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eBook The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans
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Publisher:  Varda Books
Original Publisher:  The Jewish Publication Society
Published:  2002
Language:  English
Pages:   430

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ISBN: 1-59045-194-5

About the Book -- The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans


The civilization of Europe and America is composed of elements of many different kinds and of various origin. Most of the beginnings cannot be recovered within the limits of recorded history. We do not know where and when a great many of our fundamental institutions arose, and about them we are reduced to conjectures that are sometimes frankly improbable. But about a great many elements of our civilization, and precisely those upon which we base our claim to be called civilized—indeed, which give us the word and the concept of civic life—we know relatively a great deal, and we know that they originated on the eastern shores of the large landlocked sea known as the Mediterranean.

We are beginning to be aware that the process of developing these elements was much longer than we had been accustomed to believe. Many races and several millennia seem to have elaborated slowly the institutions that older historians were prepared to regard as the conscious contrivance of a single epoch. But even if increasing archeological research shall render us more familiar than we are with Pelasgians, Myceneans, Minoans, Aegeans, it is not likely that the claims of two historic peoples to have founded European civilization will be seriously impugned. These are the Romans and the Greeks. To these must be added another people, the Jews, whose contribution to civilization was no less real and lasting.

The Greeks and Romans have left descendants only in a qualified sense. There are no doubt thousands of individuals now living who are the actual descendants of the kinsmen and contemporaries of the great names in Greek and Roman history; but these individuals are widely scattered, and are united by national and racial bonds with thousands of individuals not so descended, from whom they have become wholly indistinguishable. We have documentary evidence of great masses of other races, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Semitic, entering into the territory occupied by Greeks and Romans and mingling with them, and to this evidence is added the confirmation of anthropological researches. This fact has made it possible to consider Greek and Roman history objectively. Only rarely can investigators be found who feel more than a very diluted pride in the achievements of peoples so dubiously connected with themselves. It is therefore with increasing clarity of vision that we are ordering the large body of facts we already know about Greeks and Romans, and are gathering them in constantly broadening categories.

That unfortunately is not the case with the Jews. Here, too, racial admixture was present, but it never took place on a large scale at any one time, and may always have remained exceptional. However that may be, common belief both among Jews and non-Jews holds very strongly the view that the Jews of today are the lineal descendants of the community reorganized by Ezra, nor is it likely that this belief would be seriously modified by much stronger evidence to the contrary than has yet been adduced. The result has been that the place of the Jews in history has been determined upon the basis of institutions avowedly hostile to them. It may be said that historians have introduced the Jews as a point of departure for Christianity, and have not otherwise concerned themselves with them.

There was a time when Greek and Roman and Jew were in contact. What was the nature of that contact? What were its results? What were the mutual impressions made by all three of them on one another? The usual answer has been largely a transference of modern attitudes to ancient times. Is another answer possible? Do the materials at our disposal permit us to arrive at a firmer and better conclusion?

It is necessary first to know the conditions of our inquiry. The period that we must partially analyze extends from the end of the Babylonian Captivity to the establishment of Christianity—roughly from about 450 B. C. E. to 350 C. E., some seven or eight hundred years.

The time limits are of course arbitrary. The contact with Greeks may have begun before the earlier of the two limits, and the relations of the Jews with both Greeks and Romans certainly did not cease with either Constantine or Theodosius. However, it was during the years that followed the return from the Exile that much of the equipment was prepared with which the Jew actually met the Greek, and, on the other hand, the relations of Christian Rome to the Jews were determined by quite different considerations from those that governed Pagan Rome. It is at this point accordingly that a study of the Jews among the Greeks and Romans may properly end.

About the Book



  1. Greek Religious Concepts

  2. Roman Religious Concepts

  3. Greek and Roman Concepts of Race

  4. Sketch of Jewish History between Nebuchadnezzar and Constantine

  5. Internal Development of the Jews during the Persian Period

  6. The First Contact between Greek and Jew

  7. Egypt

  8. Jews in Ptolemaic Egypt

  9. The Struggle against Greek Culture in Palestine

  10. Antiochus the Manifest God

  11. The Jewish Propaganda

  12. The Opposition

  13. The Opposition in Its Social Aspect

  14. The Philosophic Opposition

  15. The Romans

  16. Jews in Rome during the Early Empire

  17. The Jews of the Empire till the Revolt

  18. The Revolt of 68 C. E.

  19. The Development of the Roman Jewish Community

  20. The Final Revolts of the Jews

  21. The Legal Position of the Jews in the Later Empire





An Excerpt from the Book -- The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans

We are all familiar with the assertion that both Greeks and Romans of the last pre-Christian century were in a state of complete moral and religious collapse, that polytheism had-been virtually discarded, and that the worn souls of men were actively seeking a new religious principle to take its place. This general statement is partly true, but it is quite inadequate, if it is made to account for the situation at Rome at that time.

