Judean diasporas: Josephos on conflicts in Babylonia, ca. 40-66 CE (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean diasporas: Josephos on conflicts in Babylonia, ca. 40-66 CE (late first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 17, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=10806.

Ancient author: Josephos, Judean Antiquities 18.310-379 (link).

Comments: While the epigraphic and papyrological evidence for Judean (Jewish) communities outside Israel (link) provides glimpses into acculturation and adaptation (a sometimes neglected positive side of relations), there are nonetheless times when ethnic tensions rose to the point of violence in particular places. Philo’s discussion of Flaccus in the 30s-40s CE provides glimpses into Philo’s take on the tensions that existed at Alexandria in Egypt at that time (link). And Josephos himself outlines clashes between Judeans (Jews) and Greeks in Asia Minor during the Roman civil wars (mid-first century BCE), citing many documents in the process (link), and between Judeans and Syrians or Greeks in Greek cities in Syria and the Decapolis in the years leading up to the Judean-Roman war (link).

In this passage, Josephos expands on a rather lengthy tale of two Judean brothers settled in Babylonia and interacting with the current Parthian leadership. This then provides Josephos with a context for sketching out subsequent violent clashes between Judeans and Babylonians and between Judeans and Greeks, Macedonians, and Syrians in Mesopotamia. In some cases, these violent incidents are portrayed as resulting in further migration by Judean communities as well.

Because Josephos is our only source for these things, as historians we are not really in a position to fully evaluate where he is elaborating to capture the reader’s (or listener’s) interest and where he is referring to reliable information concerning violent incidents.  But this nonetheless does give us direct access to the ways in which Josephos made sense of real or potential violence between different ethnic groups in Babylonia under the Parthians.

Works consulted: Tessa Rajak, “The Parthians in Josephus,” in The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome: Studies in Cultural and Social Interaction (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 273–300.

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.


[Introduction to what Josephos considers the worst disaster recorded and to the cities of Nearda and Nisibis]

(18.310-379) A very terrible event happened to the Judeans (Jews) that were in Mesopotamia, especially to those that lived in Babylonia. This was worse than any of the other disasters that had previously taken place. It involved a massacre of Judeans that was greater than any previously recorded. I will speak accurately about all of this and explain the occasions when these miseries happened to them.

There was a city in Babylonia, called Nearda. This was not only a very populous city but also one that had a good and a large territory around it. Besides its other advantages, it was also had a lot of men. Furthermore, it was not easily attacked by enemies because the river Euphrates encompassed it all around and because of its walls. There was also the city Nisibis, situated on the same current of the river.

[Funds for the temple]

Due to the natural security of these places, the Judeans deposited the half shekel that everyone offers to God according to custom, as well as other dedicatory offerings. They made use of these cities as a treasury from which, at the proper time, the funds were transmitted to Jerusalem. Many tens of thousands of people undertook the transportation of those donations out of fear of the raids of the Parthians, to whom the Babylonians were then subject.

[Asinaios and Anilaios gather a band of young men and herdsmen]

Now there were two brothers, Asinaios and Anilaios, who had been born in Nearda. They had lost their father and their mother had them learn the skill of weaving curtains. (It was not considered a disgrace among them for men to be weavers of cloth.) Now the man who taught them that skill and who was in charge of them complained that they came too late to their work, and he punished them with whippings. However, they took this just punishment as an offence and took away all the weapons which were kept in that house, which were more than a few. They went into a certain place where there was a partition of the rivers, and was a place naturally very fit for the feeding of flocks and for preserving such fruits for the winter. The poorest sort of young men also went to them. The two brothers armed them with the weapons they had gotten and became their captains.

Nothing hindered them leading the young men into trouble. For as soon as they became invincible and had built themselves a fortress, they sent messages to those who fed the flocks and ordered them to pay them a certain amount of tribute that would be sufficient for their needs. The brothers also proposed that the herdsmen would be their friends if they would submit to them, and that the brothers would defend them from any enemies on every side. However, they said that they would kill the flocks of those that refused to obey them. So they listened to their proposals because there was nothing else they could do, and the herdsmen sent them as many sheep as were required of them. Their forces grew greater as a result and they became lords over everyone they pleased because they attacked suddenly and caused mischief. So much so that everybody who had interactions with them chose to pay them respect and they became formidable to any attackers until a report about them reached the ears of the king of Parthia himself.

