In the following excerpt from the great historical novel, Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, we see the so-called anti-Semitism of the Romans. Super-Jews usually interpret this sentiment as an example of the age-old mindless genocidal hatred of the Jews. As we can see though, the pragmatic Romans had their reasons for their anti-Semitism, and they were not really mindless reasons at all. The Jewish New Year celebrations were banned because they were causing violent riots every year. For similar reasons, probably because it also led to violent riots, the authorities also forbade the public reading of the Story of Esther, the basis for Purim holiday, but which the Romans regarded as a perverse celebration of horrendous mutual massacre on the part of both the Jews and the Persians. Jewish paranoia is already evident, as a harmless logo of a Roman legion, a boar, is interpreted as a deliberate insult to the Jewish religion’s prohibition on eating pork. In a spirit of universalism, the Roman governor forbade circumcision. The reasons are not quite elaborated, but apparently he wanted to assimilate the Jews into the rest of the Empire. We see already the Jews’ refusal to assimilate. This refusal has been the cause of a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism over the centuries, but anger over refusal to assimilate is hardly mindless. Furthermore, it appears that the Romans regarded circumcision as a barbarism along the lines of castration, which they had just previously forbidden. In this the Romans mirror movements, some of them even regarded strangely as progressive, to outlaw or at least discourage circumcision, especially in the West. These movements have actually managed to attract a lot of support from physicians. Keep in mind that the Romans considered themselves the ultimate in civilized folks, and regarded many of their subjects as barbarians of one type or another. Along the same lines, the Romans required little of their subjects beyond taxes, but they did request that the subjects, whatever their religion, also accept the Roman Gods. Almost all subject peoples just went along with this as one of the prices for being a vassal state. The Roman elite, it should be noted, were very secular (and nearly pre-scientific) folks, and many of them hardly even believed in the Roman Gods themselves, regarding it instead as some sort of opiate of the people thing to keep the peons satisfied. The Romans also accuse the Jews of hatred and contempt for non-Jews. This is an age-old charge, and obviously there must be something to it or it would not be repeated endlessly. Hadrian wished to turn Jerusalem into more of an international city, mirroring the progressive efforts of today to make it an international city under the auspices of the UN as part of a peace settlement of the Middle East conflict. The Jews, mirroring the Zionists of today, seemed to want to keep Jerusalem as a Jews-only city. The Romans introduced classes in Greek literature to Jerusalem (the ultimate in civilized standards of the day). The Jews reacted with violence to this, or any other tainting of their Jewish city and lives with “foreign influence.” One famous Jew even allowed his child to die rather than to be treated by a famous Greek doctor sent to try to save his life. The Romans tried over and over, exasperated, to mollify these fanatics, but were thwarted at every turn. Eventually the famous Jewish Bar Kokba Rebellion erupted around 150 AD, the result of which was the razing of Jerusalem to the ground. So we see here that Roman anti-Semitism was not based on irrational hatred or evil, but with the frustration of the uber-civilized Romans with a religious-ethnic group whom they regarded as steeped in barbarous fanaticism. Looking at it from a more pro-Jewish POV, we can see the Jews as the ultimate rebels who would never submit to any other outside authority, especially in matters of religion.
The Tenth Legion Fretensis has a wild boar for its emblem; when its standard was placed at the city gates, as is the custom, the populace, unused to painted or sculptured images (deprived as they have been for centuries by superstition highly unfavorable to the progress of the arts), mistook that symbol for a swine, the meat of which is forbidden them, and read into that insignificant affair an affront to the customs of Israel. The festivals of the Jewish New Year, celebrated with a din of trumpets and ram’s horns, give rise every year to brawling and bloodshed; our authorities accordingly forbade the public reading of a certain legendary account devoted to the exploits of a Jewish heroine (Easther) who was said to have become, under an assumed name, the concubine of a king of Persia (Iran), and to have instigated a savage massacre of the enemies of her despised and persecuted race. The rabbis managed to read at night what the governor Tineus Rufus forbade them to read by day; that barbarous story, wherein Persians and Jews rivaled each other in atrocities, roused the nationalistic fervor of the Zealots to frenzy (a feast of Purim). Finally, this same Tineus Rufus, a man of good judgment in other respects and not uninterested in Israel’s traditions and fables, decided to extend to the Jewish practice of circumcision the same severe penalties of the law which I had recently promulgated against castration (and which was aimed especially at cruelties perpetrated upon young slaves for the sake of exorbitant gain or debauch). He hoped thus to obliterate one of the marks whereby Israel claims to distinguish itself from the rest of human kind. I took the less notice of the danger of that measure, when I received word of it, in that many wealthy and enlightened Jews whom one meets in Alexandria (Egypt) and in Rome have ceased to submit their children to a practice which makes them ridiculous in the public baths and gymnasiums; and they even arrange to conceal the evidence on themselves. I was unaware of the extent to which these banker collectors of myrrhine vases differed from the true Israel. As I said, nothing in all that was beyond repair, but the hatred, the mutual contempt, and the rancor were so. In principle, Judaism has its place among the religions of the empire; in practice, Israel has refused for centuries to be one people among many others, with one god among the gods. The most primitive Dacians (Bulgarians) know that their Zalmoxis is called Jupiter in Rome; the Phoenician Baal of Mount Casius has been readily identified with the Father who holds Victory in his hands, and whom Wisdom is born; the Egyptians, though so proud of their myths some thousands of years old, are willing to see in Osiris a Bacchus with funeral attributes; harsh Mithra admits himself brother of Apollo. No people but Israel has the arrogance to confine truth wholly within the narrow limits of a single conception of divine, thereby insulting the manifold nature of Deity, who contains all; no other god has inspired his worshipers with disdain and hatred for those who pray at different altars. I was only the more anxious to make Jerusalem a city like others, where several races and several beliefs could live in peace; but I was wrong to forget that in any combat between fanaticism and common sense the latter has rarely the upper hand. The clergy of the ancient city were scandalized by the opening of schools where Greek literature was taught; the rabbi Joshua, a pleasant, learned man with whom I had frequently conversed in Athens, but who was trying to excuse himself to his people for his foreign culture and his relations with us, now ordered his disciples not to take up such profane studies unless they could find an hour which was neither day or night, since Jewish law must be studied night and day. Ismael, an important member of the Sanhedrin, who supposedly adhered to the side of Rome, let his nephew Ben-Dama die rather than accept the services the Greek surgeon sent to him by Tineus Rufus.
- Yourcenar, Marguerite. 1954-1963. Memoirs of Hadrian. Translated from the French by Grace Frick. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux