The Ancient Roman Writers Who Laid the Foundations of Anti-Semitism

May 30, 2017 | Dr. Dark Age

While many, if not most, histories of anti-Semitism begin with early Christian attacks on Judaism, the pseudonymous Dr. Dark Age argues that key tropes of modern anti-Jewish prejudice can be found in the works of such Roman intellectuals as Cicero and Tacitus:

[In his Pro Flacco], Cicero uses an important phrase to describe the Jewish religion: barbara superstitio. This phrase does not translate into “barbarian superstition” as easily as you might think. To understand the insult, you have to grasp its opposite: the ancient Roman concept of pietas. Pietas is a more complex concept than our modern religious idea of “piety”; it required duty and loyalty to the gods, to family, and perhaps most of all, to Rome itself.

Rome’s commitment to its deities . . . was inextricable from Roman patriotic duty. Thus, superstitio was considered not just sacrilegious, but specifically anti-Roman; it made a person an enemy of the state. Meanwhile, barbarus, taken from the Greek barbaros, meant “foreign,” though it could carry connotations of the primitive. Thus the phrase barbara superstitio, when attached to the Jewish religion, renders both the faith and its followers unpatriotic, sacrilegious, backward, and alien.

Cicero’s anti-Jewish views . . . were unusual for Romans at first. . . . A century later, when Rome besieged Judea, the seeds Cicero planted flourished into a full, and poisonous, propaganda campaign. . . .

Tacitus [writing at the time of the Jewish Revolt in 70 CE], doesn’t just demonize the Jews for rejecting Roman religion; . . . his screed against the Jewish people resounds with some painfully familiar anti-Semitic stereotypes: Jews are wealthy; . . . Jews are cliquish and perverse; . .  . Jews are out-breeding “real” Romans; . . . Jews practice sacrilegious rituals. . . . The mythology he creates around the Jewish people paints them as perpetual corrupters, luring people away from their religions, their families, and their patriotic duties on purpose, as though Jews had a singular devotion to destroying all civilizations but their own.

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