CHAPTER TEN

ROMANS AND JEWS

ROMAN COMMENTS about Jews were rarely hostile before the outbreak of war in 66. Far more common were amusement, indifference, acceptance, admiration and emulation. To enumerate the surviving Roman comments is in fact not all that difficult, since fragments survive from only some thirty or so Latin authors, and most of them make mention of Jews and Judaism only in passing. They include poets (Lucretius, Vergil, Tibul-lus, Horace, Ovid, Persius, Lucan), historians (Livy, Curtius Rufus), scholarly polymaths (Varro, the elder Pliny), the orator Cicero, the satirist Petronius. The characteristics of Jews they chose to mention varied enormously. The grammarian Erotian, who wrote the most famous Hippo-cratic lexicon composed in antiquity, notes the Jewish abhorrence of eating pigs when discussing the origin of the “Sacred Disease”: “Some say that … this disease is god-sent, and being of divine origin it is said to be sacred. Others suppose that superstition is implied. They say that one should inquire to which type the sick man belongs, in order that if he is a Jew we should refrain from giving him pig's flesh, and if he is an Egyptian we should refrain from giving him the flesh of sheep or goats.” Columella, an expert writer on agriculture, notes in a discussion of fertility and exceptional growth in nature and among humans that “recently we ourselves might have seen, among the exhibits of the procession at the games at the Circus, a man of the Jewish race who was of greater stature than the tallest German.”1

Such material is far too disparate for a simple collation of all these comments to provide a complete picture of Roman attitudes to Jews and Judaism: different literary genres and different literary contexts elicited different sorts of comment. Some Latin writers seem blindly to have followed an earlier Greek literary tradition about the nature of Judaism which had been shaped by the anti-Jewish animus of Greeks in Egypt and by the propaganda of the Seleucid state in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century BCE, when the conversion of the Jerusalem Temple to pagan cult had provoked the revolt of the Maccabees. Some of these early Latin fragments have survived only through preservation by later authors whose own views about Jews were coloured by events in their own time or—like St. Augustine, through whose quotation comments by Varro and by Seneca are known—formed by a Christian agenda. Of the attitudes attested, the most frequent are amusement at the celebration of the Sabbath, circumcised genitalia and strange food taboos. Horace in the time of Augustus laughed at Jewish credulity: “let the Jew Apella believe it, not I.” Persius, in the early years of Nero, mocked the observance of the Sabbath as an example of superstition like the beliefs of Phrygians and Egyptians: “But when the day of Herod comes round, when the lamps wreathed with violets and ranged round the greasy window-sills have spat forth their thick clouds of smoke, when the floppy tunnies' tails are curled round the dishes of red ware, and the white jars are swollen out with wine, you silently twitch your lips, turning pale at the Sabbath of the circumcised.” Petronius, whose Satyricon is full of bawdy sexual references, had more to say about circumcision: when the hero Encolpius and his friends are on the run someone suggests painting themselves black to disguise themselves as Ethopian slaves, but another of his companions responds that this will be as useful as boring their ears to imitate Arabians, chalking their faces to look like Gauls—or circumcising themselves “so that we may seem Jews.” As we saw in Chapter 7, Pompeius Trogus, whose account in Latin of the history of the Near East and Greece and especially the Hellenistic states before their fall to Rome was composed in the time of Augustus, but is now known primarily from an epitome in the third century CE, repeated the canard common at the time, that the Sabbath was a day of fasting: “Moses, having reached Damascus, his ancestral home, took possession of Mount Sinai, on his arrival at which, after having suffered together with his followers from a seven days' fast in the deserts of Arabia, he, for all time, consecrated the seventh day, which used to be called Sabbath by the custom of the nation, for a fast-day.” Seneca censured the Sabbath as unprofitable (inutile): “by introducing one day of rest in every seven, they lose in idleness almost a seventh of their life, and by failing to act in times of urgency they often suffer loss.” Of Jewish food taboos, much the funniest was deemed to be the avoidance of pork. Philo, describing the travails of his embassy to the emperor Gaius in 40, notes with exasperation the amusement that could be generated even by just mentioning the fact: “[The emperor] put to us this very great and solemn question, ‘Why do you abstain from pig-flesh?’ The question was greeted by another outburst of laughter from some of our opponents …”2

