The Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians

In 41 AD an embassy arrived in Rome from the Greeks of Alexandria.  The emperor Claudius responded with a letter, which was read in the city.  The Prefect of Egypt, L. Aemilius Rectus, then ordered copies to be made and circulated to other cities of the region, with a covering letter dated 10 November 41.  One of these copies was made on the back of a tax register from Philadelphia, written on papyrus, and it has survived!  The entry and transcription is here.  It is held in the British Library, where it has the shelfmark of P. Lond. VI 1912v, or BL Papyrus 2248.  Usefully, it is online in full colour.

H. I. Bell in 1924 made a very literal translation.  This followed the lines on the papyrus as far as possible, and so is quite hard to read.  It is online here.

I thought it might be interesting to produce something a little more readable from Bell’s translation.  I split up the long columns into paragraphs, added commas, split sentences, and moved the odd word around to reflect better normal English word order.  I have not consulted the Greek.

Lucius Aemilius Rectus says: Since all the city was not able to be present at the revelation of the most sacred and beneficial letter to the city, because of its size, I thought it necessary to publish the letter, so that, man by man, each understanding the letter, you may wonder at the majesty of our god Caesar and be grateful for his goodwill toward the city.  2nd year of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Imperator, month of Neos Sebastos, 14th day.

    *    *    *    *

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Imperator, Pontifex Maximus, having the Tribunician power, Consul designate, to the city of the Alexandrians, greeting.

Tiberius Claudius Barbillus Apollonios son of Artimidoros, Chairemon son of Leonidas, Marcus Julius Asclepiades, Gaius Julius Dionysios, Tiberius Claudius Phanias, Pasion son of Potamon, Dionysios son of Sabbion, Tiberius Claudius, Apollonios son of Ariston, Gaius Julius Apollonios, Hermaïskos son of Apollonios – the ambassadors from you – after delivering the decree to me, went on extensively about the city, drawing my attention to the goodwill towards us which for some time, as you should know well, has been held in trust with me.  For you are respectful with regard to the emperors, as has become evident to me from many things, especially how you are both eager about my house and how that eagerness is returned, of which ‑ I mention the latest, passing over others ‑ the greatest witness is my own brother, Germanicus Caesar, when he spoke to you publicly in his own voice.

Therefore, I did happily accept the honours granted me by you, even though I am not prone to such things. First of all I leave it to you to treat my birthday as august in the manner that you yourselves proposed.  Also I agree to the erection in several places of statues of me and my family, for I see you are eager to establish everywhere reminders of your piety towards my house.

Concerning the twin golden statues, however, the one of the Claudian‑Augustan Peace shall be set up at Rome, as was suggested, and as my most honoured friend Barbillus entreated while I demurred, on account of seeming too arrogant.  The other, moreover, in a manner you see fit, shall process among you on eponymous days.  Moreover, a throne shall accompany it, adorned with any decoration you wish.

It might, then, perhaps be silly, after accepting such honours as these, to refuse the establishment of a Claudian tribe and groves according to the custom of Egypt; therefore I also grant these things to you.  Moreover, if you wish you may erect an equestrian statue of Vitrasius Pollio my procurator.

Moreover, regarding the erection of the four horse chariots at the entrance into the chora, which you wish to set up for me, I agree to setting up one near the place called Taposiris in Libya, another near Pharos in Alexandria, a third near Pelusium in Egypt.  But I deprecate my own high priest and the building of a temple, not wishing to be arrogant towards men of my own day.  For sacred things and the like are granted by every age to the gods alone, as special honours, in my opinion.

About the requests, however, which you have been eager to get from me I decide as follows: all who became epheboi up to my leadership I confirm, and I protect for them the citizenship of the Alexandrians, with the privileges and indulgences of the polis, to all except any who have escaped your notice as born from slaves, while becoming epheboi.  And no less with respect to other matters I wish everything to be confirmed which was graciously granted you by leaders before my time, and kings and prefects just as the god Augustus had confirmed.

The neokoroi of the the temple in Alexandria, which is of the god Augustus, I wish to be chosen by lot, in the manner as those in Canopus of the same god Sebastos are chosen by lot.   About the political offices becoming triennial, you seem to me to have planned quite well; for archons out of fear of rendering account of governing badly will behave more moderately with you for the duration of their offices.

