January 22, 2014

Jewish Spartans?

Category: History :: Permalink

Perhaps you knew about this already.  Perhaps you will tell me that if I were more familiar with 1 Maccabees, I would have known this already myself.  Be that as it may, it was news to me when I read in Paul Cartledge’s The Spartans that King Areus I, who took the throne in 309, “was the supposed recipient (under the spelling ‘Areius’) of a letter from the High Priest in Jerusalem, appealing to the common ancestry of the Spartans and the Jews with a view to procuring Spartan aid against the Seleucid king Antiochus” (240).

Cartledge leaves out part of the story.  According to Josephus (Ant. 12.4), Areus wrote to Onias the high priest:

AREUS, KING OF THE LACEDEMONIANS, TO ONIAS, SENDETH GREETING. We have met with a certain writing, whereby we have discovered that both the Jews and the Lacedemonians are of one stock, and are derived from the kindred of Abraham.  It is but just therefore that you, who are our brethren, should send to us about any of your concerns as you please. We will also do the same thing, and esteem your concerns as our own, and will look upon our concerns as in common with yours. Demoteles, who brings you this letter, will bring your answer back to us. This letter is four-square; and the seal is an eagle, with a dragon in his claws.

From the account in 1 Maccabees, it sounds as if, in fact, Areus was the one who initiated the correspondence.  In 1 Maccabees 12, Jonathan, the new high priest, writes to the Spartans “to confirm and renew the friendship with them” (12:1-2, RSV).   The letter that was sent refers to the previous letter Areus (here spelled Arius) sent Onias:

This is a copy of the letter which Jonathan wrote to the Spartans:

“Jonathan the high priest, the senate of the nation, the priests, and the rest of the Jewish people to their brethren the Spartans, greeting.  Already in time past a letter was sent to Onias the high priest from Arius, who was king among you, stating that you are our brethren, as the appended copy shows.  Onias welcomed the envoy with honor, and received the letter, which contained a clear declaration of alliance and friendship.

Therefore, though we have no need of these things, since we have as encouragement the holy books which are in our hands, we have undertaken to send to renew our brotherhood and friendship with you, so that we may not become estranged from you, for considerable time has passed since you sent your letter to us.  We therefore remember you constantly on every occasion, both in our feasts and on other appropriate days, at the sacrifices which we offer and in our prayers, as it is right and proper to remember brethren. And we rejoice in your glory.

But as for ourselves, many afflictions and many wars have encircled us; the kings round about us have waged war against us.  We were unwilling to annoy you and our other allies and friends with these wars,  for we have the help which comes from Heaven for our aid; and we were delivered from our enemies and our enemies were humbled.  We therefore have chosen Numenius the son of Antiochus and Antipater the son of Jason, and have sent them to Rome to renew our former friendship and alliance with them. We have commanded them to go also to you and greet you and deliver to you this letter from us concerning the renewal of our brotherhood. And now please send us a reply to this” (1 Macc 12:5-18).

At this point, 1 Maccabees includes a version of the earlier letter (slightly different from what Josephus has):

This is a copy of the letter which they sent to Onias: “Arius, king of the Spartans, to Onias the high priest, greeting. It has been found in writing concerning the Spartans and the Jews that they are brethren and are of the family of Abraham. And now that we have learned this, please write us concerning your welfare;  we on our part write to you that your cattle and your property belong to us, and ours belong to you. We therefore command that our envoys report to you accordingly” (1 Macc 12:19-23).

Later, we read:

It was heard in Rome, and as far away as Sparta, that Jonathan had died, and they were deeply grieved. When they heard that Simon his brother had become high priest in his place, and that he was ruling over the country and the cities in it, they wrote to him on bronze tablets to renew with him the friendship and alliance which they had established with Judas and Jonathan his brothers. And these were read before the assembly in Jerusalem.

This is a copy of the letter which the Spartans sent:

“The rulers and the city of the Spartans to Simon the high priest and to the elders and the priests and the rest of the Jewish people, our brethren, greeting. The envoys who were sent to our people have told us about your glory and honor, and we rejoiced at their coming.  And what they said we have recorded in our public decrees, as follows, `Numenius the son of Antiochus and Antipater the son of Jason, envoys of the Jews, have come to us to renew their friendship with us. It has pleased our people to receive these men with honor and to put a copy of their words in the public archives, so that the people of the Spartans may have a record of them. And they have sent a copy of this to Simon the high priest'” (1 Macc 14:16-23).

So, contrary to the impression Cartledge gives, it appears from both Josephus and 1 Maccabees that it was Areus who sent a letter to the High Priest of Jerusalem first, and — what is most intriguing to me — that he did so because of a writing that indicated that the Spartans and the Jews were both descended from Abraham.  That’s not something you’d conclude from reading, say, Genesis 10.  So what was Areus reading?


Posted by John Barach @ 3:46 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “Jewish Spartans?”

  1. Dan Glover Says:

    Hi John,
    I just came across a reference to this very thing in Leithart’s book, The Four, in the first chapter (if I recall).


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