Judeans: Tacitus on Judean origins and customs (second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans: Tacitus on Judean origins and customs (second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified September 9, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=6194.

Ancient author: Tacitus, Histories 5.1-13 (link).

Comments: As this Roman senator, Tacitus (ca. 110 CE), begins to relate Titus’ siege of Jerusalem (70 CE), he goes on a lengthy excursus about the Judean (Jewish) people, their land, and their subjugation. This is among the longest such ethnographic passages on Judeans (Jews) from a Roman perspective. Tacitus never provides a citation, but it is clear that he is drawing on several somewhat conflicting sources. For this people’s origins, for instance, he supplies no less than six alternative stories (e.g. Judeans / Jews are descendants of Cretans or Ethiopians or Assyrians or Solymians or, most importantly here, Egyptians). The overall portrayal of Judeans and their customs is largely negative, even though there are moments when he has to acknowledge another side, as when he states that the Judeans’ ancestral customs have the advantage of being very old.

Source of translation: C.H. Moore and J. Jackson, Tacitus: Histories, Annals, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1925-37), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted and modernized by Harland.


book 5

[Context of conquest]

At the beginning of this same year, Titus Caesar, who had been chosen by his father to complete the conquest of Judea and had already won distinction as a soldier while both were still private citizens, began to enjoy greater power and reputation. Provinces and armies now competed with one another in their enthusiasm for him. Moreover, wishing to be thought greater than his fortune, in his own conduct he always showed himself dignified and energetic in the field. His good-natured conversational style inspired devotion, and he often interacted with the common soldiers both at work or on the march without damaging his position as general. There were three legions awaiting him in Judea: Vespasian’s old troops and the Fifth, Tenth, and Fifteenth legions. Titus reinforced these with the Twelfth from Syria and with some soldiers from the Twenty-second and the Third legions which he brought from Alexandria. These troops were accompanied by twenty cohorts of allied infantry, eight squadrons of cavalry, as well as by the princes Agrippa and Sohaemus, the auxiliaries sent by King Antiochos. They were also accompanied by a strong contingent of Arabs, who hated the Judeans to a degree common among neighbours. Besides this, there were many Romans who had left the capital and Italy with the hope of securing the emperor’s favour when he had not yet chosen his favourites. Titus entered the enemy’s land with these forces, advancing in strict order, using scouts at every step and staying ready for battle. He pitched camp not far from Jerusalem.

[Origins of the Judean people]

However, as I am about to describe the last days of a famous city, it seems appropriate to give an account of its origin. It is said that the Judeans were originally exiles from the island of Crete who settled in the farthest parts of Libya at the time when Saturn had been deposed and expelled by Jove. An argument in favour of this is derived from the name: there is a famous mountain in Crete called Ida, and hence the inhabitants were called the “Idaeans,” which was later lengthened into the barbarous form “Iudaeans.” Some hold that in the reign of Isis the superfluous population of Egypt, under the leadership of Hierosolymus and Iuda, evacuated into neighbouring lands. Many others think that they were of Egyptian descent, who in the reign of Cepheus were forced to migrate by fear and hatred. Still others report that they were Assyrian refugees, a landless people who first got control of a part of Egypt. Then later they had their own cities and lived in the Hebrew territory and the nearer parts of Syria. Still others say that the Judeans are of illustrious origin, being the Solymian people celebrated in Homer’s poems [Iliad 6.184; Odyssey 5.282], who founded a city and gave it the name Hierosolyma, formed from their own.

Most authors agree that there was a plague in Egypt which caused bodily disfigurement. King Bocchoris approached the oracle of the god Ammon and asked for a cure, where he was told to purge his kingdom and to transport this class of (disfigured) people (genus hominum) into other lands, since this class was hateful to the gods. So they were searched out and gathered together. Then, being abandoned in the desert and while all others were idle and weeping, one of the exiles named Moses warned them not to hope for help from gods or people, for they were deserted by both. Instead, he warned them to depend on themselves and to regard the first one to assist them in escaping from their present distress as a guide sent from heaven. They agreed, and then set out on their journey in utter ignorance, but trusting chance. Nothing caused them more distress than scarcity of water and, in fact, they had already fallen exhausted over the plain and almost near death. Then a herd of wild asses moved from their pasturage to a rock that was shaded by a grove of trees. Moses followed them, and, guessing the truth from the grassy ground, discovered abundant streams of water. This relieved them, and they then marched six days continuously. On the seventh day, they seized a country, expelling the former inhabitants. There they founded a city and dedicated a temple.

