BMCR 1998.07.02

Claudian Policymaking and the Early Imperial Repression of Judaism at Rome. South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism, 160


Slingerland is a man with a mission. He has a clear and consistent thesis to present, one that he delivers with conviction and argues with force, often persuasive force. For Slingerland, the actions taken by the emperor Claudius against the Jews — repression of Jewish gatherings and expulsion from Rome — did not represent uncharacteristic behavior by an otherwise gentle, tolerant, and rational emperor. They were part of a pattern of prejudice, a manifestation of imperial hostility, that persisted from Tiberius through Claudius, indeed was foreshadowed by Augustus himself. The impetus, furthermore, came from the top. Jews did not provoke a response by their unruliness and misbehavior. They were victimized by upper class distaste and the animosity of the crown. And the displeasure was directed against the religion itself, the very way of life of the Jews, the alien superstitio that needed to be suppressed. Claudius followed a long-standing mode.

Such is the thesis. Most scholars subscribe to a very different view. The communis opinio holds that Roman policy was generally tolerant and broad-minded, even actively supportive of Jewish privileges and prerogatives. Deviations from that rule were few, aberrations rather than standard practice. When they occurred, special circumstances had called them forth, usually turbulence and upheaval engaged in by Jews, prompting temporary reaction by Rome, but no systematic repression or enduring hostility.

Slingerland’s assault on received opinion is thorough and sweeping. He subjects the relevant texts to scrupulous analysis, both philological and historical. And he grapples at length with an extensive array of modern interpretations, offering a plethora of dissents and rejoinders.

Some of this constitutes overkill. Text and notes are heavily encumbered by arguments against other scholars, some of them repetitious, even gratuitous, thus padding the pages and expanding the work to a size well beyond what was necessary or undesirable. Nevertheless, the case made by Slingerland is worth attending to. This is serious revisionist history, a thoughtful and stimulating reconstruction that warrants consideration.

A number of valuable points emerge in the course of Slingerland’s discussions. He rightly disassociates, for instance, the evidence of Suetonius, Claud. 25.4, on Claudius’ expulsion of Jews, and that of Dio Cassius, 60.6.6-7, on the prohibition of Jewish assemblages. The latter passage, by explicitly denying an expulsion by Claudius, has long troubled scholars who seek to amalgamate them. Slingerland has an elegant solution: Dio is not refuting Suetonius, but referring to another occasion, and the implied contrast is not with Claudius’ action but with Tiberius’ expulsion of Jews, which Dio had indeed recorded in an earlier chapter (57.18.5a). Use of the same verb in both instances buttresses the conclusion (pp. 105-108).

Slingerland proceeds to take on the notorious crux in Suet. Claud. 24.4: Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma [Claudius] expulit. His treatment, although unnecessarily prolix, argues quite powerfully against the widespread conviction that “Chrestus” is Christ. As Slingerland points out, more fully than any predecessor, the name appears with reasonable frequency in the epigraphic evidence, encompassing persons of freedman or free born status, some of lowly origin, some of relatively prominent station. Nothing suggests Jesus Christ here. The passage indeed implies that Chrestus the impulsor was in Rome when these events transpired. And it will not do to save the Christian hypothesis by postulating Suetonius’ ignorance. Nor does Acts 18:1-3 help the cause, for its reference to Jews expelled from Rome who joined Paul in Corinth does not suggest that they were Christians when they left Rome. Orosius’ interpretatio christiana rests on no evidence independent of Suetonius. Slingerland reaches a proper and salutary conclusion: the burden of proof rests with those who wish to identify Chrestus with Christ, not those who distinguish them (pp. 169-217).

Slingerland’s own proposal for the identity of “Chrestus” is imaginative and novel. He offers the suggestion that Chrestus might be one of the freedmen advisers to the emperor Claudius, using as analogy the anti-semitic Helicon, counselor to Gaius Caligula. And he brings into play the unnamed freedmen referred to by Josephus, Ant. 20.135, who served Claudius and advised him to side with the Samaritans in their dispute against the Jews (pp. 232-241). This is ingenious but highly speculative, as Slingerland himself concedes.

