King Agrippa I: The last Maccabee

Agrippa’s Jewish pride and his support of Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora did not endear him to pagans living in the Land of Israel.

A photo of a Latin inscription in a mosaic found in Caesarea that dates from the period of Roman rule. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A photo of a Latin inscription in a mosaic found in Caesarea that dates from the period of Roman rule.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was the last attempt to revive the glory of the Maccabees despite the realities of oppressive Roman domination of Judea. Marcus Julius Agrippa represented the great hope that direct Roman control over the Land of Israel would end and a semblance of Jewish sovereignty would be restored. Agrippa was the grandson of despised Herod the Great and his wife Mariamme, a princess from the line of the Maccabees. That Agrippa was alive was a miracle in itself: Herod murdered Mariamme and most of her family. These Maccabees posed a threat to the Idumean descendant of proselytes Herod and, in his paranoia, led to their murder. Caesar Augustus once quipped, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” But Agrippa managed to survive despite the cruelty of his tyrant grandfather.
Despite Agrippa’s dual identity – firmly in the world of Rome and appointed to his monarchy by Emperor Claudius in 41 CE but a proud Jew as well – he was a popular figure among the Jews in Judea. Historian Martin Goodman in his penetrating study Rome and Jerusalem quotes from a Mishnah that highlights the tragedy of Agrippa’s life. After becoming King of Judea as Agrippa I, while carrying out the commandment to read the Book of Deuteronomy in public, Agrippa I broke down in tears when he reached the passage in the text: “You may not put a foreigner over you who is not your brother.” Tainted by the lineage from Herod, Agrippa had doubts that he had the Jewish pedigree to be king of Judea. But the Jewish crowds assembled for the reading said to the king, “Do not worry, Agrippa. You are our brother! You are our brother! You are our brother!” In Agrippa, the Jews of Judea saw a figure who held out the glimmer of hope that somehow Jewish rule could be restored over Judea. The Roman governors who ruled Judea directly were hated by the Jews and these governors did all they could to alienate the religious sensitivities of the Jewish populace and offend Judaism and the Jerusalem Temple. Likely the worst offender was Pontius Pilate, known well as a benign figure in the Gospels but actually a cruel master of Judea.
Despite Agrippa’s years of growing up in Rome and his close association with the empire’s elites that led to his ascension as king, his Jewish piety and his lineage from Miriamme endeared him to the Jews of Judea. He was the last great hope.
Under Agrippa I, Judea was no longer considered a province of the Roman Empire. Agrippa’s connections to Rome certainly placed him in a favorable position in Judea. Yet, it was not only his longtime involvement in the circles of Roman politics and intrigue that attributed to his success. Agrippa made every effort to demonstrate to his Jewish subjects that, despite Herodian lineage, he would not repeat the reckless and malevolent behavior of his grandfather.
As part of this effort, he made a dedication to the Jerusalem Temple of a golden chain given to him as a gift by the Roman emperor and participated in the life of the Temple by bringing many thanksgiving-offerings.
But Agrippa’s Jewish pride and his support of Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora did not endear him to pagans living in the Land of Israel. The gentiles considered him an enemy and celebrated only a few years later when he died. This stands in contrast to the great mourning of the Jewish population when Agrippa died under mysterious circumstances in 44 CE.
The death of Agrippa I dashed the hopes of the Jews that the glory of the Maccabees could be revived. The Romans returned to their system of direct control of Judea as a province: this marked the beginning of the end.
The Roman governors were, for the most part, incompetent and continued to arouse the anger of the Jews by favoring the gentile populations in Israel and offending Jewish religious sensibilities and even resorting to violence to quell any signs of rebellion.
By the outbreak of the revolt against the Roman Empire in 66 CE, Agrippa I and the hope that he held out were a distant memory. Agrippa’s descendants sided with Rome in this fight and urged the Judeans not to stage the rebellion. Likely Agrippa I would have agreed with this position, but that can only be a guess because he did not live to see the downfall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.
Agrippa I stands in direct contrast to his contemporary Tiberius Julius Alexander. Tiberius was the scion of a wealthy Jewish banking family in Alexandria and moved in influential Roman circles, as did Agrippa. But whereas Agrippa used his connections to the elite of Roman society and politics to benefit Jews in Judea and the Diaspora, Tiberius Julius Alexander abandoned his faith and his people and, for all intents and purposes, was Roman to the core.
He served as Roman governor of both Judea and Egypt and eventually served as chief of staff for Roman general Titus and participated with him in the destruction of Jerusalem and the razing of the Temple. Agrippa I is now a forgotten figure but his years of interlude as king of a semi-independent Judea no doubt fueled the resentment against direct Roman rule and inspired the yearnings for better days.