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Jewish right to assemble for religious reasons

Josephus FlaviusAs far as the Jews of Rome were concerned, their right to have congregations was recognized by Caesar in 46 (Ant. XIV, 215), while all associations and religious collegia were prohibited (Suet., Iul. 42, 3). This privilege, conferred on the Jewish community of Rome, served as a precedent for the protection of the Jewish right to assemble for religious reasons in oriental Roman provinces, as well as in the Greek cities allied to Rome. Four documents issued by Roman magistrates and dated to the Caesar period confirm this right attributed to the Jews, while Flavius Josephus provides us also with a number of documents representing the legislation of Greek cities regarding the Jewish question.

Letter of Julius Gaius to Paros (Ant. XIV, 213-216)

Dated around 44, this letter was issued on the occasion of a protestation expressed by the Jews of Delos (e.g. Greece) against a decree of the people of Paros, preventing them from living according to their “ancestral laws” (Ant. XIV, 213). The praetor Julius Gaius declares his disapproval and confirms explicitly the right offered to the Jews of Rome by Julius Caesar to assemble, collect money for religious reasons and organizing Agapes (§§ 213-216):


Ant. XIV, 213-216

Julius Gaius, Praetor, Consul of Rome, to the magistrates, council and people of Parium, greeting. The Jews in Delos and some of the neighbouring Jews, some of your envoys also being present, have appealed to me and declared that you are preventing them by stature from observing their national customs and sacred rites. Now it displeases me that such statutes should be made against our friends and allies and that they should be forbidden to live in accordance with their customs and to contribute money to common meals and sacred rites, for this they are not forbidden to do even in Rome. For example, Gaius Caesar, our consular praetor, by edict forbade religious societies to assemble in the city, but these people alone he did not forbid to do so or to collect contributions of money or to hold common meals. Similarly, do I forbid other religious societies but permit these people alone to assemble and feast in accordance with their native customs and ordinances. And if you made any statutes against our friends and allies, you will do well to revoke them because of their worthy deeds on our behalf and their good will towards us.

Letter of Dolabella to Ephesus (Ant. XIV, 225-227)


In this letter, dated probably to 43, P. Dolabella, then governor of Asia, confirms the right of the Jews of Ephesus (e.g. Turkey) to assemble for religious reasons. It seems that it was sent after a petition from Alexander, son of Theodorus, ambassador of Hyrcanus (Ant. XIV, 226) and with this opportunity Dolabella also confirms the exemption of Jews from military service because of the Shabbat and their dietary laws (ibid. 226-227):

The Sabbath/ Kosher

Ant XIV, 226-227

In the presidency of Artermon, on the first day of the month Lenaeon, Dolabella, Imperator, to the magistrates, council and people of the Ephesians, greeting. Alexander, son of Theodorus, the envoy of Hyrcanus, son of Alexander, the high priest and ethnarch of the Jews, has explained to me that his co-religionists cannot undertake military service because they may not bear arms or March on the days of the Sabbath; nor can they obtain the native foods to which they are accustomed. I, therefore, like the governors before me, grant them exemption from military service and allow them to follow their native customs and to come together for sacred and holy rites in accordance with their law, and to make offerings for their sacrifices; and it is my wish that you write these instructions to the various cities.

Two more documents, which cannot be precisely dated, but they belong undoubtedly to this period, preserve two letters: one from Lucius Antonius, proquaestor and propraetor of Asia –most probably form 49 to 47 (Magie, vol. II, 1988, 1256)– to the council and people of Sardis (Ant. XIV, 235) and one from P. Servilius Galba –identified with P. Servilius Isauricus, propraetor and then proconsul of Asia from 46 to 44 (Broughton, vol. II, 1952, 222, 272, 298, 309-310 and vol. III, 1986, 196)– to the council and people of Miletus (§§ 244-246); both were sent, apparently on the occasion of Jewish petition against these cities. The letters defend the practice of Jewish religion in pagan cities and emphasize the Jewish right to observe their religious celebrations according to their ancestral laws:

Letter of Lucius Antonius to Sardis (Ant. XIV, 235)


Lucius Antonius, son of Marcus, proquaestor, and propraetor, to the magistrates, council and people of the Sardis, greeting. Jewish citizens of ours have come to me and pointed out that from the earliest times they have had an association of their own in accordance with their native laws and a place of their own, in which they decide their affairs and controversies with one another; and upon their request that it be permitted them to do these things, I decide that they might be maintained, and permitted them to do so.

