Judaism is the oldest monotheistic religion alive today and it has been a hard-fought survival by the Jewish people, considering the thousands of years of vitriol they faced. The Jewish relationship with the ancient Roman Empire was particularly fraught and can be used to shed light on contemporary anti-semitic rhetoric. This work will be a discussion of ancient anti-semitism in the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries CE and its influence on modern iterations of such harmful sentiments. We will be considering the modern era to be after the end of the industrial revolution in 1840. We will compare the texts of ancient Roman and Jewish authors with those of contemporary historians, considering the extent modern anti-semitic ideology is founded in ancient history. We will not explore the motivations behind such discrimination, but we will consider its evolution in light of prejudice exhibited against Jews throughout history. We surmise that the red threads of modern anti-semitism are rooted within the ancient Roman Empire as illustrated by Tacitus’s biting remarks regarding his view of Jews as inferior, Juvenal’s satirical lens on Jews which reveals his disdain, and Philo’s respect for the Roman Empire despite his admonition for their treatment of Jews. Each part will explore what the ancient sources reveal about conceptions of Judaism concluding with a brief analysis of modern discrimination. By understanding ancient prejudices toward Jews, one can hope to combat contemporary iterations of anti-semitism.
First, perhaps the most obvious trail from modern to ancient antisemitism is that laid by Cornelius Tacitus. His work was explicitly referenced by the Third Reich, and a quick Google search reveals that his writing on the Jewish people is being upheld as an academic treasure by antisemitic web forums to this very day (Simon 2008). Tacitus accuses Jewish people roundly of being guilty of that familiar Roman enemy, luxus, and for indulging every appetite, no matter how immoral. He seems to go out of his way to do so, extrapolating wildly from Jewish religious practices of dubious veracity. While Gruen and others note Tacitus’s literary career as a satirist as a means of dismissing the hatred in Tacitus’s writing, it must be considered that what Tacitus is purportedly branding as humor is really no different from accusations other Romans made in all seriousness against other cultures. In particular, he relies on their material gluttony and lustfulness, the most physical and therefore most grotesque and barbaric elements of luxus. To note a historical example, Augustus famously instituted a posthumous slandering campaign against Cleopatra, where the brunt of the attacks targeted her sexuality.
The emphasis of sexual depravity in foreign cultures has a storied history among the ancient Roman authors. In the abstract, this tactic remains just as widespread today; assume the moral high ground, and you have instantly discredited your opponent. But what is of interest here is the passion and intensity with which Tacitus draws these accusations. “To establish his influence over this people for all time, Moses introduced new religious practices, quite opposed to those of all other religions. The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor” (Tacitus 5.4.1). It is important to note here that the “religious practices” Tacitus takes issue with are not necessarily what one would expect. While Jews certainly distinguished themselves spiritually from their neighbors by practicing monotheism, Tacitus seems more concerned with moral depravity of physical practices. “They sit apart at meals, and they sleep apart, and although as a race, they are prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; yet among themselves nothing is unlawful” (Tacitus 5.4.2). Here, Tacitus repeatedly notes the immorality, depravity, and general abomination of the Jews to such a long-winded extent that one can hardly see the humor that Gruen insists imbues these passages (Gruen 186). Instead, one considers why Tacitus would feel the need to explain to a Roman audience the depravity of the Jewish people.
For one, Tacitus published Histories in 109 C.E. This was just in the wake of the Great Revolt, where the Jewish temple at Judea was destroyed, upwards of a million Jews were killed and thousands were brought to Rome as slaves. At the time Tacitus was writing, there was a huge influx of Jews who are living in Rome; purportedly by this point many of them had been manumitted and thus were full citizens. The extent to which these Jews were thriving in Rome clearly disturbed Tacitus, as evidenced by the following passage. “They take thought to increase their numbers; for they regard it as a crime to kill any late-born child, and they believe that the souls of those who are killed in battle or by the executioner are immortal: hence comes their passion for begetting children and their scorn of death” (Tacitus 5.5.6). Tacitus would have been writing during the first few generations of captured Jews being born in Rome, and he seems concerned that Jews will out-populate “real” Roman citizens. Retrospectively, it seems clear why modern white supremacists have landed on Greek and Roman identities as their fantasy white utopia of origin; passages like this portray an underlying concern for the concept of racial purity.
