The Political Rights and Status of the Jews in Alexandria under Roman Rule

Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt around 331 BC. The Jewish historian Josephus claimed that Jews had been part of Alexandria since its founding and that Alexander “finding the Jews very ready to help against the Egyptians, rewarded their active support with permission to reside in the city with the same rights as the Greeks.” (1) Since the Egyptians welcomed Alexander as their liberator from the Persians, it is hard to see what help the Jews could have been against the Egyptians, so Josephus’ claim should have always been treated with suspicion. Nevertheless, historians once assumed that this meant that the Jews had been citizens of Alexandria. In 1890 Emil Schurer wrote that “in Alexandria the Jews obtained citizen rights when the city was founded.” (2) This assumption has now been largely discredited. The rights, legal status and aspirations of the Jews in Alexandria were more complicated.

By the middle of the third century BC there was an established Jewish community in Alexandria. The Jews were permitted to be a politeuma which Aryeh Kasher defines as “a national (or religious) group enjoying certain political privileges, first and foremost the maintenance of an independent judicial system and community establishment, on the basis of the right to preserve ancestral customs.” (3) In the case of the Jews, the preservation of their ancestral customs meant the protection of their religious beliefs. The rights of the Alexandrian Jews under Roman rule were basically a continuation of their established rights under the Ptolemies (4).

During the Ptolemaic period, relations between the Jews and Greeks of Alexandria were relatively peaceful, compared with the clashes under the Romans, suggesting that Roman rule contributed to the conflict (5). Many Jews had supported Roman intervention. They supported the Roman-backed Ptolemy XII Auletus in 55 BC. Around 48-47 BC King Antipater of Judea, who had aligned himself with Julius Caesar, persuaded the Jews of Egypt, who had initially opposed Caesar, to side with him (6). Caesar recorded that when he landed in Alexandria in 48 BC, he was supported by some of the inhabitants (7). Although Caesar did not say who his supporters were, Aryeh Kasher argues that they were the Alexandrian Jews who were later rewarded for their support (8).

In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus wrote that “Julius Caesar made a pillar of brass for the Jews at Alexandria, and declared publicly that they were citizens of Alexandria.” (9) He repeated this claim in Against Apion (10). He is attributing to Caesar what he had previously attributed to Alexander and again appears to be saying that the Jews were citizens in the same sense that the Greeks were. Even though both Josephus and Philo referred to the Jews of Alexandria as citizens (11), as we shall see, there are incidents which suggest they could not have been citizens.

Josephus inconveniently does not say what this brass pillar at Alexandria said, however he goes on to record how Caesar rewarded Hycarnus the high priest for his support. Thus, Kasher argues that he also rewarded the Alexandrian Jews for their support by guaranteeing their rights (12). He further argues that these rights which “Julius Caesar granted the Jews of Alexandria in effect established the political and legal foundations for Jewish rights throughout the Roman empire in subsequent generations.” (13)

Josephus reproduces several pro-Jewish decrees from the Diaspora from this time. He cited a decree from Sardis which said the Jews “may, in accordance with their accepted customs, come together and have a communal life and adjudicate suits among themselves, and that a place be given them in which they may gather together with their wives and children and offer their ancestral prayers and sacrifices to God.” (14)

A decree from Ephesus read, “Since the Jews that dwell in this city have petitioned Marcus Julius Pomeperus, the son of Brutus, that they may be allowed to observe their Sabbaths, and to act in all things according to the customs of their forefathers, without impediment from everyone, the praetor has granted their petition. Accordingly, it was decreed by the senate and people that in this affair that concerned the Romans, no one of them should be hindered from keeping the Sabbath day, nor be fined for doing so; but that they may be allowed all things according to their own laws.” (15)

These sound like descriptions of a politeuma where the Jews of a city were granted autonomy to manage their own affairs and live according to their customs and religious beliefs. They were further allowed to raise taxes for the temple and be exempt from military service. (16)

If the Jews had to worship the gods of a city, that would violate their religious beliefs that theirs was the only true God, while “pagan” foreigners, who would have believed that the local gods were different manifestations of their own gods, would not mind worshipping them. This meant the Jews were granted an exemption from the civic responsibility to worship and appease the gods of the city. (17)

Many historians believe that Josephus was further mistaken and the rights and privileges of the Jews in Alexandria were granted by Augustus instead (18). Josephus later records a decree by Augustus, dated to around 3 BC, in response to the mistreatment of the Jews in Asia Minor and Libya, which said that because of their past support for Rome, “the Jews may follow their own customs in accordance with the laws of their fathers … and that their sacred monies should be inviolable and may be sent to Jerusalem and delivered to the treasurers in Jerusalem.” He continued that Jews did not have to appear in court on the Sabbath since it violated their religious beliefs and anyone, stealing their sacred books and money offerings, would have their property confiscated (19).

