The Acts of Isidorus

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The Alexandrian Isidorus before the emperor Claudius
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 

BGU 511 = Location unknown since World War II

Papyrus Cairo 10448 = Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Papyrus London 2785 = British Museum, London

Papyrus Berlin 8877 = Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, Berlin State Museums

Physical Characteristics: 

There are three recensions of this text. Recension A consists of two fragments from different parts of the same roll (BGU 511 and P. Cairo 10448), written in an oval, upright semi-literary style. Our text is on the verso of some accounts from the Antonine era, and has been dated to no earlier than 200 CE. The provenance of the two fragments is unknown (Musurillo, Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, p. 117). Recension B is found on P. Lond. 2785, also of unknown provenance, and written on the verso of a second-century document in narrow, irregular, semi-cursive letters. This scribal hand has been dated to the early-third century CE. Recension C is found on P. Berlin 8877, and is written in a late-second or early-third century CE scribal hand on the verso of a text of an earlier date (Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, p. 118). The second recension fills in the gap of where column ii of the first recension breaks off (see translation below).

2nd CE to 3d CE

BGU 511 = 19 x 14.5 cm

P. Cairo 10448 = uncertain

P. Lond. 2785 = uncertain

P. Berlin 8877 = 11.5 x 11 cm

BGU 511; P. Cairo 10448; P. London 2785; P. Berlin 8877

This papyrus is classified among the Acts of the Alexandrian (or Pagan) Martyrs, a collection of texts which narrate (largely fictional) confrontations between the Roman imperial government and various Alexandrian representatives. Contrary to what the name might suggest (bringing to mind the Acts of the Christian Martyrs), the trials that are narrated in these papyri, spanning a time period of one-hundred and fifty years (the earliest associated with the emperor Caligula, who reigned between 37 and 41 CE, and the latest thought to be associated with Commodus, who reigned between 180 and 192 CE), are not centred around the religious convictions of the Alexandrians in question. Religion is nonetheless a major theme in the Acts, however, as the collection is extremely anti-Jewish. However, scholars disagree as to just how central the role of this feature is; some argue that it is of paramount importance, while others believe it to be more of a tool in a wider aim to criticise the Roman emperors whose perceived affable relationships with the Jews were despised by the Alexandrian authors of the texts. The present text exemplifies well the way in which anti-Jewish rhetoric was utilised as anti-Roman propaganda.

Here, the Alexandrian author of the text presents the classic formula of a heroic individual, a representative for the interests of the Alexandrian people, coming up against an unjust ruler; in this case, the Emperor Claudius (reigned from 41-54 CE). Isidorus was a prominent demagogue whose role in the Alexandrian riots against the Jews in 38 CE is documented elsewhere. Most notably, Philo of Alexandria in his treatise Against Flaccus (the Roman prefect of Egypt between 32 and 38 CE) speaks of Isidorus as one of the “Jew-haters” that aligned himself with Flaccus as a prominent figure in the riots (see, for example, Against Flaccus IV; XVII, where Isidorus is accused of slander, instigated by his anger at the prefect for the latter’s loss of favour for him; XX). Lampon, who features in column three of the present text, is paired with Isidorus in the prosecution of the prefect Flaccus in 38 CE, which Philo narrates at length in both his Against Flaccus and On the Embassy to Gaius. Philo explains that Flaccus, out of fear that Gaius would depose him, formed a coalition with prominent Alexandrians against the Jewish population. Following the mockery of Agrippa II when he passed through the city of Alexandria, Flaccus was compelled to declare that all Jews were aliens of the city, with no citizen rights, leading to violent riots. Subsequently, Flaccus was arrested and sent to Rome, with the new emperor, Claudius, re-affirming the rights of the Jews. It is against this background of tension between Alexandrians, Jews, and the Roman government that the present text must be read. Another of the Acts (see Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1089) narrates a secretive meeting in the Serapeum between Flaccus, Isidorus, and Dionysius, another Alexandrian mentioned by Philo, where some seemingly illicit financial business is taking place. The papyrus is fragmentary, and so the precise events are debated, but what is clear is that Flaccus is represented as a threat to the Alexandrians. In P.Oxy. 1089, however, Dionysius takes centre stage (at least in what remains of the text), whereas the present narrative focuses on Isidorus as the main dialogue partner with the Roman emperor.

