By Pat Lowinger
Were the Spartans actually ancient Jews? Of course not, but within the turbulent political period of the 2nd century BCE there appears to have been a desire by the Kingdom of Israel to foster a Spartan-Israeli alliance. But how? The answer to this question is recorded within a few lines of ancient text, which preserve a bizarrely contrived lineage intended to bind the Greek polis of Sparta to the Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel- both temporally and spiritually.
The Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel emerged in c. 140 BCE as a semi-autonomous region within the Seleucid Empire and eventually gained its independence in 110 BCE. Israel remained independent until it was conquered by the Roman General Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) in 63 BCE. Prior to the establishment of this kingdom, Jewish rebels had engaged in a long and bloody uprising, commonly known as the Maccabean Revolt (c. 167-160 BCE). In celebration of their victory over the Seleucid Empire and the re-dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah was created.
The Spartans on the other hand, despite their once-great renown, by c. 170 BCE, were taking their last gasps of breath as a military and political power. The steady decline of the Spartan military was readily apparent after their humiliating defeat by the Romans and their Greek allies during the Laconian War (c. 195 BCE). Despite this loss of status, or perhaps because of it, there might have been an active diplomatic missions between Israel and Sparta designed to forge/renew Spartan/Israeli alliances and oaths of friendship. In 146 BCE, the Spartans and the remaining independent poleis of Greece would succumb to Roman domination.
Within their own mythological traditions, the Spartans traced the founding of their city to several related myths. The first is that the territory (kingdom) of Lacedon was founded by Lacedaemon, who was himself the son of Zeus and the nymph Taygete. In turn, Lacedaemon married Sparta (person), who was the a granddaughter of Zeus through Lacedaemon’s older brother, Eurotas. This mythological tradition was supported/enhanced by the injection of Herclean blood into Sparta’s two kingly lineage(s), namely the Agiad and Eurypontid.
While wholly unbelievable today, in antiquity, it was widely believed that the Doric people (including the Spartans and their kings) were actual descendants of Heracles. This belief is attested to by several ancient sources, including the venerable Herodotus who, for example, recounts it when discussing the lineage of the famous Spartan King Leonidas:
The various nations had each captains of their own under whom they served; but the one to whom all especially looked up, and who had the command of the entire force, was the Lacedaemonian, Leonidas. Now Leonidas was the son of Anaxandridas, who was the son of Leo, who was the son of Eurycratidas, who was the son of Anaxander, who was the son of Eurycrates, who was the son of Polydorus, who was the son of Alcamenes, who was the son of Telecles, who was the son of Archelaus, who was the son of Agesilaus, who was the son of Doryssus, who was the son of Labotas, who was the son of Echestratus, who was the son of Agis, who was the son of Eurysthenes, who was the son of Aristodemus, who was the son of Aristomachus, who was the son of Cleodaeus, who was the son of Hyllus, who was the son of Heracles. – Herodotus, The Histories 7.204. Emphasis added.
The Greeks weren’t the only ones with great heroes. The mythical traditions of the Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel contained similar progenitors- arguable the most famous of which was Abraham (the son of Terah and a direct descendant of Noah). It should come to no surprise that the connection between Abraham to the ancient Kingdom(s) of Israel was of considerable importance not only to the various kings of Israel but also to the cultural identity of the Jewish people. It was through Abraham that Yahweh (the God of Israel) had made himself known- a covenant which marked the Jews as Yahweh’s chosen people (see Genesis 15: 13-21).
Synchronizing Traditions for Diplomatic Ends:
The old adages blood is thicker than water and politics and religion make strange bedfellows are wonderfully apropos in this case. How does the Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel foster a diplomatic relationship (treaty of friendship) with the Spartans? The answer is simple, find a common blood-relationship which binds the two groups ancestrally. And who better to be the root(s) of this joint Spartan-Jewish origin story than Abraham and Heracles? The book of Maccabees purports to preserve a correspondence (letter) between the High Priest Johnathan Apphus (died c. 143 BCE) and the Council of Sparta:
Jonathan the high priest, the senate of the nation, the priests and the rest of the Jewish people to the Spartans their brothers, greetings. In the past, a letter was sent to Onias, the High Priest, from Areios, one of your kings, stating that you are indeed our brothers, as the copy subjoined attests. Onias received the envoy with honor, and accepted the letter, in which a clear declaration was made of friendship and alliance. For our part, though we have no need of these, having the consolation of the holy books in our possession, we venture to send to renew our fraternal friendship with you, so that we may not become strangers to you, a long time having elapsed since you last wrote to us. We, for our part, on every occasion, at our festivals and on other appointed days, unfailingly remember you in the sacrifices we offer and in our prayers, as it is right and fitting to remember brothers. We rejoice in your renown. We ourselves, however, have had many trials and many wars, the neighboring kings making war on us. We were unwilling to trouble you or our other allies and friends during these wars, since we have the support of Heaven to help us, thanks to which we have been delivered from our enemies, and they are the ones who have been brought low. We have therefore chosen Numenius son of Antiochus, and Antipater son of Jason, and sent them to the Romans to renew our former treaty of friendship and alliance, and we have ordered them also to visit you, to greet you and deliver you this letter of ours concerning the renewal of our brotherhood; we shall be grateful for an answer to it. – 1 Maccabees 12: 6-18. Emphasis added.
