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
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
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.
CONSTANTIN VON HOFFMEISTER
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,