Augustine, City of God VI.11

Augustine’s consideration of Seneca’s opinions on the Jews

Name of the author: 
413 CE to 427 CE
Literary genre: 
Rhetorical treatise
Title of work: 
City of God

Augustine’s City of God (De Civitate Dei), written between 412 and 426 CE, responded to claims that the Goths who had sacked Rome in 410 CE had been able to do so because Rome’s traditional gods were angry that the empire was neglecting them due to the widespread Christianity that its inhabitants and emperors had adopted. The work is made up of twenty-two books in total, which deal with a variety of themes from philosophy, the history of the Jewish and Christian people, and the character of Roman imperialism. At the centre is Augustine’s argument that there exist two “cities,” one of God, which is home to those who do God’s bidding and live according to his ways, and one earthly city, which is home to those solely concerned with their own wants and needs. In this sense, Augustine develops a theory whereby one’s “citizenship” is not so much understood in terms of belonging to either the Church or the state, but rather on what it is that one prioritises. Therefore, one could be both a Christian and a loyal Roman citizen.

In the present passage from book six of the City of God, Augustine offers Seneca the Younger’s view on Jews and Judaism, providing quotations from his work On Superstition, which is lost to us for the most part. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BCE - 65 CE) was a philosopher of the Stoic movement, a Roman senator, and a dramatist, known for his tragic plays. He acted as a tutor and then an advisor to the emperor Nero, ultimately being forced to commit suicide due to his alleged participation in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate the emperor. Seneca was popular amongst Christians as of the second century CE onwards, and was widely read and admired by Christians; so much so that by the fourth century CE it was believed that Seneca and the Apostle Paul had known each other. What is now generally agreed to be a fraudulent correspondence was created in order to strengthen this latter claim (for a recent series of essays discussing the viewpoints of Paul and Seneca in relation to one another, see the edited collection of Joey Dodson and David Briones, Paul and Seneca in Dialogue). Jerome even included Seneca amongst his collection of notable Christians in his On Illustrious Men XII (see Alan Cameron, “Rutilius Namatianus,” p. 32). Chiara Torre argues, however, that the reception of Seneca in late-antique Christianity is less to do with compatible ideology, and more to do with the fact that like Paul and Peter, Seneca was also martyred in Rome under Nero, and therefore held a “crucial historical and geographical overlap” with these prominent Christian figures (“Seneca and the Christian Tradition,” p. 266-267, quotation at p. 267). Other traces of Seneca’s On Superstition can be found in Tertullian’s Apology XII.6, XVI.11, and XLVI.4; Minucius Felix’s Ocatvius XXV.8, XXVIII.7; and Lactantius’s Divine Institutes I.20.

Torre notes that the reception of Seneca in the Church Fathers is part of a wider tradition in which particular authors engaged with Seneca, Cicero, and Varro due to their interest in moral and ethical issues. Augustine associates Seneca with these other two figures in City of God VI.10, as does Lactantius in the Divine Institutes III.15-16 (“Seneca and the Christian Tradition,” p. 275). Harald Hagendahl sees the few mentions that Augustine makes of Seneca as evidence that he was not particularly well acquainted with the philosopher, and with the exception of On Superstition, had little interest in his writings. However, Winfried Trillitzsch disagrees, and claims that Augustine knew Seneca’s works well, especially as he criticises the Manichean Faustus in the Confessions V.6 for knowing too little Seneca, the implication being that Augustine himself had sufficient knowledge (see Hagendahl, Augustine and the Latin Classics, p. 677; Trillitzsch, Seneca, p. 169). As Gerard O’Daly notes, Augustine utilises Seneca’s On Superstition largely to complement his own critique of Varro’s attitude to Roman religion. Augustine admires the way that Seneca undermines the credibility of Roman state religion, as writing as a philosopher, Seneca sees popular religious cults as defined by laws and customs, rather than truth (Augustine’s City of God, p. 250-251).

Augustine is one of our limited sources of information regarding Seneca’s views regarding Jews, with the present passage in the City of God being our main witness for his work On Superstition. However, before we turn to discuss this text, it should be noted that Seneca mentions Jewish practice also in his Epistle 95.47, where he discusses the sabbath amongst various religious practices he views as unnecessary:

“Precepts are commonly given as to how the gods should be worshipped. But let us forbid lamps to be lighted on the Sabbath, since the gods do not need light, neither do men take pleasure in soot. Let us forbid men to offer morning salutation and to throng the doors of temples; mortal ambitions are attracted by such ceremonies, but God is worshipped by those who truly know Him. Let us forbid bringing towels and flesh-scrapers to Jupiter, and proffering mirrors to Juno; for God seeks no servants” (Loeb translation by R. M. Gummere).