The rhetoric we see with Tacitus is not unlike Cato the Elder’s cautioning of young soldiers not to be enticed by foreign things or foreign people. There is a clear and consistent Roman rhetoric that relies on two crucial beliefs about foreigners. The first is that they in some way fundamentally immoral, and the second is that for Romans to partake in this perceived immorality would mean the downfall of Rome. “So far has the taste for dissipation and debauchery spread among them that they think nothing of paying a talent for a male prostitute and 300 drachmae for a jar of Pontic pickled fish. Anyone could see that the Republic was going downhill when a pretty boy cost more than a plot of land and jars of fish more than ploughmen” (Polybius 31.25). Notice that much like Tacitus’s accusation that Jews are greedy and lustful, so too here Polybius emphasizes the danger in indulging physical appetites. While the ubiquity of this notion seems to suggest that Tacitus’s writing is not strictly anti-semitic, merely xenophobic, the difference is subtle. Cato’s words are fueled by an anxiety; a fear that to indulge these appetites and to accept foreign things into Rome will lead to corruption and downfall. As Gruen has pointed out, the Romans were not exactly afraid of Jews, especially in the decades following the Great Revolt (Gruen 185). So while Tacitus’s words resemble an ancient fear-propaganda tactic, it becomes clear that this is not the case at all – they are simply vitriolic.
But Tacitus is not satisfied with merely understanding Jews to be a people with such low self-control that they let their lives be controlled by luxus. He invokes yet another Roman value to emphasize how the Jewish people have fallen short of it: pietas. Because pietas means more than simply piety, and is tied closely to ideas of allegiance and obedience not only to the gods but to Rome, the sincerity and dedication Jews show towards their faith is not enough to spare them from Tacitus’s caustic “wit.” Rather, the fact that Jews have turned away from the gods is evidenced to Tacitus by the fact that Rome was able to sack Jerusalem. This sort of divine cause-and-effect is a common ideology in Roman religion, and remained an important way in which the Romans justified their conquest; the idea that if the gods permit something, then it is right. It also reaffirmed the barbarism of other religions, and this is particularly apparent in Tacitus’s understanding of Jewish religion. It is not merely different, it is backwards and unnatural.
While Gruen awarded Tacitus the benefit of the doubt for suggesting the Jews had divine heritage, it becomes clear that he only mentioned this origin story to explain that the Jews denied their bloodline and turned their backs on the gods. This is worse than simple barbaric ignorance; it suggests that the Jews are traitorous as well. “Whatever their origin, these rites are maintained by their antiquity: the other customs of the Jews are base and abominable, and owe their persistence to their depravity. For the worst rascals among other peoples, renouncing their ancestral religions, always kept sending tribute and contributions to Jerusalem, thereby increasing the wealth of the Jews” (Tacitus 5.5.12). And in this citation, the sense that the Jews are a traitorous people to the Roman gods is doubly apparent, for here he portrays them as being traitorous to Rome itself by collecting the tribute that other client kingdoms owed to Rome. They are not simply ignorantly refusing the pantheon; they are aware of it and decided to give it up to live in depravity and immorality. And here, we might be seeing a red thread of the modern antisemitism by suggesting that Jews are not only wealthy, but have won their wealth immorally, by ripping off Rome. In one short book of Tacitus’s Histories, he has accused Jews of practically everything that the Romans understood to be perverse and profane.
