Rome and the Jews, Part II

Certainly it is tempting to see the roots of the great Jewish rebellion in the events of the last years of Caligula's reign. Undeniably, the threat of Caligula to desecrate the Temple of Jerusalem strengthened the hand of the Jewish nationalists, just as abusive government by corrupt prefects and procurators had in the past, and would again. Yet now, in the early 40's, the prevailing opinion among the leaders of the Jewish community was that peaceful coexistence with the Romans could and should continue. The Jews at Alexandria had taken up arms only against the Greeks; in the embassy, both sides, Jews and Greeks, urged that they were the ones trying to act in the best interests of the Roman empire. From the other side, there is every reason not to believe what Philo asserts, that Caligula was planning a major war against the Jews. The two legions which he ordered Petronius to take into Judea were solely to enforce the erection of the statue.

The death of Caligula might have been expected to bring down his friend Agrippa, but (like his grandfather) Agrippa was a survivor, and he convinced Claudius to let him stay on, and even to increase his dominion. Universally regarded as a good king, Agrippa was scrupulous about observing Jewish customs, while at the same time he pleased his non-Jewish constituents with benefactions, buildings, and games. Unfortunately for the Jews, Agrippa lived on after Caligula for only three years; he was only 54 when he died. Had he survived longer, he might well have gotten the lid firmly on to the still simmering cauldron of Jewish discontent, and averted the terrible tragedy that followed twenty years after his demise. For in 44 Claudius put Judea once more under direct Roman control, and discontent at the subsequent maladministration of the procurators led inexorably to the Jewish War.

On the news of Caligula's death the Jews of Alexandria seized the opportunity to get revenge for what they had suffered, and themselves embarked on a campaign of terror against the Greeks. The riots had to be put down by Roman troops. Too late, a letter arrived from Claudius :

I tell you once for all that unless you put a stop to this ruinous and obstinant enmity against each other, I shall be driven to show what a benevolent emperor can be when driven to righteous indignation. Wherefore once again I conjure you that ... the Alexandrians show themselves forebearing and kindly toward the Jews, who for many years have dwelt in the same city, and dishonor none of the right observed by them in the worship of their god, but allow them to observe their customs as in the time of the deified Augustus. And, on the other hand, I explicitly order the Jews not to agitate for more privileges than they formerly possessed, and in the future not to send out a separate embassy as if they lived in two separate cities.

Claudius' letters perfectly capture the perennial problem for the definition of Jewish national identity: was a Jew defined by a tie to a particular place, such as Jerusalem, or by adherence to the Mosaic law? The Jews of the first century AD wanted it both ways, to retain a marked sense of exclusivity and difference no matter where they were. This worked in Palestine itself; elsewhere, it ran directly counter to the trend of Roman imperial society in the direction of cosmopolitanism and universalism, and created the kind of antipathy which led Tacitus to say,

The Jews are extremely loyal toward one another, and always ready to show compassion, but toward every other people they feel only hate and enmity." ( Histories V.5)

We left the Jews early in the reign of Claudius, having narrowly averted the potential disaster of Caligula's insistence on the erection of a gigantic statue of himself in the temple at Jerusalem. They were poised on the edge of a precipice. The death in 44 of the good king Agrippa I, whose dominion Claudius had confirmed and whose territories he had even expanded, left Claudius a difficult choice. Agrippa's only son, Agrippa II, was at the time living in Rome -- it was typical for the sons of client kings to be brought up at Rome, so they could be hostages to guarantee the king's cooperation and at the same time be imbued with a full and lasting sense of the majesty of Roman power, the superiority of Roman culture. In any case, Claudius decided that Agrippa II was too young to become king in 44; thus Judea reverted to provincial status and was placed back under the administration of procurators. What was the state of the state at the time of the death of Agrippa I?

