Judean diasporas: Differing perspectives on violent clashes between Judeans and Greeks in Libya and Egypt under Trajan, ca. 115-117 CE (second-fourth centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean diasporas: Differing perspectives on violent clashes between Judeans and Greeks in Libya and Egypt under Trajan, ca. 115-117 CE (second-fourth centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 7, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=10828.

Ancient authors or sources: Contemporary papyri: Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum (Collection of Judean Papyri) II 438, 443, 444, 445, 447, 448, 450; Contemporary inscriptions from Cyrenaica: SEG 17 (1960), no. 804; AE (1928), no. 2; SEG 9 ( ), no. 252; Fictional or semi-fictional juridical narratives by Greek authors: CPJ II 157-158; Other narrative or historical sources: Dio Cassius, Roman History 68.32 (link); Eusebius (fourth century CE), Church History 4.1-2; Paulus Orosius (fourth-fifth centuries CE), History Against the Pagans 7.12.6-8.

Comments: The violent incidents that took place under the emperor Trajan in connection with diaspora Judeans beginning in Cyrene in Cyrenaica (Libya) in either 115 or 116 CE (and continuing until 117 CE) are mentioned in a variety of sources which also provide somewhat different perspectives on the events, mainly Greek, Roman, and Christian perspectives. Unfortunately we have no contemporary or near-contemporary Judean perceptions of the events. Instead we have contemporary references to the problems in papyri and in inscriptions and then literary descriptions by Roman historians and Christian authors, a sampling of which are presented below.

Basically, it seems that violent incidents began in the Greek city of Cyrene – led by a Judean “king” like figure who is named differently in different sources – and spread from there, ultimately resulting in extensive violence in Alexandria as well, before the Romans intervened with the military over some time.

(1) The contemporary papyri reflecting local Greek perspectives (from Egypt) more than once speak of the “impious (anosioi) Judeans” (a similar terminology to Greek talk about the “impious” Egyptian cowherds, on which go to this link). The disturbances in Egypt itself were enough for a local functionary to ask for leave in their wake and for other local officials to refer to the difficulties in collecting tribute for the Romans. There are also references to either the destruction of (Greek) properties by Judeans or the confiscations of Judean properties in the wake of the quelling of the violence. Also, we have mention of a Greek donor’s contributions to a festival established at Oxyrhynchos to celebrate the  Romans’ triumph in a “war” with Judeans, suggesting ongoing tensions with Judeans in subsequent decades.

(2) Several inscriptions in the wake of the violence refer to the rebuilding efforts supported by Roman authorities. Here there is characterization of the events in terms of the Judean “disturbance” (either tumultus in Latin or tarachē in Greek), which clearly destroyed or damaged some buildings.

(3) In the wake of the incidents, certain Greek authors began to write juridical narratives relating to defences or appeals by Greeks at Alexandria concerning the Judean actions and Greek responses. These narratives are presented as though the Greeks of Alexandria were the principal victims or as though the Roman emperors (Trajan and then Hadrian) were siding with Judeans over the Greeks. Because of the apologetic theme and the possible punishment of Greek Alexandrians in connection with acts of retaliation, these narratives are sometimes referred to as the “pagan martyr acts” (as in Musirillo).

(4) Finally, we have several somewhat unreliable narrative or historical sources that claim to be able to describe the nature of these ethnic conflicts.  And so we find Cassius Dio sketching out a shocking picture of Judeans in Cyrenaica (and beyond) terrorizing Greek and other residents with human sacrifice and accompanying cannibalistic meals, along with supposed use of the deads’ body parts for the purposes of fashion. Less drastic and perhaps more sympathetic with the Judeans are Eusebios’ descriptions.  Expressly drawing on earlier Greek sources, Eusebios points to clashes between Judeans and Greeks and suggests that the incidents began in Cyrene (under the leadership of an ostensible Judean “king”) and spread to Egypt from there, resulting in massive losses for the Judeans (in the Roman intervention, at least). Eusebios also suggests that Trajan intervened in Mesopotamia, which points to the potential for wider ethnic tensions in other places at the same time (on which also compare Josephos’ stories of ethnic conflicts between Syrians, Greeks, or Babylonians, on the one hand, and Judeans in Mesopotamia several decades earlier at this link). It may be that the Christian author Orosius draws on Eusebius but also other sources for his brief sketch which is not favourable towards Judeans.

