Idumeans: Josephos on the Edomites’ origins and relations with Judeans (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Idumeans: Josephos on the Edomites’ origins and relations with Judeans (late first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 7, 2023,

Ancient author: Josephos, Judean Antiquities, Against Apion, and Judean War, various passages identified below (link).

Comments: In contrast to Josephos’ consistently negative portrayal of Chutheans or Samaritans to the north of Jerusalem (Josephos’ home-town), his characterization of Idumeans (or: Idumaeans) to the south may best be described as ambivalent. On the one hand, building on his main origin story with Jacob and Esau, various narratives (some building on biblical accounts) emphasize the close relationship and common descent (syggeneis) shared by both Idumeans (or Edomites as descendants of Esau) and Judeans / Jews (as descendents of Jacob, Esau’s brother). Frequently, either Josephos or characters in his stories refer to this close relationship and membership in a common kin-group (including characters like the high priests and the Idumeans themselves in a crucial moment leading to all out war). This goes along with a somewhat neutral or even positive portrayal of this people at many points. It is important to notice that Josephos will never admit such kinship between Samaritans and Judeans, by the way (even though Samaritan characters will do so emphatically at times).

On the other hand, Idumeans are presented as quite out of control, unpredictable, rebellious, and even thoroughly blood-stained and savage, particularly though not solely in connection with their role in supporting the struggle against the Romans in the Roman-Judean war (66-70 CE, or 73 CE for some hold-outs). In fact, when Josephos enumerates who was most to blame for horrendous behaviours leading to Roman intervention and ultimately the destruction of the temple, the Idumeans were worse than sicarii (dagger-men) and only a little less bad than the “wicked” people that Josephos calls “zealots” or “enthusiasts” or “emulators” (zēlōtai, i.e. emulators of the worst and most violent behaviours), and sometimes “bandits.”

But, as you will see in reading the narratives collected here (including those from Judean Antiquities), Josephos engages in negative characterizations or stereotyping of Idumeans in connection with various other incidents are well.  For instance, when Josephos draws on the biblical account of Solomon’s abhorent “foreign” marriages, Idumean women are included in this category (despite other references to common kinship). While Hyrkanos I successfully has the Idumeans adopt (or renew) Judean ancestral customs among the Idumeans, the Idumean king Qostobaros reverses any advances on this front and heads in the other direction. The Roman client king Herod, who is characterized as half-Judean and half-Idumean, is also guilty of leading himself and others away from Judean ancestral customs, according to Josephos.

Josephos’ narratives about Idumeans constitute the most substantial material we have for characterizations of this people in the Hellenistic and Roman eras, so it is worthwhile collecting together as many of their appearances in his stories as we can find.  The historian Ptolemy’s work on Herod has not survived, except for brief citations by others. But one such citation does briefly deal with the difference between Judeans and Idumeans in connection with Hyrkanos’ subjection (link). Beyond that, we are fortunate to gain momentary glimpses into Idumean groups living abroad in Egypt from epigraphic and papyrological evidence, on which go to this link.

Works consulted: Aryeh Kasher, Jews, Idumaeans, and Ancient Arabs (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1988); Michał Marciak, “Idumea and the Idumeans in Josephus’ Story of Hellenistic-Early Roman Palestine (‘Ant.’ XII-XX),” Aevum 91 (2017): 171–93 (link).

This post is part of the Biblical peoples redux series:

  • Descendents of Noah’s sons Shem, Japheth and Ham in Josephos and Pseudo-Philo (link)
  • Ishmaelites (Arabians) in Jubilees, Molon and Josephos (link)
  • Edomites (Idumeans) in Josephos (link)
  • Amalekites in Josephos and Philo (link)
  • Canaanites (Phoenicians) in Jubilees (link) and in Wisdom of Solomon (link)
  • Kushites (Ethiopians) in Artapanos, Josephos and others (link)
  • Midianites and Moabites (Arabians) in Philo and Josephos (link)
  • Chutheans or Samaritans in Josephos (link) and in biographies of Jesus / gospels (link)

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.


Judean Antiquities

[Origins of Edom / Idumea / Idumeans and Amalekites]

(2.1-6) After the death of Isaac, his sons divided the territory between them without retaining what they had inherited [drawing on Genesis 36:6]. Esau, for his part, left the city of Hebron to his brother and, establishing his home at Seir (Saeira), ruled over Idumea (or: Idumaea), naming the country after himself. For Esau also bore the nickname Edom (Adom), which he had obtained under the following circumstances: one day, while Esau was a boy, he was returning from hunting tired and starving. Esau encountered his brother Jacob who had just prepared for his lunch a rich dish of lentils with a reddish colour, which made Esau even more hungry, so Esau asked him to give him some [Genesis 25:27-29]. At that point, Jacob took advantage of Esau’s hunger and required his brother to sell to him his rights as firstborn son in exchange for the food. Instigated by hunger, Esau handed over his rights under an oath. And so, because of the reddish colour of the stew, Esau was jokingly nicknamed by his youthful comrades “Edom,” as adoma is the Hebrews’ word for “red.” And that was how he named the country [Genesis 25:30]. The more dignified sounding name of “Idumea” comes from the Greeks.

(2) Esau became the father of five children. Among these, Jeush (Iaous), Jalam (Iolamos) and Korah (Koreos) came from one wife named Oholibamah (Alibame) [Genesis 36:11]. Regarding the others, Eliphaz (Aliphaze) was born from Adah (Adasa) and Reuel (Rauelos) from Basemath (Basamathe). Those were the sons of Esau. Eliphaz had five legitimate sons: Teman (Themanos), Omar (Omeros), Zepho (Sophous), Gatam (Jothamos), Kenaz (Kanazos). Amalek (Amelikos) was a bastard born to him by a concubine named Timna (Thamnae). These occupied the region of Idumea termed Gobolitis and that called, after Amalek, Amalekitis [i.e. the territory of the Amelikites]. Idumea, formerly extensive, has kept that name for the whole country and in its several provinces preserved the names that were derived from their founders.