Roman attitudes to Jews were undoubtedly affected by the presence of a large number of Jews within the capital city itself. The community, well established before 61 BCE, when they were already sending gold to the Temple, was much swelled by the import of war captives by Pompey and Sosius after their captures of Jerusalem. In the normal way at Rome, such slaves were mostly in due course manumitted and became part of the free Roman populace. Eight thousand Jews in Rome lobbied Augustus in 4 BCE when deputations came to the emperor from Judaea after the death of Herod. By the mid-first century CE Jews were to be found in many different parts of the city, though with a concentration of settlement in the impoverished area of Trastevere. By 66 CE some of these Jews would have had ancestors who had become Roman citizens four or more generations earlier. Non-Jews were certainly aware of the Jews of the city as an identifiable and organized community, but they could also expect to come across individual Jews in the course of ordinary life—in the markets, in the baths, or in the crowds at public events. Jews did not have a distinct skin colour or facial type, nor did they wear unusual dress, but they did stick together, to be close to the synagogues where they congregated to hear the Torah read, and everyone knew that they had taboos about what they would eat, and that their males were circumcised.

Given the varied ethnic origins of so many people in Rome, and Roman tolerance of such a variety of religious practices, was there any reason for such Jews to feel less integrated into the life of the city than any other minorities? The Roman state seems to have treated the synagogues in the city much like other voluntary associations, to be controlled and occasionally suppressed, but generally tolerated, according to a document cited by Josephus: “Gaius Caesar … by edict forbade religious societies to assemble in the city, but these people alone he did not forbid to do so or collect contributions of money or to hold common meals.”3

But if Jews were not seen as offensive aliens or a turbulent danger to law and order in the city, why were they (or, at least, some of them) periodically expelled in the first half of the first century CE? Expulsions took place both under Tiberius, in 19 CE, and under Claudius, probably in 49. Three aspects of the expulsions are the key to understanding why they took place. First, only a portion of Jews were expelled on each occasion, and, in each case, within a few years the Jewish community in the city was again visibly present and capable of influencing events: Jews were pushed out in 19, but they were present again during the late 20s (when they were in the city to suffer, so Philo alleges, the slanders of Tiberius' confidant and praetorian prefect, Sejanus); and in 41 they were so numerous that the new emperor Claudius “ordered them, while continuing their ancestral mode of life, not to hold meetings.” Second, expulsion in 19 CE was not of Jews alone but also of those who practised Egyptian rites (a fact emphasized in all three main accounts, by Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus). Third, and most important, was the coincidence of the expulsions of 19 with the crisis in the state following the traumatic death of Tiberius' heir Germanicus. The expulsion of practitioners of foreign rites at a time when magic was believed to have brought about the sickness and death of the favourite of the Roman people was a symbolic statement of the purification of the city: “A senatorial edict directed that four thousand descendants of enfranchised slaves, tainted with that superstition and suitable in point of age, were to be shipped to Sardinia and there employed in suppressing brigandage, and if they died because of the pestilential climate, it would be a cheap loss. The rest should leave Italy, unless they had renounced their profane rites by a certain day.” So writes Tacitus. The briefer account by Suetonius makes clearer that those compelled into military service were Jews: “Those of the Jews who were of military age he assigned to provinces of less healthy climate, ostensibly to serve in the army, the others of the same race or who followed similar pursuits he banished from the city, on pain of slavery for life if they did not obey.” Josephus, who (unlike Tacitus and Suetonius) alleged that the expulsion of the Jews followed a specific scandal, the embezzlement by four Jewish scoundrels of moneys donated to the Jerusalem Temple by a high-ranking proselyte called Fulvia, added that “a good many” of these conscripts were punished because they “refused to serve for fear of breaking the ancestral law.”4

A second expulsion took place in the time of Claudius. Suetonius' brief notice states only that “since Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” The same event is mentioned in passing in Acts: Paul found in Corinth “a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome.” Who Chrestus was, and why he was causing disturbances, is unknown. Identification with Jesus Christus, often suggested by scholars in the past, is possible but not likely, since “Chrestus” is to be preferred as the more difficult manuscript reading and, in any case, the name Chrestus was common in this period. Claudius (as reported by Josephus) had gone out of his way at the start of his rule to insist that “the Jews throughout the whole cosmos under our sway should … observe the customs of their fathers without let or hindrance,” but he had gone on to enjoin the Jews “to avail themselves of this kindness in a more reasonable spirit, and not to set at naught the superstitions held by other peoples, but to keep their own laws.” The emperor was evidently keen above all to keep order. In the passage in which Cassius Dio reported the prohibition on Jewish gatherings in 41 CE, the historian went on to record the dissolution of clubs and unruly taverns. Jews were welcome to practise their ancestral customs in Rome, but only provided that they did so discreetly.5

