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Alexander Jannaeus

Alexander Jannaeus

The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Politician
Countries Israel
Occupations Politician
Gender male
Father: John Hyrcanus
Spouse: Salome Alexandra
Children: Aristobulus II
The details
For other rulers related or affiliated with Alexander Jannaeus, see List of Hasmonean and Herodian rulers

Alexander Jannaeus (also known as Alexander Jannai/Yannai; Hebrew: יהונתן "ינאי" אלכסנדרוס, born Jonathan Alexander) was the second Hasmonean king of Judaea from 103 to 76 BC. A son of John Hyrcanus, he inherited the throne from his brother Aristobulus I, and married his brother's widow, Queen Salome Alexandra. From his conquests to expand the kingdom to a bloody civil war, Alexander's reign has been generalized as cruel and oppressive with never ending conflict.


Alexander Jannaeus 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.

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 him, he married her in accordance with Jewish law. 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. Like his brother he was an avid supporter of the aristocratic priestly faction known as the Sadducees, his wife Salome on the other hand came from a pharisaic family (her brother was Simeon ben Shetach a famous pharisee leader), and was more sympathetic to their cause and protected them throughout his turbulent reign. Like his father Alexander also served as the high priest. This raised the ire of the Rabbis who insisted that these two offices should not be combined. According to the Talmud, Yannai was a questionable desecrated priest (rumour had it that his mother was captured in Modiin and violated) and was not allowed to serve in the temple according to the rabbis, this infuriated the king and sided with the Sadducees who defended him. This incident led the king to turn against the pharisees and persecute them until his death.


Hasmonean Kingdom under Alexander Jannaeus
  situation in 103 BC
  area conquered

War with Ptolemy Lathyrus

Alexander's first expedition was against the city of Ptolemais (Acre). While Alexander went forward to siege the city, Zoilus, ruler of the coastal city Dora and Straton's Tower took the opportunity to see if he could perhaps save Ptolemais in hopes of gaining territory. Alexander's Hasmonean army quickly defeated Zoilus's forces with little trouble. Ptolemais and Zoilus then requested aid from Ptolemy IX Lathyros, who had been cast out by his mother Cleopatra III. Ptolemy founded a kingdom in Cyprus after being cast out by his mother. The situation at Ptolemais was seized as an opportunity by Ptolemy to possibly gain a stronghold and control the Judean coast in order to invade Egypt.

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. When Alexander formed an alliance with Ptolemy, Ptolemy in good gesture, handed over Ptolemais, Zoilus, Dora, and Straton's Tower to Alexander. As soon as Ptolemy learned of Alexander's scheme, he invaded the Galilee region capturing Asochis. Ptolemy also initiated an attack upon Sepphoris but failed.

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.

Transjordan and coastal conquest

Alexander captured Gadara and the strong fortress Amathus in the Transjordan region; but, in an ambush set for him by Theodorus, ruler of Amathus, he lost the battle. Alexander was more successful in his expedition against the Hellenized coastal cities (what had once been Philistia), capturing Raphia and Anthedon. Finally, in 96 BC Jannaeus 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 of the Nabatean trade routes.

Judean Civil War

War with Obodas I

Alexander Jannaeus feasting during the crucifixion of the Pharisees, engraving by Willem Swidde, seventeenth century

The Judean Civil War initially began after the conquest of Gaza by Jannaeus around 96 BC. Due to Jannaeus's victory at Gaza, the Nabatean kingdom no longer had access to the Mediterranean Sea. Alexander soon captured Gadara, which caused the Nabateans to lose their main trade routes leading to Rome and Damascus. After losing Gadara, the Nabatean king Obodas I launched an attack against Alexander in a steep valley in Gadara where Alexander barely managed to escape. After Jannaeus was defeated in the Battle of Gadara against the Nabataeans, he returned to Jerusalem only to be met with fierce Jewish opposition.

Feast of Tabernacles

During the Jewish holiday of Feast of Tabernacles, Alexander Jannaeus, while officiating as the High Priest at the Temple in Jerusalem, demonstrated his displeasure against the Pharisees 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. Outraged, he ordered soldiers to kill those who insulted him, more than 6,000 people in the Temple courtyard were massacred. With further frustration, Alexander had wooden barriers built around the altars preventing people from sacrificing and denied daily offerings except for the priests. He also allied himself with foreign troops such as the Pisidians and the Cilicians who would later help his regime during the civil war. This incident during the Feast of Tabernacles was a major factor leading up to the Judean Civil War by igniting popular opposition to Jannaeus.

War with Demetrius III and the conclusion of the Judean Civil War

After Jannaeus succeeded early in the war, the rebels asked for Seleucid assistance. Judean insurgents joined forces with Demetrius III Eucaerus to fight against Jannaeus. Alexander had gathered 6,200 mercenaries and 20,000 Jews for battle as Demetrius had 40,000 soldiers and 3,000 horses. There were attempts from both sides to persuade each other to abandon but were unsuccessful. The Seleucid forces defeated Jannaeus at Shechem. All of Alexander's mercenaries were killed in battle, and Alexander was forced to take refuge in the mountains. In sympathy towards Jannaeus, 6,000 Judean rebels ultimately returned to him. In fear of this news, Demetrius withdrew. Nevertheless, war between Jannaeus and the rebels who returend to him continuned. They fought until Alexander achieved victory. Most of the rebels died in battle, while the remaining rebels fled to the city of Bethoma until they were defeated.

Jannaeus had brought the surviving rebels back to Jerusalem where he had 800 Jews, primarily Pharisees, crucified. Before their deaths, Alexander had the rebels' wives and children executed before their eyes as Jannaeus ate with his concubines. Alexender later returned the land he had seized from the Nabateans in order to have them end their support for the Jewish rebels. The remaining rebels, who numbered 8,000, fled by night in fear of Alexander. Afterwards, all rebel hostility ceased and Alexander's reign continued in peace. Jannaeus died from the illness of quartan ague in the bounds of Ragaba in Transjordan.

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