Hyrcanus II1500 Soldiers to Rescue Julius Caesar in Alexandria Egypt

In book XIV of his Jewish Antiquities Flavius Josephus preserves a number of official documents issued by Caesar or voted with his initiative, which are considered to be of great importance for the study of the Jewish political history of this period. Dated between 48 and 44 B.C., they attest the renovation of the Romeo-Jewish “alliance and friendship” and confirm the Jewish right to live according to their ancestral laws and to benefit from all privileges derived from their religious liberty (Saulnier, 1981, 161-195; Pucci-Ben Zeev, 1998, 31-136.). The fragmentary character of these documents makes it extremely difficult to re-establish their internal relations and none of the classifications proposed by modern scholars, including mine below, can pretend to be more than a chain composed on the basis of a more or less arbitrary combination of different passages. However, the information contained in them is enough to illuminate us on to what extent the measures taken by Caesar modified the Jewish situation, not only in Judaea but also in the Diaspora.

The first of the documents issued by Caesar seems to be the one reproduced in Antiquities XIV 199:

Gaius Caesar, Imperator, Dictator, Consul, in recognition of the honour, virtue and benevolence of Hyrcanus, son of Alexander, and in the interest of the Senate, and people of Rome, has granted that both he and his sons shall be high priests and priests of Jerusalem and of their nation with the same rights and under the same regulations as those under which their forefathers uninterruptedly held the office of priest.

Thus, Hyrcanus II and his descendants are confirmed as high priests enjoying all the rights of and having equal power with their precursors. This document, dated possibly to the beginning of 47 B.C. (Momigliano, 1934, 193-194), constitutes the declaration of Caesar’s beneficence towards the Jews. Although the title of ethnarch does not appear here, the ancient dignity of high priesthood and the hereditary character of the post are explicitly restored to Hyrcanus and his sons.

The following document seems to be the “Letter of Caesar to Sidon” (Ant. XIV, 190- 195), situated under the second dictatorship of Caesar, i.e. in 47, issued possibly immediately after his Egyptian campaign and during his journey by Syria (Broughton, vol. II, 1952, 284- 286 and vol. III, 1986, 16-107). This is actually a compilation of two documents: a “Letter to Sidon” (§§ 190-191) and a “Decree” concerning again Hyrcanus II (§§ 192-195):

Decree of Julius Caesar to Sidon

Gaius Julius Caesar, Imperator and Pontifex Maximus, Dictator for the second time, to the magistrates, council and people of Sidon, greeting. […] I am sending you a copy of the decree, inscribed on a tablet, concerning Hyrcanus, son of Alexander, the high priest and ethnarch of the Jews, in order that it may be deposited among your public records. It is my wish that this be set up on a tablet of bronze in both Greek and Latin. It reads as follows:

I, Julius Caesar, Imperator and Pontifex Maximus, Dictator for the second time, have decided with the advice of the council. Whereas the Jew Hyrcanus, son of Alexander, both now and in the past, in time of peace as well as in war, has shown loyalty and zeal toward our state, as many commanders have testified on his behalf, and in the recent Alexandrian war came to our aid with fifteen hundred soldiers, and being sent by me to Mithridates, surpassed in bravery all those in the ranks, for these reasons it is my wish that Hyrcanus, son of Alexander, and his children, shall be ethnarchs of the Jews and shall hold the office of high priesthood of the Jews for all time in accordance with their national customs, and that he and his sons shall be our allies and also be numbered among our particular friends; and whatever high-priestly rights or other privileges exist in accordance with their laws, these he and his children shall possess by my command. And if, during this period, any question shall arise concerning the Jews’ manner of life, it is my pleasure that the decision shall rest with them. Nor do I approve of troops being given winter-quarters among them or of money being demanded of them.”

Thus, Julius Caesar renders the Jews the Roman friendship; however, there is no mention of the “Jewish nation”, as in the case of the renovation of the Treaty of 161 B.C.E. by the successors of Judah Maccabeus. Now it is Hyrcanus, son of Alexander, and his sons who are officially included, according to the decree, in the number of “roman friends” because of their fidelity and diligence and of the military support that Hyrcanus had offered Caesar in the Alexandrian war (§§ 192-193). We are more than sure –as he was probably Hyrcanus himself– that in a period in which Rome was presented as the ruler of the whole world, being “friend of the Romans” represented nothing more than a diplomatic courtesy; an honorary title conferred evidently on everyone who was in an inferior position and no real political impact should be expected from it.

But the decree goes further, conferring on Hyrcanus and his sons the ethnarchy and high priesthood with all capacities assigned to these offices, according to the Jewish ancestral laws, and it is certainly here that the importance of this document resides: the high priest of the Jews traditionally acquired political power too; at the same time, he represented the supreme judicial authority of the country, since, according to the Jewish religion, the Law of God concerned the religious and civic life of people equally. What is more, the Jewish traditional rights included the perception of an annual tax in the profit of the Temple. These capacities of the high priest, having been abolished by Pompey, or, more possibly, after the reform of Gabinius in 57-55 B.C. (Bellum, I, 169-170; Ant. XIV, 90-92), were now restored to Hyrcanus, implying Caesar’s intention to restore in Judaea the status quo ante-Pompeium. On the other hand, the decree defines the sphere of influence of Hyrcanus, which was no more confined within the limits of Judaea but included also the Jewish communities of the Diaspora and it has been reasonably enough suggested that, apart from this one, more copies of the decree must have been sent to all Greek cities, in which there were Jewish communities (Ginsburg, 1928, 89-91). Another interesting element is that in all documents from 47 B.C.E. onwards, Hyrcanus is considered “high priest of the Jews” as a “nation” referring both to the Jews of the metropolis and those of the Diaspora. Thus, what had traditionally been internal relations between the metropolis and the Diaspora communities, were now acquiring the importance of an official right conferred on the Jews by Caesar.

Therefore, Caesar established and confirmed the power of Hyrcanus in Judaea and in the Diaspora, while at the same time, by allowing him the title of ethnarch, a title possessed by Simon Maccabeus and Hyrcanus I, he justified his succession and emphasised the hereditary character of this office (Ant. XIV, 194 and 199); a symbolic action of Caesar with a great ideological significance: first of all it declares the desire of Rome to restore traditional “Romeo-Jewish friendship”; secondly, it emphasises the indispensable element of this friendship, residing in the Jewish recognition of Roman supremacy. For now, it is Rome and not the Jews themselves (as they used to be) that determined the relations of the Jewish leader (archon) with his people (ethnos): the appointment of the ethnarch of the Jews and the definition of his power constituted no more an internal Jewish issue but a product of Roman decision.

Source: Anistoriton Journal, vol. 14 (2014-2015)