Alexander Jannai

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Alexander Jannai
King and High Priest of Judea
Alexander Jannaeus.jpg
Alexander Jannai, woodcut designed by Guillaume Rouillé. From Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum.
Reign c. 103 — 76 BC
Predecessor Aristobulus I
Successor Salome Alexandra
Born C. 127 BC
Died C. 76 BC [1]
House Hasmonean dynasty
Father John Hyrcanus I
Hasmonean Kingdom under Alexander Jannai
  situation in 103 BC
  area conquered

Alexander Jannai, or Alexander Yannai; (Hebrew: אלכסנדר ינאי), also known as Alexander Jannaeus, was king of Hasmonean Kingdom from 103 BC to 76 BC during the Hasmonean dynasty. The son of John Hyrcanus, he inherited the throne from his brother Aristobulus I, and appears to have married his brother's widow, Shlomtzion or "Shelomit", also known as Salome Alexandra, according to the Biblical law of Yibbum ("levirate marriage"), although Josephus is inexplicit on that point. Since Alexander Jannai was a high priest, he was technically breaking Jewish law according to the laws in Leviticus. The laws in Leviticus state that a Jewish high priest is forbidden to marry a widow. The Law in Leviticus would have taken precedence over the biblical law in Deuteronomy that allowed the marriage of a non-high priest individual to a childless brother's widow.

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 a substantial impact on the subsequent development of Judaism.[2]


Alexander Jannai was the third son of John Hyrcanus, by his second wife. When Aristobulus I, Hyrcanus' son by his first wife, became king, he deemed it necessary for his own security to imprison his half-brother. Aristobulus died after a reign of one year. Upon his death, his widow, Salome Alexandra had Alexander and his brothers released from prison.[3]

Alexander, as the oldest living brother, had the right not only to the throne but also to Salome, the widow of his deceased brother, who had died childless; and, although she was thirteen years older than he, he married her. By her, he had two sons, the eldest, Hyrcanus II became high-priest in 62 BC and Aristobulus II who was high-priest from 66 - 62 BC and started a bloody civil war with his brother, ending in his capture by Pompey the Great.[4]


During the twenty-seven year reign of Alexander Jannai, he was almost constantly involved in military conflict. International factors at the time created an environment suitable for Jannai' conquests. First, Jannai received support from Cleopatra III of Egypt. This support was particularly crucial during the war with Ptolemy Lathyrus (discussed later). Ultimately, conflict in the Roman Republic was the greatest outside influence on Judean military campaigns. Political instability in Rome led to a Civil War beginning in 88 BC. With Rome chiefly concerned with a tumultuous domestic predicament, Jannai was free to expand the Judean state.

War with Ptolemy Lathyrus

Alexander's first expedition was against the polis of Ptolemais (Acre). This campaign seems to have been well timed politically as the weak Seleucid Empire was unable to intervene. Help came to the citizens of Ptolemais from Ptolemy Lathyrus, who had been cast out by his mother, Cleopatra III, and had founded a kingdom in Cyprus.

Ptolemy landed a large army for the relief of the town; but Alexander met him with treachery, arranging an alliance with him openly while secretly he sought to obtain the help of his mother against him. As soon as Ptolemy learned of this intrigue, he marched against Asochis, near Sepphoris, which he captured, together with 10,000 prisoners and much plunder. A similar attack upon Sepphoris failed; but in a later battle at Azophon on the Jordan, Alexander with his whole army suffered a defeat at the hands of a much smaller force. Alexander allowed the enemy to cross the river unimpeded, in order that, as he thought, he might more easily catch it between his army and the stream. He saw his error only when it was too late. The enemy fell upon the Jewish camp, women and children were struck down, their corpses were hacked to pieces, flung into caldrons and boiled, so that the people thought they were dealing with cannibals. This act was used to terrify the Judean people and their military.

Alexander might easily have lost his crown and Judea its independence as the result of this battle, had it not been for the assistance extended by Egypt. Cleopatra's two Jewish generals, Helkias and Ananias, persuaded the queen of the dangers of allowing her banished son Ptolemy to remain victorious and she entrusted them with an army against him. As a result, Ptolemy was forced to withdraw to Cyprus, and Alexander was saved. The Egyptians, as compensation for their aid, desired to annex Judea to their country, but considerations touching the resident Egyptian Jews, who were the main support of her throne, induced Cleopatra to modify her longings for conquest. The Egyptian army withdrawn, Alexander found his hands free; and forthwith he planned new campaigns.[3]

Later campaigns

Alexander captured Gadara and the strong fortress Amathus on the Jordan; but, in an ambush set for him by Theodorus, ruler of Amathus, he lost the whole of the rear-guard of his army—10,000 men —together with his baggage. He was more successful in his expedition against the Hellenized coastal cities (what had once been Philistia), capturing Raphia and Anthedon. Finally, in 96 BC[5] Jannai outlasted the inhabitants of Gaza in a year-long siege, which he occupied through treachery, and gave up to be pillaged and burned by his soldiery. This victory gained Judean control over the Mediterranean outlet for the Nabatean trade routes.[6]

High Priesthood

The relations between Alexander and the Pharisees were probably never very cordial; though, according to the statement of the Talmud, Simeon ben Shetach, the head of the party, was a brother of the queen and a frequent guest at the palace.[3] The rival Sadducees were avid supporters of Jannai (see 4Q448). Furthermore, Jannai established himself as a ruler concerned mainly with conquests rather than his religious obligations.

