The Jews of ancient Rome were probably a pretty tough group of people. More essential than belief in God, Cicero was onto something when he wrote about them, that Jews stick together. His comment in Pro Flaccus is arguably anti-Jewish. But what Cicero observes is politically realistic and to the point and represents nothing reprehensible. I’ll leave it to scholars who know this material better, But what he says in a few brief lines suggests maybe something important about the position of the Jews in ancient Rome that reflects on the politics of Jewish culture and the culture of Jewish politics writ large. The crowd, group loyalty, the ability to push forward a collective political interest are a virtue basic to that something one could call Civic Judaism.
“There follows the odium that is attached to Jewish gold. This is no doubt the reason why this case is being tried not far from the Aurelian Steps. You procured this place and that crowd, Laelius, for this trial. You know what a big crowd it is, how they stick together, how influential they are in informal assemblies. So I will speak in a low voice so that only the jurors may hear; for those are not wanting who would incite them against me and against every respectable man. I shall not help them to do this more easily” (Pro Flacco, 28:66).
The speech was deloived in 59 BCE at the Aurelian Forum in Rome. The context of Pro Flacco is the public push and shove of a legal case concerning either a matter of governmental misdoing or a possible conflict between vital communal and imperial interests. Flaccus was proconsul in Asia Minor, accused of either stealing or diverting gold donated by Jews for the Temple in Jeusalem. Cicero was Flacco’s lawyer. As per Menahem Stern, “From the comparison drawn by Laelius between the behaviour of Pompey and that of Flaccus we learn that the Jews’ main complaint against Flaccus was that he confiscated this money. They could plead that even on the basis of Flaccus’ edict there was no justification for accusing them before a tribunal and for confiscating the funds, since they had not been found smuggling the money out of the provinc but merely storing it in some of the chief cities until they could obtain permission from the propraetor to export the gold. Cicero defended Flaccus by claiming that the latter’s action was a res iudicata — and not, therefore, an arbitrary act — and that therefore he did not commit a furtum. Juster thinks that the Jews accused Flaccus of depriving them of the privilege of exporting money, a privilege recognized by former Roman authorities (Menahem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, volume I From Herodotus to Plutarch, 200n.69).
I’m citing below as an appendix to this post the entire text of Pro Flacco. For now I want to make the more narrow point about the abiding value and virtue of group fidelity rooted in antique Judaism.
More xenophobic, Tacitus said somethng similar about intra-Jewish group loyalty, here framing his point around the idea of Jewish misanthropy. Mostly, he was less angry at the Jews, whose relgon he looked down upon. Mostly, he is very angry here about Roman citizens who convert to Judaism and, in doing so, abandon their ancestral gods and family ties. It is in this context that Tacitus comments upon this civic virtue of the Jews, that “[T]he Jews are extremely loyal toward one another, and always ready to show compassion” (Histories, 5:5). For his part and actually unapologetic, Josephus in Against Apion displayed the same Jewish civic virtue. It is shown in the pride he took in the Law, which he thought was extremely well designed with a view to piety, group fellowship and universal benevolence, as well as with a view to justice, endurance, and contempt for death. He took special pride that Jewish Law was emulated by others. This group solidarity was for Josephus and arguably for Judaism as basic as belief in the one God about whom one is forbidden to make an image (a principle much admired by Varro).
This antique intra-group Jewish solidarity speaks to what was arguably the wedge in the fighting words by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew has Jesus send the disciples out to the “wolves” in the larger world of Roman Judea with these harsh fighting words, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me Matthew 10:34-8)
But Judaism and arguably remains a “householder” religion. Those are its values and virtues.Even as they want to tone down the animus between Judaism and Christianity by setting the historical Jesus in his Judean-Jewish milieu, both Jacob Neusner and Amy-Jill Levine note what they suppose to have been the utterly strange violation of Jewish social norms, the very fellow-feeling that I am noting here as observed by Cicero, Tacitus, and Josephus.
What Neusner points to as being essential is the larger network of social relations. “Now we see what is truly at stake: honor of parents forms a thisworldly analogy to honor of God. So the issue is not discipleship alone, but the comparison between and among relationships: relationship of disciple to master, relationship of child to parent, relationship of human being to God.” (Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, pp.67-8). Neusner imagines himself there asking of Jesus, “Then master, what of Israel in its families and villages? Do you have a torah to teach us who love our fathers and our mothers, our sons and our daughters? And we, the householders in our homes, we who form in the here and the now that eternal Israel that stands forever before Sinai’s Torah – what of us?” (p.69). Neusner concludes, “if what should concern me is his kingdom and his righteousness, where I live, with whom I live – these really bear no consequence. Once more, we find a message in the silence, as much as in the speech, we hear from the top of the mountain. This “Israel” is then something other than, different from, that Israel of home and family that I know” (p.71).
Cicero, Pro Flacco:
(28:66) There follows the odium that is attached to Jewish gold. This is no doubt the reason why this case is being tried not far from the Aurelian Steps. You procured this place and that crowd, Laelius, for this trial. You know what a big crowd it is, how they stick together, how influential they are in informal assemblies. So I will speak in a low voice so that only the jurors may hear; for those are not wanting who would incite them against me and against every respectable man. I shall not help them to do this more easily. (67) When every year it was customary to send gold to Jerusalem on the order of the Jews from Italy and from all our provinces, Flaccus forbade by an edict its exportation from Asia. Who is there, gentlemen, who could not honestly praise this action? The senate often earlier and also in my consulship most urgently forbade the export of gold. But to resist this barbaric superstition was an act of firmness, to defy the crowd of Jews when sometimes in our assemblies they were hot with passion, for the welfare of the state was an act of the greatest seriousness. “But Gnaeus Pompey when Jerusalem was captured laid his victorious hands on nothing in that shrine.” In that he was especially wise— as in many other matters. In a state so given to suspicion and calumny he left his critics no opportunity for gossip. But I do not think that illustrious general was hindered by the religious feelings of the Jews and his enemies, but by his sense of honour. Where, then, is the ground for an accusation against Flaccus, since, indeed, you never make any charge of theft, you approve his edict, you confess that there was judgement, you do not deny that the business was openly proposed and published, and that the facts show that it was administered by excellent men? At Apamea a little less than a hundred pounds of gold was openly seized and weighed before the seat of the praetor in the forum through the agency of Sextius Caesius, a Roman knight, an upright and honourable man; at Laodicea a little more than twenty pounds by Lucius Peducaeus, our juror. At Adramyttium hundred pounds by Gnaeus Domitius, the commissioner, at Pergamum a small amount. The accounting for the gold is correct. The gold is in the treasury, no embezzlement is charged, it is just an attempt to fix odium on him. The plea is not addressed to the jury; the voice of the advocate is directed to the attendant crowd and the mob. Each state, Laelius, has its own religious scruples, we have ours. Even while Jerusalem was standing and the Jews were at peace with us, the practice of their sacred rites was at variance with the glory of our empire, the dignity of our name, the customs of our ancestors. But now it is even more so, when that nation by its armed resistance has shown what it thinks of our rule; how dear it was to the immortal gods is shown by the fact that it has been conquered, let out for taxes, made a slave. (trans. L. E. Lord, LCL)