Letter of P. Servilius Galba to Miletus (Ant. XIV, 244-246)

Sabbath, Jewish Rites, Kosher

Publius Servilius Galba, son of Publius, proconsul, to the magistrates, council and people of Miletus, greeting. Prytanes, son of Hermas, a citizen of yours, came to me when I was holding court at Tralles and informed me that contrary to our expressed wish you are attacking the Jews and forbid them to observe Sabbaths, perform their native rites or manage their produce in accordance with the laws. I would therefore have you know that after hearing the arguments of the opposing sides, I have decided that the Jews are not to be prohibited to follow their customs.

Synagogues, Halicarnassus, Sardis, Ephesus

Regarding the pursuing of the Caesar policy in the legislation of the allied Greek cities, we possess a sequence of documents dated between 47-42 B.C.E. (Pucci-Ben Zeev, 1998, 192-230), announcing the conferral on the Jews of the right to live according to their ancestral laws: a) a “Letter of the magistracy of Laodicea to Gaius Rabirius” – probably C. Rabirius Postumus, proconsul of Asia in 47 (Pucci-Ben Zeev, 1998, 194; Broughton, vol. III, 1986, 181) declaring their conforming with the Roman instructions concerning the Jews (Ant., XIV, 241-243); b) three decrees conferring on the Jews the right to observe feely the Shabbat and, consequently, to have congregations, and, again, to live according to their ancestral laws: I. “Decree of the People of Halicarnassus” (§§ 256-258); ii. “Decree of the People of Sardis” (§§ 259-261); iii. “Decree of the People of Ephesus” (§§ 262-264). The “Decree of the People of Halicarnassus” authorises also the construction of Synagogues near the sea (§ 258), while that of Sardis confers on them “a place […] where they may have their congregations, with their wives and children, and may offer, as did their forefathers, their prayers and sacrifices to God” (§ 260).

The exemption from military service to the Jewish roman citizens in consideration of their “ancestral laws” is attested in a series of documents dated between 49-43 B.C., preserved in the Caesar file of Josephus.

The first one chronologically, seems to be a degree issued by the consul Lucius Lentulus (Ant., XIV, 228-229), situated in 49 B.C.E. Being charged by the Senate to organize two legions in the province of Asia, Lucius Lentulus exempted the Jews of Ephesus:

Synagogues/ Ephesus/ Jewish Rites

Those Jews who are Roman citizens and observe Jewish rites and practice them in Ephesus, I released from military service before the tribunal on the twelfth day before the Kalends of October, in consideration of their religious scruples, in the consulship of Lucius Lentulus and Caius Marcellus.

This exception was confirmed a bit later by Titus Ambius, legatus pro praetore, in a “Letter to Ephesus” (§ 230) and in a “Decree of the People of Delos” (§§ 231-232). It is beyond doubt that, despite the lacunar character of the relevant sources, the privilege conferred to the Jews of the province of Asia already by 49 B.C.E., referred to the whole of the Jewish population throughout the world. According to “Caesar’s Decree to the Jews of Judaea” (supra), they were even exempted from the obligation to participate in winter quarters and to pay money for them (§ 204).

Jewish exemption from military service in consideration of their religion was also confirmed after Caesar’s death by Dolabella in his “Letter to Ephesus”, dated to 43 B.C.E. (supra).

Examining the available documents in Flavius Josephus, concerning the relation between Jews and Romans during the brief period of Julius Caesar, we may suggest that the legal situation of the Jews was considerably improved. The measures taken by Caesar reinforced the autonomy of Judaea as well as the links between Metropolis and Diaspora. At the same time, Caesar recognized the Jewish religion as a religio licita and confirmed once and for all the Jewish religious rights in the roman world. However, Judaea did not gain its independence; the tribute to Rome, symbol of the country’s subordination, continued to be paid, while Jewish dependence to Roman authority became more concrete under Caesar, as it was being invested with a sentiment of mutual recognition: on the one hand of the loyalty demonstrated by an inferior state towards a superior, and, on the other, of the benevolence of a superior towards an inferior. It seems that Caesar’s Jewish policy was dictated by the same principles which characterized all his political actions, from his victory at Pharsalus to his assassination, and it was founded on the major objective of his external policy; namely the integration of all people residing “sub solo imperio nostro”, as Cato had put it 120 years earlier (apud Gellius, VI, 3, 16), for the creation of the united state he had dreamed of.

