The hippodrome of Caesarea, the "great stadium" mentioned by Josephus.
Philo of Alexandria, The embassy to Caligula
Pilate was an official who had been appointed prefect
of Judaea. With the intention of annoying the Jews rather than of honoring
he set up gilded shields in Herod's
palace in the Holy City. They bore no figure and nothing else that was
forbidden, but only the briefest possible inscription, which stated two
things - the name of the dedicator and that of the person in whose honor
the dedication was made.
But when the Jews at large learnt of this action,
which was indeed already widely known, they chose as their spokesmen the
the Great] four sons, who enjoyed prestige and rank equal to that of
kings, his other descendants, and their own officials, and besought Pilate
to undo his innovation in the shape of the shields, and not to violate
their native customs, which had hitherto been invariably preserved inviolate
by kings and emperors alike.
When Pilate, who was a man of inflexible, stubborn
and cruel disposition, obstinately refused, they shouted: 'Do not cause
a revolt! Do not cause a war! Do not break the peace! Disrespect done to
our ancient laws brings no honor to the emperor. Do not make Tiberius an
excuse for insulting our nation. He does not want any of our traditions
done away with. If you say that he does, show us some decree or letter
or something of the sort, so that we may cease troubling you and appeal
to our master by means of an embassy.'
This last remark exasperated Pilate most of all,
for he was afraid that if they really sent an embassy, they would bring
accusations against the rest of his administration as well, specifying
in detail his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive
behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless
So, as he was a spiteful and angry person, he was
in a serious dilemma; for he had neither the courage to remove what he
had once set up, nor the desire to do anything which would please his subjects,
but at the same time he was well aware of Tiberius' firmness on these matters.
When the Jewish officials saw this, and realized that Pilate was regretting
what he had done, although he did not wish to show it, they wrote a letter
to Tiberius, pleading their case as forcibly as they could.
What words, what threats Tiberius uttered against
Pilate when he read it! It would be superfluous to describe his anger,
although he was not easily moved to anger, since his reaction speaks for
For immediately, without even waiting until the
next day, he wrote to Pilate, reproaching and rebuking him a thousand times
for his new-fangled audacity and telling him to remove the shields at once
and have them taken from the capital to the coastal city of Caesarea [...],
to be dedicated in the temple of Augustus.
This was duly done. In this way both the honor of the emperor and the traditional
policy regarding Jerusalem were alike preserved.
Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 2.169-174
Pilate, being sent by Tiberius as prefect to Judaea, introduced into Jerusalem
by night and under cover the effigies of Caesar which are called standards.
This proceeding, when day broke, aroused immense
excitement among the Jews; those on the spot were in consternation, considering
their laws to have been trampled under foot, as those laws permit no image
to be erected in the city; while the indignation of the townspeople stirred
the countryfolk, who flocked together in crowds.
Hastening after Pilate to Caesarea, the Jews implored
him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to uphold the laws of their
ancestors. When Pilate refused, they fell prostrate around his palace and
for five whole days and nights remained motionless in that position.
On the ensuing day Pilate took his seat on his tribunal
in the great stadium and summoning the multitude, with the apparent intention
of answering them, gave the arranged signal to his armed soldiers to surround
Finding themselves in a ring of troops, three deep,
the Jews were struck dumb at this unexpected sight. Pilate, after threatening
to cut them down, if they refused to admit Caesar's images, signaled to
the soldiers to draw their swords.
Thereupon the Jews, as by concerted action, flung
themselves in a body on the ground, extended their necks, and exclaimed
that they were ready rather to die than to transgress the law. Overcome
with astonishment at such intense religious zeal, Pilate gave orders for
the immediate removal of the standards from Jerusalem.
Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.55-59
Now Pilate, the prefect of Judaea, when he brought his army from Caesarea
and removed it to winter quarters in Jerusalem, took a bold step in subversion
of the Jewish practices, by introducing into the city the busts of the
emperor that were attached to the military standards, for our law forbids
the making of images.
It was for this reason that the previous prefects,
when they entered the city, used standards that had no such ornaments.
Pilate was the first to bring the images into Jerusalem and set them up,
doing it without the knowledge of the people, for he entered at night.
But when the people discovered it, they went in
a throng to Caesarea and for many days entreated him to take away the images.
