Commentary on Daniel IV.8

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The Romans are not a nation but they are made for waging wars
Name of the author: 
203 CE to 204 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Commentary on Daniel

The Commentary on Daniel (In Danielem) is an exegetical work on the book of Daniel. The identity of its author has been debated, especially the question of his possible identification with one or other of the Hippolytus’s to whom many works and fragments have been assigned. Some scholars have identified him with Hippolytus of Rome, a Roman priest who became a schismatic and died as a martyr with the pope Pontian in 235 CE after having been exiled in Sardinia. However, this identification has been rejected by various scholars (the main initiator of this revision was P. Nautin). As part of this questioning, Manlio Simonetti has proposed to see the author of the Commentary on Daniel as an Easterner, perhaps a bishop from Asia Minor, writing around the end of the second and beginning of the third century CE, who may have been a disciple of Hippolytus of Rome (see Simonetti, “Una nueva proposta”; some scholars continue today to identify the author of the In Danielem with Hippolytus of Rome, see Frickel, Ippolito di Roma, p. 23-41; for a bibliographic survey, see Saxer, “Hippolyte”). This Eastern Hippolytus is also commonly identified with the author of other works, such as the treaty De antichristo – that must have been written before the Commentary on Daniel as the latter alludes to it – or the work known as Against Noetus (about the assigning of the many works and fragments to the Roman priest or the Eastern Hippolytus, see Moreschini and Norelli, Histoire de la littérature, p. 279-295). The only element that helps to suggest a chronological range for the composition of the Commentary on Daniel is the frequent references inside the work to recent persecutions against Christians. These persecutions have been identified by some as the recent persecution led by Septimius Severus, which leads some scholars to suggest that the Commentary on Daniel may have been written around 203-204 CE (see Moreschini and Norelli, Histoire de la litterature, p. 289).

The text presented here corresponds to an exegetical commentary made on Daniel’s vision of the four beasts (Daniel 7:1-28). The theme of the succession of empires, which is at stake in Daniel’s vision, was probably of Median or Persian origin and was then exploited by Greek authors such as Herodotus or Ctesias before reaching a fixed form after Alexander’s conquests (Momigliano, “Daniele,” p. 161). The model of the succession of four or five empires then became a standard for authors who wanted to deal with the history on the longue durée (see Inglebert, Interpretatio Christiana, p. 343-344). This model was thus adopted by Roman authors such as Aemilius Sura who presented Rome as the last universal empire after the Assyrians, Medes, Persians and Macedonians (Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History I.6), or by Trogus Pompeius who, from a less positive perspective towards Rome, reuses the same succession – Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Macedonians –, but presents Rome and Parthia as the successors of Alexander (Justin, Epitome of the Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus XLI.1.1-9; Inglebert, Interpretatio Christiana, p. 344). This model of the succession of empires also plays a significant role in Judaism, as attested in the book of Daniel, whose final redaction dates from the reign of Antiochos IV (175-163 BCE). This model is implied in two passages of the book, that of Daniel’s vision of the statue (Daniel 2) and that of Daniel’s vision of the four beasts (Daniel 7). The author of the book of Daniel introduced one major change in the usual model by replacing the Assyrians with the Babylonians. The succession thus becomes: Babylonians – Medes – Persians – Macedonians (including the descendants of Alexander as the Seleucid kings). Then, as rightly recalled by Hervé Inglebert, this “historical reading” of Daniel’s prophecy continued to exist, even if the dominant one became the “midrashic” one, that is the one that the Jewish interpreter of Daniel’s visions proposed in order to adapt it to the new political context, especially by taking into account Rome’s domination. The succession of the empires that characterised this “Roman Jewish list” is as follows: Babylon – Media/Persia – Greece – Rome or Edom/Esau (see in particular Inglebert, Interpretatio Christiana, p. 345, n. 188 and p. 363). Among the Palestinian Jewish texts following the model with four empires are: Targum Ps. Jonathan on Genesis 15:12; Genesis Rabbah 16:4 (Theodor-Albeck edition, p. 147-148); Leviticus Rabbah 13:5 (part 1), (part 2), (part 3); 2 Baruch 39 and Josephus, Jewish Antiquities X.195-210 and 266-281, who presents the succession Babylonia – Medians and Persians – Greece – Rome. It can be added that the only Jewish source that has been quoted for presenting a series of five empires, Assyria – Babylonia – Medians – Greece – Rome, is the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael (Beshalaḥ Parashah 2, p. 132 of Lauterbach’s edition; this particularity is quoted in Inglebert, Interpretatio Christiana, p. 345, n. 188, 363). However, according to the Horovitz-Rabin edition of this text (Beshalaḥ Parashah 1, p. 87 of his edition), the midrash mentions five empires but calls the Romans the fourth kingdom. In addition, Assyria is not attested in the best manuscripts, meaning that the succession becomes a succession of four kingdoms. Thus, the reference to the five kingdoms can be interpreted as a later addition (this text is mentioned in the commentary of Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael be-Ḥodesh (Yitro), parasha 8). Most of the Christians who interpreted the visions of Daniel related to the four kingdoms were influenced either by the Jewish interpretations of the text or by the classical model of the succession of four or five empires (about patristic exegeses of Daniel 2 and 7 see Simonetti, “L’esegesi”).

