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Nicholas of Damascus (Nicolaus Damascenus)

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Greek historian and philosopher; friend of King Herod the Great; born at Damascus, where his father, Antipater, filled high offices and was greatly respected (Suidas, s. Ἄντίπατρος); died at Rome. Being the heir to his father's honors and wealth, Nicholas was not obliged to take service under any prince, and since he was a philosopher he did not attach great value to money. It is difficult, therefore, to see how he came to take up his residence at Herod's court. It was not love of Judaism, for he remained faithful to the Aristotelian philosophy; and it is evident from his works that he did not embrace the Jewish faith, although he may have been among the so-called "proselytes of the gate." He lived nearly twenty years at Jerusalem, but did not found a family there, which is a further proof that he did not become a Jew. He had a brother named Ptolemy, who may be identical with Ptolemy, the procurator and friend of Herod (Josephus, "Ant." 14:14, § 3, et passim).

Relation to Herod.

It appears from allusions in the autobiography of Nicholas that his intercourse with Herod was occasioned by the latter's amateur studies in philosophy, rhetoric, and politics, in which the philosopher of the neighboring city of Damascus was peculiarly fitted to assist him. When the king discovered his new friend's talents, he encouraged him to write a history; and the toil which Nicholas devoted to the study of antiquity was said to have surpassed even the labors of Hercules. He accompanied Herod on the latter's journey to Rome, during which they were constantly philosophizing ("Historici Græci Minores," ed. Dindorf, 1:140). Nicholas was, therefore, in a certain sense the teacher of Herod; but he was also his friend and faithful adviser. In 14 B.C. he accompanied the king to Asia Minor to visit M. Agrippa, who had been requested by the Ionians to deprive the Jews of their privileges, but the plea of Nicholas was so successful that their ancient rights were not curtailed (Josephus, c. 12:3, § 2). His reference to the Sabbath, on this occasion, as "our" holiday (ib. 16:2, § 3), merely shows his interest in the case, and does not imply that he was a Jew. When Herod incurred the disfavor of Augustus bya campaign against the Arabians, he sent Nicholas to Rome (7 B.C.). The philosopher succeeded not only in rehabilitating Herod with the emperor, but also in having his accusers punished (ib. 16:10, §§ 8-9). Nicholas proved himself a still more valuable friend to Herod in his domestic difficulties with his children. Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater would not have been executed if the king had followed the advice of Nicholas, who said correctly that these executions would be the beginning of the misfortunes of the house of Herod (Autobiography in "Historici Græci Minores," 1:141).

Nicholas and Archelaus.

Nicholas was about sixty years of age at the time of Herod's death (4 B.C.), when he became the faithful adviser of Herod's son and successor, Archelaus. His statement that the disorders which then broke out were an uprising of the Jewish people against the Herodians and the "Greeks," and that Hellenism triumphed (νικᾷ τὸ Ελληνικόν, ib. p. 143), characterizes him as a complete pagan. He went with Archelaus to Rome to defend the latter's rights against his own brothers and against the Jewish party; and he succeeded in securing for his patron one-half of the kingdom, advising him to give up the Greek cities which were anxious to shake off Jewish control, and to be content with the rest of the country (ib.). It is expressly stated (ib.) that Emperor Augustus held him in high esteem; and there is also a story to the effect that Nicholas, knowing that the emperor was fond of fine dates, kept him supplied with a variety which grows especially well in Palestine, whence the emperor called this kind "Nicholas dates" (Athenæus, 14:652 A). This name has remained, the Mishnah and Talmud also referring to this variety of dates as "niḳalwasin" ('Ab. Zarah 1:5). Nicholas seems to have lived in Rome after this time, dying there at about the age of seventy.

His Works.

The reputation of Nicholas rests upon his works. Neither the tragedies and comedies which he is said to have written (Suidas, s. Νικόλάος) nor his philosophical works have been preserved; but there are considerable fragments of his historical works, which are very important since they were used by Josephus. These works are as follows:

Nicholas and Josephus.

  1. A large historical work in 144 books (Athenæus, 6:249), of which Suidas mentions, probably incorrectly, only eighty. The extant fragments belong to the first seven books and deal with the history of the Assyrians, Medes, Greeks, Lydians, and Persians, being important also for Biblical history. Beginning with book , there are further fragments in Athenæus and Josephus. It appears from the quotations in Josephus that books and dealt with the defense of the Jews before Agrippa. The history of Herod, which Josephus recounts in detail in his "Antiquities" (-), is doubtless based on the work of Nicholas; for where Nicholas stops, during the reign of Archelaus, Josephus also curtails his narrative. Detailed proof of the dependence of Josephus on Nicholas is due especially to A. Büchler, according to whom Josephus did not himself read the works of the other authorities which he so frequently quotes, but took what he found in Nicholas; and in like manner the stereotyped formulas which Josephus uses in referring to other portions of his own work are the same as those which are employed by Nicholas for a similar purpose. Josephus took Nicholas as his source not only for the history relating to Herod, but also for his account of the Hasmoneans; he likewise quoted Nicholas in dealing with the history of antiquity (c. 1:3, §§ 6, 9; 7, § 2), though this does not imply that Nicholas wrote a history of the ancient Hebrews; the fragment relating to Abraham, for example, is taken rather from a history of Damascus, a detailed history of which Nicholas as a Damascene must certainly have written. Josephus criticizes the work of Nicholas very severely. He reproaches him for his flattery of Herod in tracing the descent of his father, Antipater, from the most noble Jewish stock, whereas, as a matter of fact, Antipater was an Idumean and Herod had become king by chance ("Ant." 14:1, § 3). He likewise reproaches Nicholas for having suppressed the fact that Herod pillaged the ancient royal tombs, and for having concealed everything else that might bring dishonor upon his king, while he exaggerated Herod's good deeds; indeed, he declares that the history was written solely to glorify that monarch and not to benefit others (ib. 16:7, § 1).
  2. A biography of Augustus, of which two fragments of some length are extant, dealing with the story of the youth of Octavianus and with Cæsar's assassination.
  3. A kind of autobiography, the fragments of which treat for the most part of Jewish history, since Nicholas narrates the events at the court of King Herod, in which he himself played an important part.
  4. An account, in disconnected sentences, of curious customs and observances of different peoples; the Jews are not referred to in the extant fragments.

Nicholas is perhaps also the author of the pseudo-Aristotelian work "De Plantis."

  • The best collections of the fragments of Nicholas are those by C. Müller, Fragmenta Historicorum Grœcorum, 3:343-464, 4:661-668, Paris, 1849, and by L. Dindorf, Historici Grœci Minores, 1:1-153;
  • some fragments are also found in Th. Reinach, Textes d'Auteurs Grecs et Romains, 1:78-87, Paris, 1895.
  • Grätz, Gesch. 4th ed., 3:328, and Patsch, in Wiener Studien für Classische Philologie, 1890, 12:231-239, show that Nicholas was no Jew.
  • On the relation of Josephus to Nicholas see A. Büchler in J. Q. R. 9:325-339;
  • and on the entire bibliography, Schürer, Gesch. 3d ed., 1:50-57;
  • Prosopographia Imperii Romani, 2:405, No. 65, and (on Ptolemy) 3:105, No. 762.
S. Kr.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Nicholas of Damascus (Nicolaus Damascenus)'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​n/nicholas-of-damascus-nicolaus-damascenus.html. 1901.
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