About the boule, however, whatever may have been your situation under the old kings, I would have nothing to say.  You know clearly that, however, under the emperors before me, you had none.   As a novel business, now set before me for the first time, and because it is unclear whether it will be useful to the polis or my affairs, I wrote to Aemilius Rectus to investigate, and to inform me if it is necessary for the institution to be established, and, if it should be right to draw one together, the manner to do it.

But as for the riot and uprising against the Judaeans, – or rather, if the truth be told, the war, – which of the two sides was responsible, even though your envoys strove for great honour from the confrontation, and especially Dionysios son of Theon, still I did not want to have a strict investigation, while storing up in myself unrepentant rage against the ones starting again.

But I announce frankly that, unless you put a stop to this destructive, relentless rage against each other, I shall be forced to show what a benevolent leader is when turned toward righteous rage. For this I yet again still bear witness that Alexandrians, on the one hand, behave gently and kindly with the Judeans, the inhabitants of the same city from a long time ago, and not be disrespectful of the customs used in the ritual of their god, but let them use their customs as in the time of the god Augustus, even as I myself, after hearing both sides, have confirmed.

To the Judeans I give strict orders not to agitate for more than they had before, nor, as though dwelling in two cities to send in future two delegations, which had never been done before; nor to intrude in the gymnasiarchic or kosmetic contests, reaping the fruits of their households while enjoying the abundance of benefits without envy in a foreign polis.  Nor shall they introduce or bring in Judeans from Syria, or sailing down from Egypt, from which I shall be forced to have serious suspicions; or else I shall take vengeance on them in every way as though rousing up some common plague on the world.

If, after you stand aside from these things, you both should wish to live together with gentleness and kindness towards each other, I shall send forth to the highest degree providence for the city, as belonging to our household from bygone times.

I bear witness to my companion Barbillus, that he always shows regard for you before me, and who, just now, with complete zeal for honour, has consulted about the contest about you, and to Tiberius Claudius Archibios my companion.


P. Lond.VI 1912v – Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians in 41 AD.

3 thoughts on “The Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians

  1. This edict should be read together with Acts 18:2 and Suetonius’ Deified Claudius XXV and the explusion of Jews from Rome for their constant riots against “Chrestus” (e.g., Christ). The policy of Claudius was part of the Pax Romana which guaranteed to local peoples of the empire the right to maintain their ancestral customs and religion, which Christianity was deemed part. This policy, called the “religio licita,” coupled with the “jus gladii” which reserved capital punishment to the Roman governors (client kings, however, were not so constrained, the power of capital punishment being an incident of monarchy) – this policy of Claudius, I say, seems to be alluded to by Paul in II Thess. 2:6,7 where Claudius is “he who restrains” and “what restrains” until he was taken “out of the way” by Agrippina who poisoned Claudius, opening the way for Nero to ascend the throne, who would then be revealed as the “man of sin” and “son of perdition” who led the first imperial persecution of the church, but was destroyed by the providential coming of Christ in the “year of four emperors” (AD 69) and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish state by Rome in AD 68-70. The same restraining power preventing persecution of the church by the Jews and peoples of the empire is probably also referred to in Rev. 20 where the dragon (imperial Rome) and beast (persecuting power of the empire) are symbolically bound in Tartarus following the mortal wound to the head by collapse of the persecution over Stepehen shortly after the ascension of Christ (Rev. 12). With Nero’s ascension to the throne, the beast would revive and renew persecution of the church beginning AD 64-68, but would end with the death of Nero and the “year of four emperors,” and destruction of the Jewish state. Or so it appears to me.

  2. Very interesting Roger, thank you for drawing attention to this fascinating first century letter from Claudius! It does enrich an understanding of the Roman setting in which Christianity was founded.

    However, @Kurt, there’s no way Revelation 20 has anything to do with this history — the fulfillment remains for the [perhaps relatively near] future. The dragon certainly isn’t “imperial Rome” since verse 2 itself identifies him:

    “And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended.” — ESV

    I suggest you research Isaac Newton’s work on the Roman Empire and its place in the prophesies of Daniel and Revelation. To his credit he recognized that 1,260 prophetic “days” (3 and 1/2 “times”) had not yet been completed in his time, so the events of Revelation 20-22 wouldn’t occur in his lifetime. From his work on the rising of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ in the later 8th century, possible dates in the 21st century emerge.

  3. Thank you. But can I ask that we have no more comments from anyone about the correct interpretation of Revelation, please? – It’s interesting but decidedly off-topic.

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