His likely full Hebrew name was Jonathan; he may have
been the High Priest Jonathan, rather than his great-uncle of the same
name, who established the Masada fortress. Under the name King Yannai,
he appears as a wicked tyrant in the Talmud, reflecting his conflict
with the Pharisee party. He is among the more colorful historical
figures, despite being little known outside specialized history. He
and his widow (who became queen regnant after his death) had
substantial impact on the subsequent development of Judaism.
Jannaeus expanded the Hasmonean Kingdom and established the city of
Gamla in 81 BCE as the capital for the Golan Heights.
Civil war against the Pharisees
An avid supporter of the aristocratic priestly faction known as the
Sadducees, his reign was constantly challenged by opponents, among
them a brother with a rival claim to the throne, and the populist
urban-based Pharisee party.
At the beginning of his reign Alexander Jannaeus halted the
suppression of the Pharisees and the Sages for a while, under the
influence of his wife Salome Alexandra (said to be the sister of the
great Jewish sage Shimon ben Shetach). This gave him time and
resources to increase his power and prestige by extending the
territory under his rule through war and conquest. As his power grew,
however, he enlisted foreign soldiers to suppress his own people and
eliminate the Pharisees.
One year during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Alexander Jannaeus,
while officiating as the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) at the Temple in
Jerusalem, demonstrated his support of the Sadducees by denying the
law of the water libation. The crowd responded with shock at his
mockery and showed their displeasure by pelting Alexander with the
etrogim (citrons) that they were holding in their hands. Unwittingly,
the crowd had played right into Alexander's hands. He had intended to
incite the people to riot and his soldiers fell upon the crowd at his
command. The soldiers slew more than 6,000 people in the Temple
A civil war started, in which the Pharisees allied with the Seleucid
king Demetrius III against Alexander Jannaeus. He first retreated, but
then managed to oust his rivals thanks to popular support against the
Seleucid invasion of Judea. During the civil war, Alexander Jannaeus
suppressed his rivals brutally, killing his brother and many leading
Pharisees. The New Century Book of Facts writes:
"It is said that 50,000 perished in this civil strife. He quelled a
revolt at Jerusalem by slaughtering 6,000. On his return from a short
exile into which he had been driven by the Pharisees, he caused 800
rebels to be crucified before him and their wives and children
slaughtered (86 B.C.)."
The crucifixion of 800 leading Pharisees was suggested by Alexander's
retainer, the Greek soldier Diogenes of Judea. After Alexander's death
his widow Alexandra Salome, at the urging of her brother Simeon ben
Shetach, had Diogenes put to death.
Alliance with the Essenes
Alexander Jannaeus may have been in close relation with the monastic
Essenes at some point, who were probably allies during his fight
against the Pharisees. A piece from the Dead Sea scrolls from Qumran
appears to be an homage to him:
"holy city/ for king Jonathan/ and all the congregation of your
people/ Israel/ who are in the four/ winds of heaven/ peace be (for)
all/ and upon your kingdom/ your name be blessed" (Transcription and
translation by E. Eshel, H. Eshel, and A. Yardeni)
Alexander Jannaeus showed considerable competence as a military
leader, repelling invaders and expanding the
country's borders to the west and south. He was defeated by the
Nabatean King Obodas in the Golan which halted the Hasmonean expansion
into Assyria and precipitated the civil war with the Pharisees. He
was defeated by Ptolemy Lathyrus in Galilee; made an alliance with
Cleopatra and drove Ptolemy out. By the end of his rule, the borders
of his state would exceed that of David and extend to Gaza and far
Upon his death, he was succeeded as monarch by his wife Salome
Alexandra, known also and better as Shlomzion, and succeeded as High
Priest by his son John Hyrcanus II.
The coinage of Alexander Jannaeus is characteristic of
the early Jewish coinage in that it avoided human or animal
representations, in opposition to the surrounding Greek, and later
Roman types of the period. Jewish coinage instead focused on symbols,
either natural, such as the palm tree, the pomegranate or the star, or
man-made, such as the Temple, the Menorah, trumpets or cornucopia.
Alexander Jannaeus was the first of the Jewish kings to introduce the
"eight-ray star" or "eight-spoked wheel" symbol, in his bronze
"Widow's mite" coins, in combination with the widespread Seleucid
numismatic symbol of the anchor. These coins are thought to be the
ones referred to in the Bible in Luke 21:1-4:
"and Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people
cast money into the treasury; and many that were rich cast in much.
And He called unto him His disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I
say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they
which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their
abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had"
Depending on the make, the star symbol can be shown with straight
spokes connected to the outside circle, in a style rather indicative
of a wheel. On others, the spokes can have a more "flame-like" shape,
more indicative of the representation of a star within a diadem.
It is not clear what the wheel or star may exactly symbolize, and
interpretations vary, from the morning star, to the sun or the
heavens. The influence of some Persian symbols of a star within a
diadem, or the eight-spoked Buddhist wheel (see the coins of the
Indo-Greek king Menander I with this symbol) have also been suggested.
The eight-spoked Macedonian star (a variation of which is the Vergina
Sun), emblem of the royal Argead dynasty and the ancient kingdom of
Macedonia, within a Hellenistic diadem symbolizing royalty (many of
the coins depict a small knot with two ends on top of the diadem),
seem to be the most probable source for this symbol.