Tacitus, Histories V.4-5

Tacitus’s excursus about the Jews.
Name of the author: 
104 CE to 110 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 

After having composed the Agricola, the Germania, the Dialogue on Oratory, and having fulfilled a governorship in a consular province, either in Upper or Lower Germania (approximatively between 101 and 104 CE), Tacitus went back to Rome and started to write the Histories. This work was most likely completed around 110 CE (Sage, “Tacitus’,” p. 863; for a presentation of Tacitus’s life see Tacitus, Agricola XXI). In the Histories, Tacitus deals with the most recent period, that is from 69 to 96 CE. Most of the work has been lost, as only the books one to four and the first third of the fifth book have been preserved.
This text is an excerpt from the fifth book which opens with a long development on Judea which corresponds to the longest extant discussion on Jews ever written by a Greek or a Latin non-Christian author (see Histories V.1-13; Gruen, Rethinking, p. 179). After having introduced the book by narrating the arrival of Titus near Jerusalem (V.1), Tacitus deals with the origins and the customs of the Jews (V.2-5). Fitting in a literary tradition that consisted in placing an excursus about the Jews before the narrative of a military event concerning their history – that could be the taking of Jerusalem by Antiochus IV (Poseidonios and Trogus Pompeius) or the one by Titus (Strabo and Diodorus Siculus) – Tacitus uses the excursus about the Jews to serve as some kind of introduction to the narrative of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus (Berthelot, Philanthrôpia Judaica, p. 165 and note 317). The text presented here corresponds to a part of this excursus in which Tacitus enumerates various customs and rites to prove how superstitious, anti-social and amoral the Jews had become. It is these critical arguments that we will study here to compare them with others used by Greek or Roman authors.