He refused to yield, since to do so would be an outrage to the emperor;
however, since they did not cease entreating him, on the sixth day he secretly
armed and placed his troops in position, while he himself came to the speaker's
stand. This had been constructed in the stadium, which provided concealment
for the army that lay in wait.
When the Jews again engaged in supplication, at
a pre-arranged signal he surrounded them with his soldiers and threatened
to punish them at once with death if they did not put an end to their tumult
and return to their own places.
But they, casting themselves prostrate and baring
their throats, declared that they had gladly welcomed death rather than
make bold to transgress the wise provisions of the laws. Pilate, astonished
at the strength of their devotion to the laws, straightway removed the
images from Jerusalem and brought them back to Caesarea.
There are two striking differences between these stories. To start with,
Philo knows about a petition by four sons of king Herod and tells us nothing
about the sit down action that has Flavius Josephus' interest. The other
difference is that Flavius Josephus thinks that army standards were involved,
whereas Philo mentions gilded shields with an inscription. Differences
like these are to be expected in any society in which the spoken word is
the most important form of communication. Both authors had different spokesmen,
and this explains the discrepancies. We can be a little bit more precise
about one of these spokesmen: Philo was related to the Herodian dynasty
and will have heard the story from one of the members of the embassy. (It
should be remembered that at least one Herodian prince hated Pilate: Luke
Whatever their differences, Philo and Flavius Josephus have one thing
common. They do not tell the story from Pilate's point of view, but tell
a Jewish story, which is extremely hostile to the governor. But it is unlikely
that Pilate deliberately provoked the Jews. Only an anti-Semite would have
done so, and the emperor Tiberius was far too clever to send an anti-Semite
to Judaea. The Romans could be harsh masters, but they were not stupid.
Besides, we have already seen that Pilate accepted Judaism and paganism
as equals (above). It must have been
A clue to the interpretation is given by the remark from Flavius Josephus'
Antiquities that the soldiers were brought in from Caesarea and were
removed to winter quarters in Jerusalem. The sequence in which Flavius
Josephus places the story strongly suggests that the incident took place
immediately after Pilate's arrival. It is likely that he brought some fresh
troops with him and immediately sent these men to Jerusalem. (We know that
among the occupying forces were at least two Italian regiments, the Cohors
Secunda Italica Civium Romanorum and the Cohors Prima Augusta.)
The soldiers simply did not know that it was forbidden to bring their standards
(or the shields) into the holy city. If they covered the distance between
the two cities -90 km- in three days, it is not strange to read that the
blasphemous objects were introduced into the city during the night.
Next morning, the Jerusalem population discovered what had happened,
and decided to implore the new governor to remove these effigies. The first
to arrive in Caesarea will have reached it on the evening of the third
day, and it is unlikely that the governor allowed an audience to these
few people. When the crowd grew, he ordered his soldiers to guard it. He
had no reliable (i.e., Roman) report of what had happened and will have
sent a messenger to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the Herodian princes had discovered
that their subjects were almost revolting, and hurried to Pilate to advise
him on this matter. Flavius Josephus tells us that the strikers had to
wait until the sixth day; probably this is the time Pilate needed to hear
the answer of his messengers, and to send a new messenger to order the
removal of the statues (or gilded shields).
It is remarkable that Pilate addressed the crowd in person (probably
in Greek, a language that neither he or his audience had as a native tongue);
it would have been easier to inform their representatives about his decision.
Flavius Josephus' report that his soldiers seemed ready to kill all those
present must be a misinterpretation: the tired men and women from Jerusalem
unexpectedly saw the guard and the governor and were scared. That they
'bared their throats' must be a rhetorical exaggeration from either Flavius
Josephus or his source; it should be remembered that Flavius Josephus probably
this story and did not read about it. It is possible that Josephus'
spokesman was influenced by another story - that of the protests against
the Syrian governor Petronius, whose encounter with Jewish peasants offering
their lives is well attested.
After the incident, Pilate must have written a letter to the emperor,
to which was attached the request by the four Jewish leaders. It was common
practice that a governor reported incidents and asked guidance from the
monarch; the letters written by the governor of Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny
the Younger, to Trajan
are known to us and show us that the emperor was consulted frequently,
and for matters of far less importance than the incident with the gilded
shield (or the iconic standards). Philo must have known about Pilate's
letter to Tiberius, but he can never have read it. He certainly did not
know the answer, which must have been friendly: Pilate was to be governor
for another ten years.