By : Louis Ginzberg
King of Judea; born about 126 B.C.; died 76 B.C. He was the third son of John Hyrcanus, by his second wife, and ascended the throne in the year 102 B.C. He was always badly treated by his fathern order thereby to enhance the prestige of the heir apparent, Aristobulus I., and of his brother Antigonus—both children of Hyrcanus' former marriage. Aristobulus, when he became king, deemed it necessary for his own security to imprison his half-brother; and it was his queen, Salome, who first set him at liberty. Aristobulus died after a reign of one year, and Alexander, as the oldest living brother, had the right not only to the throne but also to Salome, the widow of his deceased brother, who had died childless; and, although she was thirteen years older than he, he married her. As, according to Pharisaic conceptions the dignity of high priest was not a hereditary one, the son of a deceased high priest could not claim the succession by right (Sifra, Aḥare Mot, viii.). [It has been suggested that the Alexandra whom Alexander married was not the widow of Aristobulus: Deutsch, in Rahmer's "Literaturblatt, 1900."] Alexander, accordingly, did not conflict with Pharisaic views when he married a widow and later took possession of the high priest's office. Besides the Talmud itself (Yeb. 20b) considers the prohibition against a high priest's contracting a levirate marriage as a later prescription of the rabbis, as a "preventive" () which possibly in Alexander's time had not even been theoretically considered. It is certain that the Sadducees, adhering to the literal conception of the Law (Lev. xxi. 13), considered the levirate marriage as inapplicable to the case of a high priest; so that the first public act of this new king—the marriage of his brother's widow—was one of anti-Sadducaic tendency. But in the beginning of his reign Alexander had no time to occupy himself with matters of internal political importance; and the statement that on his accession he put to death a brother whom he feared as a possible rival is therefore highly improbable. Such a step would certainly have alienated a considerable proportion of the people. Moreover, the plans of conquest that he cherished demanded large supplies of soldiers, which could certainly not be obtained, especially among Pharisaic Jews, by blood-stained hands.
Alexander's chief aim was to make Judea great and powerful; to this he devoted his life. His first expedition was against the city of Ptolemais (Acre). This campaign seems to have been well timed politically; for just then the two Antiochi of Syria, the eighth and ninth of that name, were actively engaged against each other, so that neither could lend any assistance to the beleaguered city. Help, however, came to the citizens of Ptolemais from Ptolemy Lathurus, who had been cast out by his mother, Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, and had founded for himself a kingdom in Cyprus. He landed a large army for the relief of the town; but Alexander met him with treachery, arranging an alliance with him openly while secretly he sought to obtain the help of his mother against him. As soon as Ptolemy learned of this intrigue, he marched against Asochis, near Sepphoris, which, together with 10,000 prisoners and much plunder, he captured upon a Sabbath. A similar attack upon Sepphoris failed; but in a later battle at Azophon on the Jordan, Alexander with his whole army suffered a woful defeat at the hands of Ptolemy with a much smaller force. To this defeat of the Jews Alexander's own temerity contributed not a little; for, relying upon his own strength, he allowed the enemy to cross the river unimpeded, in order that, as he thought, he might the more easily catch him between his army and the stream. He saw his error only when it was too late. The enemy fell upon the Jewish camp, women and children were struck down, their corpses were hacked to pieces, flung into caldrons and boiled, so that the people thought they were dealing with cannibals. Alexander might easily have lost his crown and Judea its independence as the result of this battle, had it not been for the assistance extended by Egypt in this extremity. Cleopatra's two Jewish generals, Helkias () and Ananias (), represented so vividly the dangers of allowing her banished son Ptolemy to remain victorious that she entrusted them with an army against him. As a result Ptolemy was forced to withdraw to Cyprus, and Alexander was saved. The Egyptians, it is true, as compensation for their aid, desired to annex Judea to their country; but considerationstouching the resident Egyptian Jews, who were the main support of her throne, induced Cleopatra to modify her longings for conquest. The Egyptian army withdrawn, Alexander found his hands free; and forthwith he planned new campaigns. His operations in northeastern Palestine ended scarcely less disastrously. He captured Gadara and the strong fortress Amathus on the Jordan; but, in an ambush set for him by Theodorus, ruler of Amathus, he lost the whole of the rear-guard of his army—10,000 men —together with his baggage. He was more successful in his expedition against Philistia, capturing Raphia, Anthedon, and finally, in the year 96, the ancient city of Gaza, which he occupied through treachery, and gave up to be pillaged and burned by his soldiery.