[Confrontation between the armies of Moses and the king of Idumea avoided]

(4.76-77) When Moses had drawn up these regulations [concerning the priests] after the sedition [led by Korah], he set out with his whole army and came to the frontiers of Idumea. Then, sending passage envoys to the king of the Idumeans, he requested him to grant him passage. Moses promised to give whatever guarantees the king might want to ensure himself against injury, asking him to open a market for his army and even undertaking to pay a price for water should he order them to do so [Numbers 20:14]. But the king was not pleased with this message of Moses, refused him passage, and led his armed troops against Moses in order to check these people if they tried to cross his territory by force. Since upon his inquiry God did not counsel him to open battle, Moses withdrew his forces to pursue a circuitous route through the desert.


[Tribe of Judah alloted territory of Idumea by Joshua after the careful measurement of the land]

(5.80-82) Then Joshua, taking Eleazar, the council of elders and the tribal leaders with him, distributed all the land [of Canaan] between the nine tribes and the half-tribe of Manasseh, making his measurements proportional to the population of each tribe [Joshua 15:1; 18:10-11]. After he had cast lots, the tribe of Judah obtained for its lot the whole of upper Idumea, extending in length to Jerusalem and in width reaching down to the lake of Sodom [Dead Sea]. Within this allotment were the cities of Askalon and Gaza. The tribe of Simeon, being the second, obtained the portion of Idumea bordering on Egypt and Arabia. The Benjamites obtained the region which in length stretches from the river Jordan to the sea and in width is bounded by Jerusalem and Bethel. This lot was the narrowest of all by reason of the excellence of the soil, for Jericho and the city of the Jerusalemites fell to their portion.


[Saul conquers the Idumeans along with other peoples]

(6.129) So Saul returned to his own city after destroying some sixty thousand of the enemy [1 Samuel 14:46]. He then reigned happily and, having made war on the neighbouring peoples, subdued those of the Ammanites and Moabites, besides Philistines, Idumeans, Amalekites, and the king of Soba.


[David conquers and collects tribute from Idumeans]

(7.109) Now it was not only when David himself fought and led the army that God granted him victory and success. Even when he sent Abishai, the brother of Joab the commander-in-chief, with a force into Idumea, through Abishai God gave David victory over the Idumeans. Abishai killed eighteen thousand in battle [2 Samuel 8:14; 1 Chronicles 18:12]. The king then occupied the whole of Idumea with garrisons and collected tribute both from the country (as a whole) and from the separate individuals there.


[Idumeans included in negative evaluation of Solomon’s foreign marriages]

(8.190-194) Now Solomon had been the most illustrious of all kings and most beloved by God, and in understanding and wealth surpassed those who had ruled over the Hebrews before him. However, he did not continue in this way until his death, but he abandoned the observance of the ancestral customs and came to an end not at all like what we have already said about him. He became crazed for women and indulged in lust in an uncontrolled way. Not satisfied with women from his own country only, he married many women from foreign peoples as well, including Sidonians, Tyrians, Ammanites and Idumeans, thereby transgressing the laws of Moses who forbade marriage with persons not of the same tribe (homophyloi). Solomon also began to worship their gods to gratify his wives and his passion for them, which is the very thing the lawgiver planned for when he warned the Hebrews against marrying women of other countries (allotrioxōroi) in case they became involved in foreign customs and fell away from ancestral customs by worshipping the gods of foreign women while neglecting to honour their own God [cf. 1 Kings 11:1]. But Solomon, carried away by thoughtless pleasure, disregarded these warnings and took as wives seven hundred women, the daughters of princes and nobles, and three hundred concubines, and beside these the daughter of the king of Egypt. Very soon he was prevailed upon to imitate their ways and was forced to give a sign of his favour and affection for them by living in accordance with their ancestral customs.


[Josaphat king of Judah forces the Idumean king into an alliance with Jehoram king of the Israelites]

(9.29-44) When Jehoram (Joram) took over the throne [as king of the Israelites of the north], he decided to march against the Moabite king named Mesha (Meisa) [drawing on 2 Kings 3]. As we have said before, Mesha had revolted from Jehoram’s brother after paying tribute to his father Ahab (Achab) [king of the Israelites] amounting to two hundred thousand sheep with their wool. And so, collecting his own force, he sent to Josaphat [king of Judah], asking him, since he had from the first been his father’s friend, to be his ally in the war which he was about to wage against the Moabites who had revolted from his rule. Then Josaphat not only promised to assist him but also to force the Idumean king, who was under his authority, to join in the campaign. And Jehoram, after receiving such assurances of assistance from Josaphat, took his army and came to Jerusalem and was splendidly entertained by the king of Jerusalem. It was then decided by them to make their advance upon the enemy through the wilderness of Idumea, for these would not expect them to attack by this road. . . [remainder omitted].


[Idumeans’ revolt against Jehoram king of Jerusalem]

(9.95-98) But Jehoram, the king of Jerusalem (he bore this same name [as a northern king of the Israelites], as we stated earlier) no sooner came into power than he proceeded to slay his brothers and his fathers’ friends who were also leaders, making this the beginning and the outward sign of his wickedness [drawing on 2 Kings 8; 2 Chronicles 21]. He in no way differed from the kings of the people who first transgressed against the ancient customs of the Hebrews and the worship of God. The one who taught him to do wrong in so many ways, and especially in worshipping foreign gods, was Ahab’s (Achab’s) daughter Athaliah (Othlia), who was married to him. Because of his covenant with David, God did not want to utterly destroy the line of descent, although Jehoram did not let a day go by without devising some new form of impiety and violation of his country’s traditions. About that time the Idumeans revolted from Jehoram and, after killing their former king who had been submissive to Jehoram’s father, they set up a king of their own choosing. With his own body of horsemen and chariots, Jehoram then invaded Idumea by night and destroyed those people who were near the borders of his kingdom, but did not proceed further. By this act, however, he gained nothing at all, for they all revolted from him, including those who inhabited the region called Labina. He was so far out of his mind that he forced the people to go up to the highest parts of the mountains and worship strange gods.