Here, Seneca refers to the practice of lamps being lit within Jewish homes on the eve of the sabbath. However, as Heather McKay notes, his problem seems to be specifically with the fact that this ritual is trivial, and it appears alongside criticisms of pagan religious practices also. McKay argues, therefore, that Seneca is not seeking to launch an attack here on the Jewish people per se, but rather on rituals in general which are belittling to the gods (Sabbath and Synagogue, p. 99-100; see also Molly Whittaker, Jews and Christians, p. 72). We will come back to this point below. From this comment in Seneca’s Epistle and the present text quoted in Augustine, it is clear that the sabbath was something which the philosopher felt particularly compelled to criticise, and this will be considered in more detail in what follows. However, Augustine’s citations seem to reveal that Seneca had other problems with the Jewish people, both related to their specific religious practices and to their prominent presence within the Roman empire.

In the chapter immediately preceding that quoted above (VI.10) Augustine praises Seneca’s criticism of the various forms of pagan superstitio (superstition) throughout the empire. However, Augustine proceeds to accuse the philosopher of hypocrisy. Augustine explains that Seneca’s philosophical lifestyle taught him to pretend to perform the necessary actions of worship in the temples so as to conform—he was, after all, a Roman senator— with “the laws of cities and the customs of men,” in order that the people believed him to be sincere. However, in the present chapter Augustine acknowledges that Seneca condemned the superstitio of the Jews, but not that of the Christians. This redeemed the philosopher in the eyes of Augustine, who cites both personal and political motives behind Seneca’s specifically directed critique. Augustine’s quotation of Seneca sees several claims made about the Jews. Firstly, their observance of the sabbath is attacked, with Seneca quoted as claiming that this makes the Jewish people lazy, and wasteful of a seventh of their life. Moreover, issues which might demand immediate attention are left, often with a damaging effect. It is stated that the Jews are an “accursed/villainous nation” (sceleratissimae gentis) whose customs have now spread throughout the empire and gained great influence. Finally, Seneca is quoted as claiming that “the conquered (i.e. the Jews) have given laws to their conquerors/victors (i.e. the Romans) (victi victoribus leges dederunt).” However, we also learn through the passage quoted above that while Seneca criticised the Jewish religion, he acknowledged all the while its self-awareness and its understanding of the origin and meaning of its rites (ritus) and customs. This is contrasted with the ignorance displayed by followers of Roman religion as to the reasons behind their religious practices (see Gerard O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God, p. 251). The Roman people in general (maior pars populi), it is claimed, are inferior to the Jewish people in this way, as the latter, while their rites are criticised by Seneca, at least perform them with a comprehension of their reasons for doing so, unlike the Roman people, who do not know why they perform their rites (on this argument in Seneca, see Marion Lausberg, Untersuchungen zu Sénecas Fragmenten, p. 205-206). There are therefore various interesting elements to Augustine’s quotation of Seneca here which we will consider further in the discussion that follows.

The first criticism of the Jews on which Augustine quotes Seneca is the practice of observing the sabbath. The custom of not working on the seventh day of the week was one of the prominent distinguishing factors which marked out the Jewish people as different from other inhabitants of the Roman empire, and this was articulated by Roman authors as early as the first century BCE. For instance, Ovid in his Art of Love I.75-80 encourages young men to seek out love even on the “seventh day that the Syrian Jew holds sacred.” For Seneca, as far as we can tell from Augustine, the sabbath was not only superstitious nonsense, but it also encouraged indolence among the Jewish people. Perhaps this was of particular concern to Seneca because he believed that a day where it is forbidden to work was particularly tempting to those outside of Judaism, and therefore something which might motivate people to join the Jewish religion. In this connection, precisely what Seneca refers to when he states that the “laws” of the Jews have been given to their Roman conquerors is debated. For some scholars, Seneca is referring to customs such as the sabbath. However, Augustine quotes Seneca as stating earlier in the sentence that “the customs (consuetudo) of that most accursed nation have gained such strength that they have been now received in all lands” (see McKay, Sabbath and Synagogue, p. 101; Harry J. Leon specifically relates this comment to Jewish proselytising, Ancient Rome, p. 42, 250). Josephus makes a similar comment about the custom of the sabbath spreading to numerous places:

“For there is not any city of the Grecians, nor any of the barbarians, nor any nation whatsoever, where our custom of resting on the seventh day has not come, and by which our fasts, and lighting up lamps, and many of our prohibitions as to our food, are not observed” (Josephus, Against Apion II.40; see McKay, Sabbath and Synagogue, p. 102).

