This essay will explore how far the Roman writers Horace, Ovid, Seneca, Petronius, and Juvenal thought the Jewish people were disturbing Roman society through proselytizing. These writers were an elite group in Rome. They were both patronised by the aristocracy but most were also high-born themselves. Through exploring the backgrounds of these writers and the times in which they wrote I will assess why they may have thought as they did and the quality of their testimony.
Horace and Ovid lived in the triumviral and Augustan eras from 43 BCE. During this period poets assumed a different role to the one that had been traditional in Rome that of conferring lasting fame, to a role of ‘serving citizens of the state in a moral and educative fashion’. This period also saw the rise of Herod the Great in Palestine, who managed to obtain the favour of both Caesar and Augustus. During this time Herod was made king and was able to amass enough money to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and numerous other extravagant public buildings. This favoured status also saw the peoples of the Jewish Diaspora, Judea and Palestine receiving preferential treatment for their religion. They were able to observe the Sabbath, which disqualified them from having to be conscripted into military service, they had the right to assemble and the privilege of sending money to Jerusalem.
Horace refers to the number of Jews in the Roman world and their tendency to ‘compel’ others to be one of ‘their throng’. Being a Roman poet writing a satirical account of contemporaneous Roman ‘frailties’, he implores his audience to make allowances for these on the threat of them being thronged by ‘a big band of poets’ who will compel the audience to Horace’s view, just as he states the Jews, being a throng, compel others to join them. The number of Jews in this Roman world is questionable. Although the modern Jewish historian Feldman uses the ancient historian Josephus to assume a huge increase in the number of Jews in the Roman Empire between 586BCE to 66CE, these numbers are disputed because their source is unreliable and subject to distortion.
Nevertheless, far more Jews lived outside of Palestine than in it. The Jewish Diaspora was dispersed around the coastal Mediterranean but their religion did not fit in with the general religious syncretism that happened with all the other religions because they were monotheistic and had quite different customs. One of the main differentiations was the Jewish practice of non-work on the seventh day- the Sabbath. Ovid advises young men in his poem The Art of Love to search for love even on the ‘seventh day that the Syrian Jew holds sacred’. This opinion was also held by the philosopher Seneca in On Superstition. For Seneca, the Sabbath was a superstition and encouraged indolence: ‘…by introducing one day of rest in every seven they lose in idleness almost a seventh of their life’. Did Seneca think that this was a motivating factor in people becoming Jews? He goes on to state: “…the customs of this accursed race have gained such influence that they are now received throughout all the world”.
While the Jewish Diaspora assimilated well into the different Mediterranean cultures where they settled, they would be subjected to persecutions when there was tension from particular issues. The Jewish philosopher Philo the Alexandrian wrote of people being ‘afraid to engage in destroying any of our institutions…’ and that it was only under the Praetorian Prefect Sejanus that trouble came. Josephus the Jewish historian relates that the reason Jews were expelled from Rome during the time of Tiberius was because of the unscrupulous behaviour of a Jewish man and his three accomplices. He tells that they had proselytized a high born Roman woman and misappropriated funds from her, which resulted in the Jewish community being expelled from Rome by Tiberius. It could be imagined that the Jewish Diaspora had an interest in trying to convert members of the Roman aristocracy for the purposes of influence and also monetary contributions to the building of Jerusalem by Herod the Great, and that this may have led to Roman hostility.
This hostility continued to be seen in the writings of Petronius and Juvenal. The writer Petronius was a courtier of Nero and liked to pillory the aristocracy. Petronius lambasts the Jews as having a ‘pig-god’ and speaks of their ability to emigrate without being afraid ‘at the fasts imposed by the Sabbath’. This allusion to the benefits of Judaism, such as the ability to be absolved from military service, is interesting in connection with the Roman view of Jewish proselytizing. The writer Juvenal complains about the children of Jewish sympathisers becoming Jewish proselytes. ‘They wont to flout the laws of Rome, they learn and practice and revere the Jewish law…conducting none but the circumcised to the desired fountain.’ Juvenal also alludes to the Sabbath as being given up to ‘idleness’. So it could be said that these writers were trying to appeal to a patriotic sense of Roman authority.
Horace’s and Seneca’s writing support the historian Joesphus’s account that there was a large and influential population in the Jewish diaspora. The practice of the Sabbath was another contentious issue to which these writers allude. Seneca and Petronius both complain of the Sabbath as being special treatment for Jewish people and infer that this favouritism encourages people to convert to their ways. Although none of these writers directly state that there was proselytizing done by Jewish people, the inference is that there were many Jewish people in Rome and that, through the benefits conferred upon them, they encouraged people to join their ‘throng’.
- Braund S. M., Juvenal, Cambridge University Press, 1996 – Literary Collections, Retrieved from: http://books.google.com.au/books/about/Satires.html?id=DcoqRQ47bBIC&redir_esc=y on 8.12.2011
- Boardman J., Griffin J., Murray O., The Oxford History of the Classical World, 1991, Oxford University Press
- Goodman, Martin. “Jewish proselytizing in the first century” in The Jews Among Pagans and Christians: In the Roman Empire , Lieu, Judith; North, John; Rajak, Tessa , 1992 , 53-78
- Harding, Mark. “Early Judaism and Christianity (extract)” in Early Christian Life and Thought in Social Context: A Reader , Harding, Mark , 2003 , 279-282
- Horace, 65-8 BC, Conversations 1.4.143 = Stern, no. 127.
- Juvenal, AD 55 (?) – 127 (?), Satires 14.96-106 = Stern 301.
- Kemp J., “A Moral Purpose, A Literary Game: Horace, Satires 1.4”, in Classical World – Volume 104, Number 1, Fall, 2010, pp. 59-76
- Knobbs A., “Pagans Jews, and Christians: Athens and Jerusalem” in Lecture 1, HST250, 2011 Macquarie University
- Kraabel A. T., “The Roman Diaspora: six questionable assumptions”, in The Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol.33 1982, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, pp.445-465
- McGing, Brian. “Population and proselytism: How many Jews were there in the ancient world?” in Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities , Barlett, John R. , 2002 , 88-106
- Ovid, 43 BC – AD 17/18, The Art of Love 1.75-80 = Stern, no. 141.
- Petronius, mid-first c. AD (?), fragment no. 37 = Stern, no. 195.
- Petronius Arbiter, The Satyricon, trans. by W. C. Firebaugh, 2007, Retrieved from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/petronius/satyricon/complete.html on 7.12.2011
- Seneca, ob. AD 64, Moral Letters 108.22 = Stern, no. 189.
- Seneca, ob. AD 64, On Superstition, cited by Augustine, early Vc, On the City
- of God 6.11 = Stern, no. 186.
 Braund, 1996, p.15
 Boardman J., Griffin J., Murray O., The Oxford History of the Classical World, p. 594
 Harding, 2003, p.77
 Knobbs, 2011, Macquarie University
 Horace, Conversations, 1.4.143
 McGing, 2002
 Knobbs, 2011
 Ovid, 1.75-80
 Seneca, 6.11
 Seneca, 6.11
 Knobbs, 2011
 Harding, 2003, p. 279
 Harding, 2003, p. 281
 The Satyrican by Petronius Arbiter, trans. 2007
 Petronius, mid-first c. AD (?), fragment no. 37 = Stern, no. 195
 Harding, 2003
 Juvenal Satires 14.96-106