The extant literature of the time makes it quite clear that there was no belief in the truth of the mythology. But it is doubtful whether there ever had been, and mythology was no part of religion. This was particularly true at Rome. For some thousands of years the inhabitants of central Italy had performed ceremonies in their fields in connection with their daily life. A great many of these ceremonies had become official and regulated in the city of Rome and many other Italic civic communities. It was the practice of educated Italians to devise aetiological stories for these practices and to bring them into connection with Greek myths. In this way a Roman mythology was created, but more even than in the case of the Greeks it was devoid of a folkloristic foundation. For the masses these stories can scarcely be said to have existed. But the ceremonies did, and their punctilious performance and the anxious care with which extraordinary rites of purgation were performed satisfied the ordinary needs of ordinary men.

Mention has been made of the religious movement which from the seventh century B. C. E. spread over the Eastern Mediterranean, and which was concerned with the demand for personal salvation and its corollary, a belief in personal immortality. In the Greekspeaking world the carriers of that movement were the Orphic and Dionysiac mysteries. In the non-Greek East there was abundant occasion for beliefs of this kind to gain ground. The great world monarchies introduced such cataclysms in the smaller nations that a violent readjustment of relations with the divinity was frequently necessitated, since the god's claim to worship was purely national. No such profound political upheavals occurred in Greece. Here, however, a fertile field for the spread of mysteries and extra-national means of divine relations was found in the rapid economic degeneration caused by the slave system. Attachment to the state was confined to those who had a stake in it. The maxim that a man's fatherland was where his fortune brought him seemed less a bold and cynical aphorism than the veriest commonplace for all but a few idealists. To save the personality that individual misfortunes threatened to overwhelm, recourse was had to every means and especially to the vague and widespread doctrine of other and fuller existences beyond the confines of mortality.

In Rome the obvious hinge in the destinies of the people from almost every point of view was the Hannibalic war. For a short time disaster seemed imminent, and the desperate reaching out to the ends of the earth for divine support could not fail to make a deep impression upon thousands of men. In that moment of dreadful stress, it was not the Etruscan Triad on the Capitol nor Father Mars, but the mystic Ma, the Ancient Mother of Phrygia with her diadem of towers, her lion-chariot and her bloody orgies, that stayed the rush of the Carthaginian. It is true that the city's ultimate triumph caused a reaction. An increased national selfconsciousness made Romans somewhat ashamed of their weakness, but they could not blot out the memory of the fact.

The city's increase in total well-being went on with tremendous strides, but the disintegrating forces of a vicious economic system were present here too. Besides, the special circumstances that tended to choke the city with people of diverse origin were intensified. In the next few generations we hear of the threatening character of foreign mysteries, of surreptitious association with the Cybele worshipers, of Isis devotees gaining ground. Shortly after the Second Punic War occurs the episode of the Bacchic suppression. One can scarcely help noticing how strikingly similar were the accusations directed against the Bacchanales and those later brought against the Christians, and wondering whether they were any truer in the one case than in the other. The whole incident can easily be construed as an act of governmental persecution, which, it may be noted, was as futile as such persecution generally is. The orgiastic Dionysus was not kept from Italy, though he always remained an uncomfortable god for Romans of the old type. One reason has already been referred to; viz., the constant recruiting of the infima plebs from enfranchised foreign slaves. The lower classes were becoming orientalized. The great Sicilian slave revolt of 134 B. C. E. was almost a Syrian insurrection, and was under the direct instigation of the Syrian goddess Atargatis.

During the civil wars and the periods of uncertainty that lay between them, all political and social life seemed as though conducted on the edge of a smouldering volcano. Innumerable men resorted to magic, either in its naïve form or in its astrological or mathematical refinements. Newer and more terrific rites, stranger and more outlandish ceremonials, found a demand constantly increasing. And the Augustan monarchy brought only a temporary subsidence of this excitement. Order and peace returned, but Augustus could not cure the fundamentally unsound conditions that vitiated Roman life, nor did he make any real attempt to prevent Roman society from being dissolved by the steady inpour of foreign blood, traditions, and non-Roman habits of mind. The need of recourse to foreign mysteries was as apparent as ever.

