Rome and the Jews, Part I

Judea enjoyed a political independence, of sorts, from the revolt of the Maccabees against Seleucid (Syrian) domination beginning in 166 BC. Interestingly, it was in the initial stages of the revolt that the Jews had their first diplomatic contact with Rome; in 164, the Jewish leaders appealed successfully to the Romans for help in arranging a temporary armistice with the Seleucids (2 Macc. 11:34-38, where the initiative for the intervention is falsely ascribed to the Romans). Three years later, in 161, after the Maccabean revolt had succeeded, a treaty was concluded between the Romans and the Hasmoneans; subsequently there were sporadic renewals of or appeals to the treaty; an important instance was in 142, when the Roman consul L. Caecilius Metellus wrote to Ptolemy in these terms:

The envoys of the Jews have come to us as our friends and allies to renew our ancient friendship and alliance .... We therefore have decided to write to the kings and countries that they should not seek their harm or make war against them and their cities and their country.
This is not to say that the Romans had a protectorate over Judea, of course; what they had was merely the standard agreement of philia, and this did not always translate into active Roman assistance when the Jews were in trouble with the Syrians or Egyptians. The pattern in the late second and early first centuries BC is for the Romans to warn or admonish enemies of the Jews, but not to back it up with troops.

In any case, it took over forty years for the Jews to firmly establish their independence from Syria (141 BC). The Hasmoneans had shortly before been collaborators with the Seleucids and their representatives in Judea, but when the Hasmonean Simon came to power he broke from the Seleucids. The Hasmoneans then held power in Jerusalem until 37 BC: Simon, 142-134; John Hyrcanus I, 134-104; Aristobulus I, 104-103; Alexander Jannaeus, 103-76; Salome Alexandra, 76-67; Aristobulus II, 67-63; John Hyrcanus II, 63-40; Mattathias Antigonus, 40-37. Prior to the Hasmonean dynasty, the political and religious leadership of the Jews had always been separated: there was a king and a high priest at the same time. The Hasmoneans combined the two titles in the person of the king, and used the expanded power to conquer a good deal of neighbouring territory, such that by the end of their line Judea encompassed all of modern Israel. Curiously, the Hasmoneans were purists, rigorously anti-pagan (whereas throughout most of the Hellenistic period it had been fashionable to be Hellenized, and a Hellenized Jew was considered a moderate). Now, in the 1st century BC, there begin to appear in pagan authors the strains of anti-Semitism, the same kinds of accusations which would later be turned against the Christians.

Rome became directly involved in Jewish politics in the years 66-63 BC, when two Hasmonean brothers (Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II) were engaged in a civil war over the throne, and each appealed to the Roman legate in Syria for support. The Romans eventually decided in favor of Hyrcanus, and it was he who greeted the Roman troops in Jerusalem in 63. They were under the leadership of Pompey, who at the time was engaged in exercising his extraodinary command to free the Eastern sea of pirates. Pompey's disposition of Judea is interesting: he greatly reduced the number of territories then subject to the high priest in Jerusalem, in effect reversing all the hard-won gains of the expansionist Hasmoneans. Why? The probable answer is that Pompey was annoyed because he had to spend some months rooting out a pocket of Aristobulan loyalists who had barricaded themselves in the Temple; the alternative answer, that Rome now perceived the Jews as a potential rival in the Middle East, much of which they (the Romans) were only now getting around to formally annexing, is unlikely. Hyrcanus ruled (under Roman supervision) until 40 BC, when he perished in the Parthian invasion of Syria. The Parthians installed a puppet.

Now appears on the scene the major Jewish political figure of the Augustan Age. Herod, who had inherited the title of procurator of Judea from his father Antipater, went to Rome after the Parthian invasion and persuaded the Senate to back his attempt to wrest Judea from Parthian control. Herod, together with Mark Antony's lieutenants Ventidius and Sosius, took Jerusalem in 37 and ruled 37-4 BC. A masterly politician, ruthless when he had to be, Herod was a fit counterpart for his contemporary Augustus. Like most of the client kings in the East, he supported Mark Antony over Octavian; yet after Actium he managed to persuade Augustus, with promises of loyalty proved good in the event, to leave him in place.

Like Augustus, too, Herod is a difficult figure to assess. The length of his rule and vastness of his legacy, especially as it can be gauged from his extensive building projects both at home and abroad (e.g. at Athens and Rhodes), conspire to make him a very controversial figure. His detractors insisted that he was a monster for murdering many members of his family who were or could produce rivals. In this, of course, Herod merely behaved like the standard Hellenistic monarch. But we need to ask whether Herod's Judea contained the roots of the rebellion which led to the disaster of 70 AD, and for that it is necessary to consider how he shaped the society of Judea.

Whereas the Hasmoneans had tried to expel pagans from Judea and thereby incurred a great deal of antipathy for their people from Greek authors, Herod reached back to the Philhellenic tradition of the third and early second centuries. To the Jews he was a Jew, or tried to be; he reinforced a separation between religious and political power by promoting new candidates to the high priesthoods, men from families with no priestly tradition, but who themselves had earned the appointment by their piety and knowledge of religious lore. His enemies impugned Herod's parentage, and claimed that he was only half-Jewish, on his father's side, and hence not truly a Jew at all. This is of little importance, because insults about parentage are a commonplace in the Hellenic tradition, now a constituent part of the collective unconscious in the East. More telling is to examine Herod's actions. He won and kept the favor of the Romans and leading Greek cities; did he do so by betraying his own people? The right answer is important, since Herod's legacy was determinative of relations between Rome and the Jews for many years after his death.

Herod was not insensitive to the "hot buttons" of his people. Josephus' Bellum Iudaicum is mostly favorable to Herod, depicting him as an essentially well-meaning ruler whose life was plagued by many disasters, and whose position forced him into certain acts of cruelty. But the Antiquitates Iudaicae reflects a tradition much less favorable to the king, making him out to be a tyrant who ruled through intimidation, encouraged the citizens to report on the slightest hint of dissent or dissatisfaction, and haled suspects away to his secret fortress at Hyrcania, after which they were never seen again. All the more reason, then, to believe what Josephus has to say in the AJ about Herod's attempts to avoid giving offense to traditional piety.

Rebuilding the Temple at Jerusalem was only the most obvious example. Although Herod did finance and attach his name to the construction of pagan buildings, he was careful to keep these in non-Jewish areas. His splendid new port at Casearea stimulated trade through the kingdom. Coins which he minted for use in Judea bore no images. Intermarriage of foreign potentates with Jewish women, for political purposes, was not completely spurned; but Herod wisely insisted that the prospective groom had to be circumcised first. On the other hand, it was said that Herod had backed the building of a Roman amphitheater for gladiatorial contests at Jerusalem (though this is not confirmed by archaeological evidence) and, worst of all from the point of view of offending sensibilities, to have erected golden eagles, symbols of Roman overlordship, over the entrance to his rebuilt temple. But most importantly, Herod protected the claim of the Jews to be free from participation in the worship of the Imperial cult, although he encouraged it for the Samaritans and Gentiles resident in Judea. At the state level, Herod skirted the problem by offering sacrifices to God, the God of the Jews, on behalf of Augustus rather than to him and Rome. Augustus rewarded Herod with the grant of special privileges for the Jews (SB I 206):

Whereas the Jewish people have been found well-disposed to the Roman people ... the Jews are to enjoy their own customs in accordance with their ancestral law .... and their sacred monies are to be inviolate and transmitted to Jerusalem, and they do not have to post bond for appearance in court on the Sabbath or on the day of preparation for it from the ninth hour.

When Herod died in 4 BC, he left behind a country divided. The difficulty is to separate and identify the motives for the violent upheavals which followed the demise of the man who had walked the tightrope between pleasing the Romans and pleasing the Jews, both those in Judea and those of the diaspora. In our sources, especially Philo and Josephus, the motive of Jewish nationalism, closely linked to outrage at the defilement of religious symbols and practices, is foremost. So we are told that the first thing which happened when word leaked that Herod lay dying was that a small band of pious individuals pulled down the golden eagle from its place above the Temple entrance and chopped it to pieces. But piety and nationalism do not tell the whole story. Some of those who rioted or led opposition movements after Herod's death were grasping the opportunity for economic gain, exploiting the economic tensions created by Herod's adherence to the Roman approach to the redistribution of wealth, whereby the ordinary citizens were expected to derive satisfaction from seeing public monies spent on lavish building projects. Marxist historians emphasize the recurrent phenomenon of the sicarii, Robin Hood style outlaws whom Herod had repeatedly tried to suppress, and who resurfaced with a vengeance in 4 BC. Many Jews also recalled that Herod and his sons, among whom the kingdom was partitioned after his death, were only Idumeans, residents of a Negev desert region south of Judea whose inhabitants had been converted wholesale to Judaism in the 120's BC; those of the Sadduccees who had resisted cooperating, first with the Hasmoneans and then with Herod, saw their opportunity to regain control of the high priesthood. Some pretenders to the throne in 4 BC, Simon and Athronges, were seekers after personal power, not manifestations of anti-Roman feeling.

