The End of the Hasmoneans, The Rise of Rome

The decline of the Hasmoneans coincided with the rise of Rome, but it wasn’t coincidence, for the once great Jewish family had become a shell of its holy roots.

In the year 67 BCE, Queen Salome Alexendra (also known as Queen Shelomtzion) died. With her death, the dynasty of the Hasmoneans began a steady decline. Over the next 20-25 years it would fall apart completely.

Queen Salome left two sons: Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. Hyrcanus was weak, but as the older son had been appointed the High Priest during his mother’s life and then became King after her death. Aristobulus had all of the charisma and fierce, leadership qualities of his father, Alexander Jannaeus. However, he also had a great deal of the negative qualities, including being very headstrong, opinionated, temper-prone and violent. And his attitudes were more in line with the Sadducees than the Pharisees.

As long as their mother was in charge, she kept the lid on the pot, so to speak. However, the moment she died the two were literally at each others’ throats for the right to succession.

War… Again

In 65 BCE, after feeble attempts at an accommodation, Aristobulus army attacked Hyrcanus’. They battled outside of Jericho. Aristobulus won and captured Hyrcanus. As terms of the ransom for his release, Hyrcanus agreed to relinquish the throne.

The agreement lasted about six weeks.

It was undermined by an advisor of Hyrcanus named Antipater, an Idumean convert who would become the father of Herod. A couple of generations earlier the Idumeans had been forcibly converted, against the will of the rabbis, and now it would come back to haunt the Jewish people.

Antipater was as talented an administrator as he was ambitious. He is the one who really stirred the pot and convinced Hyrcanus that he had a chance to become the king again. Always scheming, he organized Hyrcanus’ army – but one that was loyal to him, bringing in mercenaries and organizing the offer corps out of his own Idumean compatriots.

Antipater then led this army against Aristobulus, routed it and forced the remnants to retreat to the Temple area. The rest of Jerusalem and the entire country now came under the domain of Hyrcanus.

The Pig that Shook the World

The Western Wall (or Wailing Wall) is one of the most famous symbols of Judaism today. However, it is only a remnant of a much larger wall that surrounded the courtyard of the Temple.

On the Temple Mount itself was the Fortress of Antonius, which was a virtually impregnable fortress. Whoever controlled it controlled the Temple area.

Aristobulus and the remnants of his army now took up residence there. As long as they held this fortress they were capable of repelling all attacks and holding out for a long time.

As strange as it seems, despite their animosity toward each other, the two sides made an agreement to make sure that the twice-daily sacrifice was offered. Every day, the army on the outside would send up the necessary sheep to be slaughtered. The priests inside the Temple, who were neutral, continued doing all their daily deeds.

The siege lasted months and showed no sign of ending. One day, an advisor convinced Hyrcanus to send up a pig instead of a sheep. The Talmud[1] said that when the pig scraped its hooves against the walls of the Temple the Land of Israel shook for 400 miles. It was one of the low points in Jewish history. The Hasmoneans had initiated their rebellion when the Greeks forced Jews to a sacrifice pig to their gods and now their descendants were killing each other and sending up a pig to the Temple!

Enter Rome

This led the entrance of Rome into Jewish life, one of the major turning points in Jewish history.

It came in on the sword of a General by the name of Pompey, who in his modesty called himself, “Pompey the Great.” In the year 70 BCE he conquered Spain for Rome. He then came east and conquered Greece. He then came further east and conquered the Parthians (who inhabited modern-day Turkey and Iran). And then he turned his attention south to the Mediterranean basin.

He was a talented, ruthless general, as well as an extremely shrewd man. He was the first Roman leader to understand that Rome could not successfully control the Middle East if it did not control Judea. Even if Judea was merely a neutral independent it would serve as a wedge between the Northern Empire (Syria) and the Southern Empire (Egypt). Therefore, he looked for a way to get himself in power in Judea.

Ideally, he did not want to do it through war, because the Jews – the Hasmoneans/Maccabees – had a fearsome reputation. The Romans referred to the Jews as “porcupines.” Just as a porcupine is an animal that even great predators avoid, so too the Jews. Even if you ate it you would be sorry. Therefore, Pompey wanted to control the Jews without somehow going to war. The civil war between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus presented a golden opportunity. It was the key that would allow Rome into Jerusalem.

Of course, once Rome was allowed in it would never leave. Its influence would grow exponentially over next century until the Jews would have enough and mount a rebellion.

Pompey’s Compromise

In the year 64 BCE, Pompey appeared in Damascus. The Jews sent three delegations: first Hyrcanus and then Aristobulus. Each argued why Rome should side with them. A third group was sent by the Sanhedrin, who told Pompey to ignore both groups; let the Sanhedrin, the rabbis, run the country. All three groups apparently agreed that some type of Roman intervention would be welcomed.