There is, however, a more serious problem. Slingerland’s reconstruction rests on his own rendering of Suet. Claud. 25.4. In his view, impulsore Chresto refers not to a stirring up of tumultuous Jews but to a provocation of the emperor against the Jews. The ablative absolute, in short, should go with the verb, not with the participle (pp. 151-168). The case is attractive in principle, but altogether unconvincing in fact. The word order virtually excludes it. The ablative absolute occurs within the participial phrase, bracketed by Iudaeos and tumultuantis. If Suetonius had wished to indicate that expulit resulted from impulsore Chresto, he made a botch of it. Slingerland may well be right that Chrestus has nothing to do with Christianity — but Chrestus also had nothing to do with prodding the princeps.

A number of other conjectures generate skepticism. Slingerland reckons as incredible the reports in Acts that Roman officials exonerated Paul on charges brought by Jewish accusers. His evidence? That Tacitus and Pliny despised Christians (pp. 8-9). Hardly a water-tight argument. Slingerland makes much of the item in Suet. Aug. 93 that Augustus praised his grandson for passing through Judaea but not offering prayers in Jerusalem. This allegedly shows the princeps‘ true prejudice against Jews, a precursor to the open hostility of subsequent emperors (pp. 47-49). But the passage refers only to Augustus’ preference for long-established rites and scorn for others. Suetonius observes that he also declined to visit the shrine of Apis while in Egypt. That is not tantamount to animosity toward Judaism. In general, Slingerland puts excessive weight on a few scornful comments in Gentile writers as supplying the breeding ground for imperial actions against Jews. The blood-libel, for instance, retailed by Apion and echoed by a certain Damocritus (pp. 17-19), appears nowhere else among ancient writers and gained little currency. Juvenal who was no friend of the Jews refutes the idea of human sacrifice (14.98-99). Apion’s claim that the term “sabbath” derives from an Egyptian word for “disease of the groin” is enlisted in Slingerland’s cause (pp. 25-26), but he omits to notice that Josephus himself regards that explanation as plausible ( CAp, 2.20-21)! As for the slander that Jews worshipped an ass, Slingerland amalgamates two separate sources (p. 19), one of which (Diod. 34/5.1.3) says nothing abut ass-worship. Pagans knew very well that Jews rejected all forms of idolatry (cf. Varro, in Aug. CD, 4.31; Strabo, 16.2.35).

Did imperial policy set its face against Judaism, i.e. its practices and practitioners, its rites and rituals, the cult itself? Such is a major motif in Slingerland’s book. The objective is a worthy one, to challenge the common notion that Jews brought on their own troubles by periodic disturbances that upset law and order and justified Roman retaliation. (See, most recently, L.V. Rutgers, CA, 13 (1994), 56-74 — an article evidently unknown to Slingerland). But the argument is strained and selective in its interpretation of the testimony. Expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Tiberius in 19 CE forms part of the brief (pp. 51-63). But that episode is baffling and obscure, certainly not decisive evidence for imperial policy against the sect. Josephus’ narrative of the event is, to be sure, tendentious and implausible. But Tacitus’ version ( Ann. 2.85), identifying Jewish and Egyptian rites (both are subsumed under ea superstitione), and asserting that 4000 men libertini generis were shipped to Sardinia as a garrison to suppress brigandage, is not much more helpful (similarly, Suet. Tib. 36). Whatever the meaning of this odd episode, Jews themselves were not singled out, only a select number were sent off (evidently men of military vigor), and plenty of Jews were still in Rome when Claudius’ reign opened. This is far from a campaign to stamp out Judaism. Slingerland goes further. Using the event of 19 CE as a touchstone, he maintains that Tiberius himself was behind the anti-Jewish measures (whatever they were) of his praetorian prefect Sejanus (pp. 69-77), thus flying in the face of Philo’s explicit testimony ( Leg. 159-161). Fair enough perhaps to point to Philo’s partisan position and possible desire to play down the emperor’s responsibility. But it is quite unjustified to turn Philo on his head and claim that Tiberius continued to pursue an anti-Jewish crusade after Sejanus’ death when the text states quite the reverse. And the notion that Jewish customs and institutions were the target denies Philo’s unequivocal statement that, although Tiberius acknowledged some guilty parties among Jews living in the provinces, he directed his governors to leave Jewish customs and institutions undisturbed. Whatever the Jews were allegedly “guilty” of, it was not the practice of Judaism. Slingerland nowhere confronts seriously the long series of Roman letters and edicts transmitted by Josephus, most from the era of Caesar and Augustus, reaffirming the rights and privileges of Jews in various cities of the empire to practice unhindered the precepts of their religion, such as observing the sabbath, sending tithes to the Temple, and exemption from military obligations (Jos. Ant. 14.185-267, 16.160-178). One might wish to question the reliability of Josephus’ documents, a complex and controversial matter. But they can hardly be ignored. See, e.g., T. Rajak, JRS, 74 (1984), 107-123; M. Pucci Ben Zeev, SCI, 13 (1994), 46-59 — neither one in Slingerland’s bibliography. The claim of “continuous imperial antipathy towards the foreign cult” (p. 87) remains dubious.

