Coin of Herod the Great: Star or Crest?

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By Sandy Brenner

In 40 BCE, Herod the Great was designated King of Judaea by the Romans, who had effectively ruled Judaea since Pompey’s conquest in 63 BCE. However, the bestowal of this title by the Senate did not immediately translate to actual rule on the ground; Herod achieved this only after he and his Roman sponsors defeated the last Jewish Hasmonean ruler in 37 BCE. Roman civil war later threatened Herod’s rule when Octavian defeated Herod’s ally Mark Antony at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Herod was clever and tenacious enough to gain the favor of Octavian after the defeat of his ally, and when Octavian became the emperor Augustus, Herod continued to rule in Judaea as Rome’s loyal client king until his death in 4 BCE. Herod was a ruthless ruler and was generally hated by his subjects, but he was also a remarkable builder. His architectural accomplishments include the expanded and rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, the city port of Caesarea and the desert fortress at Masada.

Herod minted only bronze coins during his reign. Of these, the largest bronze (figure 1) depicts a military helmet on the reverse. Above the helmet is a star-like object, which is generally interpreted as representing a celestial star. Based on the examination of several such coins and evaluating other information presented be¬low, I believe that this “star” is actually a decorative crest attached to the helmet. In the early 1990’s, David Hendin convincingly established that the central object on the reverse of the large bronze of Herod the Great is indeed a military helmet. Previously it was thought that this object on the coin might have been an incense burner or a vessel of some sort. Hendin established this identification with a number of arguments including his discovery of a leaf design on one particularly well preserved coin that was similar to a leaf design that decorates a Greek helmet.


David Hendin and Ya’akov Meshorer have suggested that the star above the helmet is associated with the Dioskouroi and would therefore be a celestial star. There are many examples of ancient Greek and Roman coins that depict celestial stars suspended above the helmet and not attached, such as those that display the caps of the Dioskouroi (e.g., Sear6 3629, 3631). Using a completely different line of argument, Michael Grant7 even proposed that the object may refer to a star mentioned in the Hebrew Bible8 and may have been intended by Herod to suggest that he could be the Messiah. As stated above, I propose that this object is not a celestial star but a helmet crest affixed to the helmet by a crest post. The first fact that leads me to this conclusion is the appearance of the device. A careful visual examination of the object above the helmet reveals that of the six “rays” emanating from the star, the ray that points toward the helmet is the longest. In addition, the downward ray touches the helmet as though it were attached.

Thus, I believe that this ray is actually a post mounted on top of the helmet that supports a starlike decorative crest. The helmet shown (figure 2) is a photo of a first century CE Roman helmet with cheek pieces similar to the one that is depicted on the Herod coin. I submit that the crest post on the Ro¬man helmet corresponds to the vertical device at the top of the helmet on Herod’s coin. The crest on the helmet would have been made of organic material, such as horsehair, and therefore would not have survived. However, I have found other examples of coins that depict star-shaped helmet crests. One such case is a Greek coin from Orthagoreia (figure 3), circa 350 BC have suggested that the star above the helmet is associated with the Dioskouroi5 and would therefore be a celestial star. There are many examples of ancient Greek and Roman coins that depict celestial stars suspended above the helmet and not attached, such as those that display the caps of the Dioskouroi (e.g., Sear6 3629, 3631).

Using a completely different line of argument, Michael Grant7 even proposed that the object may refer to a star mentioned in the Hebrew Bible8 and may have been intended by Herod to suggest that he could be the Messiah.
Figure 1. Large bronze of Herod the Great, military helmet with object (star or crest) above, flanked by palm branches

have suggested that the star above the helmet is associated with the Dioskouroi and would therefore be a celestial star. There are many examples of ancient Greek and Roman coins that depict celestial stars suspended above the helmet and not attached, such as those that display the caps of the Dioskouroi (e.g., Sear6 3629, 3631). Using a completely different line of argument, Michael Grant even proposed that the object may refer to a star mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and may have been intended by Herod to suggest that he could be the Messiah. As stated above, I propose that this object is not a celestial star but a helmet crest affixed to the helmet by a crest post. The first fact that leads me to this conclusion is the appearance of the device. A careful visual examination of the object above the helmet reveals that of the six “rays” emanating from the star, the ray that points toward the helmet is the longest.

In addition, the downward ray touches the helmet as though it were attached. Thus, I believe that this ray is actually a post mounted on top of the helmet that supports a starlike decorative crest. The helmet shown (figure 2) is a photo of a first century CE Roman helmet with cheek pieces similar to the one that is depicted on the Herod coin. I submit that the crest post on the Roman helmet corresponds to the vertical device at the top of the helmet on Herod’s coin. The crest on the helmet would have been made of organic material, such as horsehair, and therefore would not have survived. However, I have found other examples of coins that depict star-shaped helmet crests.

Figure 2. Roman military helmet with crest post, circa 1st century CE. (From the Antiken Museum Berlin).
Figure 3 Greek coin, Orthagoreia in Macedonia, circa 350 BCE military helmet with star like crest attached
Figure 4. Smaller bronze of Herod the Great, military helmet with crest; date around 37 BCE (Hendin 487)

One such case is a Greek coin from Orthagoreia (figure 3), circa 350 BC(Sear 1435, 1436), that shows a star-like crest that is clearly attached to the helmet by a crest post. Further, an analysis of the use of helmets, crests and stars as devices on other ancient Jewish coins supports the conclusion that the object above Herod’s helmet is a decorative helmet crest. Ancient Jewish coins were minted only during a 268 year period beginning with the Hasmonean Dynasty in 134 BCE and ending with the Bar Kochba or Second Jewish Revolt against Rome in 135 CE.
During that 268-year period, in addition to Herod’s large bronzes, there are three other ancient Jewish coins that depict helmets.

In chronological order these coins are: [1] a coin of John Hyrcanus I, the Hasmonean who Ruled Judaea as High Priest from 134 to 104 BCE (Hendin 462); [2] the smaller bronze of Herod the Great (figure 4); and [3], a coin of one of Herod’s sons, Archelaus, who ruled Judaea as a Roman client king from 4 BCE to 6 CE (figure 5). It is significant to note that all three of the helmets depicted on these coins have crests. Thus the depiction of a helmet with a crest on Herod’s large bronze would be consistent with the depiction of helmets on ancient Jewish coins before, contemporaneous with, and after the issuance of Herod’s large coin.

Comparing the two helmet coins of Herod the Great (figures 1 and 4), both minted in 37 BCE, the appearance of the helmet on the large bronze is similar, almost identical, to the helmet on the smaller bronze. Both have hemispherical shapes, horizontal rims and cheek pieces. Since the helmet devices are almost identical in other respects and the object above the helmet on the smaller coin is clearly a crest and is recognized as such, it is then logical to conclude that the object above the helmet on the large bronze is also a crest.

Only two ancient Jewish coins depict stars. The first (figure 6) is a star on a coin of the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus (103 to 76 BCE). This is a distinctive eight-pointed spoketype star. This stylized spoke star appears frequently (e.g., Sear 2010, 2025, 6493) on ancient coins and has a strong historical Greek Macedonian connection.9 This eight- pointed spoke-star is quite different in shape from the more wispy six-pointed star-like object above the helmet on Herod’s coin so it seem unlikely that the spoke-star was a model for Herod.

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