The text presented here starts with a reference to Moses who is presented by Tacitus as the original leader of the Jews and the one who established Jewish rites which proved to be the contrary of all the rites followed by everybody else, especially the Romans (IV.1). Tacitus justifies the singularity of the Jewish rites by the fact that Jews regard as profane (profanus) or allowed (concessus) what Romans regard as sacred (sacer) and impure (incestus) and vice versa. Then, Tacitus gives examples of these inversions of norms. He starts with the example of the ass allegedly worshiped by the Jews – whereas it was considered a common and hard-working animal. The accusation of worshiping an ass is commonly used to discredit Jews as well as Christians (for Christians, see Alexamenos Graffito). The origin of the tradition associating the Judeans and the worship of an ass remains unclear, but it is possible to distinguish the various cultural milieux in which it developed. First, it seems that Judeans were first associated with the ass in Egypt, Jews being connected with the god Seth whose familiar beast was an ass. This idea then circulated in literary circles of the Hellenistic period and authors such as Mnaseas or Poseidonios then used this tradition to highlight how superstitious and anti-social the Judeans had been (about the circulation of these traditions, especially about the use by Diodorus Siculus in Library of History XXXIV.1-3 of a story previously related by Poseidonios, see Berthelot, Philanthrôpia Judaica, p. 123-133; good overview on the question in Barclay, Flavius Josephus, X. Against Apion, p. 212, n. 281, 350-352). Josephus also echoes these allegations when he put them in the mouth of the Egyptian Apion, famous for his hostility towards Jews. According to Josephus, Apion argued that the Jews had placed the head of an ass in the Temple of Jerusalem to worship it. Josephus implies that this story was false and also argues that even if it had been true, it would not have been worse than the animal-gods worshipped by the Egyptians themselves (Josephus, Against Apion II.80-82). In Tacitus’s text the anecdote of the ass is not directly connected to the question of the Egyptian gods, even if immediately afterwards Tacitus recalls that the Jews deliberately sacrificed animals which the Egyptians considered to be gods (IV.2). This idea can be interpreted as fitting in the global message of Tacitus’s attack that the Jews acted as enemies of all the other peoples (see later), but Erich Gruen has suggested that this digression would be more “a snide commentary on Egyptian homage to animals than on the customs of the Jews” (Gruen, Rethinking, p. 192-193). Finally, the fact that Tacitus connects the origin of worship of the ass with the exodus of the Judeans shows that he followed a tradition also used by Plutarch in Quaestiones convivales IV.5.2 (Barclay, Flavius Josephus, X. Against Apion, p. 351).
The other example quoted by Tacitus is related to the prohibition of eating pork (IV.2). In many of the anti-Jewish attacks composed by Greek or Roman authors, the motif of dietary restrictions – and among them the ban of eating pork which was the meat most commonly eaten by the Romans – is often used to show that this ban was essentially based on the superstitious and ridiculous beliefs of the Jews (this is the case in Juvenal, Satires XIV.96 when Juvenal writes that for the Jews eating pork was as bad as eating man’s flesh), or on a deliberate choice to keep apart from the non-Jews (see for instance Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.383-384). In a different perspective, Tacitus deals with the Jews’ aversion to eat pork by recalling its original cause, namely the fact that the plague that led to the expulsion of the Jews from Egypt would have come from scabious pigs. Tacitus thus does not insist here on the excluding aspect of this dietary restriction.
In a quite similar perspective, Tacitus explains the observance of “frequent fasts” (longa fames), the use of “unleavened Jewish bread” and the observance of the weekly Sabbath as practices whose aim was, according to the author, to commemorate different moments connected to their Exodus. It should be noted that most of these explanations given by Tacitus are erroneous or exaggerated (on the mistakes made by Tacitus, see Bloch, Antike Vorstellungen, p. 92-93). Considering the fasts he mentions, it is important to note that, with the exception of the fast of the Day of Atonement, we are absolutely not sure that the fasts practiced nowadays such as the one for the ninth of Av were practiced at Tacitus’s time. However, some Roman authors such as Trogus Pompeius (Philippic Histories XXXVI.2.14), Petronius (Fragments 37) and Martial (Epigrams IV.4) spread the idea that Jews fast on Sabbath (Stern, Greek and Latin authors, I, p. 335, 337, 444, 523-524). Moreover, by presenting the Jews as seduced by the “charms of indolence” (blandiente inertia), insofar as they decided that every seventh year should be devoted to ignavia (idleness), Tacitus fits in a typically Roman tradition that consisted in mocking the Sabbath by presenting it as a mark of indolence (in a similar perspective see Juvenal, Satire XIV.105-106 in which the Sabbath is also assimilated to ignavia; see also Rutilius who reduced it to a “shameful sloth,” turpis veternus, Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.391; see Schäfer, Judeophobia, p. 86-89).
Thus, it is interesting to see that when Tacitus presents through this list of examples how Jewish rites and customs were opposed to the rites, customs and values shared by other peoples and especially by the Romans, he justifies them most of the time by the will of the Jews to stick to old customs, to commemorate past events of their history and to show their attachment to traditions. This state of affairs is not judged positively by Tacitus, as the observance of these rites and traditions going back to the age of Moses remains a proof of the Jewish superstitio and otherness, even if these very ancient rites and customs were not perceived by Tacitus as concrete manifestations of the misanthropic nature of the Jews (see Berthelot, Philanthrôpia Judaica, p. 123-124 and n. 310).

