Judeans, Egyptians, and Magians: Various authors on Tiberius’ actions against foreign practices 17-19 CE (first-third centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans, Egyptians, and Magians: Various authors on Tiberius’ actions against foreign practices 17-19 CE (first-third centuries CE),' Last modified October 15, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9316.

Authors: Tacitus, Annals 2.27, 85 (link); Suetonius, Tiberius 35-36 (link); Josephos, Antiquities 18.65-81; and, Dio Cassius, Roman History 57.18 (link).

Comments: Several authors report a variety of measures taken by TIberius in the period from about 17-19 CE.  Included in these lists or brief episodes are specific actions against foreigners in Rome or against practices considered foreign. These provide insights into how Roman elite authors and (earlier) the Roman authorities themselves might have viewed the “superstition” (i.e. customs) of foreigners, but also how authorities might have taken action against peoples by way of dealing with immigrants at Rome itself. There is an ongoing theme of the danger of the Roman elites’ adopting such foreign practices. But the specific nature of, and motives for, such actions often remain unclear. On such sporadic actions, see also sources reporting supposed actions by Roman authorities in 139 BCE (link) and by Claudius in the late 40s CE (link), both of which also entail Judeans (Jews).

Very little is known about the expulsion of “Chaldeans” and “Magians” (with implications of astrological practices) which may have taken place in 17 CE. Both terms would ring of eastern practices (e.g. from Babylonia or Persia) infiltrating into Rome, at least for some among the elites. What is clear is that there were several occasions on which imperial authorities cast blame on such “foreign” things. Later on (likely around 200 CE), the legal expert Ulpian reflects back on several imperial actions against such Chaldeans including that under Tiberius:

Ulpian, in the seventh book on The Proconsular Functions, under the subtitle of “Mathematicians [i.e. those who calculate the position of heavenly bodies, or astrologers] and Soothsayers “: Moreover, a ban has been put upon the crafty imposture and persistent persuasions of the mathematicians [astrologers]. Nor has this been forbidden them today for the first time. Rather, the prohibition is long standing. In fact, there is a decree of the Senate passed in the consulship of Pomponius and Rufus (17 CE) which prescribes that mathematicians, Chaldeans, soothsayers, and others who engage in similar practices should be exiled (literally: interdicted from fire and water) and have all their property confiscated. And if the offender is a foreigner (externarum gentium), he is to be punished with death (cited in Mosaicarum et romanarum legum collatio, 15.2.1; translation adapted from M. Hyamson, Mosaicarum et Romanarum Legum Collatio [London: Oxford University Press, 1913], 129 – link).

The accounts concerning foreigners provide more hints about the Judeans (Jews), but not much more. As Tacitus’ longer ethnographic digression on Judeans in another work also shows (link), this senatorial writer had a tendency to summarize his view of the Judean people’s activities in terms of “superstition,” as is also the case in this passage regarding Tiberius’ actions in 19 CE. Tacitus groups together Egyptian and Judean rites here (which matches with his tales of the origins of Judeans as Egyptians in that other digression). Tacitus has the foreigners being banished to Sardinia in a military role to suppress bandits. (It’s worth noting that the characterization of actions as “banditry” is itself frequently an imperialist or colonialist strategy not only in the Roman era, so this may simply be military suppression of perceived resistance).

Suetonius’ account is similar, but adds that they were required to burn sacred garments and places this action against Judeans in the context of another action against astrologers, also likely foreigners. Dio’s much later, extremely brief aside is somewhat out in left field in proposing that Judeans were in such great numbers that natives of Rome were adopting their customs, which led to the expulsion.

Also out in left field in another way is the more elaborate conspiratorial, soap-opera like tales related by the Judean author, Josephos (which are not entirely different from the tale told by Tacitus in connection with Libo Drusus and Chaldean ways). Beyond telling exciting stories, the aim here, it seems, is to blame the actions of authorities on specific problematic or wicked individuals, rather than on Judeans (or even Egyptians) more generally. In both stories, deceptive individuals trick an elite woman and involve a foreign temple, in one case involving sexual intrigue in the temple of Anubis and and in the other theft under the veil of donations to the Jerusalem temple. In particular, the second narrative aims to focus responsibility on one renegade Judean (along with only a few collaborators) for Tiberius’ action of sending thousands of Judeans for military service in Sardinia. The end point is the same as Tacitus and Suetonius, but the route is quite the roller-coaster.

Works consulted: Pauline Ripat, “Expelling Misconceptions: Astrologers at Rome,” Classical Philology 106 (2011): 115–154 (link); Heidi Wendt, “Ea Superstitione: Christian Martyrdom and the Religion of Freelance Experts,” Journal of Roman Studies 105 (2015): 183–202 (link).

Source of the translations: J. Jackson, Tacitus: The Annals, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1931); J.C. Rolfe, Suetonius, volume 1, LCL, volume 1 (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914); William Whiston, The Whole Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, 4 volumes (Glasgow: Blackie, Fullerton and Co, 1829), all public domain, adapted by Harland.


Tacitus, Annals

Book 2

[Involvement of the imperial elites in supposedly foreign astrological and Magian practices and the expulsion of Magians]

27 Around the same time (after 15 CE, perhaps 17 CE), one of the members of the Scribonian family, Libo Drusus, was charged with revolutionary activities. I will describe in some detail the origin, the progress, and the end of this affair, as it marked the discovery of the system which was destined for so many years to gnaw away at the community. Firmius Catus, a senator and one of Libo’s closest friends, had urged that short-sighted youth, who was susceptible to illusions, to resort to the promises of Chaldeans [i.e. astrologers], the sacred rites of Magians, and the society of interpreters of dreams. At the same time he pointed to his great-grandfather Pompey, his great-aunt Scribonia (at one time Augustus’ spouse), to his cousins the Caesars, and to his mansion crowded with ancestral portraits. Catus encouraged Libo in his luxuries and debts and, in order to entrap him in an even stronger chain of evidence, he shared in his lusts and embarrassments. 28 When Catus had found enough witnesses and slaves to testify in the same manner, he asked for an interview with the emperor to whom the charge and the person implicated had been mentioned by Vescularius Flaccus, a Roman knight (equestrian) on familiar terms with Tiberius. . . [further details from 28-32 omitted about the case, ending with the accused committing suicide before the outcome of the investigation and the actions of the senate]. . . 32 . . . Other resolutions of the senate ordered the expulsion of the mathematicians (mathematici) [i.e. astrologers] and the Magians from Italy. . . [material omitted].

[Senatorial actions again sexual license and Egyptian and Judean “superstition” under Tiberius]

. . . 85 In the same year (ca. 19 CE), limits were set on female sexual misbehaviour by stringent resolutions of the senate. It was laid down that no woman should trade in her body, if her father, grandfather, or husband had been a Roman knight (or: equestrian). For Vistilia, the daughter of a praetorian family, had advertised her sexual licence on the aediles’ list, which was the normal procedure among our ancestors, who imagined the unchaste would be sufficiently punished by admitting their shameful behaviour. Vistilia’s husband, Titidius Labeo, was also required to explain why, in view of his wife’s clear guilt, he had not invoked the penalty of the law. As he pleaded that sixty days, not yet elapsed, were allowed for deliberation, it was thought enough to pass sentence on Vistilia, who was removed to the island of Seriphos. Another debate dealt with the proscription of the Egyptian and Judean sacred rites, and a senatorial edict directed that four thousand descendants of freed slaves [i.e. freedpersons], tainted with that superstition (superstitio) and at a suitable age, were to be shipped to Sardinia and there employed in suppressing banditry; if they succumbed to the pestilential climate, it was a cheap loss. The rest had orders to leave Italy, unless they had renounced their impious custom by a given date.


Suetonius, Tiberius

35 Tiberius revived the custom of our forefathers, that in the absence of a public prosecutor matrons with a bad reputation should be punished according to the decision of a council of their relatives. He absolved a Roman knight (or: equestrian) from his oath and allowed him to put away his wife, who was taken in adultery with her son-in-law, even though he had previously sworn that he would never divorce her. Notorious women had begun to make an open profession of prostitution in order to avoid the punishment of the laws by giving up the privileges and rank of matrons, while the most corrupt young men of both orders [i.e. equestrians and senators] voluntarily incurred degradation from their rank, so as not to be prevented by the decree of the senate from appearing on the stage and in the arena. All such men and women he punished with exile, to prevent anyone from shielding himself by such a device. He deprived a senator of his broad stripe on learning that he had moved to his gardens just before the Kalends of July, with the design of renting a house in the city at a lower figure after that date. He deposed another from his quaestorship, because he had taken a wife the day before casting lots and divorced her the day after.

36 Tiberius abolished foreign ceremonies, especially the Egyptian and the Judean rites, forcing all who were addicted to such superstitions (supersitiones) to burn their sacred vestments and all their paraphernalia. Those of the Judeans who were of military age he assigned to provinces with a less healthy climate, ostensibly to serve in the army. The others of that same descent group (gens) or of similar beliefs he banished from the city, on pain of slavery for life if they did not obey. He banished those who made calculations concerning the stars (mathematici) [i.e. astrologers] as well, but pardoned those who begged for indulgence and promised to give up their art.


Dio Cassius, Roman History

Book 57

[In a list of incidents during Tiberius time]

(5a) As the Judeans flocked to Rome in great numbers and were changing many of the natives over to their customs, Tiberius banished most of them.


Josephos, Antiquities

Book 18

[Trick at Rome involving a rich woman and an Egyptian temple]

(65) About the same time [likely 19 CE, although Josephos seems to place it around 30 CE], another strange incident put the Judeans into disorder, and certain shameful practices happened in connection with the temple of Isis that was at Rome. I will now first take notice of the wicked attempt in connection with the temple of Isis, and I will then give an account of the Judean affairs.

There was at Rome a woman whose name was Paulina. On account of the dignity of her ancestors and her ongoing virtuous conduct, Paulina had a great reputation. She was also very rich. Even though she was beautiful and at the age when women are most lively, she still led a modest life. She was married to Saturninus, who was comparable in his excellent character.

Decius Mundus fell in love with this woman. Mundus was very high up in the equestrian order. Paulina was of too great dignity to be tempted by presents, and had already rejected them, even though they had been sent in great abundance. Mundus was still more inflamed with love for her, so much so that he promised to give her two hundred thousand Attic drachmas to sleep with her one night. When this did not work and he was not able to bear this misfortune in his desire, he thought it was best to starve himself to death because sadness over Paulina’s refusal. He decided to die in this way and went on with his plan.

Now Mundus had a freed-woman, who had been manumitted by his father, whose name was Ida, and she was a person who was skillful in all sorts of mischief. This woman was very much grieved at the young man’s resolution to kill himself (for Mundus did not conceal his intentions to kill himself from others). She came to him and encouraged him by her discourse, making promises that gave him hope that he might sleep with Paulina for one night. When he happily listened to her appeal, she said she only wanted fifty thousand drachmas to trick the woman. So when Ida had encouraged the young man and gotten as much money as she required, she did not use the same methods as had been used before. This was because she perceived that the woman would by no means be tempted by money. Since Ida knew that Paulina was devoted to the worship of the goddess Isis, she devised the following stratagy: She went to some of Isis’ priests and, with the strongest assurances of secrecy, she persuaded them by words but mainly by the offering money with twenty-five thousand drachmas in hand and the promise of the same amount once the thing had been done. She told them about the passion of the young man, and persuaded them to use all means possible to secure the woman. So they were convinced to promise to do this because of the large sum of gold they were promised.

Accordingly, the oldest of them immediately went to Paulina and, upon after gaining admittance, he tried to speak with her by herself. When that was granted him, he told her that he was sent by the god Anubis, who had fallen in love with her and had enjoined her to come to him. Upon this she took the message very kindly and valued herself greatly because of this condescension of Anubis. She told her husband that she had a message sent to her and was to eat supper and sleep with Anubis. So he agreed to her acceptance of the offer, since he was confident about the chastity of his wife. Accordingly, she went to the temple and, after she had supper there and it was the hour to go to sleep, the priest shut the doors of the temple and put out the lights in the holy part of the temple. Then Mundus jumped out (for he was hidden there) and was not stopped from having intercourse with her. She was at his service all night long because she assumed it was the god. After he went away, which was before those priests who knew nothing of this stratagy were stirring, Paulina came early to her husband and told him how the god Anubis had appeared to her. Among her friends, also, she declared how great a value she put upon this favour. When they reflected on the nature of this situation, her friends were partly disbelieving it and partly being amazed at it, since they had no pretense for disbelieving it when they considered the modesty and the dignity of the person. But now, on the third day after what had been done, Mundus met Paulina, and said, “Paulina, you have in fact saved me two hundred thousand drachmas which you could have added to your estate. Instead, you have provided the service in the way I asked. As for your attempt to insult Mundus, I don’t care about names but I’m happy about the pleasure I gained by what I did while taking on the name of Anubis.” When he had said this, he went away. But now she began to come to the sense of the gravity of what she had done and ripped her garments. She told her husband about the horrible nature of this wicked trick and begged him to assist her in this case.

So the husband revealed the fact to the emperor at which point Tiberius inquired into the matter thoroughly by examining the priests about it. Tiberius ordered the priests to be crucified, as well as Ida, who was the instigator for their their punishment and who had planned the whole scheme which was so harmful to the woman. He also demolished the temple of Isis and gave an order that her statue should be thrown into the river Tiber. He only banished Mundus and nothing more because he supposed that he had committed the crim out of the passion of love. These were the circumstances with regard to the temple of Isis and the injuries brought about by her priests. I now return to the relationship of this to what happened about this time to the Judeans at Rome, as I formerly told you I would.

[Trick at Rome involving a rich woman and the Judean temple in Jerusalem]

(81) There was a man who was a Judean but had been driven away from his own country by an accusation laid against him for transgressing their laws and by fear about the punishment for the transgression. In every respect this man was wicked. Then living at Rome, this person professed to instruct other men in the wisdom of the laws of Moses. He procured also three other men, entirely of the same character with himself, to be his partners. These men persuaded Fulvia, a woman of great dignity who had embraced Judean customs (nomima), to send purple and gold to the temple at Jerusalem. When they had gotten the purple and gold, they employed them for their own uses and spent the money themselves, which is the reason why they had first asked her for it. Saturninus, the husband of Fulvia, informed Tiberius (his friend) about this situation. At this point, Tiberius ordered all the Judeans to leave the city of Rome. At the time, the consuls listed four thousand men among the Judeans and sent them to the island Sardinia. But they also punished a greater number of them who were unwilling to become soldiers because of a concern to guard the ancestral customs (ta patria). [Perhaps avoiding military service on Sabbath is in mind]. In this way these Judeans were banished from the city as a result of the wickedness of four men.

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