Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.377-398

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Invective against Jews.
Name of the author: 
Rutilius Namatianus
418 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
On His Return

For a presentation of Rutilius Namatianus’s life and time see Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.43-92.
This text is an excerpt from the first Book of the work On His Return. The episode described occurs during Rutilius’s trip after he passed the island of Elba and landed at Falesia. There, Rutilius and his fellow travellers watched the celebrations organised for the god Osiris and then arrived at a villa whose conductor (that is the person who administrated the inn and its domain) was a Jew. The latter is accused by Rutilius of having extorted money from him and his fellow travellers. This episode and the individual case of this Jewish conductor enables Rutilius to develop a wider criticism of the Jewish people. We will study the anti-Jewish stereotypes used by Rutilius and how most of them fit in with an anti-Jewish tradition well attested in Latin literature from Cicero’s Pro Flacco onwards. Moreover, we will give special attention to the anti-Jewish motifs used which are less common, and also attempt to understand this invective in the context of the composition of the work. 

At the beginning of the invective against the Jewish inn-keeper, Rutilius compares his harshness with that of Antiphates (v. 382), that is of the king of the Homeric people of the Laestrygonians who were known for devouring foreigners (Homer, Odyssey X.105-132). Rutilius then adds various elements to prove that not only is this Jewish inn-keeper accused of anthropophagy, but all the Jews are asocial people. This idea is explicit when Rutilius writes: “an animal reluctant to share human food” (humanis animal dissociale cibis, v. 384). It is interesting to note that the adjective dissocialis here used is a hapax. As rightly remarked by Ernst Doblhofer, Rutilius must have chosen to reverse the formula originally used by Seneca when he presents man as an animal sociale (Seneca, De Clementia I.3.2; Doblhofer, R. Cl. Namatianus, p. 181). The animalisation of the Jews presents them as savages, a literary technique that Rutilius uses for another group. In fact, the monks, who are criticised like the Jews or the Goths for refusing to become really integrated in the Empire where they live, and even for weakening it, are implicitly compared to pigs (see I.525-526; Wolff, Lancel and Soler, p. 80, n. 158). Jews are thus presented as savage and asocial characters precisely because, as illustrated by the inn-keeper, they do no respect the basic rules of hospitality. This idea appears implicitly in the sentence quoted above, where Rutilius means that because of their dietary restrictions – especially the ban on eating the meat most commonly eaten by the Romans, that is pork – the Jews place themselves outside society (abstinence from eating pork is also highlighted in Juvenal, Satires XIV.98-99; Tacitus, Histories V.4.2). Their dietary restrictions strengthen their exclusiveness, as they could not share a meal with non-Jewish peoples.
The second motif that Rutilius brings to highlight the fact that the Jews did not respect the basic rules of hospitality is the fact that the inn-keeper “bawls about the enormous loss in water we have drunk” (I.386). From a slightly different perspective, in passage fourteen of his Satire in which he deals with Jews, Juvenal asserts that when someone is looking for a water source, Jews only help other circumcised men (see Juvenal, Satires XIV.103-104). Thus, Juvenal insists upon Jewish exclusiveness, which leads them to act contrary to the essential principles of humaneness – showing someone in need the way to a water source was part of these principles (see Berthelot, Philanthrôpia, p. 168-169). In Rutilius’s text, the perspective is slightly different, as the Jewish conductor objects to the fact that Rutilius and his fellow travellers have taken water from the pools without having asked for it and probably without having paid for it. This attack thus takes part in one motif which is used by Rutilius to criticize Jews, their stinginess and their desire for money. Compared to lust (symbolised by circumcision) or to idleness (symbolised by the Sabbath), Jewish stinginess and the fact that they are hard in business are negative stereotypes about Jews which are less frequently used in Latin sources (about popular prejudices about Jewish wealth, see Feldman, Jew and Gentile, p. 107-113). Moreover, this reference to stinginess at this point in the narrative enables Rutilius to echo the previous account he wrote concerning the episode when he and his fellow travellers passed by the island of Elba, famous for its ore, a detail that enables Rutilius to present a reflexion about blind obsession for gold (I.357-362; Wolff, Lancel and Soler, p. 81). By highlighting the fact that this Jewish conductor and the Jews in general do not share water and common food with their guests for economic or superstitious reasons, Rutilius present Jews as fundamentally misanthropic.

