“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” – Frank Herbert
If there is a story where we almost never stop at the right point and almost never reach the (bitter) end, it’s the story of the Hasmoneans.
Every year, on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, we celebrate the moment of a glorious victory – a victory which seemed almost impossible, a true miracle. But this victory is really just the prelude to the story of the Hasmoneans, as both a family and a historically unique monarchical dynasty in the annals of the Jewish People.
To understand who they were, we would do well to re-examine the familiar Hanukkah story, and look beyond the usual “happily ever after” bit where we usually stop, to see what came after that glorious moment.
It all started with a rebellion. Or perhaps the persecution that preceded it? They were tightly connected.
In the first half of the second century BCE, Jerusalem was ruled by the Seleucids, who we often call “the Greeks” in our Hannukah stories and prayers. Seleucus I was among the generals who inherited parts of Alexander the Great’s sprawling empire. The Seleucid Empire, though smaller than Alexander’s, still stretched from Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Land of Israel, all the way to the Indus River at its height.
Antiochus IV, who ever so humbly called himself Epiphanes (“God Manifest”) and who has been commemorated by kindergarten teachers throughout the Jewish world as “Antiochus the Wicked”, rose to power at a bad time for his kingdom: his father had just suffered a very serious defeat at the hands of a new rising power to the west – Rome. He lost significant parts of his empire to the Romans (and other nations which jumped on the opportunity), and was forced to sign a humiliating surrender agreement which included astronomical reparations.
In the meantime, Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Judea had for centuries, since the famous Edict of Cyrus the Great, enjoyed a degree of religious autonomy, with the Jewish the High Priest presiding over worship at the Temple. The territory had been ruled by a series of empires which toppled one another – the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Ptolemies, and now the Seleucids. But for most of this time, the Jews had a varying measure of religious freedom to maintain their worship in the Temple and the commandments and laws of their faith.
Historians are divided on what led Antiochus to change this arrangement which had worked so well for all his predecessors, but whatever the reason – he decided to intervene in the religious practices in Jerusalem and Judea, outlawing all Jewish rituals and desecrating the Temple.
It is here that the story we all know and love begins, though the degree of accuracy often varies in the telling: Mattathias the priest and his five sons raised the banner of rebellion. Whether the spark was an attempt to force the residents of Modi’in to bring a sacrifice to the Greek gods, or the story of Mattathias’ daughter Hannah, who rebelled against the terrifying decree of “the first night” – either way, battle was joined. Significant portions of the Jewish People gathered round Mattathias and his sons upon hearing the battle cry “Whoever is to God to me” (or something to that effect), sick of the cruel Hellenic oppression and willing to die to return to observing the Torah and its commandments in the open.
Judah the Maccabee, the third of Mattathias’ sons, formed and led the small rebel army – at first, with guerilla actions and later in organized, open battles against the Seleucid army. He went up to Jerusalem with his soldiers and managed to take over large parts of it, most importantly the Temple – which was cleaned and purified. Jewish religious rituals resumed.
This is where the story of the miracle of Hannukah more or less ends – Judah the Maccabee defeated the armies of the Hellenistic empire and relit the Menorah or candelabrum in the Temple. The year was 164 BCE. Since then, every year, and in memory of the victory of the Jewish light over Greek darkness, we celebrate the holiday of Hannukah.
Mattathias, meanwhile, had passed away a year before, and did not get to see his sons’ success.
This event was not only the “happy ending” we celebrate every year, but rather the beginning of the long path to Jewish independent rule in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel – a rule which would ultimately become a monarchy for all intents and purposes and which would end in blood. Plenty of blood.
Season One – The Brothers
To be honest, it was bloody from the beginning.
Peace did not come after Judah’s famous initial victories. The Seleucids were not so quick to give up the lands they had ruled, and although the decrees of Antiochus (which had proven themselves to be a rallying cry for the majority of Jews to join with the Hasmoneans against the Seleucids) were rescinded, the Hellenistic kings continued to send troops to fight the rebels in Judea.
Six years after the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one, Judah was defeated by the general Bacchides, falling in the Battle of Elasa. His brother Eleazar also perished when he was trampled to death by one of the Seleucid army’s war elephants. For a while, it appeared the original status quo had been restored – the Greek religious persecutions had been undone, but so too, it seemed, had the Hasmonean victory.
