Demythologizing Christianity’s Most Cherished Moment: Nero and the Christians, Part One

Jun 17 2012 Published by under Featured News, Issues, Republican Party

It’s Sunday and that nasty old Heathen Hrafnkell is going after the Christians again! Well, yes, it is Sunday, but I am not going after Christians – unless it is fundamentalist Christians, assuming the word “Christian” applies to them at all – and my real purpose is to defend the historical record from fundamentalist Christianity. Think of Sunday as a sort of religious minority  history day.

It is repeatedly claimed that Christianity is being persecuted in what Christians themselves have proclaimed the “New” Rome – the U.S.A. It is also claimed that these persecutions began in the first century of the Common Era when the Roman emperor Nero  (Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicuspersecuted the Christians in the “Old” Rome; I have even seen that claim made here by readers. This persecution is accepted as fact: It is a story so often repeated that it has become “true” in the sense that most Christians believe it. Nobody bothers to examine the facts, however; why do so when you know it’s true? This is the problem with popular knowledge.

But it is important that we know the facts, given that our own fundamentalists repeatedly turn to the question of persecution, and I would like to make what effort I can to rectify that oversight. It is always claimed that Christianity has been persecuted ever since Nero but it can be argued that this is the biggest non-event in history. And if this isn’t true, where does that leave the Christianity’s persecution complex?

But first I need to lay a little groundwork because history always has a context, whatever David Barton may claim. It is true that without the influence of Paganism modern Christianity would be impossible to imagine but Christianity’s oldest debt is to Judaism, for Jesus was, after all, a Jew. So today we will look at the relatively long history of the Jewish community of Rome, and suggest that Rome was not at all unaware of what was happening in the provinces and how that awareness could affect Roman reactions in the capital.

No one knows precisely when it was founded but when Hasmonean king Simon Maccabeus (reigned 142-135 BCE) sent an embassy to the city there was already a Jewish community there.[1]  We know from Valerius Maximus that Jews already lived in Rome because along with the astrologers the Senate had expelled Jews in its decree of 139 BCE. By 61 the Jews of Rome were sending gold to the Temple. These were Jews of the Diaspora, Greek speaking[2] and from the poorer segments of society,[3] but well organized and concentrated inRome’s Trastevere district.

Julius Caesar had been a friend to the Jews, as was Augustus, his successor and the first “emperor” of Rome. Caesar had established cordial relations with the Jews (in contrast with the activities of Pompey) and his nephew and adopted son maintained them. The Jewish community there thrived, as Paul is said to have discovered when he arrived, and existed largely unmolested by the authorities before the two Jewish revolts, except for two notable occasions.

During the late Republic and Principate scholars have estimated the size of the Jewish community in Rome from anywhere between 20,000 and 60,000 people. Wayne Meeks puts the number at 50,000.[4] Erich S. Gruen reckons that the lower number is far more likely, but that is still a sizeable colony[5] even in a city whose population was swelling towards a million inhabitants. But the Roman government generally did not fear this large alien population in their midst and as Jerry Daniel notes, “Rome generally tolerated and protected Jewish religion along with other cults, oppressing them only when disorderly or when they in some specific way threatened the peace or authority of Rome.”[6]

It is important to note that there were no pogroms, no orchestrated or even impromptu attacks on Jews in the cities of the Roman Empire. Such violence as occurred was restricted to the area of the Palestinian coastline and Alexandria, where Greeks and Jews had long been in contact, and even then, this violence was not instigated by Roman authorities but spontaneous in nature and where possible quickly put down by imperial authorities, as in the case of Antioch in 66 CE when Roman authorities were protecting Jewish rights even while Judaea erupted in rebellion.

Legal reprisals were few and far between, whatever attitudes of people in general might be. Josephus mentions an episode which took place in 19 CE in which the Emperor Tiberius expelled the Jews from Rome(Ant. 18.3.4-5 §§ 65-84), an episodes which Erich Gruen observes has been “much discussed, analyzed, and brawled over.”[7] But it is important to note that it was not only against Jews that Tiberius vented his spleen, for it was not only Jews who were expelled but also adherents of the Egyptian Goddess Isis, as well as, according to Suetonius, astrologers and magicians.[8]  And it turns out that expelling folks from the Eternal City was not all that uncommon.