Works consulted: S. Applebaum, Jews and Greeks in Ancient Cyrene, SJLA 28 (Leiden: Brill, 1979) (link); M. Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insights (Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2005); H.A. Musurillo, The Acts of the Pagan Martyrs: Acta Alexandrinorum, Greek Texts and Commentaries (New York: Arno Press, 1954) (link).

Sources of the translations: V. Tcherikover and A. Fuks, Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, volume 2 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), adapted by Harland; E. Cary and H.B. Foster, Dio’s Roman History, 9 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-27), public domain; K. Lake, Ecclesiastical History, 2 vols., LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926), R.J. Deferrari, Paulus Orosius: The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1981), all adapted by Harland.


(1) Greek perspectives and references from contemporary papyri

CPJ II 438 (between June 116 and January 117)

[Judean victories in Hermoupolite district referring to “impious Judeans”]

(Unfortunately, the names or official roles of the sender and the recipient are not preserved, though it is likely that one or the other was a regional commander [stratēgos]). The single hope and expectation that remained was the push of the massed villagers from our district against the impious Judeans. But now the opposite has happened. For on the 20th (?) our forces fought and were beaten and many of them were killed . . . (six very fragmentary lines). . . now, however, we have received the news from men coming from (?) . . . that another legion of Rutilius arrived at Memphis on the 22nd and is expected.

CPJ II 443 = PGiss 141 (November 28, 117 CE)

[Apollonios the commander (stratēgos) applies to the prefect for leave in connection with military actions against “impious Judeans”]

(column 1) . . . To Rammius Martialis, the (?) . . . powerful prefect, from . . . Apollonios, commander (stratēgos) (?) . . . of Apollinopolis-Heptakomias, greetings. . . . I attach a copy, lord prefect, (?) . . . of the application for leave which I previously submitted, in order that, by your favour, you may grant me sixty days to put my affairs in order, at this time, especially, when . . . is pressing. I pray for your health, prefect. The (first) year of the Emperor Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, Choiak 2. To Rammius Martialis, the prefect, from Apollonios, strategos of Apollinopolis-Heptakomias, greeting. . . ., prefect, . . . once . . . (remaining lines fragmentary or missing).

(column 2) . . . make use of . . . . For not only are my affairs completely uncared for because of my long absence, but also practically everything I possess in the villages of the Hermoupolite district (nome) and in the metropolis needs my attention due to the attack of the impious (anosioi) Judeans. If you agree to my request and I am permitted to put my affairs in order as far as possible, I will be able to approach the duties of my role as commander (stratēgos) in a more energetic way.

CPJ II 444 = PBrem 11 (late 117 or early 118 CE [?])

[Letter to Apollonios the commander concerning a dispute over legumes referring to Judean disturbances]

Ammonios and Hermokles to their most honoured Apollonios, greetings. Because of our gathering of the wheat for the population, we had no time to protest to you and complain about your attacking us as if we were insignificant men. You did this in the letter which you wrote to Sarapion, commander (stratēgos) of the Lykopolite district (nome), saying that we had not given you your third share of the legumes, but that we had . . . a third . . . (four or more fragmentary lines).

(column 2) If we had not . . . (missing words) . . . the supplies for Artorius Priscillus, the overseer of the commanders (epistratēgos), we should have made inquiries about the division so that you should receive two-thirds and we . . . we were involved in the distribution of the legumes of the Hermoupolite district . . . by a half . . . and that you should have received a half-share from the Hermoupolite district so that you might be relieved both about the quality and . . . . We took much trouble to write to one another . . ., however, because of the Judean disturbances (thorouboi). Now the affair must be governed by your conscience and your view of the matter (?) . . . consider too that not much . . . and that there was a state of riot (stasis).

(column 3) For this reason we have sent to you a river-guard, so that you may reply to us as you will and the matter may be resolved before the visit of the overseer of the commanders to the Lykopolite district. We pray for your health, lord. (reverse side). To Apollonios, commander of Heptakomia.

CPJ II 445 = POxy 1189

[Letter between commanders making reference to confiscation of Judean property]

Aquillius Pollio, commander (stratēgos) of the Herakleopolite district (nome), to his dearest Apollonios, commander of the Oxyrhynchite district, greetings. Be good enough to receive two letters which I have written, one to you and one to Sabinus, commander of the Kynopolite district, about the schedule of the properties formerly held by the Judeans, and the schedule itself. Retain your own copy and transmit the other to the Lykopolite district . . . . (reverse side). To Apollonios, commander of the Oxyrhynchite district.

