Judean diasporas: Josephos on tensions with Greeks in Syria, the Decapolis, and Alexandria ca. 59-66 CE (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean diasporas: Josephos on tensions with Greeks in Syria, the Decapolis, and Alexandria ca. 59-66 CE (late first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=10455.

Ancient author: Josephos, Judean War, parts of 2.266-498 (link).

Comments: While Judeans could be living far flung from the geography of Judea itself, there were also diasporic Judeans closer to home, living alongside Greeks, Syrians and Phoenicians in primarily non-Judean towns of Syria, Phoenicia, and the Decapolis (ten Greek cities east of the Jordan and sea of Galilee, one of which was Scythopolis). In this section of Josephos’ account of the causes and nature of the Judean War, he sketches his impression of the ethnic rivalries and violent confrontations between Greeks or Syrians, on the one hand, and Judeans, on the other, that took place at specific cities immediately preceding the war between the Romans and the Judeans from 66-70 CE. Josephos also deals with ongoing tensions between Greeks and Judeans at Alexandria in Egypt (on which see Philo’s discussion of earlier incidents at this link).

Particularly important in Josephos’ theory about the causes and nature of the war are the ethnic tensions that began as early as 59 CE at Caesarea. While these accounts are tendentious and therefore problematic for reconstructing historical events, they nonetheless allow us to see an upper-class, priestly Judean’s take on ethnic relations in the wake of the war.

This passage is also notable for Josephos’ reference to “Judaizing,” namely the adoption of Judean customs by non-Judeans in Caesarea and some other towns. Perhaps it is a statement of the obvious to observe that non-Judeans (Greeks or Syrians) seeking to adopt Judean customs would be another, more positive side of the coin in Judean relations with other peoples in these same places. Relations were complicated. On this ancient way of expressing what we might call acculturation or enculturation by non-Judeans, see also the posts on Medizing (link), foreignizing, Hellenizing, and Judaizing (link), as well as Ignatius’ unusual improvisation with “Christianizing” (link).


[Ongoing tensions at Caesarea between Judeans and Greeks / Syrians, set ca. 59 CE]

(2.266-270) Another disturbance occurred at Caesarea, where the Judean portion of the population rose against the Syrian inhabitants. They claimed that the city was theirs on the ground that its founder, king Herod, was a Judean. Their opponents admitted the Judean origin of its second founder, but maintained that the city itself belonged to the Greeks, since Herod would never have erected the statues and temples which he placed there had he intended it for Judeans. Such were the points at issue between the two parties, and the quarrel eventually led to an appeal to arms.

Every day the more venturesome in either camp would rush into combat because the older members of the Judean community were incapable of restraining their turbulent partisans, and the Greeks considered it humiliating to give way to the Judeans. Judeans had the advantage of superior wealth and physical strength, the Greeks had the support of the military, because the troops stationed here were mainly levied by the Romans from Syria, and were consequently always ready to lend aid to those of their kinship group (syggeneis).

The civic leaders, indeed, were at pains to repress these disorders, and constantly arrested the more quarellsome offenders and punished them with the scourge and imprisonment. Rather than controlling or intimidating the remainder of the people, the sufferings of those arrested only served as a stimulus to sedition. On one occasion when the Judeans had been victorious, Felix [procurator of Judea, ca. 52-59] came forward into the marketplace and ordered them in menacing tones to retire. When they refused to obey, he sent his troops against them. Many were killed, and their property was subsequently plundered. As the quarrel continued, Felix selected the notables of the two parties and sent them to Nero as deputies to discuss before him their respective rights.


[Continuing tensions between Judeans and Caesareans at Caesarea, set in 66 CE]

(2.284-292) Meanwhile the Greeks of Caesarea had won their case at Caesar’s tribunal, and obtained from him the leadership of that city. They brought back with them the text of the decision, and it was now that the war opened, in the twelfth year of the principate of Nero, and the seventeenth of the reign of Agrippa, in the month of Artemisius [May, 66 CE]. The ostensible reason for war was out of proportion to the magnitude of the disasters which followed. The Judeans in Caesarea had a synagogue adjoining a plot of ground owned by a Greek of that city. This site they had frequently endeavoured to purchase, offering a price far exceeding its actual value. Disdaining their attempts to make the purchase, the owner attempted to insult them by proceeding to build upon the site and erect workshops, leaving the Judeans only a narrow and extremely awkward passage. At that point some of the hot-headed youths proceeded to bother the builders and attempted to interrupt operations.

When Florus [procurator ca. 64-66 CE] put a stop to their violence and the Judean notables, with John the tax-collector, had no other option, the Judeans offered Florus eight talents of silver to stop the work. Florus, with his eye only on the money, promised them every assistance. However, after receiving his pay, he immediately left Caesarea for Sebaste, leaving an open field for sedition, as though he had sold the Judeans a licence to fight the matter out.

