“Confederates and Friends”: The Religiopolitical Significance of the Maccabean Treaty with Rome

Lively scholarly discussion surrounds the impetus and emergence of the Maccabean Revolt, the nature and extent of Hellenization during the pre-Hasmonean period, with the unique rationales driving the characters of the Maccabean narrative—the Jewish Hellenizers, Antiochus IV, and the rebels led by Judah Maccabeus—to act. These topics themselves suffer re-examination ad infinitum. Of slightly less, though by no means inconsiderable, attention is that which is directed towards the authenticity of this period’s ancient primary sources, from Daniel to the Books of the Maccabees, as well as the documentation quoted therein. Yet, despite repeated, and almost unanimous, conclusions proclaiming (or even assuming) their validity, even if not their originality, there remains an almost disconcerting lack of interest in the precise role such documents may have played in not only in bolstering the authors’ respective purposes, but also in the Maccabean’s own nationalistic struggle for religious and political independence. It may be noted that whatever our interpretation of the exact impetus of the religious reform and subsequent revolt, such questions concerning the documents within the Books of the Maccabees do not evaporate. 

Particularly of consideration here is the treaty between Rome and the Jews. We find accounts of this exchange in First and Second Maccabees, and in Josephus’ parallel account in Jewish Antiquities. As the narrative goes, Judas Maccabeus, at some unidentified time between his recapture of the Temple in 165 BCE and his death in 161, sends emissaries to Rome in order to strike up a mutual pact of friendship between the two nations (1 Macc. 8:17-20). Thanks to the nebulosity of our sources, however, the exact nature of this treaty remains a puzzle. Part of this is due to its seemingly symbolic nature. Despite reciprocal oaths to assist one another in times of war and to desist from aiding the other’s enemies there remains no evidence that such acts were ever carried out. Furthermore, despite Rome’s sharp threat against Demetrius, in which it vows to “do [the Jews] justice, and fight with thee by sea and by land” (8:32), Demetrius continues his assault against the Jews with no tangible repercussions. The senate’s bark, it seems, is far worse than its bite. 

This last assumption, however, would be misled. There exists not inconsiderable historical evidence to bolster the idea that Rome, even prior to its emergence as Empire, carried weight across the known world. Indeed, the author of I Maccabees himself is clear to delineate Rome’s transnational exploits, going so far as to suggest that Rome “conquered kings near and far, and everyone who heard of their reputation was afraid of them. They helped some men to become kings, while they deposed others; they had become a world power” (8: 12-13 GNT). This is not merely bombastic rhetoric, but, as the historical record shows, closer to the truth than may be expected. As John Briscoe shows in his “Eastern Policy and Senatorial Politics 168-146 B.C.,” Rome’s interventionist policy was not only habitual, but also effective. Exemplar is Antiochus IV’s siege on Ptolemy Philometor of Egypt, from which the former dramatically withdraws following a fierce ultimatum by the Roman senate (Polybius, Histories 29.27.8). Additional examples, which need not be delineated here, abound, and we may safety argue that Rome was wholly capable of standing up against Demetrius’ assaults against the Jews; if they were ignored, it is because they did not act, and if they did not act, it is because they were not expected to. 

It is for this reason that those few scholars who do touch on the nature of the treaty are swift to suggests it was merely symbolic, or, at the most, informal in in nature. That is, Judas struck the treaty to gain legitimacy for his revolutionary cause. Such an explanation is conceivable, but, stopping short of explaining exactly how measure this was effective, is overly simplistic and at risk of becoming a beleaguered cliché devoid of any useful definition. It is a political absurdity that both Rome and Judas would go to such efforts only to strike a truce of purely symbolic meaning; Rome had more important allies on its horizon, and Judas had enemies on his doorstep. If we are to hold to such an explanation, it must be made coherent. 