The indictment of Claudius himself falls short of conviction. Slingerland employs Philo’s silence for his own ends: since Philo praises Caligula’s predecessors to contrast them with his own wickedness, but fails to mention Claudius, he must be damning the latter by implication (pp. 90-96). A most questionable methodology. Slingerland several times cites the emperor’s famous letter to the Alexandrians (P. Lond. 1912), but primarily to stress a single line in it: the emperor’s assertion that Jews were a potential plague upon the whole world (pp. 101, 129, 146-150, 220, 244-245). That plays down the more important fact that Claudius bids both the Jews and Greeks of Alexandria to abandon their hostilities and — particularly interesting — that he adjures the Greeks to respect Jewish modes of worship and to give them free rein to pursue their own customs which he explicitly confirms (lines 79-88). There can be no more direct testimony to Claudius’ public policy on the Jews than that. It stands as a major obstacle to any theory that ascribes to him a campaign to repress Jewish religious conventions. As for the Jews fomenting a plague upon the whole world, the phrase needs to be read in context. It is not a characterization of the people. Rather, the emperor pledges that if Jews fail to adhere to the list of conditions he has set down for restoration of harmony in Alexandria, he will act against them in every way as bringing pestilence upon the universe (lines 89-100). A contingent threat, not an ethnic slur. And the assertion is followed directly by a promise of patronage for the city if both parties abandon animosity for kindness and solicitude for one another. The letter does little to advance Slingerland’s case.

There remain two attested Claudian actions with regard to Jews in Rome. Dio Cassius, 60.6.6-7, refers to a ban on their gatherings, evidently at the beginning of the reign. And Suetonius, Claud. 25.4, has him banish Jews who were persistently turbulent at the instigation of Chrestus. Slingerland persuasively distinguishes the two events. He may well be right that Suetonius’ assidue tumultuantis reflects the author’s own anachronistic interpretation, based on the experience of the great rebellion of 66-73 CE (pp. 152-159, 168). And he makes a strong case against modern apologists for Claudius in insisting that Dio attests unambiguously to a prohibition upon assemblages of Jews carrying on their ancestral ways (pp. 131-143). Neither passage, as he properly notes, establishes Jews as trouble-makers or rabble-rousers who prompted the governmental crackdown that they deserved. By the same token, however, they cannot carry the day for his own reconstruction of imperial antagonism toward the Jewish way of life. Suetonius provides no support for it. And Dio’s remark about preventing Jews from congregating to practice their traditions may refer more to the congregation than to the practice. It is no accident that this ban is mentioned in connection with dissolving the collegia and abolishing the taverns where men collected for purposes of drinking. The emperor appears to be taking steps to curb meetings whose outcome might be outside his control — not indulging his anti-Judaism.

The case remains unproved. Why should Roman emperors have had an aversion to Jewish religious rites or indeed have been alarmed by them? The book does not probe that troubling question. Yet, without an answer it is hard to buy an argument for which the evidence is either ambiguous or an obstacle.

Nonetheless, Slingerland deserves commendation for offering a fresh and sustained thesis on this subject, for his salutary exposure of numerous flaws in previous treatments, for his rigorous dissection of several key texts, and for his acute and independent judgment. Readers may not come away convinced, but they will be stimulated to rethink the matter anew. That alone more than justifies the endeavor.