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Old June 24th, 2012 #1
Karl Radl
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Default Tacitus on the Jews

Tacitus on the Jews

Part I

Publius Cornelius Tacitus is one of the best known and most cited of all the writers of antiquity. Indeed it would not be going too far to suggest that Tacitus is more or less a household name among those who have received a good education in the West. Tacitus' historical writing and portraits are some of a very few sources on many different subjects for example the Great Fire of Rome, the Germanic tribes, the Gauls, the background to the Roman invasion of Britain and contemporary Roman religious practices.

Tacitus also has the distinction of being one the very few non-jewish authors in antiquity who wrote at some length on the jews; as opposed to sporadic passages and references, whose works have come down to us. To be sure we know of extensive anti-jewish works authored by Apollonius Molon, Manetho, Apion, Porphyry of Tyre and so on, but we have only fragments of these works and little with which to gauge their systematic views on the issue of the jews. Although from what we do know they were to a man utterly hostile to the jews and indeed it seems to be rare to find a Roman author who was not jewish writing in any way positively about the jews before the late stages of the Roman empire when it was undergoing Christianization.

It is necessary to state that on the famous 'Christus' and 'Christian' passages in Tacitus' 'Annals' I take the position that they should be read as 'Chrestus' and 'Chrestians' as that is what the earliest copies we have of Tacitus' 'Annals' use. In addition to the fact that Suetonius clearly refers to 'the followers of Chrestus' (not 'Christus') and we have numerous Roman funerary inscriptions to 'Chrestus' (sometimes alongside 'Christus' I might add), which clearly indicates that this is not an error by a later scribe.

Indeed I would argue that using Tacitus' references to 'Chrestiani' as if they were references to 'Christiani' is a classic example of a priori reasoning in so far as 'Chrestiani' or 'Christiani' would simply refer to (jewish) followers of a Christ figure (i.e. a Messiah). This put rather bluntly means that because Jesus of Nazareth (or Joshua bar Joseph/Joshua ben Pandera) was not the only one to be considered to be a 'Christ' among the jews or even the most likely to have jewish followers in Rome. Then we cannot and should not automatically associate 'Chrestus' and 'Chrestiani' with 'Christ' and 'Christiani' as we might mean them today. As that is directly imposing our cultural presumptions onto the ancient world, which is a fatal flaw in nearly all Christian or pro-Christian arguments on this passage (as intellectually rigorous as they otherwise can be) as they cannot demonstrate why their preferred Christ should be the one we assume this passage refers to. (1)

With the issue of 'Christus' versus 'Chrestus' dealt with we can move onto Tacitus' commentary on the subject of the jews, but not before noting that Tacitus' two major works 'Histories' and 'Annals'; published separately, were intended as two sections of a much longer book by Tacitus.

This explains why; as many pro-jewish authors have been quick to pounce on, Tacitus mentions the jews so extensively in his 'Histories' but then does not mention them as a group; albeit he does mention several of their rulers in passing, in his 'Annals'. In addition to this the 'Histories' covers a later period and the time of the first jewish revolt, which is what immediately provokes Tacitus' commentary. However this is not to suggest; as is frequently argued by pro-jewish authors, that Tacitus' use of the Germans and jews as opposites renders his comments invalid: indeed I would assert that it shows the very opposite to the case.

Tacitus is rendering the Germans and the jews in relief to make a point, but he used real world rather than literary examples to make this point. The evidence used in talking about the jews and the Germans would have been well-known and relatively easy to check for any reader who wished to do so as there were numerous accounts of the wars, survivors of them as well as Germans and jews to whom they could speak to clarify their understanding.

If we understand this then it is clear that we must take what Tacitus has to say regarding the jews much more seriously; in terms of its evidential value, than many pro-jewish historians would like. To describe and explain what Tacitus has to say about the jews: it is simplest to examine his main commentary on the jews, which is found in the fifth book of his 'Histories'.

To begin with we will focus on Tacitus' commentary on the origin of the jews. To wit:

'It is said that the Jews are refugees from Crete who settled in the furthest part of Libya at the time when Saturn was forcibly deposed by Jupiter. Evidence for this is sought in the name: Ida is a famous mountain in Crete inhabited by the Idaei, whose name became lengthened into the foreign form Judaei. Others say that in the reign of Isis the superfluous population of Egypt, under the leadership of Hierosolymus and Juda, discharged itself upon the neighbouring districts; while there are many who think the Jews of Ethiopian stock, driven by fear and hatred to emigrate in the reign of King Cepheus. Another tradition makes them Assyrian refugees, who, lacking lands of their own, occupied a district of Egypt, and later took to building cites of their own and tilling Hebrew territory and frontier land of Syria. Yet another version assigns the Jews an illustrious origin as the descendants of the Solymi a tribe praised in the poems of Homer who founded a city and called it Jerusalem after their own name.

Most authorities, however, agree that a foul and disfiguring disease once broke out in Egypt, and that King Bocchoris, on approaching the oracle of Ammon and inquiring for a remedy, was told to purge his kingdom and to transport all the victims into another country, for they had earned the disfavour of Heaven. A motley crowd was collected and abandoned in the desert. While all the other outcasts lay idly lamenting, one of them, named Moses, advised them not to look for help to gods or men, since both had deserted them, but to trust rather in themselves and accept as divine the guidance of the first being by whose aid they should get out of their present plight. They agreed, and set out blindly to march wherever chance might lead them. Their worst distress came from lack of water. When they were already at death's door and lying prostrate all over the plain, a drove of wild asses moved away from their pasture to a rock densely covered with trees. Guessing the truth from the grassy nature of the ground, Moses followed and disclosed some streams with an ample flow of water. This restored them. Continuing their march for six successive days, on the seventh they routed the natives and gained possession of the country. There they consecrated their city and their Temple.

To ensure his future hold over the people, Moses introduced a new cult, which was the opposite of all other religions. All that we hold sacred they held profane, and they allowed practices which we abominate. They dedicated in the innermost part of the Temple an image of the animal whose guidance had put an end to their wandering and thirst, after first killing a ram, apparently as an insult to Ammon. They also sacrifice bulls, because of the Egyptians worship the bull Apis. Pigs are subject to leprosy, the foul plague with which they too were once infected; so they abstain from pork in memory of their misfortune. Their frequent fasts bear witness to the long famine they once endured, and, in token of their rushed meal, Jewish bread is made without leaven. They are said to have devoted the seventh day to rest because that day brought an end to their toils. Later, finding idleness alluring, they gave up the seventh year as well to sloth. Others maintain that they do this in honour of Saturn, either because religious principles are derived from the Idaei, who are supposed to have driven out Saturn and become ancestors of the Jewish people; or else because, of the seven stars which govern the lives of men, the star of Saturn moves in the topmost orbit and exercises the mightiest influence, and also because most of the heavenly bodies move round their courses in multiples of seven.' (2)

It is clear in the above that Tacitus is quoting several different origins of the jews in that he talks of the jewish belief of their origin in those brought out of Egypt by Moses, but he also talks of the alleged origins of jews from the Solymi of Homer (3) and the Idaei of Crete.

It might at first seem difficult to reconcile these views until we realise that they actually represent two very different strands of jewish thought in that the origin of the jews in Egypt per the Torah would have the normal religious jewish viewpoint, but that locating a jewish origin in Homer; per the normal Greek custom, was something used by Hellenizing jews who sought to reconcile their jewishness with their professed Hellenic beliefs.

If we understand this then we can see why Tacitus is somewhat confused in so far as the jews profess one thing, but yet Greek authorities; probably working from lost Hellenistic jewish sources which are more likely to have been familiar to them than jewish religious writings, located their origin in the Solymi of Homer and the Idaei of Crete: an origin that was subsequently followed by Roman writers such as Tacitus.

The rationale for this claim is the similarity between the words 'Idaei' and 'Judaei' in so far in Hebrew the syllable 'Jah' is actually pronounced like a Greek would 'Iah' hence an earlier Greek confusion that the jews worship the god Iao based on this linguistic misunderstanding. (4) This is compounded by the fact that the jewish Sabbath falls on a Saturday (Saturn's day) and as such the jews are held to be echoing earlier practices of the Idaei; who also are held to have had much to do with the god Saturn, which then; to the Graeco-Roman mind, completes the intellectual picture suggesting a Cretan origin for the jews.

This is; of course, a misunderstanding on the part of the Greeks and the Romans, but never-the-less the recognition that Hellenizing jews were propounding this idea years before; and probably to an extent during, Tacitus' life allows us to comprehend that while there were many jews who were religious zealots: there were others who sought to gain admission into learned Roman and Greek circles by synthesizing the customs of their conquerors with their own.

Once we exclude this part of Tacitus' analysis on this understanding of its probable origin: we can see that he gives us a clear account of jewish origins as far as his information permits. In so far as he knows the jews were driven out of Egypt and that the reason this was done was because of alleged leprosy. This claim probably comes from Diodorus Siculus; whose 'Historical Library' would have been available to Tacitus, in so far we can see the direct parallel to what Diodorus wrote on the origins of the jews.

To wit:

'They likewise suggested to him, that the ancestors of the Jews were driven out of Egypt as impious and hateful to the Gods. For their bodies being overspread and infected with the itch and leprosy, they brought them together into one place by way of expiation, and as profane and wicked wretches expelled them from their coasts. Those too that were thus expelled seated themselves about Jerusalem, and being afterwards embodied into one nation, called the nation of the Jews, their hatred of all other men descended with their blood to posterity. Hence they made strange laws, entirely different from those of other nations.' (5)

Now while it is clear that Tacitus believes that the leprosy that Diodorus mentions afflicted the jews is literal: it is equally clear in Diodorus' own writings that this is metaphorical and refers to a politically and/or religiously subversive cult that was like leprosy and the itch (i.e. the diseased and those who show signs of infection). (6)

This meaning is ironically hinted at; perhaps unintentionally, by Tacitus when he discusses how King Bocchoris approached the oracle of Ammon [Amun] (the chief of all Egyptian gods) about what to do about said 'disfiguring disease', which is odd precisely because one would have expected the Egyptians of this time to consult a lesser god or goddess more attuned to their specific needs such as Isis, Nefertem and/or Hathor who were associated with magic, healing and beauty respectively.

That Pharaoh consulted the oracle of Ammon suggests that there was a lot more to this 'disfiguring disease' than just a simple plague (which were after all fairly common) and that what we are dealing with here is a metaphor for a new religious cult that had spread and as such needed to be rooted out, which as I have argued elsewhere makes sense of the need to root out the people affected by this 'disease' from all over Egypt and expelling them as a group rather than simply ejecting them locally, which would make more sense if it was a literal disease in much the same way that lepers were locally dealt with and isolated by European Christians much later. Hence Tacitus' rather unusual expression that 'a motley band was collected and abandoned in the desert.'

This then makes sense of why; after all, a band of diseased people had 'leaders' as if it was just the people who had been unfortunate enough to contract a simple disease then a hierarchy; let alone agreed upon leaders, would not have come about as quickly as they did. This then tells us that what Tacitus is; seemingly unknowingly, discussing is the expulsion of a new and politically dangerous religious cult from Egypt by Pharaoh at the behest of the priests of Ammon.

This conclusion receives strong support from Tacitus' discussion of the sacrificial habits of the jews in so far as he says that they sacrifice rams and bulls as direct insults to the Egyptian gods Ammon and Apis (whose representations they respectively are). One could note that in addition that 'bulls' in this context could also be said to possibly include cows, which was the symbol of Hathor that some of the jews built a symbol of and worshipped before Mount Sinai (as recounted in the book of Exodus) and were massacred by the Levites at Moses' command.

This clearly indicates that the jews; in Tacitus' account, had a great deal of disdain; even hatred, for the gods and goddesses of the Egyptians and is exactly the kind of behaviour that one would expect of an expelled religious cult. Tacitus may actually be hinting at just such a conclusion when he states that: 'all that we hold sacred they held profane, and they allowed practices that we abominate'.

Tacitus also recounts the story of the golden ass in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon (probably following Poseidonius and Apollonius Molon whose works would have been known to him), which; as I have argued elsewhere is actually quite plausible, (7) and may go some way to explaining the nature of the religious cult with which are evidently dealing.

That is to say that the jews were essentially followers of Canaanite religion; which as we know endorsed human sacrifice and maintained a strong following among the jews down to near Tacitus' own epoch, (8) and from which Yahweh (the Canaanite 'King of Heaven') and the Shekhina (Yahweh's wife in early Judaism and a syncretization of the Canaanite goddesses Astarte and Asherah) derives. This then makes sense of why the religious practices of the jews were abominated by the Romans (as they probably involved some form of human sacrifice [i.e. the barbaric religion of Carthage that was so loathed by the Romans] in addition to their lack of 'idols' [i.e. atheism in Roman and Greek eyes]) and also why the jews were considered utterly subversive by the Egyptians.

Indeed the figure of Moses looms large in Tacitus' description and he is not portrayed sympathetically at all: instead Tacitus gives us the distinct impression that Moses was a liar, a cheat and an egomaniac who lead the ancestors of the jews into the wilderness and then would only get them out of that predicament again if they followed his god (Yahweh) to the exclusion of the Egyptian ones they may have been accustomed to worshipping (hence those with 'the itch' being included in those expelled).

This then clearly shows that what Tacitus is describing; using Diodorus Siculus, Poseidonius and Apollonius Molon as his sources, is a barbaric cult that was expelled from Egypt for having been perceived to attempt to subvert the religious order there and was then conned into either full belief in the Canaanite religious system or consolidated in that belief, which then caused them; in Tacitus' account (although this is not anything to do with Moses but rather more probably Solomon), to set up a statue of golden ass (actually a golden horse [the symbol of Astarte]) in the Holy of Holies.

Thus Tacitus is telling us that the origins of the jews; and remember that the origin of a religion was very important to its intellectual status at the time, are anything but creditable or put another way: evil, duplicitous and subversive.


(1) I have commented at length on the issue of the 'Chrestian' sect in relation to Seneca the Younger, Nero and the Great Fire in Rome of AD 64 in the following article:
(2) Tac. Hist. 5:2-4
(3) Hom. Il. 6; Od. 5
(4) Diod. 1:94.2
(5) Ibid. 34
(6) I have discussed independently in my article on Diodorus Siculus: http://semiticcontroversies.blogspot...s-on-jews.html
(7) I have discussed this in the following article: http://semiticcontroversies.blogspot...f-solomon.html
(8) I have discussed this in relation to Judaism in the following article:


This was originally published at the following address:
Old June 25th, 2012 #2
Karl Radl
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Default Part II

Tacitus on the Jews

Part II

Having discussed the origin of the jews and their religion: Tacitus then moves on to discuss the jews themselves in addition to further comments as to their religious beliefs.

To wit:

'Whatever their origin, these rites are sanctioned by their antiquity. Their other customs are perverted and abominable, and owe their prevalence to their depravity. All the most worthless rascals, renouncing their national cults, started showering them with offerings and tribute. This is one cause of Jewish prosperity. Another is that they are obstinately loyal to each other and always ready to show compassion, whereas they feel nothing but hatred and enmity for the rest of mankind. They separate themselves from others both in meals and in bed: although immoderate in sexual indulgence, they refrain from intercourse with foreign women: among themselves anything is allowed. They have introduced circumcision to distinguish themselves from other people. Those who are converted to their customs adopted the same practice, and the first lessons they learn are to despise the gods, to renounce their country, and to regard parents, children and brethren as worthless.

However, they take steps to increase their numbers. They count it a crime to kill any of their later-born children, and they believe that the souls of those who die in battle or under execution are immortal. Thus they think much of having children and facing death. They prefer to bury and not burn their dead. In this, as in their concern for and belief in an underworld, they conform to Egyptian custom. Their ideas on the divine are quite different. The Egyptians worship most of their gods as animals, or in shapes half-animal and half-human. The Jews acknowledge one god only, of whom they have a purely spiritual conception. They think it impious to make images of gods in human shape out of perishable materials. Their god is almighty and eternal, inimitable and without end. They therefore set up no statues in their temples, nor even in their cities, refusing this homage to their kings and this honour to Roman emperors. However, the fact that their priests intoned to the flute and the cymbals and wore wreaths of ivy, and that a golden vine was found in their Temple, has led some people to think that they worship Father Liber, the conqueror of the East. But this is completely out of accord with their cult. Liber instituted joyous and cheerful rites, but the Jewish ritual is preposterous and sordid.' (9)

Tacitus here is not mincing his words in regards to jews and Judaism regarding them as he does as a depraved, sordid and; not to put too fine a point on it, evil nation who the world would be much better off without.

The first point that immediately comes to our attention throughout this passage is the theme of the insularity of the jews in that; as Tacitus says, they will bow to no man or statue, they are prohibited from having sexual intercourse with foreign women and they are fanatical believers in their religion.

All this Tacitus rightly implies is rooted in the belief in that Yahweh 'is almighty and eternal, inimitable and without end', which when one understands that the jews regard themselves; then as now, as being the specially chosen people of this omnipotent and omnipresent god. Clearly spells out the jewish self-belief in their absolute superiority over all others, which; as Tacitus implies, is at the root of their being a problem in that they refuse to be pragmatic about the political and military realities. Instead the jews chose to be obstinate and not be 'Romans when in Rome' preferring instead to be 'jews everywhere'.

That; to Tacitus as to many of his fellow Romans, the jewish belief system was intellectually and logically absurd did not help matters: as a 'purely spiritual' religion with no idols or no earthly divine form was akin to atheism in his eyes (as in the Roman and Greek view they quite literally worshipped air to paraphrase Florus and Juvenal). (10)

Tacitus in this passage also makes an early reference to a belief in the 'immortality of the soul' in regards to those who jews who have been killed in battle against or executed by their enemies, which is itself a reference to the jewish concept of martyrdom: kiddush hashem (lit. 'Sanctification of the Name').

This should not be taken as a claim that the jews are in any way good or fierce warriors, but rather that they were often religious fanatics who were; like the zealots in Jerusalem at about this time, capable of unspeakable butchery (such as the appalling genocidal butchery of Greeks and Egyptians by the jews) (11) but at the same time completely incompetent militarily as Dio (12) and Strabo point out. (13) A fact I might add that was noted succinctly but eloquently by Curt Hermann when he pointed out that jews were significantly under-represented in the German armed forces in World War I, but declaimed loudly as if they were over-represented. (14)

Tacitus does seemingly refer to the jews as 'healthy and hardy' at one point, (15) but this is removed when we understand that he is actually talking about those on the northern Syrian frontier (i.e. not jews but rather Arabs as Syria was the larger area of which Judea was part) rather than the jews of Judea.

This religious fanaticism Tactius relates is best represented in the fact that the jews are willing to be extremely compassionate towards each other and are yet utterly hostile to any non-jews. This is debatable given that Josephus' account of the jews in additional to original documents from the time; for example the dead sea scrolls, paint a picture of the jews being anything but compassionate (actually brutally sectarian with political and religious murder being the norm) with each other.

However in spite of Tacitus' mistake on this score: it is probable that he is transliterating how jews behaved in the wider Roman empire in that they tended to be less sectarian and more clannish. Even if we still have abundant evidence of religious and political conflict: particularly centred around the Herodian monarchy.

This behaviour Tacitus sees as particularly undesirable in the light of the jewish proclivity to procreate in large numbers and not to commit infanticide when dealing with unwanted later children as otherwise common in the ancient and classical worlds. This means essentially that Tacitus sees in the jews a dual threat in that they are subversive to Roman rule (they don't accept the Imperial cult or Roman rule) and are also demographically a problem in that they will; in time, create a numerical advantage over their rulers and in spite of their lack of military prowess: their religious-based savagery combined with their numbers will make up for it.

We may further combine this with a not unsurprising mention of the phenomenon of non-jewish converts to Judaism and how they are taught to forswear any other allegiance; even familial and national ones, as the price of their induction into the jewish cult. This is an obvious threat to Roman rule, but I think it important to stress here that I do not think Tacitus is actually referring to converts per se, but rather those who are 'initiated in jewish ways'.