These decrees were addressed to specific areas, however they were consistent in what they said the rights and privileges of the Jews were. Josephus implies that they applied to all Jews in the empire including Alexandria. He later quotes two edicts of Claudius saying the rights of the Jews of Alexandria to observe their own customs and religious practices had been granted by Augustus (20).

If Julius Caesar did nothing about the rights of the Alexandrian Jew, then Augustus was their foundation. Philo attributes the origin of their rights to Augustus (21), describing him as “our saviour and benefactor,” (22) and because of his rulings, “Therefore, all people in every country, even if they were not naturally well inclined towards the Jewish nation, took great care not to violate or attack any of the Jewish customs or laws.” (23)

Kasher’s argument that Julius Caesar granted the Jews of Alexandria their rights which were the foundation of their rights throughout the empire is plausible, but lacks the crucial documentary evidence relating to Alexandria. Other evidence of Josephus and Philo suggests that Augustus granted the same basic rights to all Jews in the empire, including Alexandria, guaranteeing their religious freedom.

The Alexandrian Greeks resented Roman rule. As its capital in Egypt, the Roman government appointed important city officials and controlled the granting of citizenship, the city’s constitution and the minting of coins. The Alexandrians were not allowed a boule (council) and the gerousia (council of elders) and magistrates were probably appointed by the Roman government. A Roman legion was stationed there. Admittedly, the sovereignty of the Alexandrian polis had been similarly curtailed under the Ptolemies, but, at least, the Alexandrian Greeks had a Greek pharaoh ruling them (24)

In contrast, the Jews had an ethnarch, their own ethnic ruler. Josephus quoted Strabo saying, “There is also an ethnarch allowed them, who governs the nation [the Jewish politeuma of Alexandria] and distributed justice to them, and takes care of their contracts, and of the laws to them belonging, as if he were the ruler of a free republic.” (25)

To the Greeks, it must have looked like their own sovereignty had been curtailed, while the alien Jews had collaborated with their oppressors and been rewarded with greater sovereignty.

Around 11-12 AD, Augustus abolished the position of ethnarch and replaced it with a gerousia (council of elders) which he appointed. Philo gives no reason for the abolition of the position (26). Perhaps he wanted to “level the playing field” and defuse a point of resentment so it would not appear to the Greeks that the Jews were more privileged.

Roman policy in Alexandria was not necessarily pro-Jewish at the expense of the Greeks as evident in an incident, which suggests that the Jews were not citizens of Alexandria . When Germanicus visited around 19 AD, the Jews did not receive the corn ration to which citizens were entitled. When Apion raised this, Josephus argued that it was because there was not enough corn to go around, but he did not accuse Germanicus of violating their rights as citizens (27).

Earlier, around 24 BC, Augustus introduced the poll tax (laographia) on the Egyptians. Citizens of Alexandria and some other cities were exempt. Hellenes (Greek non-citizens) could apply for a reduced rate if they met three criteria of living in a city, owning land and having a Greek education. Native Egyptians had to pay the full tax. If the Jews of Alexandria had been citizens, as was once assumed, they would have been exempt, but they had to pay the full amount, showing they were not citizens (28).

There were apparently other non-Jewish politeuma in Alexandria, representing the Phrygians, Boeotians and Cilicians (29). There is no evidence they were involved in violent clashes with the Greeks, like the Jews were. This was partly because the other groups were fellow “pagans”. They could sacrifice to the gods of the Alexandrians and were not blatantly different like the Jews were. Furthermore, according to Philo, two of the five districts of Alexandria were predominantly Jewish (30). This meant that up to 40% of the population of Alexandria could have been Jews. The other 60% were not all Greek citizens, but included Hellenes, Romans, Egyptians and other foreigners. It is possible that the Jews were the largest political group in Alexandria. Like modern-day opponents of immigration, the sheer number of Jews would have been a threat to the Greek citizens of Alexandria who thought they were going to take over if they were not stopped.

