After having frequently questioned the claims that the first Jewish War that began under Nero and ended with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE was motivated by messianic hopes, it is time for me to state where I believe evidence for popular enthusaism for the advent of a messiah does emerge. It is in the aftermath of what might justifiably be described as the “trauma” of the loss of the Temple at the hands of Titus. This is also the period in which many scholars see the critical shaping of what became Christianity and Judaism as they are know today.
This post is the third in a series covering the main ideas of a book by Livia Capponi, Il Mistero del Tempio = The Mystery of the Temple :
- Reconstructing the Matrix from which Christianity and Judaism Emerged
- Rebellion of the Diaspora — the world in which Christianity and Judaism were moulded
Here we survey the period Eusebius described as “stasis”, the pause before the eruption of the bloodbath in early 116 CE. Warning: some of the subject matter is complex insofar as it looks at confusions of similar sounding names in the records.
The argument in brief
In brief, the argument is that Trajan began his reign with positive relations towards the Judeans, motivated largely by his need to secure his supply lines in his war against Parthia as any desire to continue Nerva’s comparatively liberal policies. There are several reasons to believe that the Judeans had their hopes raised for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple and for that reason many in the diaspora were encouraged to return to Judea.
This post is a survey of the evidence from which the events leading to the revolt of 116-117 are reconstructed, with particular focus on the Acts of the Pagan Martyrs and rabbinic legends.
A new era promised for Judeans?
96/97 CE — Capponi states that the emperor Nerva introduced a new era of improving relations with the Judeans of the empire when he abolished the tax that had been imposed on them all by Vespasian from the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. She points to Goodman’s discussion of coins issued by Nerva in 96/97 in support of this claim. Goodman writes:
The precise import of the legend on his coins, FISCI IUDAICI CALUMNIA SUBLATA, is debated and debatable. The term sublata is otherwise unattested on Roman coins, and, although it was not uncommon to advertise remission of taxes, an abusive term (calumnia) in reference either to the treasury responsible for taxes, or to those who brought accusations to the treasury, or to the whole notion of the tax, is extraordinary, and perhaps only possible when a new emperor wished to make an exceptionally strong statement of disassociation from the previous regime. Many historians have asserted that the beneficiaries of Nerva’s new policy were non-Jews maliciously accused of Judaizing, but it seems to me equally, if not more, likely that Nerva’s reform was aimed at native, practising Jews. ‘Fisci ludaici‘ should mean ‘of the treasury of Judaea’ or ‘of the Jewish treasury’. As Hannah Cotton has pointed out to me, the motif of the palm tree was used explicitly to denote Judaea on Roman coinage. Thus the malicious accusation that has been removed (calumnia sublata) may have been the very existence of a special Jewish treasury, with its invidious tax which singled out Jews, unlike all other inhabitants of the empire, for payment of annual war reparations after unsuccessful revolt. (Goodman, 176)
98 CE — Trajan becomes emperor and follows Nerva’s moderate and more liberal policies. First, towards the Greek elites in Alexandria of Egypt. In 98 CE Trajan issued the following letter to the city of Alexandria:
Aware that the city has distinguished itself by its loyalty to the Augustus emperors, and having in mind the benefits that my divine father has conferred on you […], and having personal feelings of benevolence, I commend you first of all to myself, and then also to my friend and prefect Pompey Planta, so that with all care I may assure you the enjoyment of continued peace (eirene), prosperity (euthenia) and the common rights of each and all . . . (P. Oxy., 42 3022 Greek text available at papyri.info).
Some time between 107 and 113 CE it appears that relations between Trajan and the Alexandrian elites soured. The evidence Capponi relies on may appear unusual: it is a series of accounts that are generally understood to be fictional entertainment, variously known as the Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, Acts of the Alexandrian Martyrs, and the Acta Alexandrinorum — though the preferred title by one scholar is simply Alexandrian Stories. Historians do use these stories in their historical reconstructions but with “caution”.
Since the literature is not widely known, let me provide some insights into what historians have said about it as a source.
Acts of the Pagan Martyrs
From Andrew Harker’s study (Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt) of this literature,
The Acta Alexandrinorum tell the stories of the heroic deaths of Alexandrian Greek nobles. The favoured form of these stories is a record of their trial scene in the imperial court, usually presented as the official minutes (acta), with only a small amount of narrative. The Acta Alexandrinorum recycle the same archetypal story where a group of Alexandrian ambassadors travel to Rome and, on arrival, face a hostile emperor who has allied himself with their enemies, usually the Jewish community resident in Alexandria. . . .
Some of the stories have an historical, and perhaps a documentary, basis and use historical personages, but all surviving examples have been fictionalised to some extent. (p. 1 Harker)
– – –
The Acta Alexandrinorum literature was read in Egypt from the Augustan period to the mid-third century AD. (p. 2 Harker)
The literature is equally hostile to Romans, Jews and also Egyptians; that is all non-Greeks. . . . Alexandria was not a remote, isolated city that had unique problems with Rome, but very much part of the wider Hellenic Mediterranean world. . . .
The casting of the Romans and Jews as the judges and accusers of the Alexandrian heroes certainly would not have worked if there were no history of long-standing tension between the Alexandrian Greeks and the Romans and Jews. (p. 175 Harker – my highlighting)
. . . were truly popular and had a readership that covered a wide social spectrum in Roman Egypt. (p. 177 Harker)
From the scholar who is acknowledged as the first modern researcher into the Acts, Herbert Musurillo:
It is frequently a difficult task to determine when a piece of literature has been written primarily for propaganda (the literary characters being mere pawns in the presentation of a thesis), and when its aim is primarily entertainment, though with sharp political overtones. (p. 275 Musurillo)
. . . a study of the motifs which occur so frequently in the Acta indicates that they were intended to nourish the current prejudices of the interested circle-prejudices of an anti-Roman as well as an anti-Semitic nature-and to stir up their pride in an irretrievable past. (p. 275 Musurillo)
From the renowned classicist, Arnaldo Momigliano, whom Livia Capponi also cites:
It must therefore be ruled out that our documents have any partisan, pro- or anti-Semitic stance. However, just by reading them, it is also clear that they do not have the objectivity of truthful reports collected accurately but unofficially by listeners. Such reports undoubtedly form the basis of these “Acts” and thus explain the very plausible and often certainly true reports they give us as well as their contradictions. But it hardly needs saying that not only some details, such as the miracle of Serapis, but also whole episodes cannot be derived from these accounts. The whole episode of Fiacco’s corruption, with its mysterious colors, is invented. Therefore, given the current state of our knowledge, we are faced with these two facts in order to solve the literary problem constituted by these “Acts”: 1) the authentic and documentary background of their narratives; 2) the lack of any neutrality in their elaboration. . . . .
At least given our current knowledge, this collection of ‘Acts’ therefore seems to me to be understood as a novel with no higher purpose than ordinary novels; a novel built on historical data and thus usable, albeit with caution, as historical testimony. (p. 797f, Momigliano — translation.)
And finally from another historian of the Judean wars against Rome, William Horbury:
To move to the border between documents and literature, Alexandrian anti-Jewish and also anti-Roman feeling under Trajan and Hadrian breathe from the papyrus acts of the ‘pagan martyrs’. (p. 12 Horbury)
. . . events in Alexandria at the time of the revolt do receive some light from sources of a more anecdotal and publicistic kind. The ardently pro-Hellene, anti-Roman and anti-Jewish Acts of the Alexandrians, Greek accounts of trial scenes preserved in papyri, form a kind of propaganda literature presenting some analogies with Christian martyr-acts. A. Bauer’s 1898 description of the Acts of the Alexandrians as ‘pagan martyr-acts’ went together with an emphasis on their literary and fictional rather than documentary and archival character which has been developed further in subsequent study. On the Jewish side they can be compared with publicistic political literature including Philo’s tracts on events in 38, and Sibylline oracles. Later examples of such literature are the rabbinic anecdotes noted above, on the destruction of the basilica-synagogue and the slaughter of Alexandrian Jews by Trajan; these form a further source for Alexandria in the revolt. Slippery as the Acts of the Alexandrians are for the historian, they give a valuable impression of the kind of rumour and gossip which will have circulated in the times of Jewish-Greek conflict, with a strong impact on events.
Two sets of Acts in particular have been discussed in connection with Alexandrian Jewish unrest under Trajan – the Acts of Hermaiscus, pointing to the earlier years of Trajan, and the Acts of Paulus and Antoninus, referring to Jewish unrest in the city towards the end of Trajan’s reign, and in the view of many also suggesting a Jewish presence in Alexandria after Hadrian’s accession. (p. 212 Horbury — my highlighting)
Trajan’s Council “filled with Judeans”
So with the above assurance and caution we continue with Capponi’s historical reconstruction. The particular Alexandrian story of relevance, the Acts of Hermaiscus, begins when Greek elites elect representatives to sail to Rome to deliver complaints about the Judeans to the emperor Trajan. The Judeans hear what these Greek leaders are doing and respond by electing their own delegation to defend themselves. . . .
. . . They set sail, then, from the city, each party taking along its own gods, the Alexandrians (a bust of Serapis, the Jews…) . . . and when the winter was over they arrived at Rome.
The emperor learned that the Jewish and Alexandrian envoys had arrived, and he appointed the day on which he would hear both parties.
And Plotina [Trajan’s wife] approached (?) the senators in order that they might oppose the Alexandrians and support the Jews.
Now the Jews, who were the first to enter, greeted Emperor Trajan, and the emperor returned their greeting most cordially, having already been won over by Plotina. After them the Alexandrian envoys entered and greeted the emperor. He, however, did not go to meet them, but said: ‘You say “hail” to me as though you deserved to receive a greeting — after what you have dared to do to the Jews! .. .’
There is a break in the text and we pick up with Trajan speaking to the Alexandrian Greeks:
‘You must be eager to die, having such contempt for death as to answer even me with insolence.’
Hermaiscus said: ‘Why, it grieves us to see your Privy Council filled with impious Jews.’
Caesar said: ‘This is the second time I am telling you, Hermaiscus: you are answering me insolently, taking advantage of your birth.’
Hermaiscus said: ‘What do you mean, I answer you insolently, greatest emperor? Explain this to me.’
Caesar said: ‘Pretending that my Council is filled with Jews.’
Hermaiscus: ‘So, then, the word “Jew” is offensive to you? In that case you rather ought to help your own people and not play the advocate for the impious Jews.‘
As Hermaiscus was saying this, the bust of Serapis that they carried suddenly broke into a sweat, and Trajan was astounded when he saw it. And soon tumultuous crowds gathered in Rome and numerous shouts rang forth, and everyone began to flee to the highest parts of the hills ….
So Trajan is believed to be currying favour with the Judeans.
Capponi suggests the likely target of Hermaiscus’s complaint was the presence of Tiberius Julius Alexander Julian, son of the Alexandrian Judean Tiberius Julius Alexander, among Trajan’s closest advisors. He was also a general:
The presence of Julian as a leading soldier in the war that brought Trajan into contact with the Jewish communities of Mesopotamia seems to have been a strategic choice of the emperor, who probably aimed to secure the support or at least the non-belligerence of the Jewish communities present in the territories to be conquered. (p. 52)
Around the same time Trajan was immersed in preparations for his coming war against Parthia in the east. Contracts and treaties were being made with the peoples of the Caucasus, Bosporus and Cappadocian regions for grain supplies. Capponi adds,
Everything suggests – even if the information is scattered in sources of a very different nature – that that year [112 CE] Trajan also prepared an alliance with the Jewish communities. The Jews of Alexandria and Egypt controlled land and river communications in Pelusium and near the fortress of Babylon and Alexandria, and thus their alliance had a specific role in the war tactics planned by the emperor. That waterways were strategic is also testified by the construction, around 112, of a canal linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, the Trajanos potamos. (pp. 50f)
We have seen that Trajan began his reign continuing Nerva’s policy of relieving the burdens the Flavian emperors had inflicted on the Judeans. Coins minted in the Galilean city of Sepphoris may be further indications of Trajan’s favourable attitude towards the Judeans.
The emperor had evidently taken an important measure in favour of the Jews, perhaps, as mentioned, as compensation for the scandal of the fiscus iudaicus, the confiscations, the destruction of the Temple and the exile suffered after 70. Perhaps one should consider the presence of Trajan-era coins from the mint of Sepphoris with the eloquent legend (“Trajan granted”) as further evidence of financial movements taking place before 113. (p. 53)
Finally, Capponi suggests that the fictional depiction of the statue of the god Serapis weeping and alarming those present at the hearing before Trajan, may point to religious antagonisms lying behind the narrative. In no other Alexandrian martyr stories do symbols of the respective gods — a statue and, perhaps, a scroll of the Torah(?) — feature. Their presence delivers the message that the god of Alexandria is superior to that of the Judeans.
The Edict of Rutilius Lupus following a “battle” between Romans and Judeans
October 115 CE, the Prefect of Egypt, Marcus Rutilius Lupus, reprimands Alexandrians for their recent violence against the Judean population. The violent mob consisted of slaves and their Greek masters were held responsible for their actions. The prefect reminds the Greeks that they have long had no excuse for taking matters into their own hands — not since the historic Roman massacre of Judeans in the early days of the first war against Rome (66 CE). The Roman leader of the two legions at the time of that massacre was in fact the aforementioned Judean, Tiberius Julius Alexander, the father of the Judean close to Trajan. Alexander had managed to call his legionnaires back from their killing of the Judeans but the rest of the Alexandrians continued their rampage and a total of 50,000 Judeans were said to have been murdered.
The incident that led to Lupus’s edict may be connected to another of the Acts of the Alexandrian Martyrs, namely the Acts of Paul and Antony.
The Acts of Paul and Antoninus: the theatre riot
The story in summary pieced together from a broken text. While the emperor in this account is often said to be Hadrian, Capponi rejects the conjectural grounds for that identification and believes Trajan is preferable. The events take place when the prefect Lupus was absent from Alexandria, in 114 or 115 CE, there had been a riot in the city theatre. A mime play had parodied Trajan as a Judean king and drunkard. Riots followed.
In the riots that followed, the Jewish community of the city was involved and fires broke out. Rutilius Lupus had arrested some Jews and condemned the mime, but had guaranteed favourable treatment for the Alexandrians. Shortly afterwards, however, noblemen from Alexandria had mobilised slaves, apparently about sixty, for a punitive action against the Jews. According to the texts, the Alexandrians had kidnapped the Jews from prison and killed them, sparking further riots. . . .
The trial had ended with Antoninus being sentenced to be burnt at the stake, a fact that by its severity suggests the extent of the riots. (pp. 62f)
Antioch: Acts of Claudius Atilianus and the “Day of Tyrianus”
The same genre of literature as the Alexandrian Acts has been found at Antioch, another major city with a history of Greek-Judean tensions, often violence, in the Roman period. Judeans in Antioch accuse Claudius Atilianus, a Greek noble, of responsibility for deadly anti-Judean violence. (Claudius expresses divine reverence for the emperor, probably a snide hint against the Judeans who did not believe in his divinity.)
