Course Outline for The Conflict of Religions in the Roman Empire (HIST 5025; Winter 2011; version A)

Philip A. Harland (pharland  AT  yorku  DOT  ca). Office hours: Wednesdays 1-2pm or by appointment (Vanier 248)

Thursdays 9:00am-11:45 am (Bethune 225)


This course examines cases of ethnic, social, and political conflict relating to honours for the god(s) (“religion”) in the Roman empire.  We will consider incidents involving ethnic and other conflicts as well as literary representations that reflect conflict.  The relationship between Roman imperial authorities and particular groups will also occupy us.  This year the focus will be on cultural minorities in the Roman empire, especially the Judeans and a particular set of groups that arose from a Judean context (Jesus-followers).  As many conflicts arise from relations between different ethnic groups, we will also give attention to issues of ethnography, namely ancient writings in which an author from one ethnic group describes or critiques the cultural practices of other peoples, particularly with respect to the gods, or god.

Some key questions: What is the nature of our sources? What sort of conflicts do we observe in them (social, religious, political, ethnic factors)? To what degree are such conflicts representative or anomalous, ongoing or incidental? What do incidents of conflict reveal about patterns of relations between different ethnic or minority groups? How do such conflicts relate to the “policy” or approach of civic or Roman authorities towards the groups involved? In what ways can actions by Roman authorities be considered ad hoc? Can conflicts involving Judeans and Jesus-followers be understood within broader patterns of relations within the Roman empire?


Required readings

  • Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). (Available in the York bookstore.)
  • G.W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).  (Available in the York bookstore.)
  • Other articles and sources listed in the syllabus (available through university libraries; also sometimes available online or on reserve)
    (View list of public domain sources held locally on



Weekly analytical piece (10%), due each week at the beginning of class

Each week, students will submit a 500 word (2 pages double-spaced) analytical piece dealing with the readings for the upcoming discussion (due at the beginning of class).  This should not be a summary, but rather a comparative analysis and synthesis focused on key issues raised by the readings, particularly with respect to our approach to the ancient sources.   (You do not need to submit this assignment for the week when you present).

Participation (25%)

Participation in discussions is an integral part of the educational experience.  All students are required to come to class each week prepared for detailed discussions of the readings, both scholarly materials and, especially, the ancient sources.
Calculation of participation mark: 0-30% mark (infrequent or no participation; comments show little or no familiarity with the readings); 40-60% mark (occasional participation; comments show general knowledge of readings but not detailed knowledge; comments tend to be personal opinion or ad hoc observations more so than analytical or comparative); 70-100% (frequent participation; comments regularly demonstrate detailed understanding of the readings; analytical and comparative contributions stimulate further discussion among students).
Presentation (10%)

Each student will also have an opportunity to present on the book s/he read for the book review assignment (20 minute presentation + 10 minute discussion; see book options on the discussion schedule).  Students should meet with me to discuss their approach to the presentation at least one week in advance of presenting.  Although you will need to explain the author’s key arguments, the purpose of this presentation is not simply to reiterate material from your book review.  Instead, you will present in a way that furthers our ongoing discussion of issues (both methodological and content-related) and our analysis of ancient sources within the course.

Academic book review (15%), due week 5

Each student will choose a work (see options on the discussion schedule) and write a five-page (double-spaced) academic book review, which entails: outlining the main argument of the book and how the author builds up this argument; discussing the author’s methods (or approach) and use of evidence to support his or her points; and, providing a critical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the work.  To familiarize yourself with the genre of the academic book review, read at least five book reviews (but not reviews of the book you are analyzing) that interest you in an academic journal of your choice or online at: (Review of Biblical Literature) or (Bryn Mawr Classical Review – note that reviews on that site are not limited to the typical 5 pages).

Paper proposal and bibliography (5%), due week 7

Choose a topic relating to the course that interests you. Speak with me to confirm the topic and to get further assistance. Write a succinct proposal (2 pages double-spaced plus bibliography), which entails:
– Stating your topic and the sort of material you expect to cover.
– Outlining your tentative thesis or main argument and how you expect to structure the paper.
– Discussing primary and secondary sources that will be useful in research.
– Providing a bibliography (following an accepted academic style of bibliography correctly).

There is a helpful online bibliographical guide (“Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide”) for the two Chicago Manual of Style options here:

For this assignment, please print out two hardcopies.  You will submit one to me and another to a fellow student (to be determined), who will also provide feedback and suggestions.