Herod's attempts to ensure his succession were every bit as messy as those of his counterpart in Rome. No fewer than three separate wills were produced. At first the eldest son, Archelaus, hoped to succeed to the entire realm; but his claim was contested by his brothers Antipas and Philip. While Archelaus and Philip were at Rome presenting their claims to Augustus and the Senate, the country was left in turmoil, exacerbated by the ineptitude of the Roman procurator Sabinus, who burned the Temple at Jerusalem. The governor of Syria, P. Quinctilius Varus, had to bring in troops to quell the riots. Finally Augustus, who had intially shown reluctance to choose among the competing claims beyond firmly rejecting a delegation of anti-Herodians wanting self-government, decided to uphold Herod's third will. The lion's share of the kingdom went to Archelaus, who ruled Judea, Samaria, and Idumea ... but at Roman insistence his title was "ethnarch" rather than king. Lesser realms fell to the other two sons, Antipas and Philip.

Archelaus proved a poor choice. Extremely unpopular with the Jews, he exemplified all the worst of his father's qualities, and even the even-handed Josephus has little good to say of him. By 6 AD matters had come to a head, and in the wake of further riots (prompted in part by the attempt of the Syrian legate Quirinus to conduct a census) a delegation from Judea managed to persuade Augustus and the Senate to oust Archelaus. The areas administered by the other sons of Herod continued for the moment as client kingdoms, but Judea and Samaria were annexed to the province of Syria and placed under the oversight of imperial prefects (not called procurators until after 44, as epigraphical evidence shows). The first four of these, Coponius (6-9), Marcus Ambibulus (9-12), Annius Rufus (12-15), and Valerius Gratus (15-26) left no special mark; even Josephus has little to say about them, and we gather that they were for the most part respectful of Jewish idiosyncracies. With the fifth procurator the situation worsens. Quite apart from Pontius Pilate's complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus, there is ample evidence to show that he took a high-handed line to the government of his province. Christian writers noted that he had suppressed a riot by massacring a group of Galileans, and accused him of worse (Luke 13:1 "At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices"). For the Jews Pilate's worst offense was belittling the taboo against graven images by introducing military standards into the city, and depositing golden shields inscribed with the name of Tiberius, imperial cult objects in other words, in the palace of Herod. As Philo tells it, Pilate worried about the Jewish protest over the shields, because

he feared that if they actually sent an embassy they would expose the rest of his conduct as governor by stating in full the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injuries, the executions without a trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty (Philo Emb. 302).

Indeed, an embassy to Tiberius eventually succeeded in procuring the ouster of Pilate, which shows continuing concern on the part of the imperial administration for keeping the Jews happy.

True, Tacitus relates that in 19 BC Tiberius expelled the Jews from Rome (Ann. 2.85), and forcibly conscripted 4,000 of them for the unenviable task of fighting pirates in Sardinia. But it would be an error to see this as a sign of general antipathy or hostility to the Jews. As Josephus tells the story, Tiberius was angered by the misdeeds of a single Jew who converted a noble Roman lady, Fulvia, and persuaded her to make a large contribution for the Temple at Jerusalem, which he then diverted for his own use (AJ 18.3.5). This suggests that the real problem was not the Jews themselves but their isolated successes in winning converts among the Roman upper class. Suetonius also makes it clear that this action was part of a wider crackdown on foreign, especially Eastern, superstitions:

He abolished foreign cults at Rome, particularly the Egyptian (i.e. the worship of Isis) and the Jewish, forcing all citizens who had embraced these superstitious faiths to burn their religious vestments and other accessories .... Tiberius also banished all astrologers, except such as asked for his forgiveness and undertook to make no more predictions (Suet. Tib. 36).

Philo says that Tiberius' henchman Sejanus hated the Jews and intended to persecute them throughout the Empire. But in fact what anti-Semitism appears in the pagan sources from the period is almost entirely expressed by Greeks. An area of particular tension between Jews and Greeks was the city of Alexandria, which had attracted a large community of diaspora Jews by virtue of its status as a major trading center. Jews had long been prominent as commanders in the army of the Ptolemies, where they were given special dispensation from fighting on the Sabbath. At Alexandria the Jews enjoyed a privileged legal position. Most were not citizens, but they had a separate citizen body (politeuma) with their own council of elders, assembly, and courts.