[Judas Maccabeus attacks the Idumeans along with other surrounding peoples]

(12.327-331) When these things had been done in this way, the surrounding peoples (ethnē), who resented the reviving of the strength of the Judeans, banded together against the Judeans and destroyed many of them, whom they had got into their power through ambushes and plots [cf. 1 Maccabees 5]. Against these enemies Judas waged continuous war in an attempt to check their inroads and the trouble they were causing for the Judeans. Attacking the Idumeans, the descendants of Esau, at Akrabatene, he killed many of them and took their valuables. He also surrounded the descendents of the Baanes, who were ambushing the Judeans. After besieging them closely, Judas burned their towers and destroyed their men. Then he set out from there against the Ammanites, who had a great and numerous force, which was led by Timotheus. And when he had subdued them also, he took the city of Jazora, and after taking captive their wives and children, and burning the city, he returned to Judea.

At that point, the neighbouring peoples, on learning that he had returned, gathered together in Gilead (Galaaditis) against the Judeans who were in their borders. But these Judeans fled to the fortress of Dathema and sent to Judas, informing him that Timotheus was making an effort to seize the place in which they had taken refuge. While these letters were being read, there came messengers from Galilee also, announcing that a force had been raised against him by those in Ptolemais, Tyre and Sidon and the other peoples of Galilee. . . [sections omitted].

(12.353) Meanwhile Judas and his brothers were warring on the Idumeans non-stop, and pressed them closely on all side. After taking the city of Hebron, they destroyed all its fortifications and burned its towers. They also ravaged the foreign territory, including the city of Marisa, and coming to Azotos, they took this city and destroyed it. Then they returned to Judea, carrying much spoil and plunder.


[John Hyrkanos I, the circumcising of Idumeans, and identification as “Judeans”]

(13.254-258) As soon as he heard about the death of Antiochos [actually Demetrios II, died ca. 125 BCE], Hyrkanos I [or: Hyrkanos, high priest ca. 135-104 BCE] marched out against the cities of Syria, thinking he would find them empty of fighting men and of anyone able to deliver them, as in fact was the case. And he captured Medaba [old Moabite city under Nabatean control, now in Jordan] after six months, during which his army suffered great hardships. Next he captured Samoga and its environs and, in addition to these, Shechem, Gerizim and the Cuthean people. That people lives near the temple built after the model of the sanctuary at Jerusalem, which Alexander permitted their governor Sanballat to build for the sake of his son-in-law Manasseh, the brother of the high priest Jaddua. as we have related before [link to Antiquities 11.322-324]. Now it was two hundred years later that this temple was destroyed.

Hyrkanos also captured the Idumean cities of Adora and Marisa, and after subduing all the Idumeans, permitted them to remain in their country so long as they had themselves circumcised and were willing to observe the laws of the Judeans. So, out of attachment to the land of their ancestors, the Idumeans submitted to circumcision and to making their manner of life conform in all other respects to that of the Judeans. And from that time on they have continued to be Judeans.


[Antipas and Antipater (family of Herod) as Idumean]


But there was a certain friend of Hyrkanos [II, reigned ca. 67-66 BCE], an Idumean called Antipater. Having a large fortune and being by nature a man of action and a trouble-maker, he was unfriendly to Aristoboulos and quarrelled with him because of his friendliness toward Hyrkanos. Nikolaos of Damascus actually says that his family belonged to the leading Judeans who came to Judea from Babylon. But he says this in order to please Antipater’s son Herod, who became king of the Judeans by a certain turn of fortune, as we shall relate in the proper place. This Antipater, it seems, was first called Antipas. Antipas was also the name of his father, whom king Alexander [Jannaeus] and his wife appointed governor of the whole of Idumea. They say that he made friends with the neighbouring Arabians, Gazaians, and Askalonians, and completely won them over by many large gifts. . . [sections omitted].

(14.120-122) He [Cassius] also killed Peitholaos, who had continued the revolt led by Aristoboulos. He did this at the instigation of Antipater, who at that time had great influence with him, and was then held in the greatest esteem by the Idumeans also, from among whom he took a wife of a distinguished Arabian family, named Kypros. He had four sons with her, Phasael, Herod, who later became king, Joseph and Pheroras, and one daughter, Salome. This Antipater had formed relations of friendship and hospitality with other princes, especially with the king of the Arabians, the same to whom he had entrusted his children when making war on Aristoboulos.


[Herod as half Idumean and question of legitimacy of potential kingship]

(14.402-405) [During the siege of Antigonos in Jerusalem]. But Herod gave orders that his men should first make a proclamation before the wall that he had come for the good of the citizens and the welfare of the city, bearing no grudge even against those who were openly his foes. On the contrary, he was ready to forget the offences which his most determined adversaries had committed against him. But Antigonos’ answer to Herod’s proclamation told Silo and the Roman army that it would be contrary to their own notion of right if they gave the kingship to Herod who was a commoner and an Idumean, that is, a half-Judean, when they ought to offer it to those who were of the (royal) family, as was their custom. And, he argued, if they were now ill disposed toward him and were determined to deprive him of the kingship on the ground that he had received it from the Parthians, there were at least many of his family who might lawfully receive the kingship, for they had committed no offence against the Romans, and were priests. Thus they would be unworthily treated if they were deprived of this rank.


