The Maccabeans were originally Jewish rebels who took control over parts of Israel that had been a client state of the Seleucid Empire. It was the Maccabeans who established the Hasmonean dynasty, ruling Israel from 164 BCE until 63 BCE, when Herod the Great became the King of the Jews.
The ancestor of the Maccabean dynasty was a rural Jewish priest named Mattathias the Hasmonean, who started the revolt against the Seleucid Empire because he refused to worship Greek gods. He killed a Jew who had offered a sacrifice to a Greek idol in his place, then fled with his five sons to the wilderness.
When he died, the most famous Maccabean, Judah Maccabee, led Jewish rebels to victory over the Seleucid Empire, destroying pagan alters and circumcising children. The term “Maccabean” came to encompass the Jewish dissidents as a whole, rather than just those with the same surname as Judah Maccabee.
After the Maccabean victory, the Jews entered Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and reestablished Jewish worship. Hanukkah, the Jewish festival, is in celebration of the Temple’s rededication after the Maccabean victory over the Seleucids.
After the death of Judah Maccabee in 160 BCE, younger brother Jonathan was installed as leader, but he was assassinated by the Seleucid pretender to the thron Diodotus Tryphon and was succeeded by Simon Maccabee, who was the last son remaining of Mattathias’ five sons. Simon Maccabee set up alliances with the Romans and established the Hasmonean (sometimes called the Maccabean) dynasty.
However, relations between the Maccabeans and the Romans soured, and Simon was murdered, succeeded by his son John Hyrcanus I. On the death of Antiochus in 129 BCE, Judea became free. Maccabean rule lasted until 63 BCE. At that time the Roman General Pompey captured Jerusalem. During the rule of Hyrcanus II, son of Alexander Jannaeus, the Idumean Antipater stirred up internal unrest that lasted for several years. Finally, Herod the Great became King of Israel in 37 BCE, though Israel was subject to Roman rule at that time.
The term “Maccabean” is often used to refer to the coins issued under the Hasmonean dynasty, even though they were minted after the last actual Maccabean by name (Simon Maccabee) died. The most common Maccabean coins were those minted under the rule of the third Hasmonean king, Alexander Jannaeus, who ruled form 103-76 BCE.
The most common Maccabean coin was the prutah, a low denomination bronze coin. Maccabean coins continued to circulate long after the Maccabeans themselves were gone. Of great historic significance to Jews and Christians.