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64 B.C.E. ― 10 B.C.E. Nicolaus of Damascus

Coin of King Herod FrontAn Important Source for Titus Flavius Josephus (born Joseph Matityahu 37 – 100 C.E.)

A historian, scholar and prolific writer, born at Damascus c. 64 B.C.E., Nicolaus came from a prominent family in his native city. His father, Antipater, fulfilled various tasks on behalf of the community; he served on foreign missions and was also elected to the municipal ἀϱxαί of Damascus. Nicolaus’ descendants were still conspicuous in that city after many generations.

The part played by his father in the municipal life of Damascus implies that Nicolaus was not of a Jewish family, and this becomes undisputable with the statement in Suda, s.v. Άντίπατϱος, that before this death Antipater ordered his two sons, Nicolaus and Ptolemy, to fulfil his vow to Zeus. His Hellenic consciousness and sympathies are well illustrated by the counsel he gave to Archelaus, the heir of Herod the Great, not to object to the bestowal of autonomy on Greek cities formerly included in his father’s kingdom, and by his refusal to represent the same Archelaus on the question of that autonomy before Augustus.

Nicolaus was included among the Peripatetics. He had the wide scholarly and literary range of interests commonly attributed to the members of that school, also excelling as a rhetor and a diplomat. Owing to his varied talents, he early established connections with some of the leading personalities of his time. He acted as a teacher of the children of Antony and Cleopatra, and some time after their fall he passed over to the court of Herod, to whom he may have been known from his years of association with Antony.

Nicolaus entered the service of Herod by 14 B.C.E. at the latest. He supervised the King’s education and was one of his chief counselors, representing him on various occasions. In 14 B.C.E. he accompanied Herod on his journey to Asia Minor. There he defended the interests of the Jewish communities against the claims of the Greek cities (Ant., XVI, 27 ff.) before Agrippa. Nevertheless, he took care to ingratiate himself and his royal master with the Greeks of Asia Minor, e.g. by effecting a reconciliation between the people of Ilium and the same Agrippa. In 12 B.C.E. he went to Italy with Herod on the so-called “second journey of Herod”. After the relations between Herod and the Princeps had deteriorated as a result of the military reprisals of Herod in Arabia, it was Nicolaus who undertook and succeeded in effecting a reconciliation with the Princeps. At the end of Herod’s reign Nicolaus played a prominent part in the Juducial proceedings against Antipater, the King’s eldest son. After the death of the King, Nicolaus represented the interests of Archelaus against the claims of his opponents. Once more his influence and his rhetorical talent prevailed, and Augustus confirmed, in the main, the testament of Herod. This was Nicolaus’ last act relating to Jewish affairs. He seems to have spent his last years at Rome.

Nicolaus’ greatest literary achievement is his Historiae, which consists of 144 books, beginning with the ancient history of eastern monarchies. It becomes more detailed as it approaches the author’s own time. It was Herod who urged Nicolaus to launch upon this magnum opus, and it may be surmised that at least a part of it was published in the King’s lifetime. As a courtier of Herod and a man who played a not undistinguished part in the events of Herod’s reign, it is not surprising that he recounts them in great detail. ONE ONLY NEED MENTION THE FACT THAT HE DEALT WITH THE QUESTION OF JEWISH RIGHTS IN ASIA MINOR IN BOTH THE 123RD AND 124TH BOOKS OF HIS WORK!

Also important for the study of Jewish history is his autobiography, published after the death of Herod, fragments of which were preserved in the Excerpta de Virtutibus and Excerpta de Insidiis of Constantinus Porphyrogenitus. There we find some details concerning Herod’s reign and its aftermath that are missing in Josephus’ Antiquitates. Moreover, much interest attaches to a comparison between these fragments and the narrative of Josephus, itself based on the Historiae of Nicolaus. Important parts of the first seven books of the Historiae have also been transmitted in the tenth-century excerpts of Constantinus Porphyrogenitus, but these do not include any reference to Jews. Only small fragments of the later books have come down to us, transmitted by Athenaeus and, above all, by Josephus. All the fragments of the Historiae bearing upon Jews are from the Antiquitates.

From these fragments we learn that Nicolaus refers to Jews, on various occasions, in connection with: the History of the Aramaic monarchy (No. 84); the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (175 B.C.E. – 164 B.C.E.) (No. 87); the Parthian expedition of Antiochus Sidetes (138 B.C.E. – 129 B.C. E) (No. 88); and the wars of Ptolemy Lathyrus (No. 89). We also note that he describes the expeditions of Pompey and Gabinius against the Jews (Nos. 91 and 92).