[Actions by the governor of Babylonia on behalf of the Parthian king Artapanos II]

But when the satrap of Babylonia realized this situation and decided to put a stop to them before they grew stronger and before greater troubles arose, he got together as great an army as he could consisting of Parthians and Babylonians and marched against them. Planning to attack and destroy them before anyone could inform them that he had got an army together, he then encamped at a lake and waited. But on the next day, it was the sabbath (which is a day of rest from all sorts of work among Judeans) and he assumed that the enemy would not dare to fight him on that day. Instead, he would take them and carry them away as prisoners without fighting. He therefore proceeded gradually and planned to attack them suddenly.

Now Asinaios was sitting with the rest with their weapons laying beside them. Asinaios said, “Men, I hear neighing horses not like ones who are feeding but ones who are being ridden by men. I also hear quite a bit of noise from their bridles that I am afraid that some enemies are coming after us to surround us. Now let somebody go to look around and report what the reality is in the present situation. Hopfully what I have said proves to be a false alarm.” And when he had said this, some of them went out to spy out what was the matter and they returned immediately and said to him: “You are neither mistaken in telling us what our enemies were doing and nor will those enemies allow us to injure people any longer. We are caught by their intrigues, like brute beasts. And there is a large body of cavalry marching after us. At the same time, we lack the ability to defend ourselves because we are restrained from doing so because our ancestral laws oblige us to rest.” But Asinaios did not by any means agree with the opinion of his spy regarding what should be done. Instead, he thought it was more in keeping with the law to lift up their spirits in this necessity they faced and break their law by avenging themselves, even though they might die in the action, rather than doing nothing and pleasing their enemies in submitting to be killed by them. Accordingly Asinaios took up his weapons and encouraged those that were with him to act as courageously like himself. So they attacked their enemies and kill a large number of them because they despised them. They had a certain degree of victory and caused the rest to run away.

[Meeting with king Artapanos of Parthia]

But when the news of this clash came to the king of Parthia, he was surprized at the boldness of these brothers and wanted to meet them and speak with them. Therefore, the king sent his most trustworthy guards to say this to them: “King Artapanos (Artabanos) [II (?), reigning ca. 8-40 CE] he has been unjustly treated by you in your attempt against his government. Yet he has more regard for your courageous behaviour, than he has anger towards you. He has sent me to give you his right hand and security. The king permits you to come to him safely and without any violence on the way. He wants you address him as his friends without intending any trick or deceit. He also promises to give you gifts and to pay you respect which will add his power to your courage and thereby be an advantage to you.”

Yet Asinaios delayed his journey there but sent his brother Anilaios with all the presents he could procure. So he went, and was admitted to the king’s presence. When Artapanos saw Anilaios coming alone, he inquired into the reason why Asinaios avoided to come along with him? When Artapanos understood that he was afraid and stayed by the lake, he took an oath by the gods of his country that he would do them no harm if they came to him in addition to the assurances he gave them. He offered him his right hand, and with all these barbarians this is the highest assurance which offers firm security to those who visit with them. For none of them will deceive you once they have given you their right hands. Nor will any one doubt their honesty once that is given, even if they were previously suspected of injustice. When Artapanos had done this, he sent away Anilaios to persuade his brother to come to him.

Now the king did this because he wanted to curb his own satraps by the courage of these Judean brothers in the event that they would try to make an alliance with them. For the satraps were ready for a revolt and were disposed to rebel if they had been sent on an expedition against them [the brothers and their forces]. The king was also afraid that, when he was engaged in a war in order to subdue those governors of provinces that had revolted, the party of Asinaios and those in Babylonia would be further strengthened. He was afraid that they would either make war upon him, when they heard of that revolt or, if they were disappointed in that case, they would not fail in causing further trouble for him.

When the king had these intentions, he sent away Anilaios. Anilaios convinced his brother to come to the king once he had related to him the king’s good will and the oath that he had taken. Accordingly they hurried to visit Artapanos who received them. The king admired Asinaios’s courage in the actions he had done because he appeared to be short and, at first sight, seemed insignificant and not worthy of attention. The king also said to his friends how, upon the comparison, Asinaios had a soul that was in every respect superior to his body.