The events take place in an imperial garden in Rome, where the Roman emperor and his consilium are hearing the case of Isidorus and Lampon versus the Judean King Agrippa (see below for further discussion). Philo tells us that Lampon held the office of ὑπομνηματόγραφος (hypomnēmatographos) in the prefect’s chancery (Against Flaccus 128-131), was appointed gymnasiarch against his will, and then imprisoned for two years under Tiberius in Rome before being released in time to testify against Flaccus in 38 CE. We are told that the trial took place on the fifth day of Pachon (the name of an Egyptian month in Spring), in the thirteenth year of Claudius’s reign, which would indicate 53 CE. We are given no precise details of the exact charges brought against Agrippa (see E. Mary Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule, p. 252). The case begins with a debate amongst the members of the consilium, the content of which is unfortunately largely lost. However, the debate is substantial enough that it requires the case to be adjourned until the next day. The proceedings then continue with the prosecutor, Isidorus, being invited to speak first, but with Claudius warning him not to attack his “friend” Agrippa, as he claims Isidorus has done with other friends of his in the past, ultimately leading to their deaths. The name Theon indicates that this individual was from a well-known Egyptian family, but other than that he was an “exegete” we are given no further information about him. Naevius seems to refer to Naevius Macro, a close adherent of the Emperor Gaius (reigned between 37 and 41 CE), but who later fell into disrepute with the emperor and was forced to commit suicide. The implication in the present text is that Isidorus and associates were in some way responsible for the suspicion that Naevius came under, something which Claudius clearly resents. Isidorus affirms his former obedience to the previous emperor Gaius Caligula, and clearly references the question of the Judeans’ status, likening them to the Egyptians who were subject to the poll-tax. This was true from the beginning of the Roman period, before which the Jews seemed to enjoy the privileged status of the Hellenes. Agrippa counters Isidorus, and denies that there is any basis for his claim.

Scholars have debated whether Agrippa I or Agrippa the II is the character in question here. Along with the likes of E. Mary Smallwood, Jan van Henten and Friedrich Avemarie argue that Agrippa I is meant (Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule, p. 250-255; van Henten and Avemarie, Martyrdom and Noble Death, p. 23, n. 45). Molly Whittaker considers Agrippa II, pointing out that he had spent his youth at Claudius’s court, and been granted authority over the principality of Chalcis in 49/50 CE, proving to be loyal to Rome (see Jews and Christians, p. 111, n. 2). Musurillo prefers to remain more cautious, however, acknowledging that the evidence in the text can be made to fit with either individual. Musurillo considers that it is strange that any such event as this involving an Agrippa would be omitted by Josephus from his writings, which the present trial is. Perhaps the author of our text invented the story in order to offer an indulgent account of his heroes, possibly because after Isidorus and Lampon returned from Rome following Flaccus’s downfall they fell into difficulty with the emperor Claudius and died shamefully and unspectacularly as political prisoners. Alternatively, Musurillo notes that if the events in our text are taken to be historical, then we might date in to 52/53 CE when Agrippa II was in Rome for the trial of Ventidius Cumanus. In this case, Josephus may have omitted the story because he felt it would paint Agrippa in a negative light, or simply because he did not deem it significant enough to include (Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, p. 123-124).

We can better understand the context in which our source emerged if it is considered in relation to two other important texts which evidence the tensions amidst the Alexandrians and the Judeans, particularly over issues of citizen-rights and belonging, in the wake of the death of the previous emperor Gaius Caligula, who had held particular disdain for the Jews (see, for example, Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XIX; Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius XVI-XVII; XX). The texts in question are the so-called Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians (P. Lond. VI 1912 = CPJ II 153; available here in Greek and English translation:;6;1912?rows=2&start=0&fl=id%2Ctitle&fq=series_led_path%3AP.Lond.%3B6%3B*%3B*&sort=series+asc%2Cvolume+asc%2Citem+asc&p=0&t=14;, and an apparent edict of Claudius preserved in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities XIX.280-285. The authenticity of the edict is doubted by most, and the relationship between the two texts has been a subject of debate (there is not space here for a detailed discussion, but for an overview, see Ritter, Judeans in the Greek Cities, p. 147). The edict focuses on the Judeans’ citizen rights in Alexandria since the times of the Ptolemaic kings, then under Augustus. The uprising of the Alexandrians against the Judeans is also referred to, with the emperor recorded as claiming that he does not wish for the rights of the Judeans to be lost: “I will therefore that the nation of the Jews be not deprived of their rights and privileges, on account of the madness of Caius; but that those rights and privileges which they formerly enjoyed be preserved to them, and that they may continue in their own customs” (translation by William Whiston; see also Judeans in the Greek Cities, p. 148).

