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Pogrom in Alexandria, 68 CE


In Alexandria, Jews, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians lived together. Sometimes, ethnic violence would flare up. The following story describes a very serious incident in 68 CE. It should be noted that at that time, the Romans and Jews were fighting a war in Judaea, which will have added fuel to the violence.

The story is told by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Jewish War, 2.487-498).

In Alexandria, the violence of the people of that city against the Jews was perpetual, and this from the time when Alexander the Great, having found the Jews ready to assist him against the Egyptians, gave them, as a reward for their help, the same rights as the Greeks in the new city. They remained honored during the reigns of his successors, who also gave the Jews a quarter of their own, so that they might live without being polluted [by the Gentiles]. [...] They also gave them another privilege, that they should be called Macedonians. When the Romans conquered Egypt, neither Julius Caesar, nor any one of the emperors after him, thought of diminishing the honors which Alexander had bestowed on the Jews.

But still conflicts perpetually arose with the Greeks, and although the Roman governors did every day punish many of them, yet the violence grew worse. But at this time, when there were tumults in other places as well, the disorders among the Greeks and Jews became even more violent.

The Alexandrines had once organized a public assembly to deliberate about an embassy to Nero, and a great number of Jews came flocking to the theater [1]. When their adversaries saw them, they immediately cried out, and called them their enemies, and said they came as spies. Then they rushed out, and laid violent hands upon the Jews, and as for the rest, they were slain as they ran away. There were three men whom they caught and hauled along, to burn them alive.

At that moment, all the Jews came to defend them, and at first threw stones at the Greeks, but later they took lamps and rushed with violence into the theater, and threatened that they would burn the people to a man. They would certainly have done so. However, Tiberius Julius Alexander, the governor of the city, restrained their passions. He did not begin to teach them wisdom by arms, but privately sent for the principal men, and convinced them to be quiet, and not provoke the Roman army against the Jews. 

But the seditious did not take the threat seriously, and reproached him for so uttering threats. Because the governor now understood that those who were most riotous would not be pacified unless some great calamity would overtake them, he sent out the two Roman legions that were in the city [2], together with 5,000 other soldiers, who had recently arrived from Libya, to punish the Jews. They were permitted not only to kill them, but to plunder them of what they had, and to set fire to their houses.

The soldiers rushed violently into that part of the city that was called Delta, where the Jewish people lived together, and did as they were ordered, though not without bloodshed on their own side too. For the Jews organized themselves, set those that were the best armed among them in the forefront, and offered resistance for a great while. But when once they were forced back, they were unmercifully and completely destroyed. Some were caught in the open field, others forced into their houses, which were plundered and then set on fire. The Romans showed no mercy to the infants, had no regard for the aged, and went on in the slaughter of persons of every age, until all the place was overflowed with blood, and 50,000 Jews lay dead.

And the remainder would have perished as well, had they not put themselves at the mercy of Alexander. He felt pity and gave orders to the legionaries to retire. Being accustomed to obey orders, the soldiers left off killing immediately. But the populace of Alexandria bore such hatred to the Jews, that it was difficult to recall them, especially since they did not want to leave the bodies of their dead.

Note 1:
Popular assemblies usually took place in theaters.

Note 2:
The Third legion Cyrenaica and the Twenty-second Deiotariana

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