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‘An Israeli Sparta’ — from Finkelstein to Hecataeus

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Pausanias, victor of Plataea. The author was told at school that without him we’d all be sitting on mats learning Persian

‘An Israeli Sparta’: A pungent phrase, and a long tradition, from Finkelstein to Hecataeus

The pungency of Norman Finkelstein’s phrase ‘an Israeli Sparta, beholden to American power’ has struck many readers and came powerfully back to me when I read a recent exchange on the subject of Sparta (on this site, between our colleagues Shmuel and Obsidian).  The phrase recalls an ideology – I’ll call it ‘the spirit of Plataea’, after Sparta’s greatest victory–which links the ancient and the modern world, more specifically the ancient and the modern Middle East. 

The spirit of Plataea is somewhat conflicted, half proclaiming that the Western or free world needs the sword and shield of an elite military nation, half that such elitism is something that we can well do without. The spirit of Plataea moved and morphed into the spirit first of Ptolemaic Alexandria then of Hasmonean Jerusalem.  In this context the name of Hecataeus of Abdera, principal historian to Ptolemy ‘Saviour’ and first interpreter of the Jewish nation to the Greeks, deserves to be remembered. It was he who around 300 BCE opened the way to interpreting the Jews as the new Spartans.

Finkelstein recalls Hannah Arendt writing in 1948 of the Zionists, in their ‘degeneracy’, becoming one of the ‘warrior tribes of whose possibilities and importance history has informed us since the days of Sparta’.  Her words too are conflicted, seeming to recognise that the Spartans are among the heroes of the West and that the Spartan way brings great allure as well as great danger.  Arendt in her turn alludes to Leo Strauss, who in his 1923 obituary/hatchet job on ‘The Zionism of Max Nordau’ reproaches Nordau for never quite admitting that, as more ‘manly’ principles replaced outdated idealism, Jewish sympathy for Sparta’s victims must give way to fellow-feeling for the Spartans themselves. There was much of the Hasmonean spirit in Strauss.

The militaristic, in fact Spartan-influenced, ideology of the Hasmoneans – that ism of the last two centuries BCE – has been discussed here on Mondoweiss, mainly with reference to Purim, by David Shasha (December 2010) and Avigail Abarbanel (December 2012).

I Maccabees was written around 100 BCE to support the Hasmonean regime in the warm, warlike glow of the highly successful reign of John Hyrcanus.  The most startlingly plain statements of Spartan-Jewish fraternity appear I Macc 12 and 14, written around 100, to be echoed later by Josephus.  But the theme had begun with Hecataeus, who must have been rallying the different ethnic groups of Alexandria around Ptolemy Saviour and for that purpose conversed with Alexandrian Jews, who seem to have imparted good but sketchy information and tended to tell him what he wanted, as Ptolemy’s man, to hear.


‘We find in our books that the Spartans and the Jews are brothers of Abraham’s stock’ wrote Areus, King of Sparta, according to I Macc, in a letter to Oniah the High Priest around 265 BCE.  The letter was treasured, so that in 143 an embassy, commissioned by Jonathan the High Priest (an office now in Maccabean/Hasmonean hands, kingship accruing later) to visit Rome and Sparta, proclaimed friendship in Rome, in Sparta rather more.  They read a letter to the Spartans, reminding them that the Jews ‘regarded them as brothers and held them in their prayers’. Shortly afterwards, the Spartans sent a reply, the third of the series, in appropriate terms.

The idea of a Jewish-Spartan link was not just a passing fad of King John’s time – Jan Bremmer, writing in Abraham, the Nations and the Hagarites (ed. Martin Goodman, 2010) notes that the idea was strong enough for a distinguished rabbinic family of later times to call itself ‘Ben-Lakonia’ – ‘Spartason’ – from ‘Laconia’, Sparta’s other name. The sinister adventurer Eurycles burrowed deep into the intrigues of Herod’s family.  Josephus (Wars, I, 26) makes it seem as if the fraternal way in which Eurycles was received was rather natural, just because he was a Spartan.

Erich Gruen (Hellenistic Constructs 1997) remarks on a tendency in the late twentieth century to give some credit to the Three Letters story.  However, his own argument that it is a complete fabrication is completely convincing – his next point, that the fabrication was purely Jewish, less so.