CPJ II 447 = POxy 707 (early second century CE)

[Reference to buildings burned by Judeans in a longer list of properties]

. . . Open lots, in which there are buildings burned by the Judeans. . . .

CPJ II 448 = POxy 500 (130 CE)

[Lease application to the commander of Oxyrhynchite district referring to confiscated properties of Judeans and Greeks]

To Hierax, commander (stratēgos) of the Athribite district (nome) from Horos son of Psenobasthis, from Nekpheros son of Thaisous, and . . . Pet . . . and the rest . . . (beginning of sentence missing) . . . from Judeans who have been killed and Greeks without heirs, leasing (?) in the district of Tetaphos twenty four arourai of land belonging to the People for two dry measures (artabai) of wheat per aroura, with a surcharge of five measures of wheat for the whole, and around Psenarsiesis in the east of the Thostian district, one aroura of land belonging to the People for three dry measures of wheat. We will give our mutual security to pay the rent to the funds of the People from the new crop of this same fifteenth year of our lord Hadrian Caesar. The fifteenth year of Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus. Phaophi 5.

CPJ II 450 = POxy 705, columns 1-2 (199/200 CE)

[Affirmative letter from emperors Severus and Caracalla with a copy of Horion’s petition regarding a donation for the celebration of the earlier defeat of Judeans]

Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus Arabicus Adiabenicus Parthicus Maximus and emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Augustus to Aurelius Horion, greetings . . . the Oxyrhynchites . . . (several fragmentary lines) . . . The petition is:

“To the most gracious emperors Severus and Antoninus, . . . saviours (?) . . . and benefactors of all humankind, Aurelius Horion, formerly commander and chief-judge of the most famous city of Alexandria, greetings. Most humane emperors, . . . to a great city . . . and still preserving . . . Titus Titianus . . . (three extremely fragmentary lines).

(column 2, beginning with two fragmentary lines) . . . and more which I pass over, but they also possess goodwill, trust, and friendship towards the Romans which they exhibited in the war (polemos) against the Judeans, giving aid then and even now keeping the day of victory as a festival every year. You yourselves honoured them when you came to Egypt by giving them access to your tribunal first of all after the men of Pelousion. The most illustrious Laetus knows that the city possesses inhabitants of the best and most generous spirit who are most just in their dealings with the treasury. For this reason, I wished to leave this city in no way inferior to any other city in our land . . . grant (?) not less than ten thousand Attic drachmas to be lent and kept according to the former regulations. The accumulated interest is to be applied to the competitions of the youths (ephebes) which they hold annually, in which the inhabitants of Antinoopolis now also compete. I ask you to forbid the use of this money also for any other purpose.


(2) Roman and Greek perspectives from inscriptional evidence pertaining to rebuilding at Cyrenaica

SEG 17 (1960), no. 804 (Cyrene, bilingual inscription found in the Caesareum, 118 CE; translation is of the Greek text)

The emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus, son of the god Trajan Parthicus, grandson of the god Nerva, high priest, holding the tribunate for the second time, consul for the second time, ordered that the Caesareum, which had been destroyed to the ground in the Judean disturbance (tarachē), be restored for the city.

AE (1928), no. 2 (Cyrene, Latin inscription found in the area of the temple of Apollo; 119 CE)

The emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus, son of the god Trajan Parthicus, grandson of the god Nerva, high priest, holding tribunate power for the third time, consul for the third time, ordered that the bath, together with the porticoes and the halls for ball games, and the other neighbouring buildings, which had been destroyed and burned to the ground in the Jewish disturbance (tumultus), be restored for the city of Cyreneans.

SEG 9, no. 252 (Cyrene, Latin inscription on a mile-stone between Cyrene and Apollonia; 118 CE)

The emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus, son of the god Trajan Parthicus, grandson of the god Nerva, high priest, holding the tribunate power for the second time, consul for the third time: The road, which had been ruined and damaged in the Jewish disturbance (tumultus), is to be restored through the soldiers of the cohort … twenty-four stadium-lengths to Apollonia.


