32 Judaism


This entire chapter contains instances of racial discrimination.


Of all the immigrant groups in Rome, the Jewish people seem to have had the most cohesive and long lasting group identity in Rome. Many Jews came to Rome initially as slaves under Pompey the Great, who had conquered Judea. Others immigrated for the economic or other opportunities Rome presented. Under the emperors Vespasian and Titus, who defeated the Jewish Rebellion in what is called the Second Jewish War, many more came as slaves, some of whom were used to build Roman construction projects such as the Colosseum.

The following are a series of texts that show some aspect of Jewish relations with Rome. They focus on the city of Rome and the Jewish population’s relationships with the emperors. Many Romans were interested in Judaism, and some even converted. The readings show, however, that many Romans loathed Judaism as something they felt was inherently unRoman, thanks to Jewish monotheism and religious customs–including circumcision. In addition, the monotheistic nature of Judaism conflicted with Roman emperor-worship. Many were happy to attack the religion whenever the opportunity showed, and thus, the Jewish people were always under constant threat.

In the following passage, the Jewish author Philo addresses the Emperor Caligula, reminding him of how Augustus had treated his people:

155 How then did he [Augustus] look upon the great division of Rome which is on the other side of the river Tiber, which he was well aware was occupied and inhabited by the Jews? And they were mostly Roman citizens, having been emancipated; for, having been brought as captives into Italy, they were manumitted by those who had bought them for slaves, without ever having been compelled to alter any of their hereditary or national observances. 156 Therefore, he knew that they had synagogues, and that they were in the habit of visiting them, and most especially on the sacred sabbath days, when they publicly cultivate their national philosophy. He knew also that they were in the habit of contributing sacred sums of money from their first fruits and sending them to Jerusalem by the hands of those who were to conduct the sacrifices. 157 But he never removed them from Rome, nor did he ever deprive them of their rights as Roman citizens, because he had a regard for Judaea, nor did he never meditate any new steps of innovation or rigour with respect to their synagogues, nor did he forbid their assembling for the interpretation of the law, nor did he make any opposition to their offerings of first fruits; but he behaved with such piety towards our countrymen, and with respect to all our customs, that he, I may almost say, with all his house, adorned our temple with many costly and magnificent offerings, commanding that continued sacrifices of whole burnt offerings should be offered up for ever and ever every day from his own revenues, as a first fruit of his own to the most high God, which sacrifices are performed to this very day, and will be performed for ever, as a proof and specimen of a truly imperial disposition. 158 Moreover, in the monthly divisions of the country, when the whole people receives money or corn in turn, he never allowed the Jews to fall short in their reception of this favour, but even if it happened that this distribution fell on the day of their sacred sabbath, on which day it is not lawful for them to receive any thing, or to give any thing, or in short to perform any of the ordinary duties of life, he charged the dispenser of these gifts, and gave him the most careful and special injunctions to make the distribution to the Jews on the day following, that they might not lose the effects of his common kindness.

Philo, Embassy to Gaius 155-8

We are told in an account by Suetonius that Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome:

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [Christ] he expelled them from Rome.

Life of Claudius 25.4

As there were also disturbances involving Jews in Alexandria, Claudius issued a number of edicts about the Jews to reaffirm their rights, including this one:

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, pontifex maximus, holding the tribunician power, proclaims: . . . Therefore it is right that also the Jews, who are in all the world under us, shall maintain their ancestral customs without hindrance and to them I now also command to use this my kindness rather reasonably and not to despise the religious rites of the other nations, but to observe their own laws.

However, according to Cassius Dio, Claudius did not expel the Jews, because there were simply too many:

As for the Jews, who had again increased so greatly that by reason of their multitude it would have been hard without starting a riot to bar them from the city, he did not drive them out, but ordered them, while continuing their traditional mode of life, not to hold meetings.

Cassius Dio 60.6


When discussing the capture and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the (later) Emperor Claudius, the historian Tacitus makes a digression into an antiSemitic history of the Jews:

2 1 However, as I am about to describe the last days of a famous city, it seems proper for me to give some account of its origin. It is said that the Jews were originally exiles from the island of Crete who settled in the farthest parts of Libya at the time when Saturn had been deposed and expelled by Jove. An argument in favour of this is derived from the name: there is a famous mountain in Crete called Ida, and hence the inhabitants were called the Idaei, which was later lengthened into the barbarous form Iudaei. Some hold that in the reign of Isis the superfluous population of Egypt, under the leadership of Hierosolymus and Iuda, discharged itself on the neighbouring lands; many others think that they were an Egyptian stock, which in the reign of Cepheus was forced to migrate by fear and hatred. Still others report that they were Assyrian refugees, a landless people, who first got control of a part of Egypt, then later they had their own cities and lived in the Hebrew territory and the nearer parts of Syria. Still others say that the Jews are of illustrious origin, being the Solymi, a people celebrated in Homer’s poems, who founded a city and gave it the name Hierosolyma, formed from their own.

3 1 Most authors agree that once during a plague in Egypt which caused bodily disfigurement, King Bocchoris approached the oracle of Ammon[1] and asked for a remedy, whereupon he was told to purge his kingdom and to transport this race into other lands, since it was hateful to the [Roman] gods. So the Hebrews were searched out and gathered together; then, being abandoned in the desert, while all others lay idle and weeping, one only of the exiles, Moses by name, warned them not to hope for help from gods or men, for they were deserted by both, but to trust to themselves, regarding as a guide sent from heaven the one whose assistance should first give them escape from their present distress. They agreed, and then set out on their journey in utter ignorance, but trusting to chance. Nothing caused them so much distress as scarcity of water, and in fact they had already fallen exhausted over the plain nigh unto death, when a herd of wild asses moved from their pasturage to a rock that was shaded by a grove of trees. Moses followed them, and, conjecturing the truth from the grassy ground, discovered abundant streams of water. This relieved them, and they then marched six days continuously, and on the seventh seized a country, expelling the former inhabitants; there they founded a city and dedicated a temple.