At the beginning of V.5, Tacitus hardens his critical views towards the Jews by making the difference between the rites previously listed which, according to his words, “are maintained by their antiquity (antiquitas),” and other rites that he qualifies as “immoral” (sinister), “shameful” (foedus) and based on “moral depravity” (pravitas). Then, he lists all these other rites which have one point in common, the fact that they show the exclusiveness and misanthropic nature of the Jewish people. In that perspective, he deals first with the proselytes and criticizes them for having abandoned the traditional gods and most of all for having increased the wealth of the Jews by paying yearly the two-drachms tax to the Temple of Jerusalem. He then directly associates this motif of the Jewish wealth with the exclusiveness of the Jews by highlighting the contrast between the “obstinate loyalty” (fides obstinata) that existed between them or the fact that they were “always ready to show compassion” (misericordia in promptu) and the hostile aversion (hostile odium) that they felt against other human beings (non-Jews). By connecting the motif of the wealth stored up by the Jews and of their cohesion and exclusive character, Tacitus echoes a criticism of a very similar nature made by Cicero in his Pro Flacco when he tries to justify the decision of L. Flaccus when, as governor of Asia, he forbade the Jews of the province to send gold to Jerusalem (Cicero, Pro Flacco 66-69). Various elements clearly recall those used by Tacitus as Cicero insists on the cohesion of the Jews (concordia, 66) and then deals with the quantity of gold which were seized because of Flaccus’s decision, underlying thus the impressive wealth of the Jewish people (67-68). At the end of this short development Cicero implies that the practice of Jewish religion at his time had become incompatible with the splendour (splendor) of the Empire, the dignity (gravitas) of the Roman name and with the institutions of Rome’s ancestors (maiorum institutis) (for the comparison of the two texts, see Le Bonniec and Hellegouarc’h, Tacite, p. 186, n. 3). This idea that the Jews would have had an aversion for anyone who was not part of their gens and especially against the Romans fits in a tradition that had encountered a real success at Rome from the end of the first century CE onwards. One could remember Quintilian’s words when he presents the Jewish nation as being the best example of a perniciosa ceteris gens, “a nation which is pernicious for others” (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria III.7.21), or later when Juvenal criticizes the Jews for not performing some fundamental acts of humaneness, such as showing the way or a water source to someone in need, except for Jews (Juvenal, Satires XIV.103-104).
Among the Jewish rites that Tacitus qualifies as “immoral” and “shameful,” he quotes elements which were commonly used in Greco-Roman sources to criticize Jews: their dietary restrictions; the interdiction of inter-marriages (“they sleep apart,” discreti cubilibus), with the consequence that they formed a gens withdrawn upon itself and closed to every foreigner; their debauchery; and finally the practice of circumcision. About the two last elements it is important to note that the idea of sexual licentiousness allegedly attributed to Jews is a common criticism which circulated in Rome and which was justified by the practice of circumcision (about the association of Jews, circumcised penises and unrestrained sexuality see for instance Martial, Epigrams VII.30, 55, 82 and XI.94; Cordier, “Les Romains,” p. 350). Tacitus then goes further into the description of the Jewish exclusiveness by describing the conversion to Jewish faith as leading to a necessary breaking-up with the gods, the patria and their family. The conversion to Jewish faith thus led to the abandoning of an essential Roman virtue, that is pietas. It is interesting to note that in the De specialibus legibus I.52, Philo presents conversion to Judaism as being an abandoning of one’s homeland (πατρίδα), friends (φίλους) and parents (συγγενεῖς) (the fact that for Philo, conversion to Judaism also implies the abandoning of the Roman gods is made explicit in the De virtutibus 179). However, contrary to Tacitus, Philo judges this abandoning positively, by stating that the converts did so through love of virtue and sanctity. By listing these various practices, Tacitus had one goal, to prove how they were both the basis and the manifestations of Jewish exclusiveness. But the originality of his excursus about the Jews is the way he presents the Jewish immorality and misanthropic nature as the result of a decline of this people. This idea of decadence and the distinction made between the Jewish practices inherited from the age of Moses and the more recent immoral practices show that Tacitus may have been influenced by Poseidonios’s declinist approach of the history of the Jews (see Berthelot, Philanthrôpia Judaica, p. 164-165 and the bibliography n. 315).