On top in Sparta stood the ultra-militaristic ‘Spartiates’, depending on the labour of a complex array of lesser inhabitants, including ‘slight inferiors’, whose status was maddening.  All of these would, suggests Xenophon, reporting (Hellenica, III,3) on a conspiracy led by an Inferior, ‘willingly have eaten the Spartiates raw’.  On the lowest rung came the ‘helots’ of nearby Messenia, which had been Spartan-occupied territory for centuries, even though the first Spartan attack had been repelled by the hero Aristodemus.

Spartan royalty was born to lead armies.  They claimed descent from Danaus, who had established his kingdom in Greece after massacring the princes of Egypt.  At Plataea Prince Pausanias, facing the Iranians, perceived that he had, after long and tense manoeuvres, placed his men just right for the necessary charge through a storm of arrows.  Like a true Spartan, he used theatre as well as tactics, planting his command post in front of a temple, making a solemn sacrifice and offering a final prayer in the seconds before his glittering phalanx, long hair flying, went into action, wall of steel spears against wall of wicker shields.  Two lines of heroic propaganda emerged: first that only the Spartan military elite could have achieved such things, second that eastern emperors and their slave soldiers can never match up to Western men who are invincible not through militarism but through that love of freedom that we all cherish.  These conflicting lines of thought form the spirit of Plataea which still influences our own idea of civilisations in conflict.

The Spartans eventually, after a century of victories, became complacent and let other cities get ahead with new military tactics and technology: hence the startling victory of the Thebans at Leuctra in July 371 with massive loss of life among the Spartiate elite.  Messenia was liberated soon after.

That one hot July day reduced Sparta from great power to regional power, eventually to be overcome by the superior numbers, mercenary soldiers and foreign alliances of a federation of lesser cities, the Achaean League.  In 192 Sparta’s independent existence was ended.  But the Spartans were never eaten raw, as Xenophon had feared. Sparta had a lively afterlife, particularly when Achaea became a Roman province after 146.  The theatre of the old order long flourished – bloody military initiation rituals were re-enacted for tourists. It helped that Sparta’s liberated women had a great reputation: erotically for mud wrestling and, more spiritually, for performing the graceful, mysteriously religious lyrics of Alcman and others.  Behind the city and the high-end tourist trap lay something much more serious, a mighty reputation for saving the Western world in its darkest hour.  This was a baton worth picking up and appropriating as soon as the Spartans themselves had to let it go.

Over in Jerusalem, at the dawn of the Hasmonean era around 170, one of the contenders for High Priesthood was called by the Spartan royal name of Menelaus.  This Menelaus must have been born and named in an important Jerusalem family just as Sparta was in sharp decline, as must his rival Jason.  This Jason eventually sought refuge in Sparta ‘because of the family relationship’, according to II Macc 5.  So the idea that the mighty men of Jerusalem should be part of the afterlife of Sparta must have arisen, at least vaguely and wishfully, almost immediately that the old Sparta ceased to be independent. 

Jewish and Spartan thought ran in some respects on parallel lines.  Had the Messenians, so long subjected, displeased the gods? In pro-Spartan stories (Pausanias’ Description of GreeceBook IV), they are duly stereotyped as rash, prone to shocking extremes, including terrorism in the later, more ‘historical’ phases.  In the earlier, more ‘mythical’ phase Aristodemus defends his citadel by desperate resort to abominable magic, sacrificing his own daughter to release supernatural forces against the Spartans. Similarly Mesha the Moabite (II Kings 3) sacrifices his son ‘against the wall’ of his citadel and so released ‘great wrath’ on the Israelites: this, the first crack in the power of the great but suspect dynasty of Samaria, is achieved by an enemy using abominable means.  Thus we have Greek and Jewish versions, probably independently created, of the idea that though imperialists who conquer can be questionable, terrorists who resist can be demonic. Moreover, the theme of endless war crops up both with Sparta against Messenia and with Israel against Amalek. The unending status of the Messenian War was what justified the terrifying ‘Krypteia’ counter-terrorism system, whereby young Spartans infiltrated Messenian villages to detect and target-kill potential resisters.   Ideas for our times!

It may be a coincidence that the distinctively Spartan word for a system of education, ‘agoge’, so much resembles ‘synagogue’, the word for a place where Judaism is taught: or there may have been some cultural influence.


