BMCR 2022.11.25

Military service and the integration of Jews into the Roman empire

, Military service and the integration of Jews into the Roman empire. The Brill reference library of Judaism, 72. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2022. ISBN 9789004506756. $127.00.

In his introduction, Raúl González-Salinero cites a recent encyclopedia of the Roman army that claims Jews never served as Roman soldiers and notes other secondary sources that, while acknowledging there were Jewish Roman soldiers, term them “renegades” or apostates. These misconceptions are due to a number of false assumptions: that Jewish religious practice would never have allowed for military service and that Jews were uniformly and implacably opposed to the Roman Empire. Military Service does not try to prove that Jews served in significant numbers in the Roman military, only that they were present, but this fact alone has an important impact not only on our understanding of ancient Judaism—and Jewishness—but also on that of Rome and the Roman army.

The first chapter, “Jewish Military Service in Hellenistic Armies”, actually reaches back as far as the eighth century BCE, discussing Jews in the Assyrian Army and also covers, in some detail, the Persian-era Jewish military colony at Elephantine in Egypt. There is a thorough review of the literary evidence for the Hellenistic period, principally from Josephus but also others, such as the Books of Maccabees. González-Salinero reviews the references to the Jewish soldiers used by Alexander the Great, the Seleucids, and the Ptolemies. The evidence for Jewish service in the Ptolemaic army includes a significant corpus of papyri. These reveal that Jews made up a larger proportion of the army in Hellenistic Egypt than in any state outside of Judaea itself. The Ptolemies promoted Jews to high military ranks, including the command of the entire army. The chapter ends with insightful remarks on the tropes of the loyal Jewish soldier in Josephus, and that of Hellenistic respect for Jews following their law on military service, principally keeping the Sabbath.

Military Service then surveys royal, that is Hasmonean and Herodian, Jewish units that fought in various Roman campaigns as auxiliary troops. The focus of this next chapter, however, is on the question of exemptions from military service for Jews granted by Rome during the late Republic. There is a robust debate over whether these were temporary and exceptional measures of the Roman Civil Wars or permanent policies that continued into the Principate. González-Salinero describes the various perspectives fairly, and sets out his own view. He also makes the important point that such Jewish privileges were not unique, and paralleled by those awarded to other peoples.

Chapter three leads off with the story of the conscription of 4,000 Jews into the Roman army in 19 CE and their deployment to Sardinia to fight bandits. This apparently punitive draft occurred in the context of the expulsion of both Jews and the worshippers of Isis from the city of Rome. It is described in some detail by both Tacitus and Suetonius, and is also referred to by Josephus. While clearly important for our understand of the Roman view of Jewish military service, the incident is problematic, especially regarding whether these Jewish soldiers formed a distinct unit, and if so, if it was dissolved or remained in Roman service.

González-Salinero again discusses the Herodian Royal Army in chapter four. This is an example of a certain repetitiveness throughout the book. Here, there is a more in-depth discussion, setting out cases in which Herodian units were, or may have been, integrated into the Imperial Roman army. One example is the so-called Troopers of Zamaris, a unit of Babylonian Jews that was recruited by Herod as settler-soldiers and are attested as Roman auxiliaries as late as 108 CE, although it should be noted that the existence of the unit does not mean that Jews were still being recruited into it. In addition to units, González-Salinero goes over the careers of individuals who served both the Herodian and the Roman armies, discussing in detail the case of Titus Mucius Clemens. This individual was both a praefectus castrorum for Agrippa II and the commander of a Roman cohors equitata. González-Salinero sets out the arguments for and against Clemens having been a Jew.

Throughout the book, González-Salinero is judicious in his analysis of the arguments for Jewishness in each case he presents. The documentary evidence, especially in the High Empire, is often tentative and problematic. The use of Hebrew names is, of course, an indicator, although many names are common with non-Jewish Aramaic speakers. An example is Lucius Cornelius Simon, a sailor at Misenum attested in a military diploma. As Christianity spread, so did the adoption of biblical Hebrew names, complicating matters. The biggest challenge is identifying those Jews who used Greek and Latin names, which they certainly did. Context here is the main clue: Military Service tentatively identifies a soldier with a combined Latin and Greek name, L. Maecius Archon, as Jewish because his epitaph was found in the Jewish catacomb at Rome. In some cases, there are firm, or multiple, indicators, which increase our confidence: a centurion named Aninios (probably Hananiah) is attested on an Edfu ostracon paying the Jewish tax for his slave (CPJ 2.229/135–136). One point to keep in mind is that while some identifications of Jews may be wrong, once one has established that Jewish participation in the army occurred, then there must be cases, although how many is unknowable, in which Jewish soldiers are indistinguishable and escape our attention.

