“Infants in our Soul”: On (Ancient) History as Responsability

“Infants in our Soul”: On (Ancient) History as Responsability

by Katherine Blouin

When the governor of the country, who, if he wished, could have by himself suppressed in a single hour the tyranny of the mob, pretended not to see what he saw and not to hear what he heard but allowed them to wage war unrestrainedly and so wrecked the peace, they became still more excited and pressed forward to carry out shameless designs of a bolder kind.

-Philo of Alexandria The Embassy to Gaius 20, F.H.Colson 1962 transl.

When the news of the shooting in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue broke, I thought of Philo of Alexandria. I thought of the Jews of ancient Alexandria; of the Jews of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt; and of how some patterns of othering fundamentally don’t change, nor disappear. Instead, they remain, lingering under societies’ tolerant, polite veneer, until circumstances – a crisis, the need for a scapegoat whose identity fits the agenda of a charismatic leader – make them surge again in the open. Unfettered.

In 38 CE, upon the accession of Gaius Caligula to power, the Jews of Alexandria – who had accounted since the early Hellenistic period for a substantial portion of the city’s population – were violently attacked by Alexandrians and stripped of their rights by the then prefect of Egypt Aulus Avilius Flaccus. This episode, known as the Judaeo-Alexandrian conflict, unfolded over a period of 3 years. It is the earliest pogrom we know of. We know of it thanks to ancient writers (Philo, Josephus and the author(s) of the Acta Isidori), a copy of a letter from emperor Claudius to the Alexandrians preserved on a papyrus, and some allusions in a few other documentary papyri. It has been reconstructed and studied at length, notably by the late Joseph Mélèze-Modrzejwski, in his seminal book on the The Jews of Egypt from Ramses II to Hadrian, as well as by Sandra Gambetti and myself.

Philo, a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria (and the uncle of the later prefect Tiberius Julius Alexander), is mostly known for his philosophical writings, in which he brings together Jewish texts and Greek paideia. Yet he is also our main source on the conflict between the Jewish community of Alexandria and the city’s Greek citizens. His testimony is all the more powerful that he was a first-hand witness and actor; one who led the Jewish embassy that met with the emperor Gaius in Rome some time after the pogrom. His version of events is at the core of two of his works: Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius. In this post, I want to focus on what Philo says regarding the relationship between dehumanizing (some might say totalitarian) othering narratives, political leadership, and violent attacks perpetrated by civilians.

According to Philo, Flaccus was a fine prefect until the emperor Tiberius died, but things changed following Gaius Caligula’s accession to power. Having supported Tiberius Gemellus instead of Gaius for the succession of Tiberius, Flaccus then found himself in a very vulnerable position (so vulnerable in fact that he seemed to have literally feared for his life). It is in these circumstances that the prefect is said to have made a pact with some leaders of the Alexandrian civic community, whereby they would target the city’s Jewish community. According to Philo, Flaccus and the Alexandrians were convinced that their attack would please Gaius, on the ground of his ” indescribable hatred of the Jews” (Embassy to Gaius 20). Thus Flaccus first let the Alexandrians publicly disrespect king Agrippa, whose stopover in the city led to a public parody involving a mentally impaired man; then he encouraged the desecration of the city’s synagogues, and ended up declaring Jews “foreigners and aliens” (ξένους καὶ ἐπήλυδας; In Flacc. 8).

Flaccus’ (in)action led to a full-on pogrom, during which the members of the Jewish community were confined into a small area of the city (what amounts to a ghetto), their houses pillaged, and many of them killed by a mob. Philo provides a long, detailed and graphic narration in his work Against Flaccus (which is, as the title indicates, a pamphlet against the prefect, whom Philo deems responsible for the entire episode). He also includes a condensed version in his Embassy to Gaius, which was published after the emperor’s death. Here is an excerpt:

The promiscuous and unstable rabble of the Alexandrians perceived this, and thinking that a very suitable opportunity had occurred, attacked us and brought to light the hatred which had long been smouldering, reducing everything to chaos and confusion. For treating us as persons given over by the emperor to suffer the extremity of calamity undisguised or as overpowered in war, they worked our ruin with insane and most brutal rage. They overran our houses, expelling the owners with their wives and children, and left them uninhabited. Then they stole the furniture and cherished valuables and, not needing now like robbers through fear of capture to watch for night and darkness, they carried them out openly in daylight and exhibited them to those whom they met as if they had inherited them or bought them from the owners. And if several agreed together to share the pillaging they divided the spoil in mid-market, often before the eyes of the owners, jeering and reviling them the while.

