Pompey the Great and the NT

13 10 2009

Pompey the Great (106-48 BCE) is never mentioned in the NT; however, like the old saying goes, “the dead rule the living.” Pompey set in motion events, situations and persons who would influence the events within Judea well into the first-century and beyond.  The silver denarius below, minted in the year 42 BCE by Pompey’s son, Sextus Pompey (67-35 BCE), is a good window into his legacy for the study of the NT.



Obverse:  Head of Cn. Pompeius Magnus right; behind jug; before lituus; inscription around MAG PIVS IMP ITER.

Reverse:  Neptune standing left, wearing a diadem, holding an aplustre in right hand and cloak over the left arm; placing right foot on a prow; on either side, one of the Catanaean brothers, Amphinomos and Anapios, who are bearing parents on their shoulders; above is PRAEF; in exergue CLAS ET ORAE IT EX S C.

On the obverse, the right is weakly struck with a few banker marks.  On the reverse, the left is weakly struck.

This particular coin type was Sextus Pompey’s attempt to connect himself with his father, Pompey the Great, and to memorialize his father who had been killed during the Civil War against Julius Caesar.  After Caesar’s death, Sextus was appointed Prefect of the Fleet and Coastlines in 43 BCE, which is the approximate translation on the reverse of the coin above.  However, because of the pressure brought by Octavian, and Pompey’s own pirate-type actions against corn supply ships, Pompey found himself in conflict with the Triumvirate (Octavian, Mark Anthony, and Lepidus) and was declared an enemy of the state. Sextus, however, had a large fleet at his disposal, often numbering in the hundreds, and was able to control a great part of the Mediterranean Sea.  Sicily became his stronghold, and he used it as his center of power.  He continued to control the Mediterranean Sea until the defeat of his fleet and his death in 35 BCE.

Every coins carries with it explicit and implicit cultural and social cues, and this coin is no different. Honor is one of the easiest social values represented in this coin.  Sextus was honoring his father with this coinage and investing him with honor. Of course, by association this honor also accrued to Sextus, like father—like son.  It is also a significant honorable title that Sextus uses on the coins, a title granted him by the Senate, that is, Prefect of the Fleet and Coastlines.  To highlight that it was by Senate approval, the inscription on the reverse includes S C, Senatus Consulto, translated as “by the decree or authority of the Senate.”  One the reverse, also is highlighted one of the key social institutions of the day:  kinship.  The selection of the mythical scene on the reverse emphasizes this fundamental social institution.  It is the story of two brothers, Amphinomos and Anapios, who helped their parents escape from the volcanic explosion of Mt. Etna by carrying them on their shoulders out of harm’s way.  In the process, lava miraculously part for them as they fled. Here is familiar piety at its apex.  Some have suggested that the two figures on either side of Neptune (who might represent Pompey the Great) could be Sextus and his older brother Gnaeus Pompey, who was killed during the Civil War in 45 BCE.

For NT background, Pompey is the Roman general who expanded the borders of the Roman Empire into Judea.  From 63-62 BCE, the hegemony of Rome would hold sway over Judea for the next several hundred years.  It was Pompey who conquered Jerusalem and entered the Temple into the Holy of Holies.  In this respect he followed the precedent of the Selecuid ruler Antiochus the IV a hundred years earlier, with the exception, according to Josephus in Antiquities of Jews, 14.3, that Pompey did not molest any of the Temple treasury.  Pompey’s action also anticipates the action to occur 140 years later when Titus captures Jerusalem (70 CE); only this time, the Temple is destroyed and its treasures carried off to Rome.

One of Pompey’s key actions was to set the governance structure of Judea.  Pompey resolved the internecine conflict between Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II by deposing Aristobulus (sending him to Rome in chains) and by installing Hyrcanus as high priest.  However, Antipater, father of Herod the Great, held the real power.  While Pompey’s is not mentioned in the writings of the NT, veiled allusions in the Psalms of Solomon may make reference to this time in Judea.  See specifically Psalms 2, 8, and 17.




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