Anti-Judaism in the Roman World

Colorized version of a panel from the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting the conquest of the Jews in 70 A.D. (For more on the colorization, see

Perhaps the touchiest subject for me to handle in writing my new historical novels, A Rooster for Asklepios and A Bull for Pluto, was the presence of anti-Judaism in the Roman world, a topic that plays a vital role in both books. I was concerned that some readers might give up on the books after encountering several examples of anti-Jewish sentiment in the early chapters of the first book. A Jewish colleague of mine was actually tempted in that direction, but he kept going to the end and was glad that he did, since the story eventually takes a pro-Jewish turn after painting an unflinching portrait of anti-Judaism in the Roman world.

What we call anti-Semitism is not a modern phenomenon. Negative opinions of Jews were common among both the intelligentsia and the general populace in Greek and Roman cities. Some of it had to do with the peculiarity of their beliefs–for example, they were accused of being atheists because they refused to worship the same gods as their neighbors. Many of them also refrained from attending public events that involved prayers and sacrifices to the local deities, eliciting charges that they were clannish, anti-social, and even subversive, since veneration of the civic gods was seen as vital for ensuring divine favor toward the city. Some of their religious practices also drew criticism–Greeks and Romans regarded circumcision as barbaric and found the Jews’ avoidance of pork and shellfish inexplicable. On top of all this, Jews were accused of being lazy and self-indulgent because they took every seventh day off from work while also seeking to be exempted from attending court proceedings and other public activities on their Sabbath.

On the other hand, there were many Greeks and Romans who held positive views of Judaism, especially among the educated elites. They admired the Jews’ strict monotheism, which agreed with the teachings of philosophers like Plato who posited the existence of a single creator god behind the varied Greek and Roman images of divinity. They were impressed by the strict and moral lifestyles of the Jews, whose legal code enabled them to control the bodily desires that were so distracting to philosophically minded Greeks and Romans. Many also appreciated the Jews’ devotion to their families and the members of their community, a loyalty that enabled them to thrive even in the face of opposition. Some of their admirers were so impressed that they actually “converted” to Judaism, which meant accepting circumcision (for males), learning and obeying the Jewish laws, and uniting with the local Jewish community. Others who were attracted to Judaism but preferred to avoid the social stigma that came with full conversion adopted certain Jewish practices (usually attending synagogue worship, observing the Sabbath, and refraining from non-kosher foods) while maintaining their former social affiliations. Such people were sometimes called “God-fearers” to indicate their respect for the god of the Jews.

All of these attitudes toward Judaism can be found in my novels, along with the voices of Jews who patiently explain their beliefs and practices to curious outsiders, with mixed results. To find out what effect these interactions have on my characters, you’ll have to read the books!

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