeeded by his brother Jonathan, who continued to pursue the cause, alternatively fighting and negotiating with successive Seleucid kings and generals and mounting attacks against “the lawless…and leaders of evil” (1 Maccabees 9:58, 61). Upon Jonathan’s death in 142 BCE, his brother Simon took over and in that same year captured the Akra in Jerusalem (see sidebar, p. 37). The author of 1 Maccabees writes, “The yoke of the nations was lifted from Israel, and the people began to write on their documents and transactions, ‘In the first year of Simon the great high priest, both general and leader of the Judeans.’ ” (13:41–42). In other words, in 142 BCE, from angles both military and administrative, the Hasmonean kingdom was born.
From archaeology, we know that the 160s BCE was a time of broad prosperity, robust international contacts, and comfortable cosmopolitan lifestyles. This is the middle of what we call the Hellenistic period, an era well known by archaeologists as a time of great material wealth. We find busy port cities, such as Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Dor, thriving inland cities, like Maresha, Samaria, and Beth Shean-Scythopolis, and in between a dense lattice of villages, estates, farms, and inns. Each locale was both a destination market and a link that facilitated the flow of crafts and agricultural products. In the north, the great commercial ports of Akko-Ptolemais and Tyre had robust coin mints, a reflection of their stature in the imperial power grid. The rural interior served as an agricultural supplier, with Akko-Ptolemais reliant on the Lower Galilee and the Jezreel Valley and Tyre dependent on the Upper Galilee and Hula Valley.
We now know that this crowded, prosperous, connected world was abruptly upended in the late 140s BCE—but not on account of the Hasmoneans. Across the entire Galilee and coastal plain, we see a wave of destruction and abandonment. Almost everywhere, people abandoned well-appointed, well-situated homes, leaving behind good agricultural land, storerooms and installations, and the comfortable lives these supported. What happened?
The precipitating event that set things in motion was Antiochus IV’s failed invasion of Egypt in 168 BCE. His defeat allowed the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy VI, a wily, ambitious, savvy man, to revive a keen and constant ambition: retake the southern Levant, a region that earlier Egyptian rulers regarded as their birthright.
From 1 Maccabees, we know what happens next: Antiochus IV raids the Jerusalem Temple and inspires a militarized Judean response (1:20–24). Archaeological evidence—in this case a long-known but mysterious coin series—reveals the larger context. The series begins to show up in Judea in the late 160s BCE. The numismatist Julien Olivier has argued that these were Ptolemaic issues, struck by Ptolemy VI to help fund the Maccabees,2 whose local uprising provided Ptolemy VI with a golden opportunity to foment destabilization deep inside Seleucid territory.
Ten years later, in 150 BCE, a new round of Ptolemaic-style coins appeared in Seleucid territory—the so-called Seleucid “eagles.” These too were designed to support Ptolemy VI’s plan of regional conquest. The ruler named on these coins was Alexander Balas, a purported heir to the Seleucid throne whom Ptolemy had co-opted and even married to his daughter, Cleopatra Thea. Ptolemy settled Balas and Cleopatra in Akko-Ptolemais, and it was that city’s mint that struck the new issues.
From 150 to 145 BCE, the minting of these Seleucid “eagles” intensified. We know this thanks to close study of the dies used to strike them, and the recognition that the number of dies spiked, from just one or two dies initially to six different dies in 147 BCE. Why so many coins? To pay soldiers, build up garrisons, and prepare for war. Indeed, in 147/6 BCE, Ptolemy VI made his move, marching up the Levantine coast, where city after city fell into his hands. By the summer of 145 BCE, he had made a triumphant entrance into the Seleucid capital of Antioch and been crowned monarch of its realms. In the rendering of 1 Maccabees, he “wore two diadems…one for Egypt and one for Asia” (11:13).
Almost at once, however, it all came apart. A Seleucid prince arose to challenge Ptolemy, and their armies faced off in battle just northeast of Antioch. The king suffered a severe head wound and died three days later.
For a generation, Ptolemy VI had been the chief mastermind and manipulator of Levantine politics. His death in the Seleucid capital left an imperial throne empty and open to contention. A vicious fight immediately broke out. The contenders were Demetrius II and Diodotus Tryphon, a former general of Alexander Balas.
Once again, coins show us what was happening on the ground. The mints of Seleucia Pieria (Antioch’s port city), Sidon, and Tyre coined for Demetrius II, while those of Byblos, Akko-Ptolemais, Dor, and Ashkelon coined for Tryphon. They battled until the year 141 BCE, when Demetrius II decided to take his army east, hoping to retake Babylonia and use its resources for his Levantine struggle. His plan collapsed when he was captured by the Parthians, who held him prisoner for almost a decade. In 138, his brother Antiochus VII resumed the battle for the Levant, besieging and then defeating Tryphon at Dor.