To establish his influence over this people for all time, Moses introduced new rites that are contrary to those of other mortals. The Judeans regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit everything that we hate. In the inner shrine, they dedicated a statue of that creature [the ass] whose guidance helped them end their wandering and thirst, sacrificing a ram apparently, in derision of the god Ammon. They also offer bulls, because the Egyptians worship the Apis [an Egyptian god represented as a bull]. They abstain from pork, in remembrance of the plague, for the scab which this animal is susceptible to once afflicted them. By frequent fasts even now they bear witness to the long hunger with which they were once distressed, and the unleavened Judean bread is still employed in memory of the haste with which they seized the grain. They say that they first chose to rest on the seventh day because that day ended their toils; but after a while they were led by laziness to also give up the seventh year to inactivity. Others say that this is done in honour of the god Saturn, either because the basic elements of their sense of obligation (religionis) were given by the Idaeans, who according to tradition were expelled with Saturn and became the founders of the Judean people, or because of the fact that Saturn moves in the highest orbit and has the greatest potency among the seven planets that rule the fortunes of humankind, and that many of the heavenly bodies traverse their paths and courses in multiples of seven.

[Ancestral customs of the Judeans]

Whatever their origin, these rites are maintained by their antiquity: the other customs of the Judeans are sinister and repulsive, and continue due to their depravity. For the worst types of people, who renounce their ancestral obligations (religionibus), kept sending support and contributions to Jerusalem, thereby increasing the wealth of the Judeans. Again, the Judeans are extremely loyal and compassionate toward one another, but toward every other people they feel only hatred and enmity. They sit apart at meals; they sleep apart; and, although as a people they are prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women. Yet among themselves nothing is unlawful. They adopted circumcision to distinguish themselves from other peoples by this difference. Those who have passed over to to their ways follow the same practice, and the earliest lesson they learn is to despise the gods, to disown their homeland, and to regard their parents, children, and brothers as almost worthless. However, they put effort into increasing their numbers. For they think it is a crime to kill any late-born child and they believe that the souls of those who are killed in battle or by the executioner are immortal: this is where their passion for begetting children and their scorn of death comes from. They bury the body rather than burn it, thus following the custom of the Egyptians. They show similar care for the dead and hold the same belief about the world below as the Egyptians do. But their ideas of heavenly things are quite the opposite: The Egyptians worship many animals and monstrous images; the Judeans conceive of one god only, and that with the mind only. Judeans regard as impious those who make representations of gods in man’s image using perishable materials. To them, the supreme and eternal being is incapable of representation and is without end. Therefore they set up no statues in their cities, let alone in their temples. The flattery of setting up statues is not paid to their kings, nor is this honour given to the Caesars. But since their priests used to chant to the accompaniment of pipes and cymbals and to wear garlands of ivy and because a golden vine was found in their temple, some have thought that they were devotees of Father Liber, the conqueror of the East. Those who think this do so in spite of the incongruity of their customs. For Liber established festive rites of a joyous nature, while the ways of the Judeans are preposterous and degrading.

[Characteristics of the land]

Their land is bounded on the east by Arabia, on the south by Egypt, on the west by Phoenicia and the sea. The people have a distant view of Syria toward the north. The inhabitants are healthy and hardy. Rains are rare, the soil is fertile, and its products are like ours, except that the balsam and the palm also grow there. The palm is a tall and beautiful tree; the balsam a mere shrub. When swollen with sap, if a branch of balsam is pierced with steel, the veins shrivel up; so a piece of stone or a potsherd is used to open them and the juice is employed by physicians. Of the mountains, Lebanon rises to the greatest height, and is in fact a marvel, for in the midst of the excessive heat its summit is shaded by trees and covered with snow. It likewise is the source and supply of the river Jordan. This river does not empty into the sea, but after flowing with volume undiminished through two lakes is lost in the third lake. The last lake [Dead Sea] is large: it is like the sea, but its water has a nauseous taste and its offensive odour is injurious to those who live near it. Its waters are not moved by the wind, and neither fish nor water-fowl can live there. Its lifeless waves bear up whatever is thrown upon them as on a solid surface; all swimmers, whether skilled or not, are buoyed up by them. At a certain season of the year the sea throws up bitumen, and experience has taught the natives how to collect this, as she teaches all arts. Bitumen is by nature a dark fluid which coagulates when sprinkled with vinegar, and swims on the surface. Those whose business it is, catch hold of it with their hands and haul it on shipboard. Then with no artificial aid the bitumen flows in and loads the ship until the stream is cut off. Yet you cannot use bronze or iron to cut the bituminous stream. It reacts by shrinking from contact with blood or contact with a cloth stained with a woman’s menstrual blood. That is the story told by ancient writers, but those who are acquainted with the country have the opinion that the floating masses of bitumen are driven by the winds or drawn by hand to shore where, after they have been dried by vapours from the earth or by the heat of the sun, they are split like timber or stone with axes and wedges.