‘Abominable sacrifice’ is one of many themes common to Israelite and Spartan stories – ancient stories weave in and out of each other in all sorts of baffling ways.  The theme of flight from Egypt and vengeance on Egyptian pursuers is common to the stories of Moses and of Danaus.  Gershon Hepner in his adventurous study of Israelite identity politics Legal Friction (2009, p. 518) countenances the idea of a link between Danaus and the Israelite tribe of Dan and even between the ‘Dinah’ of Genesis and the ‘Danaids’ of Greek myth.  Samson sprang from the tribe of Dan: which is intriguing because the Spartiates, like Samson, favoured long hair.

It is still, for all that, inconceivable that a Spartan king in 265 would have proclaimed that he was of Abraham’s race: as Gruen argues, no one in Greece had heard of Abraham then. But even by 265 Hecataeus and others were sowing seed that would flower by 100 in the claims of I Macc.

Hecataeus claimed that Moses and Danaus were linked in religion, presumably noting and probably over-interpreting some common elements in their stories.  Both, he says,were driven from Egypt in the same outbreak of religious hostility in time of plague.  Moses, ‘a wise and courageous’ leader and lawgiver, took a mixed bag of foreigners in Egypt and from them forged (this story leaves no room for Abraham!) the new Jewish nation. ‘At the end of their laws’, says Hecataeus, seeming to show knowledge of Deuteronomy 29: 1, ‘it is even written that Moses spoke these things having heard them from God’.   Bremmer notes this sign of authenticity and also notes that Hecataeus shows Moses calling for rigorous military training of Jewish youth in Spartan fashion. Berthelot (Hecataeus and Jewish Misanthropy 2008) notes the general prevalence of Spartan imagery in the Hecataeus-based picture of the Jews.  Bremmer sees this as a way of accepting, while slightly regretting, the Jews’ stern separateness.  But I think it was more than this and must be connected with Hecataeus’ – and Ptolemy’s – political agenda.

The first level of that agenda was practical.  As the 200s, the golden Ptolemaic century, dawned Ptolemy Saviour needed all the support he could get, particularly for his legally dubious claim to Palestine. He surely needed reliable local forces, some perhaps trained to Spartan standards.  Here Jewish support must have been welcome and may have been crucial.  After all, Jewish military units had served great empires before: we know of the Jewish garrison in Iranian service around 400 at Elephantine on the remote Sudanese frontier.  Ptolemy would have been just as interested as his Iranian predecessors in this source of support and the Jewish leaders, perhaps High Priests, presumably just as interested in offering it.  Hecataeus makes a point of saying that the Jews were not desirous of a King of their own; their High Priest represented them: music to Ptolemy’s ears.  At this rate, the Jews are portrayed not just as ‘more Spartans’ but as ‘our Spartans’, not merely acceptable but useful, a part of the system. Hecataeus does not mention Sparta by name, but his linkage between Moses and Danaus, father of the Spartan kings, was surely what opened the way to the later Jewish elaboration of the Spartan theme in I Macc.  The Three Letters are, as per Gruen, a Jewish fabrication, but are made from Greek cloth.

If Jerusalem was a Spartan strong point useful to the Ptolemies, Alexandria, the Ptolemaic cultural centre, could offer something useful to the Jews in return. The Ptolemies are sometimes thought to have been patrons of the Septuagint, the Greek or Alexandrian version of the Scriptures produced in stages over the 200s, rather as King James was patron of the English Bible.  Though the actual degree of their involvement is highly unclear it would seem that any feature specifically introduced into this version would surely have been acceptable to them. One such feature is the sound of the first shots in the campaign by Jewish intellectuals, proceeding to this day, against the very names ‘Palestine/Palestinian/Philistine’.  From Judges onward, the point where the Philistines play a bigger part, their name disappears and the term ‘allophyloi’, ‘assorted foreigners’- the same word as Hecataeus uses of those whom Moses found in Egypt and made into Jews – is substituted.  The verse in I Chronicles 1 that fits the Palestinians into the genealogy of the human race is editorially omitted.  The words of Zephaniah 2: 5 form, in both language traditions, a curse on Canaan, called in Hebrew ‘land of the Philistines’, but become even darker and sharper if we read the Greek ‘land full of foreigners’. 