In 38, Flaccus, the Roman governor of Alexandria, needed the support of the Alexandrians against Gaius and turned against the Jews. Synagogues were desecrated with statues of the emperor, which suggests they had previously been legally protected (31). Philo records that Flaccus “proceeded onwards to another exploit, namely, the utter destruction of our constitution, that when all those things to which alone our life was anchored were cut away, namely our national customs and our lawful political rights and social privileges, …. he issued a notice in which he called us all foreigners and aliens.” (32) He apparently dissolved the politeuma, stripping the Jews of their legal rights and protection, resulting in a “pogrom”.

Philo also recorded that there were different levels of punishments, depending on one’s status; “Accordingly, it is usual for the Egyptians of the country themselves to be scourged with a different kind, and by a different class of executioners, but for the Alexandrians in the city to be scourged with rods by the Alexandrian lichtors, and this custom had been preserved in the case also of our own people.” (33) The last phrase, “in the case also of our own people”, suggests that the Jews were not the same as the Alexandrians, the Greek citizens, but they were treated the same and better than the Egyptians. After the Jews had been stripped of their rights, even the council members were punished as though they were Egyptians (34).

After Flaccus was replaced, both the Jews and Greeks sent delegations to Rome to resolve the conflict. Josephus records an edict of Claudius in which he refers to the “Jews of Alexandria, called Alexandrians” and restores their privileges and rights to observe their own customs (35). He basically reinstated the politeuma.

In 1924, a papyrus letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians was published. Although John Barclay believes it is another version of the same decision quoted by Josephus (36), Mary Smallwood suggests that it is a later ruling in response to another delegation from Alexandria (37). This time, while Claudius again affirmed that the Jews’ rights were protected, he warned them “not to aim at more than they previously had” and pointed out that they lived “in a city which is not their own.” (38) Claudius made it clear that the Jews were not citizens of Alexandria. He further warned the Jews not to infiltrate the gymnasium (and thereby receive a Greek education and citizenship) and not to encourage the immigration of more Jews to Alexandria.

The evidence of the poll tax and Claudius’ second edict clearly shows that the Alexandrian Jews were not citizens. Nevertheless, Jews like Josephus and Philo referred to them as citizens. Some Jews apparently wanted to be citizens in order to avoid paying the poll tax. There is a papyrus fragment of a petition written by Helenos, son of Tryphon. This petition is fragmentary, but it appears that Helenos’ father was a citizen, but for some reason, he was not and he was appealing against paying the poll tax (39). He described himself as an “Alexandrian”, but then corrected it to “a Jew from Alexandria.” Helenos apparently thought of himself as an Alexandrian in the sense that he lived in Alexandria, but he did not think it was appropriate in a legal document. In a legal sense, an Alexandrian was a citizen of Alexandria.

Josephus records that Apion wondered why the Alexandrian Jews could call themselves Alexandrians, which suggests that the Alexandrian Greeks believed that only they had the right to call themselves Alexandrians. Josephus argued that the Jews could call themselves Alexandrians because they had been part of the city since its founding (40) and claimed that Claudius agreed.

Helenos’ father was an Alexandrian citizen and could have also been a Jew. Some individual Jews were Alexandrian citizens. In On the Migration of Abraham, Philo wrote that Jews were not to sit in juries on the Sabbath (41). Since a Jewish court would not meet on the Sabbath, only a Greek court, and only citizens could be members of a Greek jury, this suggests that some Jews were Alexandrian citizens (42). However, a Jew, like any citizen, was expected to worship the city’s gods. To be an Alexandrian citizen required apostasy from Judaism.

