Historia Augusta, Life of Severus XVI.8-XVII.1

To have access to the original text and the translation, log in or create new account.

Septimius Severus forbade conversion to Judaism and to Christian faith
380 CE to 400 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Historia Augusta, Life of Severus

This text is an excerpt from the Life of Severus (i.e. Septimius Severus who reigned between 193-211 CE), which is part of the Historia Augusta (for a general presentation of this work, see Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian XIV.2). Among the sources used by the author to compose this Vita, some scholars consider that he mainly used the work of the biographer Marius Maximus. Living between the 160s and 230s CE, Marius Maximus composed a group of twelve imperial biographies that imitated and continued the Lives of Suetonius, starting with the emperor Nerva and ending with Heliogabalus. Thus, according to Anthony Birley, Marius Maximus must have been the major source for the author of the Historia Augusta, for Hadrian to Heliogabalus (see Birley, “Marius Maximus”; contested by Ronald Syme who considered Marius Maximus to be a secondary source, and who preferred to see an unknown author that he called “the good biographer,” or Ignotus, asthe main source of the author of the Historia Augusta, see Syme, Emperors, p. 30-53; the existence of Ignotus is contested in Chastagnol, Histoire Auguste, p. lii-lix).
Concerning the Life of Severus, the numerous quotations of the name of Marius Maximus suggest that he must have been used as a source by the author. This Life has also the peculiarity of containing a whole passage (XVII.5 to XIX.4) that presents many similarities with Aurelius Victor’s Liber de Caesaribus and Eutropius’s Breviarium, even if the author of the Life of Severus may have used a source (known as EKG) that might have been also used by Aurelius Victor and Eutropius themselves (see Chausson, “Severus, XVII, 5-XIX, 4”). Chapter XVII.5 marks a break in the chronological narrative around the year 200 CE, as the author explicitly writes that after this point he decided to deal with the events more exhaustively. Thus, for the narration of the long chronological sequence that precedes and deals with Severus’s journey in Palaestina and then in Egypt, the sequence containing the text presented here, the author of the Life of Severus may have used Marius Maximus’s narrative (on this point, see Chausson, “Severus, XVII, 5-XIX, 4,” p. 99, n. 4).
The short excerpt presented here comes after the narrative of the second Parthic war which started in 197 CE and ended with the victory of Septimius Severus and the taking of Ctesiphon on the 28th of January 198 CE (Life of Severus XV.1-XVI.5). After this victory, Septimius Severus stayed two years in the East (before coming back to Rome for the celebration of his decennalia and the wedding of Caracalla in April 202 CE). So, the text presented here describes episodes that would have occurred after Severus’s return from Parthia to Syria. It is narrated that once he arrived at Antioch, he appointed Caracalla to the consulship – together with himself – for the year 202 CE. Then, on his way to Alexandria, he passed by Palaestina and enacted many laws. It is stated that he forbade conversions to Judaism, but also to the Christian faith. We are going to evaluate the credibility of this last statement.

In the whole Historia Augusta, there are twenty passages dealing with Jews, Judaism and/or Judea (on these passages, see Liebmann-Frankfort, “Les Juifs”; Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, II, p. 612-617). Many of them are related to events that occurred under the Severi, especially under Severus Alexander (who reigned between 222-235 CE), who is globally presented as a tolerant emperor both towards Christians and Jews. For instance, he is depicted as keeping in the sanctuary of his Lares some images of the best deified emperors, of Apollonius of Tyana, of Christ, of Abraham and of Orpheus (Life of Severus Alexander XXIX.2; see Liebmann-Frankfort, “Les Juifs,” p. 593-599; Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, II, p. 614-616; see also Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History VI.21.3-4). Globally, most of the references to Jews or Judaism in the Historia Augusta show that the author did not care much about them or was even prone to confuse them with Christians. These references to Jews or Jewish customs were not introduced for their own interest, but to form parts of the anecdotes narrated or to introduce a comic effect in the narrative. We have of course in mind the passage in the Life of Hadrian in which the author connects the outburst of the Bar Kokhba revolt with the fact that the Jews were prohibited to “mutilate their genitals” (see Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian XIV.2). We can also quote the passage from the Life of Elagabalus XXVIII.4, in which it is stated that the emperor sometimes served ostriches and said that Jews were commanded to eat them, even though it was not a kosher animal. So, the author of the Historia Augusta sometimes uses derogatory Jewish stereotypes in anecdotic narratives, yet he seems to be globally less hostile towards Jews than he is towards the Syrians, the Egyptians or even the Gauls. In addition, unlike another contemporary Roman “pagan” author, Rutilius Namatianus, the author of the Historia Augusta did not insert inside the imperial biographies any anti-Jewish excursus, nor make any hostile developments strictly about Jews (about these two points, see Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, II, p. 616-617; see also Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.377-398).