To further discredit the Jewish people, Rutilius refers to two other motifs which are very common in invectives or satires against Jews: the fact that they are circumcised and their observance of the Sabbath. For what concerns circumcision (I.387-388), Rutilius associates it with the fact that the Jewish people is a gens obscena, “a filthy race” which is propudiosa, “indecent”. This association of circumcision with unbridled sexuality, hyper-sexuality or sex organs of impressive dimensions is quite well attested, for instance, in various epigrams of Martial (see Ep. VII.30, 55, 82 and XI.94). In addition, just before Tacitus explains the introduction of circumcision among the Jews by their necessity to distinguish themselves, he presents Jews as a gens animated by libido (Tacitus, Histories V.5.2; about the connection between circumcision and lust, see Schäfer, Judeophobia, p. 99-102).
For what concerns the Sabbath (I.389-392), Rutilius characterises it as “chilly” because Jews could not even make a fire during this day (about the association of Sabbath with cold in Greek sources, see Feldman, Jew and Gentile, p. 162). The Sabbath is reduced to a “shameful sloth” (turpis veternus); Jews, just as their God, are presented as sluggish persons. First, it is important to recall that the condemnation of the Sabbath as leading to indolence and idleness seems to be a typically Roman criticism (see Schäfer, Judeophobia, p. 86-89). For instance, Tacitus narrates that after Jews decided to devote one day a week to rest, they were later seduced by the “charms of indolence” (blandiente inertia) and decided that every seventh year should be devoted to ignavia (idleness) (Tacitus, Histories V.4.3). In Juvenal, Satire XIV.105-106, the Sabbath is also assimilated to ignavia (idleness) and its observance is presented as the first stage in the process of conversion of non-Jews to Jewish life. In our text, we find the same condemnation of the Sabbath because of the idleness it creates. However, Rutilius chooses to focus his attack on the idleness of the Jewish God himself. A quite similar attack was probably used against Christians by the philosopher Celsus, as far as we can gather from Origen’s rebuttal of Celsus’s anti-Christian arguments (for a presentation of this work, see Origen, Against Celsus I.3). Actually, commenting on Genesis 2:2-3, stating that God rested from all his work and made holy the seventh day, Celsus may have compared God to a tired worker who needed a rest to recover during the seventh day (see Origen, Against Celsus VI.61; Doblhofer, R. Cl. Namatianus, p. 186). In Rutilius’s work, the Jewish God is presented as lassatus, “wearied” and is compared to a mollis imago, “indolent image.” It is important to note that the adjective mollis refers both to the idea that the Jewish God is sluggish and to his effeminate character – the mollitia is actually a term that is frequently used by Roman authors to denigrate Easterners as lustful persons. In addition, the word lassatus is often used to refer to exhaustion after sexual intercourse (see Malamud, Rutilius Namatianus’ Going Home, p. 25). Behind the indolent and lascivious Jewish God, Rutilius also targets the Jews in general. Both the Jews and their God are presented as enemies of cardinal Roman virtues (see Schäfer, Judeophobia, p. 86).
Rutilius ends his critical enumeration of the preeminent marks of the Jews by concluding that no sensible person could give credit to their other deliramenta, “extravagances,” and by assimilating them through the image of the catasta (that is the stage on which slaves were presented during auction) to slaves. Through this image, Rutilius may have implicitly presented Jews as enslaved to their superstitions, to their lust and to their indolence.

The last part of this invective against Jews is particularly interesting. Rutilius comes to the pessimistic conclusion that it would have been better for Rome to not conquer and subdue Judea (I.395-396). This statement contradicts the idea defended at the beginning of the poem, in praise of Rome, when Rutilius highlights the fact that Rome succeeded to reach oecumenical dimensions thanks to her capacity to integrate and homogenise the peoples she conquered (Rutilius Namatianus, On his return I.55-66; Wolff, Lancel and Soler, p. 83, n. 167). In the next sentence, Rutilius goes further in his denunciation of the damaging consequences of the conquest of Judea by comparing Judaism to an unstoppable plague (pestis) that contaminated (contagium) the entire world. This passage clearly echoes a passage taken from Virgil, Georgic III.469 in which Virgil warns any shepherd who would remark that one of his sheep is sick to kill it before the contagion spread to all his flock (see the common use of the noun contagia and of the verb serpere; Doblhofer, R. Cl. Namatianus, p. 187). The biological metaphor used by Rutilius forms part of his argumentation according to which Jews are and will remain pernicious enemies of Rome that had clearly taken advantage of Rome’s generosity (about Jews as a gens perniciosa, see Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria III.7.21). Actually, while Rutilius previously implies in his praise of Rome that Judea had been incorporated into the Roman Empire, meaning that the Jews enjoyed the benefits of Roman peace, and after 212 CE those of Roman citizenship, they are here presented as ungrateful. Rutilius defends the idea that Jews will remain enemies of Rome because of their innate seditious nature and of the incompatibility of Judaism with Greco-Roman culture. The last verse, “the conquered nation weighs upon her own conquerors” (I.398, victoresque suos natio victa premit) is particularly interesting because it clearly echoes the famous verses of Horace in which he concludes that “captive Greece took her savage victor captive” (Horace, Letters II.1.156; about the connection between these two texts see Doblhofer, R. Cl. Namatianus, p. 187). If Horace speaks in positive terms of the Greeks who brought the arts into Italy, Rutilius’s perspective is totally different, as the Jews are presented as internal enemies that show the limits of Rome’s imperialist policy. When he wrote these lines Rutilius must have been influenced by a passage of Seneca’s De superstitione (frag. 42). This work is now lost, but we know parts of it through quotations of Augustine. In The City of God VI.11, Augustine quotes Seneca’s words about Jews: “The customs of this most villainous nation (sceleratissimae gentis) have gained such influence that they are now received throughout every land. The vanquished have given laws to their victors (victi victoribus leges dederunt).” The fact that, in this quotation of Seneca, we find the idea that Judaism spread irremediably throughout the world and the echo to Horace’s famous statement mean that we can surely conclude that Rutilius must have known this reflexion of Seneca. However, according to Alan Cameron, the fact that Seneca was an unfashionable author in pagan literary circles of the fourth and fifth centuries means that Rutilius must have been aware of Seneca’s attack against Jews through his reading of the sixth book of Augustine’s work itself (sixth book of The City of God appeared in 416 CE, see Cameron, “Rutilius Namatianus,” p. 31-32).

