The imposition of Roman law on other nations
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The Pseudo-Clementine literature, which claims (falsely) to be the work of Clement of Rome, consists of two lengthy works, the Recognitions, which consist of ten books, and the Homilies, which are made up of twenty sermons, in addition to two epistles attributed to Clement and Peter and addressed to James. The two main works stem from a common source which is now lost, a Jewish-Christian text written in Syria in the early third century, and entitled Periodoi Petrou (Circuits of Peter). The works contain narrative accounts of Clement’s conversion, his journey with Peter, and his loss of and reunion with his family. This part of the literature gives the Recognitions their name, being acknowledged as the first Christian example of the genre of romance of recognitions, of which there are numerous pagan examples (see Kelley, Knowledge and Religious Authority, p. 7, n. 25 for the bibliography). Woven into the narrative of the Pseudo-Clementines are discourses on issues such as theodicy, philosophy, anti-pagan polemic, astrology and fate (see Kelley, Knowledge and Religious Authority, p. 8-11 for a survey of the narrative themes). The Recognitions were originally written in Greek, but only survive to us in the Latin translation of Rufinus from around 406 CE (although Eusebius preserves a few fragments in Greek; see Kelley, Knowledge and Religious Authority, p. 15). They are usually dated to the mid-fourth century, and located in Syria.
What is significant for our purposes is that the Recognitions contain significant portions of the Syriac Book of the Laws of the Countries (hereafter BLC) thought to be composed by the Edessan Christian teacher Bardaisan or one of his pupils at the beginning of the third century CE (for an introduction to the BLC, see the commentary on section 52-53). These extracts were known prior to the discovery of the single manuscript of the BLC. Parts of the BLC are also present in Eusebius’s Preparation for the Gospel (written in Greek in 313 CE), also known prior to the BLC itself, and comparison of the three versions of this common material throws up some intriguing differences (Eusebius also refers to several works of Bardaisan in his Ecclesiastical History IV.30, including a Dialogue on Fate, and scholars have debated whether this can be identified with the BLC: for a brief summary of the arguments, see Bakker, “Bardaisan’s Book of the Laws of the Countries,” p. 16-17). Particularly notably for our purposes, is that there are hermeneutically striking differences in the way that the Romans are portrayed in the Recognitions, which as we shall see are perhaps suggestive of a less hostile attitude towards the imperial power than is shown in the BLC.
The present passage of the Recognitions begins by recalling the practices of some other peoples, namely both the cannibalism and vegetarianism of Indians, and the incest of the Magusaei (and it is emphasised that this occurs wherever these people live, thus distinguishing them as an ethnic group). Moreover, other unnamed nations are identified as illiterate. In some places, it is argued, certain “wise men” have gone about changing laws, and in others laws have been abolished due to them being impossible to observe or their baseness in character. When we compare the text here with the corresponding passages in the BLC and Eusebius’s Preparation for the Gospel, there are some significant differences, which are telling of how the authors/redactors of the material viewed the way in which Roman law was imposed upon conquered peoples.
The corresponding passage in BLC 56-57 reads as follows (the translation is that of B. Pratten, in Ante-Nicene Fathers VIII, p. 733):
“Then, again, how many wise men, think you, have abolished from their countries laws which appeared to them not well made? How many laws, also, are there which have been set aside through necessity? And how many kings are there who, when they have got possession of countries which did not belong to them, have abolished their established laws, and made such other laws as they chose? And, whenever these things occurred, no one of the stars was able to preserve the law. Here is an instance at hand for you to see for yourselves: it is but as yesterday since the Romans took possession of Arabia, and they abolished all the laws previously existing there, and especially the circumcision which they practised. The truth is, that he who is his own master is sometimes compelled to obey the law imposed on him by another, who himself in turn becomes possessed of the power to do as he pleases.”
