by Evropa Soberana
Roman anti-Semitism: a spiritual conflict
What happened after the arrival of Roman troops in Judea was a spiritual confrontation unprecedented in the history of mankind. Four million Jews were now going to share borders with the other 65 million subjects of the Roman Empire.
It is impossible to write an article on this subject without mentioning the profoundly anti-Jewish quotes written by great Roman authors of the time. In them a true conflict is perceived between two systems of values exactly opposite each other. The clash between Roman rigidity and the dogmatism of the desert caused in Rome a genuine movement of rejection of Judaism. Although anti-Semitism goes back to the very origins of Jewry, the Romans, heirs of the Greeks and of a superior military discipline, were undoubtedly, until then, the ones who showed the greatest hostility towards the Jews.
Cicero (106-43 BCE), as we shall see later, condemns hostile Jewry considering that their mentality of skulduggery and cowardice is incompatible with the altruistic mentality of the best in Rome.
Horace (65-8 BCE), in Book I of his Satires mocks the Sabbath or Sabbatic rest, while Petronius (dies in 66 CE) in his Satyricon ridicules the circumcision.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History speaks about ‘Jewish impiety’, and refers to ‘the Jews, well known for their contempt for the gods’.
Seneca (4-65 CE) called Jewry ‘the most evil nation, whose waste of a seventh of life [he refers to Shabbat] goes against the utility of it… These most perverse people have come to extend their customs into the whole world; the defeated have given laws to the victors’.
Quintilian (30-100 CE) says in his Institutio Oratoria that the Jews are a derision for the rest of men, and that their religion is the embodiment of superstition.
Martial (40-105), in his Epigrams, sees the Jews as followers of a cult whose true nature is secret to hide it from the rest of the world, and he attacks circumcision, the Shabbat (or Saturday: that is, doing nothing on the seventh day of the week, which gave them lazy press), and their abstinence from pork.
Tacitus (56-120), the famous historian who praised the Germans, also spoke about the Jews but in very different terms. He says that they descend from lepers expelled from Egypt, and that under the Assyrians, the Medes and Persians, they were the most despised and humiliated people. Among the terms with which Tacitus qualifies Jewry we have ‘perverse, abominable, cruel, superstitious, alien to any law of religion, evil and filthy’ among many others:
The Jewish customs are sad, dirty, vile and abominable, and if they have survived it is thanks to their perversity. Of all enslaved peoples, Jews are the most despicable and disgusting.
For the Jews, everything that is sacred to us is despicable, and what is repugnant to us is lawful.
The Jews reveal a stubborn bond with one another, which contrasts with their hatred for the rest of humanity… Among them, nothing is lawful. Those who embrace their religion practice the same thing, and the first thing they are taught is to despise the gods [History, chapters 4 and 5].
Juvenal (55-130), in his Satires, criticizes the Jews for the Sabbath, for not worshiping images, for circumcising themselves, for not eating pork, for being scrupulous with their laws while despising those of Rome, and that they only reveal the ‘initiates’ the true nature of Judaism. In addition, he blames Orientals in general and Jewry in particular for the degeneration of the environment in Rome itself.
Marcus Aurelius (121-180) passed through Judea on his trip to Egypt, being surprised by the ways of the local Jewish population. He will say, ‘I find this people worse than the Marcomanni, the Quadics and the Sarmatians (Rerum Gestarum Libri by Ammianus Marcellinus).
These quotes summarise how the Romans, an Indo-European martial, virile and disciplined people, saw the Jewish quarter. It can be said that, until the triumph of the Romans, no people had been so aware of the challenge posed by Judaism.
All these quotes point to a stubborn ideological as well as military confrontation, in which both Rome and Judea were going to think a lot for a final solution: a conflict that would influence History in a huge way and, therefore, cannot be ignored under any pretext. This article tries to give an idea of what the old clash of the East against the West meant.