4 1 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. They dedicated, in a shrine, a statue of that creature whose guidance enabled them to put an end to their wandering and thirst, sacrificing a ram, apparently in derision of Ammon. They likewise offer the ox, because the Egyptians worship Apis.[2] They abstain from pork, in recollection of a plague, for the scab to which this animal is subject once afflicted them. By frequent fasts even now they bear witness to the long hunger with which they were once distressed, and the unleavened Jewish bread is still employed in memory of the haste with which they seized the grain. They say that they first chose to rest on the seventh day because that day ended their toils; but after a time they were led by the charms of indolence to give over the seventh year as well to inactivity. Others say that this is done in honour of Saturn, whether it be that the primitive elements of their religion were given by the Idaeans, who, according to tradition, were expelled with Saturn and became the founders of the Jewish race, or is due to the fact that, of the seven planets that rule the fortunes of mankind, Saturn moves in the highest orbit and has the greatest potency; and that many of the heavenly bodies traverse their paths and courses in multiples of seven.

5 1 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; again, the Jews are extremely loyal toward one another, and always ready to show compassion, but toward every other people they feel only hate and enmity. 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. They adopted circumcision to distinguish themselves from other peoples by this difference. Those who are converted to their ways follow the same practice, and the earliest lesson they receive is to despise the gods, to disown their country, and to regard their parents, children, and brothers as of little account. However, they take thought to increase their numbers; for they regard it as a crime to kill any late-born child,16 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. They bury the body rather than burn it, thus following the Egyptians’ custom; they likewise bestow the same care on the dead, and hold the same belief about the world below; but their ideas of heavenly things are quite the opposite. The Egyptians worship many animals and monstrous images; the Jews conceive of one god only, and that with the mind alone: they regard as impious those who make from perishable materials representations of gods in man’s image; that supreme and eternal being is to them incapable of representation and without end. Therefore they set up no statues in their cities, still less in their temples; this flattery is not paid their kings, nor this honour given to the Caesars. But since their priests used to chant to the accompaniment of pipes and cymbals and to wear garlands of ivy, and because a golden vine was found in their temple, some have thought that they were devotees of Father Liber, the conqueror of the East, in spite of the incongruity of their customs.[3] For Liber established festive rites of a joyous nature, while the ways of the Jews are preposterous and mean.

Tacitus, Histories Book 5


Juvenal attacked the Jews in his Fourteenth Satire for their worship of a god of whom they did not make images, of their practice of not eating pork, and other such things:

Some who have had a father who reveres the Sabbath, worship nothing but the clouds, and the divinity of the heavens, and see no difference between eating pork, from which their father abstained, and that of man; and in time they take to circumcision. Having been accustomed to flout the laws of Rome, they learn and practise and revere the Jewish law, and all that Moses committed to his secret book, forbidding to point out the way to any not worshipping the same rites, and conducting none but the circumcised to the desired fountain. For all which the father was to blame, who gave up every seventh day to idleness, keeping it apart from all the concerns of life.

Juvenal Satires 14.96-106

The following poem from the around the same period shows another Roman’s antisemitism, as he imagines a Roman woman having a relationship with her Jewish slave:



The following passage contains graphic imagery and misogynistic slurs.

Your slave stands by your side with his privates carefully bound with a black leather pouch, whenever you bathe your entire body in warm water. But my slave, Laecania, not to mention myself, does not keep his appendages, like a Jew, undercover. We, both young and old, take our bath naked with you. Has your slave alone got a real prick?

Do you hang back in the women’s quarters, matron, and do you, cunt,[4] wash secretly in your own private water?

Martial Book 7.35


Bibliography and Further Reading:

Barclay, John M. G. 1996. Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan (323 B.C.E.–117 C.E.). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Goodman, M. 2004. “Trajan and the Origins of Roman Hostility to the Jews.” Past & Present 182: 3-29.

Gruen, E. 2002. Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans. Cambridge, MA.

Mclaren, James S. 2013. “The Jews in Rome during the Flavian Period.” Antichthon 47:156-172.

Pucci Ben Zeev, Miriam. 1998. Jewish Rights in the Roman World: The Greek and Roman Documents Quoted by Josephus Flavius. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr.

Rutgers, Leonard Victor. 2000. The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Stern, Menahem, ed. 1974. Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism. 3 vols. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Varhelyi, Zsuzsanna. 2000. “Jews in Civic Life under the Roman Empire.” Acta antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 40.1/4:471-478.


  1. Ammon was a Libyan deity whose oracle was situated about 500 kilometres west of Memphis, the capital of Egypt for most of the Old Kingdom period. The ancient Egyptians associated Ammon with their own major deity, Amun.
  2. Apis was a sacred bull worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. He was the son of Hathor, a major goddess in the ancient Egyptian pantheon.
  3. Liber Pater--"the Free Father"-- was a god of wine-making, wine, fertility, and freedom. Due to their similar associations and role in Roman religion, Liber was in certain cults assimilated with the Greco-Roman god Bacchus.
  4. The word used is cunnus, which either means female genitalia or a whore


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