By contrast, Briscoe proposes that Rome’s treaty with the Jews was enacted according to their diplomatic strategy of “divide and rule,” which serves as an acceptable explanation for the impetus of the senate to pursue relations with a rebel group in Syria, but entirely overlooks motivation of Judas Maccabeus and his followers to pursue the same treaty (Brisco, 49-50). S. Mandell likewise argues that the treaty was merely “one facet of Roman diplomacy,” hardly reserved to the Jews alone, and based on Roman propaganda. Thus, we see Judas as deceived by the naive illusion that doing so would grant the Jews freedom from Seleucid hegemony (Mandell, 87). Even if we were to assume the Hasmoneans fell victim to a cleverly executed Roman ploy, we can hardly expect that the author of 1 Maccabees would have included such a striking example of Judas’ foreign policy faux pas in his propaganda piece. 

That the author did include it, however, is indicative to an oft overlooked fact: the treaty between Rome and the Jews was perceived as significant and useful not only at the time it was pursued, but also at the time of 1 Maccabee’s composition. As it is, like any semi-rational leader, Judas would not have enacted a treaty with Rome if he did not believe it would benefit either his family or his cause. Similarly, if it has not benefitted him, the author of 1 Maccabees would have done to omit it from his narrative, a omission which would have been simple enough, given that the treaty itself serves as a branch away from the rest of the narrative. Any reader, then or now, would be unlikely to notice its absence at all. Thus, it is only reasonable to conclude that the Hasmoneans themselves, and not merely the Romans, benefitted in some significant way from the treaty, such that the author (or later editor) saw fit to include it in his narrative. 

Branching away from the common argument of the treaty as a political alliance, Wolf Wirgin suggests the intent behind the letter was purely economic in nature. Through the course of the revolt, the Jews lost trading rights with the Spartans, with whom they had previously established an economic treaty, and, in an attempt to stimulate Temple business, Judas turned to Rome as an alternative economic partner. His theory is bolstered by an array of economic references sprinkled throughout 1 Macc. 8, most notably the pledge to grant no enemies of Rome “supply, food, arms, money, or ships” (1 Macc. 8:26). Furthermore, he argues, a formal alliance of any considerable weight would have to have been sanctioned by Rome’s electorate, an action for which we find no evidence (Wirgin, 16-17). 

This theory, for all its worth, is subject to a number of problems. Of note, it is based upon the supposition that Judas’ band of rebels were alone enough to stagnate all of Judaea’s economic dealings with the Spartans. For all their worth as brigands, this is hardly a conceivable stance. Further, it also forces us to assume that Rome regarded the Hasmoneans, on the sole basis of holding the Temple in Jerusalem, as capable of conducting some level international trade. This is an equally unreasonable assumption, given that at this time the Hasmoneans held no coastal territory and were thus incapable of conducting trade on any appreciable level. 

Upon careful examination of the I Maccabees narrative, an alternate possibility, one which not only takes into account the Hasmonean impetus for striking a treaty with Rome, but also the author’s motivation for including it in his text, is afforded us. Let it first be noted that, although Judas sends an envoy of his own choosing, carrying his own words, he does so as a representative of the Jewish nation as a whole. Upon appearing before the Senate, Eupolemus and Jason address them with the claim, “Judas Maccabeus, his brothers, and the Jewish people have sent us” (I Macc. 8:20). It is made very clear that Judas is forging a treaty not on behalf of the Hasmoneans, but on behalf of the nation of Jews collectively. Although we may be inclined to consider this an addition by the author as part of his obvious propagandistic goals—reinforcing the appearance of the Hasmonean Dynasty as being of and for the common people—it is important to note that the Romans in their response clearly viewed the treaty as between nations, not individuals or families. Thus we read, “May things go well forever for the Romans and for the Jewish nation on land and sea!” (8:23) and later, “According to thees words have the Romans made a covenant thus with the people of the Jews” (8:29). This sentiment of nationhood is repeated throughout the treaty. Josephus’ reiteration likewise draws sharp attention to this distinction: “The decree of the senate concerning a league of assistance and friendship with the nation of the Jews. It shall not be lawful for any that are subject to the Romans to make war with the nation of the Jews, nor to assist those that do so” (AJ 12.417). Judas proposed the treaty as an individual, but it was accepted as an agreement between nations. Thus, he was not merely a leader over the Jews, but a representation of the Jews. 

