1940 years ago, the Romans burned the Temple in Jerusalem. They arrived around this time of year – in the spring of 70 AD and allowed thousands of pilgrims into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, but then refused to let them leave. So the city was hugely overcrowded. Inside the city conditions were appalling, a situation made much worse by the bitter and bloody infighting between Jewish factions. Those Jews who did not starve to death were crucified when they tried to escape. Eventually, after a five-month siege, the Romans recaptured Jerusalem, the citizens were massacred and the Temple – Herod the Great’s magnificent building – was burned to the ground.
They managed to loot the temple first, though and the Arch of Titus depicts the Romans bringing back the treasure to Rome. That must have included a lot of gold, taken from the sacred objects, the golden doors and especially from the enormous golden grapevine that stood in the porch with its branches hanging down ‘from a great height’. Today, all that gold has disappeared.
Well, maybe not all of it. Some of it may be about six miles west of where I live, in Oxford’s Ashmolean museum.
The museum has just reopened after a magnificent revamp and the wife and I were in there on the day of our wedding anniversary (Yep. We know how to party).
And there I saw this gold coin.
It shows the Head of Vespasian on one side, and the figure of justice on the other and, although it was found in Finstock, just a few miles north of here, it was actually minted in Judea in AD 70. It represents about a month’s pay for a legionary. Of course, the gold might have come from a number of places, but they must have had a fair amount of gold in order to use it for minting coins. And where were the soldiers in Judea in AD70? And where would they get the gold to pay them? the chances are this coin was minted from gold seized during the destruction of the Temple, during the meting out of Roman ‘justice’.
After the war, the wealth of Judea was taken west – not just the gold from Jerusalem, but huge numbers of enslaved Jews. Maybe a soldier brought it to Britain which was being ‘reconquered’ following the revolt under Boudicca (Boadicea). Maybe it came just as part of the Roman military finance, moving from one camp to the next.
But it’s odd to think that a part of the golden grapevine just might be sitting in the Ashmolean museum.