What I think Tacitus is probably referring to is the phenomenon we know as 'god-fearers'; which as I have mentioned on numerous occasions is the ancient predecessor of the concept of the Noahide, that involves a gentile forswearing all other masters but the jews and abiding by a few of the mitzvoth of jews in respect to their non-jewish origin (i.e. they are only barely able to control their nature and are also more subject to the 'evil inclination'). Or put another way: 'god-fearers' are gentiles who regard themselves as jews, have been inducted into jewish ways but at the same time are not jews to other jews, but to non-jews they would be likely considered as such.

Tacitus is essentially saying here that the jews are dangerous not only because of what they are, but also because they actively recruit others to work for them and are thus behaving as they are alleged to have done in Egypt: subverting the current political and religious order in the name of their own religion. In effect Tacitus is acting the part of the canary in a coal mine and like Seneca the Younger (16) and Horace (17) is discussing the power of the jews that he regards as till not having been broken.

This demographic and politico-religious threat is made all the worse when we note Tacitus' words regarding the sexual conduct of the jews in so far as he specifically refers to jewish men, but not; we should note, to jewish women. He states quite salaciously that inside the jewish community there is a 'no holes barred' attitude (pun intended) to sexual intercourse and that jewish men and women are somewhat exotic in their sexual appetites. An observation made much later by Sigmund Freud and then juxtaposed onto the rest of humanity on the assumption that everyone was like the jews (18) in addition to other more modern jewish writers about the period in question. (19)

If we understand this then we may note two earlier; easily missed, passages in Tacitus' 'Histories' which refers to the Herodian jewish princess Berenice. To wit:

'Such considerations kept him wavering between hope and fear; but ultimately hope prevailed. Some people believed that his longing to get back to Queen Berenice fired him to return. True, the young man's fancy was attracted by Berenice, but he did not allow this to interfere with business. Still, his youth was a time of happy self-indulgence, and he showed more restraint in his own reign than in his father's.' (20)


'Before 15 July the whole of Syria had sworn allegiance. The party also gained the support of Sohaemus, with all the resources of his kingdom and a considerable force, and of Antiochus, the richest of the subject princes, who owed his importance to his ancestral treasures. Before long Agrippa, too, received a secret summons from his people, and leaving Rome without the knowledge of Vitellius, sailed as fast as he could to join Vespasian. His sister Berenice showed equal enthusiasm for the cause. She was then in the flower of her youth and beauty, and her munificent gifts to Vespasian quite won the old man's heart too.' (21)

We can see that in these passages we have a regular Mordechai and Esther (of Book of Esther fame) in so far as Berenice is using her youthful beauty and; if we are to believe Tacitus' implication, lack of sexual inhibition to seduce both the future Emperor Vespasian and more importantly his son and also future emperor; Titus, to get them to make sure she and her brother; Agrippa, continue to rule over the jews. One notes Tacitus' wording that Agrippa received a 'secret summons from his people' i.e. the jews of Palestine had used a network of their own agents to get word to Agrippa II to come back to his home to better bargain with Vespasian with the aid of his sister.

Indeed we can see the grip that Berenice held over Titus; who otherwise was fairly homicidal towards jews, in the fact that he was desperate; Tacitus pointedly implies, to get back to Palestine to see his jewish lover again. Through the auspices of Titus then it is not unsurprising that Berenice also plied the oldest of all professions for the Emperor Vespasian as well. In a sense then one would not be going too far to suggest that Berenice opened her legs so that her brother Agrippa II and her people would profit by it tempering the brutality of the Roman response to the first jewish revolt (after it was long clear that it had been a speculator failure). Indeed we know that this was a wise strategic move, because she and her brother were ultimately successful in this. (22)

In this we can see the danger that Tacitus is foreseeing in that the jews are; to him, an exceedingly dangerous group and the very opposite of the freedom and nature-loving Germans that he records in the 'Histories' and 'Germania'. Tacitus thus regards the jews as a particularly vicious and subversive form of eastern religious cult that should be stamped out with extreme prejudice as a threat not only to the security of the Empire, but the existence of Roman people themselves.

There are two other aspects of this passage of Tacitus' 'Histories' that require attention.

Firstly the assertion that the jews have only become rich by attracting the 'worthless' of the surrounding nations to come to them and give them their wealth. This to Tacitus' mind meant that the jews were not skilled in anything in particular; other than religious fanaticism and copulation, but had acquired their wealth by duplicitous means.

An argument that Cicero brilliantly made at length in his famous speech 'Pro Flacco' I might add: although in Tacitus' case I rather suspect he is actually paraphrasing Strabo's point about the jews being a nation of thieves and robbers. (23) That Tacitus may have; in fact, had a case for this is proven by the mention by Josephus of jewish con-artists and religious tricksters who devoted their lives to stealing the wealth of gullible Romans (24) as well as Martial's mention of just such practices by jews. (25)

Secondly the discussion by Tacitus that; because of the raiment of the Temple and the musical instruments apparently used, some Roman authors believe that the jews actually worship Pater Liber rather than Yahweh. This requires clarification because Pater Liber is not a term known to many now, but is in fact referring to the Roman god of wine and merrymaking Bacchus. Hence one can immediately see why Tacitus rightly rejects the point in so far as it makes little sense to conflate a cult of joy and excess with the austere fanaticism that Tacitus rightly identifies among the jews.


(9) Tac. Hist. 5:5
(10) Florus Epit. 1:40.29-30; Juv. 14
(11) Cassius Dio 68:32.1-3
(12) Ibid, 69:14
(13) Strabo 16:2.28
(14) Curt Hermann, 1936, 'Der Jude und der Deutsche Mensch', 1st Edition, Heinrich Handels Verlag: Breslau, p. 16; on the evasion of military duty by the jews see Joseph. Ant. 18:3.5
(15) Tac. Hist. 5:6
(16) Aug. Civ. Dei. 6:11
(17) Hor. Sat. 1:4
(18) David Bakan, 1990, 'Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition', 2nd Edition, Free Association: London, pp. 295-297; Robyn Ferrell's discussion of this in 'Passion in Theory' (1996, Routledge: New York, pp. 38-46) is frankly rather disturbing in and of itself.
(19) See Daniel Boyarin, 1993, 'Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture', 1st Edition, University of California Press: Berkeley
(20) Tact. Hist. 2:2
(21) Ibid. 2:81; also see Tac. Ann. 10-11 for context.
(22) Martin Goodman, 2008, 'Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations', 1st Edition, Penguin: New York, pp. 378-379; another example of just such behaviour maybe found in Amm. Val. (2) 14
(23) Strabo 16:2.28
(24) Joseph. Ant. 18:3.5; also see Tac. Ann. 2
(25) Mart. 12:57


This was originally published at the following address: http://semiticcontroversies.blogspot...s-part-ii.html
Old June 25th, 2012 #3
Karl Radl
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Bump after responding to Max.
Old July 1st, 2012 #4
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Part III