This latter point is notable in that it draws striking parallels to the role of the high priest during the pre-Hasmonean period. We see repeated textual evidence of idea of the high priest as a representative of the Jewish people, not only before God, but before the foreign nations. Exemplary are the third century negotiations conducted between Ptolemaic King Ptolemy II Philadelphus and high priest Eleazar to negotiate the release of Jewish slaves. Not only did Ptolemy dispatch Aristaeus, his confidant, to speak on his behalf, but also sent diplomatic overtures to Eleazar in the form of magnificent gifts, including a purple robe and a crown, suggesting that he recognized and openly acknowledged Eleazar’s de facto authority in Judaea (AJ 12.40-117). The power of the high priest was not only recognized by Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings, but also by distant foreign rulers. Both I Maccabees and Antiquities contain a letter, of plausible historical reliability, sent from the Spartan king Areios to Onias III to extend diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, which is of particular interest in so far as it closely mirrors Judas’ own dealings with Rome (I Macc. 12:20; AJ 12.225). Indeed, this parallel is highlighted by the placement of the letter itself, with it appearing as a reference within a second letter sent by Jonathan to renew Judaea’s friendship with Sparta. It also contains explicit reference to the treaty with Rome first initiated by Judas. It is worth noting that of the treaties advanced by Onias, Judas, and Jonathan, two were done so under the authority of the high priesthood. There is thus precedence for high priests, on the basis of their religio-political authority, to enact treaties with foreign nations on behalf of the Jewish people. 

That Judas’ treaty alone was conducted without this obvious religious authority is significant. Closer examination of the narrative, however, suggests that this was not, in fact, without strategy. In 1 Maccabees 4, we witness Judas reclaiming and subsequently cleansing the Temple. Despite his role as a military leader, Judas assumes that of a religious authority seamlessly, personally overseeing the cleansing, the removal of polluted stones, and the selection of blameless priests (4:36-43). Indeed, his role in the Temple is so significant that Josephus, whether by mere oversight or another mistake, suggests that the high priesthood was in fact bequeathed to Judas (12.415). By pursuing a treaty with Rome, Judas was merely extending his de facto role as Judaea’s religiopolitical leader, not wholly dissimilar from that of the high priests. Therefore, we see the nature of the treaty as two pronged, both deeply religious and notably political. It thus lent legitimacy not only to Judas’ political authority as a revolutionary, but also to the priestly leadership of later Hasmoneans. The author of I Maccabees was no doubt aware of the significance of Judas’ actions in this regard, and thus included the treaty in his narrative. By drafting a treaty with Rome on behalf of the Jews, Judas set himself apart as a national leader on the basis of his religious authority. 

If this were indeed the case, the otherwise nebulous inclusion of the treaty within First Maccabees becomes apparent. By highlighting Judas’ role as a religiopolitical leader of the nation as a whole, not merely as a fringe revolutionary leader bereft of dynastic ties, the author  was able to legitimize the Hasmoneans as more than casual claimants to the throne, but as successors to a long line of politically involved high priests whose authority was God-given. 


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  • Briscoe, John. “Eastern Policy and Senatorial Politics 168-146 B.C.” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, (Jan., 1969): 49-50. 
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  • Josephus. Jewish Antiquities. Translated by H.St.J. Thackeray. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927.
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  • Wolf Wirgin, “Judah Maccabee’s Embassy to Rome and the Jewish-Roman Treaty,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 101:1 (1969), 15-20.

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