As they were drinking together, he showed Asinaios to Abdagases, one of the generals of his army, and told him his name and described his great courage in war. Abdagases wanted to leave and kill him and thereby inflict on him a punishment for those injuries he had done to the Parthian government. The king replied, “I will never allow you to kill a man who has depended upon my faith, especially not after I have sent him my right hand and tried to gain his trust by oaths made by the gods. But if are a truly a warlike man, you do not need any breech of my oath. Go, then, and avenge the Parthian government. Attack this man when he returns back and conquer him by the forces that are under your command without my knowledge.”

At this point, the king called for Asinaios and said to him, “It is time for you, young man, to return home and not to provoke the indignation of my generals in this place any further in case they attempt to murder you without my permission. I commit to you the land of Babylonia in trust so that it may be kept free from banditry and other problems under your care. I have kept my faith inviolable to you, and that not in insignificant affairs but in those that concerned your safety. Therefore, I deserve your kindness towards me.” When he had said this and given Asinaios some presents, he sent him away immediately.

[Asianaios’ success in governing Babylonia for fifteen years]

When Asinaios returned home, he built fortresses and became great in a short time [ca. 40 CE]. He managed things with such courage and success like no other person ever before who had such a beginning. Any Parthian satraps who were sent that way paid him great respect. The honour that the Babylonians offered him seemed to them too insignificant and beneath what he deserved, even though in his dignity and power there was significance. No, in fact, all the affairs of Mesopotamia depended upon him, and he flourished more and more in this happy condition of his for fifteen years.

[Disasters set in 55-56 CE]

But as their affairs were flourishing in their leadership, disasters arose among them on the following occasion [ca. 55-56 CE]. When they deviated from their excellent course which had gained them so much power, they transgressed their ancestral customs by means of their lusts and pleasures. A certain Parthian, who came as general of an army into those parts, had a wife following him. She had an excellent reputation for other accomplishments and particularly was admired above all other women for her beauty. Anilaios, the brother of Asinaios, either heard of her beauty from others or perhaps saw her himself. So he quickly became her lover and her enemy, partly because he could not hope to enjoy this woman except by obtaining power over her as a captive and partly because he thought he could not conquer his inclinations for her. Therefore, as soon as her husband had been declared an enemy to them and fell in battle, Anilaios married the widow.

[Disasters caused by the woman, with an ethnographic aside about Parthian customs]

However, this woman did not come into their house without producing great disasters both for Anilaios himself and for Asinaios as well. One of these occurred in the following way: since she was led away captive upon the death of her husband, she concealed the images of her ancestral gods common to her husband and to herself. Now it is the custom of that country for everyone to have the idols they worship in their own houses and to carry them along with them when they go into a foreign land. In keeping with their custom, she carried her idols with her. Now at first she performed her worship to them privately. But when she became Anilaios’ wife, she worshipped them in her customary manner and with the same appointed ceremonies which she used in her former husband’s days.

[Tension between Parthian customs and Judean customs]

At this point, their most respected friends blamed Anilaios at first because he did not follow Hebraic custom or perform what was in keeping with their laws in marrying a wife of another tribe (allophylos) and because he transgressed the careful performance of their sacrifices and ceremonies. They thought he should consider that by allowing himself many pleasures of the body he might lose his authority on account of the beauty of his wife and lose that high leadership which, by God’s blessing, he had received. But when they did not convince him, he killed one of them for whom he had the greatest respect because he had been too frank with him. As he was dying and out of regard for the laws, he imprecated a punishment upon his murderer Anilaios and upon Asinaios and that all their companions might come to a similar end as their enemies, first of all on the two principal actors of this wickedness and secondly upon the rest because they would not assist this man when he suffered in the defence of their laws.

Now those who had not assisted the man were very grieved and yet tolerated these actions because they remembered that they had come to their present happy position by no other means than strength of these men [i.e. the brothers]. However, when they also heard about the worship of the Parthian gods, they thought the harm that Anilaios did to their laws should not be tolerated any longer. A large number of them came to Asinaios and loudly complained about Anilaios. They told him, that it had been good that he himself had seen what was advantageous for them but that it was now the right time to correct what had been done wrong before the crime that had been committed proved the ruin of himself and all the rest of them. They added that the marriage of this woman was made without their consent, and without a regard to their old laws, and that the [foreign] worship which this woman offered was a reproach to the God whom they worshipped.

