Jewish Revolt against TrajanOne undisputed fact remains: the brief idyll between the benevolent imperial couple (e.g. Trajan and  Plotina) and the Jews was soon to be shattered by the revolt of 115. The reaction of the Roman government fulfilled the desire of Hermaiskos to see the emperor support his “own people” instead of defending the “impious Jews.” And the image of Trajan as friend and protector of the Jews was to give way to that of a Trajan bent on persecution and destruction.

In the summer of 115 C.E., the Jews of the Western and Eastern diasporas rose up against the Romans. For more than two years, from the eighteenth year of Trajan’s reign to the beginning of the reign of Hadrian in August-September 117, in Cyrenaica, Egypt, Cyprus, Mesopotamia, and perhaps even in Judaea itself, a relentless war pitted the Jewish population against the imperial legions. In the turmoil of the general disaster, the Hellenized Jews of Egypt perished, with all their worldly possessions. The war of 66-73 had its historian, but in 115-117 no Josephus was present to spell out the details of the conflict. Today, archaeological evidence concerning Cyrenaica and papyrological data concerning Egypt allow us to reconstitute the events, their causes and their consequences, with a reasonable degree of certainty. These documents can help us interpret the rare literary texts―pagan, Jewish, and Christian―which, until a recent date, had been our sole guide. The most important among these texts is a note by Eusebius of Caesarea, taking up the thread of pagan authors of the second or third century C.E., whose identification is difficult.


In the course of the eighteenth year of the reign of the Emperor [Trajan], a rebellion of the Jews again broke out which led to the destruction of many of their numbers. For both in Alexandria and in the rest of Egypt and especially in Cyrene, as though they had been seized by some terrible spirit of rebellion, they rushed into sedition against their Greek fellow inhabitants, and, increasing the scope of the rebellion in the following year, started a great war while Lupus was governor of all Egypt. In the first engagement they happened to overcome the Greeks, who fled to Alexandria and captured and killed the Jews in the city, but though thus losing the help of the townsmen, the Jews of Cyrene continued to plunder the country of Egypt and to ravage the districts in it under their leader Loukouas.

The Emperor sent against them Marcius Turbo with land and sea forces including cavalry. He waged war vigorously against them in many battles for a considerable time and killed many thousands of Jews and not only those of Cyrene, but also those of Egypt who had rallied to Loukouas their king. The Emperor suspected that the Jews in Mesopotamia would also attack the inhabitants and ordered Lusius Quietus to clean them out of the province. He organized a force and murdered a great multitude of the Jews there, and for this success was appointed governor of Judea by the emperor. The Greek authors who chronicle the same period have related the narrative in these very words.

Eusebius dates the outbreak of the revolt from the eighteenth year of Trajan, 115 C.E. (in Egypt, this eighteenth year ran from August 29, 114, to August 29, 115). The papyri indicate the beginning (June-July 115) and even the exact end (August 117) of the struggle, which lasted, according to Eusebius’ source, “for a considerable time” (ouk oligoi chronoi). The exact spot where the revolt broke out is more difficult to ascertain. Riots occurred in Alexandria and elsewhere in Egypt, as well as in Cyrene; it is hard to determine which Jewish community had given the signal for the general insurrection. Cyrene played a considerable role, since it brought to the fore Andreas-Loukouas, whom the Egyptian Jews seem to have adopted as their leader.

In the traditional manner of Judeo-pagan quarrels, the troubles began with an uprising (stasis) of the Jews against their Greek neighbors. The disorders (thoryboi) spread throughout the country. Thus, what had begun as a local agitation (tarachos, tumultus) soon turned into a veritable war (polemos). the emperor named a special envoy, Marcius Turbo, and endowed him with extraordinary powers;  he massacred the Jewish rebels by thousands. During his mission, the prefect of Egypt, M. Rutilius Lupus (attested between January 113 and January 117) was probably under his orders. In Mesopotamia, a similar mission had been entrusted to Lusius Quietus, whose name appears in rabbinical texts mentioning “the war of Quietus” (polemos shel Qitos).

And what of Alexandria? Eusebius’ sources speak of Greeks who fell upon Alexandria, where they set upon the Jews of the capital, preventing them from rejoining their fellow rebels in the chora. The following document may have referred to these hostilities. Its numerous lacunae render its exact interpretation problematic; it can, nonetheless, be identified as an edict promulgated by M. Rutilius Lupus, Prefect of Egypt.