The Letter of Claudius (P. Lond. 1912), dated to the 10th November 41 CE, has the emperor affirm that he reiterates his policy of defending the Judeans’ rights to practice their own religion. However, his instructions are for both sides, the Alexandrians and the Judeans, to cease agitating each other, and there is no particular favour shown to either. It seems, however, that the author of the Acts of Isidorus understood there to be an imbalance in the regard that Claudius held for the two sides, with the Jews being favoured. Our text highlights that Claudius had gained a reputation for being opposed to anti-Judean policies, and the author of our document directly connects the emperor’s hostility towards Isidorus and Lampo with this apparent defence of the Jews. For Arnaldo Momigliano, Isidorus and Lampo became for the Alexandrian author of our text “martyrs in the cause of anti-Semitism” (Claudius, p. 35), executed by an emperor whose loyalties, in the eyes of our disgruntled author, were extremely apparent.

Particularly poignant is the questioning by Claudius as to whether Isidorus is “the son of an actress.” This paves the way for one of Isidorus’s most cutting accusations, that the emperor himself has Jewish heritage. However, by having Claudius first bring into question the social standing of the Alexandrian Isidorus, who is quick to affirm that he is in fact the gymnasiarch of the city, the author is able to both affirm the worth of his hero, and further villainise the emperor. By stating that Claudius himself is the son of a Jew, Salome, as Ritter argues, the author was either intending to cause great shock or great amusement for his readers at Claudius’s expense, perhaps both. Either way, it is clear that he wishes to portray the emperor as having a deep-rooted connection with the Judeans (Judeans in the Greek Cities, p. 154). There are three possible Salomes from the Herodian family which might be being referred to: the sister of Herod the Great, the daughter of Herod of the Great, and the daughter of Herodias and Herod. Herbert Musurillo discusses the various options in more detail, but most scholars have opted for the first option on the grounds that she was the “most involved in Roman affairs” (Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, p. 128-130; for the quotation, p. 129). However, as Musurillo concludes, there is really no need to look for historical precision here, as this is not the intention of the author, who simply wishes to poke fun at Claudius.

The identity of the Balbillus mentioned in recension C has been a subject of debate. Musurillo mistakenly argues that the most likely candidates are Claudius Balbillus, prefect of Egypt under Nero from 55-59 CE, or a Claudius Balbillus mentioned in two inscriptions in Ephesus, which inform us that he was a tribune under the emperor Claudius in Britain and held various procuratorships at Alexandria (see Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, p. 130-131). However, these two figures are actually the same person (on Tiberius Claudius Balbillus’s career, see Hans-Georg Pflaum, Les carrières procuratoniennes équestres p. 34-41). It is not clear precisely why the prosecutors (Isidorus and Lampon) are executed under Claudius’s instruction, but one suggestion has been that he believed them to be falsely accusing Agrippa of treason, in which case they themselves would be liable to prosecution under the charge of maiestas if their claims were suspected by Claudius of being unfounded and slanderous (calumnia) (see Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, p. 125). Regardless, Isidorus and Lampon die as martyrs at the hands of a “crazy emperor,” who is shown to be disproportionately loyal to Agrippa and consequently the Jewish population more generally.

Summing up in Ritter’s words, this source essentially shows that “Claudius had won a reputation as an antagonist of Isidorus and Lampon, as a Judean sympathizer who could be satirized as the son of the Judean Salome, and as a strong supporter of someone who was prepared to defend, in very strong terms, the Judeans against the accusation that they were somehow more akin to Egyptians than Alexandrians” (Judeans in the Greek Cities, p. 155-156). As such, this source is a fine example of the rhetoric of a corpus of texts which sought to critique imperial power by portraying Roman authority as misguidedly and unjustly placed—in support of the Jews.

An image of BGU 511 can be found here:

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The Acts of Isidorus
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Thu, 04/19/2018 - 14:27
Visited: Wed, 04/24/2024 - 15:53

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