Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Famous Roman Lawyer and Politician Cicero and the Jews

See the Wikipedia write-up of Cicero here. See previous posts about the Jews from other famous individuals here, here and here. See the problems of Judaism here. Learn more about the Talmud hereSee here for an excellent short video of an honest Israeli talking about the problems with the Talmud, Judaism, and Israel.

Cicero on the Jews

Marcus Tullius Cicero is one of the best known and most admired of all figures in Roman history and long has been the idol of major intellectual figures in world history such as John Calvin. (1) He also has the honour to have written one of the most quoted paragraphs in the history of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, which appears in his defence speech of the former governor of Asia; Lucius Valerius Flaccus, who stood accused of corruption charges and one of the specific charges was that Flaccus had prevented the jews of his province sending the tribute due to the temple of Jerusalem and diverted that money instead into his own treasury.

The intellectual tendency in dealing with this charge has historically been to claim that Cicero was merely using invective and rhetoric to get his client cleared off the charges. This is; of course, possible and indeed we can see the idea that Cicero's use of rhetorical and oratorical gesture; as pointed out by Marshall, (2) supports this to an extent. However, to make such an argument is to assume that the use of rhetorical and oratorical gesture as well as the art of rhetoric itself makes a charge false, incorrect or exaggerated.

This is obviously problematic as it assumes that the art of rhetoric and gesture is the art of lying, which is not so but rather it is simply the art of best representing your case to your audience. As such then Cicero is merely guilty of doing his best for his client and that we cannot blithely assume that he is making up the charges he levels at the jews.

What has not been generally remarked on; outside of academic treatises on the relations between jews and Romans, is that Cicero did not mention jews only once: he also mentions them in a speech he made to the trial of a noted friend of the jews; Aulus Gabinus, who had profited greatly from an arrangement with the newly conquered jews of Judea during his term in office. (3)

Cicero calls the jews a 'nation born to slavery' and states that Gabinus' actions; usurping the established process of giving the job of taxing the provinces to up and coming Roman politicians and military men [as governance experience] and instead awarding it to the jews, were tantamount to treason to the Roman state.

To quote Cicero:

'And as for the miserable tax collectors, (miserable man that I also am, when I see the miseries and suffering of those men who have deserved so well at my hands), he [Gabinus] handed them over as slaves to the Jews and Syrian nations: themselves born for slavery. He laid down as a rule from the very beginning, and he persevered in it, never to decide an action in favour a tax collector. He rescinded contracts that been made justly and he took away all the garrisons established for the their protection. He released many people required to pay tributes and taxes from such payments at whatever town he was living in or whatever town he arrived at and he forbade any tax collectors or they representatives to remain. Why need I enlarge on this? He would be considered a cruel man if he had shown such a disposition to our enemies, as he has shown towards Roman citizens. Especially towards those of the class which has hitherto always been maintained by its own dignity and the goodwill of the magistrates.' (4)

We can thus see from the above that Cicero is showing a not inconsiderable hostility to the jews; as a people, in passing and we may point out that by extension that Cicero's claims that Gabinus was a 'glutton and robber' (5) is based on the idea; later enunciated in his 'Pro Flacco', that the jews corrupt Roman officials with their gold. (6) In 'Pro Flacco' Cicero even refers back to his charges against Gabinus when he states that because the jews (i.e. Gabinus and his jewish supporters) had been defeated the gods had been pleased as well as placated and that the tax collectors were once again allowed to go about their unpopular but necessary work.

Cicero's reference in 'Pro Flacco' to the happiness of the gods at the defeat of the jews is reinforced by his point that his friend; Pompey the Great, had not touched the jewish temple or been infected by the ideas of Judaism as they were at odds with everything that the Roman Empire stood for and believed in. As Goodman observes this was quite correct: (7) as Judaism was the most extreme of all current barbarous faiths to the Romans with the only historical comparison being the vicious religion of Carthage. So dangerous were jews and Judaism considered that they were outlawed from becoming citizens during Cicero's time and for a while afterwards: (8) a view that Tacitus suggests was due to their wholly alien nature and religious intransigence. (9)

In essence Cicero was saying; in relation to Pompey, that any possible positive association with the jews was a significantly negative thing as the jews were classed as the lowest of the low by the Romans (ergo his comment about the jews being a 'nation of slaves').

This is both due to the fact that large numbers of jews had recently been sold in Rome as slaves and also because it was Cicero's own view. We know this because Cicero refers to the jews as active agents attacking senatorial and republican interests in Rome rather than just pawns of larger and more powerful interests. This is interestingly supported by Suetonius' assertion that the jews were very supportive of Julius Caesar (10) who Cicero was ideologically opposed to and regarded as a tyrant.