With Antiochus’s victory, the frenzy surrounding the Seleucid succession settled down. Seleucid authority returned, somewhat truncated but still palpable, until the year 129 BCE, when Antiochus mounted a campaign on his Parthian frontier—and was killed. Only then was the historical stage emptied of its power players. Only then was there room for something new.
These events are the historical context that explain the archaeological remains we see on the ground: the sudden wave of abandoned and destroyed sites across so much of the region. In the densely populated backyards of the coastal cities, towns and villages were vacated, key outposts destroyed or abandoned. The epicenter of the chaos appears to have been the Galilee, where more than a dozen sites of various size were destroyed or abandoned. Here the warring Seleucid factions maneuvered to destroy agricultural stores and disable administrative centers and supply networks.
At the same time, settlements in the central coastal plain were simply abandoned: a rural estate at Ramat Aviv, a cluster of farmsteads surrounding Tel Hashash, a manor house with storerooms at Elad, over a dozen agricultural compounds in the Plain of Sharon, etc. The same scenario played out in the thickly settled southern coastal plain, where more than 100 villages, estates, and farmsteads, with workshops producing wine, oil, pottery, purple dye, and textiles, were methodically and completely vacated.
The particular geography and chronology reveal the fallout from the fierce battle between Demetrius and Tryphon for control of the southern Levant. This explanation also makes sense of another aspect of the archaeological evidence, which is that some zones remained completely unaffected. The abandonments and destructions do not extend into the Jordan Valley, central hills, or foothills; in these regions, the inland “anchor” cities—Beth Shean-Scythopolis, Samaria, and Maresha—continued, undisturbed and thriving. Nonetheless, the archaeological evidence of ferocity and flight is stunning. It reveals a picture heretofore unknown yet somehow familiar: the heartbreaking human cost of a struggle for political power and control.
And what of the Hasmoneans? What do the archaeological remains tell us about their rise?
The brutal events of the late 140s left broad regions with abandoned settlements and broken networks. It is exactly inside this moment that Simon retakes the Akra in Jerusalem—an event that, considering how factionalized and otherwise occupied the competing Seleucid forces were, may now be seen as more opportunistic than organized. Yet, although much of the territory throughout this region now lay vacated, neither Simon nor his son and successor John Hyrcanus moved into it. In fact, the final act revealed by archaeology is that it took some 20 years—almost a full generation—before we see a Hasmonean kingdom that extended beyond the immediate environs of Judea itself.
The first region to be resettled was the Lower Galilee, where the appearance of small Seleucid bronze coins dating to the 130s BCE and issued by the Jerusalem mint, indicate Judean movement northward. By the end of the century, we find two Hasmonean footholds in the Upper Galilee: a resettlement at Khirbet esh-Shuhara and a new settlement at Qeren Naftali, overlooking the Hula Valley. Also in the 120s, we find new settlement in the western portions of Judea, at ten new villages and farmsteads north of the Elah Valley. In the Plain of Sharon, the estate at Elad was reinhabited, along with other settlements in this area. In every place where sites were resettled, it happened without contest, as all had been abandoned.
The Hasmoneans were not alone in taking advantage of the sudden power vacuum created by the Seleucid self-implosion. In the late second century BCE, almost every major Levantine coastal city from Cilicia south achieved political autonomy, including Tyre, Sidon, Akko-Ptolemais, Gaza, and Ashkelon. Farther inland, ancient city-states reemerged: Amman, where Zeno Cotylas founded a short-lived dynasty, and Damascus, which was refounded with the name Demetrias by the Seleucid scion Demetrius III to serve as a new capital. New polities formed or expanded, including the Itureans in the Beqa Valley and the Nabateans in what had been Edom in southern Transjordan. By the mid-first century BCE, 16 major cities of the southern Levant had become independent polities.
Archaeology reveals how great power politics created the circumstances in which the Hasmonean kingdom could be imagined—and also the 40-year-long stretch of time that it took to come into being. The author of 1 Maccabees narrates an arc marked by strength, strategy, and guile, one almost preordained. Outside circumstances barely figure; in their stead, personal qualities shine forth: charisma, strength of character, strategic vision, and bravery. No doubt these existed and mattered. In the end, after all, it is people who make history. But they do not make the worlds and systems into which they are born—and within which they find their roles, opportunities, and fates. To reimagine those, we need help from other sources. A good place to start is archaeology.
The year is 150 BCE. For all who live in the southern Levant, life is calm and prosperous. Along the coast are busy ports whose harbors welcome ships carrying imported wine, exotic foodstuffs, and fancy tablewares. People’s homes boast luxurious interior décor: brightly painted walls, mosaic floors, stone furniture, etc. Commercial exchange, imported goods, comfortable lifestyles—all by-products of a connected, cosmopolitan world. That world is overseen by two great powers. To the south, in Egypt, are the Ptolemies, dynasts of a royal house founded by one of the generals of Alexander the Great. To the north are the Seleucids, a […]