On the following day, which was a sabbath, when the Judeans assembled at the synagogue, they found that one of the Caesarean mischief-makers had placed beside the entrance a pot that was turned upside down and he was sacrificing birds on top of it. This spectacle of what they considered an outrage upon their laws and a desecration of the spot enraged the Judeans beyond endurance. The steady-going and peaceable members of the congregation were in favour of immediate recourse to the authorities. But the factious people and the passionate youths were burning for a fight. The Caesarean party, on their side, stood prepared for action because they had, by a careful plan, sent the man to do this mock sacrifice. So the two groups soon came to violence. Jucundus, the cavalry commander commissioned to intervene, came up, removed the pot, and tried to quell the riot. But he was unable to cope with the violence of the Caesareans. At this point the Judeans snatched up their copy of the law and withdrew to Narbata, a Judean district sixty furlongs away from Caesarea. Their leading men, twelve in number, with John at their head, waited for Florus at Sebaste. They bitterly complained about these occurences and asked for his assistance, delicately reminding him of the matter of the eight talents [they had previously paid]. Florus actually had them arrested and put in irons on the charge of having carried off the copy of the law from Caesarea.


(2.457-468) The same day and at the same hour [as a massacre of a Roman garrison], as it were by the spirit of Providence, the inhabitants of Caesarea massacred the Judeans who resided in their city. Within one hour more than twenty thousand were slaughtered, and Caesarea was completely emptied of Judeans because the fugitives were arrested by orders of Florus [Roman prefect from 64-66 CE] and conducted, in chains, to the dockyards.

[Judean retaliations in various villages and cities]

The news of the disaster at Caesarea infuriated the whole people (ethnos) and groups of Judeans sacked the Syrian villages and the neighbouring cities, Philadelphia, Heshbon and its district, Gerasa, Pella, and Scythopolis. Next they fell upon Gadara, Hippos, and Gaulanitis, destroying or setting fire to all in their path, and advanced to Kedasa, a Tyrian village, Ptolemais, Gaba, and Caesarea. Neither Sebaste nor Ascalon withstood their fury. They burned these places to the ground and then destroyed Anthedon and Gaza. In the vicinity of each of these cities many villages were pillaged and immense numbers of the inhabitants captured and slaughtered.

[Non-Judean Judaizers remain]

The Syrians on their side killed at least a number of Judeans. They also slaughtered those whom they caught in the towns, not merely now from hatred, as before, but to forestall the danger which menaced themselves. The whole of Syria was a scene of frightful disorder. Every city was divided into two camps, and the safety of one party lay in their anticipating the other. They passed their days in blood, their nights, yet more dreadful, in terror. This was because, even though they believed that they had rid themselves of the Judeans, each city still had its Judaizers [i.e. inhabitants who adopted Judean customs] who aroused suspicion. While they shrunk from killing offhand this equivocal element of Judaizers among them, they feared these neutrals as much as they feared actual foreigners.

Even those who had long been reputed the very mildest of men were instigated by avarice to murder their adversaries. For without consequence they would then plunder the property of their victims and transfer to their own homes, as from a battle-field, the spoils of those killed. The one who gained the most covered himself with glory as the most successful murderer. One saw cities choked with unburied corpses, dead bodies of old men and infants exposed side by side, poor women stripped of the last covering of modesty, the whole province full of indescribable horrors. and even worse than the tale of atrocities committed was the suspense caused by the menace of evils in store.

[Tensions at Scythopolis in the Decapolis]

So far the Judeans had been faced with foreigners only. But when they invaded Scythopolis they found their own people in arms against them, because the Judeans in this district placed themselves on the side of the Scythopolitans. Considering their own security more important than the ties of blood, they met the members of their own tribe (homophyloi) in battle. However, this excess of enthusiasm brought them under suspicion. The people of Scythopolis feared that the Judeans might attack the city by night and inflict upon them some grave disaster, in order to make amends to their brothers for their defection. They, therefore, ordered them if they wished to confirm their allegiance and demonstrate their fidelity to their foreign allies, to go with their families to the adjoining grove. The Judeans obeyed these orders, suspecting nothing. For two days the Scythopolitans made no move, in order to lull them into security. But on the third night, watching their opportunity when some were off their guard and others were asleep, they slaughtered them all to a number more than thirteen thousand and pillaged all their possessions. . . [material omitted].


[Tensions and mistreatment at various other towns, still set in 66 CE]

(2.477-483) As a sequel to the massacre at Scythopolis, the other cities rose against the Judeans in their respective territories. The inhabitants of Ascalon killed two thousand five hundred, those of Ptolemais two thousand, as well as putting multitudes in chains. The Tyrians dispatched a considerable number, but imprisoned the majority in chains. Similarly the people of Hippos and Gadara made away with the more daring of their enemies and kept the timid people in custody. This was the case with the remaining cities of Syria, with the action of each being governed by their feelings of hatred or by fear of their Judean neighbours.