These words reflect a campaign, presumably supported by the Ptolemies, to classify the Jewish people of Palestine as authentic, others as intrusive.  Which connects with the claim that Moses led the newly-formed Jewish nation to an empty territory: Hecataeus effectively reaches the idea of ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ two millennia ahead of everyone else.

These promotions of Jewish nationalism never amounted, as Gruen notes, to a rejection of international culture: the Jews of Alexandria were taking care to spread knowledge of Jewish ideas and were thus cementing the Jewish place within the international ‘Hellenistic’ system.  Even King John, whose forced conversions to Judaism a century later represented such a decisive step towards making Palestine Jewish in fact, called himself ‘philhellene’, i.e. a man of Greek culture. 

So on another level the legend, set to develop over three centuries from Hecataeus to I Macc and onward to Josephus, concerns two-way spiritual kinship, creating a zone of comfort within which both highly nationalist Jews and Ptolemaic Greeks, working at the cutting edge of Western culture, could accept each other at some expense to the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. Thus Jews with their separate lives and their military prowess belonged intimately – just as the Spartans had belonged, for all their peculiar characteristics, in the earlier ‘classical’ Greek world – in the vibrant political and intellectual world of Alexandria and of Hellenism.


Friendly fraternity with another nation – ‘we read of you in our books; we hold you in our prayers’ – has been firmly claimed for Spartans and by Jews, but only with reference to each other: a remarkable fact of literary history.  The fiction was soon accepted (Antony Spawforth, Hellenistic Sparta and Rome (2002, p.100)) and treated as truth, bringing some Spartan glamour and allure to successive Jewish regimes.  It was to become a root both of philo- and of anti-Semitism.

Finkelstein’s pungent phrase shows the conflicted spirit of Plataea still at work in the West, with recurrent calls for a Spartan sword mingled with nagging uneasiness over the Spartan way.  In one of its moods the Plataean spirit makes us very uneasy over the Palestinian plight: we cherish a tradition of freedom.  Do free people hold other peoples in servitude?  In another mood the same spirit calls not just on the Israeli front-line elite but on all Western nations to concentrate on keeping their swords sharp and stabbing eastwards: thus it is the United States drone campaign that offers the most dramatic counterpart to the Spartan Krypteia, with the same potential to be endless.  The Spartans were a cultured people with a commitment to constitutional government who must sometimes have asked themselves whether there was a way, without ever finding one, out of an endless series of lawless killings.   They must have found, as we too may find, that each strike calls forth about as many new enemies as it kills existing ones and therefore makes another and yet another strike necessary.   Meanwhile the Israelis in Spartan style remind the Palestinians every day at every checkpoint of their maddening, much more than ‘slight’, inferiority.  Those on the receiving end of these Spartan treatments must of course desire in their turn to eat us raw.  That is the cost of following the still alluring Spartan way.  But as the situation changes the desire for revenge can fade, as the Spartans were lucky enough to find.  Similar luck may come to the modern West and Middle East. Let’s hope.

See also Peter Schafer, Judeophobia (1997), Jan Assmann, Moses the Eygptian (1999),  Lydia Langerwerf, No Freer than the Helots (2010).

Finkelstein’s words come from p. 24 of the 2001 Verso paperback edition of ‘The Holocaust Industry’

Martin Hughes

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22 Responses

  1. German Lefty on January 29, 2014, 4:20 pm

    OMG! Read this Zionist crap:
    Catherine Ashton cleanses Jews from Holocaust?

    • pabelmont on January 29, 2014, 4:37 pm

      GL: Thanks. Good read. Seems to think rather highly of Ashton’s power. And blames her (Ohh!! Too much!!) for remembering the victims of the Holocaust but not mentioning the Jews. Gads!

      But that s/b OK, because all important people, Ashton included, know who the victims of the Holocaust were and don’t need reminding. Or am I wrong? Is Jewish (or is it Zionist) insecurity so great that any slight (any perceived slight) must be punished?

      Let’s watch this space! especially after the so-called peace talks fail. Will the EU really punish Israel and if so how and how much. And with Obama’s silent approval? Again, watch this space.

    • Woody Tanaka on January 29, 2014, 4:43 pm

      The author of that article is a racist and a Holocaust denier, because he denies the very existence of 1/2 of the victims of the Holocaust, simply because they’re non-Jews.