Not unlike his grandfather, Herod the Great, Agrippa I is a mass of carefully engineered contradictions, in his own person and practices an embodiment of the irresoluble forces which were pulling the Jewish state to pieces. He won Josephus' approval for living among the people in Jerusalem and scrupulously observing the daily rituals. At the same time, he catered to his non-Jewish constituency with lavish secular construction projects outside Jerusalem, baths, stoas, and even an amphitheater. This amphitheater saw one gladiatorial contest in which 1400 "criminals" perished (Josephus, Ant. 19.7.5 [337]). On the other side, he gratified the Pharisees by assisting in the persecution of Christians, notably James and Peter, though the latter miraculously escaped (Acts, 12. 3-19). This earned him from the Gospel authors the following account of his death:

And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died." ( Acts, 12. 23; compare Jos. Ant. 19.8.2 [344 ff], where the cause of death looks to have been a burst appendix).

The point, though, is that to be successful as a political leader in the Palestine of the first century AD required a person to show several different faces; thus the coins of Agrippa minted for use at Jerusalem bore no graven image, while those for use outside the city were graced with his image.

Agrippa II eventually was given a small kingdom in the north of Palestine, with his capital at Caesarea, and he ruled in his little corner (which was shuffled once or twice) until his death in 93; but despite the length of his rule, he is an insignificant figure, because the major historical events of the time were brewing at Jerusalem, to which city Agrippa II was only an occasional visitor.

A central question for the history of this period is: what were the causes of the Jewish War? As so often with these questions, more than one answer may be right, but modern accounts tend to emphasize one at the expense of others. In this case the main choices are: (1) the corrupt and bumbling administration of the procurators, who acted without either due regard for the delicate sensibilities of the Jews or awareness of the powder keg of religious tensions among the Pharisees, Sadduccees, Essenes, Zealots, Christians, and Gentiles; (2) the powder keg of religious tensions among the Pharisees, Sadduccees, Essenes, Zealots, Christians, and Gentiles, such that there was nothing the procurators could have been expected to do to prevent the explosion (so esp. Schü rer, author of the monumental 19th century work History of the Jewish People in German [translated and updated by various hands, Edinburgh 1973]; (3) a Marxist approach, not without some justification from the ancient sources, that the Jewish War was really the result of a revolt by the oppressed masses against the Jewish ruling class, whom the Romans (as always) supported.

It is necessary to take the administrations of the procurators one by one, and to consider whether their handling of the problems which arose favors hypothesis (1). First a brief word about sources. The main source for both the prelude to the Jewish War and the war itself is Josephus, a Jewish aristocrat who was himself a general of a local Jewish militia. He left behind two works of history: the Jewish War in seven books, a focused account of the years 66-74 AD somewhat on the Thucydidean model, and the Jewish Antiquities, a universal history of the Hebrews in twenty books from the creation to 66 AD. Of these two works, the Jewish War is the earlier, and it begs to be contextualized.

Josephus surrendered to the Romans in 67, whereupon he managed to ingratiate himself with Vespasian by predicting (correctly, as it happened) that Vespasian would become the emperor ( BJ 3.8 [400-402]). He was then attached to the Flavian gens, and after the war he went to Rome, where he wrote the Jewish War under the close supervision of Titus and Vespasian. Clearly the circumstances were not conducive to objectivity. Two major kinds of bias are detectable in this narrative. First, and most obviously, there is a whitewash of the Flavians, who unfailingly prosecute the war with a minimum of acrimony, sparing the Jews wherever possible, and ever ready to give them a chance to surrender. Titus is even made to oppose the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which in Josephus' account happens as the result of a firebrand flung by a lone legionary in defiance of Titus' orders ( BJ 6.5 [252]); to spare religious sanctuaries was the standard practice of ancient warfare, but in this case the Temple was also a fortress, indeed the main stronghold of the Jewish resistance, and so a legitimate military target. The pro-Flavian bias of the Jewish War may be savored in Josephus' description of Vespasian's elevation by his troops:

But the more he declined, the more insistent his officers became, and the soldiers surrounded him, swords in hand, and threatened to kill him if he refused to rule as he was entitled. After earnestly impressing on them his many reasons for rejecting imperial honors, and failing to convince them, he finally yielded to their call. ( BJ 4.4 [603-604]; cf. Suetonius Vesp. 6)

