Conflict of “Religions” in the Roman Empire (HIST 5025 / HUMA 6213 / HIST 4991; Winter 2022)



While problematizing the category of “religion” for the study of pre-modern phenomena, this course examines cases of ethnic or social conflicts relating to ancestral customs involving the gods among different peoples in the Roman empire.  We will consider specific incidents of conflict as well as literary representations that reflect conflict between different ethnic groups.  The relationship between concurrent hegemonies (e.g. imperial authorities) and subject peoples or cultural minorities will occupy us as well.  This year the focus will be on Judeans (Jews) and on an offshoot of Judean culture, Jesus adherents (Christianity).  As many conflicts arise from relations between different ethnic groups or between a dominant group and cultural minorities, we will also give attention to ethnographic writings in which members of a dominant ethnic group describe or critique the ancestral customs of other peoples.

Some key questions: What is the nature of our sources? What sort of conflicts do we observe in them? 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 and between these group and power-holding peoples? 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 social and ethnic relations within the Roman empire?


Required readings

  • Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). (link; alternative link to encrypted version on
  • Erich Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011). (link; alternative link to encrypted version on
  • Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). (link to encrypted ebook on; sign up, choose “borrow for 14 days,” then click download “Encrypted Adobe PDF” for use in Adobe Digital Editions)
  • Other articles and sources linked in the syllabus


Evaluation (for full assignment descriptions see the end of the syllabus)

  • Note: All written assignments should be submitted by email attachment as a pdf before class
  • Weekly analytical piece, due each week at the beginning of class (except on weeks when you present or lead): 10%
  • Participation: 20%
  • Discussion leadership: 15%
  • Presentation relating to a book: 10%
  • Academic book review, due week 6: 15%
  • Paper proposal and bibliography, due week 8: 5%
  • Research paper, due week 12: 25%



Week 1 (Jan 14): Theoretical considerations on the categories of “religion” and “ethnicity” in relation to conflict in antiquity – remote meeting by zoom: (remote link always the same)

  • Reading before first meeting: Brent Nongbri, Before Religion, especially pp. 1-64, 106-153 (link); Harland, Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians, pp. 5-14 only for a quick definition of ethnicity (link)

Context – Greek and Roman Perspectives on Foreign Peoples

Week 2 (Jan 21): Encounters in literature – Greeks and Romans describing the cultures of other peoples

  • Primary sources:
    • Strabo, Geography 7.1-3 on northern peoples, especially a close reading of 7.2.1-7.3.10 (link); Loeb Greek and Latin (link)
    • Tacitus, Germania on Germanic peoples, especially books 1-27, 39-45 (link); Latin (link)
  • Scholarly sources: Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, intro, chapters 6-7 (link)

Week 3 (Jan 28): Incidents of conflict – Roman authorities’ actions in relation to foreign customs and against the Bacchanalia specifically

  • Primary sources:
    • Livy, History of Rome 39.6, 8-19 on the Bacchanalia (link); Loeb Latin (link)
    • “28. Decree of the Senate on the Bacchanalia, 186 BC” (link)
    • Harland, “Paintings of Pompeii 1: Villa of the Mysteries of Dionysos (Villa Item)” (link)
    • Livy, History of Rome 29.10-11 on the importation of the Mother of the gods from Phrygia (link)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Beard, North, and Price, “The Boundaries of Roman Religion” (link)
    • Walsh, “Making a Drama out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia” (link)

The Case of Judeans and Judean Culture

Week 4 (Feb 4): Encounters in literature – Greeks and Romans on Judean culture

  • Primary sources:
    • Tacitus, Histories 5.1-13 on Judeans (link); Loeb Latin (link)
    • Strabo, Geography 16.2.34-40 on Judeans (link); Greek (link)
    • Browse inscriptions on Judeans in the diaspora (to get a sense of other dimensions of the relationship between Judeans and Greeks and Romans at the local level)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Schäfer, Judeophobia, especially pages 1-120, 163-169 (link –  for overall discussion of his argument and approach in comparison with Gruen’s approach)
  • Presentation: Eric M. Orlin, Foreign Cults in Rome: Creating a Roman Empire (Oxford: OUP, 2010). (link) – Klidis

Week 5 (Feb 11): Incidents of conflict – Greeks, Egyptians, and Judeans at Alexandria in Egypt (30s-40s CE) – Alex leads

  • Primary sources:
    • Philo of Alexandria, Against Flaccus (link to English and Greek)
    • Edict(s) of Claudius, in Schäfer, Judeophobia, 145-152 (link); edicts also online in English and Greek
    • Browse inscriptions involving Judeans in Egypt (for other dimensions of life)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Richard Alston, “Philo’s ‘In Flaccum’: Ethnicity and Social Space in Roman Alexandria” (link)
    • Schäfer, Judeophobia, 136-160 (link)
  • Presentation: Sandra Gambetti, The Alexandrian Riots of 38 C.E. and the Persecution of the Jews: A Historical Reconstruction (Leiden: Brill, 2009). (link) – Student   

