Roman Literature

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Although there is information concerning the Jews in Rome as early as 139 b.c.e., the first Latin writers to mention the Jews or Judaism in their writings are *Cicero and Varro, who lived at the end of the republic. It is significant that Cicero does not mention the Jews or Judaism in his philosophical works, but only in his orations – in his speech in defense of Flaccus (Pro Flacco) of 59 b.c.e., and in his De Provinciis Consularibus of 56 b.c.e. – in both instances his remarks are derogatory. The Jewish religion he defines as a superstitio, and the Jews themselves are described as a people born to slavery, but there is no need to draw far-reaching conclusions from his polemical thrusts since they arose from the fact that the Jews were to be found in the opposite camp from the one Cicero was representing. In similar situations, other nations received no more sympathetic treatment at the hands of the great orator. The stereotyped antisemitic complaints of the Hellenistic period are, at any rate, not mentioned by him. In contrast to Cicero, Varro, the foremost scholar in the period of the late republic, treats the Jewish way of life with respect. He praises Jewish religious worship which opposed all pictorial and plastic representation, and compares it with the early Roman practice which similarly rejected them in their worship of the gods.

The growth of the Jewish population in Rome in the time of Augustus is reflected in the mainstream of contemporary Roman literature. The poet Tibullus alludes to the Jewish Sabbath; Horace refers to the missionary fervor of the Jews and to their gullibility; the historian Livy speaks of the Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem and stresses that the worship therein is unique in that it contains no representation or any idol whatsoever of the godhead. Ovid was familiar with the Jewish Sabbath, and Augustus himself mentions it in a letter to Tiberius, although – like many of the Greeks and Romans of those days – he was under the impression that it was customary for the Jews to fast on the Sabbath.

The longest description of Judaism extant from the writers of the age of Augustus is that found in the epitome of *Pompeius Trogus' "Universal History." He relates the history of the Jews, the origin of their religion and their commonwealth, as well as a description of the physical properties of their land, in his description of the Seleucid Empire. He deals with the origin of the nation at length, but only cursorily with its later history. The treaty between Judea and Rome (161 b.c.e.) is considered to have been a decisive step toward the achievement of independence from the Seleucid yoke on the part of the Jews. His description of the beginnings of the Jewish people is a potpourri of information gleaned from the Bible, from a Damascene source, and from the well-known Greco-Egyptian tradition concerning their origin. Trogus, without doubt, utilized sources written in Greek.

Roman literature of the Augustan age does not yet contain ideological antisemitism. This enmity begins to develop somewhat later, and *Seneca would seem to be its first representative. Other protagonists are such famous writers as Quintilian, *Tacitus and *Juvenal. They belong to the period (the end of the first and beginning of the second centuries c.e.) in which the attraction toward Judaism among the gentiles reached its height. At this time, there were many Romans – both men and women – who accepted to a greater or a lesser extent the practices and the beliefs of Judaism. In the eyes of many representatives of the Roman aristocracy, Judaism and its offshoot, Christianity, were undermining the very foundations of Roman society. Most of the Roman writers who attacked Judaism also expressed dissatisfaction with the spread of the Eastern cults and their penetration into Roman society.

Seneca looked upon the Jews as a wicked people, whose customs had spread throughout the entire world and thus "turned the vanquished into the vanquishers." He inveighs against the Jewish Sabbath and against the lighting of lights in honor of the godhead on the Sabbath day, since the gods are in no need of this light. Seneca's younger contemporary, the satirist Persius, saw the practices of Judaism as one of the expressions of the superstition reflected in other rites originating from the East, such as those in Phrygia and in Egypt.