But at the time of the writing of the Jewish War, Vespasian was already securely established as emperor, so legitimation of his rule cannot be called the primary motive of the work. The second major area of bias concerns the war guilt of the Jews. For Josephus, the war was in the first instance caused by the corrupt and inept Roman procurators, and secondarily the work of misguided bands of extremists, sicarii (thugs) and zealots who led the people astray; he is concerned to exculpate the Jewish aristocracy. For Josephus, the legitimate representatives of Judaism were the Pharisees, Sadduccees, Essenes and high priests; in his account all of these groups work consistently to prevent the rebellion. We shall see that this is a false picture, but its purpose is clear: Josephus is concerned to discourage further reprisals by the Romans against the Jews, both in Palestine and those of the Diaspora, and to effect a reconciliation in the wake of the bitter struggle.

That Josephus himself recognized the shortcomings of his Jewish War is evident. Again, in the Thucydidean mold the account of the war is prefaced with a cursory narrative of the preceding years, in this case covering the period 170 BC to 66 AD. In the later revisionist and more comprehensive Jewish Antiquities he chooses to go over much of the same ground again. The Jewish Antiquities was published in 93-94 AD, when the post-war position of the Jews was settled and Josephus himself was relatively free from political pressures; in it modern historians have found the true Josephus, at his best both meticulous and even-handed .

Let us now consider the evidence for the thesis that maladministration by the Roman procurators caused the Jewish revolt. An event from the administration of the first Claudian procurator, Cuspius Fadus (44-46?), illustrates the tenseness of the situation and the myriad opportunities for misunderstanding and overreaction. Here is Josephus' account of the incident:

Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them and to follow him to the river Jordan, for he told them that he was a prophet and that by his own command he would divide the river and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deceived by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them, who fell on them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many others alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. ( Ant. 20.5.1 [97])

Although Josephus does not say why people were following Theudas or why they wished to cross the Jordan with all of their possessions, the answer may be inferred both from Josephus' account and from a general knowledge of trends in the popular religion of the time. The legacy of the Old Testament prophets had been transmuted into a fervently eschatological mode; like many another Hebrew prophet, including (at least in his earthly corporeal form) Jesus, Theudas must have been predicting that the end of the world was at hand, and that the destruction would fall first upon Jerusalem and its environs. Moreover, his promise to part the waters of the Jordan river is an unmistakable allusion to the parting of the Red Sea by Moses, the liminal event in the escape of the Jews from Egyptian slavery ( Exodus 14. 26-29). This means that the episode of Theudas is more than an example of procuratorial misconduct; many of Theudas' followers must have been actual slaves (making their flight illegal and justifying the intervention of the authorities, from a legal if not from a moral point of view). Others would have been poor but free persons who nevertheless saw themselves as enslaved, either to the Romans or to the landed Jewish aristocracy, or both. In the massacre at the river Jordan, then, we have a confluence of class tension and religious extremism. It is the Jewish War in microcosm.

The administration of Fadus' successor, Ti. Iulius Alexander (?46-48), was uneventful save for a famine, which was relieved in the usual fashion by the public generosity of a local notable, in this case the Jewish convert Queen Helena of Adiabene. Under the next procurator, Ventidius Cumanus (48-52), there was an unfortunate episode: during the celebration of Passover, while the Jews were gathered in prayer outside the Temple, a Roman soldier mooned the crowd (Ant. 20.5.3 [112]). A riot ensued, in which a large number of Jews (20,000, by Josephus' surely exaggerated reckoning) were trampled to death. This event lends no support to the class warfare theory. Neither does it especially show procuratorial negligence, nor make the case that the Romans simply did not understand the Jewish attitude towards the sacred rituals; Cumanus seems to have tried to calm the situation, and presumably the soldier knew full well that his exhibitionism would be provocative. This same Cumanus proved his understanding of the Jewish attitude towards sacrilege when he ordered the execution of a legionary who had publicly destroyed a scroll of the Torah. If anything, the Passover massacre lends support to the Schü rer thesis: the Jews brought trouble onto themselves by their fanaticism and inflexibility.