This strongly negative picture that Tacitus portrays is also backed up by his implied point that the land of the jews is an infertile and poisonous place to live, which he makes in his description of Judea. To wit:

'The plants, whether wild or artificially cultivated, are black and sterile and wither into dust and ashes, whether when in leaf or flower, or when they have attained their full growth. Without denying that at some date famous cities were burnt up by the fire of Heaven, I am yet inclined to think that it is the exhalation from the lake which infects the soil and poisons the surrounding atmosphere. Soil and climate being equally deleterious, the spring and autumn crops all rot away.' (26)

We can see from this passage that Tacitus; as I have said, is describing the land of the jews as a bad place to live and clearly this is meant to be read as a reflection of the jewish nature that Tacitus is describing in the sections before and after this description. We may add that Tacitus here is probably also following Strabo who declared likewise; although in far less, detail that the land of the jews was an inhospitable and infertile place. (27) However Tacitus is adding the detail about the Dead Sea and the fact that this deadness (caused by the very high salt content) 'poisons the surrounding atmosphere' which logically then poisons the people who are associate with that place.

So then we can see that Tacitus is actually using a clever geographical pun to make his point that the jews are; in his opinion, a sordid and depraved people, which is then represented by the decayed and lifeless nature of their territory that further indicates that the jews are cursed by the gods because of their; as Tacitus puts it, impious ways.

If we understand this then it places the next lengthy passage about the jews into context.

To wit:

'The greater part of Judea is scattered with villages, but they also have towns. Jerusalem is the Jewish capital, and contained the Temple, which was enormously wealthy. A first line of fortifications guarded the city, then came the palace, and the inner defenses enclosed the Temple. None but a Jew was allowed as far as the doors: none but the priests might cross the threshold.

When the East was in the hands of the Assyrians, Medes, and Persians, they regarded the Jews as the meanest of their slaves. During the Macedonian ascendancy King Antiochus endeavoured to abolish their superstitions and to introduce Greek customs. But Arsaces at that moment rebelled, and the Parthian war prevented him from effecting any improvement in the character of this grim people. Then, when Macedon waned, as the Parthian power was not yet ripe and Rome was still far away, they took kings of their own. The mob was fickle and drove them out. However, they recovered their throne by force; banished their countrymen, sacked cities, slew brothers, wives, and parents, and committed all the usual royal crimes. But the kings fostered the Jewish superstition, since they strengthened their authority by assuming the priesthood.

Gnaeus Pompey was the first Roman to subdue the Jews and set foot in the Temple by right of conquest. That is the source of the information that the Temple contained no image of any god: their shrine was empty, the innermost sanctuary void. The walls of Jerusalem were destroyed, but the Temple was left standing. Later, during the Roman civil wars, when the eastern provinces had come under the control of Mark Antony, the Parthian king Pacorus seized Judea and was killed by Publius Ventidius. The Parthians were driven back over the Euphrates, and Gaius Sosius subdued the Jews. Antony gave the kingdom to Herod, and Augustus, after his victory, enlarged it. After Herod's death, somebody called Simon, without awaiting the Emperor's decision, forcibly assumed the title of king. He was punished by Quintilius Varus, who was governor of Syria; the Jews were repressed and the kingdom divided between three of Herod's sons. Under Tiberius all was quiet. Gaius Caesar ordered them to put his statue in the Temple: they preferred war to that. But Gaius' death put an end to the rising. In Claudius' reign the kings had all either died or lost most of their territory. The Emperor therefore made Judea a province to be a governed by Roman knights or freedmen. One of these, Antonius Felix, indulged in every king of cruelty and lust, wielding a king's authority with all the instincts of a slave. He had married Drusilla, a granddaughter of Antony and Cleopatra, so that he was Antony's grandson-in-law, while Claudius was Antony's grandson.' (28)

There is much to comment on in the above, but a good place to begin is Tacitus' assertion that Jerusalem was enormously wealthy, which; as we have seen, Tacitus ascribes to the jews as having gotten through nefarious means. (29)

We may further locate an origin for this massive wealth in the fact that the rulers of the Temple 'committed all the usual royal crimes' according to Tacitus, which obviously includes usuriously taxing their subjects to the point of death in order to fill their coffers. Also Judea; in spite of Josephus' outright denial of the mercantile nature of his people, sits next to the major trading sea ports of the East in Syria and the Lebanon, in which we have early references to jewish merchants and money lenders operating. (30)

Further it is plausible to suggest that the jews sought to divert the trade in silk and spices that was running through; and massively enriching, Syria: through their territory instead and may have had some success in doing so. Accounting for their relative wealth (as heavy fortification is never a cheap undertaking) as well as the increasing Roman interest in Judea as a taxable domain in addition to its strategic importance in any conflict with Parthia (hence its relatively quick transition from client kingdom to full-blown Roman rule) also indicated by Parthia's invasion of Judea that Tacitus mentions.

Tacitus also links this fabulous wealth to the religious ordering of jewish society: noting particularly the rejection of any born non-jew from entering the Temple area and the further rejection of any jew who was not of the priestly class from stepping over the threshold into the Temple (mirroring the caste system described in detail by the Mishnah). This he implies; via his point about the misrule and crimes of the so-called jewish 'royal family', was essentially a scam to keep the jewish populace in order as the jews had nothing in their wealthy sanctuary at the Temple to actually worship or collect wealth to benefit. Instead the jews simply collected wealth and their 'royal family' also declared themselves high priests: so Tacitus concludes; with good reason, that the jewish 'royal family' were the very paragon of the misrule of royal tyrants and that as such deserved everything that they later got from their subjects such as the revolt against their rule.

Tacitus further ties Judaism and the ruthless pursuit of wealth together by his remark that the jews were 'meanest of slaves' in Assyria, Medea and Persia: which is clearly meant to indicate that the jews were not capable of higher philosophy and could not separate logic from nonsensical rituals that they had inherited from their ancestors or derived from Mesopotamian religion (from whence important sections of the Torah; such as Noah's flood, and concepts; such as angels, probably derive). In essence Tacitus is saying that while Archimedes was working on his screw: the jews were dancing naked round a pole trying to make it rain.

This comment of Tacitus' suggests that at this time; before the redirection of the trade routes, the jews were not a wealthy nation in addition to being a militarily unsuccessful one. It also directs us to the conclusion that before this later period the jews were a nation without particular talent in anything much and unable to find a proverbial niche in the polygot of kingdoms and empires that dotted the area. (31) Instead their defining characteristic appears to have been their religious beliefs, which is even controversial because of the disagreement of the sources as to how 'unique' these religious beliefs were and more pointedly: if the jews were monotheistic at all at this time. In essence one should the jews of this time as the nobodies of the middle east and only occurring in the historical record as foot notes in the storied histories of far more successful and literate civilisations.

