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Tacitus°

TACITUS°

TACITUS ° (c. 55–120), Roman historian. He viewed *Judea as yet another province of the Roman Empire, mentioning it with Syria as asking for a lighter tribute upon *Tiberius' accession (Annals 2: 42) and relating that it was added to Syria after *Agrippa i's death (Annals 12:23). Tacitus seems to think his readers would be interested in the geography of such a remote area (Histories 5:6–7). He describes events leading up to the Jewish War (66–73) as a series of maladministrations, dwelling on the roles of the procurator Antonius *Felix and his successors, and tells of the prosecution of the war by *Vespasian and *Titus against the background of the turmoil of "the year of the four emperors" (68–69 c.e.; Histories 2:1, 4–6, 73, 76, 79, 81–82; 4:3, 51; 5:1). Yet, despite the basically political setting of that war, from Rome's point of view, Tacitus uses the opportunity offered by his discussion of the sack of Jerusalem (Histories 5:11–13) to launch an attack on Judaism.

He gives a bizarre picture of Jewish national and religious origins (Histories 5:2–5), though in referring to traditions which variously make the first Jews Cretan, Egyptian, Ethiopian, or Assyrian exiles, or the nation of the Solymi celebrated by Homer, he is not wholly inaccurate, since the theory of Assyrian origin may fit with the biblical account of Abraham's wanderings from Chaldea. Nor is his account wholly unfavorable, since the Romans, whose own origins were questionable (see the preface to Livy's History), admired and envied peoples who had ancient origins. Tacitus agrees with an unspecified majority opinion which saw the Jews as plague-beset Egyptians driven into the desert by their countrymen. Their rituals, devised by their leader Moses (cf. *Hecataeus), are designed to set them apart from all other nations. Tacitus implies that Moses invented imageless monotheism because it differed so radically from polytheistic Egyptian practices. Though elsewhere (Histories 2:78; also reported by *Suetonius, De vita Caesarum, Vespasianus, 5:6) he relates without criticism that Vespasian received a favorable oracle from a deity which had an altar consecrated to its worship on Mt. Carmel but had no temple or cult image (probably a local cult of Zeus), here he seems to censure Jewish reverence directed to such a divine presence and not offered even to kings and Caesars (Histories 5:5). According to Tacitus (Histories 5:3), the desert wanderings of the Hebrews lasted only six days; the Sabbath commemorates the end of their tribulations; Moses led them into their new land, where they consecrated an image of an ass in their Temple (Histories 5:4) because asses led them to a spring in the desert (yet in the sketch of Jewish history from Hasmonean times to the Temple's destruction – Histories 5:1–10 – Tacitus notes that Pompey found no image in the Temple). This portrayal is almost certainly not original, but a composite biased picture derived from scandalmongers such as the anti-Jewish Alexandrian writers – *Manetho, *Chaeremon, *Lysimachus, and *Apion.

His basic contention is that Jews are aloof. Dietary laws, circumcision, Sabbath, and the ban against marrying outside their faith set them apart and, to Tacitus, make them hate non-Jews. Because Judaism attracted Romans, Tacitus, like his contemporary *Juvenal, saw this as a weakening of Roman morality since converts were taught to despise the gods, repudiate the fatherland, and disparage parents, children, and brothers (Histories 5:5). Since the Jew's way of life was synonymous with the practice of his religion, Tacitus' antipathy takes the form of an attack on that religion.

The emperors saw rebellious Judea as a political problem; but Tacitus, concerned with Roman morality, sees policy only in moral terms, and thinks a proper Roman political attitude grows out of proper ethical values in the tradition of earlier generations of Rome. Perhaps this is the reason why he cast the political Judean situation into a mold of condemnation of anti-Roman (to him), Jewish ethics. Walser (see bibliography) has shown that in his treatment of the Parthians, Britons, and Germans, Tacitus knew next to nothing about the psychology of the people on the periphery of the Roman Empire and that he hardly cared to know anything. Tacitus did not hesitate to modify or eliminate even facts of historical importance if they in any way impeded his customary dramatic account of events.

bibliography:

Reinach, Textes; J. Lewy, in: Zion, 8 (1942/43), 1–34, 61–84; A.M.A. Hospers, Tacitus over de Joden, Hist. 5, 2–13 (1949), extensive Eng. summary; G. Walser, Rom, das Reich und die fremden Voelker… (1951).

[Jacob Petroff]

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