It is also not impossible that the expulsion of 49 had a symbolic role similar to that of 19. This was the year that the emperor, notorious for his pedantic antiquarianism, reinstated a raft of ancient Roman religious practices: the formal extension of the religious boundary of the city, the pomerium; celebration of the salutis augurium, a long-forgotten ritual which signalled the peace of the state; expiatory sacrifices in the grove of Diana to win back divine favour by means which dated back to the time of the Roman kings. A symbolic expulsion of Jews would fit nicely.6 That the exile was indeed symbolic seems confirmed by the evidence for a sizeable Jewish community in the city in the time of Nero. According to Acts, Paul met local Jews as he awaited trial in Rome; they are portrayed as a settled community. Already in his own letter to “all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints,” a letter written probably in Corinth in the mid-fifties, Paul assumed Priscilla and Aquila to be back in Rome. As we have seen (in Chapter 2), in the court of Nero there was an actor Aliturus, “Jewish as to race,” who was a special favourite of the emperor and helped Josephus in his mission to secure freedom for some friends from Jerusalem who had been taken in chains to Rome in the early 60s.7

But though Jews might be tolerated, admiration for Jewish customs is less often attested in the Latin writers of the later Republic and early empire. There is no evidence of admiration of the qualities singled out as characteristic of other “barbarians,” like the Germans or Dacians: there is nothing about Jews as noble savages or fine warriors. Perhaps Romans knew too much about Jews for such simplifications. But Jews did have some ideas of which thinking Romans could approve: according to St. Augustine, the learned scholar Varro (116—27 BCE), who devoted sixteen of the forty-one books of his Human and Divine Antiquities to a systematic exposition of Roman religion, identified the God of the Jews with Jupiter, “thinking that it makes no difference by which name he is called, so long as the same thing is understood.” According to Varro, “the ancient Romans worshipped the gods without an image. And if this usage had continued to our own day our worship of the gods would be more devout.” And, so Augustine notes, in support of his opinion Varro adduced, among other things, “the testimony of the Jewish race.”8

Varro's contemporary Cicero was much less complimentary about Jews in two of his extant speeches. Such speeches provide ambiguous evidence about normal attitudes: on the one hand, an orator felt entitled to slant the presentation of facts as best suited his case; on the other, appeals to prejudice are only worth attempting if they are likely to strike a chord with the audience. Cicero inserted into a speech to the Senate, delivered in 56 BCE on the allocation of provinces to the consuls of 55, an attack on his political enemy Aulus Gabinius, who had been consul in 58 when Cicero was sent into exile. Cicero accused Gabinius of having ruined the Roman revenue farmers, who made a fortune by collecting taxes in many parts of the empire. Gabinius, as governor of Syria, had handed over responsibility for tax collection to local authorities in the province, as a result of which, said Cicero, “the revenue-farmers have already been almost crushed and ruined … by [his] avarice, arrogance and cruelty.” As Cicero portrayed it, Gabinius had handed over the revenue-farmers “as slaves to Jews and Syrians, nations born to slavery.” The point of the speech was that the Syrians and Jews had just been conquered by Rome, and allowing them, as recent enemies, to collect their own taxes was gravely damaging to the rich men in Rome accustomed to rake in huge profits by acting as middlemen between provincials and the Roman state. It is not irrelevant that many of these rich Romans were close friends of Cicero himself—and of many other members of the Senate. Nor is it irrelevant for the impact of the caricature that in the past few years there had been a flood of Syrian and Jewish slaves on the Roman market, many of them Jews brought by Pompey as prisoners of war after the conquest of Jerusalem in 63.9

Cicero's much stronger verbal assault on Jews and Judaism was found in a speech delivered in 59 in defence of a political ally, Lucius Valerius Flac-cus, who was on trial for corruption during his term as governor of the province of Asia. Flaccus' guilt was notorious, but Cicero owed him support in return for his assistance as urban praetor in 63, when Cicero, as consul, had urgently needed help against the conspiracy of Catiline. The prosecution, led by another senator on behalf of the cities of the province, alleged that among Flaccus' misdeeds in Asia had been the theft of gold collected by the local Jews to send to Jerusalem. The confiscation itself was not denied, so Cicero's defence of his client had to rest on the assertion that Flaccus' actions had been legal and on emotions stirred up by casting aspersions on the Jews, asserting that the jury was being intimidated by the Jewish crowd outside the court. “To resist this barbarian superstition was an act of firmness, to defy the crowd of Jews, when sometimes in our assemblies they were hot with passion, for the welfare of the state was an act of the greatest seriousness … Even while Jerusalem was standing and the Jews were at peace, the practice of those sacred rites of theirs was inconsistent with the splendour of our empire, the dignity of our name, the customs of our ancestors.” Cicero could not seem to state more clearly the incompatibility of Judaism with Roman life. It was a serious problem for the defence that Cicero's friend Pompey had conquered Jerusalem for Rome only four years previously, but that he had “touched nothing from that shrine.” The only reason, said Cicero, was Pompey's wise caution, to avoid himself being accused of stealing. “I do not believe that the illustrious general was hindered by the religion of the Jews and his enemies, but by his sense of honour.” Pompey does indeed seem to have felt strongly against the common practice of governors despoiling provinces for their own financial gain, and he had pushed strongly for the trial of Flaccus for that reason, but this was a feeble explanation of the respect that (in general, despite having entered the Holy of Holies) he showed to the Jerusalem Temple, which he had captured precisely in order to install Rome's ally Hyrcanus as High Priest. It is a depressing reflection of the politicization of Roman justice in the late Republic that, despite Flaccus' manifest guilt, Cicero persuaded the senatorial and equestrian jurors to acquit him.10