Scarcely, however, had peace been restored in external affairs, when civil strife began to rage within. The newly adopted policy of the Hasmoneans, inaugurated by John Hyrcanus and zealously continued by his sons, which consisted in greater prominence being given to political interests and the repression of religious considerations, led at last to open conflict between the ruling dynasty and the Pharisees, who represented and ruled popular sentiment. The latter, the spiritual successors of the Maccabeans, sided with the Hasmonean princes when it was a matter of the defense of Palestine, inasmuch as a free country afforded the best opportunity for what lay closest to their hearts; namely, the free and untrammeled observance of Judaism. But with a policy of conquest they would have nothing to do; rightfully appreciating the course of events, they had no ambition to take part in the world's politics, reserving all their attention and energy for the ethical and religious development of the ancestral faith. This friction—which would have brought about dangerous results in the time of Hyrcanus I., had it not been for the strong personality and good luck of that prince, which enabled him to hold the balance between parties—came to a positive rupture in the reign of his son. The relations between Alexander and the Pharisees were probably never very cordial; though, according to the statement of the Talmud, Simon b. Sheṭaḥ, the head of the party, was a brother of the queen and a frequent guest at the palace. The inscription upon his coinage, , Βασιλεὺς Αλέζανδρος (King Alexander), must in itself have offended Pharisaic sensibilities; for them the house of David was the only legitimate royal house, all others being usurpers of the royal title. Even the phil-Hellenic Aristobulus I. took this into consideration when he permitted only Hebrew inscriptions upon his coins, and contented himself with the title of high priest upon them.
Possibly had Alexander's warlike undertakings been slightly more successful, the Pharisees might have pardoned him even worse transgressions than this. His continuous campaigns from 104-98 B.C. inflicted such hardships upon Palestine as to make his conquest of a few Philistine towns seem comparatively trivial. As a result of this warlike policy, Alexander felt compelled to maintain friendly relations with that class of the people most deeply interested in national political aggrandizement—the Sadducees, the aristocratic class. In order to show his affinity with the Sadducees, he, in his capacity of high priest, while offering the prescribed water libation on the Feast of Tabernacles, allowed the water to run upon his feet, thus expressing his contempt for this purely Pharisaic ceremony. The people present were so incensed at this demonstration against the Pharisees, with whom they in the main sided, that they pelted the king with the citrons which they carried in accordance with one of the customs of this festival. They assailed him with loud cries, and styled him "son of the captive," thus resurrecting the old Pharisaic charge against the members of the Hasmonean house and their eligibility to the priesthood (see John Hyrcanus). Alexander summoned his Pisidian and Cilician mercenaries and let them loose upon the people, slaying then and there 6,000 Pharisees.
But the matter did not end here. Returning from an unsuccessful expedition against Obedas, the king of the Arabs, he found his people, incited by the Pharisees, armed and arrayed against him; and for six years thereafter a state of actual war prevailed between the people and the royal troops, costing the lives of no less than 50,000 Jews. When, finally, Alexander, realizing his impotence, sought peace with the Pharisees, he was met with the response that the first and only condition of lasting peace was his death. His brutal cruelty in massacring the defenseless multitude in the sacred precincts of the Temple robs the reply of its harshness; and the Pharisees felt themselves justified in their bitterness. No excuse, however, can be found for their treasonable negotiations with the Syrian king Demetrius III., son of Demetrius Eucærus, whom they summoned to fight against their monarch. The rule of a foreigner, with free exercise of their religion, seemed to them a less evil than independence under a Sadducean ruler. Nevertheless, national feeling proved stronger than religious sentiment among the Pharisees, or at least among the Pharisaically inclined; for after the bloody battle near Shechem between Alexander and Demetrius, in which the former lost nearly his whole army, he himself escaping only as a fugitive into the mountains of Ephraim, a large number of the Pharisees who had taken service with the Syrians went over to Alexander, compelling Demetrius to withdraw from Judea. Alexander showed himself on this occasion even more short-sighted than his opponents. Instead of concluding an honorable peace with them, for which the opportunity was certainly at hand, he not only prosecuted his attacks upon hostile Pharisees, but treated them with excessive and inhuman cruelty. Upon the advice of a Sadducee favorite named Diogenes he caused in one day 800 captured Pharisees to be nailed on crosses. This monstrous deed is rendered still more horrible by the legendary statement that he caused the wives and children of the condemned to be executed before their eyes, while he, surrounded by feasting courtiers and courtezans, enjoyed the bloody spectacle. This ruthless act struck terror into the hearts of his Pharisee opponents, and they emigrated, to the number of 8,000, to Syria and to Egypt. Their subsequent fate was equally sad; that of those who settled in Syria especially so, forthere the hatred against the Jews was intense and accompanied with violence; the greater part of them were massacred near Chalcis, and only a small remnant found refuge in Bet Zabdai. Of those that escaped to Egypt, one of the most prominent was Judah ben rabbai, while another leader, Simon b. Sheṭaḥ, dragged out a miserable existence among the Arabs.