The text presented here is found in the fourth part of the commentary in which the author discusses Daniel’s vision of the four beasts and uses it to offer a reflection about empires. It is one of the earliest apparitions of the theme of the four empires in Greek Christian literature (the first one is a passage of Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies V.26 and 30.3, in which Irenaeus highlights the existence of four empires and attributes the fourth to the Latins; Simonetti, “L’esegesi,” p. 39). After Irenaeus of Lyon, the author of the Commentary on Daniel is the first one who discusses explicitly which empire has to be identified behind each of the four beasts mentioned by Daniel. By choosing the succession Babylonians – Persians – Greeks – Romans (see also In Danielem II.12, but also IV.1-8), the author of the Commentary on Daniel followed the Roman Jewish scheme we have previously mentioned (Inglebert, Interpretatio Christiana, p. 346).

The approach of the author of the Commentary on Daniel towards Rome is entirely negative. First, he reads the book of Daniel with the Apocalypse of John in mind, which explains why he compares Rome to Babylon various times, and the Roman emperors to Babylonian princes (about the equivalence Rome/Babylon see Revelation 16:1-19 and Commentary on Daniel I.14-15; II.27; III.31; Inglebert, Les Romains chrétiens, p. 61, n. 191). The most interesting element of the text presented here is the way he introduces his criticism of Rome and the arguments he uses to do so.
The author asks why Daniel did not specify which kind of animal was the fourth beast, whereas the first three embodying Babylon, Persia and Greece are presented as a lioness, a bear and a leopard (about the symbolic meaning behind these animals, see Simonetti, “L’esegesi,” p. 43). Contrary to what seems to be the logical explanation, namely that Daniel did not name this beast to insist on his singular monstrosity and that it had more to do with a monster than with an animal, the author of the Commentary on Daniel explains this in an original manner, namely by the fact that the Roman people are in fact nothing but an impure and heterogeneous entity. To argue that the Romans do not form a nation, he enumerates various arguments: 1/ the fact that they are only a collection of people from various origins; 2/ the fact that they do not share the same language; 3/ the fact that the goal of their gathering is to make war. In the passage following this text, the author reinforces this criticism by presenting the Roman census organised under Augustus as a raising of the “well-born” in all the nations on earth in order to make them Roman soldiers, and possibly to become Roman citizens after the completion of their career. For the author of the Commentary on Daniel, the names of “Roman” and “Christian” were fundamentally incompatible, because the former favours war and the latter peace (see Commentary on Daniel IV.9). As rightly recalled by Hervé Inglebert, by insisting on the fact that the Romans did not form a nation and that the only common point that united them was the recruitment in the army, the author of the Commentary on Daniel directly attacks Rome’s policy concerning the granting and the spread of its citizenship, and does not recognize any positive aspects to this policy (Inglebert, Les Romains chrétiens, p. 62-63).
Moreover, the fact that the author of the Commentary on Daniel focuses his criticism of Rome on the fact that it was a heterogeneous entity and not an ethnos shows that he must have been clearly influenced by anti-Roman statements that also circulated in Jewish milieus. Actually, some rabbis also use the argument that the Roman Empire was an impure collection of barbarian peoples and languages to discredit it and present it as the incarnation of Evil (Inglebert, Les Romains chrétiens, p. 63). More precisely, the arguments used by the author of the Commentary on Daniel to criticize Rome can be found in later rabbinic literature.
First, the criticism against the fact that Roman armies are nothing than a collection of barbarians appears for instance when some rabbis of the fourth century quote tannaim of the third generation (second century CE), who regret: “This evil kingdom enlists recruits from each nation. A Goth (or a Cuthean) comes to enslave us as the Empire has enslaved all its nation, a Cuchite comes to enslave us as the Empire has enslaved all its nation” (Pesiqta de Rav Kanana 5:7; Pesiqta Rabbati 15:7; quoted in Hadas-Lebel, Jerusalem, p. 234; note however that Pesiqta de Rav Kanana was compiled in the fifth c. and Pesiqta Rabbati even later). A quite similar idea is developed in Sifre Deuteronomy 320 (ed. Finkelstein, p. 367; Sifre Deuteronomy is usually dated from the third century CE), which refers to “those beings who are not a people” (Deuteronomy 32:21), and explaining that it is the dregs of the people “coming from all nations and kingdoms to oust Israel from its dwelling places” (Hadas-Lebel, Jerusalem, p. 236).
Second, in rabbinic literature some voices criticize Rome for not using its own language as it was Greek which was used for the purposes of Roman administration. Such kind of criticism appears in Midrash Esther Rabbah 4:12 (dated from the six century CE) when the fourth century amora R. Juda b. Simon considers that Rome discredits herself by signing documents not written in her own language. This idea is also developed in the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 80a, when it is written that Rome does not possess writing nor language (these texts are quoted in Hadas-Lebel, Jerusalem, p. 389). However, the problem with this midrash as with the Babylonian Talmud is that they are much later sources. 
Third, the idea that the Romans are intrinsically a people of war and that they only exist as such is implicitly present in some rabbinic sources, such as Genesis Rabbah 42:4, or in the teaching attributed to the amora of the third century CE Rabbi Jonathan from Beth Guvrin that lists four languages with their corresponding domains: “Four languages are of value: Greek for song, Latin for war, Aramaic for dirges, and Hebrew for speaking” (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:8, 71b; Sotah 7:3, 21c quoted in Hadas-Lebel, Jerusalem, p. 232).