(3) Greek perspectives from fictional or semi-fictional juridical narratives

CPJ II 157 = POxy 1242 (third century CE papyrus with earlier narratives)

[Acts of Hermaiskos: Judeans and Greeks before Trajan]

(column 1) . . . Dionysios, who was in the position of procurator many times, Salvius, Julius Salvius, Timagenes, Pastor the gymnasium-leader, Julius Phanias, Philoxenos the elected gymnasium-leader, Sotion the gymnasium-leader, Theon, Athenodoros, and Paulus the Tyrian by birth who was a voluntary advocate for the Alexandrians.

When the Judeans learned these things, they also chose ambassadors for their own people (ethnos), and so were chosen Simon, Glaukon, Theudes, Onias, Kolon, Iakoumbos, with Sopatros of Antiochia by birth as their advocate. So they set sail from the city with each group taking along its own gods, the Alexandrians . . . [missing text perhaps referring to Sarapis and the Judean God].

(column 2) [three or more missing or extremely fragmentary lines) . . . . He conversed with their companions, and when the winter was over they arrived at Rome. The emperor learned that the Judean and Alexandrian ambassadors had arrived, and he appointed the day on which he would hear both groups. Now Plotina approached (?) the senators in order that they might support the Judeans against the Alexandrians. The Judeans, who were the first to enter, greeted emperor Trajan, and Caesar [i.e. Trajan] returned their greeting very kindly because he had now been persuaded by Plotina.

After them the Alexandrian ambassadors entered and greeted the emperor. However, he did not go to meet them, but said: “Do you say “greetings” to me as though you were worthy to receive a greeting after what you have dared to do to the Judeans? But go and . . .”

(column 3) (three extremely fragmentary lines) . . . [Trajan:] “You must be eager to die, having such disregard for death that you answer even me so stubbornly.” Hermaiskos said: “Well it grieves us to see your council filled with impious Judeans.” Caesar said: “This is the second time I am telling you, Hermaiskos: You are answering me stubbornly, taking advantage of your birth.” Hermaiskos said: “What do you mean, I answer you in a stubborn manner, greatest emperor? Explain this to me.” Caesar said: “Implying that my council consists of Judeans.” Hermaiskos: “So, then, the word ‘Judean’ is bothersome to you? In that case you should help your own and not advocate for the impious Judeans.” As Hermaiskos was saying these things, the bust of Sarapis that the ambassadors carried suddenly began to sweat, and Trajan was amazed when he witnessed it. Soon tumultuous crowds gathered in Rome and numerous shouts were heard, and everyone began to flee to the highest parts of the hills. . . .

(column 4). . . . under Claudius the god . . . [remainder lost].

CPJ II 158 = PPar 68 (a) + BGU 341 (b)

[Acts of Paulus and Antoninus: Judeans and Alexandrians before Hadrian]

(column 1) Paulus . . . concerning the king, how they brought him forth and . . . and Theon read the edict of Lupus ordering them to bring him forward, and he was making fun of the king from the stage and by means of mimicry (or: mime). After we did this, the emperor took occasion to say these things to Paulus and us: “It happened to me during disturbances such as this. . . during the Dacian war. . . .” (sixteen or more extremely fragmentary or missing lines).

(column 2) Caesar answered the Judeans: “I learned. . .” (six extremely fragmentary and untranslatable lines). The Judeans: “They seized them from the prison and . . . wounded them.” Caesar: “I know about these things, and not . . . all (?). . . the Alexandrians but only those doing . . . these things (?) . . . should be prosecuted. . .” (seventeen extremely fragmentary lines).

(column 3) (first two lines not translatible) “. . . So that if some were thrown out of Alexandria, they were nonetheless not seized . . . by us, (?) . . . as they . . . claim, but (?) . . . they were seized by them, and this was a dishonest accusation against us. Now everyone (of the slaves) who had fled to their masters intending to secure complete safety were brought to justice by them and . . . punished (?). . . .” The Judeans: “Lord, they are lying. They do not know how many men there were.” . . . (sixteen or more fragmentary lines referring to Alexandrians, Greeks, a prefect, and slaves).

(columns 4-5, PLond, are to fragmentary to translate but there are references to a man named Theon, to Lupus, and to the emperor).

