Augustus’s respect for Jewish customs
41 CE to 42 CE
Apologetic, History and Theology
Title of work:
On the Embassy to Gaius
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
(For a short introduction to Philo, his family and their connections with Rome, as well as to the events of 38 CE and the embassy to Rome, see Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 8-10.)
This passage is an extract of King Agrippa I’s letter to Caligula, in which he tries to convince the emperor to renounce his project to have a statue of himself set up in the Jerusalem temple. At least, this is how Philo imagines that Agrippa spoke to his friend Gaius. The letter reflects Philo’s views as documented in other passages of his work, and must be considered an expression of Philo’s ideas rather than a genuine document written by Agrippa. Therefore I refer to Agrippa as the character to whom the speech is attributed, but not as the author.
Agrippa’s main argument consists in recalling Caligula of the behavior of his predecessors. He therefore highlights the respect shown to the Jerusalem Temple by Augustus (§§309-318), Tiberius (§§298-308), and other well-known Roman figures. As in Legatio 156-157, Agrippa’s letter states that under Augustus, Jews were allowed to gather in their synagogues and teach their “philosophy,” and had the right to collect money (from their “first-fruits”) and send it to Jerusalem (on this point in particular, see also Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVI.162-165, quoting a decree of Augustus confirming the rights of the Jews; Smallwood, Philonis Alexandrini Legatio,p. 238-239). The right of gathering was a sensitive issue in ancient Rome, as Julius Caesar’s decision to dismantle the collegia shows. Yet Caesar explicitly included the synagogues in the ancient foundations that were allowed to endure despite the general ban, and his decree applied throughout the empire (see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XIV.213-216; Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule, p. 134-135). Under Augustus synagogues continued to be exempted from the ban, as a decree from 2/3 CE, inter alia, indicates (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVI.162-165). Agrippa thus had good arguments to put forward.
As the end of §313 indicates, Philo is aware that he is not quoting the texts of Augustus’s decrees (“This was the gist of his instructions, at any rate, even if they were not expressed in these words”). The passage conveys Augustus’s words in indirect speech. As a consequence, the comments in §312 can be read as the continuation of Augustus’s previous statement in §311—hence Mary Smallwood’s translation: “He [Augustus] said that these were not…” However, it would also be possible to understand §312 as a comment formulated by Agrippa. The use of indirect speech makes it possible for Philo to suggest that Augustus himself praised the synagogues as peaceful assemblies, and “schools of self-control and justice” (§312).
The issue of peacefulness was crucial for the Romans. Augustus made peace a central leitmotif of his rule (see the commentaries on Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 8-10; Ara Pacis; Res Gestae 13; Cornwell, Pax and the Politics of Peace). In order to understand Philo’s insistence on the Jews’ peaceful character (see also Legat. 230), we need to remember that after Gaius’s murder, the Jews in Alexandria retaliated and attacked the Greeks (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XIX.278). This new unrest was speedily calmed down by Claudius, who then settled the Judeo-Alexandrian conflict in the terms known through the letter he sent to the Alexandrians in November 41 (CPJ II, no. 153, p. 36-55; Smallwood, Philonis Alexandrini Legatio, p. 27-28). Philo wrote his treatise shortly after these events, and was therefore fully aware of the need to argue for the Jews’ peacefulness, and the innocuousness of the synagogal gatherings, let they be considered potential threats to the Pax Romana.
By using indirect speech Philo also suggests that Augustus praised the Jews’ ability to cultivate self-control (sōphrosynē) and justice (dikaiosynē), in addition to their piety (illustrated by the sending of offerings to the Jerusalem Temple). Interestingly, these characteristics are also put forward in sources that celebrate Roman virtues. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, for example, wrote that “Rome from the very beginning, immediately after its founding, produced infinite examples of virtue in men whose superiors, whether for piety or for justice or for life-long self-control or for warlike valour, no city, either Greek or barbarian, has ever produced” (Roman Antiquities 1.5.3, trans. Earnest Cary, LCL, p. 17-19). The virtues (aretai) singled out by Dionysius are eusebeia (piety), justice (dikaiosynē), self-control or temperance (sōphrosynē), and military valour (Dionysius uses a periphrase, but the corresponding virtue would be andreia in Greek and virtus in Latin). These virtues are nearly identical with the four cardinal virtues of Greek philosophical tradition (phronēsis, andreia, sōphrosynē, dikaiosynē), but wisdom is replaced by piety. They are also very similar to the four virtues associated with the clipeus virtutis, the golden “shield of virtue” offered to Augustus by the Senate in 27 BCE, a marble copy of which was found in a sanctuary dedicated to the imperial cult in the colony of Arelate (Arles), indicating that copies were probably sent to various cities in the empire (see AE 1952, 165, dated to 26 BCE, and Res Gestae 34; Galinsky, Augustan Culture, 89-90). The inscription on the clipeus mentions virtus, clementia (which could be considered an expression of self-control), iustitia, and pietas.
Piety is the most essential virtue in Philo’s work. When he lists four virtues, he tends to replace one of the traditional Greek virtues with eusebeia (see, e.g., Det. 18, 73, 143; Spec. IV.135), or to add it to the list (Mos. 2.216; Praem. 160). This emphasis on piety differs from Greek philosophical discourses but parallels Roman or pro-Roman texts that praise Roman virtues. It reflects the place granted to God in Philo’s thought, yet in the Legatio, it may also be interpreted as an attempt to present Jews and Romans (or, at least, good emperors) as sharing common values. In Against Apion, Josephus too insists on the Jews’ piety, justice and moderation, virtues that, according to Roman authors, characterized Romans in a special way (see, e.g., C. Ap. II.170; Barclay, Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, p. 266). From both Philo’s and Josephus’ perspective, however, true piety lay with the Jews rather than with the Romans (see further Berthelot, “Power and Piety”).