Finally, by rejecting the idea that the Romans formed a people (ethnos) and by affirming that this people is only a people of war, the author challenged one of the fundamental concepts of Roman ideology, and denied, possibly a few years before the Antonine Constitution in 212 CE, that the policy that Rome led concerning the granting and the spread of Roman citizenship, from the beginning of the Empire onwards, actually missed its objective to form a homogenous people who could enjoy their condition in peace. The only thing that gathers this collection of ‘Romans’ is to wage war for Rome; the perspective of the author of the Commentary on Daniel is thus the exact opposite of Aelius Aristides’s praise of Rome and of the benefits brought by the pax Romana (Aelius Aristides, The Roman Oration 100; on this source Aelius Aristides, The Roman Oration (extracts)).

All in all, it seems that the Apocalypse of John and some Jewish traditions – known from admittedly later rabbinic sources, meaning that that we cannot be sure that all of them already circulated at the very beginning of the third century CE – contributed to the shaping of the profoundly hostile perception of Rome found in the Commentary on Daniel. Some scholars have proposed to connect this hostility with some anti-Christian repressions which would have been undertaken at this time by the emperor Septimius Severus, but this point is not explicitly confirmed by the text (Simonetti, “L’esegesi,” p. 41, n. 16). As rightly remarked by Hervé Inglebert, a quick comparison between the anti-Roman positions expressed in this text and the writings of other Greek Christian authors of the second century, like Melito of Sardis (Melito of Sardis, Apology), Irenaeus of Lyon or Theophilus of Antioch (Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus I.11), who tried to initiate the accommodation between Christian faith, Greek culture and the Roman Empire, show the singularity of the position of the author of the Commentary on Daniel, for whom the coexistence of Romans and Christians was impossible (Inglebert, Les Romains chrétiens, p. 62; Simonetti, “L’esegesi,” p. 39-45).

Bibliographical references: 
Saxer, Victor, “Hippolyte”, in Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, vol. XXIV (; Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1993), col. 627-635
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Commentary on Daniel IV.8
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Mon, 12/02/2019 - 11:55
Visited: Fri, 03/01/2024 - 19:44

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