The Hasmoneans and their supporters, however, were not gripped by despair. The leadership of the rebellion was taken up by another Hasmonean brother – Jonathan, who was a gifted commander and perhaps more importantly – a skilled diplomat. He returned the Hasmoneans to Jerusalem after a series of military victories, while working primarily at the diplomatic level, especially by cleverly exploiting the endless infighting among those claiming the Seleucid crown. He convinced the Seleucid authorities to give him effective control, and in 150 BCE, he received the titles of strategos (general) and “meridarch” (akin to a civil governor).
Jonathan managed to hold these title for seven years before being murdered by a Seleucid ruler – Diodotus Tryphon. He was replaced as leader by Simon – the last brother left alive.
All these stormy events in Judea were accompanied by a family situation which had no equal throughout history: While still alive, Mattathias had been the clear leader of the rebellion, even though his age likely prevented him from participating in the battles themselves. After his death, he left the leadership to his five sons, advising them to follow Judah – who was not the eldest, but whom Mattathias considered the most appropriate one to lead the nation in war.
And they indeed followed Judah, just as they would later follow the brothers who succeeded him.
Scholars question almost every detail about this period, but one thing still remains unequivocally clear – Mattathias’ sons did not fight amongst themselves. The torch kept being passed from one brother to the next as the fight against the Seleucids continued and the brothers died one after the other, with the next one’s leadership never being questioned by his siblings.
Simon, the last of the brothers, was the one who secured full independence for Judea. He didn’t yet call himself a king, but the moment he fully took the reins of civilian control from the Seleucids and the tax burden was lifted (in 140 BCE) is the moment from which we officially begin counting the years of Hasmonean reign.
The First Book of Maccabees (15:1-9) tells of this moment:
“Antiochus, son of King Demetrius, sent a letter from the islands of the sea to Simon, the priest and ethnarch of the Jews, and to all the nation, which read as follows:
“King Antiochus sends greetings to Simon, the high priest and ethnarch, and to the Jewish nation […] I authorize you to coin your own money, as legal tender in your country. Jerusalem and its sanctuary shall be free. All the weapons you have prepared and all the strongholds you have built and now occupy shall remain in your possession. All debts, present or future, due to the royal treasury shall be canceled for you, now and for all time. When we establish our kingdom, we will greatly honor you and your nation and the temple, so that your glory will be manifest in all the earth.”
Simon was a wise and beneficent ruler, chosen by an assembly of the people to be their “leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise”. He conquered additional cities in the Land of Israel such as Gezer and Jaffa, and even succeeded in taking over the Acra – the fortress of Greeks and Hellenized Jews that had remained a thorn in the side of residents of Jerusalem for so long.
Six years passed in relative quiet since that happy day of independence, until family strife encouraged by the Seleucids brought about tragedy and betrayal. Simon’s father-in-law, Ptolemy son of Abubus, who received control of the city of Jericho and its surroundings while maintaining secret relations with the “current” Antiochus (VII), invited Simon and his sons to a feast at his home, where they were cruelly murdered, as Ptolemy hoped to gain the throne of Judea for himself.
Unfortunately for him, one of Simon’s sons – John Hyrcanus – didn’t attend that bloody feast, surviving his father and becoming the Prince and High Priest in his stead.
Season Two – The Bloody Rule of the First Kings
During the reign of John Hyrcanus, Mattathias’ grandson, the internal rift between the different religious factions deepened. Hyrcanus had begun his rule like his father and uncles before him – as a religious leader and priest ruling by virtue of broad public support. But a number of choices he made and disputes regarding his position (can a High Priest be a military leader engaged in conquest and killing?) pushed his form of rule towards that of an absolute monarchy relying on force-of-arms, little different than what could be seen in the surrounding Hellenistic monarchies. His successors would continue to enhance this trend. Greek culture began to become dominant in the institutions and customs of the ruling class. John (Yochanan) was the first to take a Greek name – Hyrcanus – and after him, this practically became the standard.
Hyrcanus ruled Judea for 31 years, the first Hasmonean ruler to die of natural causes. Before his death, he sought to hand over rule to his wife. But his son, Judah Aristobulus I didn’t like the idea, and when his father died, he simply imprisoned his mother and most of his brothers and declared himself King.