(columns 6-7, PLouvre). Paulus: “My only concern is the grave in Alexandria which I expect to have. Heading towards the grave, I will not be afraid to tell you the truth. Listen to me then, Caesar, as to one who may not exist beyond today.” Antoninus: “My lord Caesar, I swear by your genius he speaks the truth as one who may not live another day. For if so many letters had been sent you saying that he [likely the prefect Lupus] had ordered the impious (anosioi) Judeans to transfer their residence to a place where they could not secretly lay back and then attack our well-named city – if nothing about this matter fell into your beneficent hands – then the reason for your revered words is evident. It is clear that this has been done against you in order to prevent you from having any evidence of the disasters that have happened to us.” Caesar: “Let Paulus go, but have Antoninus bound. . . .”

(column 8 is to fragmentary to translate but continues to refer to Antoninus, the Judeans, and an embassy).


(4) Other Literary sources

Dio Cassius, Roman History (early third century CE; preserved in the summary by the monk Xiphilinus in the eleventh century)

[Judeans, Greeks and Romans in Kyrene and Egypt under Trajan, including tales of cannibalistic Judeans]

32 Trajan therefore departed from there, and a little later began to fail in health. Meanwhile (ca. 115-117 CE) the Judeans in the region of Kyrene (Cyrene) had put a certain Andreas [Loukouas in Eusebius and his sources] at their head, and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their human skins for clothing. They sawed many of them in two from the head downwards, They gave others to wild beasts, and still others they forced to fight as gladiators. In all two hundred and twenty thousand persons perished. In Egypt, too, they perpetrated many similar outrages, and on Kypros (Cyprus), under the leader­ship of a certain Artemion. There, also, two hundred and forty thousand perished. For this reason no Judean may set foot on that island, and even if one of them is driven upon its shores by a storm, he is put to death. Among others who subdued the Judeans was Lusius, who was sent by Trajan.

Eusebius, Church History 4.1-2 (fourth century; expressly drawing on earlier Greek authors and evidently not Dio Cassius)

[Rebellion by Judeans in Cyrene under the leadership of Loukouas leads to further violence]

While the teaching of our saviour and the assembly were flourishing daily and moving on to further progress, the circumstances of the Judeans was reaching the climax of successive terrible incidents. In the course of the eighteenth year of the reign of the emperor [ca. 115 CE] another rebellion (kinēsis) of the Judeans broke out and destroyed a large number of them. For both in Alexandria and in the rest of Egypt and especially in Cyrene, as though they had been seized by some terrible spirit, they rushed into conflicts against their Greek fellow-inhabitants. Increasing the scope of the disturbance (stasis) in the following year, they started a great war (polemos) while Lupus was prefect of all Egypt.

In the first engagement they happened to overcome the Greeks, who fled to Alexandria and captured and killed the Judeans in the city. When the Judeans of Cyrene realized that no fellow-combatants would come from Alexandria, they continued to plunder the country of Egypt and to ravage the districts in it under their leader Loukouas [Andreas in Dio Cassius]. The emperor sent against them Marcius Turbonus with forces by both sea and land, including cavalry. Turbonus waged war vigorously against them in many battles for a considerable time and killed many thousands of Judeans, not only those of Cyrene but also those of Egypt who had rallied to support Loukouas, their king.

The emperor suspected that the Judeans in Mesopotamia [between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers] would also attack the inhabitants and ordered Lusius Quietus to clean them out of the province. He organized a force and murdered a large population of the Judeans there, and for this reform was appointed governor of Judea by the emperor. The Greek authors [i.e. Eusebios’ unstated earlier sources, perhaps including a lost work by Appian] who chronicle the same period have related this narrative in these very words. When Trajan had reigned for nineteen and a half years, Aelius Hadrian succeeded to rule.

Paulus Orosius, History Against the Pagans 7.12.6-8 (fourth-early fifth centuries CE)

Then, all at once, the Judeans in different parts of the world, as if enraged with madness, burst forth in an incredible revolution. For throughout all Libya, they carried on most violent wars against the inhabitants. Libya was, then, so forsaken by the killing of the cultivators of the soil that, unless Hadrian afterwards had not gathered colonists from elsewhere and brought them there, the land would have remained completely abandoned and without an inhabitant. Indeed, they threw into confusion all Egypt, Cyrene, and the Thebaid [region of Egypt] with bloody seditions. But in Alexandria, in a pitched battle, they were conquered and crushed. In Mesopotamia also, when they rebelled, by order of the emperor, war was introduced against them. In this way many thousands of them were destroyed in a massive slaughter. Indeed, they destroyed Salamis, a city of Cyprus, after killing all the inhabitants.

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