Now Asinaios was aware that his brother’s offence had already been the cause of great troubles and would continue to be so in the future. Yet he tolerated this as a result of the good will he had towards a close relation. Asinaios forgave his brother on account of the fact that his brother was quite overcome by his wicked inclinations. But since more and more trouble happened around him every day, and the complaints about it became greater, he spoke to Anilaios at length about these complaints. Asinaios reproved Anilaios for his former actions, wanted him to stop them in the future, and wanted him to send the woman back to her family. But nothing was gained by these reproofs. For as the woman perceived what a tumult was made among the people on her account and as she was afraid for Anilaios in case he should come to any harm because of his love for her, she infused poison into Asinaios’ food and killed him. She now prevailed, since her fate would have been judged by her lover.

[Anilaios’ struggles with Mithridates]

So Anilaios assumed the leadership by himself and led his army against the villages of Mithridates. Mithridates was a man of principal authority in Parthia and had married king Artapanos’ daughter. Anilaios also plundered the villages, and much money and many slaves were among the plunder, as well as a great number of sheep and many other things which, when gained, make people happy. Now when Mithridates, who was there at this time, heard that his villages were taken, he was very much displeased to find that Anilaios had first begun to injure him, and to offend him in his present dignity, when he had not offered any injury to him beforehand. So Mithridates got together the greatest body of horsemen he was able and those out of that number which were of an age fit for war, and he came to fight Anilaios. When he arrived at a certain village of his own, he lay still there, intending to fight him on the following day because it was the sabbath, the day on which the Judeans rest. When Anilaios was informed of this by a foreign Syrian from another village (who not only gave him an exact account of other circumstances, but told him where Mithridates would have a feast), he ate his supper at the normal time and marched by night with an intent of attacking the Parthians while they were unaware.

So he attacked them about the fourth watch [about 3am] of the night. He killed some of them while they were sleeping, caused others to flee, and took Mithridates alive. Anilaios stripped Mithridates and put him on a donkey which is considered the greatest insult possible among the Parthians. When Anilaios had brought Mithridates into a forest with such a resolution, and his friends desired him to kill Mithridates, he soon told them his own mind to the contrary. Anilaios said that it was not right to kill a man who was of one of the principal families among the Parthians and greatly honoured by marrying into the royal family. He said that what they had done so far was tolerable because, although they had injured Mithridates, they had preserved his life. This benefit would be remembered by Mithridates to the advantage of those that preserved him. But that if he was put to death, the king would not rest until he had slaughtered the Judeans that lived at Babylon. It was right that they should not kill the Judeans because of their kinship with them and because, if any disaster happened to the Judeans, they would have no other place to escape and those who were in the prime of life died.

By this thought and this speech of his made in council, he persuaded them to act accordingly. So Mithridates was let go. But when he left, his wife reproached him because, although he was son-in-law to the king, he neglected to avenge himself on those that had injured him. He took no care about it, but was contented to have been made a captive by the Judeans and to have escaped them. She asked him to “either go back, like a man of courage or else, I swear by the gods of the royal family, I will certainly dissolve our marriage.” At this point, Mithridates unwillingly and against his inclinations again gathered as great an army as he could and marched along with them. He did this partly because he could not bear the daily trouble of her taunts and partly because he was afraid of her insolence in the event that she would actually dissolve the marriage. He also could not take it any longer that he, a Parthian, should owe his preservation to the Judeans when they had been too difficult for him to defeat in war.

[Mithridates attacks and the slaughter of Judeans]

But as soon as Anilaios understood that Mithridates was marching with a great army against him, he thought it would be disgraceful to stay around the lakes and not to take the first opportunity to confront his enemies. Anilaios hoped to have the same success and to beat these enemies as they did before, as he ventured boldly in similar attempts. Accordingly he led out his army and a great many more joined that army in order to plunder other people and in order to terrify the enemy with their numbers. But when they had marched ninety furlongs, they became very thirsty because the route had been dry. About the middle of the day, Mithridates appeared and attacked them as they were in distress due to lack of water. On this account and on account of the time of the day, they were not able to bear their weapons. So Anilaios and his men faced a disgraceful defeat since they were too exhausted to attack and the enemy was fresh. So a great slaughter took place and many tens of thousands died. Now Anilaios and all those who stood firm with him ran away as fast as they were able into the forest, having given Mithridates the pleasure of a great victory over them.

