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Nicholas of Damascus

(b. c. 64 B.C.E.)

Nicholas of Damascus was a  Greek historian, peripatetic philosopher, orator, dramatist, and statesman. Nicholas came from a distinguished family in *Damascus, where his father, Antipater, occupied a prominent position and was proud of his origin. For a time he was in the service of Antony and Cleopatra, acting as their children's instructor. Later he joined the court of *Herod whose confidant he became, instructing him also in philosophy and rhetoric. It was at Herod's instigation that he wrote his Universal History (see below). Nicholas' fame as a writer and an intellectual, his outstanding talents as an orator, and his connections with leading Romans equipped him to undertake delicate diplomatic tasks. He acted as Herod's representative to Marcus *Agrippa in 14 B.C.E., when the Jews of Asia Minor submitted their complaints against the inhabitants of the Greek cities (Jos., Ant., 16:29–58). He also interceded with *Augustus on behalf of Herod when the latter had lost favor in Rome due to his aggressive action against the Arabs in 8 B.C.E. (ibid., 16:335–55). Nicholas exercised great influence on Herod's internal policy. According to his own testimony, he was a consistent opponent of *Antipater, Herod's eldest son, and helped to get rid of him (ibid., 17:106–21). Even after Herod's death, Nicholas remained loyal to him: he traveled to Rome in 4 B.C.E., with *Archelaus, Herod's son, to obtain Augustus' confirmation of Herod's will and to defend the name of the dead king and the interests of Archelaus against the charges brought by representatives of the Jewish nation (ibid., 240–8). At the same time Nicholas persuaded Archelaus not to oppose the granting of independence to the Hellenistic cities on the borders of Herod's former kingdom. On this occasion, too, Nicholas' efforts were successful, and Augustus confirmed Herod's will in broad outline. This was Nicholas' last active intervention in the affairs of Judea. He apparently stayed on in Rome.

The most famous of Nicholas' many writings was his Historia Universalis in 144 books, in which events are described in greater detail the nearer they approach the days of the author. Those in which he was personally involved are given special treatment. Nicholas' intervention on behalf of the Jews of Asia Minor is described in books 123 and 124 (Jos., Ant., 12:126–7). He also wrote an autobiography, the contents of which correspond to some extent to the last books of the history, as well as a biography of Augustus. Nicholas used to provide Augustus with a choice variety of dates from his estate, which Augustus called after him (Athenaeus 14:652). They are possibly the dates referred to in rabbinical literature (Av. Zar. 146; Num. R. 3:1) as "Nikolaos." Nicholas' history is no longer extant, except for lengthy excerpts, particularly those dealing with most ancient times, preserved in the compilations of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, the 10th-century Byzantine emperor. Shorter extracts have been preserved in the works of Josephus, Athenaeus, Stephanus of Byzantium, and others.

Nicholas' connections with Herod, his acquaintance with the Jews, and his defense of them on several occasions precluded him from adopting a contemptuous attitude toward the ancient Jewish tradition, as did most Greek and Roman writers. Thus he reveals a tendency to combine the Damascene-Syrian with the biblical-Jewish traditions. In the fourth book of his history he deals sympathetically with the personality of Abraham (Jos., Ant., 1:159), whom he depicts as a foreigner who came at the head of an army from the land of the Chaldees to Damascus, where he reigned as king and from which he later migrated with his people to the land of Canaan. The name of Abram, says Nicholas, is still honored in the region of Damascus. In the same book of his history he refers to the biblical account of the wars between Israel and Aram in the days of David as well as after the division of the kingdom (ibid., 7:101–3). Among pre-Christian Greek writers, Nicholas is the only one to mention David. He recalls the biblical tradition when referring, in the 96th book of his history, to the Flood, and mentions that "Moses, the Jewish legislator, wrote" (ibid., 1:95). To judge from these fragments, Nicholas' interest in Jewish history is due chiefly to Jewish connections with his native city, Damascus; it seems unlikely that he was a major source for the early books of Josephus' Antiquities which parallel the Bible.

In regard to Jewish history in the period of the Second Temple, he describes the actions of *Antiochus Epiphanes against the Jews (Jos., Apion, 2:83–84) and is quoted by Josephus a number of times verbatim. Josephus was perhaps naturally attracted to the work of a man who, like himself, had written an autobiography defending himself against charges of time-serving. Nicholas' Universal History provided the basis of Josephus' description of Herod's kingdom in The Jewish War (book 1) and Antiquities (books 15–17). As is to be expected from a courtier and collaborator in the policy of the king, Nicholas' books about Herod are a panegyric upon him. Marked by their dramatic tension and replete with pathetic descriptions, these books are written in a spirit of open hostility toward Antipater, the son of Herod and Nicholas' mortal enemy. These characteristics are also notable in Josephus' account, except that in the Antiquities Josephus makes a conscious effort to free himself from the panegyrical approach of Nicholas. Josephus' dependence on Nicholas is further shown by a comparison between his account and the excerpts preserved in Nicholas' autobiography, and by the fact that for the period no longer covered by Nicholas' work (after 4 B.C.E.) Josephus' narrative is meager. The description, too, of the Hasmonean kingdom in Josephus' two works is chiefly derived from Nicholas' history, a conclusion that necessarily follows from the non-Jewish viewpoint that generally characterizes this description.


G. Hoelscher, Die Quellen des Josephus… (1904), 17ff.; Schuerer, Hist, index; F. Jacoby (ed.), Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, 2B Texts (1926), 324–430; 2A Commentary (1926), 29–91; R.J.H. Shutt, Studies in Josephus (1961), 79–92; B.Z. Wacholder, Nicholas of Damascus (1962).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.