Another author who discussed Jews living in the Roman world was Juvenal, a Roman satirist who wrote in the 2nd century C.E. He was thought to be an elite Roman, because he named no patron in his work. Contemporaneous to Tacitus, who at the time was writing Annals(The Oxford Classical Dictionary), Juvenal published his Satires, a volume of poems that are rife with a unique ethnocentric rage that dimly masquerades under the guise of irony. While the only writings of Juvenal analyzed in this paper come from a book whose very title betrays its humorous intentions, the assumptions about the Jewish faith that Juvenal requires of the reader certainly merit further examination. At face value Juvenal’s writing about Jewish people was not positive. In his one of his satires, he writes “but now this grove with its sacred fountain and shrine is leased out to Jews with their basket and hay chest. Every tree, of course, is forced to pay its tax to these people, and the forest throws out its Italian muses and goes a-begging” (Juv. Sat. 3.10-21; trans. Goldman 2013, 256). In this passage, Juvenal is lamenting and angry about how many Jewish people there are in Rome. This can be seen in the phrase “but now” making it clear that Juvenal believed that in the past Rome was better because of the lack of Jewish people. Furthermore, it is clear that Juvenal believes that Jews to be money or resource hungry based on the tree being forced to “pay” taxes. There is an additional implication that Jews are eroding Roman culture in the phrase “throws out its Italian muses.” In either interpretation, Juvenal comes across as markedly anti-Jewish. Another criticism Juvenal leveled at the Jewish people was that they did not act properly in public. On this he writes “but, when he decides to celebrate again his all-night bar crawl, a Syrian Jew, dripping with perfume, runs to meet him. This inhabitant of the Idumaean (referring back to the “Syrian Jew”) gate greets him…with a flagon, and with a blue-eyed prostitute with her skirts lifted” (Juvenal 8.155-62). Here, the “not acting properly in public” is clearly referenced with the implication that the “Syrian Jew” is drunk, and is improper enough to keep a prostitute with him. Juvenal also criticized Jews for being proselytizers and money hungry. In another satire, he writes “the Jews sell dreams of anything you want for the smallest penny” (Juv. Sat. 6. 542-47; trans. Goldman 2013, 257). Juvenal also joins the likes of Tacitus and Strabo in making a mockery of ritual circumcision. “They think pork, which their father would not eat, no different from human flesh. Soon they even give up their foreskin” (Juv. Sat. 14. 96-106; trans Goldman 2013 257). Here, Juvenal attacks Jews on how they view that they ought to live, going so far as to belittle their dietary choices. Beyond a hatred towards the Jewish people in general, this shows a deep personal hatred for how Jews chose to go about their daily lives from Juvenal Lastly, Juvenal criticized Jews for not following Roman laws. On this Juvenal writes “they are accustomed to despise Roman laws” (Juv. Sat.14.96-106; trans. Goldman, 2013, 257). In contrast to his contemporary Tacitus, who attacks the alleged profanity of Jewish laws, Juvenal is more concerned with the disdain he accuses Jews of having for Roman laws.
Margaret Williams argues that it is important to consider the Roman context at the time before claiming to understand Juvenal poetry. On this she writes “even during antiquity his poetry required a glossary, so obscure were many of the allusions” (Williams 2016, 116). In the context of this paper, Williams would caution us before we condemn Juvenal based on his poetry at face value. However, W.J Watts argues that “Juvenal is well aware of the externals of Judaism, but cannot conceive of their inner significance. He has only contempt for the Jews” (Watts 1976, 104) What this means for Juvenal is that he was in fact prejudiced towards the Jews because he didn’t actually understand their practices so he could not fairly criticize them. Watt’s further concludes “it is largely prejudice which leads Juvenal to dislike the Jews and wish them either less visible or (preferably) elsewhere” (Watts 1976, 104). With Watt’s conclusion, we can firmly answer yes to the question, that even by today’s standard, Juvenal would be prejudiced towards the Jewish people.
Philo of Alexandria (also known as Philo Judaeus) provides a different point of view on Jews living in the Roman world. He was a Jewish Roman philosopher in the first century. Born between 10 and 15 BCE in Alexandria, Egypt to wealthy and politically important parents, Philo was very well educated and very much influenced by philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. He spent the majority his life writing about the state of the Roman Empire, and the people living within them, particularly of Jewish citizens. Unfortunately, according to Maren Niehoff, “Philo resists the grasp of the biographer because he tells us very little about his own person and virtually nothing about the circumstances of his writing” (Niehoff, 2018). Because Philo wrote so little biographical information about himself, there is very little known about the man barring the most basic information.