[Qostobaros the Idumean diverts from Judean customs and allegiance to Herod]

(15.253-267) Qostobaros (Kostobaros) was of Idumean descent (genos) and was one of those first in rank among them. His ancestors had been priests of Qos (Koze), whom the Idumeans believe to be a god. Now Hyrkanos [I] had altered their way of life and made them adopt the custom and laws of the Judeans. When Herod took over royal power, he appointed Qostobaros governor of Idumea and Gaza, and gave him his sister Salome in marriage, after putting to death Joseph, her former husband, as we have related.

Now Qostobaros gladly received these favours, which were more than he had expected. In his happiness over his good luck he gradually went beyond all bounds. For he did not think that it was proper for him to follow the orders of Herod, who was his ruler, or for the Idumeans to adopt the customs of the Judeans and be subject to them. And so he sent to [the Egyptian queen] Kleopatra [VII], saying that Idumea had always belonged to her ancestors and for that reason it was right that she should ask Mark Antony for this territory. Qostobaros himself said that he was ready to transfer his loyalty to her. He did this not because he was especially pleased to be under Kleopatra’s rule but because he thought that, if Herod were deprived of the greater part of his power, it would be a simple matter for him to become ruler of the Idumean descent group (genos) and to achieve greater things. He also put no limits on his hopes, having good reason for this both in his line of descent and in the wealth which he had acquired through continual and shameless profit-seeking. This was no small matter that he had in mind. Kleopatra, therefore, asked Antony for this territory, but she was refused. And when these things were reported to Herod, he was ready to kill Qostobaros. However, at the request of his sister and mother, Herod let him go and granted him a pardon. But from that time on he always regarded him as suspect because of what he had attempted.

Some time afterwards Salome had occasion to quarrel with Qostobaros and soon sent him a document dissolving their marriage, which was not in accordance with Judean law. . . [sentences omitted]. For, she said, she had learned that her husband – together with Antipater, Lysimachos and Dositheos – was planning to revolt. As proof of her charges she cited the fact that the sons of Baba had been kept safe by Qostobaros for a period of twelve years now, as was really the case. . . [sentences omitted]. . . . Now when Herod was in control of things after the capture of the city [from Antigonos], Qostobarus was appointed to block the exits and guard the city in order to prevent the escape of those citizens who were in debt or were in opposition to the king [Herod]. Since Qostobaros knew that the sons of Baba were respected and honoured by all the people, and he believed that by saving them he would have an important part in any change of government, he removed them from danger and hid them on his own estate. At the same time he assured Herod on oath – for a suspicion of the truth had entered king Herod’s mind – that he knew absolutely nothing about these men, and so he disposed of Herod’s suspicions. Even when Herod the king later proclaimed a reward for information about them and devised every kind of inquiry, Qostobaros did not admit what he had done because he was convinced that having first denied knowledge of the sons of Baba he would be punished if they were caught. So Qostobaros was bound to keep them concealed not by loyalty to them but also by necessity. When Herod the king was informed of these things by his sister, he sent his men to the place where they were reported to be staying and had them kill both these men and those who were accused with them. The result was that no one was left alive among the family of Hyrkanos, and the kingdom was completely in Herod’s power, there being no one of high rank to stand in the way of his unlawful acts. . . . For this reason Herod went still farther in departing from ancestral customs. Through foreign practices he gradually corrupted the ancient way of life through foreign practices. . . [sections omitted].


Against Apion

[Mnaseas’ story about Zabidos the Idumean]

(2.112-124) This model of piety, Apion, derides us again in a story which he attributes to Mnaseas. The latter, according to Apion, relates that:

“In the course of a long war between the Judeans and the Idumeans, an inhabitant of an Idumean city, called Dorii, who worshipped Apollo [i.e. Qos] and bore (so we are told) the name of Zabidos, came out to the Judeans and promised to deliver into their hands Apollo, the god of his city, who would visit our temple if they all took their departure. The Judeans all believed him. Then Zabidos constructed an apparatus of wood, inserted in it three rows of lamps, and put it over his person. Arrayed in this way, he walked around, presenting the appearance to distant onlookers of stars perambulating the earth. Astounded at this amazing spectacle, the Judeans kept their distance, in perfect silence. Meanwhile, Zabidos stealthily passed into the sanctuary, snatched up the golden head of the pack-ass (as he facetiously calls it), and took off quickly to Dora.”

May we not, on our side, suggest that Apion is overloading the pack-ass, that is to say himself, with a crushing pack of nonsense and lies? He writes of places which do not exist, and shifts the position on the map of cities of which he knows nothing. Idumea, in the latitude of Gaza, is conterminous with our territory. It has no city called Dora. There is a town of that name in Phoenicia, near Mount Carmel, but that has nothing in common with Apion’s ridiculous story, being at a distance of four days’ march from Idumea. Furthermore, how can he continue to accuse us of not having the same gods as the rest of the world, if our ancestors were so easily induced to believe that Apollo would visit them, and imagined that they saw him walking with a train of stars upon the earth? Obviously they had never before seen a lamp, these people whose festivals are such a blaze of illumination! Not one of all those tens of thousands encountered him as he paraded the land! He found the walls unguarded in wartime! I refrain from further comment, merely remarking that the gates of the sanctuary were sixty cubits high and twenty broad, all gilded and almost entirely covered with plates of wrought gold. It took no fewer than 200 men to close them every day, and it was forbidden to leave them open. Our lampcarrier, I presume, had no difficulty in opening them by himself and making off with the pack-ass’s head. But did he return it to us, or was it Apion who recovered and reinstated it in the temple for Antiochos to find, in order to provide him with a second good story?

