Sons of Israel in Caesar's Service: Jewish Soldiers in the Roman Military

Article excerpt

The participation of Roman Jewish soldiers in the armies of Imperial Rome often goes unrecognized. This is mainly a result of a lack of recognition on the part of scholars who wish to use Rabbinic sources as the benchmark for Jewish practice in the Imperial Age. It is also difficult to identify Jewish soldiers, many of whom had Greek and Latin names, unless they are specifically identified as Jews or are found in a Jewish context such as dedicatory inscriptions from a synagogue. Nonetheless, by using a variety of sources from the period it is possible to appreciate the depth and breadth of Jewish service in the Roman legions from the time of Caesar down to the early fifth century. There were Jews who served as simple foot soldiers, influential generals like Tiberius Julius Alexander, and Jewish military units such as the Regii Emeseni Iudaei. Regardless of their relationship to "orthodox" Jewish communities of the time, the service of Roman Jews in the Imperial armed forces must be recognized.

In the year 69 the Roman province of Judea was consumed by a three-year rebellion that pitted Jewish zealots against the authority of the Emperor and the House of Herod. Not only was the revolt a destabilizing factor in the eastern regions of the Empire but it also posed a significant challenge to the new emperor, Vespasian. In order to quell the Jewish revolt in his eastern marches, Vespasian resolved to send an army under the command of his son, Titus, with explicit orders to crush the insurrection. Although the emperor's young son showed exceptional talent and tact for leadership, he lacked the military experience deemed necessary for a Roman general. Therefore, the emperor was forced to choose an able commander capable of assisting Titus in the Judean expedition. A great number of prestigious military men were available for the post, including Annius Vinicianus, son-in-law to the famed general, Corbulo. But Vespasian made the unlikely choice of an Alexandrian Jew named Tiberius Julius Alexander to spearhead the Roman army in its effort to thwart the Jewish uprising. The emperors decision was to prove fortuitous, as not only did Tiberius Alexander coordinate a Roman victory in Judea but he also became Titus' trusted advisor and may have eventually reached the rank of Praetorian Prefect.1

Despite the outstanding military career of this Alexandrian Jew, his name and his legacy are largely unknown outside a small circle of specialists. Likewise, the participation of Jews in the Roman military is a topic that is underemphasized or frankly ignored by historians. Most often, scholars quote the exemptions from military service granted to Jews at Ephesus and Delos2 or elaborate on the difficulties that Sabbath observance and dietary laws posed to Jewish men interested in serving under the imperial flag.3 When the issue of Jewish service in the Roman Army is addressed, it is not without a certain degree of skepticism, and Roman Jews in imperial service are often cast in the light of "renegades" or apostates.

Thus, without any documentation of sources, Scharf states that Jews in the Roman army were descended from the bodyguard of the Emesene and Judean royal families who had intermarried and become pagans.4 Smallwood states that"[m]ilitary service ... was always bound to cause difficulties for the Jews of the Diaspora because of their dietary laws, which made their inclusion in gentile units impracticable, and their inability to carry out any duties on the Sabbath."5 Appelbaum claims that Jews in the Roman army were "renegades,"6 and Tiberius Julius Alexander is often recast as an apostate even when it is acknowledged that there is no evidence of this fact.7

The lack of recognition given to Jewish soldiers who served in the Roman military stems primarily from three main issues: the dearth of inscriptions and manuscripts specifically addressing Jews in the Roman military, the inability to recognize Jews with Greek or Latin names unless they are identified as such, and the tendency of many scholars to rely on rabbinic works in order to reconstitute "normal" Jewish practices in the Roman world. …