Tiberius’ act parallels the earlier act in 139BCE, lumping Jews and astrologers together. We have two versions of Valerius  Maximus’ account of the 139BCEepisode, both dating from the Christian era: one, that of Julius Paris (c. 400 CE) stating that the Jews were expelled because they “had attempted to infect the Romans with their cult of Jupiter Sabazius to return to their own homes” and another, by Nepotianus (c. 500 CE) who related that the cause was “for attempting to transfer their sacred rites to the Romans,” and that altars the Jews had established in public places were also thrown out.

Gruen supposes the reason for this early expulsion to be public relations, that is, the government making a statement about what sorts of beliefs were acceptable to the traditional-minded Republic.[9] But we should ask exactly what beliefs were being transferred toRome. To simply answer “Judaism” is not enough, as there was no monolithic thing called Judaism. Here again we see the danger of events in Rome being isolated from the larger events taking place in the empire, namely the growth of Jewish messianism in Palestine.

What I wish to suggest here that it is also possible that the expulsion was tied to events in Judaea, where Messianic Jews had overthrown their Seleucid overlords, forcibly converting their neighbors (Idumaean, Sarmatian and Greek alike) and expressing hatred for all things Hellenistic and foreign. The situation in Palestineat this point in history was nothing short of tumultuous; we should be surprised if these events did not affect the communities of the Diaspora. Under such circumstances, the Roman action can be understood as a reaction and not one very different from what was taking place inJudaea itself.

Christian messianism spread through contact; if the first proto-Christian messianists, apocalyptic Jewish followers of Jesus were spreading the “Good News” in Rome during Tiberius’ reign it is certainly reasonable to suppose that the emperor would take notice, just as he took notice of the activities of the Isiacs. If Jewish nationalists in Rome stirred things up in 139, leading to the earlier expulsion due to an over-aggressive support of Maccabeus, then it is not unreasonable to suppose that an equally aggressive support for another “liberator” – Jesus – on the part of his followers, might have led to a similar expulsion in the year 19 of the Common Era. In other words, in both cases, friction in the Jewish homeland might have spread to Rome and unrest there led to the reaction of the Roman government.

It is important to note that in neither case did the expulsion have to apply to all Jews. With a population of 20,000-50,000 under the Principate such an effort would have been well nigh impossible in any event, and here the possibility of a political statement must be considered. An effort had to be made, and so probably the ringleaders and chief suspects rounded up and put on a fast ship elsewhere.[10]

Returning to Tiberius’ expulsion we find that Josephus’ simplistic explanation is that four Jews had defrauded a Roman lady, Fulvia, but the circumstances of the tale allow a different interpretation altogether. It is possible that Tiberius saw in the scheme an attempt by the Jews to lure aristocratic Roman women into temple prostitution, and that it was not simply hostility against the Jews by Sejanus (something noted by Philo) but a genuine concern for good old fashion Roman morality (aka “family values”)  that brought about the expulsion. [11]

But as Rutgers points out, in the case of the Isaics (followers of Isis) only the culprits directly responsible were punished but the Jews, guilty of lesser offense, saw their entire community punished for the actions of a few. “Given Rome’s generally moderate policy toward the Jews,” Rutgers argues, “it is hardly possible to accept Josephus’ view that the Roman authorities blamed the entire Roman Jewish community for the misdeeds of a handful of culprits.”[12] Martin Goodman suggests another reason: That the expulsion was symbolic. Tiberius, he suggests, who was “notorious for his pedantic antiquarianism, reinstated a raft of ancient Roman religious practices…A symbolic expulsion of Jews would fit nicely.” The fact that Rome again had a sizeable Jewish population at the time of Nero, he says, demonstrates the symbolic nature of the expulsion.[13]

Whether Goodman’s theory is right or wrong, the continuance of a large Jewish community in the Empire’s capital certainly proves that the expulsion was limited in scope. Josephus is sensitive to the facts surrounding the expulsion, and he goes to great pains to distinguish between the reasons for expulsion of Isaics and that of the Jews. The fact that the Jews had been in trouble before inRome and therefore had a questionable reputation would certainly earn them no political capital with later emperors when further disruptions took place.