[Anilaios’ renewed army attacks the Babylonians and is slaughtered by the Babylons]

But now an influx of bad men came to Anilaios, men who regarded their own lives very little if they could only gain some present ease. This influx compensated for the the multitude who had died in the fight. Yet these men were not like those that had died because they were rash and inexperienced in war. However, with these men Anilaios came to the villages of the Babylonians and devastated the villages with the violence they did. So the Babylonians and those that had already been in the war sent ambassadors to Nearda to the Judeans there and demanded Anilaios. But although the Judeans did not agree to their demands (for if they had been willing to deliver Anilaios up, it was not even in their power to do so), they did want to make peace with the Babylonians. The Judeans replied that they also wanted to settle conditions of peace with them and they sent men with the Babylonians to negotiate with Anilaios. However, on assessing his situation and having learned where Anilaios and his men were hiding, the Babylonians secretly attacked them when they were drunk and asleep, killing everyone of them they caught without any fear. They killed Anilaios himself as well.

[Clashes between Babylonians and Judeans at Nearda]

The Babylonians were now freed from Anilaios’ heavy incursions, which had been a significant restraint on their hatred towards the Judeans. For they were almost always at variance with the Judeans because of their contrasting laws. Whatever party became bold before the other then assaulted the other. On this occasion, the Babylonians attacked the Judeans in the wake of the ruin of Anilaios’ party. This made those Judeans so vehemently resentful of the injuries they received from the Babylonians that they went to Seleukeia (or: Seleucia) because they were neither able to fight the Babylonians, nor able to bear living with them.

[Judeans from Nearda resettle among Macedonians, Greeks, and Syrians at Seleukeia, where conflict and slaughter ensues]

Seleukeia [now Baghdad Governorate, Iraq] was the principal city in that region and was built by Seleukos Nikator [reigning ca. 305-281 BCE]. It was inhabited by many of the Macedonians but more so by Greeks. A significant number of Syrians also lived there. The Judeans fled to Seleukeia and lived there five years without any troubles. But in the sixth year [i.e. set in 66 CE] after they were first dispossessed in Babylon and then formed new settlements after leaving that city, a greater disaster happened to them which I will now explain.

Now the way of living of the people of Seleukeia, which were Greeks and Syrians, was commonly quarrelsome and full of discord, and the Greeks were more powerful. So when the Judeans came there and settled among them, conflict arose. Now the Syrians were more powerful than the Greeks due to the assistance of the Judeans. The Judeans were men that despised dangers and were very ready to fight upon any occasion. Now when the Greeks were losing in this conflict, they saw that they had only one way of recovering their former authority. That was if they could prevent the agreement between the Judeans and the Syrians. Each of the Greeks communicated with the Syrians who were formerly their acquaintances and promised they would be at peace and friendship with them. Accordingly they gladly agreed so to do. And when this was done by the principal men of both groups, they soon agreed to a reconciliation. When they were agreed, they both knew that the larger aim for such a union would be their common hatred to the Judeans. Accordingly they attacked the Judeans and killed more than fifty thousand of them. In fact, the Judeans were virtually all destroyed, except a few who escaped by the compassion which their friends or neighbours granted them in order to let them escape.

[Some Judeans escape to Ktesiphon, where tensions with Syrians and Babylonians continue, and then return to Nearda and Nisibis]

Those who escaped went to Ktesiphon [on the Tigris, now Salman Pak, Iraq], a Greek city situated near to Seleukeia where the king of Parthia lives in winter every year and where most of his wealth is located. But the Judeans did not have a secure settlement here since those from Seleukeia had little concern for the king’s honour. Now the whole Judean people (ethnos) was in fear both of the Babylonians and of the Seleukeians because all the Syrians that live in those places agreed with the Seleukeians in the war against the Judeans. So the majority gathered themselves together and went to Nearda and Nisibis and obtained security there by the strength of those cities. Besides this, their inhabitants, who were populous, were all war-like men. This was the state of the Judeans at this time in Babylonia.

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