In the Life of Severus, most of the anecdotes containing a reference to Jews or Judaism present this emperor as being unfavourable towards this people or their religious customs. First, it is stated that after the murder of his rival Pescennius Niger, Septimius Severus ordered that the citizens of Neapolis in Palaestina be deprived of all their civic rights because they had rallied on Niger’s side (Life of Severus IX.5). This punishment was later revoked as stated in XIV.6, and possibly in the text presented here. Actually, we could interpret the reference to the fact that on his way to Alexandria Severus “enacted many laws addressed to the inhabitants of Palaestina” as echoing the fact that he released some of the inhabitants of Palestine from the sanctions he ordained to punish their engagement in favour of Niger (Liebmann-Frankfort, “Les Juifs,” p. 587). In another passage appearing just before the text presented here it is stated that the Roman Senate ordained that Caracalla should celebrate a Iudaicum triumphum, a “Jewish triumph,” “because of the successes achieved by Severus in Syria” (Life of Severus XVI.7). As no source mentions any military campaign led by Severus or/and by Caracalla against Jews around 198-200 CE, the mention of this triumph has been variably interpreted. For Thérèse Liebmann-Frankfort it could echo some Roman successes in Adiabene during the war against the Parthians – Adiabene was a region inhabited by many Jews who would have thus rallied with the Parthians (see Liebmann-Frankfort, “Les Juifs,” p. 588). This interpretation, however, is contested by Menahem Stern, who considers that this allusion to the Iudaicum triumphum celebrated by Caracalla “has no foundation in actual history” (Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, II, p. 624-625). Thus, it appears to be clear that the author of the Life of Severus wanted to present Septimius Severus as an emperor that led a policy unfavourable towards Jews.

The most important information given in the text presented here is that while he was in Judea Palaestina, Septimius Severus forbade conversion to Judaism and to the Christian faith. The main difficulty is to appreciate the veracity of this claim, especially because the Life of Severus is the only source attesting this fact (see Liebmann-Frankfort, “Les Juifs,” p. 589).
First, there is a clear discrepancy between this depiction in the Historia Augusta of a Septimius Severus leading a pretty hostile policy towards Jews and other sources attesting, on the contrary, that Severus and Caracalla granted rights to the Jews. For instance, in the passage of his excursus about Jews in which he deals with Judaizers and converts to Judaism, Cassius Dio writes: “This type (i.e. Judaizers/converts) exists even among the Romans, and though often repressed, has increased to such a great extent that they have acquired the right to practice their cult freely” (Cassius Dio, Roman History XXXVII.17.1). When he mentions that the Jews had obtained “the right to practice their cult freely,” we cannot be sure that he alludes to a precise past event or to a possible recent improvement of the rights of the Jews under some Severan emperors – he composed the Roman History between 207 and 229 CE (see Stern, Greek and Latin II, p. 353). The soundest sources referring to a possible improvement of the rights of the Jews under some Severan emperors are first, a passage of the Digest (L.2.3.3) quoting an excerpt from Ulpian’s De officio proconsulis. This mentions that the divus Severus (the text says divi but it is probably a later interpolation), that is Septimius Severus, and Antoninus (that is Caracalla) legislated in favour of the participation of Jews in civic life (about this law, see Nemo-Pekelman, Rome et ses citoyens juifs, p. 30-32). Second, in his Commentary on Daniel XI.34-35 (= PL 25, col. 596) Jerome writes that the emperors Severus (perhaps Septimius Severus) and Antoninus (probably Caracalla) had been favourable to the Jews (Schwartz, “Aspects politiques,” p. 147, n. 1; about the debate related to the identity of the Severus and of the Antoninus mentioned by Jerome, see Courtray, Prophète des temps derniers, p. 250 and n. 502). Third, between 198 and 211 CE, a dedicatory inscription in Greek was set up in Qazion in Upper Galilea and mentioned that some Jews honoured the emperors Septimius Severus, Caracalla and Geta. Since the 19th century scholars have been divided between those who consider that this inscription was set up in a synagogue, and those who consider that it was set up in a temple, more especially in a temple of the imperial cult (CIJ, no. 972; Goodman, Rome & Jerusalem, p. 505; about this point see A Jewish Vow for the Salvation of the Severans from Qazion). Leaving aside the question of the context in which this inscription was exposed, the fact that this vow to the emperors was put up by people identifying themselves as Jews (Ἰουδαῖοι/Ioudaioi) show that some Jews in the Upper Galilee region manifested publicly their enthusiasm for the Severan dynasty at the very end of the second or beginning of the third century CE. When we put together all these sources it may indicate the fact that the Severan emperors led a more conciliatory policy towards Jews than the Antonine emperors. Martin Goodman even suggests that this shift might be visible in the rabbinic traditions dealing with the good relationships between a Roman emperor called Antoninus and the compilers of the Mishnah Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch. Martin Goodman thus writes: “To which emperor the name ‘Antoninus’ in the rabbinic texts refers is unknown, but if Judah haNasi flourished in the early third century it is reasonable to link these traditions to an improvement in the attitude of some rabbis towards the Roman state in the Severan period and perhaps to accommodation by at least some Jews to Roman rules” (Goodman, Rome & Jerusalem, p. 507; on the theme of the dialogue between the emperor Antoninus and Rabbi Yehudah in rabbinic literature and the hypothetic identification of Antoninus with Caracalla, see for instance Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Shirah (Be-Shalaḥ), parashah 6 (note that this text is dated from the third century CE); Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1:10, 72b; Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 3:2, 74a; Genesis Rabbah 75:5; Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 10b). Since the passage of the Life of Severus in the Historia Augusta mentioning that Severus enacted a ban on conversion to Judaism seems to be in total contradiction with what we know from other sources of the policy of the Severans towards Jews, let us now put this fact into perspective in terms of the evolution of Roman attitudes towards conversion to Judaism.

