The Jewish Revolt: Caligula vs. the Jews

by Constantin von Hoffmeister

27 April 2004

According to the Cambridge Ancient History, the Great Jewish Revolt started in 66 A.D. after the procurator Gessius Florus confiscated seventeen talents from the Temple. This ill-advised action on the part of the Roman occupant resulted in a protest by the Jews and a subsequent riot. Afterwards, Gessius allowed one of his cohorts to plunder parts of Jerusalem. This really set off a general revolt.

Naturally, the Jews also strove to attain equal rights of citizenship. They wanted to have the same status as the Gentile populace. The Zealots were a group of Jewish radicals (nowadays, the apt term to describe them would probably be "terrorists"). The Zealots believed that all means were justified to achieve the ends they envisioned and desired - namely, social justice and an end to Roman colonial oppression.

The Jews' anti-Roman sentiments were actually triggered much earlier. When Caligula was Emperor in 39 A.D., he declared himself a deity. He demanded that all religions should put a statue of his likeness in their respective places of worship. Naturally, the Jews, alone in the whole Empire, refused this imperial mandate. The reason was simple. They did not want to defile their Temple with a non-Jewish deity. Caligula was furious and threatened the Jews with punishment. Only his sudden death saved the Jews from Caligula's wrath.

According to The World History of the Jewish People: The Herodian Period, "The memory of Caligula's decrees and the fear of a renewed threat of similar calamities henceforth cast a shadow on Judeo-Roman relations." (Avi-Yonah 139) It is quite clear that Caligula's act seems to have been unprecedented and was a grave strategic mistake. However, it does not seem odd when one considers that Caligula did not see his own divinity as symbolic (as previous Roman Emperors had) but rather as real. This fact makes Caligula's decision more understandable in a psychological sense, but it still seems puzzling as to why he would go to such lengths to have it imposed.

In History of the Jews, Professor Graetz quotes Caligula's response to the Jews' refusal to have his statue erected (directed at some Judaean envoys), "So you are the despisers of God, who will not recognize me as the deity, but who prefer worshipping a nameless one, whilst all my other subjects have accepted me as their god." (Graetz, p. 187) This sums up the general attitude that the Gentile world had towards the Jews. The Gentiles were keenly aware that the Jews seemed to be exempt from many regulations that applied to the former. This obvious double-standard was a major factor in causing a rift between the Jews and the Gentiles. Caligula, the self-proclaimed "Godhead of Rome," simply voiced a concern that seemed to be rather prevalent at the time. Namely, that the Jews were fomenting dissent because of their traditions that seemed to be out of touch with the rest of the multi-ethnic Empire.

Caligula then continues in mocking the Jews' seemingly "strange" customs (obviously in order to amuse his fellow Pagans), "How is it that you do not eat pig's flesh, and upon what grounds do you hold your right of equality with the Alexandrians?" (Graetz, p. 187) It is readily apparent that Caligula, like most Romans, did not view the Jews as equals, but rather as something alien, something hostile to the majority religions and traditions. It is precisely because of this attitude that the Roman Emperor seemed to have made the decision to test the Jews' willingness to submit to majority rule, meaning to bow down to the will of the Emperor - and therefore the will of the Roman state embodied within him. And, as it turned out, the Jews failed the test and Caligula was hurt in his pride and his affirmation that the Empire was supposedly unequivocally unified.

In The Jewish War, Josephus Flavius wrote, "Now Caius Caesar did so grossly abuse the fortune he had arrived at, as to take himself to be a god, and to desire to be so called also, and to cut off those of the greatest nobility out of his country. He also extended his impiety as far as the Jews." (p. 81) It is clear that Josephus was biased in his views concerning Caligula. The main reason for this bias is most probably the fact that Josephus was Jewish himself. Clearly, Josephus had a natural allegiance to his own tribe. Therefore, Josephus is quick in denouncing Caligula as "impious." By choosing such vocabulary, Josephus makes it abundantly clear that the Jews have the moral high ground since they -- as opposed to the "crazy" Roman Pagan Caligula -- must be the only "pious" people.