Research paper (35%), due week 11

20 pages double-spaced maximum.  A good research paper focuses its attention on analyzing primary sources (in our case ancient materials) with the help of scholarly sources.   You may also choose to do a historiographical paper, which analyzes the history of scholarship on a particular topic.  We will discuss the options at more length in class.



Week 1 (Jan 5)


Problems with the category of “religion” and usefulness of “ethnicity” as a category in understanding conflict; encounters between different peoples in the Roman empire

  • Background reading for those not familiar with religion in ancient contexts:
    • James B Rives, “Graeco-Roman Religion in the Roman Empire: Old Assumptions and New Approaches,” Currents in Biblical Research 8 (2010), 240-299 (York link).
    • Begin reading Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia for Jan. 19 discussion

Context: Greek and Roman Perspectives on the Cultural Practices of “Others”

Week 2 (Jan 12)

Incidents of conflict: Roman authorities’ actions against foreigners and foreign practices – the case of the Bacchanalia

  • Primary sources:
    • Livy, History of Rome 39.1-19 (online).
    • “28. Decree of the Senate on the Bacchanalia, 186 BC” and “28a. Edict of the Consuls on the Bacchanalia, 186 BC” in Ancient Roman Statutes: A Translation with Introduction, Commentary, Glossary, and Index, 26-28 (York ebook link).
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, “The Boundaries of Roman Religion,” in Religions of Rome, volume 1, 211-244 (on reserve).
    • P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 43 (1996), 188-203 (JSTOR link).
    • Continue reading Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia for Jan. 19 discussion

Week 3 (Jan 19)

Conflicts / encounters in literature: Romans and Greeks on the cultures of other peoples (ancient ethnography)

  • Primary sources:
    • Tacitus, Histories 5.1-13 (online pdf [or full volume with Latin and English])
    • Strabo, Geography 7.2.1; 7.3.9; 15.1.1-4 (online; on Strabo’s approach to ethnography)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia (entire book –  for overall discussion of his argument and approach).
    • Erich Gruen, “Tacitus and the Defamation of the Jews,” in Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 179-196 (on reserve).

The Case of Judeans and Judean Culture

Week 4 (Jan 26)

Conflict in perspective: An overview of life for Judeans in the diaspora

Incidents of conflict: Greeks, Egyptians, and Judeans at Alexandria, Egypt in the 30s-40s CE

  • Primary sources:
    • Philo of Alexandria, Against Flaccus (Loeb edition on reserve for photocopy); Edict(s) of Claudius (Schäfer, Judeophobia, 145-152; edicts also online in English and Greek).
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Richard Alston, “Philo’s ‘In Flaccum’: Ethnicity and Social Space in Roman Alexandria,” Greece & Rome 44 (1997), 165-175 (York link).
    • Schäfer, Judeophobia, 136-160.


  • Presentations:
    • John M.G. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE-117 CE) (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996).
    • Sandra Gambetti, The Alexandrian Riots of 38 C.E. and the Persecution of the Jews: A Historical Reconstruction (JSJSup 135; Leiden: Brill, 2009)

Week 5 (Feb 2)

Conflicts / encounters in literature: Josephus’ Against Apion (first century CE)

  • Primary sources:
    • Josephus, Against Apion, especially book 2 (online pdf [for the Greek/Latin texts, see the full volume])
      • There is also a more up to date (but not easily printable) text and translation by John Barclay online.
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Kenneth R. Jones, “The figure of Apion in Josephus’ ‘Contra Apionem’” Journal for the Study of Judaism 36 (2005) 278-315 (York link).
    • John M. G. Barclay, “The Politics of Contempt: Judaeans and Egyptians in Josephus’s Against Apion” in Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish strategies in the Roman Empire (New York: Continuum, 2004), 109-127 (online pdf).

    **Book reviews due at the beginning of class in week 5**

Week 6 (Feb 9)

The Roman authorities and diaspora Judeans: Roman “policy”

  • Primary sources:
    • Josephus, Antiquities 14.185-264 (online); Antiquities 16.162-178 (online) (edicts by authorities mainly relating to Asia Minor in the mid-late first century BCE).
    • Tacitus, Annals 2.85.4-5 (online); Suetonius, Tiberius 36.1 (online); Josephus, Antiquities 18.65-81 (online); Dio Cassius 57.18.5 (online) (expulsions from Rome under Tiberius in 19 CE)
    • Suetonius, Claudius 25.4 (online); Dio Cassius 60.6.6 (online), Acts 18.2 (online) (expulsions from Rome under Claudius, ca. 49 CE)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Tessa Rajak, “Was There a Roman Charter for the Jews?,” Journal of Roman Studies 74 (1984), 107-23. (JSTOR link)
    • V. Rutgers, “Roman Policy towards the Jews: Expulsions from the City of Rome during the First Century C.E.,” Classical Antiquity 13 (1994), 56-74. (JSTOR link).
    • Schäfer, Judeophobia, 106-111 (on expulsions).