Rabbinic stories speak of an anti-Judean governor or Roman magistrate of Syria around this time named Tyrianus, and Capponi suggests that the name Atilianus has been confused through assonance into Tryrianus, so that possibly the Antioch trial before Trajan focuses on the same hero (to the Greeks of Antioch) or villain (to the Judeans of Antioch). There are multiple rabbinic accounts, however. According to William Horbury (p. 165) the Jerusalem Talmud refers to Trajan while the Babylonian Talmud has Tirion or Tyrianus, which suggests that the Day of Tyrianius”, a holiday that had supplanted another honouring the rebels against Antiochus Epiphanes in the time of the Maccabean rebellion, is reinterpreted as Trajan’s Day.
Capponi thus interprets the Acts of Claudius Atilianus as an account of the death of a Syrian governor for illegally executing Judeans. In Rabbinic legend the two Judeans he executed were financiers of Judean migration back to Judea in order to rebuild the Temple and in one account the governor’s name was confused with Trajan. We will return to this little datum.
It is probable that the Atilianus documented in the judicial record that has come down to us on papyrus was a Roman authority in Syria, tried before the emperor and then killed in Antioch, for illegally putting Jews to death in Laodicea. That there were trials and sentences in the arena could be recalled in the rabbinic account by the allusion of the two brothers to a probable death by the mouths of bears and lions – an obvious symbol of ad bestias condemnation during the games – if Tyrianus had not killed them first in some other way. (p. 66)
The Martyrdom of Ignatius
Re-enter Ignatius. We have posted about him before. (Roger Parvus suspected he was the Peregrinus of Lucian’s satire.) Livia Capponi follows the reconstruction of Marco Rizzi who in turn has a new look at a sixth century record. The table below is adapted from the one in Rizzi’s chapter (p. 126).
|Possible Chronology for the Trial and Execution of Ignatius|
|January 115||Earthquake in Antioch, whose apocalyptic interpretation ignites Judean Diaspora revolts in 115 and/or 116.|
|January – August 115||Possible trial against Judean and Christian Antiochenes before of Trajan in Antioch; capture, trial, and condemnation of Ignatius who is sent in chains to Rome. Ignatius is accused of having insulted Trajan.|
August – September 115
|‘Battle’ (μάχη) between Judeans and Romans in Alexandria. Trajan orders the combatants to lay down their arms. Possible pacification also in Antioch and within the Christian community. A new bishop is substituted for Ignatius.
Revolt (στάσις) goes on in Alexandria, due to some slaves of prominent Alexandrians.
The restored “peace” was the occasion for Ignatius to give thanks that the church in Antioch has “now found peace” — in his second group of letters: Philadelphians, the Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp.
|14 October 115||Edict of Rutilius Lupus. See above|
|January 116||Trajan conquers Ctesiphon in Parthia|
|February 116||The Roman Senate decrees three days of ludii in the theater. Possible martyrdom of Ignatius|
|Spring 116||Judean Revolt in Mesopotamia and elsewhere|
Pappus and Lulianus
We now meet up again with the executions that were celebrated in the “Day of Tyrianus”.
Claudius Atilianus (Tyrianus?) was condemned by Trajan for unjustly ordering the deaths of two Judean brothers. In rabbinic legend their names are Pappus and Lulianus and, as mentioned above, they came to be remembered as martyrs slain by Trajan. Since Capponi refers to Horbury as “the foremost expert” (“il maggiore esperto”) on the legend of Pappus and Lulianus I will quote Horbury’s description:
To put together some of the scattered notices, Pappus and Lulianus were rich men, the pride of Israel, whose execution fulfilled the prophecy ‘I will break the pride of your power’ . . . ; they set up banks from Acco to Antioch to aid those coming into Judaea . . . ; after their arrest they were offered water in a coloured glass, to make it appear that they had drunk idolatrous libation-wine, but they would not receive it . . . ; before Trajan slew them in Laodicaea, they exchanged bitter repartee with him, and told him that their blood would be required at his hands – and ‘it is said that Trajan had not moved from there before a despatch came from Rome, and they knocked out his brain with clubs’ . . . . Their commemorative day displaced an existing ‘day of Tirion’ (perhaps a Maccabaean commemoration), according to the Talmud Yerushalmi . . . : ‘the day of Tirion ceased on the day that Pappus and Lulianus were slain’. Instead of ‘Tirion’ a parallel passage in the Babylonian Talmud . . . has ‘Turianus’, Trajan. A ‘day of Tirion’ is placed on 12 Adar in an old list of commemorative days when fasting is not permitted . . . . A narrative of their activity and deaths had then probably begun to take shape well before the middle of the second century.
