In the long and difficult history of the Jewish community, the early period of the Roman Empire was particularly difficult. The rule of Gaius saw the tensions experienced by the Jewish community come to a head in Alexandria and a political conflict in Syria/Judaea that threatened the very survival of the community.
Alexandria in Egypt was the second city of the Mediterranean. When Egypt was annexed by Octavian in 30 BC, the Alexandrians had been granted tax privileges and their leading citizens took a prominent position in the administration of Egypt. There were, however, considerable tensions between the Alexandrians and their Roman rulers. We have preserved on papyrus on a number of literary (ie probably fictional) accounts of interactions between prefects of Egypt or Roman emperors and prominent members of the Alexandrian elite. These are precursors of Christian martyr acts and share some of the same characteristics, notably the fatal outcome.
Alexandria was not a culturally uniform city. Its archaeology reveals a city with Greek and Egyptian elements. It also had a very large Jewish community. The exact status of that Jewish community is not certain. Under the governorship of Flaccus, the Greek and Jewish communities came into conflict. The conflict appears to have been sparked by the visit of King Herod Agrippa to Alexandria.
Herod Agrippa had been imprisoned by Tiberius, but was a long-time friend of the young Gaius. Gaius freed him and made him king of Judaea (see Josephus, Antiquities 18 for the story). Agrippa rushed back to his new kingdom, but the quickest route back was through Alexandria. There, the Jewish community celebrated his arrival by parading through the streets shouting ‘Marin’ (king). This show of loyalty infuriated the Greek population, and also appears to have annoyed the governor, Flaccus. The Greeks attacked the Jews, perhaps with the connivance of Flaccus, and were driven into a small sector of the city. Violence continued until Flaccus was removed from office, probably over an unrelated charge. The sorry and violent tale is retold by the Jewish theologian Philo, in his work In Flaccum.
That was not the end of the Jews’ problems. In order to gain a settlement, the Jews sent an embassy to Rome, which included Philo. There, they were supported by Herod Agrippa, but still had great difficulty gaining access to Gaius. But as they prepared their embassy an even greater crisis emerged. It became known that Gaius had ordered the governor of Syria, Petronius, to install a statue of Gaius himself in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Judaism did not allow icons. It is also monotheistic. Romans had generally respected the sensibilities of the Jews in this regard. The Temple in Jerusalem was also very unusual in ancient terms as being the single temple of Judaism and being a centre of worship for the entire Jewish community, wherever they lived. At this stage, Judaism was focused more on the temple than on the various meeting houses (synagogues) of the community. The installing a statue in the Temple could be understood, by Jews, as an attempt to destroy Judaism.
Fortunately, Petronius resisted the order.
The account of the interview that the embassy managed to achieve is one of humiliation. The Jews followed Gaius through a palace that he was reordering, baited them with hostile or ‘witty’ remarks on their religion and their difficulties in worshipping Gaius. A people facing destruction were asked to explain their aversion to pork (Legatio ad Gaium).
Modern antisemitism is a particular and peculiar combination of racial theory, xenophobia, and medieval Christian hostility to those who rejected Christ. In very recent formulations, it connects to anti-Israeli sentiments. Most of those elements were not present in the early Roman empire. It is also clear that Gaius (and few Romans) had personal antipathy to the Jews: Agrippa was friend to Gaius and to Claudius. Instead, the problems of the Jews centred on their monotheism.
The populations of Greek and Roman cities cam together around religion. The cities had major civic-religious rites. Participation in those rites was a religious and a political statement: it marked loyalty to and identity with the city.
The imperial cult worked in a similar way. Sacrifices to the emperor showed loyalty to Rome and the emperor. Jews had got round the problem by offering sacrifice for or on behalf of the emperors. But the fact that Jews could not participate in civic religious rituals could make it seem as if they were not part of the city. This was the charge brought against the Jews of Alexandria by Claudius: that they were living in a city not their own.
In a situation of hostility between Greeks and Jews, it was very easy for the Greeks to lay claim to be more loyal to Rome than the Jews by making reference to the imperial cult. In the attacks on the Jewish synagogues of Alexandria, statues of emperors were inserted into the synagogues, gestures of loyalty to Rome which were also destructive of the synagogue as a place of worship.
With an emperor as uncertain of his position as Gaius and one who used the imperial cult as a means of asserting his power, the Jews were in a very difficult position.
This was a fundamental problem. It was not racism in that it was not a declaration that Jews were by nature inferior. But it was racist in marking those out of different culture and religion as socially different and not belonging. People might want to make a distinction between racism and xenophobia, suggesting that xenophobia is somehow more mild. But there was still Jewish blood on the streets of Alexandria and if Petronius had not been so cunning in his resistance, there may have been a catastrophic war in the East.