Even if we have seen that Rutilius’s diatribe against Jews fits in with a literary tradition of anti-Jewish invectives going back to Cicero, it is also important to understand it into the context of the composition of the whole work. Many scholars have rightly recalled that Rutilius’s hostility towards Jews must have been exacerbated by the legislation promulgated from Theodosius I’s reign onwards. Actually, the laws preserved in the sixteen book of the Theodosian Code show that the number of laws reiterating prohibitions to perform sacrifices within pagan cults, ordering the closing of temples or the destruction of statues, and suppressing the privileges of pagan priests, increases from 385 CE onwards. (see Delmaire and Rougé, Les lois religieuses, p. 43-49; see in particular CTh XVI.10.9-14, 16, 18, 19, 20). At the same time, Jews regularly succeeded to obtain juridical or fiscal privileges from imperial governments which were not reluctant to guarantee them the right to live in accordance with their customs if the latter were not in contradiction with Roman morals and law. In addition, during the last decades of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century, many laws attest that after some legal proceedings had been initiated by Jewish plaintiffs, the imperial government had been obliged to condemn infringements on synagogues or Jewish liturgics items that were committed throughout the Empire (see this legislation in CTh XVI.8; about the interpretation of this legislation see Nemo-Pekelman, Rome et ses citoyens juifs). Rutilius evolved in such a context, and we can imagine that he did not approve of the attention and the understanding the western imperial government could have had regarding Jews. We can quote more precisely a law of Honorius, dated to the 26th July 412 CE – that is when Rutilius was magister officiorum at Ravenna –, addressed to the prefect of Italy Johannes (we know it through two different versions, CTh II.8.26 and XVI.8.20). After having recalled that synagogues could not be violated nor occupied, CTh XVI.8.20 ordains that members of the Jewish people could not be constrained by any summons during the Sabbath. CTh II.8.26 ordains in a shorter manner and from a more general perspective that Jews could not be compelled to do anything nor be summoned during the Sabbath. It is recalled that the other days of the week shall suffice for fiscal matters or private litigations (on this law, see Nemo-Pekelman, Rome et ses citoyens juifs, p. 67-68). Thus, this legislative context makes perfect sense for Rutilius’s acerbic remark about the Sabbath and the idleness of the Jews.
Finally, the depiction of the Jews as savages who would remain enemies of Rome forever fits in with the economy of the whole book, which enumerates various examples of enemies of Rome – most of the time of foreign origins – who evolve in the very heart of the Empire and work towards its degeneracy or its destruction. The monks of the island of Capraria – about whom Rutilius specifies that the name monk must be of Greek origin –, but also the hermit of the island of Gorgona, are presented as asocial men and savages (I.439-452; I.515-527). Similarly, if Rutilius describes Jews as  cross-contaminators through the echo of the Virgilian image of the sick sheep, he also implicitly compares, again through a Virgilian echo, the monks of Capraria to cockroaches. Finally, the Goths are also accused by Rutilius of being among these enemies who sap Rome’s power. From that perspective, Rutilius criticizes Stilicho as being the traitor who left Rome for the Goths (II.41-60). Moreover, these Goths are not presented as an external threat, but as inner enemies who infected the Empire for many decades because of the incoherencies of the policy that consisted of dealing with them from the reign of Theodosius onwards: “Rome herself was open to these skin-clad henchmen; she was captive before she could be captured” (II.49-50). As in the invective against the Jews, we find the idea that these inner enemies, who refused to integrate themselves into Rome’s universal Empire, have succeeded to contaminate the whole Empire and thus to weaken their former master, Rome. Rutilius thus presents these foreigners animated by misanthropic and/or savage character as being the intrinsic causes of the irremediable fail of Rome’s oecumenical ambitions (on this whole question we refer to the useful synthesis of Wolff, Lancel and Soler, p. li-lv).

To conclude, Rutilius’s invective against Jews is of particular interest because it is the last work of this kind that was written by a pagan Latin author. Rutilius uses his acerbic portrayal of a stingy and greedy Jewish inn-keeper to extend his invective to the whole Jewish people. The inn-keeper and the Jews in general are presented as asocial, as they cannot respect the most elementary rules of hospitality. The recalling of their dietary restrictions enables Rutilius to allude to their exclusiveness: in the perspective of some Romans, Jews were not integrated into Roman society, and they steered everything towards perpetuating their misanthropic rules. Rutilius uses very common motifs of invective against Jews: circumcision is the manifestation of their lubricious nature, and the Sabbath is presented as the manifestation of the indolence of their God. Another essential point of this diatribe against Jews is the idea that Rome has been conquered and infected by Judaism, that is by the religion of a people she defeated and subdued in the past. We have seen that most of the motifs of Rutilius’s invective against Jews were clearly influenced by posterior classical traditions, and that in some cases, this influence appears clearly when he inserts short references to these classical texts in his narrative; we have seen that this is manifest with Virgil. However, we have also seen that some of Rutilius’s anti-Jewish criticism echoes contemporary issues. The fact that he insists on the fact that Rome has been conquered and infected by Judaism must be understood in connection with his global assessment that at his time, Rome was considerably endangered because of men, most of them of foreign origins, who evolve in the very heart of the Empire and work towards its destruction. This was of course the case of the Goths, even if with them, the issue was less of religious or cultural contamination than the fact that they were really seizing power by holding numerous positions in the Roman army, by leading aggressive raids into the very heart of the Empire, or by negotiating settlement inside the Empire itself. Rutilius Namatianus’s invective against Jews is thus an interesting mix of an anti-Jewish speech restating various topoi of the genre, also echoing problems or issues typical of the troubled period in which it was written.

Bibliographical references: 
Wolff, Etienne, Lancel, Serge, Soler, Joëlle, Rutilius Namatianus, Sur son retour (edition and translation by Etienne Wolff; collab. Serge Lancel and Joëlle Soler; Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007)
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Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.377-398
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Wed, 09/05/2018 - 17:23
Visited: Thu, 07/18/2019 - 03:13

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