The Age of Tyrants

The Age of Tyrants June 19, 2015

Josephus recorded the history of the Jewish people in the last two centuries before the Christian Era. Reading that story today must many of our assumptions about the world we know from the New Testament.

I think I am accurately reflecting common ideas when I imagine that history something like this. In the 160s, the Jews rebelled against a brutal and tyrannical Greek regime, the Seleucid Empire of Antiochus IV. That sage is depicted in cosmic terms in the Book of Daniel, where Antiochus becomes a force of cosmic evil. The Jews retained national independence for a century or so, when the Herodians rule as agents of Rome. Herod the Great was abominably cruel and tyrannical. Roman oppression and exploitation continued until it provoked the great Jewish Revolt of the 60s AD.

From Josephus, though, I get a somewhat different impression, namely that the period between the Maccabean Revolt and the rise of Herod was really no better than what came before or afterwards. The Hasmonean state was ruled by ruthless tyrants, who were quite as likely to massacre or crucify their enemies as Antiochus before them, or Herod the Great and Pontius Pilate afterwards. Herod differed from his predecessors in degree, but not in kind.

One famous figure of the Hasmonean dynasty was Alexander Jannaeus, who was born around 126 BC and who ruled as king and high priest from 103 through 76 BC. For a century after the 150s, the family had combined secular and religious authority, but it was his older brother who had first adopted the Greek title of basileus, king. Alexander was able to exercise such power – indeed, to build up a mini-empire in the region – because of the collapse of the Seleucid Empire that had dominated the territory for two centuries.

Alexander, though, faced a turbulent political situation at home, with Judea deeply divided between violent factions. The country, in fact, seems to have been in a near-permanent state of civil war. Josephus (Antiquities, XIII.13) reports one incident of near-apocalyptic repression in the Temple precincts themselves, in the 90s BC:

As to Alexander, his own people were seditious against him; for at a festival which was then celebrated, when he stood upon the altar, and was going to sacrifice, the nation rose upon him, and pelted him with citrons [which they then had in their hands, because] the law of the Jews required that at the Feast of Tabernacles every one should have branches of the palm tree and citron tree; which thing we have elsewhere related. They also reviled him, as derived from a captive [aichmaloton gegonota], and so unworthy of his dignity and of sacrificing. At this he was in a rage, and slew of them about six thousand. He also built a partition-wall of wood round the altar and the temple, as far as that partition within which it was only lawful for the priests to enter; and by this means he obstructed the multitude from coming at him.

Alexander was a Sadducee partisan, his enemies were Pharisees. (By the way, numbers were not Josephus’s strong suit, and on occasion we might want to reduce his estimated number of victims of massacres or battles by five- or tenfold).

After a military defeat,

From thence [Alexander] fled to Jerusalem, where, besides his other ill success, the nation insulted him, and he fought against them for six years, and slew no fewer than fifty thousand of them. And when he desired that they would desist from their ill-will to him, they hated him so much the more, on account of what had already happened; and when he had asked them what he ought to do, they all cried out, that he ought to kill himself.

His subjects called for help from the Seleucid king Demetrius Eucaerus, who duly invaded. Alexander eventually regained control of the country, and took reprisals which shocked even the hardened Josephus (Antiquities, XIII.14):

when he had taken the city, and gotten the [rebel Jews] into his power, he brought them to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines [pallakidon], in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified [anastaurosai]; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. …. this barbarity seems to have been without any necessity, on which account he bare the name of a Thracian [ie a barbarous savage] among the Jews whereupon the soldiers that had fought against him, being about eight thousand in number, ran away by night, and continued fugitives all the time that Alexander lived; who being now freed from any further disturbance from them, reigned the rest of his time in the utmost tranquility.

Terror worked.

It’s useful to be reminded that at this time, Alexander was high priest as well as king. (Incidentally, pallakidon is an odd word, which sometimes implies sacred prostitution or even a ritual prophetess).

Alexander’s personal situation was equally unhappy. Josephus tells us that he “happened to be hated by his father as soon as he was born, and could never be permitted to come into his father’s sight till he died.” His father had him brought up in a distant and uncongenial part of his domain, namely Galilee. In later life, says Josephus, Alexander ruined his health by hard drinking (ek methes).

And no, contrary to many sermons preached through the years, crucifixion was not a distinctive horror that the Romans had introduced to the shock of their Jewish subjects. It had been a standard practice in the Hellenistic states and their neighbors for at least two centuries before Jesus’s time, and the Seleucid king Antiochus crucified many rebels during the Jewish Revolt of the 160s, among the other torments he inflicted. The practice was well known in the Hasmonean kingdom. To put it in context, Alexander’s mass crucifixion of his enemies occurred about a decade before the much more famous Roman suppression of Spartacus’s revolt, as commemorated in the legendary Kirk Douglas film.

It says a lot about our general ignorance of the “inter-Testamental” period that a career like Alexander’s has not ended up more prominently in popular history, or that we do not remember him as prominently as we do, say, Herod the Great.

Based on all this, I wonder if that region ever knew anything vaguely like what we might think of as good government. Or was it rather one despotism after another? (The Merovingian Frankish regime was sometimes described as “despotism tempered by assassination.”) If so, that goes far to explaining the New Testament perception about worldly governments, that for instance the Devil was the Lord of this World. And also the desperate hope for divine rule that might offer justice – or at least, that would ensure that violence was inflicted on our enemies, rather than ourselves. It is a depressing vision.

I wonder if we underplay the atrocities of the Hasmonean kingdom in order to paint a sharper contrast with the better known evils of the Herodian and Roman eras?


One recent book I have found valuable is Vasile Babota, ed., The Institution of the Hasmonean High Priesthood (Boston : Brill, 2013).

Before anyone shouts at me, I know the whole “sacred prostitution” idea is deeply controversial – see especially Stephanie L. Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). But that is another column.


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