Ironically, it is precisely this kind of arrogance that made the Jews the target for Caligula's (and his fellow Romans') derision in first place! One could therefore argue that the Jews created the animosity that they feared themselves. The Jews' seemed to be incapable of compromise to save themselves or their traditions. It is henceforth not surprising that Caligula (as the individual deistic personification of the Empire as a whole) demanded that the Jews submit themselves or else be destroyed.

As Josephus wrote, "Accordingly, [Caligula] sent Petronius with an army to Jerusalem, to place his statues in the temple, and commanded him that in case the Jews would not admit of them, he should slay those that opposed it, and carry all the rest of the nation into captivity; but God concerned himself with these his commands." (p. 81) Again, Josephus proves his Semitic bias with the last part of the quote. According to him, the Jewish God did not approve of Caligula's actions. This, in Josephus' eyes, must mean that the Romans' actions run diametrically opposed to God's record of approval. Again, the Jews' self-chosen exclusion from the all-encompassing society of Imperial Rome proves that they themselves could be held responsible for the reprising actions that Rome undertook against them.

One has to keep in mind that, before Caligula, "in the past, every emperor had shown considerable sympathy for Jewish rights." (Avi-Yonah, p. 136) This shows that anti-Jewish sentiments were not at all endemic within Roman society. On the contrary, it seems that despite the Jews' continuous demands for special privileges, the various Roman Emperors remained exceedingly tolerant of the "chosen" tribe in Palestine, despite the Jews' intransigent insistence on their "special status." One cannot be surprised to learn that an Emperor of Caligula's caliber, a megalomaniac egocentric and a fiercely proud Pagan, turned the table by finally demanding that the Jews be on equal terms with the rest of the Empire.

Avi-Yonah says, "The emperor's insistence on his own divinity gave the anti-Jewish inhabitants of Egypt and Palestine a new occasion to denounce Jews." (137) Of course, since Avi-Yonah is a Jew he will not lay blame on his own people. Rather, he accuses the Egyptians and Palestinians of harboring an anti-Jewish bias that found a new way to vent itself with the Jews' refusal to bow to Caligula's demands. One wonders why Avi-Yonah does not explain why the inhabitants of Egypt and Palestine were "anti-Jewish" in first place. It seems that it is precisely the Jews' refusal to incorporate themselves into the public domain that made the Gentiles behave antagonistically towards them. The "Caligula incident" was merely one example of Jewish arrogance.

In The Jews in the Roman World, Michael Grant argues, "Nor, probably, did the Alexandrian Jews themselves altogether lack responsibility for this sharp worsening of relations with the Greeks. For, although their propagandist Philo does not tell us so, it seems that a modernist party among them, not content with its community's existing privileges, was also demanding -- and perhaps partially usurping -- the Alexandrian citizenship which, except as far as a few individuals were concerned, had always been reserved for the Greeks." (p. 122)

This quote sums up the emblematic nature of the Jews' ever-increasing demand for privileges, warranted or not. On the one hand, the Jews were demanding that they be viewed as a separate entity, apart from the rest of Roman World while, on the other hand, they felt entitled to enjoy all the privileges that a regular citizen had - without sharing in the duties, of course. Grant even says that the Jews demanded these citizen rights in a "usurious" manner. This must have aggravated the Greeks' proud conscience of their noble heritage quite a bit. One could argue that the Greeks were justified in feeling that the Jews were asking for more than the Greeks themselves were entitled to.

Furthermore, Grant argues that the "Jews wanted to have an equal share in this communal citizenship, not only for reasons of prestige but because this would exempt them from the hated provincial poll-tax, which the Greeks were not required to pay." (p. 122) It is poignant that the Jews were demanding material gains while at the same time shirking the duties that come along with this benefit. Hence, it was perfectly natural for the Greeks to protest the Jews' behavior as it was in clear violation of the equal rights of citizens. Why would the Greeks have to obey the emperor's demands while the Jews were refusing to do likewise?