[Exceptions to mistreatment of Judeans]

Only Antioch, Sidon and Apameia spared the residents and refused either to kill or to imprison a single Judean. With their own vast populations, perhaps these cities disdained the possibility of Judean risings. Yet what mainly influenced them, in my opinion, was their pity for men who showed no revolutionary intentions. The people of Gerasa not only abstained from mistreating the Judeans who remained with them, but escorted to the frontiers any who chose to emigrate.

[Situation in Agrippa II’s territory]

Even within Agrippa’s [Agrippa II, client king of Batanea, Trachonitis and Gaulonitis] dominion a plot was formed against certain Judeans. The king himself had gone to visit Cestius Gallus at Antioch, leaving in charge of the government one of his friends named Noaros, a relative of king Soaimos [of Emesa]. At this juncture there arrived from Batanaea a deputation of seventy persons, pre-eminent among their fellow-citizens by birth and ability, to ask for a body of troops. This was done so that, in the event of trouble arising in their district, they would be in position to repress the insurgents. Noaros sent out by night some of the king’s heavy infantry and massacred the whole deputation. This outrageous action he took without consulting Agrippa. Unbounded greed led him to deliberately and impiously murder members of his own tribe in this way, and to the great injury of the kingdom. He continued this brutal maltreatment of the people until Agrippa, being informed of his conduct, but withheld by respect for Soaimos from putting him to death, deposed him from his kingship. . . [sentences omitted].

[Tensions at Alexandria in Egypt and supposed previous grants of equal status with Greeks and designation as “Macedonians”]

(2.487-498) At Alexandria there had been never-ending strife between the native inhabitants and the Judean inhabitants ever since the time of Alexander. Since Alexander had received from the Judeans very active support against the Egyptians, he granted them permission to reside in the city on terms of equality with the Greeks as a reward for their assistance. This privilege was confirmed by his successors, who assigned them a quarter of their own in order that, through mixing less with foreigners, they might be free to observe their rules more strictly. The Judeans were also permitted to take the title of “Macedonians.” Again, when the Romans took possession of Egypt, neither the first Caesar nor any of his successors would consent to any diminution of the honours conferred on the Judeans since the time of Alexander.

However, the Judeans were continually coming into collision with the Greeks, and the numerous punishments daily inflicted on the rioters of both parties by the authorities only served to embitter the quarrel. But now that disorder had become universal, the riots at Alexandria broke out more furiously than ever. On one occasion, when the Alexandrians were holding a public meeting on the subject of an embassy which they proposed to send to Nero, a large number of Judeans flocked into the amphitheatre along with the Greeks. The instant their adversaries caught sight of them, the adversaries raised shouts of “enemies” and “spies,” and then rushed forward to grab them. The majority of the Judeans ran away and scattered, but three of them were caught by the Alexandrians and dragged off to be burned alive.

At that point, the entire Judean inhabitants rose to the rescue. First they hurled stones at the Greeks, and then grabbing torches rushed to the amphitheatre, threatening to consume every last one of the assembled citizens in the flames. And this they would actually have done, had not Tiberius Alexander, the governor of the city, curbed their fury. First he attempted to recall them to reason without recourse to arms, quietly sending the principal citizens to them and asking them to desist and not to provoke the Roman army to take action. But the rioters only ridiculed this exhortation and used abusive language against Tiberius.

Understanding at that point that nothing but the infliction of a severe lesson would quell the rebels, Tiberius Alexander sent two Roman legions stationed in the city against them, as well as two thousand soldiers, who by chance had just arrived from Libya. This completed the destruction of the Judeans. Permission was given not merely to kill the rioters but to plunder their property and burn down their houses. The troops then rushed to the quarter of the city called “Delta,” where the Judeans were concentrated and followed through on their orders, but not without bloodshed on their own side. Closing their ranks and putting the best armed among their number in the front, the Judeans offered a prolonged resistance.

But once they gave way, wholesale carnage ensued. Death in every form was theirs. Some were caught in the plain, others driven into their houses, to which the Romans set fire after stripping them of their contents. There was no pity for infancy, no respect for years. People of all ages fell before their murderous activity, until the whole district was flooded with blood. The heaps of corpses numbered fifty thousand. Even the remnant would not have escaped, had they not petitioned for quarter. Alexander, now moved to compassion, ordered the Romans to retire. They, broken to obedience, ceased massacring at the first signal. But the Alexandrian populace in the intensity of their hate were not so easily called off and were with difficulty torn away from the corpses.


Source of the translation: H.S.J. Thackeray and R. Marcus, Josephus, volumes 1-7; LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926-43), public domain (Thackeray passed away in 1930, Marcus passed away in 1956, and copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.

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