Academic journal article Akroterion

'Domitian's Attitude to the Jews and Judaism'

Academic journal article Akroterion

'Domitian's Attitude to the Jews and Judaism'

Article excerpt

The emperor Domitian has the reputation of being the 'decided enemy of the Jews'. (1) The information from which this conclusion can be drawn is found in a passage in Suetonius and one in Dio. As well as this, Roman writings of the time, such as those of Martial and Quintilian, support a view of Domitian as antiSemitic. By examining the main literary accounts of his treatments of the Jews as well as contemporary writings, it will be possible to establish to what extent Suetonius and Dio give an accurate portrayal of his attitude towards the Jews.

Before one can evaluate Domitian himself, it is first necessary to consider what the position of the Jewish people was in the Roman Empire before him and what the general Roman opinion was of them. Since the time of Julius Caesar, the Jews had enjoyed some favour from Rome, most significantly including religious liberty: while the claim that Judaism was recognised as a religio licita under Roman law is not by any means indisputable, there is enough evidence to suggest, as Pucci Ben Zeev concludes in her work on the documents quoted by Josephus, 'that the same policy was implemented by Augustus toward all the Jews, no matter where they lived', and this policy was of general religious liberty. (2) The Jews, wherever they lived, were defined as an ethnos and therefore received this liberty all over the empire. (3) Nonetheless, despite the protection provided by Julius Caesar, and honoured by Augustus, under both Tiberius and Claudius, Suetonius states that there were expulsions of Jews from Rome. (4) Judaism was recognised and accepted, and the Jews were given the right not to sacrifice to the emperor (instead sacrificing on his behalf), but their invisible god and monotheism appeared offensive to most Roman sensibilities. Judaism was characterised as 'atheism' by Apollonius Molon in the first century BC. (5) Under Tiberius, Seneca gives an account of giving up his vegetarian diet lest he seem to be drifting into 'superstition'--the implication is that while Jews may practice their religion freely, Romans are not encouraged to become in any way involved in this. (6) In Tacitus' description of the history of the Jews he states that 'the Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor'. (7) This sums up nicely the fundamental conflict between Jewish monotheism and the Graeco-Roman polytheism.

In AD 70 the Temple, the centre point of Jewish religious life, was destroyed. Adding insult to injury, at this point Vespasian initiated the fiscus Judaicus, a tax on Jews everywhere, taking the didrachma which they had previously paid as temple tax for the Capitol in Rome. (8) As Smallwood aptly states, 'It was a shrewd and humiliating blow that he dealt to pious Jews when he made them in effect purchase the right to worship Yahweh by a subscription to Jupiter'. (9) Josephus' phrasing clearly implies that those liable for this tax were those who had paid the temple tax before AD 70--which suggests Jews actively practising their faith. (10) Similarly Dio, when he refers to this, describes it as for those 'who continued to follow their ancestral customs', (11) which Smallwood takes as meaning precisely the same as the Josephus passage. (12) Goodman, however, states that Dio has a tendency to backdate such things, and so that this must be the case in the 3rd century but may not have been from the outset--he points out that while the tax was based on their religion, the Roman assumption was that all ethnic Jews would take part in their national cult. (13) This is debatable, however, because Dio finds it necessary to specify that the tax is on those Jews who practice their religion--which shows that it was recognised that some people who were ethnically Jewish did not practice their religion. (14) With the Josephus passage, though, one is inclined to accept Smallwood's reasoning and accept that the Jews liable for the fiscus Judaicus were Jews anywhere in the empire who were practicing their religion. …

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