Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.11.01

R.S. Bloch, Antike Vorstellungen vom Judentum. Der Judenexkurs des Tacitus im Rahmen der griechisch-römischen Ethnographie. Historia Einzelschriften 160.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2002.  Pp. 260.  ISBN 3-515-07664-6.  EUR 44.00.  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University, The Netherlands (
Word count: 1192 words

Bloch's book is a revision of his dissertation defended at Basle University in 1999. Tacitus' spiteful excursus on the Jews and Judaea in Hist. 5.2-13 has been the subject of many scholarly publications, but, as Bloch rightly observes, almost never has this passage been investigated in the light of the ancient ethnographical tradition. Even a thorough comparison with Tacitus' own Germania has never been undertaken. (Even what is by far the most extensive and best treatment of this passage, namely W. Heubner & W. Fauth, P. Cornelius Tacitus: Die Historien, vol. 5, Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1982, is unsatisfactory in these respects.)

After an introductory chapter with a survey of the research that has been done so far, B. sketches his program as "die Einordnung des taciteischen Judenexkurses in die Tradition der griechisch-römischen Ethnographie unter Berücksichtigung seiner literarischen Seite" (21). In ch. 2 B. passes in review the 'Judenexkurse' of Hecataeus of Abdera, Posidonius, and Pompeius Trogus; all three texts are helpfully translated. Here B. glosses over somewhat too easily the much debated question of whether indeed the passages in Strabo 16.2.34-46 and Diodorus Siculus 34/35.1.1-5 completely derive from Posidonius (after all, Edelstein & Kidd are very skeptical on this point), but it should be added that this does not harm his argument: the passages are each of them anyway a pre-Tacitean excursus on the Jews in an ethnographic setting.

The 'pièce de résistence' of the book is the 80 page ch. 3 on the literary and historical 'Einordnung' of Hist. 5.2-13. After a translation of the complete passage, B. firstly shows that it contains a high number of hapax legomena (in order to underline the peculiarities of the Jews) and several striking Sallustianisms and Virgilianisms. That is to say that Tacitus wrote these chapters with great and deliberate care. Then the meticulous structuring of the text according to the ethnographical pattern also found in Tacitus' predecessors is laid out in detail by B.: origo - mores - situs - historia (the order is not rigidly fixed; more usually situs comes first). The close interrelatedness of these 4 topics is highlighted by him in a very illuminating way (e.g., the 6 different origo-versions each play a role in the later chapters on mores etc.). B. convincingly demonstrates that there is a constant and subtle play of references back and forth. In this way even elements which in themselves are not presented by Tacitus in a negative manner (e.g., Jewish monotheism) receive a non-positive colouring. Sometimes B. goes too far here, e.g., when in Tacitus' description of the strong cohesion of the asphalt substance in the Dead Sea he fancifully detects a reference to the unanimity of the Jewish people ("Die Geographie ist der Spiegel der mores," 102). And the following statement, too, may be somewhat farfetched: "Wie in der vorherigen Schilderung der öden Gegend des Toten Meeres, greift Tacitus auch hier [sc. Hist. 5.9.1], um die Leere des jerusalemer Tempels zu unterstreichen, auf eine vergilianische Totenreichbeschreibung zurück [sc. Aen. 6.268-9]. Totenreich und jüdischer Kult entsprechen sich. Die 'Geographie' des Tempels wird also in denselben Farben geschildert wie diejenigen der dürren Gefilde in der Nähe des Toten Meeres" (104-5); actually it is only the recurrence of a couple of adjectives, vacuus and inanis, that forms the thin basis of this suggestion. But on the whole B.'s analysis of the argumentative structure ('Gedankentektonik,' which here also includes suggestive innuendo) of this passage is very stimulating and fascinating.

Next B. observes that outside the 'Judenexkurs' Tacitus shows little or no interest in Jews or Judaism in his works. If they are mentioned at all, it is only in passing and almost always in a neutral way (the exception being Hist. 2.4.3). So it would not seem that Tacitus especially has his knife into the Jews. B. finds part of an explanation for the vilifying tone in the passage in Hist. 5 in Tacitus' positive attitude towards the early Flavian emperors: the Jews serve as a foil for the new dynasty.

But that is not all. In ch. 4, on the 'Judenexkurs' as an ethnographical text, B. first compares the passage with the comparable ethnographic excurses in the Germania and the Agricola, and he argues that, although the vast majority of ethnographical topoi in these passages recur in the excursus on the Jews, the main difference is that, in spite of the negative picture of the Jews, Tacitus never calls them barbar(o)i (neither do other ancient authors). B. explains this by the phenomenon of the large diaspora: the Jews did not just live on the fringes of the Graeco-Roman world, they lived everywhere and often could hardly be distinguished from non-Jews. For the rest Tacitus does not offer really new information but is satisfied to follow in general his predecessors in what they had written about Jews and Judaism, sometimes even including self-contradictory information (e.g., 'aniconic cult' versus 'worship of an ass'). Unlike his descriptions of the peoples in Germania and Brittannia, he paints his picture of the Jews with a broad brush; ethnographic details are less important than the overall impression he wants to create, namely that the Jews fully deserved to be defeated and have their only temple destroyed by the Romans. But this does not make Tacitus the notorious Jew-hater he is so often said to be, says B. Livy's description of the Bacchanalia affair, for instance, is no less inimical than Tacitus' report on the Jews. What Tacitus does (and other Roman authors do as well) is "Funktionalisierung von Ethnographie zu narrativen Zwecken" (184); a real ethnographical interest is no longer there, and that is the distinctive difference from his Greek predecessors.

The final ch. 5 ("Der Judenexkurs des Tacitus im Laufe der Jahrhunderte") contains an extraordinarily fascinating study of the reception history of Hist. 5.2-13. B. characterizes this reception as "eine enorme Wirkung" (187), but it has never been charted. Tertullian (who calls Tacitus a liar), Ps-Hegesippus, Orosius, and other early Christian authors pass briefly in review (B. emphasizes the role of what Tacitus says about the Christians in Ann. 15 in the Christian reception). The first commentators, in the 16th and 17th cent., usually react rather mildly to Tacitus' depiction of the Jews, except Guillaume Budé (Tac. does not play any role in the anti-Jewish polemics of this period). Jewish commentators of the 17th century, however, are decidedly more critical and launch a counterattack (Spinoza, who knew Tacitus, being the exception). In the 18th century scholars such as Voltaire and Gibbon sympathize with Tacitus' anti-Jewish views, as do many in the 19th century, especially in Germany, although the same period also witnesses the appearance of some major 'objective' commentaries. In the Nazi period Tacitus is taken into the service of antisemitic propaganda (e.g., by the notorious New Testament scholar G. Kittel), and even on present day antisemitic websites Tacitus is quoted with approval.

Although sometimes the author seems to lose sight of his original objective and also is too repetitive -- the book could really have been shorter --, on the whole the fresh and original treatment of this well-known passage is a pleasure to read. This book deserves a wide readership.

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