In the rest of the narrative (V.3-4), Tacitus pursues his comparison between Egyptian and Jewish customs. At the beginning of the fifth book, when he lists six different versions of the geographical origins of the Jews, he privileges the version stressing the fact that Jews were Egyptians who had been expelled from Egypt because of an epidemic (V.2-3), and later he pursues his comparison between Jewish and Egyptian customs. He mentions the similarities in term of burial practices or conception of the world below but stresses the differences concerning “heavenly things” (V.3, caelestia). These differences are very interesting for our purpose because it gives us a glimpse of how Tacitus – and more generally the Romans – appreciated the Jewish God. Thus, Tacitus highlights the difference between the half-animal half-human Egyptian gods and the Jews who “conceive of one god only, and that with the mind alone” (V.4, mente sola unumque numen intellegunt). Tacitus thus insists on the unicity of the Jewish god (even if for the Romans the monotheism of the Jews was not perceived as dangerous; see Gruen, Rethinking, p. 181), and on another aspect that was highlighted by many Greek or Roman authors who criticized the god of the Jews, namely his abstract nature resulting from Jewish aniconism (about the interdiction of representing the Jewish God, see Josephus, Against Apion II.191; for Greek sources, for a quite neutral presentation of the origins of Jewish aniconism, see Strabo, Geography XVI.2.35 and for a later presentation of the singular worship of the Jewish God, see Cassius Dio, Roman History XXXVII.17.2). It is true that this statement about the aniconism of the Jews contradicts the previous ironical story recalled by Tacitus according to which Jews would have worshiped an ass-god and put a representation of him in the Jerusalem temple. Various explanations have been given of this apparent contradiction as for instance the fact that Tacitus would have deliberately wanted to present contradictory elements to prove how his account of the Jewish customs was impartial (Bloch, Antike Vorstellungen, p. 66). Erich S. Gruen has however argued that Tacitus would have wanted to show how stupid and erroneous the ass-worship tradition was (Gruen, Rethinking, p. 189). The debate remains open on the interpretation of this contradiction.
Before Tacitus, in a quite similar perspective, Lucan wrote that “Judaea [was] devoted to the rites of an unknown god” (dedita sacris incerti Iudaea dei, Lucan, The Civil War II.592-593). For Lucan, the fact that the god of the Jews could not be called by name and could not be represented through an image provided sufficient reasons for naming the god of Judea, incertus, “unknown.” Moreover, around ten years after Tacitus wrote the fifth book of his Histories, Juvenal mocked the Jews who, according to his words “worship nothing but the clouds, and the divinity of the heavens” (Juvenal, Satires XIV.97). For Juvenal, the fact that the God of the Jews is a non-anthropomorphic God leads him to conclude to the “nebulous nature” of their God (Courtney, A Commentary, p. 571). Coming back to Tacitus’s text, it is important to note that Tacitus was aware that the Jews were not the only people who refused to represent their god; the Germans did the same. In Germania IX.3, Tacitus writes: “They also judge, from the greatness of the divine, that a god should not be enclosed within walls, nor given the likeness of a human face, rather they consecrate woods and groves, and give sacred names to a mystery which only awe can behold” (translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2015, available at: http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Tacitushome.htm). It is interesting to note that there are some similarities between Tacitus’s presentation of Jews’ customs and that of the Germans as described in the Germania. The best examples are certainly the interdiction to kill any late-born child (agnatus, V.3; Tacitus, Germania XIX), their bravery during wars, or the interdiction to represent their gods which represent an indisputable sign of otherness. However, the portrayal that Tacitus makes of the Germans may seem less critical than the one he makes of the Jews of the post-exodus period, as he assigns various virtues such as simplicity and hospitality to the Germans, whereas he stresses the inconstancy of Jewish customs and their misanthropic nature (Berthelot, Philanthrôpia Judaica, p. 126).
The passage which has been the most commented and debated in this text is certainly when Tacitus writes that because of Jewish aniconism, the Jews did not pay flattery (adulatio) to their kings, nor gave honour (honor) to the Caesars (V.4). Many scholars have interpreted this passage as referring to the fact that Jews refused to pay allegiance to Rome (see Bloch, Antike Vorstellungen, p. 95-96; in a quite similar perspective see Juvenal, Satires XIV.100-101, in which Jews are presented as used to mock Roman laws and to respect Jewish ones only). To refuse to expose any statue of the emperor in their towns being the equivalent of a lease-majesty crime. However later rabbinic sources indicate that statues of the emperors, governors, or local elites decorated the cities of Syria Palaestina, and therefore the rabbis suggested strategies for making sure that they would not be worshipped, see for example Jerusalem Talmud, Avodah Zarah 3:1, 42b and Jerusalem Talmud, Avodah Zarah 3:1, 42c (part two). Erich S. Gruen has interpreted this passage of Tacitus’s narrative in a totally different way as for him it would be more the occasion for Tacitus to implicitly criticize the worship of the emperors than to present the Jews as dangerous provincials who refused to pay allegiance to Rome. Gruen thus quotes two passages of the Annals in which Tacitus makes fun of some decisions taken under Augustus and Nero to organise their worship (Annals I.10; XV.74; Gruen, Rethinking, p. 193). Another interesting passage is certainly when in a later paragraph of the fifth book of the Histories, Tacitus narrates: “Then, when Caligula ordered the Jews to set up his statue in their temple, they chose rather to resort to arms, but the emperor’s death put an end to their uprising” (Loeb’s translation by Clifford H. Moore; Histories V.9.3). For Erich S. Gruen: “… the mention of Jewish aversion to divine honors for the Caesars constitutes a sneer at the imperial cult, rather than at the Jews” (Gruen, Rethinking, p. 193).