One year during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot or Feast of Tabernacles, Alexander Jannai, while officiating as the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) at the Temple in Jerusalem, demonstrated his support of the Sadducees by refusing to perform the water libation ceremony properly: instead of pouring it on the altar, he poured it on his feet. 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 courtyard.

This incident during the Feast of Tabernacles was a major factor leading up to the Judean Civil War by igniting popular opponents of Jannai. A Qumran document sheds further light on another opponent of Jannai. The scroll 4Q390 was written by an adversary of Jannai seeking popular support to overthrow the Hasmonean king. The author called for an end to the dispute between Jannai and the Pharisees. According to the author, the only acceptable solution was an end to the Hasmonean priesthood and secular control. This opposition culminated in the Judean Civil War.

Judean Civil War and the Crucifixion of the 800

The Judean Civil War initially began after the conquest of Gaza by Jannai. Due to Jannai' victory at Gaza, the Nabatean kingdom no longer controlled their main trade route to Rome. Therefore, Nabatean king Obodas I launched an attack on Judea in the Golan Heights. After Jannai was defeated in battle against Obodas, he returned to fierce Jewish opposition in Jerusalem. A civil war broke out between Pharisee-supported Jewish rebels and Jannai.

Overall, the war lasted six years and left 50,000 Judeans dead. After Jannai succeeded early in the war, the rebels asked for Seleucid assistance. Judean insurgents joined forces with Demetrius III Eucaerus to fight against Jannai. The Seleucid forces defeated Jannai at Schechem and forced him to take refuge in the mountains. However, these Judean rebels ultimately decided that it was better to live under a terrible Jewish king than backtrack to a Seleucid ruler. After 6,000 Jews returned to Jannai, Demetrius was defeated. The end of the Civil War brought a sense of national solidarity against Seleucid influence. Nevertheless, Jannai was uninterested in reconciliation within the Judean State.

The aftermath of the Judean Civil War consisted of popular unrest, poverty and grief over the fallen soldiers on both sides. The greatest impact of the war was the victor's revenge. Josephus reports that Jannai brought 800 rebels to Jerusalem and had them crucified, and had the throats of the rebel's wives and children cut before their eyes as Jannai ate with his concubines.


The coinage of Alexander Jannai 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.

Coin of Alexander Jannai (103 BC to 76 BC).
Obv: Seleucid anchor and Greek Legend: BASILEOS ALEXANDROU "King Alexander".
Rev: Eight-spoke wheel or star within diadem. Hebrew legend inside the spokes: "Yehonatan the King".

Alexander Jannai 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. 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.

The most likely explanation is that the symbol is a star encased in a diadem and it is a religious explanation. Biblical law forbids the making of graven images (especially see Deuteronomy 4:16,23), yet the image of a monarch is a staple of Hellenistic coins. In place of an image of himself, therefore, it is likely that Alexander Jannai chose a star, in keeping with Numbers 24:17, "A star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel." This verse generally was seen as a biblical support for monarchy (and specifically as support for a Davidic monarchy). Jannai, however, could have seen it as an image of his achievements, if not his own rule. This is how the rest of Numbers 24:17 and verses 18 and 19 continue: The star, it says, "smashes the brow of Moab, the foundation of all children of Seth. Edom becomes a possession, yea, Seir a possession of its enemies; but Israel is triumphant. A victor issues from Jacob to wipe out what is left of Ir." Considering Jannai' conquests—creating a kingdom that rivaled those of David and Solomon and may have even exceeded those—the "star" envisioned in the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers was a perfect match for him.

In literature

Alexander Jannai is the main character of the novel The King of Flesh and Blood, (מלך בשר ודם) by Israeli novelist Moshe Shamir - a novel including many hints to the politics of 1950s Israel, when it was written.

As the husband of Queen Salome Alexandra, he is also a character in the novel Queen of the Jews by Judy Petsonk (2012).

Alexander Jannai and his wife Queen Alexandra are the main characters of Constantine Cavafy's poem[7] bearing their names. In the poem Cavafy notes the Hellenistic influence on the behavior of the couple.

See also


  1. The Jewish War, Book 1 Chapter 4 Section 8
  2. Mason, Charles Peter (1867). "Alexander, Jannaeus". In William Smith. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. 1. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. p. 117.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Alexander Jannaeus", Jewish encyclopedia
  4. PACE: The Jewish War, 1.{{{chap}}}.{{{sec}}} (Whiston).
  5. Archaeological encyclopedia of the Holy Land By Avraham Negev, Shimon Gibson. Retrieved 2011-12-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Hasmonean rule extended to Negev highlands", Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 10, 2009
  7. C. P. Cavafy (1992). Alexander Jannaios and Alexandra. Collected Poems. Edited by George Savidis. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. (Revised ed.). Princeton University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Shachar, Ilan, "The Historical and Numismatic Significance of Alexander Jannaeus's Later Coinage as Found in Archaeological Excavations," Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 136(1) (April 2004), 5–33.
  • Paul Romanoff, Jewish symbols on ancient Jewish coins, New York American Israel Numismatic Association, 1971.
  • This article incorporates some content from the public domain 1911 edition of The New Century Book of Facts published by the King-Richardson Company, Springfield, Massachusetts. (This reference gives a death date of 78 BC, but consensus seems to be 76 BC.)

External links

Alexander Jannai of Judea
Died: 76 BC
Jewish titles
Preceded by
Aristobulus I
King of Judea
103 BC – 76 BC
Succeeded by
Salome Alexandra
High Priest of Judea
103 BC – 76 BC
Succeeded by
Hyrcanus II