Does Seneca actually use two different terms—“customs” and “laws”—to cover the adoption of practices such as food restrictions and not working on the sabbath among proselytes in the Roman empire? This is certainly a strong possibility, especially when we consider his comments elsewhere. As we saw above, in his Epistle 95, Seneca’s comments related to the sabbath are no more disparaging that those relating to other religious practices. However, in his Epistle 108.22, Seneca discusses legal measures taken in the early reign of Tiberius against those who abstained from certain types of food (this of course affected the Jews) and were therefore seen as adopting “foreign rites.” Seneca explains that he is willing to give up his vegetarianism in order that he not be accused of such. For this reason, Peter Schäfer understands Seneca as being frustrated both with full converts and Jewish sympathisers who had simply adopted certain practices, and sees no reason to distinguish. For this scholar, both full converts and proselytes were representative of the “danger the Jews presented to Roman society” (Judeophobia, p. 112). As Terrence Donaldson states, Seneca is proud of the way in which the Romans drew conquered peoples into the fabric of the empire, and is “annoyed at the extent to which the process was reversed in this case.” Despite the fact that Rome had emerged as the victor over the Jews, Seneca notes the degree to which Romans were adopting the ways of life (consuetudo) and the laws (lex, i.e. food laws, sabbath observance) of the conquered Jewish people (Judaism and the Gentiles, p. 515).

In relation to the claim that the Jews are an “accursed/villainous (scelerus) nation (gens),” Heather McKay notes the range of translations for the adjective scelerus, which can be rendered variously in English, for example, as “bad,” “impious,” “vicious,” “wicked” etc. McKay herself suggests we translate the phrase as “rascally race” (Sabbath and Synagogue, p. 100, n. 49). This rendering is less forceful in terms of its causticity, and would suggest a tone less defamatory than is often assumed of Seneca. McKay’s rendering implies that the Jews are mostly a nuisance to Rome due to their fast spreading influence, which is certainly a problem for Seneca. Michael Grant has argued in this perspective that Seneca’s view of the Jews is more neutral than many scholars believe (The Jews, p. 240). This is also the view of McKay, who argues that Seneca seems to have a varied opinion which is sometimes disparaging and at other times more positive, such as his recognition in the present text of the Jews’ commendable self-knowledge in comparison to the followers of Roman religion (Sabbath and Synagogue, p. 103). McKay does not believe that Seneca is opposed to the Jews on the basis of their ethnic origin as such, but specifically their religious practices, which he sees as lazy and unnecessary, and therefore a danger to Romans who are tempted to embrace them. While this may be, the fact that Seneca uses the term gens specifically identifies the Jews as a distinct people, with the reference to the Romans’ conquering of the Jews marking them out as one of the various peoples that the imperial power subdued. It is difficult, therefore, to make the claim that Seneca is uninterested in this aspect of Jewish identity in relation to Rome. In this perspective, let us now look to some other similar descriptions of the Jews from Roman authors.