The rule of the first King in Judea since the Biblical era was not a model of benevolent government, nor did it leave a significant mark on history. But Aristobulus I did apparently make at least one good decision: He married a woman named Salome (Shlomtziyon) Alexandra. She was the sister of Simon Ben Shetach – one of the greatest of the Pharisees and the president of the Sanhedrin – but she would yet stand out in her own right.
Aristobulus died from an illness just one year after coming to power. Salome Alexandra freed his imprisoned brothers (his mother died in jail), and married the oldest of them, who was still younger than her – Alexander Jannaeus.
Alexander Jannaeus was a king from the very first, with all that entails. He set out on extensive campaigns of conquest and vastly increased the size of his kingdom, taking over the Hellenistic coastal cities, and conquering Gaza and large swathes of the east bank of the Jordan River.
According to most testimonies, Jannaeus was a cruel and tyrannical ruler who did not hesitate to use foreign mercenaries to massacre his opponents, of which there were many. He did not heed the mood of the people, and at least two significant rebellions occurred during his reign. During one of these, it is said that over 800 rebels were hung on the city walls, as Jannaeus held a vulgar banquet in front of them. He even wanted to execute his brother-in-law, a leader of the Pharisees, but Salome Alexandra managed to hide her sibling and save his life.
After less than thirty years on the throne, Alexander Jannaeus died in a manner similar to his namesake – from a disease he was stricken with during one of his campaigns. He was succeeded, finally, by a woman. His wife.
Season Three – The Days of the Good Queen Salome
Salome Alexandra was considered by many to be the best monarch of the bunch, certainly when it came to internal affairs. She brought the people, who were largely affiliated with the Pharisee party, back on her side, and her rule excelled in its almost unprecedented economic and political stability.
In her day, for the first time since Judah the Maccabee renewed the rituals of the Temple, the leadership was split up – Salome Alexandra ruled as Queen, but she granted the title of High Priest to her eldest son – Hyrcanus II.
Her second son, Aristobulus II, refused to reconcile with his mother’s reign and his brother’s priesthood. At first, he sufficed with leading the military elite, which set out on a number of campaigns in the name of his mother the Queen, but at the end of her life, when it was clear she was dying and unable to fully manage the kingdom, he gathered a loyal army around him, took control of many fortresses, and declared himself King.
The figure of Salome Alexandra, and the fact that she was unable to quell the hostility between her two sons, provided historian Flavius Josephus with the opportunity to take a swipe at all women:
“A woman she was who showed no signs of the weakness of her sex […] and demonstrated by her doings at once, that her mind was fit for action, and that sometimes men themselves show the little understanding they have by the frequent mistakes they make in point of government; for she always preferred the present to futurity, and preferred the power of an imperious dominion above all things, and in comparison of that had no regard to what was good, or what was right. However, she brought the affairs of her house to such an unfortunate condition, that she was the occasion of the taking away that authority from it, and that in no long time afterward, which she had obtained by a vast number of hazards and misfortunes, and this out of a desire of what does not belong to a woman, and all by a compliance in her sentiments with those that bare ill-will to their family, and by leaving the administration destitute of a proper support of great men; and, indeed, her management during her administration while she was alive, was such as filled the palace after her death with calamities and disturbance.”
But even he could not help but admit:
“However […] she preserved the nation in peace. And this is the conclusion of the affairs of, Alexandra.”
Salome Alexandra died at the age of 73, after ruling Judea for 9 years.
Season Four – Brothers at War
Hyrcanus the High Priest, also known as Hyrcanus II, who Josephus (and not only him), described as “weak minded”, didn’t want to fight his brother at first. His mother left Aristobulus’ wife and sons with Hyrcanus to serve as a bargaining chip in the fight for the throne, but he chose not to use them and arrived at an agreement with Aristobulus – he would continue to serve as High Priest and Aristobulus would be King.
A return to sanity, mutual respect between brothers and good old-fashioned family values? Well, not quite.
Over time, Hyrcanus began to develop close ties with a fellow named Antipater the Idumaean. Antipater’s son would become one of the era’s most famous historic figures, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Antipater succeeded in convincing Hyrcanus not to give up the throne, and with the help of the King of the Nabateans, they set out to fight Aristobulus in Jerusalem. The war that broke out between the two brothers was bitter and cruel and was accompanied by the looting of everything dear and holy to the earlier Hasmoneans – by both of the warring sides. Now they didn’t even need a wicked Antiochus to desecrate the Temple and kill priests and sages – they did it themselves.