      • Citizen on January 30, 2014, 7:19 am

        The UN resolution declaring the day specifically mentions that 1/3 of the world’s Jews were murdered by the Nazis, as well as unspecified other groups.

    • Shingo on January 30, 2014, 4:10 pm

      At least the article admits ethnic cleansing is a war crime. Of course it is a classic case of projection.

  2. pabelmont on January 29, 2014, 4:31 pm

    Sadly, all this Spartan-style killing is as nothing to the death-dealing which will be needed (and will happen more or less automatically, although often by use of armed force against refugees) as the world’s population adds its next billion, and the next billion after that, with food supplies ever increasing interrupted and (I imagine) greatly reduced by climate change — drought, fires, heat waves, excess rain, too little rain, precipitation as untimely rain rather than as snow (which in the long past brought steady water supplies in summers).

    Well, well, times change. But mankind is true to its tried and true principles — fight, but never cooperate.

  3. seafoid on January 29, 2014, 5:18 pm

    What a super article.

    I suppose the thing for me is that Jerusalem is the eternal capital but the Spartans don’t seem to have made it into modernity.

    I guess they concentrated real hard too but they must have gotten sloppy at some stage. How can the bots ensure this doesn’t happen? They can’t.

    Spartanism is far less effective long term than sharing recipes ….
    Maybe Jewish women need to take over for a while.
    But in the long run, a hostile region like that cannot be policed, even by a nuclear-armed Israel. It will simply do to Israel what some of the wars have done to us on a smaller scale. Attrite it, tire it, fatigue it, demoralize it, cause emigration of the best and the first, and then some sort of cataclysm at the end which cannot be predicted at this stage because we don’t know who will have what by when. And after all, Iran is next door. It might have some nuclear capability. Suppose the Israelis knock it off. What about Pakistan and others? The notion that one can control a region from a very strong and motivated country, but of only six million people, is simply a wild dream.

  4. Mike_Konrad on January 29, 2014, 6:12 pm

    Interesting history.

    Not the only one who connects the Jews with the Spartans. Simcha Jacobovici of the Naked Archeologist posited that the Spartans were a Hebrew tribe that mixed with the Greeks.

    Maybe the admin will allow this video

    It gets weirder!

    According to non-Jewish history, one branch of the Goidelic Celts (the Gaels) came from Greece around this time.

    These Danites, Danoi – according to non-Jewish history – became the Tuatha de Dannan of Ireland.

    That latter view is not accepted by reputable historians, but it always comes up. They have to explain why Irish legends speak of coming from Greece at just around the same time of Sparta; and why their tribe is named Tuatha de (People of) Danaan.

    One cannot believe the legends that arise from the mixing of these stories.

    Supposedly the Tuatha de Danaan, after arriving in Ireland, were conquered by another Celtic tribe, the Milesians Celts from Northwest Spain.

    Respectable historians do not accept these myths, but they refuse to die.

  5. piotr on January 29, 2014, 7:17 pm

    I recall the Laconian mythos quite differently, and Wikipedia supports what I remember.

    First, Laconian kings were not descendants of Danaus, a relatively minor figure, but Heracles. Danaus with his daughters fled Egypt to Argos, and the Argive kings were descendants of one of them. That myth is bloody and romantic, Aphrodite herself had a hand at a crucial point. On the other hand, at some point gods promised Peloponnesos as a dominion for Heracles, but when Heracles died his sons were cheated of their patrimony. They fled to Doris and after few generations they RETURNED, to get their Zeus-promised land. Doesn’t it chime much better with the Jewish myths? The entire Dorian invasion was justified by that divine ruling. The leaders of the returning Dorians here Heraclidae, descendants of Heracles, and the kings of Sparta (Lacadeomon or Laconia) were Heraclidae.

    Menelaus was a son of Atreus, a king of Sparta but not one of Heraclidae (ruled before the Return), definitely not an ancestors of the historical Spartan kings. His main point of fame was as a co-leader of Greeks during the Trojan war, definitely a name with an illustrious myth.

