This Day in Jewish History / August 31

Riots against Jews in Roman-era Egypt reached a bloody pinnacle when members of the council of elders were tortured and slaughtered in the center of Alexandria.

On this day in 38 C.E., anti-Jewish riots in Alexandria, Egypt, reached their barbaric peak as the Roman governor, Flaccus, ordered that members of the community’s gerusia (council of elders) be taken to the theater and tortured, some of them to death. The events were recorded by the historian Philo of Alexandria, who witnessed them himself.

The precarious status of Alexandria’s Jews had its origins in extremely tense relations between them and the local pagan population, but was exacerbated when the Roman emperor, Caligula, who had acceded to the throne a year earlier, demanded that the Jews venerate him as a god.

To check up on Flaccus, the emperor sent Herod Agrippa, his newly appointed King of Judea, to visit the city. The presence of the half-Jewish Agrippa inflamed the masses of Alexandria, and they took the initiative of installing statues of Caligula in the city’s synagogues. That was followed by an edict by Flaccus depriving the Jews of Alexandria of their citizenship, to which the mobs reacted with physical attacks on Jews and their property. A short time later, Flaccus was recalled to Rome, where Caligula had him executed. Philo later participated in a delegation of Jews to Rome, where they attempted to plead the case of their community before the emperor. He nevertheless refused to restore their rights to them. That happened only under Caligula’s successor, Claudius, who assumed the emperorship in 41 C.E.