It seems only fair (from the Greeks' point of view) that "the Greeks invaded the Jewish quarter itself and, forcing their way into its synagogues, erected statue a statue of Caligula in every one of them." (Grant 123) This act, as aggressive as it sounds, was a logical one. Not only did it manifest the Greeks' unswerving loyalty to the "divine" Emperor of Rome, it also showed their utter disdain and disapproval of the Jews' contempt for the imperial order and the natural state of affairs between the various subject peoples and Rome.

Grant argues that the Greeks' action "was an act of profanation, but one which the emperor's uncertain temperament made it difficult for the Jews to protest against." (123) While this statement might be true to some extent, it seems more likely that the Jews could hardly protest because they knew that they were in the wrong. After all, it was they that denied the overarching importance of imperial unity by adamantly obeying their own laws while ignoring the ones dictated by the majority.

In A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy, Kevin MacDonald says "that Jewish political activity against the Romans often included threats of martyrdom if external signs of Roman domination were not removed from Jerusalem and the Temple. Only the Jews, of all Rome's subject peoples, were exempted from having to sacrifice to the Empire's gods..." (p. 232) This quote serves to exemplify the Jews' (and especially, the Zealots') willingness to go to extreme lengths to achieve their objective, meaning their exclusive status of possessing "divine" rights that no other peoples deserve (from the Jews' perspective). Again, one can hardly blame the Greeks for acting the way they did. After all, the Greeks were only trying to prevent the Jews from usurping too much power in a realm that the Jews had no authority to put themselves into - namely, above other peoples.

MacDonald continues, "While this type of altruistic fanaticism [the Jews'] is highly compatible with a group evolutionary strategy perspective as developed here, such fanaticism seems excessive even within this context. [This] indicate[s] an extremely ingrained sense of national identity and ethnic separatism." (p. 232) This statement might sound a little extreme, but it explicates quite simply that the Jews in Roman times were an in-group that not only refused to tolerate the influence of the outside world, but also refused to acknowledge the laws that governed its own existence. No matter what the Jews of that period claimed, it remains an indisputable fact that they were "outside of mainstream society," both within the matrix of the Roman Empire itself and the realm of its various colonies.

In A History of the Jews, Abram Leon Sachar writes, "This extraordinary compactness, preserved decade by decade in a day of easy assimilation, often drew upon the Jews the reproach of exclusiveness. The Greek grammarian and commentator on Homer, Apion, was never tired of reiterating this charge against the Jews, and, in 38 B.C. (sic), he headed a delegation of Alexandrians to complain to the Roman emperor, Caligula, that the Jews were haters of mankind. (...) Apion's charges were widely believed." (108)

This quote shows the extent to which Gentiles were willing to go to prove that the Jews were a menace to the majority populace of the Roman Empire. Apion did not have to convince most people that the charges he brought against the Jews were based on the truth. At least, this is what most Romans, Greeks and others believed. It was the behavior and alienating customs of the Jews that created the impression that they were "above the law." This is why they were universally despised and not trusted. Certainly, the Jews themselves did not do a lot, in terms of compromises and forthcomings, to alleviate this precarious state of affairs.

In The History of Israel, Martin Noth says that "only the members of the religious community of Jerusalem would not and could not take part in the worship of the Emperor. For adopting this attitude they were hated by the others. " (p. 423) It is hard not to realize the condescending attitude of this paragraph. The use of the word "others" automatically denigrates all Gentiles as being merely an amalgam of people that did nothing but persecute the seemingly "innocent" Jews. This sums up the general attitude of the Jews in the time of Caligula as well. They believed that they were justified in separating themselves from the rest of mankind, but they expected everybody else to treat them as "equals." This schizophrenic attitude (living separate but wanting to be equal) of the Jews did not work out for their benefit. On the contrary, it brought destruction on them and the peoples they came in contact with.




Avi-Yonah and Zvi Baras. The World History of the Jewish People: The Herodian Period. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1975.

Flavius, Josephus. The Jewish War. Israel: Steimatzky, 1982.

Graetz, H. History of the Jews. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1902.

Grant, Michael. The Jews in the Roman World. Dorset Press, 1984.

MacDonald, Kevin. A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1994

Noth, Martin. The History of Israel. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958.

Sachar, Abram Leon. A History of the Jews. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1935.

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