Jews, Greeks and Romans

There are to sides to every story but the survival of sources from antiquity means we do not always see both. Tim Whitmarsh calls for a more nuanced view of Jews in the Greco-Roman world.

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez, oil on canvas, 1867In a 1981 History Today article, Jenny Morris speaks of ‘the nexus of conflict, incomprehension and intolerance which characterises Greco-Roman relations with the Jews’. There were, of course, tensions and misunderstandings between all different ethnic groups throughout antiquity, but to present this antipathy as structural is misleading. 

Two events cast long shadows over our sources: each the prompt for violent, polarising rhetoric, which, while certainly historically influential, can be misleading if taken as the norm for antiquity as a whole.

 The first is the revolt of 167-160 BC, when Judah Maccabee led an uprising against the Seleucid Greek rulers of Judaea, painted in Jewish memory as a virtuous struggle against persecuting overlords. In the first four biblical books of Maccabees, the Seleucids emerge as brutal monsters who torture Jews for fun and ban them from carrying out their ancestral practices in the Temple. As John Ma has recently shown, however, the reality was probably more complex: the Seleucids withdrew Jewish control of the Temple and then restored it after a deputation of loyalist Jews interceded. If this reconstruction is right, it points to a much more complex picture of Greco-Jewish relations than the colourful propaganda found in Maccabean literature.

The Roman sack of Jerusalem in AD 70 had an even more profound effect on relationships between Jews and others. The fledgling Flavian dynasty, in the aftermath of the disastrous ‘year of the four emperors’ (AD 69), needed a big victory over an intimidating foreign foe. A Jewish rebellion beginning in 66, unfortunately, fulfilled this need; Jerusalem was torched and the population massacred. Romans then began describing Jews in monstrously exaggerated language. Anti-Jewish sentiment had a profound effect on the emerging Christian movement, which increasingly sought to differentiate itself from Judaism. 

It would, however, be bad methodology to see the sack of Jerusalem and subsequent anti-Jewish rhetoric as the fulfillment of a long-term design, as if relationships between Greeks, Romans and Jews were inherently hostile and destined for violence from the start. The horrors of 70 were the result of political improvisation, not destiny. There is no denying the existence of tensions and sporadic bouts of violence between communities, or that, long before AD 70, some Greco-Roman writers said insulting things about Jews. But there was no inherent antipathy between civilisations. 

It should be pointed out, indeed, that we know about Greek antisemitic literature in the late first century AD almost entirely because of Against Apion, by Josephus, defending the Jews against the slew of antisemitism that followed the Jewish War. What we do not have is any systematic, representative selection of Greco-Roman views about Jews to counter this. One such text was Alexander Polyhistor’s now-lost On the Jews, composed in Greek by a captive former citizen of Miletus in the early first century BC. The surviving fragments show no trace of sensationalism and judgmentalism, only an ethnographic curiosity. It also attested to the lively cross-fertilisation between Jewish and Greek culture in the Hellenistic period. It is ultimately thanks to Alexander that we know of (and even have fragments of) Greek epic poems written by Jews on Jewish themes and even a remarkable Greek tragedy composed by one Ezekiel on the theme of the Israelite exodus. 

The classical world was certainly a dangerous place, but we should not forget that normal life involved high levels of civic integration. Before 70, and to some extent even afterwards, Jews flourished in Greco-Roman cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean. 

Why does this matter? Partly for reasons of intellectual integrity, but also because such simplifications can contribute to pernicious modern political narratives. At a time when identities seem to be congealing and polarising around the world, it is important to remember that cultures are not coherent, stable or ‘essential’ entities. Interethnic violence is a moral choice taken by individuals, not the result of historical inevitabilities.

Tim Whitmarsh is author of Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (Faber & Faber, 2015).