They (Jews) are preparing fire and weapons against us. I know that they are few, but they are supported by many more and provided for by the powerful, who pay not to be abused and maltreated. The wickedness of the few can justly be called a reproach to the whole city. I know that most of them are slaves; that is why their masters are blamed.

I therefore bid them all not to simulate anger for the sake of profit. They should recognize that we now know who they are. Let them not trust to my indulgence or (to the entreaties made in the days when i forced myself to protect all i could). If anyone has charges to make, there is a judge sent by the Emperor for this purpose. For not even governors have the power to execute without trial, and there is a proper time for a trial just as there is a proper place and a proper method of punishment.

Let there be an end of those who say, some truly, some falsely, that they have been wounded, and demand justice violently and unjustly; for there was no need to be wounded. Some of these errors could perhaps have had an excuse before the battle between the Romans and the Jews, but now they are purposeless judgments, which have never been permitted.

The nineteenth year of Trajan, Phaophi 16.

The Egyptian date on the document corresponds to October 14, 115 C.E., which seems to fit the facts very well. The prefect was addressing the Greeks of Alexandria, more exactly those who wanted to make the Jews pay for the disorders provoked by their coreligionists of the chora. It seems that they had mobilized commandos of slaves, dangling before them the prospect of unbridled pillaging of Jewish property, thus rendering the entire city responsible for their doings. The prefect reminds them that they were strictly bound to conform to the established norms of justice, and he condemns all lynching. Since his rhetoric is hardly a model of clarity, one may well ask what he meant by “the battle between the Romans and the Jews.” Had there already been a battle (mache)? Or was Lupus referring to the memory of a past event, such as the intervention, in 66, of the Roman army under the governorship of Tiberius Julius Alexander, in the hope of averting a similar intervention in the present circumstances?

The revolt continued unabated and, although there was a lull in Alexandria, strife reigned in the Egyptian countryside. Eusebius’ sources tell us that the expeditionary force under Marcius Turbo waged “many battles” (pollai machai) against the Jews. Not only did the Jews have to stand up to the Roman army, but they also had to face the Greeks and Egyptians who fought alongside it.

The causes of the revolt were manifold; they have not yet been explained in a satisfactory manner, no more than, no more than were those of the war of 66-73. Much attention has been paid to the Messianic aspect of the movement. Indeed, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Messianic movement had been steadily gaining ground. The zealots proclaimed the fall of the Temple to be only a premonitory sign. The “end of all times” was near at hand, when the domination of the Romans would give way to a restored Jewish kingdom. Judaean zealots who had fled to Alexandria and Cyrene could very well have spread such ideas, inflaming people’s minds and hastening the outbreak of the revolt. This could help explain the title of king that Eusebius’ source attributed to Andreas-Loukouas, the leader of the rebellion, since the Messiah awaited by the Jews was supposed to belong to the royal lineage of David. According to Hegesippus, an eastern Christian monk from the end of the second century (also quoted by Eusebius), the Roman authorities, from the time of Vespasian up to Trajan, had instituted a sort of manhunt for all of David’s descendants; Andreas-Loukouas had managed to slip through the holes in their dragnet.

In Mesopotamia, the Jewish revolt coincided with a general insurrection of the Parthians. In Egypt, the Jews were alone on the battleground. There was no chance whatsoever that their rebellion be the signal for the entire country to rise up against the Roman yoke. For an impartial observer, their courage was nothing but folly. The pagan Greek writer quoted by Eusebius could not understand how an isolated provincial minority would dare to attack the Romans, “masters of the inhabited earth,” instead of accepting, like everyone else (or nearly everyone else), the benefits of the Pax Romana. He believed that “a terrible spirit of rebellion” had taken hold of the Jews. At the beginning of the fifth century CE, the Christian historian Orosius, taking up the thread of Eusebius’ comments, wrote that the Jews had “become wild, as if they had been seized by rabies” (quasi rabie efferati). They had pitted themselves, alone, against the Romans, the Egyptians and the Greeks. Alone, they were to pay the price of their folly.

Source: Joseph Mélèze Modrzejewski. The Jews of Egypt. (p. 197-202, 204-205, 214-215, 217-218)

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