Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tacitus regarding the Jews - from Histories V.5.

"This worship, however introduced, is upheld by its antiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded out of other races, scorning their national beliefs, brought to them their contributions and presents. This augmented the wealth of the Jews, as also did the fact, that among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to shew compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart, and though, as a nation, they are singularly prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; among themselves nothing is unlawful."

This passage is a shock to me. Coming at the end of my readings of the surviving works of Tacitus, I have found him to be a fairly calm anthropologist discussing cultures from Britain and Germany to Persia and Egypt, but always in a sympathetic tone. In this section on the Jews, however, seems to lose his cool and uses his language skills to express his disdain in a most thorough manner. This also stands out as a contradiction to Josephus regarding the Jewish wars that there wasn't a component of religion that was driving things.

The other issue this brings up is antisemitism during this period. If I remember correctly, the practice of historians is to lay the blame for antisemitism at the feet of Christians as it works its way from antiquity into the middle ages. Certainly there are Christians who deserve some blame, but this note from Tacitus, who wasn't a Christian, clearly indicates that antisemitism had a firm footing in Roman culture before Christianity was a significant force. Sadly, much of the work of Tacitus is missing, so we don't get to find out from his regarding the expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius, nor can we read about the conclusion of the destruction of Jerusalem, but we do have his assertion that more than 600,000 people had gathered in Rome before the Roman armies surrounded the city and began the siege and destruction of the city.

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