Alexander found that this semblance of peace at home, dearly bought as it was, by no means added to his strength against outside enemies. Hated by the people, he had to place his main reliance upon hired foreign troops; and yet he could not effectively counteract the increasing power of his nearest neighbor, the Arab king Aretas. When the latter invaded Judea, Alexander was too weak to oppose him, and he purchased the enemy's withdrawal only by means of shameful concessions. The defeat suffered by Alexander at Adida—which commanded the road between Jaffa and Jerusalem—placed the key of the capital in the Arab's hands. But Alexander was not the man readily to admit himself beaten; and he sought to wipe out the disgrace of this defeat by the conquest of petty rulers. His three years' war east of the Jordan (about 85-82) was successful; and he conquered Pella, Dium, Gerasa, Gaulana, Seleucia, and the strong fortress Gamala.
His life in the field and the inebriety to which he had become addicted combined to bring on a persistent fever, which undermined his strength and rendered the last three years of his life full of suffering. Notwithstanding this, he continued his warlike enterprises until, at the siege of the fortified town Ragaba, he succumbed to his ailment at the age of fifty-one, in the year 78 B.C. His wife, Salome, was present at his death, and by his last will and political testament—as related by Josephus and the rabbis—he entrusted to her the reins of government, and gave her upon his death-bed the following instruction as to her attitude toward the conflicting parties in the nation: "Fear neither the Pharisees nor those that are not Pharisees [namely, the Sadducees], but guard thyself against the dyed ones [hypocrites] who do the deed of Zimri (Num. xxv. 14) and expect the reward of Phinehas" (Num. xxv. 10-13; Ps. cvi. 31; Soṭah, 22b). The body of Alexander was brought to Jerusalem and, thanks to the magnanimity of the Pharisees, who cherished no grudge against a dead tyrant, was interred with every mark of respect.
Character and Importance.
Alexander had only one aim in life: to increase the extent of his kingdom to its natural boundaries—the Mediterranean sea and the eastern desert. Its pursuit brought him into conflict with the Pharisees; that is, with the people in general. This opposition was based neither upon religious nor personal grounds, but upon political ones only. Alexander would probably have given way to the Pharisees in everything if they had kept him supplied with soldiers. He seems to have been the victor in this mutual antagonism; for, in spite of all adverse fortune, he approximately attained his goal. He not only maintained his hold upon the towns and fortresses received from his predecessors, but made conquests on both sides of the Jordan. In point of fact, however, Alexander's achievements were but of a temporary character; for as time was not granted to him in which to bind the people steadfastly to the Hasmonean dynasty, and as his cruel persecution of the Pharisees served only to intensify the love and devotion of the people to these, their religious guides; so in reality he did not permanently enlarge the Jewish kingdom, but, instead, undermined its very foundations. Alexander Jannæus must be considered as having contributed by far the largest share to the catastrophe which overtook Palestine soon after his death. Compare the articles Simon B. Sheṭaḥ, Pharisees, and Sadducees.
Taken from: JewishEncyclopedia.com