Judeans: Dio Cassius on customs and Roman elite attitudes (early third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans: Dio Cassius on customs and Roman elite attitudes (early third century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 23, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9753.

Ancient author: Dio Cassius, Roman History, various passages (link).

Comments: Although a Greek-speaking person from Nikaia in Bithynia, Lucius Cassius Dio, or Dio Cassius (who wrote his history about the Romans some time after 229 CE), was firmly embedded in the upper echelons of the Roman imperial elites as a son of a Roman senator who himself followed the career path of a senator. Like many histories of the period, Judeans appear in different parts of Dio’s narratives, many of which are not included here. The passages gathered here are more specifically related to ethnographic culture in that they reveal Dio’s own (Greek / Roman) attitudes regarding Judeans or provide glimpses into specific Roman imperial stances regarding Judean customs.


[Digression on Judean customs and other people’s adoption of them, in connection with Pompey’s actions in 63 BCE]

(37.15) From there (Arabia), Pompey proceeded against Syria-Palestine (63 BCE), because its inhabitants had ravaged Phoenicia. Their rulers were two brothers, Hyrkanos and Aristoboulos. They happened to be quarrelling with one another and were creating factions in the cities on account of the priesthood (hierōsynē) – for that’s what they called their kingdom (basileia) – of their god, whoever he is. Pompey immediately won over Hyrkanos without a battle, since the latter had no force worthy of note. Furthermore, by shutting up Aristoboulos in a certain place he compelled him to come to terms, and when he refused  to surrender the money or the garrison, Pompey threw him into chains. After this he more easily overcame the rest, but had trouble in besieging Jerusalem. (37.16) Most of the city, to be sure, he took without any trouble, as he was received by the party of Hyrkanos. However, he found it difficut to capture the temple itself, which the other party [of Aristoboulos] had occupied. The temple was on high ground and was fortified by a wall of its own, and if they had continued defending it on all days alike, he could not have got possession of it. As it was, they made an exception of what are called the days of Saturn [i.e. Saturday / Sabbath], and by doing no work at all on those days gave the Romans an opportunity in this time period to batter down the wall. When Pompey learned about this fear of theirs, he made no serious attempts the rest of the time, except on those days (when they came around in succession) when attacked them most vigorously. So the defenders were captured on the day of Saturn, without making any defence, and all the wealth was plundered. The kingdom was given to Hyrkanos, and Aristoboulos was carried away.

This was the course of events at that time in Palestine. “Palestine” is the name that has been given, since the old days, to this whole country extending from Phoenicia to Egypt along the inner [Mediterranean] sea. They also have another name that they have acquired: the country has been named “Judea,” and the people themselves “Judeans.” (37.17) I do not know how this designation came to be given to them, but it also applies to other men who, although from other peoples (alloethneis), emulate their customs. This class exists even among the Romans, and though often repressed has increased to a very great extent and has won its way to the right of freedom in its observances.

They are distinguished from the rest of humankind in practically every detail of life, and especially by the fact that they do not honour any of the usual gods, but show extreme reverence for one particular divinity. They never had any statue of him even in Jerusalem itself, but believing him to be unnamable and invisible, they worship him in the most extravagant fashion on earth. They built a temple for him that was extremely large and beauti­ful, except that it was open and roofless,​ and likewise dedicated to him the day called the day of Saturn, on which, among many other most peculiar observances, they do not engage in work.

Now as to their god, who he is and why he has been so honoured, and how they got their fear of him, accounts have been given by many. Overall, these matters have nothing to do with this history. (37.18) The custom, however, of relating the days to the seven stars called planets was instituted by the Egyptians, but is now found among all hummankind, though its adoption has been comparatively recent; at any rate the ancient Greeks never understood it, so far as I am aware. But since it is now quite the fashion with mankind generally and even with the Romans themselves, I wish to write briefly of it, telling how and in what way it has been so arranged. . . [omitted digression on the seven day week].

[Dio’s views about Judeans in the context of Antony’s actions]

(49.22) . . . After doing this Antony set out for Italy, and Gaius Sosius received from him the governorship of Syria and Cilicia [ca. 38 BCE]. This officer subdued the Aradians, who had been besieged up to this time and had been reduced to hard straits by famine and disease, and also conquered in battle Antigonos, who had put to death the Roman guards that were with him. Antony reduced Antigonos by siege when he took refuge in Jerusalem. The Judeans (Jews), indeed, had done much harm to the Romans – for their descent group (genos), being wild, is very vindictive – but they suffered far more themselves. The first of them to be captured were those who were fighting for the sanctuary of their god, and then the rest on the day even then called the day of Saturn [i.e. Sabbath].​ (5) They were so excessive in their worship that the first set of prisoners, who had been captured along with the temple, obtained leave from Sosius when the day of Saturn came around again. They went up into the temple and there performed all the customary rites, together with the rest of the people. These people Antony entrusted to a certain Herod to govern. But he bound Antigonos to a cross and flogged him, a punishment no other king had suffered at the hands of the Romans. Afterwards he killed him.