More difficult to locate in its proper context is the rhetoric of Seneca in the time of Nero. When speaking of the Jews, he says: “Meanwhile the customs of this most wicked race have gained such influence that they are now received throughout all the world. The vanquished have given laws to their victors.” The quotation, from Seneca's treatise On Superstition, was, like the citation of Varro, preserved by Augustine, in this case in his great theological treatise, City of God. Augustine cannot be trusted to have preserved accurately the whole context of the text he cited, but it is unlikely (though possible) that he (or his source, if he used an earlier compilation of excerpts) changed Seneca's actual words. According to Augustine, Seneca had censured the sacred institutions of the Jews “among other superstitions of the civil theology.” It was in this context that he complained that the Sabbath leads to inexpedient loss of time, adding, however, that at least the Jews “are aware of the origin and meaning of their rites. The greater part of the people go through a ritual not knowing why they do so.” Augustine does not explain whether the spread of Jewish practices lamented by Seneca referred to full conversion to Judaism or (more widespread and thus a more plausible target) the observance of customs like the Sabbath, which might more justifiably be described, with exaggeration of course, as having been “received throughout all the world.” In any case, regret at the popularity of Jewish customs does not explain Seneca's description of Jews as a “most wicked race,”sceleratissima gens. Why Seneca wrote about the Jews with such antagonism cannot now be ascertained with certainty, and most historians (probably wisely) are content to leave the puzzle unsolved. Neither this phrase nor any description of equivalent hostility is found in any other extant Latin literature about the Jews from before 66 CE. If it is correct to date the composition of On Superstition to near the end of Seneca's life, in 65, it may be relevant that his last years coincided with the time of the great fire in Rome in 64 for which Christians were punished as scapegoats. Seneca may have treated all Jews as guilty, by association, of the crimes of which Christians were accused, or he may have reflected a more general mood in Rome at this time of crisis that the “atheism” shared by Jews with Christians brought the state into danger. Perhaps the context of his description of Jews as a “most wicked race” was what mattered most: in a treatise for Romans on superstition, Jews would provide much the best known example of a notable “superstition,” that no God should be worshipped apart from their own.11

It is in fact rather hard to see any reason why Jews should have experienced particular hostility from Romans before the rebellion broke out in 66. Jews were odd in some respects, but through their adoption of many of the cultural traits of Hellenism they resembled cultures quite familiar to Romans. Greek was a shared language, both in the eastern Mediterranean (where, as the language of Roman administration, it was also spoken at least by the upper-class Jews of Jerusalem) and in the city of Rome (where it was the preferred language of the Jewish community throughout the early imperial period rather than Hebrew or Aramaic). It has been well remarked that Jews seem to have retained a sense of a distinctive communal identity longer than the many other foreigners at Rome who melted into the wider urban population within one or two generations of arrival, but if Jews were lazy, would not eat pig, or mutilated the sexual organs of their sons, these practices had no effect on their neighbours. Jews might be ridiculous, intriguing, mysterious or contemptible, but they were certainly not dangerous to the safety and prosperity of Rome.12