In the episode relating to Tiberius, we are told by Josephus that 4,000 men were sent to the mines in Sardinia in punishment; we do not know if something similar occurred under Claudius, since our sources are so sparse. Philo seems to mention the Claudian affair in his Legatio ad Gaium (23-24) – the issue is still debated by scholars – but interestingly Josephus does not, passing over it in silence while mentioning instead the Jewish rising in Alexandria at Caligula’s death and Claudius’ subsequent edict affirming Jewish rights.[14]

Suetonius  (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus), and his de Vita Caesarum, or Lives of the Caesars provides an important piece of evidence. We can date this book to 119 CE, since Suetonius dedicates it to his friend Gaius Septicius Clarus, who was Praetorian Prefect that year. Suetonius also mentions this earlier expulsion but only in passing, noting in chapter 36 of his Life of Tiberius only that

He suppressed foreign cults, and the religions of the Egyptians and the Jews, obliging those who practiced such rituals to burn their religious garments and all their paraphernalia. The young men of the Jewish people he sent to regions where the climate was severe, ostensibly on military service. The rest of that people, and others of similar beliefs, he banished from the city, with the penalty of slavery for life if they did not obey. He also banished the astrologers as well, though he excused those who asked for forgiveness and promised to give up their art.[15]

This account might lead one to believe that Tiberius was taking steps to protect public morals, and if so it was certainly not directed only against the Jews, as Josephus himself acknowledges. The account in Tacitus of this episode certainly argues in favor of this, including it as he does in a discussion of the “profligacy of women”:

There was a debate too about expelling the Egyptian and Jewish worship, and a resolution of the Senate was passed that four thousand of the freedmen class who were infected with those superstitions and were of military age should be transported to the island of Sardinia, to quell the brigandage of the place, a cheap sacrifice should they die from the pestilential climate. The rest were to quit Italy, unless before a certain day they repudiated their impious rites.[16]

Dio Cassius repeats the story, doubtless basing it on these earlier accounts and thus cannot serve as an independent witness.[17] The Romans tended to rate the Egyptians together with the Jews and being the moral conservatives that they were, distrusted foreign cults in general (as had Augustus in his day)[18] though Augustus had reaffirmed Caesar’s affirmation of Judaism’s special status within the empire and Philo has nothing but praise for him.[19] And of course, as our account reads, Augustus was only following in the footsteps of the Senate, which in a decree of 139 CE expelled astrologers from Rome “because they were exploiting a bogus art for profit.”[20]

Josephus’ version’s uniqueness lay in the fact that Josephus (who, of course, thought his own religion was special) made an attempt to separate the Isaic cult from the Jewish, a distinction the Romans (or at least the stalwart traditionalists in the government) were apparently unable or (with Republican inflexibility) unwilling to make. This inability to make a distinction may seem strange to us twenty centuries removed from events, and it is noteworthy in this regard that Ovid (42 BCE-17 CE), who died just before Tiberius’ expulsion, recommended to the dandies of his time that they would find satisfaction at a Temple of Isis or a synagogue equally.[21]

As with Christianity later, Roman objections to Judaism had little to do with religious beliefs and much to do with their negative impact on Pagan society[22] though Suetonius and Tacitus, as Dio Cassius would later, referred to Judaism as a superstition, and quite accurately according to the word’s original Pagan definition as inappropriate levels of fear of the divine.[23]

All this should serve to demonstrate that the Romans had no special animus toward the Jews (or later, the Christians) unless that attitude embraced everyone who disturbed the peace, including therefore other Pagans (Isiacs) and astrologers and magicians. Christianity has had 2000 years to turn itself into something special, something unique, and we are still fighting over that sense of privilege. But at the time, Christianity, still limited to Palestine and Syria, had yet to do more than attract a miniscule number of people and Roman reaction and attitudes of the time demonstrate that the Romans did not see anything special about the new cult at all (if they were even aware of it), an important point to remember when I turn to Nero tomorrow.

Read Part 2

Image from Wikimedia Commons


[1] The exact date of Simon Maccabeus’s embassy is debated. Gruen assigns a date of 142, others 139. Gruen, Diaspora, 17. Philo (Leg. 155) assumed the Jewish community there was founded by prisoners of war who had been enslaved and then manumitted. As Gruen points out, it is generally assumed that Philo was speaking of Pompey’s Judaean campaign of 63 BCE (Gruen, Diaspora, 15-16) but Valerius Maximus’ account shows Philo cannot have been right. Rome’s original Jewish population must have been free and only swelled by slaves, many of whom would have been manumitted and become part of Rome’s free population. See Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem, 368. See also Leonard Victor Rutgers, “Roman Policy towards the Jews: Expulsions from the City of Rome during the First Century C.E.,” Classical Antiquity 13 (1994), 60 who points out that after 19 CE informal manumission led to the freed slave becoming part of a class inferior to Roman citizen, the Junian Latin (Latini Iuniani) but who could raise themselves to citizenship through service in the police or by “supplying Rome with corn for a period of time.”