One clear-cut case of Jewish military service is that of Tiberius Julius Alexander, who came from an elite Jewish family in Egypt and undoubtedly had a distinguished political and military career. He was in charge of auxiliary troops as prefect of Judaea, served Domitius Corbulo in a Parthian campaign, and as Prefect of Egypt he commanded two legions. He subsequently served in a high position on Titus’s staff during the Jewish War. Though generally thorough, González-Salinero does not discuss Alexander’s possible rise to the Praetorian Prefecture, perhaps evidenced in two papyrus fragments from Egypt (P. Hib. 2.215), though some argue these refer to his position in the Jewish War. The issue remains unresolved.

Alexander attained the highest rank of any Jew in Roman service—if he is to be considered Jewish. Josephus calls him what is usually translated as “a renegade Jew,” although the author renders this as one who “did not stand by the practices of his people.” Whether this means that Alexander was a practicing pagan or simply not religious is unclear. The case of Alexander leads into González-Salinero discussing “hidden Jewish identity,” touching on the important question of what we mean by “Jew” and “Jewish” in the ancient context. He also considers the issues that might have affected religious Jews in Roman military service: eating kosher food and keeping the Sabbath. The analysis touches here on the issue of Jews as an ethnic, rather than strictly a religious, group, and posits that Jewish soldiers, as well as the state, showed more flexibility and accommodation than is generally recognized.

The fourth chapter, on the Late Empire, has the greatest variety of types of evidence, as well as the most indicators of Jewish military service. In addition to epitaphs, papyri, and ostraca, it draws on Vegetius’s military thesis; historical texts such as Procopius, Ammianus Marcellinus, and Sulpicius Severus; theological works by Augustine, Athanasius, and others; the laws cited in the Theodosian Code; and tractates from the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds. Most of the talmudic stories related to Jews serving in the army seem to be folktales rather than reflections of reality, the most convincing is a legal decision by Mana ben Jonah about Jews in fourth-century Galilee being conscripted into a nimoreh, that is, a numerus.

Also in the fourth century, Christian sources complain about a Jewish military unit attacking the Church of Saint Theonas in Alexandria. González-Salinero lists antisemitic statements from various theologians decrying Jewish participation in a Christian Roman army. Ironically, the strongest evidence for Jewish military services in the Christian empire are the early fifth-century imperial proclamations expelling Jews from the army as well as from the civil bureaucracy.

A short conclusion summing up the book’s thesis is followed by three appendices: “Violence and the Use of Arms on Sabbath,” “The Inscription of Rufinus the Soldier, from the Via Appia Pignatelli Catacomb (Rome)” and “A Critical Rereading of the Inscription of Flavia Optata Found in Concordia.” The third appendix is significant: González-Salinero sets out and accepts David Noy’s argument that an abbreviated text had been wrongly emended to create a phantom Jewish unit, the Regii Emeseni Judaei. The inclusion of this discussion is most welcome, as it corrects a frequently repeated mistake.

As is the case with many ancient historians, González-Salinero may well have felt disinclined to stray from his area of expertise, but his work would have benefitted from attention to the general military history of the Jewish people. For example, the idea of Jews as a martial people (especially before the rise of Zionism) might seem odd given the social and legal status of Jews in both Christian and Muslim societies, yet, there are examples, such as the Bene Israel in India, who were considered a “martial race” by both the British and the Indian armies. Cases of all, or mostly, Jewish units serving in Gentile militaries would be useful for understanding ancient examples. A Polish Hussar regiment raised for the 1794 uprising against Russia was made up of observant Jews. Its commander Berek Joselewicz went on to be a squadron commander in Napoleon’s forces. There are other well-attested examples of Jews serving as both officers and enlisted men in premodern and modern military forces. In some cases, Jews simply ignored dietary restrictions and keeping the Sabbath, in others, they made efforts to adhere to their customary Jewish practices as much as possible.

The title Military Service and the Integration of Jews into the Roman Empire is not entirely descriptive. The book only touches lightly on how military service served to “Romanize” the Jews or incorporate them into Roman society. In this and other cases the work would have benefitted from more discussion. The work also would have been improved by better organization, indeed, a more narrative format might have helped in tracing the developments and changes in Jewish military service. Nevertheless, González-Salinero has written the sine qua non for any study of Jews in the Roman army.

Anyone interested in ancient Jewish history, the Roman army, or indeed the question of the intersection of ethnicity and military service will benefit from reading this book. While it is not suitable as an undergraduate text, it would be a valuable addition to a graduate seminar in Jewish or military history, or indeed one on the interpretation of primary sources. One hopes that González-Salinero continues his work in this field and follows up with a more expansive treatment of Jewish military service in antiquity.