More evidence, perhaps, for the Schü rer line in the downfall of Cumanus. Sometime around 50 AD a group of Galileans making the holiday pilgrimage to Jerusalem got into a scrape with members of the non-Jewish community in Samaria. This developed into a little civil war, in which Cumanus took part on the side of the Samaritans, and the disorder was such that the provincial governor of Syria, C. Ummidius Quadratus, was forced himself to come to Palestine and judge among the parties in conflict. He found the Jews so violently opposed to Cumanus, whom they accused of taking bribes from the Samaritans, that he referred the whole matter to the emperor himself, and sent Cumanus to Rome together with representatives of both sides. Fortunately for the Jews, they had powerful advocates at the court in the persons of King Agrippa II and the younger Agrippina, who together persuaded Claudius to find against the Samaritans; Cumanus was deposed and exiled. What to make of this? Josephus' account of the whole affair is suspicious ( Ant. 20.6), especially in so far as it is never clear what, if the Samaritans did start it by murdering the pilgrims as he claims, their motive is supposed to have been. There is no clear grounds for faulting Cumanus' conduct in the affair; taking Josephus' account with several grains of salt, it looks as if he was simply using force to try to restore order. Oesterley says that Ummidius Quadratus' intervention, whereby he pulled rank on the procurator Cumanus, must have lessened the respect for the authority of the procurator among the masses of the Jews and thereby contributed to the rise of revolutionary spirit; if so, this is a minor factor only, as by all indications the procurators had been getting little enough respect as it was. The episode is important for two reasons: (1) it led to the exchange of a bad procurator for a slightly less bad one, and (2) it illustrates how hard it must have been to try to keep the lid on the boiling pot of Palestine.

The administration of the next procurator, M. Antonius Felix (52-60), was eventful ... and disastrous. It is during his tenure that the Christians begin to appear in the sources as a major contributor to the popular unrest, and it is this same Felix who judged St. Paul guilty (of what, it is not clear) and sent him to prison ( Acts 24). Both Paul and his Jewish prosecutor, Tertullus, address Felix with respect:

Your Excellency, because of you we have long enjoyed peace, and reforms have been made for this people because of your foresight. We welcome this in every way and everywhere with utmost gratitude. ( Acts 24:2-3)

Even Josephus has something good to say about Felix:

As for the affairs of the Jews, they grew worse and worse continually, for the country was filled with thugs and charlatans, who deluded the multitude. Yet Felix caught and put to death many of those impostors every day, together with the thugs. ( Ant. 20.8.5 [160])

But would not be wise to conclude that Felix was very much better liked than Cumanus had been. Tertullus is flattering the governor in the manner appropriate to the circumstances of his speech, and even the apostle was not incapable of the obligatory rhetorical flattery on occasion (cf. Acts 24:10). Certainly it was part of Felix's job to suppress lawlessness, and Josephus does not hesitate to commend his use of military force against the sicarii. Notice though that in the quoted passage Josephus lumps the thugs together with the false prophets, though the two phenomena were unquestionably separate. In the parallel account of the same events in the Jewish War, the sicarii and the messianic impostors start out as two separate entities, but they are inexorably merged, especially after a large group (30,000 according to Josephus) in the late 50's follows one of these false messiahs (identified by Josephus only as the Egyptian) into the wilderness, where they are attacked by Felix's troops as a revolutionary body and annihilated:

The impostors and the brigands, banding together, incited many to revolt, exhorting them to assert their independence. They threatened to kill any who submitted willingly to Roman domination, and to suppress all those who would accept servitude voluntarily. ( BJ 2.13.6 [264])

This is reflective of Josephus' agenda, as described above: to exculpate the Pharisees and the Jewish aristocracy, and to account for the religious element of the growing spirit of rebellion (as it could not be denied) by representing it as a perversion of the true Judaism.