Not far from this lake is a plain which, according to report, was once fertile and the site of great cities, but which was later devastated by lightning. It is said that traces of this disaster still exist there, and that the very ground looks burnt and has lost its fertility. In fact, all the plants there, whether wild or cultivated, turn black, become sterile, and seem to wither into dust, either in leaf or in flower or after they have reached their usual mature form. Now in my opinion, although I would accept that famous cities were once destroyed by fire from heaven, I still think that it is the exhalations from the lake that infect the ground and poison the atmosphere around this district, and that this is the reason that crops and fruits decay, since both soil and climate are unfavourable. The Belus [Na’aman] river also empties into the Judean Sea; around its mouth a kind of sand is gathered, which when mixed with soda is fused into glass. The beach is of moderate size, but it furnishes an inexhaustible supply.

[Settlements and control of the region]

A great part of Judea is covered with scattered villages, but there are some towns also. Jerusalem is the capital of the Judeans. In it was a temple possessing enormous riches. The first line of fortifications protected the city, the next the palace, and the innermost wall the temple. Only a Judean might approach its doors, and all except the priests were forbidden to cross the threshold. While the East was under the dominion of the Assyrians, Medes, and Persians, the Judeans were regarded as the most contemptible of their subjects. Yet after the Macedonians gained supremacy, king Antiochos [IV Epiphanes] endeavoured to abolish Judean superstition [superstitionem] and to introduce Greek customs (mores). However, the war with the Parthians prevented him from improving this lowest of peoples, for it was exactly at that time that Arsaces revolted. Since the power of Macedon had declined, the Parthians were not yet at the height of their strength, and the Romans were far away, later on the Judeans selected their own kings. These kings were expelled by the unpredictable populace. However, recovering their throne by force of arms, they banished citizens, destroyed towns, killed brothers, wives, and parents, and dared to commit every other kind of royal crime without hesitation. Yet they fostered superstition, for they had assumed the priesthood to support their authority.

[Judeans under Roman control]

The first Roman to conquer the Judeans and set foot in their temple by right of conquest was Gnaeus Pompey. After that, it was common knowledge that there were no representations of the gods within, but that the place was empty and the secret shrine contained nothing. The walls of Jerusalem were destroyed, but the temple remained standing. Later, in the time of our civil wars, when these eastern provinces had fallen into the hands of Mark Antony, the Parthian prince, Pacorus, seized Judea, but he was slain by Publius Ventidius, and the Parthians were thrown back across the Euphrates and the Judeans were subdued by Gaius Sosius. Antony gave the throne to Herod, and Augustus, after his victory, increased Herod’s power. After Herod’s death, a certain Simon assumed the name of king without waiting for Caesar’s decision. Simon, however, was put to death by Quintilius Varus, governor of Syria. The Judeans were repressed, and the kingdom was divided into three parts and given to Herod’s sons. Under Tiberius all was quiet. Then, when Caligula ordered the Judeans to set up his statue in their temple, they resorted to violence by use of arms, but the emperor’s death put an end to their uprising. The princes now being dead or reduced to insignificance, Claudius made Judea a province and entrusted it to Roman knights or to freedmen. One of the latter, Antonius Felix, practised every kind of cruelty and lust, wielding the power of king with all the instincts of a slave. Felix had married Drusilla, the grand-daughter of Cleopatra and Antony, and so was Antony’s grandson-in-law, while Claudius was Antony’s grandson.

10  Still the Judeans’ patience lasted until Gessius Florus became procurator: in his time war began. When Cestius Gallus, governor of Syria, tried to stop it, he suffered varied fortunes and met defeat more often than he gained victory. On his death, Nero (whether by nature or from frustration) sent out Vespasian, who, aided by his good fortune and reputation as well as by his excellent subordinates, within two summers occupied with his victorious army the whole of the level country and all the cities except Jerusalem. The next year was taken up with civil war, and thus was passed in inactivity so far as the Judeans were concerned. When peace had been secured throughout Italy, foreign troubles began again. The fact that the Judeans alone had failed to surrender increased our resentment. At the same time, having regard for all the possibilities and hazards of a new reign, it seemed expedient for Titus to remain with the army.

[The Judean war and Titus’ victory]

11  Therefore, as I have said above, Titus pitched his camp before the walls of Jerusalem and displayed his legions in battle array: the Judeans formed their line close beneath their walls, being thus ready to advance if successful, and having a refuge at hand in case they were driven back. Some horse and light-armed foot were sent against them, but fought indecisively. Later the enemy retired, and during the following days they engaged in many skirmishes before their gates until at last their continual defeats drove them within their walls. The Romans now turned to preparations for an assault. For the soldiers thought it beneath their dignity to wait for the enemy to be starved out, and so they began to clamour for danger, some being prompted by bravery but many being moved by their savage natures and their desire for booty. Titus himself had before his eyes a vision of Rome, its wealth and its pleasures, and he felt that if Jerusalem did not fall at once, his enjoyment of them was delayed. But the city stands on high ground, and the Judeans had defended it with works and fortifications sufficient to protect even level ground. For the two hills that rise to a great height had been included within walls that had been skillfully built, projecting out or bending in so as to put the flanks of an assailing body under fire. The rocks terminated in sheer cliffs, and towers rose to a height of sixty feet where the hill assisted the fortifications and to a height of one hundred and twenty in the valleys. They presented a wonderful sight, and appeared of equal height when viewed from a distance. An inner line of walls had been built around the palace, and on a conspicuous height stands Antony’s Tower, so named by Herod in honour of Mark Antony.

12  The temple was built like a citadel, with walls of its own, which were constructed with more care and effort than any of the rest; the very colonnades about the temple made a splendid defence. Within the enclosure is a constantly flowing spring; in the hills are subterraneous excavations, with pools and cisterns for holding rain-water. The founders of the city had anticipated that there would be many wars because the ways of their people differed so from those of the neighbours. Therefore, they had built at every point as if they expected a long siege, and after the city had been stormed by Pompey, their fears and experience taught them much. Moreover, profiting by the greed displayed during the reign of Claudius, they had bought the privilege of fortifying the city, and in time of peace had built walls as if for war. The population at this time had been increased by streams of rabble that flowed in from the other captured cities, for the most desperate rebels had taken refuge here, and consequently sedition was the more rife. There were three generals, three armies: the outermost and largest circuit of the walls was held by Simon, the middle of the city by John, and the temple was guarded by Eleazar. John and Simon were strong in numbers and equipment, Eleazar had the advantage of position. Between these three there was constant fighting, treachery, and arson, and a great store of grain was destroyed. Then John got possession of the temple by sending a party under the pretence of offering sacrifice in order to slay Eleazar and his troops. So the citizens were divided into two factions until, at the approach of the Romans, foreign war united them.

13  Prodigies had, in fact, occurred, but to avert them either by sacrificial victims or by vows is held unlawful by a people who, though prone to superstition, are opposed to all propitiatory rites. Clashing forces with arms flashing were seen meeting in the skies and suddenly the temple was lit up with fire from the clouds. All of a sudden the doors of the shrine opened and a superhuman voice cried: “The gods are departing!” At the same moment, the powerful movement of their departure was heard. Few interpreted these omens as fearful; the majority firmly believed that their ancient priestly writings contained the prophecy that this was the very time when the East should grow strong and that men starting from Judea should possess the world. This mysterious prophecy had in reality pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, as is the way of human ambition, interpreted these great destinies in their own favour and could not be turned to the truth even by adversity. We have heard that the total number of the besieged of every age and both sexes was 600,000; there were arms for all who could use them, and the number ready to fight was larger than could have been anticipated from the total population. Both men and women showed the same determination, and if they were to be forced to change their home, they feared life more than death.

Such was the city and people against which Titus Caesar now proceeded. Since the nature of the ground did not allow him to assault or employ any sudden operations, he decided to use earthworks and mantlets; the legions were assigned to their several tasks, and there was a lull in the fighting when they prepared every device for storming a town, whether invented long ago or by modern ingenuity.

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