BMCR 2010.12.63

The Alexandrian Riots of 38 C.E. and the Persecution of the Jews: A Historical Reconstruction. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 135

, The Alexandrian Riots of 38 C.E. and the Persecution of the Jews: A Historical Reconstruction. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 135. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009. viii, 336. ISBN 9789004138469. $169.00.


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The present study, dealing with the political problems of the Jews in the fourth decade CE, is one of the most interesting works published in this field in recent years. The monograph developed from a 2003 doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, supervised by Erich Gruen. After a brief Introduction, the theses of the book are set forth in ten well-argued chapters, followed by a chapter of conclusions, and five appendices, an impressive bibliography, and indexes. The book challenges much of the received view concerning the Alexandrian riots in the thirties CE, and its theses will have to be addressed in future work.

While Gambetti claims to be rather traditional when it comes to methodology, there are some important novel hypotheses governing much of her approach. First, she argues that the Jews were not expelled from Alexandria as such but secluded into a small part of it labeled the Delta District (Δ). This is a very important part of her thesis as it makes her consider the events of the thirties CE in light of the history of the Jewish settlements in Alexandria: She claims that identity was defined by rational territorial subdivisions more than race. Thus the territory initially given to the Jews determined their continuing role and place in the city. Second, she finds Philo’s language in describing the riot to be imbued with a legal quality, and that draws her to explore the judicial environment at that time. Third, her legalistic reading of the riots leads her to a new view of P. Yale II 107, a papyrus which is usually thought to belong to the Acta Alexandrinorum. Gambetti believes this belongs to the first century CE, and draws on it for her historical explanation of the Alexandrian riots of the thirties CE.

A brief review of her ten main chapters may be in order. In Chapter One (pp. 13-21), Unwrapping Philo’s narrative, she discusses the historical value of Philo’s works in light of what might have been his personal agendas in writing them; historiographic critique and historical investigation are essential to make sense of Philo’s explanations. Gambetti takes as her point of departure the summer of 38, when the Alexandrian Jews were pushed back into the Δ section of the city, which suggests that the problem was not the Jews qua Jews, but where they lived.

Chapter Two (pp. 23-55) deals with the rights of residence of the Jews in the Ptolemaic times. She argues, inter alia, that at that time the Jews had their own politeuma, but it was limited to the territory of their garrison. In Chapter Three, Rights of Residence of Alexandrian Jews in the Roman period (pp. 57-76), she states that the subdivision of Alexandria in several areas continued, and the identification of the inhabitants was related to these districts. She also argues that the politeuma, even the Jewish one, survived, with some modifications. But the situation of the Jews changed, not least due to their increasing numbers. Chapter Four (77-85) deals with the early years of Flaccus’ prefecture. Gambetti argues that Flaccus did not favor the Jews, though his policy remains unclear in many aspects. That he did not deliver the Jewish decree to the emperor was more due to the difficult situation of Flaccus’ own situation than his reluctance to deliver it.

The fifth chapter, The Precedent for the Riots (pp. 87-136), which is central to Gambetti’s argument, presents her reading of P. Yale II 107. The main conclusion of her discussion is that this papyrus deals with a conflict between two groups opposing each other before Gaius, the Emperor; the one party was the Alexandrians, the other was composed of Alexandrian Jews. The case before Gaius is dated to March 37, possibly in Rome. But the two groups, which in fact were delegations, had left Alexandria as early as about August 35. According to Gambetti’s reading, the Jews seem to have lost their case, and Gaius sent a letter to Alexandria. The content of that letter, however, is difficult to discern due to the fragmentary nature of the papyrus. Gambetti suggests that one of the parties in the trial was Alexandrian Jews, hence the case dealt with a Jewish question of Alexandria. She further surmises that it concerned a problem like that in the letter of Helenos (CPJ II,151), the danger of losing one’s patris. Gambetti’s conclusion, important for her whole study, is that the accuser and supplicants – mentioned in this papyrus – were Jews, and that they lost their case: “The reason for this loss was residence; the representative of the Jews apparently registered his idia in a mistaken part of the city; his guilt extended to the whole group” (p.136).

The following three chapters (pp. 137-193) deal with the events of 38 CE: Chapter Six with the events of spring 38 CE; Chapter Seven with Agrippa in Alexandria; and Chapter Eight with the Riots of 38 CE. In the first of these Gambetti follows up her interpretation of P. Yale II 107. She does not accept the reasons given by Philo for the actions of Flaccus against the Jews, but reads them against the decretum of Gaius after the case as witnessed by P. Yale II 107. Hence Flaccus’ actions were not carried out against the Jews in order to please the Alexandrians and to save himself, but were part of his duties to carry out the decretum of the emperor: any Jews living in the city but ‘outside’, that is outside the Δ district, could have been the target of legal actions. And at that time many Jews were living outside the Δ district. What then was the purpose of Agrippa’s coming to Alexandria? Gambetti calls Philo’s description of Agrippa entering Alexandria in secret during the night as ‘unbelievable’, and argues that Agrippa’s parade in splendor demonstrates that his purpose of coming to Alexandria was for something more than just convenience; Agrippa was in fact Gaius’ envoy to Alexandria, delivering Gaius’ mandata to Flaccus, thus reinstalling him as the prefect of Egypt. This makes Agrippa’s visit to Alexandria much more important than Philo’s descriptions indicate. Agrippa probably left the city as soon as possible. When it comes to the events of the riot in 38, Gambetti suggests that they were primarily due not to the ‘mob’ (contra Philo), but to political leaders of some sort (p.171), most probably the leaders of the gymnasium. Furthermore, the famous edict of Flaccus, declaring the Jews to be “foreigners and immigrants” in the city, Gambetti reads to denote not all Jews but primarily the Jews living outside their designated area, that is outside the Δ district. This was then not a decision made by Flaccus alone, but was his enforcement of the judgment made by Gaius in 37 (cf. P. Yale II 107).

While the prefect, and behind him the emperor, were the institutional figures of power, they were not the only actors involved. Philo refers again and again to the mob of Alexandria as directly involved. Chapter Nine, accordingly, deals with The Cultural and Social Background of the Riots (pp. 195-212). Gambetti discusses here the old Egyptian enmity against the Jews as a possible factor. In dealing with the cultural and demographic aspects of the riots, she focuses on the roles of the professional and religious associations in the city. Then, in the final main chapter (pp. 213-238), the author deals with the years 39 and 41, investigating the two delegations to Rome in 39, the interpretation of the Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians, and some other evidence from Josephus. These ten chapters are followed by an extensive concluding chapter.

This study thus represents a comprehensive investigation of a crucial period for the Jews in Alexandria. It is thoroughly researched and well argued, and offers an indispensable study for all who want to understand what happened in these years. Gambetti pursues her ideas with great consistency and an impressive grasp of the sources and the secondary literature.

I am, nevertheless, not totally convinced that her main theses will stand up to closer scrutiny. It is problematic that there is not the slightest evidence in Philo of the role of the Delta district in these conflicts. A couple of other critical issues and questions might be raised too: If Agrippa was the envoy of the Emperor sent to reinstall Flaccus in his office, how could Flaccus tolerate the Alexandrians’ show of disrespect for Agrippa in the theater? And why was Flaccus arrested in the fall of 38 CE and taken to Rome if his actions against the Jews in Alexandria had only enforced the Emperor’s rulings?

Despite these questions, this is a valuable contribution to scholarly research concerning the history of Alexandria and of the Jews residing there. The five appendices as well as the extensive bibliography and the indices only enhance the value of this volume.