By: Samuel Krauss
The title of an official who stood at the head of the Jewish population of Alexandria during the Grecian period. The etymology of the word ἀλαβάρχης (alabarches), and, therefore, the original nature of the office, is obscure. In former times it was customary to derive it from ἄλς (hals, sea), which derivation might indicate dominion over the sea. The word is, however, also written ἀραβάρχης, and in Latin arabarches, for which reason some think the term indicates dominion over Arabia—the old name of the part of Egypt east of the Nile. It is hard to understand how a Jew, even if he were the most prominent man of the congregation of Alexandria, could be called ruler of Arabia. The trend of modern opinion is to connect it with the Greek term for ink, ἄλαβα (alaba), taking ink in the sense of writing (scriptura), which, in those days, was a token for tax (vectigal). Such a derivation would imply that the Alabarch was a farmer of taxes, certainly from the time of the Ptolemies; and, judging by inscriptions which give a similar title to an office of the Thebaid in Egypt, he must also have collected the toll on animals passing through the country. Strabo (quoted by Josephus, "Ant." xiv. 7, § 2), who was in Egypt about 24
The following alabarchs are known by name: 1. Alexander Lysimachus. 2. Julius Alexander Lysimachus, son of the preceding. The name Julius was also borne by his brother Tiberius (Julius) Alexander (who afterward became prefect of Egypt), probably in honor of the imperial family of the Julii. The Herodians belonged also to the gens Julia; and Berenice, daughter of Agrippa I., who bore the cognomen Julia, was married to Marcus, son of the Alabarch Alexander. This Marcus appears to have died early ("Ant." xix. 5, § 1), for Berenice immediately after married another. 3. Demetrius ("Ant." xx. 7, § 3).
Philo relates that after the death of one of the Alabarchs, the Emperor Augustus appointed a Council of Elders (γερōυσία) for the Jewish community of Alexandria: but in an edict of Claudius it is stated that, after the death of one of the Alabarchs, he permitted the appointment of a successor. Philo was himself descended from the Alabarch family ("Ant." xviii. 8, § 1), and was either the brother or the nephew of Alexander Lysimachus. It is impossible to fix the date of either the beginning or the end of the line of Alabarchs. It may have ceased during the disturbances under Trajan. The brothers Julianus and Pappus, the leaders of the Jews during this revolt, were indeed natives of Alexandria, but were not Alabarchs. Tannaites of the second century would appear to allude to the Alabarchs (see Sifre, Deut. 1, end; YalḲ. Deut. § 792). In the Talmud there is no mention of them. Grätz has made it probable that the Nikanor after whom certain gates of the Temple—often mentioned in the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash—were named, and who was, therefore, a public benefactor and undoubtedly a wealthy man, belonged to the family of the Alabarchs.
- Haeckermann, in Jahn's Neue Jahrbücher für Klassische Philologie, 1849, xv. suppl., pp. 450-566;
- Grätz, Die, Jüdischen Ethnarchen oder Alabarchen in Alexandrien, in Monatsschrift, 1876;
- Schürer, Die Alabarchen in Ægypten (Zeit. für Wissenschaftliche Theologie, xviii. 13);
- Marquardt, Römische Staatsverwaltung, i. 289;
- Berliner, Magazin, xx. 143;
- Willrich, Juden und Griechen, p. 141;
- Siegfried, Philo von Alexandrien, p. 5, note 3;
- Th. Reinach, in Rev. Ét. Juives, 1893, xxvii. 80.