[Tiberius’ expulsion of Judeans, ca. 19 CE]

(57.18) . . . (5) 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 [in 19 CE, on which see this link for actions against foreigners under Tiberius].


[Claudius’ actions against assemblies by Judeans and others, ca. 41 CE]

(60.6) . . . (6) As for the Judeans, they had again increased so greatly that, because of their numbers, it would have been hard without raising a disturbance to ban them from the city [ca. 41 CE]. So he did not drive them out, but ordered that they were not to assemble together while continuing their ancestral way of life. He also disbanded the clubs (hetaireiai), which had been reintroduced by Gaius. (7) Moreover, seeing that there was no use in forbidding the populace to do certain things unless their daily life should be reformed, he abolished the taverns where they were accustomed to gather and drink, and commanded that no boiled meat or hot water should be sold. He punished some who disobeyed this.


[Emperor Domitian’s charges of “atheism” against imperial elites who adopted Judean customs, ca. 95 CE]

(67.14) At this time [95 CE] the road leading from Sinuessa to Puteoli was paved with stone. And the same year Domitian killed, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and was married to Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor’s.  The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Judean customs (ēthē) were condemned. Some of these were put to death, and the rest were at least deprived of their property. Domitilla was merely banished to Pandateria. But Glabrio, who had been Trajan’s colleague in the consul­ship, was put to death, having been accused of the same crimes as most of the others and, in particular, of fighting as a gladiator with wild beasts. Indeed, Glabrio’s prowess in the arena was the chief reason for the emperor’s anger against him, an anger prompted by jealousy. For in Glabrio’s consul­ship Domitian had summoned him to his Alban estate to attend the festival called the Juvenalia and had imposed on him the task of killing a large lion. Glabrio not only had escaped all injury but had despatched the lion with most accurate aim.


[Emperor Nerva’s reversal of many of Domitian’s tendencies, including issues around the adoption of Judean customs, ca 96 CE]

(68.1) After Domitian, the Romans appointed Nerva Cocceius emperor [96 CE]. Because of the hatred felt for Domitian, his images (many of which were of silver and gold), were melted down. From this source large amounts of money were obtained. The arches, too, of which a very great number were being erected to this one man, were torn down. Nerva also released all who were on trial for impiety (asebeia) [perhaps referring to maiestas or “treason”] and restored the exiles. Moreover, he put to death all the slaves and the freedmen who had conspired against their masters and allowed that class of persons to lodge no complaint whatever against their masters. No persons were permitted to accuse anybody of impiety or of adopting a Judean lifestyle (bios). Many of those who had been informed were condemned to death, among others Seras, the philosopher. When, now, no little commotion was occasioned by the fact that everybody was accusing everybody else, Fronto, the consul, is said to have remarked that it was bad to have an emperor under whom nobody was permitted to do anything, but worse to have one under whom everybody was permitted to do everything; and Nerva, on hearing this, ordered that this condition of affairs should cease for the future. Now Nerva was so old and so feeble in health (he always, for instance, had to vomit up his food) that he was rather weak. . . [omitted material].

[Judean actions against Greeks and Romans in Kyrene and Egypt under Trajan, including supposed cannibalism, ca. 115-117 CE]

(68.32) Trajan therefore departed from there, and a little later began to fail in health. Meanwhile (ca. 115-117 CE) the Judeans in the region of Cyrene had put a certain Andreas at their head, and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their human skins for clothing. They sawed many of them in two from the head downwards, They gave others to wild beasts, and still others they forced to fight as gladiators. In all two hundred and twenty thousand persons perished. In Egypt, too, they perpetrated many similar outrages, and on Kypros (Cyprus), under the leader­ship of a certain Artemion. There, also, two hundred and forty thousand perished. For this reason no Judean may set foot on that island, and even  if one of them is driven upon its shores by a storm, he is put to death. Among others who subdued the Judeans was Lusius, who was sent by Trajan.


Source of translation: E. Cary and H.B. Foster, Dio’s Roman History, 9 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-27), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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