Judeans: Trogus on contributions of Joseph and Moses and on the exodus (first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans: Trogus on contributions of Joseph and Moses and on the exodus (first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 20, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9281.

Ancient authors: Pompeius Trogus as cited by Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 36.1-3 (link; link to Latin).

Comments: We know very little about Pompeius Trogus (first century BCE) beyond what his abbreviator (Justin) summarizes at the end of book 43: Trogus was a Gaul (or Celt) of the Vocontian tribe whose grandfather had been granted Roman citizenship and whose father served under Gaius Caesar. So Trogus would be a “barbarian” from the perspective of some, even if a Roman citizen. Trogus’ work only survives in abbreviated form thanks to Justin, about whom we know even less.

Justin’s summary of Trogus’ description of incidents in the time of Antiochos VII has Trogus relaying some scattered information that he vaguely understands about both the origins of the Judean people (he thinks they were centred on Damaskos); about the climate and produce of the region; and perhaps most relevant for this site, about the contributions to civilization of early leaders, including Joseph, Moses and Aaron (if that’s who Arruas is). Trogus’ (and Justin’s) positive spin on the contribution of leaders of the past and lack of stereotyping Judeans or Judean customs is notable.  Trogus’ version of an exodus-like story (for other alternate versions go to this link) has Moses leading the people for seven days before settling back in Damaskos. Trogus would not be alone in being an outsider who would not clearly distinguish between “Syrians” (with whom Damaskos belongs) and “Judeans,” with the latter sometimes considered a subset of the former.

Source of the translation: J.S. Watson, Justin, Cornelius Nepos, and Eutropius (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853), public domain, thoroughly adapted by Harland.


[Context of Antiochos’ subjugation of Judeans]

(36.1-3) . . . Then Antiochos [VII, reigned ca. 138-129 BCE], remembering that his father had been hated for his pride and his brother despised for his laziness, was anxious not to fall into the same vices. After marrying Kleopatra, his brother’s wife, Antiochos proceeded to make war with the utmost vigour on the cities that had revolted at the beginning of his brother’s government. After subduing them, he reunited them into his kingdom. (10) He also reduced the Judeans, who had recovered freedom by armed resistance during the Macedonian rule under his father, Demetrios [I, reigned ca. 162-150 BCE]. The Judeans’ power was such that they would not submit to any Macedonian king afterwards, but were commanded by rulers of their own people and they harassed Syria with major wars.

[Origin of the Judean people]

The origin of the Judeans was from Damaskos, the most illustrious city of Syria, from where the line of Assyrian kings through queen Semiramis had also sprung. The name of the city was given by king Damaskos, in honour of whom the Syrians consecrated the tomb of his wife Arathis as a temple. Since that, they regard her as a goddess worthy of the most sacred worship. After Damaskos, Azelos, and then Adores, Abraham, and Israel were their kings. But Israel became more famous than any of his ancestors because he was fortunate to have ten sons. Having divided his people into ten kingdoms as a consequence, he committed the kingdoms to his sons and called them all “Judeans” after Judah. Judah died soon after this division and ordered his memory, whose portion was added to theirs, to be held in veneration by them all.

[Contributions of Joseph to civilization in Egypt]

The youngest of the brothers was Joseph, whom the others, fearing his extraordinary abilities, secretly made prisoner and sold to some foreign merchants. Being carried by them into Egypt, he made himself master of magical skills there by his intelligence and he found great favour with the king in a short amount of time. Joseph was eminently skilled in interpreting omens and was the first to establish the interpretation of dreams. In fact, nothing about divine or human law seemed unknown to him. The result is that that he predicted barrenness in the land several years before it happened, and all Egypt would have perished by famine had not the king, by his advice, ordered the grain to be stored for several years. Such evidence of his knowledge made it seem his predictions proceeded from a god rather than man.

[Contributions of Moses and Arruas]

Along with inheriting his father’s knowledge, his son Moses had good looks to recommend him.  But the Egyptians, being troubled with mange and leprosy and warned by an oracle, expelled out of Egypt Moses with those who had the disease so that the disease would not spread widely.

Accordingly, becoming leader of the exiles, Moses carried away by stealth the sacred utensils of the Egyptians. Trying to recover them by armed force, the Egyptians were compelled by storms to return home. Thus Moses, having reached Damaskos, his ancestral home, took possession of mount Sinai. After suffering together with his followers for seven days of fasting in the deserts of Arabia, he arrived there and consecrated the seventh day. This day used to be called “Sabbath” by the custom of the people as a fast-day, because that day had ended their hunger and their wanderings. Since they remembered that they had been driven out of Egypt because of a fear of spreading infection, they took care to have no interactions with strangers. This was so that they would not become disliked by their neighbours for the same reason [i.e. diseases]. This is a rule which, from having been adopted on that particular occasion, gradually became an obligation (religio).  After Moses, his son Arruas [Aaron (?)], was made priest to supervise the Egyptian rites, and soon after became king. Ever since it was a custom among the Judeans to have the same persons both for kings and priests and, by combining their justice with a sense of sacred obligation, it is almost unbelievable how powerful they became.

[Judeans’ produce and income]

The wealth of this descent group (gens) was increased by the income from balsam, which is produced only in that country. There is a valley encircled with an unbroken ridge of hills (as if it were a wall in the form of a camp), and the space enclosed was about two hundred iugera and called Aricus. In this valley there is a wood remarkable both for its fertility and pleasantness and the valley is chequered with groves of palm and balsam-trees. The balsam-trees resemble pitch-trees in shape, except that they are lower and are dressed after the manner of vines, and at a certain season of the year they exude the balsam. But the place is no less admired for its sunshine than for its fertility. The sun in the whole region is the hottest in the world. There is, owing to the breath of tepid air, a constant and natural shadiness. In that country is a huge lake, which, from its magnitude and the stillness of its waters, is called the Dead Sea. It is also not blown by the winds because the bitumen, which makes all the water stagnant, resists whirlwinds. Nor does it allow navigation, for all inanimate substances sink to the bottom. Nothing floats in it unless it is encrusted with alum.

[Imperial powers that subjugated Judeans]

The first who conquered the Judeans was Xerxes, king of Persia. Thereafter they fell, with the Persians themselves, under the power of Alexander the Great, and they were then subject to Macedonian domination under the kingdom of Syria for a long time. On revolting from Demetrios and soliciting the favour of the Romans, they were the first of all the eastern peoples that regained their independance, the Romans then readily granting what was not their own.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *