Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 278-289

Agrippa I’s defense of the Jewish people and the city of Jerusalem
Name of the author: 
Philo of Alexandria
41 CE to 42 CE
Literary genre: 
Apologetic, History and Theology
Title of work: 
On the Embassy to Gaius

(For a short introduction to Philo, his family and their connections with Rome, as well as to the events of 38 CE and the embassy to Rome, see Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 8-10.)

This passage is an extract of king Agrippa I’s letter to Caligula, in which he tries to convince the emperor to renounce his project to have a statue of himself set up in the Jerusalem temple. At least, this is how Philo imagines that Agrippa spoke to his friend Gaius. The letter reflects Philo’s views as documented in other passages of his work, and must be considered an expression of Philo’s ideas rather than a genuine document written by Agrippa. Therefore I refer to Agrippa as the character to whom the speech is attributed, but not as the author.
After a short introduction in which Agrippa explains why he addresses the emperor in writing (§276), and stresses that all human beings tend to be attached to their ancestral customs (§277), he reminds the emperor that he (Agrippa) is a Jew by birth (γεγέννημαι… Ἰουδαῖος / gegennēmai… Ioudaios), whose homeland is Jerusalem, the city of the Temple of the Most High God (theos hypsistos) (§278). Then he proceeds to defend his people (ethnos) (§§279-280), his homeland (patris)—which is in fact the city of Jerusalem—(§§281-289), and the Temple (hieron) (§§290-322). In the long section that deals with the Temple (not quoted here), Agrippa reminds Gaius of the benefactions of his predecessors toward the Jews’ sanctuary. Here I will focus on the defense of the people and the city.
Agrippa presents himself as a member of the ethnos of the Ioudaioi. Because his paternal grand-mother was Mariamme, grand-daughter of Hyrcanus II, he was of Hasmonean descent. Yet three of his grand-parents were in fact Idumean: on the paternal side his grand-father was Herod the Great, whereas on the maternal side he was the grand-son of Costobarus and Salome, Herod’s sister (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XV.253-254; XVI.11; XVIII.133; Smallwood, Philonis Alexandrini Legatio, p. 292-293). According to Josephus, the Idumeans had become Judeans under Hyrcanus I, at the end of the second century BCE, adopting the laws and the way of life of the Judeans (A.J. XIII.257-258). However, some sources tend to indicate that because of their lineage, Herod and his descendants were not considered fully Jewish (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XIV.403; Mishnah, Sotah 7.8; Schwartz, Agrippa I, p. 159-163). This is not Philo’s perspective, a conclusion that is not surprising considering Philo’s positive view of proselytes and his disregard for genealogical issues (see further Philo, On the Special Laws I.51-52).
Agrippa’s first point is the defense of the Jewish people, whom he characterizes as extremely pious and loyal to the imperial house (§279). Philo uses the superlatives εὐσεβέστατα / eusebestata and ὁσιώτατα / hosiōtata to refer to the attitude of the Jews toward the Julio-Claudians. Both terms have a religious connotation, but as André Pelletier recalls, the adverb hosiōs could also signify integrity in carrying out one’s duties (hence the idea of loyalty) (Pelletier, Legatio, p. 261, n. 5). In this passage, eusebeia (piety) toward the emperor must be understood not as a reference to the imperial cult, but rather in accordance with the meaning of pietas in Latin—the meticulous observance of the religious rites and compliance with the duties toward the gods, but also toward one’s family, patria, and the emperor. The Jews’ piety consisted in honorary dedications of buildings, as well as prayers and sacrifices for the welfare of the imperial house, rather than to the emperors themselves. Philo asserts that the Jews were no less zealous than other peoples in their piety; using the pair “Asia and Europe” to designate the whole world (see also §288), he claim that no one ever surpassed the Jews in their demonstrations of piety toward the emperor (§280).
His main argument consists in stressing that while other peoples offer sacrifices to the emperor on specific days and special occasions, the priests in the Jerusalem Temple offer sacrifices for the emperor on a daily basis. Similar arguments are found under the pen of Josephus. When he refers to Caligula’s project to erect a statue of himself in the Jerusalem Temple, and to Petronius’ efforts to convince the Jews to accept the imperial will, Josephus writes that the Jews replied: “We offer sacrifices twice every day for Caesar and the Roman people” (B.J. II.197), which in their eyes was sufficient evidence of their reverence and loyalty. In connection with the events under Gaius, and Apion’s slanders against the Jews, Josephus further states in Against Apion: “We offer on their behalf [on behalf of the emperors and the Roman people] perpetual sacrifices, and not only do we conduct such rites every day at the common expense of all Judeans, but we perform no other sacrifices on a common basis, not even for children; it is only for the emperors that we collectively exhibit this exceptional honor, which we render to no (other) human being” (C.Ap. II.77, translation by John Barclay in Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, p. 210-211). Josephus may have known Philo’s argument, but he develops it further. Unlike Josephus, Philo affirms that it was Augustus who, because of his exceptional piety, funded the daily sacrifices offered in Jerusalem (Legat. 157). From Philo’s perspective, insofar as the Jewish people and the Roman emperors share a correct understanding of piety (i.e., that does not contradict the Mosaic Law), they develop a harmonious relationship.