That Cicero saw the jews as a powerful interest group is suggested in 'Pro Flacco' when he asserts that the area chosen for the trial of Flaccus by the prosecution was chosen specifically so as to allow large demonstration by mobs of jews. (11) The problem with suggesting that this is a rhetorical trick is that in order for Cicero to have made the assertion: it had to be credible as otherwise its use was pointless. If the assertion was credible then there would have to be significant numbers of jews in Rome who were able (i.e. not slaves) to actively oppose a trial of this kind.

Further to this Cicero makes clear that he is making two points not one here: in so far as he states that the jews export gold out of Italy (and other provinces) to Jerusalem every year to pay their tithe to the temple in Jerusalem (i.e. enriching themselves at the cost of Rome). In doing so Cicero is telling us that jews had enough money to be able to do this (i.e. they were not slaves or among the poor) and there was a community of jews who were free and active proponents of their religion.

This is confirmed by a comment that Plutarch states Cicero made during his prosecution of Varres (lit. 'boar' or 'pig'); the former Roman governor of Sicily, who was defended by a Roman aristocratic god-fearer; i.e. a gentile who had sworn allegiance to the jews in all things and abandoned the gods of his ancestors, named Cecilius. Plutarch tells us that Cicero opened his argument by making fun of his opponent by stating: 'What has a Jew to do with a pig?' (12)

Cicero is here showing that he is aware that of the phenomenon of the god-fearers in Rome; as well as that they had some notable neophytes from among the highest echelons of Roman society, (13) as he calls Cecilius what he in effect is: a jew. If we understand that to Cicero: god-fearers were also to be counted jews then we can read Cicero's assertion of the 'mobs of jews' slightly differently. In that while large numbers of jews could possibly have been in Rome at the time; which this is traditionally used as evidence of, it is more likely that the jews Cicero is referring to is far less to do with actual jews and more to do with the numerous god-fearers. (14)

If we make the reasonable assumption that Cicero's assertion about the location of Flaccus' trial in relation to mobs of jews has some basis in fact; as otherwise why assert it in the first place, then we can suggest that nearby there would have been a significant amount of god-fearers and in all probability a smaller amount of jews. This means in effect that what Cicero was talking about was the local jews whipping up their sworn followers into mobs and going; as many would have likely been Roman citizens, to the locale of trial to influence the verdict against Flaccus.

This then makes sense of Cicero's assertion (as it tells us why he mentioned it and also why it was plausible to the listeners) as well as his known strongly pejorative comments against the jews in so far as Cicero even went as far in 'Pro Flacco' as to call the jews:'our enemies'. Or put more simply: the eternal enemies of the Roman people.

We may further note that Cicero's teacher was the anti-jewish Greek thinker Apollonius Molon: who wrote a whole treatise; which has sadly been lost, attacking the jews and had had a lot of experience with them on his home island of Rhodes. If we understand that Molon almost certainly taught the young Cicero about the jews and then Cicero; in the course of his public life and pro-republican advocacy, came into contact with jews doing precisely the same things his old teacher had described then his reaction would have been both as strong and as brutal as it seems to have been.

In essence Cicero took no prisoners when it came to jews and took every reasonable opportunity to attack the jews when chance presented itself and his anti-jewish comments in 'Pro Flacco' should not read as a purely rhetorical exercise, but rather as an expression of fundamental beliefs that Cicero held about jews.

Or put simply: Cicero didn't like the jews or Judaism one bit.


(1) Bruce Gordon, 2009, 'Calvin', 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven, pp. 25-26
(2) Anthony Marshall, 1975, 'Flaccus and the Jews of Asia', Phoenix, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 139-142
(3) Martin Goodman, 2008, 'Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations', 1st Edition, Penguin: New York, p. 389
(4) Cic. Prov. 5:10
(5) Ibid. 5:11
(6) Cic. Flac. 63
(7) Goodman, Op. Cit., p. 390
(8) Martin Goodman, Jane Sherwood, 2003, 'The Roman World 44 BC – 180 AD', 2nd Edition, Routledge: New York, pp. 103; 120
(9) Tac. Hist. 5:5
(10) Suet. Aug. 84
(11) Marshall, Op. Cit., p. 139
(12) Plut. Cic. 7
(13) Harry Leon, 1961, 'The Jews of Ancient Rome', 1st Edition, Jewish Publication Society of America: Philadelphia, p. 17
(14) Ibid, p. 1

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