All this evidence for general toleration of Jewish ancestral customs has skirted around the most remarkable, and least disputable, element of that toleration, which was the exemption of Jewish Romans from the normal rule that decent citizens must pray to the gods of their society. Romans knew that Jews, uniquely among the inhabitants of the empire, refused to worship any god apart from the jealous God worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple. Romans treated such behaviour as bizarre but not reprehensible. Unlike gentile Christians, who had abandoned the cults revered by their ancestors and thus risked the displeasure of their traditional gods, Jews, it was believed, had never believed it right to make offerings to any god other than their own. The special privilege of the Jews in this respect, and its importance to them, became clear when (as we saw in Chapter 2) it came under attack in the time of Gaius. Philo reports how, in the midst of the bitter dispute in 40 CE between Jews and Greeks from Alexandria, the leader of the Greek faction, the scholarly Apion, “scurrilously reviled the Jews, asserting, among other things, that they neglected to pay the honours due to the emperor. For while all the subject peoples in the Roman empire had dedicated altars and temples to Gaius and had given him the same attentions in other respects as they did the gods, these people alone scorned to honour him with statues and to swear by his name.” As we have seen, a crisis was caused throughout the Jewish world by Gaius' resulting attempt to get the governor of Syria, Petronius, to set up a statue in the Jerusalem Temple. Many thousands of Jews met Petronius at Ptolemais with petitions not to make them transgress and violate their ancestral code: “Slay us first before you carry out these resolutions. For it is not possible for us to survive and to behold actions that are forbidden us by the decision both of our lawgiver and of our forefathers.” No later emperor was to attempt to compel Jews to worship other gods, although a renegade Jew in Syrian Antioch tried, in the fevered atmosphere after the outbreak of war in Jerusalem in 66, to demonstrate proof of his conversion and of his detestation of Jewish customs by sacrificing after the manner of the Greeks, and “ordered that the rest [of the Jews] should be compelled to do the same.” But even in these circumstances of strong emotion, the Roman legate Gnaius Collega brought order, and an end to persecution of the Jews. Once again it was made clear that it was no part of normal Roman policy to compel Jews to break their inherited customs.13

Tolerance of Jewish idiosyncrasies did not amount to positive enthusiasm for Judaism: it was possible to be permissive while despising Jewish practices or finding them ludicrous. However, Josephus reports that observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest had spread in his day to every city, along with other Jewish observances: “The masses have long since shown a keen desire for our religious piety, and there is not one city, Greek or barbarian, not a single nation, to which our custom of abstaining from work on the seventh day has not spread, and where the fasts and the lighting of lamps and many of our prohibitions in the matter of food are not observed.” Josephus was of course writing after 70 CE, but his explicit reference to the long-term nature of Jewish influence on gentiles may be taken to show that the phenomenon he observed pre-dated the outbreak of the revolt. On the other hand, one cannot know if non-Jews adopted Jewish behaviour because it was Jewish or despite the fact that it was Jewish. The younger Seneca recalled that his vegetarianism had been suspect in the eyes of his father because some foreign rites were being promoted at that time: the clampdown on “foreign rites” to which Seneca referred was almost certainly the expulsion of Jews and adherents of the Egyptian gods in 19, but it is clear from his testimony that Seneca did not wish his own behaviour to be taken as a sign of his self-identification with either of those groups.14

How many such full converts to Judaism were to be found in Rome before 66 CE is wholly unknown, since Seneca's jibe (preserved by Augustine), that “the vanquished have given laws to their victors,” may refer only to such spread of individual Jewish practices, but it is likely that some proselytes were to be found in a city of such a size, with a noticeable population of native Jews, since proselytes were certainly found in contemporary Alexandria. More common was recognition of the Jewish God as worthy of worship (even if there was no standard place for this divinity within the portfolio of cults patronized by an ordinary pagan). The power of the divinity worshipped in Jerusalem was evident from the glory of the Temple as it had been refurbished by Herod.

Among all the aspects of Judaism which pagan Romans found odd, much the least bizarre was the centrality in Jewish cult accorded to sacrifices, libations and the burning of incense, and the special sanctity ascribed to the part of the building which housed the divinity. All this was familiar enough from other cities. The Jerusalem Temple was particularly impressive only because its devotees uniquely concentrated all their resources in one place instead of dedicating shrines in the places where they lived. Up to 66 CE Romans generally treated the Jerusalem Temple with exceptional tact, not least because it was to the emperor's advantage to have the Jewish God as ally and protector. Josephus records the gifts given to the Temple by the emperor Augustus and his wife Livia; the hecatomb, a burnt offering of one hundred oxen, sacrificed there at the expense of Augustus' friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa during his visit in 15 BCE; the payments made by the state to ensure that the goodwill of the Jewish God would be directed towards the Roman emperor. Josephus says that the cost was borne by the Jews. But Philo writes that it was to be borne by Rome, that Augustus “ordered that for all time continuous sacrifices of whole burnt offerings should be carried out every day at his own expense as a tribute to the most high God.”15

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!