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

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.

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

Read more at Public Medievalist

More about: ancient Judaism, Ancient Rome, Anti-Semitism, History & Ideas

Only a Clear Message to Iran Can Restore Israel’s Deterrence

Aug. 19 2019

Currently the greatest threat facing the Jewish state is an attack on three fronts, in which Hizballah and other Iranian forces launch tens of thousands of missiles simultaneously from both Lebanon and Syria, while Hamas—now also taking orders from Tehran—does the same from Gaza. Such a barrage would likely overwhelm Israel’s storied missile-defense systems, severely disrupt civilian life and possible result in high casualties, and gravely interfere with the IDF’s ability to counterattack. Noting that the Islamic Republic could unleash this mayhem at the time of its choosing, Benny Morris suggests a straightforward preventative measure. (Free registration required.)

Sign up to read more

You've read all your free articles for this month

Register

Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Haaretz

More about: Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, Israeli Security, Syria