We also find Tacitus pointing out that Antiochus Epiphanes tried to civilise the jews; i.e. getting rid of Judaism and their bloody-thirsty Canaanite gods and goddesses, and that when the Selucid Greek influence was removed the jews promptly revolted and set themselves up as an independent kingdom once again.

This nature of civil disobedience and religious revolts; as we can see from the repeated mentions of it, is something that vexed Tacitus in so far as the jews were to his mind so barbarous and mired in their illogical; but fanatically adhered to, belief system that they could not recognise reason and logic when the Greeks and Romans tried to introduce them to it. The jews; to Tacitus' mind, quite literally burnt the Greek books on philosophy and went back to randomly immolating passing sheep in a sanctuary where there was no god present.

We can see that Tacitus was more than a little perplexed with the jews and once again we can see that his use of the jews as a negative lesson to the Romans is not one based on an invented nadir that they represent, but rather is based on the; real and perceived, actions of the jews in the context of the Greek and Roman understanding of the world around them. The reason Tacitus is so harsh with the jews and so kind to the Germans is because they factually represented very different sides of barbarity: one is cruel and close-minded (the jews) while the other is honest and open-minded (the Germans).

We can thus see that Tacitus' description needs to be taken a lot more seriously than most historians would like to: precisely because it is rooted in a good understanding (for the time) of what the jews were, what they had and where they seemed to think they were going.

Indeed we can see that Tacitus believes the jews to have been a people addicted to cruelty when he talks of the royal crimes in that he lists them as having slain their countrymen and sparing no one; even women and children, from their savagery. This verdict on jewish brutality is also echoed by Dio Cassius who relates the images; from a later jewish rising in Egypt, more graphically with skins being used as a cloaks, entrails as belts, people being burnt alive/crucified and so on. (32) From this we can see that Tacitus clearly does not regard the jews as a civilised people and in many respects he; as we have said, considers them to be barbarism personified.

We should mention that Tacitus' point that the tradition that the Holy of Holies was bare; unlike at the time that Antiochus Epiphanes entered, should not be understood; as it is frequently used, to claim that the jews did not have a head of 'golden ass' at any time. Indeed during Antiochus Epiphanes desecration of the temple it is not unreasonable to suggest he either took the statue with him (it was gold and thus very valuable after all) or that the cult among the high priests having been exposed to the light of day: it was destroyed. (33)

On the contrary I would argue that after the exposure of this cult of Astarte that was operating in the temple; and probably dating from the time of Solomon, which was unintentionally affected by Antiochus Epiphanes it would be more surprising if the jews had kept the head of the 'golden ass' in the temple down to the time of Pompey's entrance to it.

We may also point out that Tacitus' account of the risings and their subjugation by the Romans; most notably by Quintilius Varus, (34) is clearly intertwined with the rise and fall of religious fanaticism among the jews. We should note that the jews 'preferred war' to having the Emperor Caligula's (Gaius) statue put up in the Temple of Jerusalem per the normal demand of the Imperial cult in addition to the fact that the rulers of the jews were priest-kings.

The problem that this religious fanaticism represented to Roman governance is also clearly indicated by Varus' policy of splitting the jews into three separate kingdoms in an attempt to introduce some semblance of peace and sanity to the area. The idea was the famous principle of 'divide and rule' in that Varus was trying to split the jews up, have the three sons of Herod intrigue and fight each other rather than causing trouble for the Romans. Also it made the jews much easier to deal with if they rose again as it would be unlikely that all three kingdoms would rise together: meaning that a relatively small Roman force could smash the jewish rebels by virtue of the jews having less manpower and the revolt being more focused. Thus rather than decimating a province: the Romans merely had to burn a few towns and city or two to restore order.

That this policy did work is indicated by the relatively quiet time in Judea during Tiberius' reign (leaving aside the separate revolt of jews under Chrestus in Rome and the massacre/counter-massacre exchange going on between jews and non-jews in Alexandria) and the fact that the jewish revolt caused by Caligula's insistence on a statue of himself being erected in the Temple of Solomon was quickly eradicated.

Indeed trouble only rears its ugly head again when; Herod's sons having died, Claudius reconstituted the province under a Roman governor and allowed the jews to once again focus their hatred towards gentiles (rather than each other) leading to the massacre of gentiles by jews during the first jewish revolt and the counter-massacres of jews by the Romans in response to these ancient jewish war crimes.

Once again here we can see that Tacitus is focusing on jewish unreasonableness and intransigence that is based primarily on their weird; and in his view impious, religious system and that as such the jews are the ultimate barbarians that the world would be rather better off without than with.


(26) Tac. Hist. 5:7
(27) Strabo 16:2.36
(28) Tac. Hist. 5:8-9
(29) Ibid, 5:5
(30) Mentioned in John Fuller, 1998, [1958], 'The Generalship of Alexander the Great', 1st Edition, Wordsworth: Ware
(31) See the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (i.e. the reference to Jebu, Son of Omri), which clearly indicates that the jews were a divided small tribe at this point with little power of their own and trying to play diplomatic games to stay independent.
(32) Cassius Dio 68:32.1-3
(33) On this see the following two articles: http://semiticcontroversies.blogspot...f-solomon.html and
(34) I do not think it going to far to suggest that Tacitus may have also used the fact that Varus was a prominent example of a governor over both jews and Germans as his initial reason (considered as he was the apogee of everything that was wrong with the Imperial system) inspiration for using the Germans and jews as idealised examples.


This was originally published at the following address: http://semiticcontroversies.blogspot...-part-iii.html
Old July 2nd, 2012 #5
Karl Radl
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Default Re: Tacitus on the Jews

Part IV

Tacitus' disdain for jews and their religious beliefs is further; and perhaps most savagely, demonstrated in the last segment regarding the jews in the fifth book of the 'Histories' which recounts the first jewish revolt in detail (and which corresponds to much of Josephus' account in his 'The Jewish War').

To wit:

'The Jews endured such oppression patiently until the governorship of Gessius Florus, under whom war broke out. Cestius Gallus, the governor of Syria, tried to crush it, but met with more reverses than victories. He died, either in the natural course or perhaps of disgust, and Nero sent out Vespasian, who, within two summers, thanks to his reputation, good fortune, and able subordinates, had the whole of the country and all the towns except Jerusalem under the heel of his victorious army. The next year was taken up with civil war, and passed quietly enough as far as the Jews were concerned. But once peace was restored in Italy, foreign troubles began again; Roman wrath was increased by the thought that the Jews were the only people who had not given in. At the same time it seemed advantageous to leave Titus at the head of the army to meet all the eventualities of the new reign, whether good or bad.

