BLOOD THIRSTY MONSTER OR A MILITARY GENIUS?
THE REIGN OF ALEXANDER JANNAEUS
We have already looked into the beginning of the reign and at the death of Alexander Jannaeus, both involving the woman who was so important in his life, Queen Salome Alexandra. However, as one of the worst tyrants Judea had ever seen, and most likely suffering from the Hasmonean mental illness, it would be interesting to give a few details about his life and legacy.
After Hyrcanus’ death, his son Aristobolus succeeded him. Despite the fact that he only lasted one year, he made one significant change that would later affect Jannaeus – he declared himself officially the king as well as the high priest. Hyrcanus ruled like royalty, there is no doubt of it, but he never made himself officially a king. When Aristobolus changed this and declared himself as the possessor of the two titles, the Pharisees objected to both. To begin with, like most thinking people, they believed that the two offices, representing faith and state, should be separated. And on top of this, the Hasmoneans were not direct descendants of King David, and therefore were not eligible to be kings. These were not the only reasons, however. Had they liked Aristobolus, they might have waved their objections in favor of getting their own way in other things. But by that time, they simply detested the later Hasmoneans. They fiercely objected to their Hellenized style, so different from the purely Hebraic views of Mattathias and his five sons, and from the simple values of the Maccabean revolt.
As we have seen, Alexander Jannaeus was the third son of John Hyrcanus, and he married Queen Salome Alexandra, his brother’s widow, after she released him from prison. He allied himself entirely with the noble Sadducees, despite Alexandra’s close connections with the Pharisees. After his release from prison and his marriage, Jannaeus single-minded aim was to increase the size of Judea so as to make it the same as David’s and Solomon’s kingdom had been. This was a true obsession, and he devoted most of his life to achieving it. He almost succeeded, the size of the Judean Kingdome was extremely impressive, but the price was too high. It has to be said that he was a military genius, inheriting the extraordinary military talent of Judah Maccabee. Despite a few setbacks during battles with Egypt and Cyprus, he recovered, and not only increased the size of Judea considerably, but also defeated all invaders successfully. Had Alexander Jannaeus been as talented in his domestic policy as with his conquests, it could have been a glorious time for Judea. However, following John Hyrcanus’ example, he was completely Hellenized. That aligned him with the nobility, but the people disliked him since their sympathies were with the Pharisees. Queen Alexandra, who may have been the sister of Shimon ben Shetach, an important Pharisee, took care to protect them from open oppression by her husband. It is hard to make sure what her heritage was, it seems she had both Hasmonean and Pharisee blood. At any rate, she managed to keep the peace at home while her husband was at war.
When settled at home for a while after conquering a large part of the Philistines' old cities, the relationship between Alexander Jannaeus and the Pharisees became violent. At one point, attending to his duties as a high priest, he offered the water libation in a way that was not in accordance with the old traditions. The people, led by the Pharisees, started pelting him with citrons, a large and heavy fruit that
was carried as part of the ritual of the festival during the Feast of Tabernacles. They cursed him and his father, screamed that he was not fit to be the high priest and went on throwing the citrons. Instead of diffusing the fury somehow, Alexander Jannaeus called his foreign mercenaries to put down the open revolt. The mercenaries killed six thousand Jews. The revolt was averted, but the Jews never forgot.
Going to war again, he returned after losing to an Arab king. Already angry as he came home, he encountered a greater evil – the people, led by the Pharisees, were ready for a civil war once again. This time he became insane with rage, and had his army kill fifty thousand Jews.
In a state of shock, the Pharisees did something totally unexpected. The asked the Greek-Syrian king, Demetrius III, to protect them from Alexander Jannaeus. For a while, the war was in favor of the Demetrius, but soon enough many Jews returned to Alexander Jannaeus out of fear of foreign invasion. That was a mistake.
Unbelievably, instead of trying to resolve the situation, Alexander Jannaeus decided to once and for all eliminate his opponents. He crucified eight hundred Pharisee leaders in one day. The story goes that he forced them to look on, from their crosses, as their wives and children were slaughtered right in front of them. The horror he created had an eerie similarity to a later story about a historical tyrant, the original model for all vampires, Vlad Dracula, who set down to dinner with his courtiers while hundreds of impaled victims were dying in front of them. Alexander Jannaeus brought his courtiers, and even courtesans to watch with him and enjoy the horror. This is probably the most sickening scene a Jewish ruler had ever imposed on his people.
Eight thousand Pharisees escaped to Syria and Egypt –but many of them were slain there due to the hatred everyone bore to Judea under Alexander Jannaeus. The queen’s brother was one of the immigrants. Alexander Jannaeus went on fighting, but mostly used mercenaries since he found it hard to recruit Jews. Probably it was preferable to be out on the battlefield than among his citizens, who all hated him.
Finally, as we have seen in a previous segment, he died during a campaign and left his kingdom to Queen Salome Alexandra, who brought peace and happiness to the torn country. She appointed her son Hyrcanus II to be high priest, and encouraged the Pharisees to create educational and religious reforms that eventually lead to the scholarly rabbinical Judaism. But even so, she could not prevent the deterioration of the Hasmonean Dynasty. When she died, her sons started a civil war, which, as we will see in the next segment, would bring the Romans into Judea, terminating the independent Jewish State.