While this was going on, the Roman general Pompey strolled into town, carrying orders to expand Rome’s territories in the East. Throughout the Hasmonean Kingdom’s history, the Romans had cast a long shadow from the West but had refrained from intervening in Judea’s internal affairs, as its rulers were wise enough to repeatedly sign peace treaties with it.
This was about to change. Both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus now expected Pompey to judge which of the two was more deserving of ruling Judea. They travelled to see him in Damascus, as did a delegation of the Judean people, who came to ask the Roman general take down the entire Hasmonean family – they’d had enough power struggles and corruption.
Was this simple naivete or just a clumsy attempt at political maneuvering?
Either way, Pompey’s response was one of the greatest historical demonstrations of the idiom: “When two are fighting, the third wins”. He quickly seized the opportunity to take over the Judean kingdom himself. He went up to Jerusalem, besieged it, and after just three months and 12,000 dead Jews, he entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Aristobulus II was imprisoned and Hyrcanus II was declared an “Ethnarch” a pathetic puppet ruler on behalf of Rome.
The year was 63 BCE. The Hasmonean Kingdom, the only example of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel since the biblical kingdoms (and for the next 2,000 years), had lost its independence.
Season Five – The Last Hasmonean Queen
It was the end of the Hasmonean Kingdom, but not the end of the dynasty. Like the final season of a tired drama series full of violence and intrigue that refuses to end – the sons and daughters of the Hasmonean family stuck around, continuing to play inseparable roles in the government of the Roman client state.
Meantime, the effective ruler was Antipater – the man who incited Hyrcanus II to go to war for the throne in the first place. Antipater appointed his son, one Herod, as governor of the Galilee. Hyrcanus II and Herod were sworn enemies who didn’t miss an opportunity to humiliate or harm one another. This toxic relationship reached its peak with the poisoning of Antipater by Hyrcanus’ people. Antipater died and in order to “compensate” Herod, Hyrcanus gave him his granddaughter (also Aristobulus’ granddaughter due to marriage within the family) – Miriam the Hasmonean – as a wife.
Miriam, or Mariamne, was apparently a very impressive woman. Josephus described her thus:
“a woman of an excellent character, both for chastity and greatness of soul […] yet had she all that can be said in the beauty of her body, and her majestic appearance in conversation”
At the end of an exhaustingly long era of battles and intrigue, Herod became King of Judea under the Romans. Miriam his wife, who could be Queen herself by right due to her lineage, became the partner of one of the most notorious Jewish rulers in a court full of discord.
Herod is probably the most famous king of this era of Jewish history, but his rule, no matter how glamorous, was subordinate to the central government in Rome and is not considered part of the Hasmonean dynasty. To the contrary, he feared the legacy of the Hasmonean kings, and in order to reduce their influence and reputation, he even slashed Hyrcanus’ ears to make him unfit for the priesthood and executed most of what was left of the royal family, including the mother and brother of his wife Miriam.
His relationship with Miriam, his Hasmonean queen, was a roller coaster of almost mad passion interwoven with mutual accusations – she for his murder of her family, he for her disloyalty.
In the end, he sentenced her to death himself.
“…she went to her death with an unshaken firmness of mind […] and thereby evidently discovered the nobility of her descent to the spectators, even in the last moments of her life.”
Thus did Josephus describe the last moments of the last Hasmonean queen in his classic work, “Antiquities of the Jews”, just a few years after her family’s kingdom had lost its independence, and less than a hundred years before the complete destruction of Judea and the Temple itself.
The Hasmonean Kingdom was but a brief flash of Jewish independence in a torn and bloodied land dominated for millennia by empires, kingdoms, and other polities. A land the Jewish People never left and never ceased to dream of. It began with a great hope – the realization of the vision of five faithful brothers who worked together for decades and gave their lives to see it through. It was a kingdom full of Jewish pride which served as a testament to the power of the spirit and a shared fate. Yet it succumbed, soaked in blood, to its own failings and self-destructive acts. The story of the Hasmonean Kingdom offers a historical lesson on everything that can go wrong when a government is tainted with corruption and reliant solely on force.