Agrippa then proceeds to defend the city of Jerusalem, again emphasizing its loyalty toward Gaius, manifest in the fact that it was in this city “that your longed-for accession was first proclaimed” (§288). Agrippa’s main point, however, is to stress the universal dimension of Jerusalem, which is described not only as a holy city (hieropolis) but as a mētropolis, from which numerous colonies (apoikiai) were born. Because of the connections between the mētropolis and its colonies, which are spread all over the world, Gaius’s benefactions to Jerusalem will resonate worldwide, and thus confer universal glory on the emperor (§284; the negative version of this same argument, i.e., that tensions in Jerusalem will provoke tensions all over the world, is found in Legat. 214-216). Philo enumerates different places where Jews have settled, in Europe, Asia and Libya (by which he means North Africa) (§§281-283). A different but comparable list of the Jewish settlements in the Diaspora is found in Acts 2:11, in connection with the pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the feast of Shavu‘ot. Yet the Book of Acts points to the different origins of the Jewish pilgrims to emphasize the various languages spoken by Diaspora Jews, whereas Philo wants to highlight the fact that Jewish communities are spread all over the world.
The text speaks about “colonies” (apoikiai) (see also Flacc. 46), but they were in fact Jewish communities established in cities that were not founded by Jews, as in the case of Alexandria. The term and the image were associated with the process of Greek colonization in the Mediterranean (on which see Malkin, Religion and Colonization in ancient Greece). Yet Rome had colonies too, which were sometimes designated by the term apoikia (Carlier, La cité de Moïse, p. 412-413). They could be completely new foundations, but not necessarily so. In the first century CE, for example, the existing cities of Berytus, Ptolemais, and Caesarea (Maritima) received the status of Roman colony (the first two had veterans settled in their midst, while Caesarea was a case of transformation into a Roman colony with no addition of veterans) (see Belayche, Iudaea-Palaestina, p. 71-77). The Jewish apoikiai mentioned by Philo differ from Greek or Roman foundations, because the Jews did not found, nor rule the cities of the Diaspora, even though they sometimes held local magistracies. Philo uses the term metaphorically, maybe to align the Jews with Greek and Roman models. Yet the fact that the Jewish “colonies” all stem from a single mother-city, Jerusalem, brings them closer to the Roman model than to the Greek one (Roman colonies were all related to Rome, they were “Rome in miniature”). Maren Niehoff thus states that Philo “modelled the role of Jerusalem on the position of Rome in the Empire” (Niehoff, Philo on Jewish Identity and Culture, p. 36-37). According to Torrey Seland, who borrows these notions from postcolonial studies, Philo “mimics the Roman Empire in his descriptions of the Jewish settlements by calling them ἀποικία and describing Jerusalem as their μητρόπολις,” and is in fact “writing back from the Empire” (Seland, “‘Colony’ and ‘Metropolis’ in Philo,” p. 28).
Moreover, Philo strongly suggests that true universality lies with the Jews. Although he rhetorically states that he will “say nothing of the regions beyond the Euphrates” (§282), he does indeed mention that Jewish communities exist in Babylon and in every fertile region of the Parthian empire (see also Legat. 216). At the beginning of the Legatio, he praises the universal dimension of the Roman empire, but simultaneously states that the Euphrates marks the limit of the Roman empire in the east (see Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 8-10). Jews, however, experience no such limit. They are in a sense more universal than the Romans, who are confined to the boundaries of the empire. In Legat. 281-284, the universal dimension of the Jewish people is mentioned as an argument in favor of Jerusalem, which Gaius should treat with consideration. Yet at the same time, it is possible to read this passage as meaning that Israel’s universality is greater than Rome’s. Philo may also be implicitly suggesting that Rome’s true universality lies with the Jewish people: it is through the Jews, who reside both within the Roman empire and outside it, that Gaius’ glory will become truly universal.
In his defense of Jerusalem, Agrippa underlines that he did not take advantage of his friendship with Caligula to request special favors for Jerusalem, such as tax exemptions, liberty, or grants of citizenship (§287) (on these privileges, see, e.g., Sherk, Roman Documents from the Greek East, p. 193-194). Roman citizenship could be granted by the emperor to individuals found particularly deserving. Communities who had been faithful allies of the Roman people or a given emperor could also receive Roman citizenship collectively—for example, through the status of Roman municipium or colonia—but these grants were much rarer. While not being Roman colonies, some Greek cities benefitted from a special status and were deemed “free,” especially at the jurisdictional level (see Jacques and Scheid, Rome et l’intégration de l’empire, p. 227-230). Finally, all cities, no matter what their exact status was, could benefit from a reduction or exemption of taxes granted to them by the emperor, if he so willed. Cities eagerly looked after such privileges.
Agrippa claims that Gaius granted the right of citizenship to cities which were the native places of his favorites (§285). However, in ancient sources Caligula is not remembered for his generosity in granting citizenship (see Suetonius, Life of Caligula 38.2). By contrast, we know about numerous grants under Julius Caesar and Augustus (see Sherwin-White, The Roman Citizenship, p. 225-236), and later under Claudius (for example to the Adauni, Tulliasses and Sunduni, three Alpine tribes; see CIL V, 5050, and Sherk, The Roman Empire, p. 94-96; Claudius is also famous for having opened the Senate to prominent citizens from Gallia Comata; see CIL XIII, 1668 (“Lyon Tablet”), Tacitus, Annals XI.23-24, and Seneca’s hostile reaction to such policy in Apocolocyntosis III). However, considering the date of the redaction of the Legatio, it is doubtful that Philo could have had Claudius’ policy in mind. In any case, Agrippa’s assertion mainly has a rhetorical function: it is meant to highlight his restraint and disinterested loyalty. As a matter of fact, a collective grant of Roman citizenship to Jerusalem’s inhabitants may not have been welcome by the population. That it would have been perceived as the imposition of foreign laws seems more likely.

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