Herod/ Marc Antony

In the years that followed, and given that the Roman interests in the East increased, Roman oriental policy became naturally more active; its frequent interventions in the internal affairs of the eastern kingdoms started to play a significant role in the development of the area –and of Judaea in particular. Already by 41 B.C.E., Rome, by the person of its representative in the East, Marc Antony, demonstrated in the most explicit way that the destiny of Judaea was not in Jewish hands any more: the delegation consisting of Jewish nationalists sent to Antony in Syria in order to complain about the increasing influence of Herod’s party (Bellum, I, 243; Ant., XIV, 324), not only achieved nothing of what it was actually aspiring of, but, on the contrary, it provided the occasion to officially confirm the already unlimited power of the Idumaeans (Bellum, I, 243-244; Ant., XIV, 324-326); furthermore, fifteen of their political enemies, who had been participating in the delegation were arrested (Bellum, I, 245; Ant., XIV, 326) and only Herod’s intervention saved them form death.

Mathias Antigonus/ Marc Antony/ Augustus

The Roman role in the struggle between Herod, son of the Idumaean Antipater, an old friend of Julius Caesar, and Mathias Antigonus, son of Aristobulus II and last descendant of the royal Hasmonean family, which tore Judaea from 41 to 37 B.C., had not been less energetic. According to Flavius Josephus, when Herod, having suffered a big defeat by his enemy, Antigonus, resorted to Rome, not only he managed to acquire a promise of help from Marc Antony and Octave (Augustus), but he was even conferred with an official confirmation of the royal title (Bellum, I, 281-285; Ant., XIV, 379-385; cf. Strabo, XIV, 765; App. Bell. Civ. 73; Tac. Hist. V, 9; Richardson, 1996, 127-128). This was indeed far beyond his expectation, being only half Jewish and of a non-noble origin (Ant., XIV, 386-387).

The last phase of this terrible struggle ended up with the full participation of Roman legions, commanded by the Roman governor of Syria (Bellum, I, 327; Ant., XIV, 447). Thus, Herod became king of Judaea, while Antigonus was handed to the Roman and was beheaded by decision of Mark Antony in 37 (Ant., XIV, 490; cf. Bellum, I, 357; Plut. Antony, XXXVI, 2; Dio Cassius, XLIX, 22). This constituted indeed the first case of execution of a foreign monarch (Strabo, apud Jos. Ant, XV, 9; Plut. Ibid.); a new period in the history of Roman international affairs was about to begin.

Evanthia Polyviou (M.A., PhD) Independent scholar

All passages cited here come from Josephus: Jewish Antiquities, trans. by R. Marcus (Loeb Classical Library), Harvard University Press, 1986.

Selected Bibliography

  1. Bowersock, G. B. (1981), Augustus and the Greek World, Oxford, 1962.
  2. Broughton, T. R. S. (1952 and 1986), The Magistrates of the Roman Republic, New York (vol. I-II), and Atlanta (vol. III).
  3. Ginsburg, M. S. (1928), Rome et la Judée. Contribution à l’histoire de leurs relations politiques, Paris.
  4. Kasher, A. (1990), Jews in Hellenistic Cities in Eretz-Israel, Tübingen.
  5. Lifshitz, B. (1977), “Études sur l’histoire de la province romaine de Syrie”, ANRW, 3-30.
  6. Magie, D. L. (1988), Roman Rule in Asia Minor to the End of the Third Century after Christ, vols. I-II, Princeton, 1950.
  7. Millar, F. (1993), The Roman Near East (31 BC-AD 337), Cambridge-Mass.
  8. Momigliano, A. (1934), “Ricerche sull’organizzazione Della Giudaea sotto IL dominio Romano (63 a.c.-70 D.C.)”, ASNSP series II, 3, 192-201.
  9. Pucci-Ben Zeev, M. (1995), “Caesar and Jewish Law”, RB, 102 (1995), 28-37.
  10. Pucci-Ben Zeev, M. (1998), Jewish Rights in the Roman World: The Greek and Roman Documents Quoted by Josephus Flavius, Tübingen.
  11. Rajak, T. (2001), The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome, Studies in Cultural and Social Interaction, Leiden.
  12. Richardson, P. (1996), Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans, Columbia.
  13. Saulnier, C. (1981), “Lois romaines sur les Juifs selon Flavius Josèphe”, RB, 88, 161-195.

Source: Anistoriton Journal, vol. 14 (2014-2015)

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