During the Principate, various Roman authors denigrated the fact that Gentiles could convert to Judaism, and also condemned Jewish proselytism. During the first century CE, an author like Seneca the Younger in the De superstitione (frag. 42)  – or what we know of his words through the quotation of Augustine in The City of God VI.11 – condemned the fact that: “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).” In some Roman aristocratic milieux of that time, conversions to Judaism and the spread of Judaism inside Roman society were perceived as dangerous and damaging phenomena. Moreover, at the beginning of the second century CE, Tacitus and Juvenal mainly reproached converts to Judaism over the fact that they preferred to follow the laws of Moses at the expense of those of Rome (see Tacitus, Histories V.5.2; Juvenal, Satires XIV.100-104; about the spread of these criticisms of conversions to Judaism in Roman literary works of the first and second century CE, see Isaac, The Invention of Racism, p. 454-459). If we ignore the evolution of the numbers of Judaizers or converts at Rome, the fact their sole existence created negative reactions in some literary or aristocratic milieux is in itself significant. In addition, some sources attest that during the first century CE the imperial power may have temporary tried to control the spread of Jewish customs at Rome. For instance, in 19 CE, various authors attest that Tiberius banished Jewish and Egyptian ceremonies from Rome and ordered that 400 members of the Jewish community to be sent to Sardinia to serve as soldiers (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVIII.81-84; Tacitus, Annals II.85.5; Suetonius, Tiberius XXXVI; Cassius Dio, Roman History LVII.18.5a, yet the association of this text of Cassius Dio with the previous ones is contested in Williams, Jews, p. 65; see Cassius Dio, Roman History XXXVII.16-17). As stated by Benjamin Isaac, even if there are variations between all the narratives of this event, there is a common point, namely the practice of Judaism and of Egyptian cults, which are presented as the main cause of the friction. In addition, most of the authors deal in the framework of their narrative explicitly, or implicitly, with converts or with the idea that Jews were engaged in converting non-Jews. Nevertheless, the fact that these authors mention conversions or Jewish proselytism raises the question of whether they deal with a real social phenomenon or of whether they overemphasised these elements to give the impression that these expulsions were led first and foremost by religious motivations – whereas in reality they could have been motivated by a care to re-establish social stability or to prevent supply shortages. As we have no idea of the number of converts present at Rome at that time, we cannot judge the credibility of the narratives of these authors; yet, the fact that they insist so much on conversions and proselytism show that they wanted the reader to make the connection between these phenomena and the repression led by the imperial power (see Isaac, The Invention of Racism, p. 456-458; Benjamin Isaac also deals with the case of the expulsion of Jews under Claudius).
During the second and third century CE we do not know much about the number of proselytes present in Rome (Martin Goodman recalls the unique case of Cresces Sinicerius who is presented in his epitaph written in Latin as being a Jewish proselyte, Goodman, Rome & Jerusalem, p. 509; Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe, II, no. 491, p. 392). All that we know is that from the second century CE onwards, the Roman imperial power attempted to limit the Jewish practice of circumcision. As the very existence of the Hadrianic ban on is problematic (it is only attested in Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian XIV.2), the first text attesting this phenomena is a passage of Modestinus’s Legal Rules, itself quoted by the compilers of the Digest, which refers to a rescript of Antoninus Pius (Digest XLVIII.8.11 (Modestinus, Legal Rules VI)). In this rescript, the emperor authorised the practice of circumcision only for Jews, and stated that nobody was allowed to practice it on “anyone who [was] not of that very religion.” It is, however, possible that the original text contained a reference to slaves and that it should thus be understood that nobody was allowed to practice circumcision on “any slave who [was] not of that very religion.” This legislation was enriched at the end of the third century CE by a passage of the Sentences of the Pseudo-Paul. This law explicitly marks the difference between Jews allowed to circumcise their sons and Judaizers who wanted to be circumcised in order to become a full convert. The