Who Were the Hasmoneans? Originally Published December 10-11, 2021.

Some refer only to the Hasmonean Dynasty, but others recall the Hasmoneans as a populist movement over a broader period of time.  Either way, they were Jews who were more or less against Greece and in favor of Persia, and would be conquered by Rome.  The Hasmoneans in their Dynasty ruled Judea and the regions around it from around 140 BCE to 37 BCE (a point of time in a period referenced as “classical antiquity” - 8th century BCE to 6th century CE).  Judah Maccabee, who died in 160 BCE, was a Hasmonean.  He had assumed leadership upon the death of Mattathias, his father. 

The revolt which Judah led, in 167 BCE, was not only against the Seleucids (who were Grecian bosses of territories in modern Syria and Lebanon and surrounding areas), but also against their own elite Hellenized Jews.  The Hanukkah story ensued, but the Seleucids came back and defeated (and killed) Judah in 160 BCE.  The remaining brothers of Judah took revenge over subsequent years from their outposts east of the Jordan River. 

As the Hasmoneans organized, and found periods of peace with the Seleucids, they also suffered battles among themselves.  There were deals made and broken, outside and inside.  At one point, working with Demetrius II, Simon - the last remaining brother of Judah - became the first independent Jewish ruler of Judea since 586 BCE.  Alas, he was murdered in 135 BCE along with two of his sons.  His third son, John Hyrcanus, had not been at the murder-filled dinner party and as the survivor became the ruler of Judea and also the high priest. 

Alas, in two years there was a new Seleucid boss, Antiochus VII.  He flexed his power all over John Hyrcanus, grabbing the Hasmoneans into battle against the Parthian Empire.  They lost, the emperor was slaughtered, and John Hyrcanus went back to Judea.  He was by then too Greek for the folks in Judea, a simmering pot of trouble.  Having gotten out from under the Seleucids, in 113 BCE he thought he would soak up some of the crumbling Seleucid regions.  He took Samaria and parts of Transjordan.  At his death in 104 BCE the kingdom ran from the Galilee to the Negev, from the Mediterranean well into Transjordan.  While in battle, John Hyrcanus left his wife in charge of the kingdom (Mrs. John, her own name not recorded) and his son Aristobulus as high priest.  Alas, as in a Greek tragedy, Aristobulus wasn’t happy with his mother having power and had her starved to death.  He also threw three of his brothers into prison, and had another killed.

He crowned himself king.  He further expanded their property, including the Galilee and Golan, until he died in 103 BCE, at which time his wife Salome Alexandra released the brothers and married the eldest, Alexander Jannaeus, who became king and promptly conquered the port city of Acre (where much of this drama had begun) and Gaza.  However, he was not ameliorating the bent of the citizens to dislike a Grecian attitude.  Making the mistake one Sukkot of pouring water on his feet instead of on the altar, the crowd threw etrogim.  Josephus reported he had several thousand men put to death.

Soon a group of influential rabbis, the Pharisees, started what would be a six-year civil war, with 50,000 dead.  Seeking help from the Seleucids, the Pharisees lost the backing of the citizens who preferred one of their own.  Alexander Jannaeus died in 76 BCE, and Queen Salome Alexandra sided with the Parisees, established a rabbinic council with judicial and legislative power, the Sanhedrin.  She made her son Hyrcanus II high priest, and on her death in 67 BCE he was the leader.  Alas, there was further civil war among brothers, one sided with the Romans, and Rome gained power in the region.  And the subsequent unrest feeds the history our neighbors tell at this time of December.