After driving all these many myriads of men, women, and children like herds of cattle out of the whole city into a very small portion as into a pen, they expected in a few days to find heaps of dead massed together, perished either by famine through lack of necessaries, since having had no prophetic inkling of the sudden disasters they had not provided what was needed, or else through overcrowding and stifling heat. For no sufficiency of room was obtainable, and the air was vitiated and lost all its life-giving properties through the respirations or, to give them their true name, the gasps of expiring men. (Embassy to Gaius 18, F.H.Colson 1962 transl.)

In both works, Philo writes of artificially-created famine in the ghetto; of looting; of attacks of children, women, and elders; of public torture in Alexandria’s theater; of Jews being beatten, lynched, burnt alive, and crucified. A graphic description of the parading of dead bodies in the city’s streets is reminiscent of the fate of Hector’s corpse in the Iliad. Other ones of what we know of the female, Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia’s death by lynching, which was to take place in the same city c.400 years later.

Apart from naming a few of the Alexandrian leaders, Philo ascribes these acts of indescribable violence to an anonymous mob. Yet we should keep in mind that any mob is, in fact, an aggregate of individuals. Emboldened by the silent then open support of the prefect, these Alexandrians perpetrated or passively allowed violence on a scale many of them would most probably never have thought themselves capable of performing or witnessing a few years earlier. In that regard, the social conformity Philo’s narrative testifies to is reminiscent of the Nov. 9, 1938 Kristallnacht, or of what Timothy Snyder writes in On Tyranny regarding the looting and “Arianization” of Jewish property that followed the 1938 Nazi invasion of Austria:

Local Austrian Nazis captured Jews and forced them to scrub the streets to remove symbols of independent Austria. Crucially, people who were not Nazis looked on with interest and amusement. Nazis who had kept lists of Jewish property stole what they could. Crucially, others who were not Nazis joined in the theft. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt remembered, “when German troops invaded the country and Gentile neighbors started riots at Jewish homes, Austrian Jews began to commit suicide. (Timothy Snyder On Tyranny 15-16)

How many Greek Alexandrians did actively participate in the 38 CE pogrom? How many did not? How many did help Jews take refuge, water or food? We don’t know. What we should keep in mind is that just like in 1938 Germany and Vienna, most of Alexandria’s Greek population did not openly oppose the violence and overturn of the city’s customary state of Law.

If Flaccus was really hoping to gain favor in Gaius’ eyes, his plan was a complete failure. Shortly after the pogrom, he was, indeed, arrested in Alexandria and exiled to the island of Andros. The following year, he was executed following the emperor’s order. The effect of Flaccus’ discriminatory policy did not end with his demotion though, as the continuation of the conflict over the following two years shows.

Philo’s criticism of Flaccus is in many ways comparable to that expressed by critics of President Trump following the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue as well as several other events/policies (the violence that took place in Charlottesville, the assault on LGBTQ2 rights, the separation of asylum seekers’ families and the ongoing detention of migrant children in camps, the series of bombs sent to opposition figures, the GOP’s stirring of anti-immigrant fears through the “Caravan” story, and recent calls by the President for the suppression of the 14th amendment via executive order). In both cases, we find a political leader who, facing accusations of corruption or lèse-majesté, exacerbates lingering xenophobic (anti-Jewish in one case; Islamophobic, anti-Semitic/immigrant, homophobic in the other) sentiments in the hope of self-preservation and political gain. Not only did Flaccus not condemn the attacks on the Jewish institutions, property, and bodies, he also, later on, decreed the Jews “foreigners and aliens”, thus enabling the use of physical violence by the Alexandrian “mob” against the Jews. Sounds familiar?

This short post is a case in historical relevance. Donald Trump is no Avilius Flaccus, and Washington is no Alexandria. But deep down, the tides of othering that currently shake the USA, and many countries of the world, are made of many of the same reductive topoi and populist rhetorical backbones as those that led to Alexandria’s pogrom of 38 CE. History doesn’t repeat itself. But human societies do tend to inherit the consequences of, and reproduce their forebears’ collective misdeeds. And they are especially prone to do so when they collectively lack the historical and critical skills required for them to be self-reflective on why that is so.

I shall end this post with two quotes that speak to each other and, I believe, to us all. The first one is from Timothy Snyder; the second, from Philo:

History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. (Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny 130)

How long shall we the aged continue to be children grown grey in our bodies through length of years, but infants in our souls through want of sense, holding fortune, the most unstable of things, to be the most unchangeable, nature, the most constant, to be the most insecure? (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 1, F.H.Colson 1962 transl.)

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