Belts of Their Entrails
While the Bar-Kochba Revolt is probably familiar to readers of this blog, there were other revolts by Jews in late antiquity which may not be as familiar as that of Bar-Kochba. Phil Harland at Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean has a post which discusses the depiction by ancient authors of minority ethnic groups and one of the texts which is brings is from the Roman historian Dio Cassius who describes the revolt of the Jews of Cyrene, Cyprus and Egypt in the early second-century of the CE. Below are Dio’s words.
Trajan therefore departed thence, and a little later began to fail in health. Meanwhile the Jews in the region of Cyrene had put a certain Andreas at their head, and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing; many they sawed in two, from the head downwards; others they gave to wild beasts, and still others they forced to fight as gladiators. In all two hundred and twenty thousand persons perished. In Egypt, too, they perpetrated many similar outrages and in Cyprus under the leadership of a certain Artemion. There, also, two hundred and forty thousand perished, and for this reason no Jew may set foot on this island, but if one of them is driven upon the shores by a storm he is put to death. Among others who subdued the Jews was Lusius, who was sent by Trajan.
(Dio Cassius, Roman History, 68.32.1-3 [Loeb trans.])
The Church Father Eusebius also describes the revolt in somewhat different words.
In the course of the eighteenth year of the reign of the Emperor a rebellion of the Jews again broke out and destroyed a great multitude of them. For both in Alexandria and in the rest of Egypt and especially in Cyrene, as though they had been seized by some terrible spirit of rebellion, they rushed into sedition against their Greek fellow citizens, and increasing the scope of the rebellion in the following year started a great war while Lupus was governor of all Egypt.
(Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV,II [Loeb trans.])
Eusebius goes and describes that Jews “[plundered] the country of Egypt and [ravaged] the districts in it”, but he also speaks of the thousands of Jews who were killed. While Phil Harland is interested in these descriptions from the viewpoint of the “demonization of the other”, there clearly was a revolt by the Jews in which many were killed and which resulted in much destruction (see Stern and Smallwood). Did the Jews “make belts for themselves of their entrails” or was this a retrospective demonization of a minority group? I have no idea. What this did remind me of was an article with Elliot Horowitz published some years ago, “The Vengeance of the Jews was Stronger than their Avarice” : Modern Historians and the Persian Conquest of Jerusalem in 614″, Jewish Social Studies 4,2 (1998) 1-39. In this article Horowitz examines how historians describe, or often don’t describe, the apparent destruction of churches and violence by Jews during the Persian conquest of Jewish in 614. It would be interesting to examine how historians have dealt with the Jewish revolts against Trajan’s rule in North Africa and the descriptions of the violence and atrocities possibly perpetrated by them.
E. Mary Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule, Leiden, 1981, pp. 393 ff.
Menachem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, vol. II, Jerusalem, 1984, 385-389.