Then he attributes to us an imaginary oath, and would have it appear that we swear by the God who made heaven and earth and sea to show no goodwill to a single alien, above all to Greeks. Having once started false accusations, he should have said, “show no goodwill to a single alien, above all to Egyptians.” For then this reference to the oath would have been in keeping with his original fiction, if, as we are given to understand, the cause of the expulsion of our ancestors by their Egyptian “kinsmen” was not their malice, but their misfortunes. From the Greeks we are severed more by our geographical position than by our institutions, with the result that we neither hate nor envy them. On the contrary, many of them have agreed to adopt our laws, of whom some have remained faithful, while others, lacking the necessary endurance, have again seceded. Of these not one has ever said that he had heard the oath in question pronounced by any of us. Apion is apparently the only man who has heard it, for the good reason that he invented it.


Judean War

(4.224-335) Such was the embroidered tale John [of Gischala] told to create a general scare. What “external aid” meant he did not venture to say outright, but was hinting at the Idumeans. But in order to incense the personal feelings of the zealots’ [literally: ’emulators’] leaders as well, he accused Ananos [high priest in control of the outer court of the temple] of brutality, asserting that his special threats were directed at them. These zealot leaders were Eleazar son of Gion, the most influential man of the group, from his ability both in conceiving appropriate measures and in carrying them into effect, and a certain Zacharias son of Amphikalleus, both being of priestly descent. They, on hearing first the menaces against the whole group and then those specially levelled at themselves and, moreover, how Ananos and his friends were summoning the Romans in order to secure supreme power for themselves – this was another of John’s accusations – were long in doubt what action they should take, being so hard pressed for time. Since the people were prepared to soon attack, and the suddenness of the scheme cut short their chances of aid from without, as all would be over before any of their allies even heard of their situation.

They decided, nevertheless, to summon the Idumeans, and drafted a letter concisely stating: that Ananos had imposed on the people and was proposing to betray the mother-city to the Romans; that they themselves having revolted in the cause of freedom were imprisoned in the temple; that a few hours would now decide their fate; and, that unless the Idumeans sent prompt relief, they would soon succumb to Ananos and their foes and the city would be in possession of the Romans. The messengers were instructed to communicate further details to the Idumean leaders by word of mouth. Those selected for this task were two active individuals, eloquent and persuasive speakers on public affairs, and, what was still more useful, remarkably fast runners.

[Supposed character of the Idumean people and tendency to violent and revolutionary action]

The zealots knew that the Idumeans would immediately comply since they were a turbulent and disorderly people (ethnos) that was always on the alert for commotion and delighting in revolutionary changes. Idumeans only needed a little flattery from those making a request in order to grab their weapons and run to battle as if to a feast.

Speed was essential to the task. In this regard there was no lack of speed shown by the delegates, each named Ananias, and they were soon in the presence of the Idumean leaders. The leaders, astounded by the letter and the statements of their visitors, raced round the people making proclamations about the campaign. The pulling together of the population went beyond what was requested, and all grabbed their weapons to defend the freedom of the mother-city. No less than twenty thousand joined the ranks and marched to Jerusalem under the command of four generals: John [of Gischala], James son of Sosas, Simon son of Thakeas, and Phineas son of Klusoth.

[Idumeans approach the temple]

Even though the departure of the messengers had eluded the vigilance of both Ananos and the guards, this was not the case with the approach of the Idumeans. Being warned ahead of time, Ananos shut the gates against them and posted guards upon the walls. However, unwilling to make complete enemies of them, he determined to try persuasion before resorting to violence.

[Joshua’s appeal to the Idumeans based on kinship and protection of the “mother-city”]

Accordingly Joshua (Jesus), the high priest next in seniority to Ananos, mounted the tower opposite to the Idumeans and addressed them as follows:

“Among the many and manifold disorders which this city has witnessed, nothing has astonished me more than the decree of fortune by which even the most unexpected things co-operate to aid wicked people. Here you are, for instance, coming to assist these most abandoned men against us. You do so with such eagerness that one would not even expect this approach even if the mother-city summoned you to meet a barbarian invasion. If I had seen your ranks composed of men like those who invited you, I would not have thought such extremism unreasonable, because nothing brings men together as much as agreeable relations with others. But as it is, if a person was to review these friends of yours one by one, each would be found deserving of countless deaths. These are the scum and garbage of the whole country, squandering their own means and exercising their madness first upon the surrounding villages and towns. These pests have then ended by stealthily streaming into the holy city. Bandits (lēstai) of such offensive impiety as to pollute even that sacred ground, they may now be witnessed recklessly intoxicating themselves in the sanctuary and expending the spoils of their slaughtered victims upon their insatiable bellies. You, on the other hand, in your numbers and shining armour present an appearance that would be appropriate if the mother-city had, in common council, summoned you to its aid against peoples of other tribes (allophyloi). What, then, can this be called but a spiteful freak of fortune, when one sees a people (ethnos) armed to a man on behalf of notoriously wicked men? I have long been wondering what motive could have brought you so quickly. For you would have never armed yourselves from head to foot for the sake of bandits and against your fellow kin-group (syggeneis). But now that we have heard the words “Romans” and “betrayal” – for that was what some of you were yelling just now, and how they were here to protect the freedom of the mother-city – no other audacity of these wretches has amazed us more than this ingenious lie. For, in fact, men with an innate passion for freedom – ready to fight a foreign foe for freedom above everything – could by no other means be infuriated against us than by the fabrication of a charge that we were betraying their darling freedom. You, however, should reflect on who are the authors of this false accusation and at whom it is aimed. You should form your opinion of the truth not from fictitious tales but from communal events. For what could induce us to sell ourselves to the Romans now? It was open to us either to refrain from revolt in the first instance or, having revolted, promptly to return to our allegiance, while the surrounding country was still undevastated. But now, even if we desired it, a reconciliation would be no easy matter, when their conquest of Galilee has made the Romans contemptuous. To approach them now that they are at our doors would bring upon us a disgrace even worse than death. For my own part, though I should prefer peace to death, yet having once declared war and entered the lists, I would rather die nobly than live a captive [sections of the speech omitted]. . . . You are at freedom to enter, though not by right of war, and behold the proofs of these statements: houses desolated by their violent seizure, poor widows and orphans of the murdered in black attire, wailing and lamenting throughout the city. For there is not one who has not felt the raids of these impious people. To such extremes of insanity have they run as not only to transfer their bandits’ exploits from the country and outlying towns to this front and head of the whole people, but actually from the city to the temple. The temple has now become their base and refuge, the magazine for their armament against us. The spot which is revered by the world and honoured by foreigners from the ends of the earth who have heard its fame is trampled on by these monsters engendered in this very place. And now in desperation they violently proceed to bring township against township, city against city, and to enlist the people to prey upon its own internal organs. Therefore, as I said before, the most honourable and becoming course for you is to assist in extirpating these reprobates, and to punish them for this deceit which they have practised on you in daring to summon as allies those whom they should have dreaded as avengers.”