Week 6 (Feb 18): Encounters in literature – Josephus’ Against Apion (first century CE) – Klidis leads

  • Primary sources:
    • Josephus, Against Apion, especially book 2 (link to English; link to Greek and Latin texts); “Structure of Against Apion” handout (link)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Jones, “The figure of Apion in Josephus’ ‘Contra Apionem’” (link)
    • Barclay, “The Politics of Contempt: Judaeans and Egyptians in Josephus’s Against Apion” (link)
  • Presentation: Stewart Moore, Jewish Ethnic Identity and Relations in Hellenistic Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 2015) (link) – Amy

**Book reviews due before class in week 6**

**Feb 19-25 – No class during reading week**

Week 7 (March 4): The Roman authorities and diaspora Judeans – Roman “policy”? –  Alex leads

  • Primary sources:
    • Josephus, Judean Antiquities 14.185-267 (link); Josephus, Judean Antiquities 16.162-178 (link) (edicts by authorities mainly relating to Asia Minor in the mid-late first century BCE)
    • “Expulsions under Tiberius and Claudius” collected in one document (link); Josephus, Judean Antiquities 18.65-81 (link); Acts 18.2 (link)
    • Browse inscriptions on Judeans in the diaspora (to get a sense of other dimensions of the relationship between Judeans and other peoples including signs of acculturation)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Rajak, “Was There a Roman Charter for the Jews?” (link)
    • Rutgers, “Roman Policy towards the Jews” (link)
    • Schäfer, Judeophobia, 106-111 on expulsions (link)
  • Presentation:

Week 8 (March 11): Symbolic representations of conflict with the Roman empire – 4 Ezra and the Sibylline Oracles –  Student leads

  • Primary sources:
    • 4 Ezra = 2 Esdras, chapters 3-14, especially focusing on 10:60-12:36 (link to English; link to Syriac and Latin)
    • Sibylline Oracles book 3, section 350-488, and book 5 (link to English; link to Greek)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Collins, “After the Fall: 4 Ezra” and “Apocalyptic Literature from the Diaspora in the Roman Period”, especially pp. 194-212 and 233–238 (link)
    • Philip Francis Esler, “The Social Function of 4 Ezra” (link)
  • Presentation: Leonard Victor Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora (Leiden: Brill, 1995) (DS 123.5 R88 2000) – Student

*Research paper proposal due before class in week 8*

The Case of Jesus Adherents

Week 9 (March 18): Symbolic representations of conflict with the Roman empire – John’s Apocalypse – Klidis leads

  • Primary sources:
    • Apocalypse (Revelation) of John, especially chapters 1-3, 12-19 (link to English; link to Greek)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • deSilva, “The Revelation to John: A Case Study in Apocalyptic Propaganda and the Maintenance of Sectarian Identity” (link)
    • Friesen, “Satan’s Throne, Imperial Cults and the Social Settings of Revelation” (link)
  • Presentation: Anathea Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011). (link) – Alex
    • Steven J. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (Oxford: OUP, 2001). (link) – Student

Week 10 (March 25): Incidents of conflict – Greeks, Roman authorities, and Jesus adherents – Jamie leads

  • Primary sources:
    • Tacitus, Annals, 15.38-44 (link to English; link to Latin)
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistles 10.96-97 (link to English; link to Latin)
    • Hadrian’s rescript to Minucius Fundanus, governor of Asia, translated on page 121 of Keresztes’ article (link)
    • First Peter (link to English and Greek)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • de Ste. Croix, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?” (link); Sherwin-White, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted? – An Amendment” (link); de Ste. Croix, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted? – A Rejoinder” (link)
    • Also consult: Barnes, “Legislation Against the Christians” (link)
  • Presentation: Elizabeth A. Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making, Gender, Theory, and Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004). (link) – Rosalie

Week 11 (April 1): Encounters in literature – Justin Martyr’s petition to the emperor – Student leads

  • Primary sources:
    • Justin Martyr, First Apology (link to English; link to Greek)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • van der Lans, “The Written Media of Imperial Government and a Martyr’s Career: Justin Martyr’s 1 Apology” (link)
    • Consult for any unclear issues: Minns and Parvis, “The Man [Justin] and His Work” (link)
  • Presentation: Jeremy M. Schott, Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). (link) – Jamie

Week 12 (April 8): Encounters in literature – Ethnographic traditions and criticism of Jesus groups as cultural minorities – Jamie leads

  • Primary sources:
    • Minucius Felix, Octavius, with special attention to 5-13 and 28-31 (link to English; link to Latin); see also Justin Martyr, Second Apology 12 (link); Tertullian, Apology 7-10 (link)
    • Origen, Contra Celsum 1.1-26 (link to English; link to Greek)
  • Scholarly sources:
    • Rives, “Human Sacrifice Among Pagans and Christians” (link)
    • Harland, “Perceptions of Cultural Minorities” (link)

*Research paper due at the beginning of class*


Full assignment descriptions

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

Each week, students will submit (at the beginning of class) a 500 word analytical piece dealing with the readings for the upcoming discussion (2 pages double-spaced, 12 point font maximum).  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 lead or present on your book).