3 Maccabees is a historical novel set during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (222-203 BC) but was most likely written in its final form during the first century AD (43). According to 3 Maccabees, Ptolemy IV ordered that the Jews must sacrifice to Dionysus and their names are to be recorded in a census (laographia), the same term used for the poll-tax. The Jews, who did worship Dionysus, are to be “given the full rights of native Alexandrians.” (44) Ptolemy IV later repented and gave the faithful Jews permission to kill the apostate Jews who had obeyed his earlier command (45). This sounds like a veiled warning against Jews who were prepared to worship the Greek gods in order to gain Alexandrian citizenship and avoid the poll-tax.

There is a petition, referred to as the “Papyrus of the Boule”, dated to around 20 BC, in which the Alexandrians requested to be allowed to form a boule (council) in order to stop “uncultured and uneducated people” claiming to be citizens in order to avoid paying the poll-tax. This is believed to refer to Jews who were trying to pass themselves off as Greek citizens (46).

One might have expected the Greeks would not have objected to Jews who wanted to become citizens if they were prepared to worship their gods. Josephus quoted Apion , asking, “If the Jews are citizens of Alexandria, why do they not worship the same gods with the Alexandrians?” (47) This may mean that there were some Jews who wanted the “best of both worlds” and be Greek citizens and still worship Yahweh (48). However, Claudius’ second edict warned the Jews not to infiltrate the gymnasium as a way of obtaining Greek citizen. A conservative Jew would not want to attend the gymnasium, only a more liberal Hellenized one, who would have presumably not objected to worshipping the Alexandrian gods (49). It appears that the Alexandrian Greeks objected to even Hellenized Jews wanting to be citizens.

Alternatively, Apion’s complaint may have meant the Jews were claiming that their politeuma was equal to the Greek polis and being members or citizens of the politeuma of Alexandria made them the equivalent of the citizens of the polis of Alexandria. Therefore, they were entitled to call themselves “citizens” and they did not have to pay the poll tax (50). This seems to be the best explanation for the contradictory use of the term “citizen”. When Claudius warned the Jews “not to aim at more than they previously had”, he put a stop to these aspirations, making it clear they were not citizens. Membership of a polituema was not the equivalent of citizenship in a polis.

Philo claims that Flaccus later repented of his actions, saying, “In past times I reproached them with ignominy as being foreigners, though they were in truth sojourners in the land entitled to full privileges.” (51) Regardless of the historicity of Flaccus’ repentance, this sounds like an acknowledgement by Philo that the Jews were not citizens of Alexandria, but sojourners, entitled to legal protection and rights as members of the politeuma.

Josephus believed that one of the causes of the Jewish revolt in Judea in 66 was the clashes with the local Gentiles who violated the Jews’ religious sensibilities, and the inability of the local Roman rulers to resolve these clashes to the Jews’ satisfaction. They lost confidence in Roman rule and rebelled (52). Although there was a violent clash with the Greeks and Roman soldiers in Alexandria at the same time, the Jews did not also revolt. After their defeat in Judea, some of the Sicarii escaped to Alexandria, where they tried to incite the Jews to revolt against Roman rule. The Alexandrian Jews were not interested and turned them over to the Romans. In spite of similar problems, this suggests that the Alexandrian Jews still had some confidence in Roman rule to protect their rights.

In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus records how at this time the citizens of Alexandria and Antioch petitioned Titus and Vespasian that the Jews’ “privileges of citizens” be taken away. This sounds like a request to curtail or dissolve the politeuma. Josephus says that in spite of the war in Judea, “they did not take away any of their forementioned privileges belonging to them as citizens.” (53) This is not completely true. With the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the Jews in the Diaspora were no longer allowed to collect their temple tax. Instead, all Jews, including those in Alexandria, had to pay a tax which Josephus mentions but does not say that it was used to rebuild a pagan temple in Rome (54). Otherwise, their rights survived the first Jewish revolt largely intact (55).

In concluding, we have seen that, on the whole, the Jews of Alexandria were not citizens of Alexandria. They enjoyed the rights and legal protection of a politeuma to manage their affairs and practise their religion freely. These rights were resented by many Greeks who saw them as collaborators with their Roman occupiers and, because of their numbers and demands to be treated as though they were citizens, a threat. According to Eusebius, the Diaspora revolt of 115-117 started out as a conflict between Jews and Greeks, rather than a revolt against Rome. There were other factors. The revolt did not begin in Alexandria and engulfed Egypt, Libya and Cyprus and its leader Lukuas appears to have been a messianic pretender (56). Nevertheless, the long-standing resentment and bitterness in Alexandria between the Jews and Greeks, largely due to their Roman-backed politeuma, appears to have been a contributing factor which finally exploded, leading to the decimation of the Jewish community in Alexandria (57). The rights and privileges, granted to the Jews by Rome, resulted in resentment and conflict, which led to their destruction by Rome.