  6. ziusudra on January 30, 2014, 2:02 am

    Ethymology is being sacrifised here.
    Holocaust is Greek,
    Holo= whole,
    caust= burnt,
    Total catharsis.
    Other Euro Languages used this word.
    Philistine= a Greek Suffix.
    Hebrew= Greek, One outside of the Hellenic Culture.
    Gentiles (Euros) = Greek, One of other Genes.
    Goy= Hebrew, One of the same Nation. (the 12 tribes were goyim of one Nation)
    The Hasmonean ( Maccabee) 164BC to 63BC, semi rule under the Macedonians (Ptolemeus).
    Semites, an 1880 coined Phrase in Europe of any who spoke Afro/Asian languages.
    Arabic, Canaanite & its dialects, Hebrew & Aramaic.
    No one spoke Hebrew dialect after 200BC, it was dropped for the dialect, Aramaic in the area. Hebrew was not completed with written vowels until 100BC, before that anything that was written, was in Greek.
    Abraham, 1700BC was neither known of nor would have been accepted by the Hellenic culture.
    The 12 tribes were ne’er outside of Canaan/Falesteena, they simply federated in
    the Kingdom of Saul in Hebron, 1029BC after taking on the knowlege of Abraham from the Canaanites. They disassociated themselves from their Cousin (Arab)) Semites only for Judaism in their 2nd Kingdom of Israel 1009BC under King David.
    The myth of leaving Egypt & entering the promised land was simply a Symbol of being Born again with a Religion wo ever having left the area.
    PS Judaism with such a compilation of myths is more of a mythology.
    Christianity & Islam are simply copies of the copies of Judaism based on the histories of the Sumerians & Egyptians.

  7. Shmuel on January 30, 2014, 3:14 am

    Wonderful article. Thanks Martin.

    1. Do you know of any later Jewish allusions to this “special relationship” besides the name “ben Lakonia” (a coincidence?), or could it have been merely a passing diplomatic strategy? I poked around Rabbinic literature a little, and didn’t come up with anything. Maybe a Hellenic alliance of any kind was incongruous with Rabbinic teachings in general and Rabbinic memory of the Hasmonean period (I Maccabees was not preserved in Hebrew).

    2. Could the reminder of the fraternal alliance with Sparta by a delegation to “our Roman brothers” have been more of a message to Roman than to Spartan ears (i.e. we’re not just some barbaric client state, but we have other ancient and illustrious brothers)?

    • Hostage on January 30, 2014, 5:54 am

      Could the reminder of the fraternal alliance with Sparta by a delegation to “our Roman brothers” have been more of a message to Roman than to Spartan ears (i.e. we’re not just some barbaric client state, but we have other ancient and illustrious brothers)?

      Josephus, Philo, and Justin Martyr seemed to be unaware of any kinship between the Romans and the Jews. Of course, the Rabbinic literature of the same era said the Romans were descended from Esau. In the book I cited above, Patterson advanced the proposition that kinship myths were a common custom of ancient Greek interstate relations, which tends to support the notion that the account in I Maccabees might have had its origins in Greek propaganda.

      • Shmuel on January 30, 2014, 6:17 am

        Josephus, Philo, and Justin Martyr seemed to be unaware of any kinship between the Romans and the Jews.

        Of course the connection through Esau would have made for an even closer relationship than a connection through Abraham, but I was referring to the “friendship and alliance” established by Judah and reconfirmed by Jonathan’s envoys — who were also under instructions to pay a visit to Sparta (see 1 Macc. 12).

        Edit: The reason I referred to the Romans as “our brothers” is because that is what it says in the Hebrew translation of 1 Maccabees that I read: “our brothers the sons of Rome” (1 Macc. 12,17).

      • Hostage on January 30, 2014, 8:14 am

        Of course the connection through Esau would have made for an even closer relationship than a connection through Abraham, but I was referring to the “friendship and alliance” established by Judah

        I understood that. I was just commenting that these other ancient sources didn’t shed any additional light on the question of possible kinship with the Romans. The legendary dispute between the two ancient brothers regarding their birthright and the Jewish legends about Roman descent from Esau, may very well have been a touchy subject that Philo and Josephus decided to leave out of their accounts.

        I was referring to the “friendship and alliance” established by Judah and reconfirmed by Jonathan’s envoys . . . I referred to the Romans as “our brothers” is because that is what it says in the Hebrew translation of 1 Maccabees

        I guessed as much. That may even be the better reading. There are reportedly cases where the meaning of the ancient Christian Greek manuscripts were obscure or made little or no sense, until scholars discovered that the passages in question were literal word-for-word translations of Hebrew idioms, phrases, or modes of thought.

