The Roman Empire - In The First Century
Home The Roman Empire Special Features The Series Resources For Educators
Hebrew Scripture
A Jewish leader and scholar, Philo (circa 20 BC – 40 AD) risked his life to plead for greater tolerance for Jews in the Roman Empire.

Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish leader, philosopher and scholar in the first century. Born in 30 BC to a wealthy Jewish family in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, he was an important spokesman for Jews throughout the Roman Empire.

Religious tolerance

Under the Emperor Augustus, Jews in Rome were allowed to live together and were treated fairly. Philo wrote that they could practice their religion and received the same help as any other Roman.

But Augustus died, and within decades the situation was very different. In 39 AD, when Caligula was emperor, religious intolerance erupted in Alexandria. Non-Jews had placed statues of human gods in the city’s synagogues.

Religious riots

Furious at this desecration, the Jews tore them out and violence erupted. Philo writes of how mobs of men killed Jews and set fire to Jewish properties.

Only emperors could resolve situations this big and, unfortunately, Caligula didn’t care. A group of Jewish leaders, including Philo, left Alexandria for Rome to see the emperor and make their case. However, Philo wrote that he knew the trip was pointless as soon as they entered Caligula’s presence.

A new god?

Caligula did not give them a warm welcome. He mocked the Jews and their beliefs to the point where the Jewish leaders thought they would be executed. In fact, they escaped, only to find out that Caligula had ordered a statue that portrayed himself as a god. He planned to put it up in the temple at Jerusalem.

The temple was the most sacred place for Jews: a statue of Caligula placed there was a sin against the Jewish faith and was bound to cause more riots. Philo wrote that the Jewish elders swore to die on the spot rather than see their temple defiled.

A lucky escape

Luckily, this sacrifice was not needed. Before the statue was even built, Caligula had been murdered and a new emperor – Claudius – was in power.

Philo continued to speak for the Jewish people. He told senior Romans of his experiences and published his complaints against the Roman treatment of Jews in Alexandria. Later in life, his work combining Greek and Jewish philosophy would prove a major influence on Jewish and Christian religious studies.

Where to next:

Religion in Ancient Rome – Jews in Roman Times
Emperors - Caligula

Related Links:

Religion   Religion
Jews in Roman Times   Jews in Roman Times
The Roman Empire

Republic to Empire

Age of Augustus

Years of Trial

Empire Reborn


Social Order

Life in Roman Times


Enemies and Rebels

- Mythology
- Roman Gods
- Worship
- Jews in Roman Times
- Early Christians
- Augustus
- Philo
- Paul
- Jesus

The Roman Empire - In The First Century