Notes

(1) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:18:7

(2) Schurer, E., A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ 175 BC – AD 135, Vol 1, Part 1, (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1973), p 271-271

(3) Kasher, A., The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Tubingen : J.C.B. Mohr, 1985), p 4

(4) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:18:7

(5) Smallwood, E.M., The Jews under Roman Rule (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981), p 224

(6) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14:8:1

(7) Julius Caesar, Bellum Alexandrium, 7:3

(8) The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, op cit., p 13-17

(9) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14:10:1

(10) Josephus, Against Apion, 2:37

(11) Philo, Embassy, 194

(12) The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, op cit., p 17-18

(13) Ibid., p 18

(14) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14:10:24

(15) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14:10:23

(16) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14:10:11-24

(17) Tcherikover, T.V., Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2004), p 305-306

(18) Barclay, J.M.G., The Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1996), p 48-49

(19) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 16:6:2

(20) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 19:5:2-3

(21) Philo, Embassy, 148, 311-320, Flaccus, 50

(22) Philo, Flaccus, 74

(23) Philo, Embassy, 159

(24) The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, op cit., p 168-172

(25) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14:7:2

(26) Philo, Flaccus, 74

(27) Josephus, Against Apion, 2:63

(28) Modrzejewski, J.M., The Jews of Egypt (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1995), p 161-163

(29) Smallwood, E.M., The Jews under Roman Rule (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981), p 226

(30) Philo, Flaccus, 55

(31) Philo, Flaccus, 43-49

(32) Philo, Flaccus, 53-54

(33)Philo, Flaccus, 78-79

(34) Philo, Flaccus, 80

(35) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 19:5:2-3

(36) The Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora, op cit., p 247-250

(37) The Jews under Roman Rule, op cit., p 247-250

(38) Feldman, L.H., Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), p 91-92

(39) The Jews of Egypt, op cit., p 164, The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, op cit., p 200-201

(40) Josephus, Against Apion, 3:33-47

(41) Philo, On the Migration of Abraham, 91

(42) The Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora, op cit., p 68

(43) Collins, J.J., Between Athens and Jerusalem, Second Edition (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000), p 124

(44) 3 Maccabees 2:28-30

(45) 3 Maccabees 7:10-15

(46) Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, op cit., p 313, Between Athens and Jerusalem, op cit., p 117

(47) Josephus, Against Apion, 2:6

(48)The Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora, op cit., p 69-70

(49) Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, op cit., p 313-314, 327

(50) The Jews under Roman Rule, op cit., p 330, The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, op cit., p 260-261

(51 Philo, Flaccus, 172

(52) Bilde, P., “The Causes of the Jewish War according to Josephus”, Journal for the
Study of Judaism, Vol. 10 (1979), pp 179-202

(53) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 12:3:1

(54) Josephus, Jewish War, 7:6:6

(55) Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, op cit., p 99

(56) Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4:2

(57) The Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora, op cit., p 80

Bibliography

Books

Barclay, J.M.G., The Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1996)

Collins, J.J., Between Athens and Jerusalem, Second Edition (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000)

Feldman, L.H., Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993)

Kasher, A., The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Tubingen : J.C.B. Mohr, 1985)

Modrzejewski, J.M., The Jews of Egypt (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1995)

Schurer, E., A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ 175 BC – AD 135, Vol 1, Part 1, (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1973)

Smallwood, E.M., The Jews under Roman Rule (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981)

Tcherikover, T.V., Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2004)

Articles

Bell, H.I., “Anti-Semitism in Alexandria”, Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 31 (1941), pp 1-18

Bilde, P., “The Causes of the Jewish War according to Josephus”, Journal for the
Study of Judaism, Vol. 10 (1979)

Rajak, T., “Was There a Roman Charter for the Jews?”, Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 74 (1984), pp 107-123


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