Bust of CaligulaJews and Synagogues of Alexandria/ Judeopagan Conflict/ Murder/ Statue of Caligula in Synagogues

The Jews of Hellenistic Egypt met with a certain amount of “anti-Judaism,” even during the period of their greatest influence, but things did not turn noxious until the Roman period. Ethnic strife and urban violence in Alexandria caused serious damage to the community from 38 to 41 C.E. Many of the details of the story are obscure, but the basic outline seems clear. The Jews in the city feuded with the Greek and Egyptian elements of the population, were defeated in a series of bloody confrontations (apparently with the connivance of the Roman governor), and would have fared even worse had the emperor Caligula not been assassinated and replaced by the more sensible Claudius. This conflict seems to have left emotional scars on the community; the literary fusion of Hellenism and Judaism comes to an abrupt halt at this point. Philo, an eyewitness to the painful events of 38 to 41 C.E., is the last known Greek-Jewish writer from Egypt.

On March 16 of the year 37, Emperor Tiberius died. Two days later, his great-nephew Gaius Caligula (31 C.E. – 41 C.E.), son of Germanicus Caesar and Agrippina the Elder, was proclaimed emperor. Flaccus was opposed to this succession and had thrown his weight behind another candidate, Tiberius Gemellus, Caligula’s cousin. He was now in danger of losing the governorship of Egypt, a charge he very much wanted to retain. The person who was to replace him had already been designated: the praetorian prefect, Q. Naevius Cordus Sutorius Macro, another favorite of Tiberius and a friend of Flaccus, to whom Caligula was morally indebted, as we shall soon see. But Macro was driven to suicide, and never embarked for Egypt.

Flaccus was thus granted a reprieve, until a worthy successor could be found for this important office. He could count on a year, more or less. Now he had to consolidate his position by contracting alliances.

To protect his rearguard, Flaccus decided to stir up the glowing embers of the Judeopagan quarrel. A pretext was soon found. The king of Judaea, Agrippa I, on his way from Rome to his Kingdom, which Caligula had recently enlarged, stopped off at Alexandria. Agrippa wished to pay a visit to Philo’s brother, the alabarch Alexander, from whom he often borrowed money to cope with his endless financial problems. This time he took pains to erase his erstwhile image of a perpetual scrounger and threw a great party. His ostentation was most displeasing to the Greeks of Alexandria, who put on a parody of the royal visit in which the role of the king was played by a simpleton, one Carabas, possibly the ancestor of a personage in the Puss-in-Boots fable, and which also recalls a similar scene from the Gospels.

Statue of Caligula in Synagogues

Far from siding with the Jewish king (e.g. Agrippa I), who was a friend and an ally of the Emperor, Flaccus fanned the flames by proposing the erection of statues of Caligula in the city’s synagogues. The Jews immediately shut down their houses of prayer. Flaccus issued an edict proclaiming all Jews “foreigners” in Alexandria. The city was no longer their “own homeland,” their idia; they could now be displaced at will. The vulnerability of the Jews’ position after the Roman conquest is all too evident. The conflict was to attain the proportions of a veritable pogrom. For Flaccus, this was a way of sealing his bargain with the Alexandrian nationalists.

In a single day, all the Jews of the city had been thrown out of their homes and despoiled of all their possessions. But the worst was yet to come: Philo describes the sufferings of his people as “so excessive that anyone who spoke of them as undergoing wanton violence or outrage would be using words not properly applicable”; he thinks he “would be at a loss for adequate terms to express the magnitude of cruelty.” Philo continues:

Judeopagan Conflict

Philo, Against Flaccus, 55-56

The city (e.g. Alexandria) has five quarters named after the first letters of the alphabet. Two of these are called Jewish because most of the Jews inhabit them, though in the rest also there are a few Jews scattered about. So then what did they do? From the four letters (e.g. quarters) they ejected the Jews and drove them to herd in a very small part of one. The Jews were so numerous that they poured out over beaches, dunghills, and tombs, robbed of all their belongings. Their enemies overran the houses now left empty and turned to pillaging them, distributing the contents like spoils of war, and as no one prevented them they broke open the workshops of the Jews which had been closed as a sign of mourning for Drusilla, carried out all the articles they found, which were very numerous, and bore them through the middle of the marketplace, dealing with other people’s property as freely as if it were their own.mm

Philo, Against Flaccus, 66-68

Multitudes of others also were laid low and destroyed with manifold forms of maltreatment, put in practice to serve their bitter cruelty by those whom savagery had maddened and transformed into the nature of wild beasts; for any Jews who showed themselves anywhere, they stoned or knocked about with clubs, aiming their blows at first against the less vital parts for fear that a speedier death might give a speedier release from the consciousness of their anguish. Some, made rampant by the immunity and license that accompanied these sufferings, discarded the slower weapons and took the most effective of all, fire and iron, and slew many with the sword, while not a few they destroyed with fire. Indeed whole families, husbands with their wives, infant children with their parents, were burnt in the heart of the city by these supremely ruthless men who showed no pity for old age not youth, nor the innocent years of childhood. And when they lacked wood for fire they would collect brushwood and dispatch them with smoke rather than fire, thus contriving a more pitiable and lingering death for the miserable victims whose bodies lay promiscuously half-burnt, a painful and most heart-rendering spectacle.

Philo, Against Flaccus, 70-71

Many also while still alive they drew with one of the feet tied at the ankle and meanwhile leaped upon them and pounded them to pieces. And when by the cruel death thus devised, their life ended, the rage of their enemies did not end, but continued all the same. They inflicted worse outrages on the bodies, dragging them through almost every lane of the city until the corpses, their skin, flesh, and muscles shattered by the unevenness and roughness of the ground, and all the parts which united to make the organism disserved and dispersed in different directions, were wasted to nothing.

Philo, Against Flaccus, 96

Then, if they were recognized to be of another origin, since many were arrested as Jewesses without any careful investigation of the truth, they were released. But if they were found to be of our nation then these onlookers at a show turned into despotic tyrants and gave orders to fetch swine’s flesh and give it to the women. Then all the women who in fear of punishment tasted the meat were dismissed and did not have to bear any further dire maltreatment. But the more resolute were delivered to the tormentors to suffer desperate ill-usage.

Source: Joseph Mélèze Modrzejewski. The Jews of Egypt. (p. xiii) (p. 166-167, 169-170, 171)