Philo is known for being generally positive in his writings about the Romans and the Roman Empire as a whole, often writing about his appreciation of the relative religious freedom within the Roman Empire. However, there are several well-known exceptions to this generalization, which reveal his discontent with the treatment of Jews by the leadership of the empire. He was even known to push back against very important authority figures. One example of this harsh view of Roman leaders was in his writing on Emperor Caligula in On Embassy to Gaius, in which Philo criticizes Caligula’s hostility towards Jewish people, as well as details a failed embassy to the Emperor to discuss the laws that allowed for the persecution of the Jews. Another rather well known work was Against Flaccus, which was written in response to the abuse of Egyptian Jews by the Roman Governor of Egypt, Aulus Avillius Flaccus. Against Flaccus also details the punishment of Flaccus after his abuse of the Jews (Philo).
Philo’s strong Jewish identity inspired him to come to the defense of religious customs from the harsh criticism of other historians, philosophers, writers, and satirists. In particular, people such as Tacitus and Juvenal would mock and belittle the Jewish tradition of circumcision. In his writing On Special Laws, Philo says, “It is a practices of the highest seriousness among other peoples but most of all the Egyptians, a people with the highest reputation for being populous, for their antiquity, and for their philosophy. Therefore it would be more fitting to leave off the childish mockery and to investigate thoroughly and solemnly the reasons of this custom’s power. People should not jump to condemn great peoples for sinful dissolution” (Philo 1.1.2). Philo is chastising other writers and philosophers for mocking a very important tradition in Judaism (circumcision) and not truly trying to understand it. However, Philo’s opinion of the Roman Empire oscillates over the course of his scholarship. He writes about the Roman Empire and the people in it in a positive light, giving praise and appreciation for the Pax Romana and the religious freedom that comes with it. On the other hand, Philo also has harsh criticisms for certain people in the Roman leadership, such as Emperor Caligula and Governor Flaccus, and for those who try to make light of or criticize Jewish rituals as being uncivilized.
Moving on from the writing of ancient authors, there is much to be said on contemporary perception of Judaism as well. While the overall idea of anti-semitism could be summarized as a hatred and/or distrust for Jewish people, in modern times this broad idea can be broken down into three distinct categories, each with their own nuances and historical origins. According to “Anti-Israelism and Anti-Semitism: Common Characteristics and Motifs” (Gerstenfeld, 2007), antisemitism can be sorted into prejudice based on ethnicity, religious history, or revolving around the State of Israel (anti-zionism). While anti-zionism is relatively modern, both ethnic and religious prejudices have long histories and can be traced to at least the middle-ages, and potentially even further. Two of the most significant examples of antisemitism include financial and economic stereotypes surrounding Jewish ethnicity, and the Christian propagated prejudice against Judaism for orchestrating the death of Jesus Christ, both of which have historical ties back to the Roman Empire. However, in recent centuries falsified “Jewish” documents, known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, have become a backbone of anti-semitic beliefs, making modern anti-Jewish prejudices an amalgamation of both ancient stereotypes and modern propaganda.
As was previously discussed in relation to Juvenal, Jews in ancient Rome were often negatively associated with money, and were reputed to be simultaneously greedy and wealthy. Louis H. Feldman explains how this stereotype likely originated due to Jews in that era being skilled traders who were economically successful enough to incur jealousy. Additionally, records indicate it was common for gentiles to seek financial loans from Jews, likely building resentment and distrust (Feldman 108-109). This is relevant to modern antisemitism because a very similar trend reoccurred hundreds of years later, in the middle ages. According to Boroson, during the middle ages, Jews were forbidden from participating in most common trades or from owning land, so they dealt in loans instead. From that time forward, Jews were consistently associated with “unpleasant money matters,” and often portrayed as thus in media ranging from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens (Boroson, 2010).