Both this extract from the BLC and the present passage from the Recognitions acknowledge that sometimes a place will change its laws or abolish them. The Recognitions, however, make more explicit the reasons why a law might be considered in need of change – if it is impossible to follow or has base characteristics. The BLC, on the other hand, simply refers to laws which have not been “well made.” The author of the Recognitions utilises the Romans here as evidence in his wider argument concerning fate and human free will, arguing that the stars do not control human destiny. Our extract concludes with a reference to the “climates” (clima, from the Greek κλίμα, klima) of the stars conquered by the Romans. This critiques the ‘doctrine of climates’ which dictated that the world was divided into numerous astrological zones (between five and twelve, with seven being most common). Each of these zones was controlled by a sign of the Zodiac, and so any shared laws and customs in a given place were due to a particular star’s influence there (see Kelley, Knowledge and Religious Authority, p. 127-128; Drijvers, Bardaisan of Edessa, p. 19, n. 2; Denzey, “Bardaisan of Edessa,” p. 177; these scholars trace the idea back to various ancient authors: see, for example, Strabo, Geography II.5.34; Pliny the Elder, Natural History VI.33; see also the fourth-century Julius Firmicus Maternus’s account in his Eight Books of Astrology II.11). The author of the Recognitions here argues against this notion (he has already stated in IX.26 that the world is not divided into seven parts), and asserts that if regional customs are determined by the influence of a star on a particular “climate” then when these customs change it must mean that the star has lost control over the region. Logically, then, human free will and capacity to make decisions regarding the ways in which a nation is governed (even if this means submitting to another power, such as Rome) is more influential than any astrological power.
When we look at the way in which the Romans are presented in the Recognitions and the BLC, we see that while the BLC specifically mentions the Romans’ conquering of Arabia and their subsequent banning of circumcision (among other unspecified laws) there, the Recognitions make a much more generalised statement about the Romans’ bringing their laws to almost the “whole world (orbis),” with not mention of Arabia or circumcision. Instead, we simply read that Roman law (ius) and civil decrees (scitum) now replace the different laws and customs of the various nations whom have been brought under Roman control. In the corresponding passage in Eusebius’s Preparation for the Gospel VI.10, the mention of the Romans becoming the controllers of Arabia is retained, but similarly to the present passage from the Recognitions, there is no specific mention of circumcision. It is merely stated that the Romans changed laws there. In Kelley’s words “either the Recognitions has made the example in the BLC less specific to suit its own purposes, or the BLC has used a more general example from its common source with the Recognitions to make a specific chronological reference” (Knowledge and Religious Authority, p. 128, n. 118). In order to shed further light on this significant divergence between the BLC (and to a lesser degree, the account of Eusebius) and the Recognitions, Andrade has brought BLC 52-53 into the discussion, where the Romans are distinguished as a people by their lust for conquest. Just as other countries are defined by particular customs and laws, according to this part of the BLC what unites the Roman people is a violent desire for power. Interestingly, however, the corresponding passage to BLC 52-53 in the Recognitions does not mention the Romans at all. Nathanael Andrade suggests that this is indicative of a redactor at some stage up until the point when Rufinus completed his Latin translation being uncomfortable with the critique of the violent manner of Roman conquest (“Romans and Iranians,” p. 10). Andrade suggests that the present extract supports this interpretation because rather than describing a specific oppression of a local custom (i.e. circumcision) the Recognitions “represents the Romans as benignly steering people to adopt their laws. It also depicts the peoples of the Roman empire as willingly submitting to Roman customs after the initial fact of conquest, with the result that diverse peoples characterised by their unique customs had adopted ius Romanum” (“Romans and Iranians,” p. 13).
It certainly seems to be the case that the text witnessed in Eusebius and more strongly in the BLC was concerned with linking the Romans directly to the abolishing of regional laws in “Arabia” (Ross argues that this is not the Roman province of Arabia, but Mesopotamia in general; Roman Edessa, p. 48), and as Andrade argues, when considered alongside the way the Romans are characterised elsewhere in the BLC, reflects a response to Roman imperialism which resented their oppressive imposition of law in the region (the reference to the Romans overturning the laws of “Arabia” has often been used to date the passage, with an association made with the campaign of Septimius Severus in 195-196 CE, or possibly the later campaign of Macrinus in 217-218 CE; see Drijvers, Bardaisan of Edessa, p. 92, n. 3). On the contrary, by the time Rufinus translated into Latin the text of the Recognitions, this particular textual tradition which presented Bardaisan’s teaching had erased the specificity which connected the Romans with the suppression of circumcision in “Arabia” and instead presented a more generalised picture of the way in which diverse nations became incorporated into Rome. In Andrade’s words, “If the [BLC] portrayed the Romans as forcing conformity, the Clementine Recognitions dulls the sharpness of its critique” (“Romans and Iranians,” p. 13). Essentially, the polemic of this text is to show that the laws of countries/nations are not determined by the stars. The Romans are just one contemporary example in a long list of rulers, and there is nothing specifically criticised about their action.