Suetonius, Life of Domitian XII.1-2

Domitian’s harsh policy towards the Jews
Name of the author: 
120 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Life of Domitian

Suetonius’s Life of Domitian is the last work of his set of twelve imperial Lives composed at the beginning of the second century CE (for the recent debates about the literary genre of these Lives, see Power, “Introduction,” p. 1-14). The structure of the Life of Domitian fits in with that of the other Lives Suetonius composed, as all the Lives follow “a pattern in which rubrics, facts ordered by topic, are sandwiched into the chronologically obvious boundaries of an emperor’s birth and death” (Hurley, “Suetonius’ Rubric Sandwich,” p. 21). The succession of rubrics can be briefly presented as follows: familial origins, birth and career before accession to power, circumstances of the accession, fulfilled charges, military campaigns, legal and judiciary work, evergetism, description of the emperor’s physical aspects and personality, and his death and its circumstances. For what concerns Domitian, Suetonius follows approximatively this pattern and gives a globally negative portrayal of the emperor, even if he recognizes that at the beginning of his reign he was not cupid, but rather animated by a real sense of justice, and by a desire to establish a new moral legislation (see Suetonius, Life of Domitian VII-IX). A clear-cut change in the tone of the Life appears from chapter X onwards, as Suetonius explicitly writes that Domitian’s personality evolved from a rather clement and selfless character to a cruel and greedy one. Suetonius highlights Domitian’s cruelty by enumerating various sordid executions that he ordered during his reign so as to get rid of political enemies and/or to recover the riches of the convicted persons. In chapter XII, Suetonius develops the idea that because of the unreasonable expenses caused by his policy, Domitian illegally monopolized the riches and legacies of many persons so as to cover the deficit of the State. Thus, as part of this criticism, Suetonius deals with the harsh fiscal policy that Domitian had in particular towards the Jews (§ 2). It is this issue that will be studied in depth in this commentary.

First, it has to be recalled that various scholars have argued that Suetonius might have been excessively critical of Domitian (for a questioning of these hesitations, see Williams, Jews, p. 102-105). Despite our reliance on Suetonius’s point of view, there must well have been under Domitian a real intensification of the sanctions, as two other authors attest quite a similar process. In an epigram of book VII published in December 92 CE, Martial denigrates a Jewish man by presenting him only through his sex organ: “a cock (...) that comes from burnt Jerusalem and is lately condemned to pay taxes” (sed quae de Solymis venit perustis / damnatam modo mentulam tributis; Martial, Epigrams VII.55). The tributa mentioned here have to be identified with the phoros (Josephus, Jewish war VII.218) or didrachmon (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXV.7.2; Origen, Ad Africanum XX(14).7-9) (on the terminology, see Hadas-Lebel, “La fiscalité,” p. 6; France, “Le vocabulaire,” p. 353), that is, the annual tax which was previously offered by the Jews to the Jerusalem Temple, and which, after the defeat of 70 CE, was claimed by Rome, and was assigned to a fund, the fiscus Iudaicus. It is to this Jewish tax that Suetonius alludes when he recalls that under Domitian’s reign, the fiscus Iudaicus was administrated in a stricter way (acerbissime). The second author who deals with Domitian’s policy towards the Jews is Cassius Dio, who narrates that in 95 CE, Domitian slew his cousin Flavius Clemens because he had accused him of atheism, a charge which was also frequently used so as to condemn “many others who drifted into Jewish ways” (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXVII.14.1-2). Later in his narrative, Cassius Dio recalls that after Domitian, the new emperor Nerva overturned some harsh measures taken by his predecessor: he “released all who were on trial for impiety (asebeia) and restored the exiles,” and “no persons were permitted to accuse anybody of impiety (asebeia) or of a Jewish mode of life” (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXVIII.1.2). These various narratives show that Suetonius’s account of the rigorous nature of Domitian’s fiscal policy towards the Jews cannot be considered as the result of Suetonius’s will to draw an excessively dark picture of Domitian’s character.

