1584 European depiction of Philo
Alexandrian Pogrom (“The First Pogrom”)
By Alexandrian “pogrom” modern scholars refer to the persecution that Jews suffered in 38 CE in Alexandria, Egypt. The sole source of information for this episode is Philo of Alexandria, himself a Jew, who witnessed the riots and who afterwards led the Jewish delegation to the Emperor Gaius Iulius Ceasar Germanicus (Caligula) that requested the reestablishment of legal Jewish residence in Alexandria.
At the beginning of August 38 CE, King Agrippa I, whom Gaius had recently appointed king of a good part of Palestine, gave the Alexandrian citizens gathered in the gymnasium the occasion for mocking him qua Jewish king. Immediately thereafter, the same people went into a theatre and called for the installing of images of Gaius in the synagogues. The Jews strongly and actively opposed this attempt. A few days later, the Roman prefect of Egypt, Flaccus, issued an edict declaring the Jews foreigners and immigrants, abolishing their rights to live in Alexandria. The Alexandrian population then pushed the Jews into a small district of the city, torturing and killing whoever attempted to leave it and destroying Jewish property anywhere else. Flaccus also arrested and punished some members of the Jewish council of elders.
The Jews had enjoyed legal residence in Alexandria since the city had, according to tradition, been founded in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great. Alexandria was later developed by Ptolemy I and his successors, who had allowed Jews to live according to their traditions and laws, or politeia, in a semi-independent enclave, or politeuma. The Jews had their own civic institutions, which included magistrates and a court for the administration of justice. The Roman emperors later recognized and confirmed the legality of the Jewish presence in the city. Thus, the edict of Flaccus in 38 CE represented a breach in Roman policy.
Scholarly interpretation, with few exceptions, follows Philo’s account. Flaccus, entangled in political troubles with the Roman court after the recent accession of Gaius, sought to enhance his position in Alexandria by making an alliance with the anti-Jewish factions and endorsing their persecution. Scholars who doubt that the Alexandrian citizens had enough weight to be a factor in the imperial policy of Rome have challenged this position. Until recently, there was also a general consensus on the Greek identity of the opponents of the Jews. However, a more careful reading of Philo’s account has led some scholars to point instead to the Egyptians as the major perpetrators. The notion that Jews had a part in provoking the riots by demanding full Alexandrian rights is no longer widely believed.
In the winter of 38 or 39 CE, the Jews sent an embassy to Gaius to plead for the reestablishment of their rights; it is not clear what the emperor’s response was, but it seems that nothing changed until Claudius’s accession to the throne at the beginning of 41 CE.
- Sandra Gambetti, Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution
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