Participation (20%)

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).

Discussion leadership (15%)

Each graduate student will have opportunities to lead the main discussion of readings from a particular week with a focus on our main course themes (presenting for about 15-20 minutes and then leading discussion for the remainder of 60 minutes total).

Presentation relating to a book (10%)

Students will also have an opportunity to present on a topic relating to the book they reviewed (20 minute presentation + 10 minute discussion; see book options on the discussion schedule).  Students should not read or present their book reviews.  Instead, each student will use the book as a starting point to explore issues that further our ongoing discussions, engaging both methodological and source-related issues pertinent to the course.  Students should meet with me to discuss their approach to the presentation at least one week in advance of presenting.

Academic book review (15%), due week 6

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 throughout the chapters;
    • 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 Classical Review (link) or Bryn Mawr Classical Review (link).

Paper proposal and bibliography (5%), due week 8

Choose a research 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 (25%), due week 11

20 pages double-spaced, 12 point font 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 and assesses the history of scholarship on a particular topic.  We will discuss the options at more length in class.


Additional scholarly resources on some weekly topics:

  • Week 3 (Bacchanalia): R. A. Bauman, “The Suppression of the Bacchanals: Five Questions,” Historia 39 (1990), 334–348; Erich S. Gruen, “The Bacchanalian Affair,” in Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy, Cincinnati Classical Studies 7 (Leiden: Brill, 1990), 34–78; J. A. North, “Religious Toleration in Republican Rome,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 25 (1979), 85–103; Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1999); Sarah Iles Johnston, et al., “Panel Discussion: ‘Magic in the Ancient World’ by Fritz Graf,” Numen 46 (1999) 291–325 (link), especially Frankfurter’s response.
  • Week 4 (Judeans in Greek or Roman ethnographic writing): Louis H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Menahem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1974), 3 vols.
  • Week 5 (Conflict in Alexandria and Egypt): Andrew Harker, Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt: The Case of the Acta Alexandrinorum (Cambridge: CUP, 2008); Benjamin Kelly, Petitions, Litigation, and Social Control in Roman Egypt, Oxford Studies in Ancient Documents. (Oxford: OUP, 2011) (link)
  • Week 7 (Roman “policy” and the Judeans): Jean Juster, Les Juifs dans L’empire romain: Leur condition juridique, économique et sociale (New York: Burt Franklin, 1914) (vol. 1; vol. 2); Horst R. Moehring, “The Acta pro Judaeis in the Antiquities of Flavius Josephus,” in Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults: Studies for Morton Smith at Sixty, ed. Jacob Neusner, vol. 3, SJLA (Leiden: Brill, 1975); Miriam Pucci Ben Zeev, Jewish Rights in the Roman World: The Greek and Roman Documents Quoted by Josephus Flavius (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998) (documents in Josephus); Horst R. Moehring, “The Persecution of the Jews and the Adherents of the Isis Cult at Rome A.D. 19,” Novum Testamentum 3 (1959): 293–304 (link); Dixon Slingerland, “Suetonius ‘Claudius’ 25.4 and the Account in Cassius Dio,” Jewish Quarterly Review 79 (1989): 305–322 (link); Dixon Slingerland, “Suetonius Claudius 25.4, Acts 18, and Paulus Orosius’ ‘Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII:’ Dating the Claudian Expulsion(s) of Roman Jews,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 83 (1992): 127–44 (link); Pauline Ripat, “Expelling Misconceptions: Astrologers At Rome,” Classical Philology 106 (2011): 115–54 (link) (expulsions from Rome).
  • Week 10 (Persecution): F. Gerald Downing, “Pliny’s Prosecutions of Christians: Revelation and 1 Peter,” JSNT 34 (1988): 105–23 (link); David Horrell, “The Label Christianos: 1 Peter 4:16 and the Formation of Christian Identity,” JBL 126 (2007): 361–81 (link); Candida R. Moss, The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom (Oxford: OUP, 2010) (link).


Books for review in other years:

  • Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005) – Student
  • David Noy, Foreigners at Rome: Citizens and Strangers (London: Gerald Duckworth, 2000) – Student


Incidents of conflict – Persecution in Asia Minor and the origins of “martyrdom” (discussion of Bowersock’s theory) – Student leads

  • Primary sources:
    • 1 Peter (link to English and Greek).
    • Martyrdom of Polycarp (link to English and Greek).
    • 2 Maccabees, esp. chapters 6-7 (link).
  • Scholarly sources:
    • G.W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome (link).

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