Felix was succeeded in 60 AD by M. Porcius Festus, whose two year administration continued the pattern already established by his predecessor. From Josephus he gets a brief word of praise for continuing to harass the sicarii. But yet another false prophet led his followers into the desert to be slain by Festus' troops (unless this be a doublet of one of the prior episodes -- Ant. 20.8.10 [188]). Festus is remembered primarily for his fair treatment of St. Paul, whom he released from prison in recognition of his right of appeal to the emperor as a Roman citizen ( provocatio ; see Acts 25:6-12). Between the death of Festus in 62, and the arrival of his successor Albinus (62-64), the Sadducee high priest took it upon himself to step up the persecution of the Christians; his best known victim was James, reputedly the brother of Jesus. Other than that, Albinus' tenure left the impression of a truly Verrine rapacity ( BJ 2.14.1 [272-3]). Although he too pursued the sicarii, at times he was willing to play both ends against the middle in the political rivalries of the Jews, so long as there was a profit in the game. On the verge of being replaced, and knowing that he would be tried for extortion, Albinus got his revenge in advance by releasing all of the sicarii he had imprisoned (cf. Ant. 20.9.5, where Josephus represents the act as an attempt to curry favor with the Jews at the last minute and so avoid prosecution).

Such a man was Albinus, but by comparison his successor Gessius Florus made him appear an angel. The crimes of Albinus were, for the most part, perpetrated secretly and in disguise; Gessius, on the contrary, paraded all the wrongs he did to the nation openly ... ( BJ 2.14.2 [277]).

Here the apologetic character of the BJ appears in full relief. The pot is boiling, boiling over, but it must be that Florus himself is stirring it, even for his own selfish purposes. The Jews are complaining about him to the governor of Syria:

If the peace lasted, he foresaw that he would have the Jews accuse him before Caesar, but if he contrived to make them revolt, he hoped that this greater outrage would forestall any inquiry into less serious offenses. So, to ensure a nationwide revolt, he added daily to their sufferings. ( BJ 2.14.3 [283])

Moreover, Josephus has Florus closely in league with the sicarii. Given what we have already seen, that Josephus is concerned to conflate brigandage and Messianic cults, and that the only time he has anything good to say about a Roman procurator is when action is taken against these enemies, Florus' alleged partnership with the sicarii ought to mean that whereas his predecessors had short-sightedly regarded these mass departures into the wilderness to await the coming of the Messiah as acts of war, Florus saw that that they posed no threat (at least not to Roman authority over the province) and let them go unpunished. From another angle, though, this inaction was in itself short-sighted, since free reign to the Messianic movements was anathema to the religious authorities and the aristocracy, and thus exacerbated the internal tensions.

As Josephus sees it, the war began when Florus demanded a payment of 17 talents from the treasury of the Temple, claiming to be collecting back taxes and acting on Nero's orders. The populace blocked his way to the Temple, the troops cut a path to the door. In itself, this riot was no worse than the one occasioned by the untimely display of the legionary buttocks; but it came at a time when the balance of power in the province had been so upset, and the tensions among the various groups were so pronounced, that there was no going back. The Messianic element of the popular religion played a large role. The ravages and ineptitude of the procurators did not help. Class hatred was also a factor, but to some degree this element is exaggerated by Josephus, who wants to make it clear that the best people among the Jews, those on whom the Romans had always relied, were not guilty. I will not here try to narrate the events of the war, still less attempt to disentangle the shifting factions which composed the rebel armies, but one thing needs to be made clear: the Jewish war was no less a civil war than a war against Roman overlordship. When the Romans paused (as when Vespasian temporarily suspended his own command, as the law required, upon the death of the man who had conferred it on him) the Jews immediately turned to fighting one another.

© 1996 David L. Silverman. All rights reserved.


This talk draws liberally from the following modern accounts:

W.O.E. Oesterley, A History of Israel (vol. II) Oxford, 1932.

Shaye J.D. Cohen, Roman Domination = pages 205-235 in H. Shanks, ed. Ancient Israel: A Short History from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple Prentice-Hall, 1988.

A.A. Barrett, Caligula: The Corruption of Power Yale U. P., 1990.

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