The text presented here ends with a development added by Tacitus to prove once again how the religious rites of the Jews were “preposterous”(absurdus) and “mean” (sordidus) (V.5). This passage is interesting because it shows how Tacitus was ready to associate literary references and traditional images with Jews, even erroneously and artificially. In that perspective, the Jewish priests wearing garlands of ivy as described by Tacitus could be a distorted allusion of the feast of Sukkoth during which huts were also adorned with such kinds of garlands (about the debate see Heubner and Fauth, P. Cornelius Tacitus, p. 85). In addition, the depiction of the Jewish priests singing with “the accompaniment of pipes and cymbals” may be interpreted as resulting from Tacitus’s will to create a parallel with the Bacchanals – also characterised by the use of tambourines and cymbals (Livy, History of Rome XXXIX.8.8 and 10.7 – and thus to underscore the superstitio characterising both religious rites (Bloch, Antike Vorstellungen, p. 173, n. 126). Moreover, another detail given by Tacitus and which has been erroneously interpreted by some as a piece of evidence to identify the Jewish God with Dionysus, is the presence of a golden vine in the Temple of Jerusalem (among the arguments used by anyone, quidam, who considered that the Jews worshiped Dionysos, see Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales IV.6; Heubner and Fauth, P. Cornelius Tacitus, p. 87). This point is corroborated by Josephus who narrates that a golden vine was placed on top of the door located inside the Temple (see Josephus, Jewish War V.210 and Jewish Antiquities XV.395; also mentioned in Pliny the Elder, Natural History XXXVII.14 and in Florus, Epitome of the Roman History of Titus Livius I.40.30; about these sources see Heubner and Fauth, P. Cornelius Tacitus, p. 86).

To conclude, by integrating this excursus on the Jews, Tacitus may have followed a literary technique that consisted in placing an ethnographical excursus before the narrative of important military operations. The main aim of his depiction of Jews or Jewish customs must have been to underscore their strange and extravagant nature. Some of the characteristics attributed to the Jews by Tacitus were similar to the ones he attributed to Germans or Britons, but some accusations, like the description of the Jews as a misanthropic people, seem to be more specific of this people and to be one of the harshest attacks that Tacitus addressed to them. In addition, it is obvious that Tacitus, in order to stress the otherness of the Jews, used the motifs that many Greek or Roman authors had previously used in a critical perspective, referring to the Jewish respect for the Sabbath, their dietary restrictions, their practice of circumcision, their unbridled sexuality or their superstitious beliefs. But it would be wrong to consider Tacitus’s depiction of the Jews as being entirely negative and expressing the personal and radical aversion that Tacitus would have had towards them. We have seen that Tacitus’s distinction between the customs of the Jews before/during the Exodus and the degradation of these customs after this period gives the impression that, even if Tacitus considered the ancestral customs of the Jews as strange, they remained respectable for him. This distinction made between the two periods of the history of the Jews is one of the particularities of Tacitus’s presentation. The last point which remains debatable is related to the question whether or not Tacitus used this excursus to present the Jews as a rebellious people who considerably challenged Rome’s authority and who thus deserved to be defeated by Titus’s armies. The passage which is directly related to this debated question is of course Tacitus’s account that Jews refused to erect statues of the emperors in their cities. For Erich S. Gruen, Tacitus does not insert this detail to criticize the Jews for challenging Rome’s authority but to add another implicit criticism of imperial worship. It is true that it would be wrong to interpret this excursus as a proof of some kind of special and harsher aversion that Tacitus would have had towards Jews and it it is also true that behind the various ethnographical depictions inserted in his works, Tacitus wanted to play with his reader by creating echoes with other depictions of barbarian peoples or implicit connections with his own leitmotivs (see Gruen, Rethinking, p. 195-196). However, it remains obvious that to underscore the otherness of the post-Exodus and decadent Jews he selected most of the elements usually chosen by Greek of Roman authors to make fun of them and to present them as a people who had been defeated by Rome.

Bibliographical references: 

Tacite, Histoires, Livres IV et V

Le Bonniec, Henri , Hellegouarc’h, JosephbookTacite, Histoires, Livres IV et V edition and translation by Henri Le Bonniec; notes by Joseph Hellegouarc’hParisLes Belles Lettres1992
Realized by: