Judeans, “Asiatics”, and Greeks: Cicero’s ethnic invective aimed at eastern witnesses against Flaccus (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans, “Asiatics”, and Greeks: Cicero’s ethnic invective aimed at eastern witnesses against Flaccus (mid-first century BCE),' Last modified October 17, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9278.

Authors: Marcus Tullius Cicero, For Flaccus 28.60-69 (link to Latin text and full translation)

Comments: This is an excerpt from Cicero’s defensive speech for Lucius Valerius Flaccus, former proconsul of the province of Asia (what is now western Turkey; in 62 BCE), who faced a trial for financial extortion and maladministration in 59 BCE. This segment of rhetoric is a good example of the sort of extreme ethnic invective that could be employed within judicial speeches by the Roman elites. While the rhetoric is certainly exaggerated (beyond what you might encounter in some ethnographic digressions by Roman authors, for instance), the speech nonetheless does reflect a more widespread general disdain for foreigners and especially easterners among the elites at Rome.

Because some of the main witnesses against Flaccus are Greeks from the province of Asia, Cicero puts some effort into undermining Greeks of Asia specifically by association with their “Asiatic” neighbours.  So even some Greeks fair badly in this invective (but the Massalian Greeks who, Cicero claims, supported Flaccus avoid this problem). Cicero smears the Greeks of Asia with an “Asiatic” stain by enumerating specific, widely shared negative stereotypes about Karians (that they are worthless), Phrygians (that they are slaves by nature) and Mysians (that they are at the bottom of a shared ethnic hierarchy). But Cicero also sketches Athenian and Spartan notions of Greek superiority as a contrast to the supposed failure of the Asiatic Greeks (and the Mithridates incident of 88 BCE is understandably brought in too).

Cicero then turns to another important set of witnesses against Flaccus, the Judeans (Jews) of Asia.  As governor (proconsul) of Asia, Flaccus had been directly involved in the seizing Judean gold destined for supporting the temple in Jerusalem (the so called temple tax, on which also see the Roman documents collected by Josephos at this link [coming soon]). Here Cicero also implicates immigrant Judeans in Rome in a campaign to undermine important members of the imperial elites. He facetiously suggests that he needs to whisper so the ostensibly influential Judeans who are supposedly present cannot hear him. His overall characterization of Judean ways is in terms of a “barbaric superstition.” While Cicero’s rhetoric about the Judeans is once again over the top, his characterization of their customs as “superstition” (supersitio) reflects a widespread upper-class Roman sense of obligation (religio) to engage in traditional Roman ancestral customs over against foreign, “barbarian” invaders.

The Judeans were by no means the only people to face such negative, corporate characterizations and ethnic stereotyping for the sake defending a Roman governor. Cicero’s speech in defence of Fonteius very similarly smears the Gauls (link) and his speech for Scaurus smears the Sardinians, linking them with Phoenicians and Africans (link).

Works consulted: Ann Vasaly, Representations: Images of the World in Ciceronian Oratory (Berkeley, CA: UCP, 1993), 191-243.

Source of the translation: L.E. Lord, Cicero: The Speeches, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1937), public domain in Canada (author passed away in 1957), adapted by Harland.


[Undermining Greeks of Asia as witnesses by association with “Asiatics”]

25 . . . (60) If I should say the things I should say, gentlemen, I would deal more severely than I have up to this point with the amount of credence you should give to the testimony of Asiatics (Asiatici). I would recall to your minds the memory of the war with Mithridates [VI], that terrible and cruel slaughter of all the Roman citizens in so many cities at a single moment with our praetors betrayed, and our ambassadors cast into chains [88-89 CE]. The memory of the Roman name with every trace of the govermnent was almost obliterated, not only from the settlements of the Greeks, but from written documents. They called Mithridates god, father, the saviour of Asia, “Euhius” [from the ritual cry for Dionysos: “euoi!”], Nysius, Bacchus, Liber. (61) That was the very time when all Asia closed its gates to the consul Lucius Flaccus [father of the defendant], but not only received the Cappadocian [labelling Mithridates] into its cities but even voluntarily invited him. Let it be permitted us, if we cannot forget these things, at least to be silent about them, let it be permitted me to speak rather of the fickleness of the Greeks than of their cruelty. Should they have influence with these people [Romans] whose very existence they did not desire? For they killed all the Roman citizens they could, they destroyed the Roman name so far as it was in their power. 26 Should they now praise themselves in this city which they hate, in the presence of those whom they look upon with disgust, in a state for whose destruction they lacked not the will but the power? Let them look at this fair assemblage of delegates and supporters of Flaccus for the real and true Greece, then let them weigh themselves, compare themselves with these men and, if they dare, prefer the rank they have to theirs.

[Claims about the superiority of Greeks]

(62) Present here are Athenians, where they think humanity, learning, ancestral obligation (religio), agriculture, rights, and laws were born, spreading through all the earth from there. For the possession of their city—because of its beauty—even the gods contended, as the story goes. It is so old that it produced, so they say, its people from its own soil, and the same land is their mother, their nurse, and their country. It has, moreover, such renown that the now shattered and weakened name of Greece is supported by the reputation of this city. (63) Lakedaimonians [Spartans] are here. The tested and renowned valour of that city is thought to have been supported, not by nature only, but by discipline. They alone in the whole earth have lived for more than seven hundred years with customs unaltered and laws unchanged.

[Presenting supporters from the Greek colony of Massalia among the Celts]

There are also delegates from all over Achaia and delegates from Boiotia and from Thessaly, where Flaccus was lately legate under the commander Metellus. Nor will I fail to mention you, Massalia [Marseilles], who knew Flaccus as military tribune and quaestor. I will say that the training and the dignity of that city deserve to be preferred not only to Greece but probably to all descent groups (gentes). Even though it is far removed from all Greek territory, with a different training and speech, though it lies in a remote region [i.e. the Celtic region] surrounded by descent groups (gentes) consisting of Gauls [i.e. Celts] and washed by barbarian waves, still it has been so ruled by the wisdom of its best citizens that all men can more easily praise than imitate its regulated life. (64) Flaccus enjoys their support, he has them to testify to his innocence—if I may oppose some Greeks by the aid of other Greeks.

[Greek descent groups]

27 And yet who that has ever felt even a moderate desire to know about these things is ignorant that there are really three divisions of the Greek descent group. Among these are Athenians, who are are considered to belong to the Ionian descent group. The second are called Aeolians and the third Dorians. All Greece which was so exalted in fame, glory, learning, numerous skills and even governmental and military distinction occupies and has always occupied, as you know, only a small part of Europe. It conquered the coast of Asia and encircled it with cities, not to fortify it with colonies by descent group, but to keep it surrounded.

[Negative stereotypes about “Asiatics” who influence Greeks of Asia: Phrygians, Karians, Mysians, Lydians]

(65) Therefore, I ask you, witnesses of Asia, when you wish to know truly how much influence you bring to the trial, remember that you yourselves must give Asia its reputation and remember, not what other peoples are accustomed to say about you, but what you yourselves think of your own descent group. For I think your Asia consists of Phrygia, Mysia, Caria, and Lydia. Is, then, this proverb ours [Roman] or yours [Greek]: “A Phrygian is usually improved by whipping.” Furthermore, hasn’t this sayang about all Caria [Karia] been spread by your own lips?: ‘‘If you want to run a risk in any experiment, you must, in doing so, prefer to use a Carian” [i.e. Karians are expendable]. Moreover, what is so well known and commonplace in the Greek language to speak about anyone with contempt by saying, “He’s the lowest of the Mysians.” What should I say about Lydia? What Greek ever wrote a comedy in which the leading slave part was not taken by a Lydian?

So what injustice is done if we decide to take you at your own valuation? (66) Indeed, now I think I have said enough and more than enough about Asiatic witnesses as a group. Yet it is still your duty, gentlemen, to grasp with your own thoughts and imagination everything which can be said about the fickleness, irresponsibibty, and greed of these people, since I have by no means said it all.

[Undermining Judeans / Jews as witnesses: “barbaric superstition”]

28 (66) The next thing is that animosity concerning Judean gold. This is no doubt the reason why this case is pleaded near the steps of Aurelius. You [the prosecutor] selected this place and that crowd, [Decimus] Laelius. You know how numerous that crowd [i.e. a supposed crowd of Judeans] is, how great is its unanimity, and of what weight it is in the popular assemblies. I will speak in a low voice, so only the judges can hear me. For there are plenty of people who would be glad to excite that people against me and against every eminent man, and I will not assist them and enable them to do so more easily. (67) Under the pretext of being given to the Judeans, gold was customarily exported each year out of Italy and all the provinces to Jerusalem, Flaccus issued an edict establishing a law that made it illegal for gold to be exported out of [the province of] Asia. And who is there, judges, who cannot honestly praise this measure? The senate had often decided – and when I was consul it came to a most serious resolution – that gold should not to be exported. But resisting this barbaric superstition was an act of dignity and despising the crowd of Judeans, which at times was most unruly in the assemblies in defence of the interests of the republic, was an act of the greatest wisdom.

But after Cnaeus Pompey had taken Jerusalem and even though he was a conqueror, he touched nothing which was in that temple. [68] In the first place, he acted wisely, as he did in many other instances, in leaving no room for his detractors to say anything against him, in a city so prone to suspicion and to evil speaking. For I do not suppose that the sense of obligation (religio) among the Judeans, our enemies, was any obstacle to that most illustrious general, but that he was hindered by his own modesty.

Where then is the guilt? You nowhere impute any theft to us, since you approve of the edict and confess that it was passed in due form and you did not deny that the gold was openly sought for and that the facts of the case were put forward. These facts show that the action was executed by excellent men. There was almost one hundred pounds of gold openly seized at Apameia, and weighed out in the forum at the feet of the praetor, Sextus Caesius, a Roman knight, a most excellent and upright man. Twenty pounds weight or a little more were seized at Laodikeia by Lucius Peducaeus, who is here in court, one of our judges. Some was seized also at Adramytteion by Cnaeus Domitius, the lieutenant, and a small quantity at Pergamon. [69] The amount of the gold is known; the gold is in the treasury. No theft is imputed to Flaccus, but this case is attempted to render him unpopular.

The speaker turns away from the judges, and addresses himself to the surrounding crowd. Each city, Laelius, has its own civic obligation, and we have ours. While Jerusalem was flourishing and while the Judeans were in a peaceful state, the obligation of their sacred rites were very much at variance with the splendour of this empire, the dignity of our name and the institutions of our ancestors. And they are even more so now, because that descent group (gens) has shown by armed resistance what its feelings were towards our supremacy. How important this was to the immortal gods is proved by this descent group having been defeated, by its revenues having been farmed out to our contractors, and by its being reduced to a state of subjection.

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