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Herod the Great and the Roman Opium Trade

Where did Herod the Great obtain the wealth needed for his building projects? Why was he able to garner such support from Emperor Augustus? Look no further than the above coin minted early in his reign. The obverse shows a winged caduceus. The caduceus represents trade and is associated with the Roman God Mercury. The reverse is a clear picture of a poppy from which opioids are produced. Yes, Herod the Great was perhaps the greatest of the middlemen in the opium supply to the Roman Empire. Obvious this falls under the economics of the spice trade from Persia, Afghanistan/Pakistan, and India. This trade was very active around the Arabian Peninsula and thru Petra. Herod's mother was Arabic and the Arabic Nabateans negotiated trade from the Eastern Empires as Rome and Parthia/Persia were constantly at war.

One can see on the below coin of Herod the obverse with a military helmet and the likely comet of Julius Caesar above it. This indicates Herod's military authority comes from Rome. The palm branches are symbolic for a Jewish King. The reverse is very interesting. It appears like a poppy is present in a crude extraction device. All parts of the dried poppy plant can be used to extract opium. There appears to be a funnel and basin for plant processing. Note the opium leaves present on the lower helmet.

This gives us a very different picture of the Christmas narrative of the Magi visiting King Herod. They were searching for the Christ Child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrrh. They had to bring a gift to King Herod as they were obviously received and welcomed. Yep sounds like they gave old and frail King Herod some form of opium. Matter of fact he sounded so happy with seeing the Three Magi it seems rather uncharacteristic of his true personality. After his opium high wore off Scripture tells us he went into a "rage." Sounds like drug withdrawal to me. Perhaps the Jews saw what opium did to Herod the Great and his family and it could have been a reason we see no more opium poppies on Jewish coins after Herod the Great died.

The above coin likely shows King Aretas IV of Nabatea and Emperor Augustus on it. It is very rare but displays that Augustus was likely importing opium to the Roman Empire via Nabatea and King Herod. For Rome to put a foreign ruler on a joint coin in the time of Augustus had to represent an incredibly important economic relationship to the Roman Empire or vice versa. Remember King Herod would never put his picture on a coin due to the Jewish law against graven images. Remember when King Herod died there was a revolt in the Galilee that was suppressed from Antioch by Varus. King Aretas IV aided Varus and his legions in putting down this Jewish revolt in the Galilee. It is interesting to speculate how the economics of the opium trade played into the geopolitical revolt after Herod the Great died (circa 4 BC).

To be fair some Hasmonean coins have poppies on them as well. Herod the Great likely developed the opium trade with Rome. It was also a likely reason Rome annexed Judea after Herod Archaleus was removed in 6AD. We see Rome issuing coins in celebration of the restoration of the opium trade after the First Jewish Revolt with Vespasian.

The reverse show hands shaking with wheat, a caduceus and a poppy stem. Rome was very happy to get her opium from the far east again. We even see Hadrian issue a coin celebrating the wheat and poppies in a "modius" on the below coin. Matter of fact it was minted in Rome in 134-5 AD after the Bar Kochba Revolt.

Note Hadrian made Jerusalem, "Aelia Capitolina." The city became a cult center for the worship of Serapis. Serapis wears a "Modius" as a hat. This is interesting because the "modius" is frequently filled with poppies to produce opium. The average Roman legionnaire would consume one liter of wine per day. We can only imagine the opium addiction in the Roman legions with the lack of modern medicine. Serapis was worshipped as a god of healing and resurrection by the Roman legions. Solar eclipse events represented war and we see Serapis portrayed on the below coin from Turkey as a god of healing likely in reference to the Antonine plague which the Romans brought back from destroying Ctesiphon in 165 AD. Note this coin is in reference to the Solar Eclipse of 164 AD, see prior post.



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Fontanille Coins

Forum Ancient Coins

Athena Numismatics

Tom Vossen

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