In this way the internal conditions of Roman society impelled men to the alien forms of religion. And external impulses were not lacking. There were present professional and well-equipped missionaries. Our information about them is fullest with reference to the philosophic schools, which consciously bid for the support of educated Romans. These groups of philosophers were nearly all completely organized, and formed an international fraternity as real as the great International Actors Association and the similar Athletic Union. It was scarcely feasible to stand neutral. A man was either an Academic, or Stoic, or Epicurean, or Neopythagorean, and so on. So skilful a trimmer as Cicero's friend, the astoundingly shrewd Atticus, was enrolled as an Epicurean. Even skepticism classified a man as an Academic, as Cicero himself was classed despite occasional exhibitions of sympathy for the Stoa. And the combat was as intense and as dogmatic as that between competing religious sects. That is precisely what they were, and they bandied their shibboleths with the utmost zeal and unction.

Some of these philosophic sects, the Cynics and Stoics, reached classes of lower intellectual level. And there they came in conflict with astrologer and thaumaturg, with Isis and with Atthis devotees, and with. Jews. The popular sermon, the diatribe, was an institution of the Cynics, and was directed to the crowd. Indeed the chief object of Cynic jibes was the pretension of philosophers to possess a wisdom that was in any way superior to the mother-wit of the rudest boor. The Stoics too used the diatribe with success. It must not, however, be supposed that either Stoic or Cynic was a serious rival of the dra- matic and sensationally attractive rites of the Eastern cults. The latter counted their adherents by the hundreds where the preaching philosopher might pick up an occasional adherent. The importance of the philosophers for the spread of non-Roman beliefs lies chiefly in the fact that they reached all classes of society, and, different as they seem from the cult-associations of the various foreign deities, they really represented the same emotional need as the latter.

These had literary support as well. We have recently had restored to us some astrological pamphlets, such as that of Vettius Valens, and we can only guess from what arsenal Isiac or Mithraist drew those arguments with which he boasted of confuting even Stoics and Epicureans. But we may safely assume that tracts existed of this sort.

As far as the Jews are concerned, their propaganda may have begun with their first settlement in Rome. Cicero does not mention it, but Cicero was not interested in what went on among the strata of society in which the Jews then moved. In the next generation their propaganda was so wide and successful that it must have been established for a considerable time.

Further, from what has been said it is clear that this propaganda must have been directed primarily to the plebs, to the same classes, that is, as those who received Isis and Cybele, Mithra and the Cabiri. At first it practically did not reach the intellectually cultivated at all. But the Jews possessed an extensive literature, which in Egypt and the East generally had assumed the form of “most philosophic” treatises. Indeed, it is quite clear that the Wisdom of Solomon could be enjoyed by none but cultured men. Books of this sort, as well as the Bible, were accessible, and were read by some. The synagogue service was an exposition of Jewish doctrine upon topics that ranked as philosophic. While therefore it was mainly from among the masses that Jewish converts came, here and there men of education must have found the Jewish preachers as convincing as the philosophic revivalists, who boasted of no more respectable credentials.

The Roman state had found itself obliged to take cognizance of the foreign religious movements at an early date. The official acceptance of Cybele had promptly been surrounded by restrictions. Cybele was always to remain a foreign goddess. Romans were stringently forbidden to take part in her ceremonies. Toward the forms of worship themselves, the Roman attitude was tolerant enough. As long as they were confined to Egyptians, Syrians, Cappadocians, the participants would be secure from molestation. But that the foreign rites might displace the ancestral forms was a well-grounded fear, and drastic precautions were taken against that. The Bacchanalian incident of 186 B. C. E. is the first of these instances.

In the same way the Roman police found it necessary at various times to proceed against astrologers, Isis-worshipers, and philosophers. The statement frequently occurring, that these groups were banished, is constantly misunderstood. It can apply only to foreign- ers in these classes, not to Roman citizens affected by these strange beliefs; but it implies that the Roman citizens so affected were sufficiently numerous to make the desertion of the national religion a probable contingency. Of course Roman citizens could not violate the laws that regulated religious observances with impunity. These laws, however, were ostensibly never directed against the religious observances, but against abuses and acts that were connected with them. That was true even in the case of the Bacchanalia, when the decree of the senate expressly permitted the celebration of the rites under proper restrictions.