“If, however, you still respect the appeals made to you by men such as these, it is surely open to you to lay down your weapons, to enter the city as members of a common kin-group (syggenoi), and to assume a neutral role by becoming arbitrators. Consider, too, what they will gain by being tried by you for such undeniable and flagrant offences, whereas they would not suffer unimpeached persons to speak a word in their defence. However, let them derive this benefit from your coming. But if you will neither share our righteous anger nor act as umpires, a third course remains, namely to leave both parties to themselves and neither to insult us in our disasters nor join with these conspirators against the mother-city. For, however strongly you suspect some of us of having communicated with the Romans, you are in a position to watch the approaches, and if any of these betrayals is actually discovered to be true, you can then come to the protection of the mother-city and punish the detected culprits. For the enemy could never take you by surprise while you are quartered here right beside the city. If, however, none of these proposals appears to you reasonable or fair, do not wonder why these gates are locked, so long as you remain with your weapons.”

[Reaction of the “abusive” Idumeans, again referring to kinship and shared ancestral customs]

Such was the speech of Joshua. But the abusive Idumean troops did not listen, infuriated at not obtaining instant admission to the temple; while their generals were angry at the thought of laying down their weapons, considering it captivity to fling them away at any man’s bidding.

At that point, Simon son of Kaathas, one of the officers, having quelled the uproar among his men with difficulty and taken his stand within hearing of the high priests, replied in this way:

“I am no longer surprised that the champions of freedom are imprisoned in the temple, now that I find that there are men who close against this [Idumean] people the city common to us all. These are men who, while preparing to admit the Romans – maybe crowning the gates with garlands – argue with Idumeans from their towers and call them to throw down their weapons which they took up in defence of freedom. These are also men who, refusing to entrust to members of their kin group the protection of the mother- city, would make them arbitrators in their disputes. These are men who, while accusing certain individuals of putting others to death without trial, would themselves subject the entire people to dishonour. At any rate, this city, which flung open its gates to every foreigner for worship, is now barricaded by you against your own people.”

“Why do they do this? Because we were supposedly hurrying here to slaughter and make war on people of our own tribe (homophyloi), we whose sole reason for rushing was to keep you free! Such doubtless was the nature of your grievance against your prisoners, and equally credible, I imagine, is your list of insinuations against them. And then, while detaining in custody all within the walls who care about communal well-being, after closing your gates against a whole body of people who are your nearest kin-group and issuing to them such insulting orders, you claim to be dominated by tyrants and attach the stigma of despotism to the victims of your own tyranny! Who can tolerate such irony which a person can see is flatly contrary to the facts, unless indeed it is the Idumeans who are now excluding you from the mother-city, and not you who are debarring them from the ancestral sacred rites? One complaint might fairly be made against the men blockaded in the temple: that is, while they had the courage to punish those traitors whom you, as their partners in guilt, describe as distinguished persons and unimpeached, they did not begin with you and cut off at the outset the most vital members of this treasonable conspiracy. But if they were more lenient than they should have been, we Idumeans will preserve the house of God and fight to defend our common homeland from both her foes, the invaders from without and the traitors within. We will remain here with weapons by these walls until the Romans are tired of listening to you or you understand and change your view about freedom.”

[Josephos’ evaluation of the stand-off]

After this speech was loudly applauded by the Idumeans, Joshua withdrew despondent, finding them opposed to all moderate counsels and the city exposed to war from two sides. In fact, the minds of the Idumeans were not at ease either. Infuriated at the insult directed at them in being excluded from the city and seeing no help coming from the zealots whom they believed to be in considerable strength, they were very perplexed and many wished they had not come. But the shame of returning, having accomplished absolutely nothing, so far overcame their regrets that they kept their ground, camping just outside the walls under miserable conditions. For in the course of the night a terrible storm broke out: there were hurricane winds, torrential rains, constant lightning with frightening thunder, and extraordinary earthquakes. Such a convulsion of the very fabric of the universe clearly forecasted destruction for humankind. It was natural for them to predict that these were portents of a considerable disaster.

In this the Idumeans and the city’s inhabitants were of one mind: the former being persuaded that God was angry at their expedition and that they were not to escape retribution for bearing weapons against the mother-city, Ananos and his party beliveing that they had won the day without a contest and that God was directing the battle on their behalf. But they proved mistaken in their divination of the future, and the fate which they predicted for their foes was destined to happen to their friends.

[Various parties consider their options]

For the Idumeans, huddling together, kept each other warm, and by making a covering with shields above their heads were not seriously affected by the torrential rain. While the zealots, more concerned for their allies than for their own danger, met to consider whether any means could be devised for their relief. The more ardent advocated forcing a way through the guards at the point of the sword, and then plunging boldly into the heart of the city and opening the gates to their allies. The guards, disconcerted by their unexpected assault, would give way, especially as the majority were unarmed and had never been in action, while the citizens could not easily be collected in force, being confined to their houses by the storm. Even if this was dangerous, it was only right that they should suffer anything rather than leave such a vast crowd disgracefully to die on their account.