On the basis of these traditions Pappus and Lulianus have been viewed as leaders of revolt under Trajan or Hadrian. (p. 265)
A return of Judeans to Judea? Horbury cites further from rabbinic legends:
. . . ‘In the days of Joshua ben Hananiah, the empire decreed that the house of the sanctuary should be rebuilt. Pappus and Lulianus set up banks from Acco to Antioch, and supplied those who came up from the Exile . . . ’ (Ber. R. lxiv 10, on Gen. 26:29). Here they facilitate Jewish entry into Judaea, along the Antioch–Acco (Ptolemais) road, a main route to Judaea which had been paved to aid Roman military access from Syria after the Jewish-Samaritan conflicts about the year 50. The likely Roman reaction to this is suggested by the prohibition of immigration to increase the Jewish population in Alexandria decreed in earlier times by Claudius: ‘I bid the Jews . . . not to introduce or admit Jews who sail down from Syria or Egypt, acts which compel me to entertain graver suspicions; otherwise I shall take vengeance on them in every way, as instigating a general plague throughout the world’ (P. Lond. 1912 = CPJ no. 153, lines 88–9, 96–100).
Any Roman permission for temple rebuilding, as recounted in the midrash here, would have come, if at all, at a time other than that of the Jewish revolts during Trajan’s Parthian war. It can perhaps best be envisaged under Nerva and in the early years of Trajan . . . . Apart from this point, however, the reference to the temple is apt enough. Hope for a restored temple was, irrespective of any decree, part of the complex of aspirations for Jewish revival which was sketched from revolt coinage, the Eighteen Benedictions and other prayers . . . , and it could indeed help to evoke the immigration described. (pp. 266f)
Which brings us to the question of messianic hopes among the Judeans of the Diaspora as a contributor to their revolt against Rome.
That will be the subject of the next post.
Capponi, Livia. Il mistero del tempio. La rivolta ebraica sotto Traiano. Rome: Salerno, 2018.
Goodman, Martin. “The Fiscus Iudaicus and Gentile Attitudes to Judaism in Flavian Rome.” In Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome, edited by J. C. Edmondson, Steve Mason, and J. B. Rives, 165–77. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Harker, Andrew. Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt: The Case of the Acta Alexandrinorum. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Horbury, William. Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Mason, Steve. A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Momigliano, Arnaldo. “Un Nuovo Frammento Dei Così Detti « Atti Dei Martiri Pagani ».” In Quinto Contributo Alla Storia Degli Studi Classici E Del Mondo Antico. II, 2:789–98. Storia e Letteratura: Raccolta di Studi e Testi 136. Rome: Ed. di Storia e Letteratura, 1975.
Musurillo, Herbert, ed. The Acts of the Pagan Martyrs: Acta Alexandrinorum. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.
Rizzi, Marco. “Jews and Christians under Trajan and the Date of Ignatius’ Martyrdom.” In Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries: The Interbellum 70‒132 CE, edited by Joshua J. Schwartz and Peter J. Tomson, 119–26. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2017.
Zeev, Miriam Pucci Ben. Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insights. Leuven ; Dudley, MA: Peeters Publishers, 2005.