      • Shmuel on January 30, 2014, 8:25 am

        I was just commenting that these other ancient sources didn’t shed any additional light on the question of possible kinship with the Romans.

        There’s an interesting passage in tractate Rosh Hashanah, in which Jewish emissaries to the Roman emperor are said to have appealed to the kinship with Rome (“we have the same father and the same mother” – ref. to Isaac and Rebecca), in an effort to have the Hadrianic edicts repealed.

        There are reportedly cases where the meaning of the ancient Christian Greek manuscripts were obscure or made little or no sense, until scholars discovered that the passages in question were literal word-for-word translations of Hebrew idioms, phrases, or modes of thought.

        The translation I used is not particularly good. There are newer and better translations of 1 Maccabees, some of which actually attempt to reconstruct the original Hebrew text. The word “brothers” does not appear in the standard Greek text.

    • MHughes976 on January 30, 2014, 12:02 pm

      I don’t know of anything else parallel to ‘ben-Lakonia’, which I found in Bremmer. The views of life found in Maccabees, which despite their nationalism and celebration of victories won by Jews without assistance except from on high, still reflect the pro-Roman views of the Hasmoneans, must have been fading in popularity after 70 CE. The de-canonisastion of Maccabees and of the whole Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha is an interesting development overall, I suppose.
      On the second point I think it is true that Jews from 300-odd BCE thought themselves very much as a part of what was already the ‘western’ world and had many cultural strategies for making their point. I keep thinking how well those strategies worked for a long time what with a significant rate of conversions to Judaism and with the outcome of the Roman civil wars ending the traditional reliance on Egypt as the key ME ally and transferring that status, at a time when Roman rule was still recently established and quite precarious, to Herod. But then after 70 the Roman world began to hold up to the Jews what they saw as a distorting and accusing mirror in the form of Christianity.

      • Shmuel on January 30, 2014, 12:27 pm


        I looked up some of the sayings of Rabbi Simon ben Jose ben Lakonia scattered throughout the Talmud, and found nothing particularly “Spartan” about them. The only tangentially related bit of information I came across is that he was related (by marriage) to Simeon bar Yochai, who had a thing or two to say (and do) about Rome.

        despite their nationalism and celebration of victories won by Jews without assistance except from on high

        This fact (corroborated with other sources) is highlighted by Moritz Güdemann in his anti-Zionist booklet Nationaljudenthum, as evidence of Judaism’s inherent anti-nationalism.

        But then after 70 the Roman world began to hold up to the Jews what they saw as a distorting and accusing mirror in the form of Christianity.

        Güdemann sees the clash with Rome as the result of the spread of subversive “Jewish ideas” – specifically anti-nationalism (he cites Mommsen, inter alia, but disagrees with Mommsen’s negative judgement of the Jews). In this sense, Jewish and Christian proselytism were cut from virtually the same cloth, as far as the Romans were concerned.

  8. LeaNder on January 30, 2014, 7:54 am

    Fascinating, Martin.

    I have never heard, or at least I don’t remember to ever have, of Plataea. On the other hand military history has never interested me very much. I guess that is why I should read it again, since I neither was aware of who the hell the Hagrites were. ;)

    Thanks a lot, I love this type of wide historical view on matters. Besides, I was close to responding to you somewhere else yesterday, but then decided I had babbled enough for that day.

    • MHughes976 on January 30, 2014, 12:09 pm

      I suppose that the Hagarites are now generally better known as Muslims.

  9. Hostage on January 30, 2014, 10:00 am

    The translation I used is not particularly good. There are newer and better translations of 1 Maccabees, some of which actually attempt to reconstruct the original Hebrew text. The word “brothers” does not appear in the standard Greek text.

    Languages aren’t my cup of tea. I do know that the best reading isn’t always derived or supported by the standard texts. In some cases the extant number and quality of manuscripts or codexes that can be used for comparison have multiplied quite a bit since the traditional texts were accepted as the canon. I don’t even try to keep up with the subject. I used to be an avid reader of TC, the other SBL journals, and a few of the online tools, websites, and newsletters devoted to the ancient world, e.g.

  10. SQ Debris on January 30, 2014, 2:17 pm

    Spartan Krypteia and drone strikes = sowing dragons teeth.

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