With history being written in Gaza in recent days (August 2005), it is enriching to review the political situation of that region during the last era in which it felt the influence of a Jewish state: the era recorded by Josephus.
Under the Hasmonean dynasty, Judea became an independent state of shifting borders. The coastal plain in which the city of Gaza was situated – the Biblical Philistia -- fell alternately under the control of Syrian, Egyptian, Judean and Roman rulers. These struggles are detailed by Josephus in Book 1 of the Jewish War and Books 13-15 of the Jewish Antiquities. His sources included the Books of the Maccabees and, as he tells us, the historians Nicolaus of Damascus (Herod's official biographer) and Strabo.
Like Egypt and Syria, Gaza was dominated by Greek culture, the legacy of Alexander the Great.The city of Gaza fell into conflict with Judea during one of the numerous Syrian civil conflicts, when the Hasmonean leader Jonathan allied himself with Antiochus VI of Syria (approximately 145 BCE). Part of his duty was to persuade the citizens of border towns to support Antiochus; but the Gazaians (as Josephus calls them) preferred not to take sides.
"This provoked Jonathan to besiege them, and to harass their country.
He set a part of his army round about Gaza itself, and with the rest he overran their
land, and spoiled it, and burnt what was in it." (Ant. 13.5.5).
Gaza was thus encouraged to pledge friendship.
"Such is the temper of men, that before they have had the trial of great afflictions,
they do not understand what is for their advantage; but when they find themselves
under such afflictions, they then change their minds, and what it had been better
for them to have done before, they at last choose to do."
But the city remained a part of Syria. Some 45 years later (c. 100 CE), the Judean King Alexander Janneus invaded the coastal plain as the culmination of his aggressive acquisition of territory. Ptolemy IX of Egypt was invited by the populace to come to their defense, which he did with vigor, pushing back Alexander's army and invading Galilee and Judaea with much destruction and terror. Alexander was saved by forming an alliance with Ptolemy's mother, Queen Cleopatra III, who sent an army (with two Jewish generals) to drive Ptolemy out. After numerous battles, Alexander was able to return to Gaza, this time quite angry at their role in bringing in Ptolemy, and laid siege to the city for a year. At last, when it's leader was killed by his brother, it capitulated peacefully, but as usual with long sieges the conquerors remained hostile.
"When he first came in he lay quiet, but afterward set his army upon the Gazaians,
and gave his men leave to avenge themselves. So some went one way, and some
went another, and slew the inhabitants of Gaza. Yet these were not of cowardly hearts,
but opposed those that came to slay them, and slew as many of the Jews.
And some of the Gazaians, when they saw themselves deserted, burnt
their own houses that the enemy might get none of their spoils.
Nay, some of them, with their own hands, slew their children and
their wives, having no other way but this of avoiding slavery for
them. The senators, who were in all five hundred, fled to the Temple of Apollo
-- for this attack happened as they were sitting in council -- but Alexander slew them there.
And when he had utterly overthrown their city, he returned to Jerusalem,
having spent a year in that siege. " (Ant 13.13.3 363-5)
Gaza remained under Judean control for almost forty years. Then, in 63 BCE, weakened by its own civil wars, Jerusalem fell to the Roman army under Pompey. Many of the cities Judea had dominated, including Gaza, were "freed" and made a part of the Roman province of Syria (Ant 14.4.4 76). A few years later, under the proconsul Gabinius, Gaza was ordered rebuilt after having "long been desolate" (Ant 14.5.3 88).
As a supporter of the Romans, Herod became king of Judea, but his territorial ambitious were hampered by an equally avaricious Egyptian queen.
"Cleopatra petitioned Antony to give her Judea and Arabia and
desired him to take these countries away from their present governors.
As for Antony, he was so entirely overcome by this woman,
that one would not think her intimacy only could cause him to do whatsoever
she would wish, but that he was under the influence of drugs.
So that he might not totally deny her, nor by doing every
thing which she enjoined him appear openly to be an ill man, he
took some parts of each of those countries away from their former
governors, and gave them to her. Thus he gave her the cities that
were within the river Eleutherus, as far as Egypt, excepting Tyre
and Sidon, which he knew to have been free cities from their
ancestors, although she pressed him very often to bestow those on
her also." (Ant. 15.4.1 95)
Thus the coastal cities, including Gaza, and their tribute money were transferred to Cleopatra in approximately 36 BCE.
However, after the death of Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BCE, Octavius Caesar rewarded Herod's new pledge of allegiance with numerous cities, including Gaza and neighboring coastal areas (Ant 15.7.3 217). Thus Gaza again came within Judea's borders, where it securely remained for nearly thirty years. At Herod's death in 4 BCE, Gaza, which was still regarded a Greek city, was again attached to Syria. (Ant 17.11.4 320).
At the start of the Jewish revolt against Rome (66 CE), Gaza was destroyed by Judean extremists (War 2.18.1 460):"Neither Sebaste nor Ashkelon withstood their fury; these they burnt to the ground and then razed Anthedon and Gaza. In the vicinity of each of these cities many villages were pillaged and immense numbers of the inhabitants captured and slaughtered."See also Chronology of the War Part 3.
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