  • Presentations:
    • Leonard Victor Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora (Leiden: Brill, 1995).

Week 7 (Feb 16)

Symbolic representations of conflict with the empire: 4 Ezra and the Sibylline Oracles

  • Primary sources:
    • 4 Ezra = 2 Esdras, especially focusing on 10:60-12:36 (Apocrypha of the Bible; also online)
    • Sibylline Oracles book 3 (section 350-380) and book 5, in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Volume 1 Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments (New York: Doubleday, 1983) (on reserve for photocopy; Greek online)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • John J. Collins, “After the Fall: 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and the Apocalypse of Abraham” and “Apocalyptic Literature from the Diaspora in the Roman Period,” in The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 194-212 and 233-255 (on reserve).
    • Philip Francis Esler, “The Social Function of 4 Ezra,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 53 (1994), 99-123 (York link).
  • Presentations:
    • David Noy, Foreigners at Rome: Citizens and Strangers (London: Gerald Duckworth, 2000).

*Research paper proposal due at the beginning of week 7*

Reading week Feb 20-24 – no classes

The Case of Jesus-followers

Week 8 (March 1)

Conflict in perspective: Everyday life for Jesus groups in the empire

Incidents of conflict: Greeks, Roman authorities, and Jesus-followers

  • Primary sources:
    • Tacitus, Annals, 15.38-44 (online)
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistles 10.95-96 (online; alternative pdf no. 75, pp. 219-222).
    • Hadrian’s rescript to Minucius Fundanus, governor of Asia, translated in an article (JSTOR link).
  • Scholarly sources:
    • G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?,” Past & Present 26 (1963), 6-38. (JSTOR link)
    • A. N. Sherwin-White, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted? — An Amendment,” Past & Present 27 (1964), 23-27. (JSTOR link)
    • G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted? — A Rejoinder,” Past & Present 27 (1964), 28-33. (JSTOR link)
  • Presentation:
    • James S. Romm, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

Week 9 (March 8)


Week 10 (March 15)
Incidents of conflict: The nature of persecution in Asia Minor

The origins of “martyrdom” (discussion of Bowersock’s theory)

  • Primary sources:
    • 1 Peter (in the Bible or online).
    • Martyrdom of Polycarp (online pdf [for the Greek text, see the full volume]).
    • Browse 4 Maccabees, esp. chs. 1-5 (in the Apocrypha of Bible or online)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • G.W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).


  • Presentations:
    • Erich Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
    • Douglas R. Edwards, Religion and Power: Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greek East (Oxford: OUP, 1996).

Week 11 (March 22)

Conflicts / encounters in literature: Ethnographic traditions and criticism of Jesus groups as cultural minorities

  • Primary sources:
    • Minucius Felix, Octavius 5-13 (esp. 8-10) and 28-31 of the dialogue (online pdf [Latin text available in the full volume]).
  • Justin Martyr, First Apology (entirety); Second Apology 12 (online pdf).
  • Origen, Contra Celsum 1.14-26 (online)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • James B. Rives, “Human Sacrifice Among Pagans and Christians,” Journal of Roman Studies 85 (1995), 65-85 (York link).
    • Philip A. Harland, “’These People are . . . Men Eaters’: Banquets of the Anti-Associations and Perceptions of Minority Cultural Groups,” in Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), 56-75 (online pdf).


  • Presentations:
    • François Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History (trans. by Janet Lloyd; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
    • Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).


Week 12 (March 29)


Symbolic representations of conflict with the empire: John’s Apocalypse (Revelation)

  • Primary sources:
    • Revelation (in the New Testament; also available online).
  • Scholarly sources:
    • David A deSilva, “The Revelation to John: A Case Study in Apocalyptic Propaganda and the Maintenance of Sectarian Identity,” Sociology of Religion 53 (1992), 375-395 (York link).
    • Steven J Friesen, “Satan’s Throne, Imperial Cults and the Social Settings of Revelation,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 (2005), 351-373 (York link).
    *Research paper due at the beginning of class*


  • Presentations:
    • Leonard L. Thompson,  The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
    • Steven J. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (Oxford: OUP, 2001).

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