Thus, as I have said, Titus pitched his camp before the walls of Jerusalem and proceeded to display his legions in battle order. The Jews formed up at the foot of their own walls, read, if successful, to venture further, but assured of their retreat in case of reverse. A body of cavalry and some light-armed cohorts were sent against them, and fought an indecisive engagement, from which the enemy eventually retired. During the next few days a series of skirmishes took place in front of the gates, and at last continual losses drove the Jews behind their walls.

The Romans were determined to take the city by storm. It seemed undignified to sit and wait for the enemy to starve, and the men all clamoured for the risks, some through courage, but many others were wild and greedy for plunder. Titus himself had the vision of Rome with all her wealth and pleasures before his eyes, and felt that their enjoyment was postponed unless Jerusalem fell at once.

The city, however, stood high and had been fortified with works vast enough to protect a city standing on the plain. Two enormous hills were surrounded by walls ingeniously built as to project or slope inwards and thus leave the flanks of an attacking party exposed to fire. The rocks were jagged at the top. The towers, where the rising ground helped, were 60 feet high, and in the hollows as much as 120. They were a wonderful sight and seemed from a distance to be of all equal height. Within this ran another line of fortification surrounding the palace, and on a conspicuous height stands the Antonia, a castle named by Herod in honour of Mark Antony. The Temple was built like a citadel with walls of its own, on which more care and labour had been spent than on any of the others. Even the cloisters surrounding the Temple formed a splendid rampart. There was a never-failing spring of water, catacombs hollowed out of the hills, and pools or cisterns for holding rainwater. Its original builders had foreseen that the peculiarities of Jewish life would lead to frequent wars, consequently everything was ready for the longest of sieges. Besides this, when Pompey took the city, fear and experience taught them several lessons, and they had taken advantage of the avarice in the days of Claudius to buy rights of fortification, and built walls in peacetime as though war was imminent. Their numbers were now swelled by floods of human refuse and unfortunate refugees from other towns. All the most desperate characters had taken refuge there, which only increased dissent.

They had three armies, each with its own general. The outermost and largest line of wall was held by Simon; the central city by John, and the Temple by Eleazar. John and Simon were stronger than Eleazar in numbers and equipment, but he had the advantage of a strong position. Their behaviour towards each other mainly consisted of fighting, treachery and arson; a large quantity of corn was burnt. Eventually under the pretext of offering a sacrifice, John sent a party of men to massacre Eleazar and his troops, and by this means gained possession of the Temple. Thus Jerusalem was divided into two hostile parties, but on the approach of the Romans the necessities of foreign warfare reconciled their differences.

Various portents had occurred at this time, but so sunk in superstition are the Jews and so opposed to all religious practices that they think it wicked to expiate them by sacrifices or vows. Embattled armies were seen to clash in the sky with flashing arms, and the Temple shone with sudden fire from heaven. The doors of the shrine suddenly opened, a superhuman voice was heard to proclaim that the gods were leaving, and at once there came a mighty movement of their departure. Few took alarm at all this. Most people held the belief that, according to the ancient priestly writings, this was the moment at which the East was fated to prevail: men would now start forth from Judea and conquer the world. This enigmatic prophecy really applied to Vespasian and Titus; but men are blinded by their greed. The common people applied to themselves the promise of grand destiny, and even defeat could not convince them of the truth.

The number of the besieged, men and women of every age, is stated to have been 600,000. There were arms for all who could carry them, and far more were ready to fight than would be expected from their total numbers. The women were as determined as the men: if they were forced to leave their homes they feared more in life than in death.' (35)

The first thing we notice when we read this passage is Tacitus' apparent excusing of the jews from the responsibility of having revolted in the first place. However this oddity can be quickly be made sense of when we understand that Tacitus is actually being rather sarcastic here as we can see by pointing out the context of the jews being asked to conform to Roman norms (adhering to the Imperial cult for example), that their religion is to Tacitus' mind a money-making fraud devised by their priest-kings to keep the eminently gullible populace in line, and the reference to the 'avarice' of the reign of Claudius in the context of the money grubbing freedmen (i.e. freed and often Greek ex-slaves) governors that Claudius preferred to Roman knights and aristocrats.

In essence Tacitus should be read as poking fun at the jews: who we should remember had long been complaining of oppression by the Romans and Greeks (for example see Philo's 'Contra Flacco'), and were; in the words of Claudius himself, constantly agitating for more privileges for themselves alone (as Augustus had unwisely granted them special rights on par with citizens of Rome that they promptly abused on an truly international scale).

What Tacitus is saying then is that the jews were so horribly oppressed; according to themselves, that they were somehow forced to revolt and start butchering gentiles after being asked to behave like civilised people and not regard themselves as the de facto rulers of the universe. As well as having bribed the Roman authorities so they could build massive fortifications in peacetime only to use these fortifications to try and launch a war of world conquest against the Romans.

Tacitus' account; focusing as it does on military details, makes quite clear that jews had for some time contemplated something just like this in the fact that they obtained permission; by bribing local authorities (i.e. the avarice and greed of Claudius' and Nero's freedmen appointees), to construct massive purpose-built fortifications that could withstand a very long siege and would be very difficult to eliminate if held by a professional and highly disciplined army like that of the Romans.

The rationale used to delude the Romans into thinking that the fortifications were a good idea was no doubt the Parthian invasion of Judea in the time of Mark Antony (in order to threaten the strategically and economically vital Roman provinces of Egypt and Syria): a clue to which may also be held to be the name of the principle fortress of the Jerusalem: the Antonia. This could also be read as a subtle intellectual bribe to the Romans by Herod in so far as in doing so he played to the idea that he was a loyal Roman subject and not in any way interested in creating a jewish-lead empire in the East (as his son; Herod Agrippa I, openly attempted in the time of Claudius).

Tacitus however makes it abundantly clear that the jews were not revolting because of any alleged 'oppression' or discrimination that they had suffered, but rather because their own 'ancient prophecies' stated that: 'men would now start forth from Judea and conquer the world.'

Or put in simpler terms: the jews were not interested in their sufferings, but only in their attaining their self-ascribed place in the world order that had allegedly been ordained by Yahweh in his covenant with them that meant that the jews were the chosen people of an omnipotent, omnipresent creator god who were destined to rule the world in his name.

Thus we can say that Tacitus should not be read; as some jewish historians have attempted to, as suggesting that the jews were in any way 'oppressed' or discriminated against, but rather were the victims of their own religious beliefs that lead them to do something as categorically stupid as to declare war against a military and economic superpower and then wonder why they were losing.

Indeed the abject military failure of the jews is evident in Tacitus' account in so far as they had very limited success against a small expeditionary force sent from Syria; with the main forces (i.e. the legions) being kept back due to the threat of a Parthian invasion in support of the revolt, suggesting that even deploying their main armies against a small Roman counter insurgency force; probably mainly composed of Auxilia and mercenaries (i.e. second and third line Roman troops), they had a tough time driving it back to Syria: when any army worth its salt should not only have driven such a force back but annihilated it in a show of strength.