Where financial stereotypes regarding Jewish ethnicity recur at various points in history, the religious prejudices against Judaism are built directly upon the hateful teachings of Christianity in the early days of the church when the lines between the two rival religions were still indistinct. In order to prevent potential Christians from turning to Judaism, around 140 A.D., Justin Martyr made a strategic decision to vilify Judaism. He began slandering the religion, spreading vitriol about Jews persecuting Christians, and blaming the entire religion for the death of Christ (Phillips, 2018). Unfortunately, his propaganda was widely accepted by Christianity, and decades later his ideas were weaponized again to unify the church. In the late second century, the discrepancies between the Old Testament and the New Testament were challenged by a heretic, Marcion, who claimed the wrathful God of the Old Testament was a different God entirely than the forgiving God of the New Testament. To refute his claim, a man named Tertullian made the absolutely appalling argument that Jews “were especially wicked and especially deserving of righteous anger” (Phillips, 2018). In addition, he cruelly rekindled the hateful rhetoric about Jews persecuting Christians and fueled the irrational hatred of Judaism that lead to centuries worth of prosecution and violence (Phillips, 2018). While the severity of this hatred varied among the different branches of the church, multiple Christian derivatives long regarded Jews as “capable of all things wicked,” due to the actions, or purported actions, of their distant ancestors (Gerstenfeld, 2007)
Instead of mellowing over time, this deeply ingrained prejudice saw Jews blamed for all forms of disasters for centuries. They were accused of everything from murdering Christian children, to causing the Black Death in the 14th century (Gerstenfeld, 2007). Which is likely why in the late 19th/early 20th century the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were so widely accepted. The Protocols, first published in a Russian newspaper in 1903, were purported to be “transcripts of the Elders of Zion, a Jewish cabal bent on global domination” (Janes, 2012). Jews, supposedly, had a master plan to use the Freemasons to overturn world governments and replace them as a ruling class. However, the origins of these documents was never quite clear. Some theories claimed the Protocols were stolen directly from Zionist archives. Others assumed they were smuggled out by a spy within Jewish community, or stolen from the Freemasons (Janes, 2012).
Of course, none of the theories were correct and in the 1920’s the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were proven to be blatant forgeries, largely plagiarized from a French political satire, and in no way affiliated with Judaism at all. Yet they continued to be widely circulated, providing a platform for conspiracy theories and deepening the rift between Jews and gentiles. While this paper does not directly explore the atrocities of the Holocaust, it is relevant that in 1929 the Nazi’s obtained the rights to the German publication of the Protocols and copies were distributed amongst the Hitler Youth. While it is unclear exactly how the Protocols impacted Nazi Germany, there is speculation that they made it easier for German civilians to ignore the atrocities being committed around them (Janes, 2012). Unfortunately, in the decades since the Holocaust, the Protocols still have not lost their relevance. They continue to be published to this day and have seen a resurgence in the Arab world and in Western European countries (Gerstenfeld, 2007). Despite the overwhelming evidence of their fabrication, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion continue to be used as a tool for antisemitism in the contemporary world, joining the lingering prejudices of the Roman Empire and the propaganda of early Christianity as the foundations of antisemitism in the modern era.
Gaining perspective on the potential-ancient roots of anti-semitism is a useful tool for developing a path to rectify the stereotypes that lead to discrimination. With the understanding that anti-semitism is not a new feat to hurdle but rather firmly planted in the annals of common-era history, one recognizes the arduous venture in combating such a pervasive failure of humanity. Through the examples extracted from ancient authors such as Tacitus, Juvenal, Philo and also from contemporary historical analysis, it can be interpreted that the red thread of modern anti-semitism can be traced back to the ancient Mediterranean and it has evolved to develop new stereotypes and implications. Understanding this relationship may be part of what contributes to reducing this historically-imbedded, pervasive threat to equality.
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Abraham’s Circumcision https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Circumcision_of_Abraham_(Bible_of_Jean_de_Sy).jpg
Arch of Titus Menorah https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arch_of_Titus_Menorah.png
Redensburg Cathedral statue of Jews suckling a sow https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Regensburger_Dom_Judensau_2004.jpg