[2] Writing in 1979, Jerry Daniel notes that “Of the more than 500 inscriptions found in Jewish catacombs in Rome more than three-fourths are in Greek, twenty-three per cent are in Latin, and one per cent are Semitic or bilingual.” Jerry L. Daniel, “Anti-Semitism in the Hellenistic-Roman Period” JBL 98 (1979), 49.

[3] Max Radin says of the Jews of Rome, “the majority must have formed part of the pauperized city mob, turbulent and ignorant…” Jews Among Greeks and Romans, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1915) 255-256, cited in Daniel, “Anti-Semitism” 52.

[4] Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (Yale University Press, 2003), 34. The number of Jews living in Rome is illustrated in Josephus (War 2.6.1 § 80; Ant. 17.11.1 § 300) where he says that when a deputation of Jews from Palestine arrived in Rome asking that Archelaus be deposed, 8,000 Jews of Rome supported the request. There is no indication given that this represented the balance of the Jewish community there. Even allowing for the ancient historian’s tendency to exaggerate numbers, it is likely thatRome and most other major cities in the empire supported large Jewish populations.

[5] Erich S. Gruen, Diaspora, 15.

[6] Jerry L. Daniel, “Anti-Semitism in the Hellenistic-Roman Period” JBL 98 (1979), 49.

[7] Gruen, Diaspora, 29.

[8] Beard, et al, Religions of Rome, 233-234. The Roman government (Republic and Empire) legislated frequently against magicians, and the lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis of 81 BCE on murder and poisoning (which does not survive except by way of a late third or early fourth century commentary) addressed also murder by magical means. Tacitus, in his Annals, mentions the “devices of witchcraft” used to kill Tiberius’ nephew and adopted son Germanicus while in Syria (Annals, 2.69; 74.2; 3.7.2, 12-14). See also Apuleius, Apology 26.6 who notes that the magician was “popularly believed to hold discourse with the immortal gods and thus to have the power to do everything he wanted by the mysterious force of certain incantations.”

[9] Gruen, Diaspora, 16, 19. For a fuller discussion of problems related to these texts see especially Gruen, 15-19. The mention of Jupiter Sabazius is especially problematic. Gruen suggests that Sabazius had been equated with Sabaoth. What is essential here, however, is the expelling of the Jews at a time of religious fervor inJudaea and the possibility of a connection between the two.

[10] The same sort of reaction can be seen in modern times in response to Islamic extremism and terrorism, particularly after 9/11 and the destruction of theWorldTradeCenter. Governments, even autocratic ones, are not immune to the wishes of the “mob.”

[11] For this theory see W.A. Heidel, “Why Were the Jews Banished from Italy in 19 A.D” The American Journal of Philology 41 (1920) 38-47.

[12] Leonard Victor Rutgers, “Roman Policy towards the Jews: Expulsions from the City of Rome during the First Century C.E.,” Classical Antiquity 13 (1994), 61.

[13] Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem, 370.

[14] Josephus, Ant. 5.2-3.

[15] Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Life of Tiberius, ch. 36, translated by Catharine Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 116.

[16] Tacitus, Annals 2.85.

[17] Dio Cassius, Roman History, 40.47 and 42.26.5.

[18] The cult of Isis had a long and troubled history with Roman authorities, having come to the capital at least by the time of Sulla. The Senate had issued five orders to tear down their altars between 59 and 48 BCE (in 59, 58, 53 and 48) and after Caesar’s death and Antony’s alliance with Cleopatra opposition took on a political dimension as well as a moral. See Horst R. Moehring, “The Persecution of the Jews and the Adherents of the Isis Cult at Rome A.D. 19,” Novum Testamentum 3 (1959), 293-304. Augustus’ expulsion of astrologers is dated to 33BCE.

[19] Gruen, Diaspora, 28. Philo, Leg. 155-157. As Gruen observes, it was not so much what Augustus did but what he did not do that pleased Philo. In other words, he let the Jews be.

[20] Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, Vol I: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 113, citing Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 1.3.3.

[21] Ovid, Ars amandi, 1.77.

[22] Against this idea of Roman concern for morality, Louis H. Feldman advances the thesis that the two expulsions were due to the Jewish “success in winning converts.” See Louis H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996) and idem. “Reflections of Rutger’s ‘Attitudes to Judaism in the Greco-Roman Period'” The Jewish Quarterly Review 84 (1995) 153-170.

[23] See, in this regard, Robert L. Wilken, “Judaism in Roman and Christian Society” The Journal of Religion 47 (1967) 313-330. For Dio Cassius and superstition, Roman History, 37.16.17.

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