However with the death of the governor of Syria; Tacitus seems to suggest he suffered something like a heart attack (probably from the sudden and highly stressful situation he found himself in), the Emperor Nero appointed a battle-heartened and no-nonsense soldier in the form of Vespasian to take charge of the situation. Vespasian lost no time in realising that the jews had to be dealt with firmly in order to de-escalate the situation and remove the possibility of a Parthian invasion, which would almost inevitably involve the tying of a large proportion of Rome's military might and cost the Roman people a fortune in terms of taxes spent and lost mercantile revenue.

Vespasian simply dispatched the legions; plus additional troops that he brought with him, to deal with the problem of the jews and as Tacitus records: in a few weeks the jews were not only in full retreat, but barely able to put up meaningful resistance.

As with so many historical times of defeat on all fronts and the notion of the darkness closing in. The jews took refuge in ever more fanatical variants of their religious beliefs with the rise of three major messianic leaders in Jerusalem: no doubt on the mutilated corpses of many less successful would-be jewish messiahs. This is indicated in Tacitus by his reference to the many loathsome characters and refugees flocking into Jerusalem from the Roman devastation of the countryside, which; in his words, 'only increased dissent'.

Or put more simply again: all the religious detritus and wandering holy men (plus probably quite a few mentally-ill loons convinced that the voices in their head were Yahweh and his angels) fled the countryside to Jerusalem, which soon became a hothouse of extreme jewish religious ideas leading to considerable bloodshed and the absorption/destruction of the smaller and less popular groups by those with a larger following and/or a more ruthless leadership.

Each of these three messiahs; as Tacitus records, held a different section of the city and their following was roughly proportionate to the part of the city that they occupied. So the smallest faction was that of Eleazar: whose small size was offset by the fact that they held the temple which was both the centre of jewish spiritual authority but also; as Tacitus earlier relates, the best fortified part of the whole city. Meaning that Eleazar didn't need many men or even well-equipped men to hold on to the area: precisely because it was so heavily fortified.

That the inner city; held by John, and the outer city; held by Simon, had the most followers compared to Eleazar's group is easily explained in the context of Tacitus' earlier remark about the temple that only a few jews could go very far into it. Or put more simply again: most jews did not reside in the temple area and as such there was little opportunity to gain new followers other than those already belonging to Eleazar's faction or part of the priestly class. Now John and Simon by contrast had access to the large numbers of refugees and the normal jewish residents of Jerusalem, which they could propagandise and recruit to their forces: hence their larger size.

Indeed the scale of this recruitment; based on an apocalyptic religious fantasy, is indicated by Tacitus in so far as he notes that the amount of those bearing arms was much higher than was normal in a city under siege, which he chalks up to the desperation of the jews, but which can also be read as suggesting that in the religious pressure-cooker of radical jewish ideas that was Jerusalem. Nearly every jew was affected by this sudden apocalyptic fervour and sought religious martyrdom (kiddush hashem) as an escape to the problems of this world (hunger, thirst, bereavement, impending doom for example) into the promises of the next.

Again such an interpretation is given weight by Tacitus' mention of the fact that these three messianic factions had actually managed to partially destroy each other's grain stores and thus deprived themselves of the very food that would have given them the ability to potentially hold out for years against the Roman army. After all with the three factions murdering, executing and sabotaging each other in the city (with the eventual destruction of Eleazar and his faction in a knavish jewish religious trick by the would-be messiah John [somewhat ironic when one considers how deeply religious these factions were]) it is not surprising that the Romans; who would have certainly known roughly what was happening in Jerusalem, halted major operations and allowed the jews to go on killing each other until the Roman civil war brought on by the death of the Emperor Nero was resolved in Vespasian's favour.

With the resolution of the civil war: the Romans; now under the command of Vespasian's son Titus, moved in to smash the jewish menace in Jerusalem once and for all. It is clear to see from the initial engagement outside the walls of the city; between the whole jewish army (temporarily united in the face of the hated gentiles) and a small force of Roman light cavalry and scouts. That the jews were incapable of any kind of effective military resistance (as they lost to what was essentially a scouting party), but that; if we follow Tacitus' description of their belief that they would win and roll up the Roman army in short order, their apocalyptic religious fervour was still driving them forward in the desperate belief that it would all come right in the end if only they were devout enough to Yahweh.

That jewish religious self-belief was not an effective antidote to Roman military organisation, technology and ruthlessness is rather obvious, but what is also interesting to note is the fact that Titus did not wait to attack Jerusalem. He did not wait to starve the jews out as would normally have been the custom, but instead he seems to have known about the deeply-sunk fortifications and stores that had been built up over the years. Titus adroitly realised; a connection that Tacitus does not make, that because the jews had already bled each other dry in their religious civil war and the significant potential for there to still be large food reserves in the city: it meant that a direct assault was the best plan of action as opposed to a long drawn out siege of an already weak and divided garrison.

Further to that Tacitus relates; in effect, that Titus' legions: having been in the field for one to two years were clamouring for either disbandment (hence the reference to the relative luxuries of Rome) or to return to the famous flesh pots of Syria: where they could relax and spend their accumulated pay and plunder. So from merely being a desirable military option: a direct assault on Jerusalem was actually a necessity for Titus because of the fact that his legions were now tired and homesick.

What we have of the 'Histories' does not mention the actual assault on Jerusalem by Titus, but from Tacitus' repeated mentions of the apocalyptic religious frenzy inside the walls as well as their strength: he would have no doubt related that it would have been a very bloody and violent affair. With crazed jewesses clawing at Roman legionaries and jewish children trying to swing swords at battle-hardened soldiers: leading of course to the scale of destruction of the populace that is recounted by Josephus and other historians.

We can see from this brutal and violent picture that Tacitus is condemning the jews on several accounts, but principally for their religious superstitions; that he uses reported signs and portents to subtly attack as impious and atheistic, which drive them ever forward into more absurd acts of religious barbarism, but cannot turn barbaric zealots from a provincial backwater into organised and efficient soldiers. Thus the jews are defeated not only because of their impiety and religion, but because of their lack of reason and their general irrationality, which lead them both to revolt in the first place and also to attempt to create a world empire with no significant military resources to speak of.

Thus to Tacitus the jews are the paragon of what people should not be: irrational, superstitious, close-minded, avaricious and above all sadistic. They are; to Tacitus, not only barbarians but the apogee of barbarism in the ancient world.

In short: to Tacitus the jews were the lowest of the low.


(35) Tac. Hist. 5:10-13


This was originally published at the following address: http://semiticcontroversies.blogspot...s-part-iv.html
Old July 2nd, 2012 #6
Karl Radl
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Default Re: Tacitus on the Jews

Bump as didn't go through properly first time.


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