Pompey took his time responding. In the year 63 BCE, he arrived in Jerusalem. Hyrcanus and his army promptly withdrew. Aristobulus surrendered and was sent along with his family to Rome where they were degraded in the Roman processional triumph. Nevertheless, his forces fought on against Pompey and Hyrcanus. However, after two months the Romans broke through their stronghold and massacred some 12,000 of the Jews defending the Temple.

According to Josephus, Pompey stepped into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple. However, he did not take any booty or otherwise interrupt the Temple service. The next day he withdrew the Roman army from the Temple Mount and returned it to the authority of the Jews.

Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, Judea was now under Roman domination.

Pompey let Hyrcanus remain the High Priest and even call himself king, but the title was nominal. Before he left, he had the walls of Jerusalem leveled, making it defenseless. He also imposed harsh taxes. Six years later, in 57 BCE, Pompey appointed a governor in Syria (Gabinius) who would have ultimate control of the affairs in Judea. This cemented the fact that Hyrcanus was king only in name, not in deed.

His work done in Jerusalem, Pompey went home to Rome expecting to be made emperor.

Enter Julius Caesar

However, he had strong competition for the job from a man by the name of Julius Caesar, who was a great general in his own right. He did in the West what Pompey did in the East, subduing the peoples in what is today England, France and the Rhineland of Germany.

These two great Roman generals had an agreement between them: Rome would be run by a Triumvirate, i.e. a committee of three. However, the Triumvirate did not last. After five years it fell apart, which left Pompey and Caesar jockeying for control.

The Rome Senate backed Pompey, but Caesar boldly marched his army across the Rubicon, the river that marked the boundary between Italy proper and its provinces to the north. Roman law forbade a Roman army to cross the river. In doing so, Caesar was committing an act of war.[2]

As Caesar’s army entered Rome, Pompey and the Senate fled for their lives. Caesar declared himself emperor and pursued Pompey all the way to Egypt. Once there, he committed a rare tactical blunder and found himself and his army besieged in Alexandria by Pompey and his allies.

Hyrcanus had been an official ally of Pompey. However, the shrewd Antipater now convinced Hyrcanus to switch sides and declare his allegiance to Caesar. They then committed over 3,000 Jewish soldiers to an expeditionary force that invaded Egypt and helped raise the siege of Alexandria.

Thus, when the Roman civil war ended in Julius Caesar’s complete victory Hyrcanus was in a fortuitous position, and on the verge of realizing his lifelong dream of becoming the king.

Caesar Ends the Hasmonean Era

Indeed, Caesar showed the Jews his gratitude for their help. He revoked the harsh decrees and burdensome taxation imposed by Pompey. He also allowed the walls and fortifications of Jerusalem to be rebuilt and restored Jaffa as well as a number of other coastal cities to Jewish rule.

He even gave Hyrcanus the position of High Priest. However, in a surprise move he did not give him the title of king. Even if he had it would have been in name only, because he gave the real power a Roman Legate or Procurator who would make all the crucial decisions in the land of Judea. That person was none other than Antipater, the scheming non-Jewish general of Hyrcanus’ army! For all practical purposes, the real power now lay with Antipater.

This is how the rulership of the country passed from the Hasmoneans to people who claimed to be Jewish but were not Jewish, people who would do the bidding of the Romans. Caesar’s transfer of power to Antipater was in effect the end of the Hasmonean Era.

The Sages on Politics

In perfect hindsight, we can wonder at the naiveté – the stupidity – of Hyrcanus and the other protagonists in this real life soap opera. Having learned early on what it meant to get the Romans involved in local politics how could they have continued to do so?

However, Hyrcanus was under the spell of Antipater, as well as blinded by his own lust for power. Because he wanted to be the king at all costs he made one tactical error after another.

The two greatest Jewish scholars of the time, Shamaya and Avtalyon, commented obliquely on the matter in their exhortations to ethical behavior in Judaism’s primary volume on the subject, Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot).

Shamaya said (ibid. 1:10): “Hate power and do not make yourself known to the government.” In other words, keep a low profile, because what is destroying the Jewish people is the lust for power, as demonstrated by its political leaders.

Avtalyon said (ibid. 1:11): “Rabbis, be careful with your words. Perhaps you will be exiled….” Rabbis, he warned, do not make statements on political matters. Your words will become known to the ruling power, you will be sent into exile and your disciples with be leaderless and come to ruin.

These two cryptic statements reveal the tenor of the times. In essence, the rabbinic approach was to withdraw from political activity when one could do nothing about it anyway. The focus should be on the root of the problem, which was the lust for power. If those in power were beyond hope, then implant in future generations lessons that would preempt the horrible excesses caused by hubris and lust for power.

In so doing, the great Torah leaders Shamaya and Avtalyon transcended the issues of their days and provided eternal lessons that echo in the ears of all generations down to our days. As we will see, Shamaya and Avtalyon’s disciple Hillel took their approach to the next level.


[1] See Sotah 49b and Menachos 64b, and Josephus; cf. Baba Kamma 82b.

[2] That is why the popular idiom, “Crossing the Rubicon” means to pass a point of no return.

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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