The second heavily debated point of Suetonius’s account is the identity of the persons who were concerned by the increased constraints of the Jewish tax. Suetonius writes Praeter ceteros Iudaicus fiscus acerbissime actus est; ad quem deferebantur, qui vel inprofessi Iudaicam viverent vitam vel dissimulata origine imposita genti tributa non pependissent; “Besides other taxes, that on the Jews was levied with the utmost rigour; were prosecuted those who were living a Jewish life without publicly acknowledging it, as well as those who, concealing their origin, did not pay the tributes levied upon their people” (the Loeb translation has been modified here so as to stay closer to the Latin text). For some scholars, the Jews “who were living a Jewish life without publicly acknowledging it” were not native Jews, but rather converts to Judaism (or “Judaizers”) and sympathizers (see Schäfer, Judeophobia, p. 113-116; Cohen, The Beginnings, p. 42). Marius Heemstra also considers them as non-Jews, and puts in this category “God-fearers (including sympathisers with Judaism)” and “Gentile Christians” (see Heemstra, “The Interpretation,” p. 191). The scholar also suggests that these non-Jews whom he interprets as being the ones “living a Jewish life without publicly acknowledging it” may not have been charged for tax evasion as they were uncircumcised. Marius Heemstra thus suggests that they may have been accused of being “uncircumcised atheists,” and adds: “[These non-Jews who lived a Jewish life without publicly acknowledging it] were not made liable for the Jewish Tax, but were “discovered” during the proceedings of the Fiscus Iudaicus and could also be prosecuted to raise the revenue of the fiscus by means of confiscations” (Heemstra, “The Interpretation,” p. 191). Actually the usual punishments for someone accused of atheism were the confiscation of properties and possibly the death penalty (on accusation of atheism under Domitian see Cassius Dio, Roman History LXVII.14.1-2). In a very different perspective, following Lloyd Thompson, Martin Goodman identifies Suetonius’s first category of Jews in a different way, as he considers that they were “native Jews who lived a Jewish life secretly,” that is, Jews who were not declared as members of the Jewish community. Following Lloyd Thompson and Martin Goodman’s interpretation, these Jews would be different from Suetonius’s second category of Jews “concealing their origins,” who are identified by these two scholars as “native Jews who practiced openly but hoped to avoid the tax by denying their origins” (Goodman, “The Fiscus Iudaicus,” p. 169; Goodman, “Nerva,” p. 41; Thompson, “Domitian”). For the scholars who consider Suetonius’s first category of Jews to refer to Judaizers or sympathizers or Gentile Christians, the Jews “denying their origins” would be “native Jews who did not lead a Jewish life,” that is, Jews who may have concealed their origins and their circumcision (see Cohen, The Beginnings, p. 42; Schäfer, Judeophobia, p. 114). Marius Heemstra also considers them as “apostate Jews,” and also puts in this category “Jewish Christians” (see Heemstra, “The Interpretation,” p. 190). These apostate Jews would have thus been concerned by the tightening of the Jewish tax.
To conclude with this debate, we interpret Suetonius’s references to “those who were living a Jewish life without publicly acknowledging it,” as probably referring to converts to Judaism or sympathizers; whereas the ones that he describes as “concealing their origin” and who “did not pay the tributes levied upon their people,” were probably Jews who were born Jews but who had abandoned the Jewish way of life, or hid the fact that they were Jews.

To illustrate the hardening of the fiscal policy towards the Jews under Domitian, Suetonius then narrates the anecdote that during an official meeting (concilium), a fiscal agent (procurator) asked an old man of ninety years to show the officials if he was circumcised or not, a state which thus determined his tax liability. It is impossible to be sure of the veracity of such an anecdote, as no other source confirms that controls of this kind were actually performed. This anecdote might have been added or amplified by Suetonius so as to highlight Domitian’s cruelty: this emperor not only extended the age limit of the liability to the tax, but he also ensured that ethnic criteria – and not cultural or religious ones – determined the liability for the Jewish tax; circumcision becoming thus the main indicator of Jewishness. All that we can say is that Martial, who lived under Domitian’s reign, systematically presents Jews through their circumcised penis, and that he explicitly connects the circumcised penis of a Jewish man in Epigrams VII.55 with the payment of the Jewish tax (the passage is quoted above). The second element which might echo Suetonius’s anecdote, is the episode related in Epigrams VII.82, when a comic actor or singer uses a large fibula to hide his sex organ, a fibula which falls off in public and let his verpus penis appears. If we admit that Menophilus was circumcised (a perspective contested in Cohen, The Beginnings, p. 358-359; see the presentation of this debate in Martial, Epigrams VII.82), the fact that Martial chose such a subject may prove that “the deliberate concealment of circumcision was in all likelihood a feature of the time” (Williams, Jews, p. 102). Of course, Martial must have systematically associated Jewish men with the question of their circumcised sex so as to mock them, but the omnipresence of the issue of circumcision would also perfectly make sense in the context of Domitian’s fiscal reform, namely when circumcision may have become the main criterion determining the liability for the Jewish tax.

To conclude, the fact that Suetonius justifies the widening of the base of the Jewish tax, and the intensification of the sanctions against the evaders of this tax by the financial difficulties of the Roman State caused by Domitian’s mismanagement, must not give the impression that such a phenomenon had economic implications or ambitions only. As Martin Goodman and Alexander Heineman have rightly noticed, the Jewish tax was not simply a financial burden for the Jews, nor a measure that Vespasian took only because of economic pragmatism. It was also a political measure which was intended to mark the religious and cultural superiority of Rome over the Jews and their God (see Goodman, “The Fiscus Iudaicus, p. 170-174; Heineman, “Jupiter,” p. 211, n. 81). Thus, if we connect Suetonius’s account with the mordant writings of Martial about Jews – writings which for the most part were contemporary to Domitian’s reign –, we have the impression that the possible hardening of the fiscal policy towards the Jews under Domitian emerged in a context wherein it was usual to make fun of Jews and to revive the memory of their political and religious defeat of 70 CE.

Bibliographical references: 

“Le vocabulaire fiscal romain”

France, Jérômearticle-in-a-bookVocabulaire et expression de l’économie dans le monde antiqueJean Andreau, Véronique Chankowski333-368“Le vocabulaire fiscal romain”BordeauxDe Boccard2007

“Suetonius’ Rubric Sandwich”

Hurley, Donna W.article-in-a-bookSuetonius the Biographer. Studies in Roman Lives Tristan Power , Roy K. Gibson21-37“Suetonius’ Rubric Sandwich”OxfordOxford University Press2014

“Introduction: The Originality of Suetonius”

Power, Tristanarticle-in-a-bookSuetonius the Biographer. Studies in Roman Lives Tristan Power , Roy K. Gibson1-18“Introduction: The Originality of Suetonius”OxfordOxford University Press2014
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