The more prudent, however, disapproved of these violent measures, seeing that not only was the guard surrounding them in full strength, but the city wall was carefully watched because of the Idumeans. They imagined, moreover, that Ananos would be everywhere, inspecting the guards around the clock. This had, in fact, been his practice on other nights, but on this one it was omitted. This happened not through any forgetfulness on his part, but by the overruling decree of Fate (Heimarmenē) that he and all his guards should die. Fate was the one who advanced that night and the storm approached its climax, lulled to sleep the guards posted at the colonnade, and suggested to the zealots the thought of taking some of the temple’s saws and severing the bars of the gates. They were aided by the blustering wind and the successive peals of thunder, which prevented the noise from being heard.

Escaping unperceived from the Temple, they reached the walls and, employing their saws, opened the gate nearest to the Idumeans. They, supposing themselves attacked by the troops of Ananos, were at first seized with alarm. Every man was ready with his sword to defend himself, but, quickly recognizing their visitors, they entered the city. If they had then turned upon it in all directions their fury was so great that nothing could have saved the inhabitants from complete destruction. However, as it was, they first hurried to free the zealots from custody at the earnest entreaty of the men who had let them in. These people urged:

“Do not leave those for whose sake you have come in the thick of peril, nor expose us to graver risks. Overpower the guards and you can then easily march upon the city, but once begin by rousing the city, and you will never master the guards. For at the first intimation the citizens will fall into line and block every ascent.”

[Idumeans and zealots attacking the guards of the temple]

Yielding to these representations, the Idumeans marched up through the city to the temple. The zealots, who were anxiously awaiting their arrival, on their entering the building boldly advanced from the inner court, joined the Idumeans and attacked the guards. They killed some of the outlying guards in their sleep, till, roused by the cries of those who were awake, the whole force of guards in consternation snatched up their weapons and advanced to the defence. So long as they believed the zealots to be their only assailants, they did not lose heart, hoping to overpower them by numbers. Yet the sight of others pouring in from outside made them realize the Idumeans were bursting in.

At that point, the greater number of them flung courage and armour away together and abandoned themselves to lamentation. A few of the younger men, however, fencing themselves in, bravely confronted the Idumeans and for a good while protected the weaker crowd. The cries of the latter signified their distress to their friends in the city, but not one of these ventured to their assistance, when they realized that the Idumeans had broken in. Instead, they responded with futile shouts and lamentations on their side, while a great wail went up from the women, each having some relative in the guards whose life was at stake. The zealots joined in the war-cry of the Idumeans, and the loud noise from all directions was made more terrible by the howling wind of the storm.

[Idumeans’ savage and murderous disposition and the slaughter that ensued]

The Idumeans spared no one. Completely savage and murderous by nature (physis), they had been battered by the storm and took their anger out on those who had shut them out. Suppliants and combatants were treated in the same way, and many while reminding them of their kinship and imploring them to respect their common temple were pierced by their swords. There was no room to run and no hope of escape remained. Crushed together upon each other they were cut down. The majority, finding themselves forced back until further retreat was impossible and with their murderers closing upon them, flung themselves headlong down into the city in their helplessness, devoting themselves to a fate more deserving of pity, in my opinion, than what they were running away from. The whole outer court of the temple was flooded with blood, and day dawned upon eight thousand five hundred dead.

[“Impious” Idumeans proceed to looting in the houses of the city and killing the high priests]

The fury of the Idumeans being still unsatisfied, they now turned to the city, looting every house and killing anyone who got in their way. Now thinking their energies were wasted on the common people, the Idumeans went to find high priests. It was for them that the main rush was made, and they were soon captured and killed. Then, standing over their dead bodies, they scoffed at Ananos for his patronage of the people and at Joshua for the address which he had delivered from the wall. They actually went so far in their impiety as to cast out the corpses without burial, even though the Judeans are so careful about funeral rites that even criminals who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset.

[Josephos’ apology and praise for Ananos the high priest]

I would not be wrong in saying that the capture of the city began with the death of Ananos, and that the overthrow of the walls and the downfall of the Judean government dated from the day on which the Judeans witnessed their high priest, the captain of their salvation, butchered in the heart of Jerusalem. A man on every ground revered and of the highest integrity, Ananos, with all the distinction of his birth, his rank and the honours to which he had attained, was at the same time delighted to treat the very humblest as his equals. Unique in his love of freedom and an enthusiast for rule by the people, on every occasion he put the communal well-being above his individual interests. To maintain peace was his supreme object. He knew that the Roman power was irresistible. However, when driven to provide for the conditions of war, he endeavoured to secure that, if the Judeans would not come to terms, the struggle should at least be skillfully executed. In a word, had Ananos lived, one of two things would have undoubtedly happened: they would have arranged terms, because he was an effective speaker, whose words carried weight with the people, and was already gaining control even over those who thwarted him; or else, if hostilities continued, they would have greatly slowed down the victory of the Romans under such a general. With Ananos was linked Joshua, who, though not comparable with Ananos, stood far above the rest.

[God’s plan for the city]

But I suppose it was because God had, for its pollutions, condemned the city to destruction and desired to purge the sanctuary by fire that God thus cut off those who clung to such pollutions with such tender affection. So those who had just lately worn the sacred vestments, led those ceremonies of worldwide significance, and been reverenced by visitors to the city from every quarter of the earth were now seen cast out naked, to be devoured by dogs and beasts of prey. Virtue herself, I think, groaned at the fate of these men, loudly mourning such utter defeat at the hands of vice. Such, however, was the end of Ananos and Joshua.