Whether honestly or not, the Roman government aimed its measures solely at certain indubitably criminal acts, which, it was alleged, were associated with the practice of the foreign cults. These acts were often offenses against public morality. Conditions of high religious excitement often sought a physical outlet in dancing or shouting, and no doubt often enough, when the stimulation of wine or drugs or flagellation was added, in sexual excesses. Instances that were perhaps isolated and exceptional were treated as characteristic, and made the basis for repressive legislation.

Another and better founded objection to many of the forms of foreign religion was the opportunities they offered for swindlers. As early as 139 B. C. E. the astrologers were banished from Rome, not because of the feeling that the astrological system was baseless, but because of the readiness with which professed astrologers defrauded the simple by portentous horoscopes, which they alone could interpret or avert. The “Chaldeans” or mathematici included many men who were neither the one nor the other. It was obviously easier for a Syrian or Oriental generally to make these claims than for either Greek or Italian. Syrians in the city accordingly found the profession of quack tempting and profitable, and doubtless many Jews as well entered it.

We have evidence too that many of the mushroom political associations were grouped about some of these foreign deities. The possession of common sacra was, in a sense, the distinguishing mark of any organized body of men, and organization of the masses in all forms was the commonest device of the agitators of the revolutionary period. Clodius had his mobs grouped in decuries and curiae. It is likely enough that in some of these groups, consisting largely of freedmen of foreign birth, various foreign deities were worshiped in the communal sacra, so that the various police measures restricting or forbidding these rites may have had strong political motives as well.

When Caesar reconstituted the state after Pharsalia, he knew from direct experience the danger that lay in unrestricted association ostensibly for religious purposes. The “cult-associations” which he dissolved were undoubtedly grouped about some Greek or Oriental deity. The Jews were specially exempted, for reasons easy to guess at, but which we cannot exactly determine. This striking favor cannot but have immensely increased their influence. We need not sup- pose that Caesar's orders were any more effective than previous decrees of this character had been. But even a temporary clearing of the field gave the active propagandists among the Jews an opportunity which they fully utilized.

We have sketches of Jewish activities in Rome during the following years drawn by master hands. In every instance, of course, the picture is drawn with distinct lack of sympathy, but it is none the less valuable on that account. Easily of first importance is the information furnished us by the cleverest of Roman poets, Horace.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus was the son of a former slave. His racial origin accordingly may have been found in any corner of the Mediterranean in which we choose to look for it. That fact, however, is of little importance, except that the consciousness of servile ancestry must have largely influenced his personal intercourse, and his patriotism must have been somewhat qualified, despite some vigorously Roman sentiments. Suave, obese, witty, a thoroughly polished gentlemen of wide reading and perfect manners, both sensual and shrewdly practical, Horace had early reached the point at which one descants on the merits of frugality and simplicity at the end of a seven-course dinner. His star was in the ascendant. His patron Maecenas was the trusted minister of Augustus; and to Augustus, and not Antony, fell the task of rebuilding the shattered framework of the state. Secure in the possession of every creature comfort, the freedman's son could loaf and invite his soul.

That he did so in exquisite verses is our good fortune, and that he chose to put his shrewd philosophy and criticism of life into the form of sketches that are medleys of scenes, lively chat, satirical attacks, and portraits of types and individuals, makes the period in which he lived and the society in which he moved almost as vivid to us as that depicted in the letters of Cicero.

In one of his Satires—“Chats,” as he called them— he tells the story of his encounter with a pushing gentleman, of a type familiar to every age. Horace cannot escape from the infliction of his presence, and miserably succumbing to the inane chatter of the bore, he comes upon his friend Titus Aristius Fuscus. But his hopes in that quarter are doomed to disappointment.

“Surely,” says Horace, nudging Fuscus, “you said you had something you wanted to speak to me about in private.”

“Yes, yes, I remember,” answers Fuscus, “but we'll let that go for some more suitable time. To-day's the thirtieth Sabbath. Why, man, would you want to offend the circumcised Jews?”

“I can't say that I feel any scruples on that score.”

“But I do. I haven't your strength of mind. I'm only a humble citizen. You'll excuse me. I shall talk over our business at some other time.”

The little scene is so significant that we shall have to dwell on it. One unescapable inference is that the Jews in Rome were numerous, and that a great many non-Jews participated wholly or partially in their observances. Fuscus need not be taken seriously about his own beliefs, but his excuse would be extravagant in the highest degree if the situation of the Jews were not such as has been suggested. Indeed, the terms of intentional offensiveness which Fuscus uses indicate the serious annoyance of either himself or Horace that that should be the case.

An Excerpt from the Book

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