The Spartans’ letter (referred to above) purportedly originating from King Areios of Sparta (aka Areus I, reigned 309-265 BCE):
Areios king of the Spartans, to Onias the High Priest, greetings. It has been discovered in records regarding the Spartans and Jews that they are brothers, and of the race of Abraham. Now that this has come to our knowledge, we shall be obliged if you will send us news of your welfare. Our own message to you is this: your flocks and your possessions are ours, and ours are yours, and we are instructing our envoys to give you a message to this effect. – 1 Maccabees 12: 20-23. Emphasis added.
While the relationship between a Greek Heracles and a Jewish Abraham is alluded to within this purported exchange of letters, the precise lineage was recorded by Josephus during the 1st century CE:
ABRAHAM after this married Keturah, by whom six sons were born to him, men of courage, and of sagacious minds: Zambran, and Jazar, and Madan, and Madian, and Josabak, and Sous. Now the sons of Sous were Sabathan and Dadan. The sons of Dadan were Latusim, and Assur, and Luom. The sons of Madiau were Ephas, and Ophren, and Anoch, and Ebidas, and Eldas. Now, for all these sons and grandsons, Abraham contrived to settle them in colonies; and they took possession of Troglodytis, and the country of Arabia the Happy, as far as it reaches to the Red Sea. It is related of this Ophren, that he made war against Libya, and took it, and that his grandchildren, when they inhabited it, called it (from his name) Africa. And indeed Alexander Polyhistor gives his attestation to what I here say; who speaks thus: “Cleodemus the prophet, who was also called Malchus, who wrote a History of the Jews, in agreement with the History of Moses, their legislator, relates, that there were many sons born to Abraham by Keturah: nay, he names three of them, Apher, and Surim, and Japhran. That from Surim was the land of Assyria denominated; and that from the other two (Apher and Japbran) the country of Africa [and the town of Aphra] took its name, because these men were auxiliaries [helpers or companions] to Hercules [in Greek, Heracles], when he fought against Libya and Antaeus; and that Hercules married Aphra’s daughter, and of her he begat a son, Diodorus; and that Sophon was his son, from whom that barbarous people called Sophacians were denominated.- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1.XV. Emphasis added. Bracketed/green sections denote supplemental translations added by R.A. Shilleto (1888) to that of William Whiston (1737).
Now, by way of clarification, it is important to note that some historians approaching this from an overly minimalist perspective would assert that the reference to Aphra only denotes that Heracles took/married a woman from that town and doesn’t offer a strict lineage with the line of Abraham. Such scholars would be hard pressed to defend such an assertion in light of the prevailing and well-documented practice in antiquity of identifying key historical figures and the peoples of a particular region (ethnic groups) by place names (i.e. cities, regions and even countries). Given that context, Josephus is clearly indicating that Heracles married the daughter of Apher or one of his decedents, who was Jewish. From this union a son was born and given the ethnically Greek name of Diodorus. The dubious veracity of this lineage apparently didn’t go unnoticed by Josephus, who clearly attributes the origin of this account to Malchus, without giving any further attestation as to its validity or additional written sources.
Outside of the Books of the Maccabees and Josephus’ Antiquity of the Jews there appear to be few, if any, direct assertions of a Spartan-Jewish origin story. In a Hellenized Israel the attempt to blend these two religious traditions should not be as surprising as it might first appear. The territories of Syria and Palestine had been Greek military and political control since their conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Attempts to instill Greek culture in Judea and the surrounding territories had met with varying degrees of success. For additional discussion on this topic, see Martin Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period (vol. 1 & 2).
Are the accounts within Maccabees referencing letters and other diplomatic sojourns fictitious? Possibly, but for the purposes of supporting a Spartan-Hasmonean alliance, forgery of such documents would have been of little concern if the alliance between the two parties had proven to be fruitful and mutually beneficial. What is clear is there was an attempt by Hasmoneans (via Johnathan Apphus), during the 150’s or early 140’s BCE to offer this attestation of Jewish-Spartan kinship, to pursue a diplomatic and/or military alliance with Sparta.
Although we can never be certain, this Abrahamic-Heraclean union does appear to have lacked large scale acclaim and/or acceptance throughout the ancient world. Nevertheless, this mythological tradition was preserved within the Book of Maccabees and by the historian Josephus, both of which are of particular interest to anyone studying the history of Israel. Regardless of how broadly received this lineage-mythology was in antiquity is largely unimportant- the root purpose behind the invention of this particular mythical narrative appears to have been largely diplomatic. Reaffirming what has long been known about many ancient peoples; that origin mythologies were a key component in the shaping cultural identities throughout the ancient Mediterranean.