possibility that some Roman citizens who converted to Judaism could also choose to be circumcised is explicitly excluded and presented as illegal (Pseudo-Paul, Sentences V.22.3-4). Thus, these two laws appear as the only significant official and general limitations that Roman power ordered to limit the spread of Jewish customs among non-Jewish populations from the beginning of the second century CE onwards. However, contrary to the general ban of conversion allegedly ordered by Septimius Severus in the Historia Augusta – an anecdote which, if it refers to an actual historical event, should be placed between Antoninus Pius’s rescript and the legal sentence mentioned in the Pseudo-Paul’s Sentences – these two laws only limit the practice of circumcision and not other rituals forming part of the conversion process, such as ritual baths. In this sense, women are not dealt with in these laws.
Thus, having this context in mind, it is possible to interpret the statement that Septimius Severus forbade conversion to Judaism in general in three different ways. First, if we give credit to the Life of Severus, it would show that the Roman power made periodic efforts to ban, or at least control, conversions to Judaism, but that these periods of control were followed by a period of softening about which we know nothing. Second, we may also consider that Septimius Severus might have enacted this general ban but that it was not respected. This would be confirmed by the testimony of Cassius Dio, who composed his Roman History under the Severan emperors, and who writes in his digression about Jews that the number of Romans who had adopted Jewish customs “has increased to such a great extent that they have acquired the right to practice their cult freely.” Even if he does not say whether he refers to a contemporary situation, this remains a possibility and it would thus prove that conversion processes continued to function at the beginning of the third century CE (see Cassius Dio, Roman History XXXVII.17.1; see Isaac, The Invention of Racism, p. 460). The third possibility is actually that Septimius Severus’s ban on conversion to Judaism is an invention of the author of the Historia Augusta – we are in favor of this third option. Three arguments support this view. First, the Roman History of Cassius Dio does not deal at all with this imperial decree, which is also not mentioned at all by any of the iurisprudentes of the Severan period (Nemo-Pekelman, Rome et ses citoyens, p. 121). Second, the fact that the ban concerns both conversions to Judaism but also to the Christian faith fits in with the way the author of the Historia Augusta deals with Judaism or Jewish customs. Actually, of the ten allusions he makes about Jews in the whole work, he associates them with Christians in seven cases (Liebmann-Frankfort, “Les Juifs,” p. 606). Karl H. Schwarte has thus argued that this supposed anti-Christian repression led by Septimius Severus was a total invention of the author of the Historia Augusta whose aim would have been to highlight, by contrast, the extraordinary tolerance of the emperor Severus Alexander (Schwarte, “Das angebliche Christengesetz”; for a bibliographical survey on this question, see Levieils, Contra Christianos, p. 470, n. 436). The third argument which can be put forward is that the author of the Life of Severus may have made this statement because it echoed a subject that was in the air at the time he was composing his series of imperial biographies. Actually, from Constantine onwards, the Christian emperors of the fourth century CE produced many laws to prevent Christians from converting to Judaism (see Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine IV.27). The author perhaps thus produced a fictional mix of historical references and contemporary echoes.

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

“Marius Maximus, the Consular Biographer”

Birley, Anthony R.article-in-a-bookAufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 34.3Haase Wolfgang2678-2757“Marius Maximus, the Consular Biographer”Part 2, Principat, 34.3Berlinde Gruyter1997

“Severus, XVII, 5 – XIX, 4: une identification?”

Chausson, Françoisarticle-in-a-bookHistoriae Augustae. Colloquium Bonnense. Atti dei Convegni sulla Historia Augusta VGiorgio Bonamente , Laus Rosen97-113Severus, XVII, 5 – XIX, 4: une identification?”BariEdipuglia1997
Realized by: 

How to quote this page

Historia Augusta, Life of Severus XVI.8-XVII.1
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Wed, 05/02/2018 - 11:11
URL: https://www.judaism-and-rome.org/historia-augusta-life-severus%C2%A0xvi8-xvii1
Visited: Wed, 04/17/2024 - 07:16

Copyright ©2014-2019, All rights reserved About the project - ERC Team - Conditions of Use