Nicolaus finds it proper to mention famous Jewish personalities ― e.g., Abraham and Moses ― in contexts that do not, in the main, relate to Jews. In one of these fragments (No. 83) we find the statement that he will deal with the offspring of Abraham on another occasion. This promised account of the Jews has not come down to us. Nevertheless, we are much more indebted to Nicolaus for our knowledge of Jewish history in the Hellenistic and early Roman period than would seem possible from the few fragments of his work, because the historical works of Josephus depend so heavily on the Historiae of Nicolaus… Apart from supplying Josephus with the material, Nicolaus left his imprint on the passionate and dramatic description of the domestic tragedy of Herod and his house as given by Josephus, and this seems to be typical of the literary technique of Nicolaus. The ecomiastic treatment of Herod and his father in Bellum Judaicum, and, on the other hand, the account full of hatred displayed towards the younger Antipater, are also to be explained as deriving from Nicolaus.

In his Antiquitates, Josephus becomes more restrained in his attitude to Herod. He even strongly criticizes the laudatory approach of Nicolaus in his account of the reign of his royal benefactor (No. 93). Despite this criticism, Josephus continues to draw upon the Historiae of Nicolaus. Moreover, it should be stated that this change of tone in Josephus’ work should not be attributed to any additional sources of material, but rather to the altered circumstances in which he lived when writing his later works.

With regard to method, it should be emphasized that not everything found in Antiquitates (Ant) and missing in Bellum Judaicum (BJ) is necessarily explained by postulating sources other than Nicolaus, since it is clear that in his Antiquitates Josephus drew to an even greater extent on the material provided by Nicolaus’ Historiae. On the other hand, not everything common to both of Josephus’ works necessarily derives from Nicolaus. A case in point is the fantastic story related by Josephus about Herod’s order to imprison the Jewish notables and to slaughter them indiscriminately upon his death, thus preventing an outburst of joy on the part of the population of his kingdom (Ant., XVII, 174 ff.; BJ, I, 659 f.). Such a tale, whatever its historical worth, is so derogatory to the memory of Herod that it can hardly be attributed to Nicolaus.

Another set of problems arises with respect to Josephus’ dependence on Nicolaus in those chapters that relate the story of the greatness of the Hasmonaean state, i.e. from the murder of Simon the Hasmonaean to the death of Salome-Alexandra (BJ, I, 54 ff.; the major part of the thirteenth book of Antiquitates). It seems that Nicolaus also constituted the chief source of the Jewish historian’s narrative on this subject, though in his Antiquitates he added some other sources, especially Strabo. This explains the rather strange fact that Josephus, notwithstanding his patriotism and the pride he took in his kinship with the Hasmonaeans, presents us with a rather cold picture of the three main figures of the Hasmonaean monarchy, namely, Aristobulus I, Alexander Jannaeus and Salome-Alexandra. Moreover, the account shows some sympathy with Hellenistic Gaza, which succumbed to the onslaught of the Jews; see especially Ant., XIII, 359 ff. It even looks as if the victories of Alexander Jannaeus are deliberately somewhat played down; cf., e.g., Ant., XIII, 389 ff., with Syncellus, which is presumably independent of Josephus and where we read of Alexander’s victory over Antiochus Dionysus. The prosopographical material relating to the Greek side is also somewhat richer than that relating to the Jewish side. This would be fully consonant with the point of view of Nicolaus, the Syrian Greek and friend of Herod, who had very little reason to sympathize with the Hasmonaean destroyers of the Hellenistic cities and with the members of a house that had, in fact, been replaced and even exterminated by Herod. The account of the reign of Aristobulus I may also be considered as deriving from Nicolaus. The story of the relations between Aristobulus and Mathias Antigonus and of their death is pathetically told (BJ, I, 70-84; and Ant., XIII, 301-317); it concentrates on the domestic tragedy, almost wholly omitting any reference to the main political and military events of the reign of Aristobulus. Nicolaus’ version stands in marked contrast to the shorter one of Timagenes, transmitted to Josephus by Strabo (Nos. 81 and 100).

Nicolaus was indeed a Damascene, though a Hellenized one. In contrast to many famous writers and philosophers, he never deemed it necessary to abandon his own city and to obtain citizenship in a famous Greek city. It may be seen from the fragments of his Historiae that Nicolaus took pride in the past of Aramaic Damascus. However, it would be unjustified, it seems, to put Nicolaus in the same category with such exponents of ancient Eastern culture as Berossus, Manetho, or, for that matter, the Jewish-Hellenistic writers, who, basing themselves on original national traditions, made an attempt to give some account of the ancient history of their nation in Greek. We do not know whether Nicolaus knew Aramaic, or whether he considered himself a descendant of the Greeks or of native Syrians.

As we should naturally expect from a historian who was a personal friend and servant of a Jewish king and who defended Jewish rights before Agrippa, Nicolaus showed more respect for the Jewish past and traditions than most of the Graeco-Roman writers, and the historical information supplied by the Bible ranked high with him. On the other hand, as we have seen, his treatment of the Hasmonaean royal house was coloured by his connection with Herod and by his natural sympathy with the cause of Syrian Greeks. Apart from the works of Josephus, we cannot trace any direct influence of Nicolaus’ Historiae on later references to Jews in Graeco-Roman literature. (No. 85)

Source: Stern, Menahem. Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism. Volume I (p. 227-232)

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