The Alexandrian Jews became the outlet for Greek frustration over the transformation of Egypt and Alexandria from one of the centers of the world in the Hellenistic Age to the capital of an imperial province after Actium. A party of Alexandrian nationalists, led by a Greek named Isidorus, rallied supporters around the banner of anti-Semitism. Prior to the death of Tiberius, the equestrian governor of Egypt, A. Avillius Flaccus, had managed to keep the nationalists under control, at one point even expelling their leader Isidorus from the city. But in early 38, the year in which Flaccus was due to be replaced in Egypt by Macro, he seems to have formed some sort of alliance with Isidorus. The reasons for this are not entirely clear; Philo alleges that Flaccus feared Caligula because Flaccus had supported the banishment of Caligula's mother, the elder Agrippina, and further that Flaccus formed his alliance with Isidorus because he hoped that the Alexandrian Greeks would protect him if Caligula decided to seek his head. Most moderns dismiss this as improbable, especially because Caligula had the opportunity to replace Flaccus in this most important and prestigious of imperial provinces, but chose instead to let him serve out his term. But whatever the reason, Flaccus had become more sympathetic to Isidorus and his party of anti-Semites, and the stage was set for conflagration, touched of by the arrival in Alexandria of M. Iulius Agrippa.

This Agrippa (M. Julius Agrippa, not to be confused with Augustus' friend M. Vipsanius Agrippa), a grandson of Herod, had grown up at the Imperial court in Rome, a hostage of sorts, and counted among his friends both Tiberius' son Drusus and the future emperor Gaius. Imprisoned by Tiberius in 36, Agrippa was released by Gaius upon his accession and named king of one of the two tetrarchies in Judea not being administered by a prefect. On his way to take up this office, Agrippa decided to stop and visit the Jewish community in Alexandria; on the face of it, not an unreasonable move, since the Alexandrian Jews were an important part of his constituency and, as later events proved, Agrippa had ambitions for reuniting Palestine under his own leadership. In Alexandria, a lavish parade through the streets by Agrippa, with his entourage and bodyguard, rubbed the faces of the Alexandrian Greeks in the fact that they were governed by a Roman equestrian, while the Jews were allowed to have a king. Too late, Agrippa realized the damage he had caused and slipped out of the country.

Isidorus and his partisans went on a rampage of anti-Jewish violence (a vivid description of the atrocities is provided by Philo, Emb. 120-138). Some temples were burned; in others, statues of the emperor were erected. Flaccus responded by creating the first Jewish ghetto: henceforth, the Jews were confined to one of the five districts of the city. Whether this was an attempt to protect the Jews, or a punishment and an indication that Flaccus held them responsible for the violence, is a matter of debate. But the results were clear enough: disease spread through the overcrowded ghetto, and unfortunate Jews who strayed outside of the limits were burned, torn apart, or trampled by mobs. Some relief came later in 38, when Flaccus was finally deposed and replaced by the much more moderate and diplomatic G. Vitrasius Pollio. The ghetto was abolished and the Jews regained some of the property which had been taken over by the mobs. Both Jews and Greeks sent embassies to Rome; Philo's first-hand account of that embassy is extant.

At the same time as the ambassadors from Alexandria were preparing to make their cases at Rome, more trouble was brewing for the Jews on another front. Early in 40 BC (following Philo's chronology over Josephus's) there was a fracas in a little coastal town of Judea called Jamnia, where Jews and Greeks lived side-by-side. The Greeks set up an altar for the imperial cult, and some Jewish zealots promptly tore it down (Philo, Emb. 30). I say zealots advisedly, because in the usual course of things an altar to the imperial cult should not have been a problem, so long as it was not located on sacred ground; Jews all over the empire saw them every day. Caligula's reaction was typically irrational, and exemplary of his megalomania: to punish all the Jews, he gave orders to the governor of Syria that a gigantic statue of himself should be built and placed in the main Temple at Jerusalem. Fortunately, the governor of Syria, Publius Petronius, understood the Jews better than the emperor did. The Jews would sooner die than allow it. Tacitus suggests that Judea was on the point of rebellion:

Then, when Caligula ordered the Jews to set up his statue in their temple, they chose rather to resort to arms. ( Hist. 5.9)
But this brief notice must be modified with reference to Josephus' account, from which it is clear that in consultation with Petronius the Jewish leadership offered a form of passive resistance; they would die to protect the sanctity of the temple, but they did not threaten to fight for it. In the event neither was necessary. Both Petronius and Agrippa, Gaius's boyhood friend, lobbied the emperor; but before Caligula could reach a decision, either about the temple at Jerusalem or about the Jews and Greeks in Alexandria, he was assassinated.

© 1996 David L. Silverman. All rights reserved.

Rome and the Jews, Part II


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