Colonisation of Cyrene and the Jewish Riots under Trajan

A Roman commander from Attaleia in Pamphylia is honoured for services that included the colonisation of Cyrene after Trajan
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Original Location/Place: 
Found in the city wall of Attaleia, modern Antalya
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Found in the city wall of Attaleia, modern Antalya
117 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Statue base
Not given

47 centimetres in height, 59 in width, and 57 thick. Letters are 3 to 3.5 centimetres tall

Roman, Greek

Bean, George E., “Inscriptions in the Antalya Museum,” in Belleten 22, 1958,p. 36, no. 26 [SEG 17.584, AE 1972.616]


The career progression recorded on this statue base discovered in the Pamphylian city of Attaleia, modern Antalya is remarkable. Lucius Gavius Fronto (PIR2G 100) started as the chief centurion of the first cohort (πρειμοπειλάριος/preimopeilarios) in the III Legion Cyrenaica but was later transferred to the XV Apollinaris where he reached the higher rank of praefectus castrorum or commander of the camps (στρατοπεδάρχης/stratopedarchês); the first of his fatherland (πάτρις/patris) to do so. By virtue of his military valour (ἀριστεῖα/aristeia), he was also granted the equestrian status (symbolised with the “public horse,” l. 11-12) by an unnamed Augustus: Domitian, who suffered damnatio memoriae and could not be referred to with his full nomenclature after 96 CE. In addition to his personal advancement, he also provided enough resources to his descendants so that the son, L. Gavius Aelianus, could become Roman quaestor and pro-praetor (PIR2G 90), and the grandson, L. Gavius Clarus, senator with the broad stripe or laticlavus (πλατύσημος/platysêmos). The latter is also known as one of the best friends and protégés of the imperial instructor Cornelius Fronto, who even wrote a letter of recommendation for him in 163 CE (To the Emperor Vero II.7). The cursus of the progenitor of this family is most interesting for the history of the relationships between Rome and the Jews because of the text recorded in lines 15 to 17: “entrusted by the god Trajan with 3000 veterans of the legions in order to colonise Cyrene.”

The reference to Trajan as a “god” (θεός/theos) indicates that the honorific inscription was set up after the emperor’s death in August 117 CE, which is also the t.a.q. for Gavius Fronto’s mission. Given that the equestrian status was only reached under Domitian, it can be inferred that Trajan’s trust on him was most likely earned at the end of his career. Moreover, if the inscription follows the usual chronological order, these later stages would correspond to the supervision of the camps of the Legio XV Apollinaris. Modern reconstructions of the legionary movements in the high imperial period are always arduous because they depend on very circumstantial evidence. Yet, in this case, there are good indications that, after the Dacian victories of Trajan, Gavius Fronto and his soldiers moved to Egypt and the Levant and assisted in the next big imperial enterprise: the war against Parthia (see Wheeler, “Legio XV Apollinaris”, p. 291-293). In Arados, countermarks of the 15th Legion were struck on coins which have been dated between 115 and 116 CE (British Museum Coins, Phoenicia p. xxxxvii). If that is the case, these years would coincide not only with the Parthian campaigns but also with the Jewish revolts that hit Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean under Trajan. Even if the exact chronology is far from certain, it is clear that one of the main centres of the Diaspora, Cyrene, was affected. Our main sources for these episodes are Eusebius (Ecclesiastic History IV.2.1-5) and the Byzantine compilation of Cassius Dio (Roman History, LXVIII.32.1-3) prepared by Xiphilinos. They both report that the Jews of Libya followed a leader (Andreas or Lucuas), and the Bithynian historian adds that they attacked both Greeks and Romans “eating the flesh of their victims, making belts of their entrails, anointing themselves with their blood and wearing their skins for clothing.” Even if not as graphic, the Historia Augusta (Hadrian 5.2) and Artemidorus (Onirocritica IV.24) record violent clashes in the region which are also confirmed by a series of almost contemporary inscriptions. These texts, either in Latin or bilingual, contain the orders of Hadrian between 118 and 119 CE concerning the restitution of central spaces of civic and religious life such as the temple of Hecate, the Caesareum (SEG 17.804), and the public Baths (AE 1928.2). All these buildings had suffered from what is called tumultus Iudaicus (“Jewish riot”), which was remembered under Marcus Aurelius when the temple of Zeus was still recovering from the attacks.

When such historical events are combined with the career of Gavius Fronto, Trajan’s decision to send 3000 legionary veterans to colonise Cyrene demands further scrutiny. According to both direct evidence and historical accounts, it is known that military intervention was needed in order to bring the tumultuous Jews down (see Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism, p. 176-185, 222-224). For example, a legionary commander from Berytus (modern Beirut) recorded in his honorific inscription that Trajan sent him to an expedition (expeditio) in Cyprus, one of the focal locations of the Jewish revolt in 116 CE (ILS III.9491). This case bears several similarities to Gavius Fronto’s mission that are worth exploring. The two members of the equestrian order were – obviously – Roman citizens and familiar with the Greek East. Even if Attaleia was not a full Roman colony like Berytus, Italian settlers became an important segment of the local population when Rome confiscated land in this area of Pamphylia as a result of Publius Servilius’s victory in 77 BCE (Cicero, On the Agrarian Law I.5; 2.50). Thereafter, a sympolity (SEG 6.646; AE 1972.614) was established between these Romans to which Gavius Fronto most likely belonged and the native community of a Greek polis originally founded by Attalos Philadelphos (Strabo, Geography XIV.4.1, see Arena, Città, p. 101-106). In other words, they both knew how to deal with multicultural regions and may even have had first hand experience with the Jews before and after the riots. Finally, according to their statue bases, the two commanders of the Roman army had directly and specifically been appointed by Trajan. Hence, the analogy between both cases points towards a common strategy deployed by the emperor in order to overturn local conflicts which turned out global after his Parthian conquest.

For all these reasons, Gavius Fronto’s mission should not be regarded as a simple strategy of re-population, but rather as an effective way to bring control back into Roman hands. This plan was neither unprecedented nor unique in the history of Rome’s dominion. In inner Pisidia, not too far from Attaleia, Augustus is known to have established colonies of veterans soon after Galatia became a new province and the native tribes were pacified (see Levick, Roman Colonies). At the end of the 3rd century CE, southern Anatolia perhaps received more veteran contingents to quench the rebellious behaviour of the Isaurians (HA, Probus 16.5, see Mitchell, Cremna, p. 217). Such a policy of occupation and pacification may also have become necessary in Cyrene where, as noted above, central spaces were burnt and destroyed. However, with the evidence available it is not possible to define the exact nature and development of this process. On the one hand, the Greek verb κατοικίσαι/katokisai (“colonise”) would normally imply a rather long-lasting settlement. On the other hand, the leader in charge of the veterans appears to have returned to his hometown, where he became the first to establish perpetual gymnastic benefactions, lengthy priesthoods, and comprehensive performing and athletic competitions (l. 17-23). Furthermore, his patronage in Attaleia was still extolled by a man L. Gavius Seleukos – perhaps a descendant of his freedmen –, who may have personally witnessed his generosity after Trajan. This scenario would again coincide with the actions of the commander of Cyprus, who returned to Berytus and held the highest local magistracy (IIvir). The second issue to interpret Gavius Fronto’s mission originates from the epigraphic evidence of Cyrene. While we find an unusual high number of Latin inscriptions that may indicate more intensive Roman presence in the aftermath of the Jewish revolts (cf. Paci, “Le Iscrizioni,” p. 255), the Greek city calls itself πόλις/polis already in 129 CE (SEG 17.809). A few years later, Hadrian also endorsed the admission of Cyrene into the commonalty of Greeks or Panhellenion (see Reynolds, “Hadrian, Antoninus Pius”; and Spawforth, “The World of the Panhellenion,” p. 96-100), praising their Achaean and Spartan pedigree (εὐγένεια/eugeneia SEG 28.1566, l. 16). At the same time, the public instituitons returned to their archaising Dorian dialect attested in the dedication of the renovated temple of Zeus. On the basis of this material, it should be evident that Cyrene did not become a Roman colony, but rather intensified his Greek roots after Trajan.

An alternative explanation is that the geographical term Κυρήνη/Kyrênê does not refer to the city but rather to the entire region of the Cyrenaica, which could also be named as Κυρήνη/Kyrênê in Antiquity. Indeed, the Jewish population originally settled by Ptolemy Lagos (Flavius Josephus, Against Apion II.44) could be found in other territories of eastern Libya. For example, public inscriptions in Berenice attest the presence of an ethnic association of Jews (or πολίτευμα/politeuma) under Augustus(SEG 16.931), with its own archons in 24/5 CE (IGRR 1024), and even a synagogue in 56 CE (SEG 17.823). In Teucheiria the presence of Jewish epitaphs is particularly high until the Flavian period (see Lüderitz, Corpus jüdischer Zeugnisse, p. 63-145). This latter location has been proposed as the most likely place where a Roman colony could have settled on account of the population loss, urban arrangement, and the fact that the word Colonia appears in the late – and not completely reliable – Tabula Peutingeriana (see Applebaum, Jews and Greeks, p. 286-288; Smallwood, The Jews, p. 411-412). Here too, a veteran of – precisely – the XV Legion Apollinaris is attested either during or after the Antonine period (CIL 3.6). 

Nevertheless, even if a full Roman colony was established and later remained virtually unnoticed in our evidence, re-population was not Trajan’s principal aim. When the Christian historian Orosius (History against the Pagans VII.12.6) reports demographic decline after the Jewish revolt, he praises the measures taken by Hadrian. In this regard, a Greek refoundation called Hadrianopolis is confirmed on the Cyrenaica shores, which would bring a far less invasive method of promoting growth and expansion than a colony (see Jones, “Coastal Settlement”, p. 67). Instead, the actions of Gavius Fronto and his 3000 veterans must be read against the background of coercive control and punishment. Almost immediately after the end of the revolt, the Egyptian papyri illustrate the extent of confiscation of Jewish properties (see Mélèze-Modrzejewski, “Ἰουδαῖοι ἀφῃρημένοι”); which would explain that rabbinic sources, such as Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 5:1, 55b, later refer to Trajan as the “wicked” emperor while he is the paradigm of optimus princeps in the pagan historiography (see Mélèze-Modrzejewski, “Trajan et les Juifs”). Indeed, from a Roman perspective, Trajan’s reaction in Cyrene was a successful one. The ancient sources do not report more violent Jewish uprisings in Libya for the rest of the high imperial period and, as noted above, the Greek urban centres experienced the favour of the emperors and the restoration of their places of gentile cult and pride. Conversely, no Jewish material is available from the Cyrenaica, one of the main centres of the Diaspora, which does not resurface again until Late Antiquity (see Kerkeslager, "Jews in Egypt and Cyrenaica,” p. 63 and Stern, Inscribing Devotion, p. 92).

For all these reasons, if Gavius Fronto’s mission and Trajan’s policy was actually one of the breaking points to depart from the former status quo, this inscription can shed light on the consequences of implementing punitive measures against riotous behaviours that Rome did not tolerate. Roman veterans and colonies had the power to impose powerful messages of control, hegemony, and consensus; frequently effective, many times intimidating, and potentially transforming. For the history of Judaism, the analogy with the later establishment of Aelia Capitolina should now be evident.   

Bibliographical references: 

Jews in Egypt and Cyrenaica 66-c. 235 CE

Kerkeslager, Allenarticle-in-a-bookCambridge History of Judaism, Volume 4: The Late Roman PeriodSteven T. Katz53-68Jews in Egypt and Cyrenaica 66-c. 235 CECambridgeCambridge University Press2006

Trajan et les Juifs

Mélèze-Modrzejewski, Josepharticle-in-a-book7-3117Trajan et les JuifsProblèmes d’histoire du christianisme 1987
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