A frontal attack upon Judaism and those who believe in it, and particularly upon its followers and sympathizers among the Romans, may be found in Tacitus' famous description of the Jews at the beginning of Book 5 of his Historiae. Tacitus there brings six different explanations concerning the origin of the Jews, but relates at inordinate length the tradition which originated in the rabidly antisemitic Hellenistic circles in Egypt (see *Greek Literature, Ancient). Tacitus does not hide his extremely negative attitude toward Judaism. He describes the Jews as outstanding in their hatred of other peoples while at the same time equally notable for their solidarity among themselves. Those who become proselytes learn the ways of the Jews and become similarly disdainful of the gods and indifferent to the welfare of their former country and families. Tacitus notes the Jewish conception of monotheism, and its opposition to the fashioning of any statue or pictorial representation of God, but does not indicate his reaction to this. He is familiar with the identification of the Jewish religion with the Dionysic rites but rejects it out of hand. Tacitus' geographical description contains nothing very specific and concentrates upon a description of the Dead Sea, its balsam and bitumen. The historical description ignores the early period of independence and pictures the Jews as a people who have usually been subject to foreign domination. According to Tacitus, Antiochus was prevented from extirpating the Jewish superstition because of his involvement in a war with Parthia, and it was the international political constellation which was instrumental in enabling the Jews to found their own polity. This was of a priestly nature and it nurtured their superstition. He concludes that Judea eventually acquired all the negative characteristics of an Oriental monarchy. However, it should be noted that in his description of Roman rule in Judea, Tacitus does not attribute a particularly rebellious character to the Jews; he blames corrupt Roman procurators, such as Felix and Florus, for the outbreak of the Jewish War (66–70 c.e.), rather than Jewish insubordination.

Tacitus' antipathy – like that of his contemporary, Juvenal – does not confine itself to Judaism but rather encompasses other Eastern religions as well, such as that of Egypt. What does particularly disturb him is the success of the proselytizing movement, which to his eyes was a serious menace to Roman society. He looked upon the threat to the Roman social fabric posed by Jewish religious propaganda as being incomparably more serious than the political or military danger posed by Jewish arms. A similar attitude toward Jews and Judaism is reflected in the works of the Roman satirist Juvenal. In his satires is reflected the impression which the Jewish beggars in Rome made upon him, but they also include the most impressive description found anywhere in Roman literature of the "downward path" toward Judaism taken by the Roman populace, which began with the observance of the Sabbath on the part of the father and ended with the complete proselytizing of the son. The events of Trajan and Hadrian's reigns and the widespread diffusion of Christianity weakened both the proselytizing movement and the sympathy for Judaism. Hence Jewish religious propaganda ceased to be a burning issue, anti-Christian polemic taking its place. Nevertheless, Roman writers still continued to take an interest in Judaism. Some of them persisted in the anti-Jewish attitude of the preceding period, but a more moderate approach can also be discerned. Disdain for Judaism is clearly the stand of the African-born Latin writer Apuleius (d. 160 c.e.), in contrast to the respect which he shows toward other Eastern religions, particularly the Egyptian rites in honor of Isis.

A negative attitude toward the figure of the Jew as such, as well as echoes of Seneca's approach, are also reflected in the works of the representative of the pagan Roman aristocracy of the early fifth century c.e., *Rutilius Namatianus. However, in the Historia Augusta, the reaction to the Jewish phenomenon is quite different. This is a historiographical work produced in the Roman aristocratic circles of the very end of the classical period. The ideal emperor described therein – Alexander Severus – is represented as treating the patriarch Abraham with respect and positively emphasizing Jewish sayings and customs. For further details, see the respective individual articles.


Reinach, Textes; M. Radin, The Jews among the Greeks and Romans (1915), 97ff. I. Heinemann, in: Pauly-Wissowa, suppl. 5 (1931), 3–43; J. Lewy, in: Zion, 8 (1942/43), 1–34, 61–84; idem, Olamot Nifgashim (1960), 79–203; J.C. Rolfe (trans.), Ammianus Marcellinus, 3 (1939; Loeb Classical Library), 558–61; J. Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue (1934), 207f.; N. Bentwich, in: jqr, 23 (1932/33), 344; J. Bernays, Ueber die Chronik des Sulpicius Severus (1861). add. bibliography: M. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, 3 vols. (1976, 1980, 1984).

[Menahem Stern]