In his On His Return I.377-398, Rutilius Namatianus makes several disparaging comments about the Jewish people, drawing upon various contemporary Jewish stereotypes from Latin literature. His sharp criticisms include assertions that echo those of Seneca as quoted by Augustine, specifically that the Jews are lazy because of their observance of the sabbath, and that the Roman subjugation of the Jews actually had a negative impact upon the former: “the conquered nation weighs upon her own conquerors” (victoresque suos natio victa premit) (On His Return I.398; in addition, Rutilius argues that the Jewish people are greedy, unhospitable to foreigners, cold-hearted, and  a “filthy nation,” gens obscena, who are propudiosa, “indecent,” due to their custom of circumcision; the association of circumcision with hyper-sexuality or large sex organs is well attested, for example in Martial’s Epigrams VII.30, 55, 82 and XI.94. Tacitus, Histories V.5.2, also views circumcision as a consequence of the libido of the Jewish people). Rutilius suggests that it would have been preferable for the Romans not to have subdued Judea (I.395-396), despite his insistence elsewhere in the same text that one of Rome’s strengths was its ability to integrate various conquered peoples into the empire (On his return I.55-66). Judaism is described as a vicious plague (pestis) which contaminated the world and took advantage of Rome’s generosity, “weighing heavy” on the Roman victors. Rutilius’s implication that is although Judea was conquered, the Jews subsequently enjoyed the benefits of the Pax Romana, and also of Roman citizenship after Caracalla’s edict of 212 CE, and as such ought to be more grateful to the imperial power. Rutilius’s statement that “the conquered nation weighs upon her own conquerors” (I.398) also echoes the words of Horace in his Letters II.1.156, where he describes the captive Greece as taking her own victor captive. Rutilius’s perspective is different from that of Horace, however, who presents Greece positively as bringing art to Italy. For Rutilius, the Jews, who were brought within the confines of the Roman empire, and able to enjoy the benefits which this brought, are an ungrateful people who showed one of the downfalls of Rome’s expansionist policy. Due to the similarity of this particular argument to Augustine’s quotation of Seneca which describes the Jews as a “conquered” nation who “have given laws to their conquerors/victors,” it is suggested that Rutilius was familiar with the particular passage of Seneca’s On Superstition that Augustine also refers to. Alan Cameron argues that because Seneca was not a popular author in the pagan literary circles of the fourth and fifth centuries CE, it is more likely that Rutilius knows Seneca’s attack on the Jews from reading Augustine’s text, rather than Seneca’s work directly (Cameron, “Rutilius Namatianus,” p. 31-32). In any case, we see the common employment by two Roman authors (Seneca, albeit through Augustine, and Rutilius) of one strong criticism of the Jewish people, that they took advantage of their victors and proceeded to be troublesome for them.

We will now briefly consider the way in which Augustine understands Seneca’s views of Christianity, which he claims the philosopher did not dare criticise like he had the Jews for “praise or blame,” and out of fear of violating the custom of his country. Moreover, it is suggested that Seneca did not want to speak ill of the Christians because it was “against his own will.” It would be pushing the passage too far to suggest that Augustine implies that Seneca was secretly a Christian who did not want to admit it publicly out of fear of the emperor. However, Augustine’s words here do echo those of Christian authors, himself included (see below), such as the uncertain author of the Oration of Constantine XIX, who claimed that Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, which speaks of a promised baby boy who would usher in a new golden age, really wanted to state more explicitly that this “messiah” figure was in fact Christ, but out of fear of the Roman authorities, and being seen as subverting the religious environment of the time, Virgil veiled the mystery of the Saviour in language familiar to his pagan audience, and suggested that there ought to be sacrifices, altars, and temples dedicated to the promised child. Indeed, Augustine mentions Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue on more than one occasion, and argues that Virgil’s words were truly speaking Christian truths (see City of God X.27; Letters 137.3.12, 104.3.11; see the commentary for the Oration of Constantine XIX, which provides references to other relevant texts). Rather than suggesting that Augustine claimed Seneca for Christianity, therefore, we ought rather to simply note that he makes clear the Roman philosopher’s reluctance to critique it, in stark contrast to the way in which he spoke of God’s former people, the Jews. For Augustine, God wanted the Jews to remain Jews, as they were valuable to the Church due to their example as preservers of the Old Testament and its commands. His view on the special status of Jews is summed up in City of God XVIII.46, and is one of his significant theological legacies (see Paula Fredrickson, Augustine and the Jews, p. xi-xii). Here, Augustine offers his interpretation of Psalms 59:11 (“Do not kill them, or my people may forget…” NRSV) as an instruction for Christians on how to treat Jews. He argues that of all the religious groups in the Christian empire, the Jews should be allowed to practice their religion freely because their customs were traceable back directly to God, the same God which the Christians worshipped.

While we only have here Augustine’s quotation of Seneca, rather than the direct words of the philosopher himself, when considered alongside Seneca’s mention of Jewish practices and in his Epistles, it becomes clear that at the very least, he was concerned about the influence of certain Jewish customs on Roman society, and depending on the force with which we read his comments relating to Jewish reversal of Rome’s policy of drawing its conquered peoples into the empire, Seneca’s words can be read as extremely disparaging of the Jewish gens.


Bibliographical references: 

“Seneca and the Christian Tradition”

Torre, Chiaraarticle-in-a-bookThe Cambridge Companion to Seneca Shadi Bartsch , Alessandro Schiesaro266-276“Seneca and the Christian Tradition” CambridgeCambridge University Press2015
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