[Zealots’ and Idumeans’ butchering of the people]

Having disposed of them, the zealots and the Idumean mob attacked and butchered the people as though they had been a herd of unclean animals. The common people were slain on the spot where they were caught; but they arrested the young nobles and threw them into prison in chains, postponing their execution in the hope that some would come over to their side. Not one of the nobles, however, listened to their overtures, all preferring to die rather than side with these criminals against their homeland, notwithstanding the fearful agonies which they underwent for their refusal: they were scourged and racked, and only when their bodies could no longer sustain these tortures were they grudgingly killed by the sword. Those arrested by day were dispatched at night and their bodies cast out to make room for fresh prisoners. To such consternation were the people reduced that none dared openly weep for or bury a deceased relative. Instead, they shed tears and groaned with circumpection in secret and behind closed doors because they were afraid of being overheard by any of their enemies. For the mourner instantly suffered the same fate as the mourned. Only by night would they take a little dust in both hands and scatter it on the bodies, though some venturous persons did this during the day. Twelve thousand of the youthful nobility died in this way. Having now come to hate indiscriminate massacre, the zealots instituted mock trials and courts of justice. . . [sections omitted].

[Idumeans show some regret at coming and Josephos suggests they were tricked]

(4.345-357) The Idumeans now began to regret that they had come, taking offence at these proceedings. In this mood they were called together by one of the zealots, who came to them privately and showed the crimes which they had committed in conjunction with those who had summoned them, and gave a detailed account of the situation in the mother-city. They had enlisted, the zealot informer reminded them, in the belief that the high priests were betraying the mother-city to the Romans. However, the Idumeans had discovered no evidence of treason, whereas its professed defenders were the daring perpetrators of acts of war and despotism. These proceedings, the informer said, the Idumeans should have checked at the outset. Instead, having once become their partners and plunged into civil war, they should now at least put a limit on their [the zealots] offenses and no longer continue to lend support to men who were subverting the institutions of their ancestors. Even if there were any still indignant at the closure of the gates and the refusal of prompt admission to them while bearing arms, well, those who had excluded them had now been punished. Ananos was dead and in one night almost the whole population had been destroyed. Such actions, he could perceive, had produced repentance in many of their party. But among those who had invited the Idumeans, he saw nothing but unmeasured brutality without the slightest respect for their deliverers. Under the very eyes of their allies they dared to commit the worst atrocities and their sins would be ascribed to the Idumeans, so long as no one vetoed or dissociated himself from these proceedings.

Since, then, the charge of treason had been shown to be a false accusation and no invasion of the Romans was expected, while the city had planted upon it a despotism not easily to be overthrow, their duty (the zealot said) was to return home and by severing their connection with these wicked people to make some amends for all the crimes in which they had been duped into taking a part.

[Idumeans take actions to reverse some of the wrongs]

Acting on this advice, the Idumeans first freed the citizens locked in the prisons, numbering about two thousand. (These immediately fled from the city and joined Simon, about whom we will soon speak). The Idumeans then left Jerusalem and returned home. Their departure produced an unintended effect on both parties: the citizens, unaware of their repentance, recovered momentary confidence, as if relieved of an enemy; and the zealots, on the other hand, became even more arrogant, not as though they had been abandoned by allies but as though critics had left who disapproved of their actions and had tried to deter them from their lawlessness. No longer now was there any delay or deliberation about the zealots crimes. They devised their plans with lightning speed and in each case put their decisions into effect even more swiftly than they devised them. They thirsted above all for the blood of the brave and the nobility, massacring the latter out of envy, the former out of fear, because they imagined that their own safety depended solely on their leaving no person of authority alive.


[Idumeans included in Josephos’ final ranking of worst rebels and offenders]

(7.262-271) . . . The sicarii (dagger-carriers) were the first to set the example of this lawlessness and cruelty to the members of their own kin group (syggeneis), leaving no word unspoken in order to insult others, no action untried in order to ruin others who were the victims of their conspiracy.

Yet even they were shown by John [of Gischala, leader of other zealots] to be more moderate than him. For not only did he put to death everyone who proposed just and helpful measures, treating such persons as his bitterest enemies among all the citizens. But he also in his capacity loaded his homeland with countless evils. This as one might expect would be inflicted upon men by one who had already dared to practise impiety even towards God, because he had unlawful food served at his table and abandoned the established rules of purity of our ancestors. The result is that it could no longer cause surprise that one guilty of such mad impiety towards God failed to observe gentleness and charity towards others.

Again, there was Simon son of Gioras. What crime did he not commit? What outrage did he refrain from inflicting upon those very free men who had made him into a tyrant? What ties of friendship or of family did something other than make these men more audacious in their daily murders? For to do injury to a foreigner they considered an insignificant act, but they thought they did much better by mistreating their nearest relations.

Yet even their madness was outdone by the Idumeans. For those most blood-stained people, after butchering the high priests so that not a single bit of piety towards God might continue, proceeded to extirpate whatever remnants were left of our communal organization, introducing into every area complete lawlessness.

In such lawlessness, the so-called “zealots” (literally: “emulators”) excelled, a group which justified their name by their actions. They copied every bad deed, nor was there any previous evil action recorded in history that they failed to emulate enthusiastically. And yet they took their title from their professed enthusiasm (or: zeal) for virtue, either in mockery of those they wronged, so brutal was their nature, or reckoning the greatest of evils good. Accordingly every one of them came to an appropriate end, with God granting due retribution to them all. For every punishment that human nature is capable of enduring descended upon them, even to those last dying moments of life, endured by them amid the agonies of manifold torture.

And yet one may say that the zealots suffered less than they inflicted because no suffering could match what they deserved. However, the present would not be the occasion to deplore, as they deserve, the victims of their savage actions (hōmotai).

I will, therefore, resume the interrupted thread of the narrative. The Roman general Silva advanced at the head of his forces against Eleazar and his band of sicarii who held Masada . . . [remainder omitted – for ethnographic details in the second speech of Eleazar at Masada, go to this link].

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