Roman Attitudes Towards Jewish Religious Belief

The Pantheon was one of the central religious sites of ancient Rome.
... Karl Weatherly/Photodisc/Getty Images

The Roman Empire stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to the Euphrates Valley and from Britain to Egypt, covering an enormous diversity of peoples under a single administrative apparatus. A major part of Roman imperial policy was a general tolerance of the religious practices of subject peoples. This meant that people, like the Jews, who worshiped non-Roman deities were allowed to practice their faith freely. The primary concern of Roman administrators was ensuring public order.

1 Jews in the Roman Empire

By end of the first century B.C., there were Jewish communities in virtually every city or major population area of the Mediterranean. There was a substantial community of Jews living in Rome well before the Romans expanded eastward to Judea. Like other non-Romans living under Roman rule, Jews were allowed to practice their religion without interference. Judea officially came into the Roman Empire when Pompey conquered it in 63 B.C.

2 Early Roman Attitudes Towards Judaism

During the Republican and early Imperial periods, Romans were generally tolerant of Judaism. As a foreign religion, some Romans viewed Judaism with disdain. Cicero, for example, referred to Judaism as a barbarous superstition. He did not consider it dangerous, merely uncultured. Varro, by contrast, praised the ancient character of Judaism as preserving an older form of worship. The veneration of God by the Jews was considered by some Romans to be a form of worship of Jupiter, the chief deity of the Roman pantheon.

3 Rebellion and Diaspora

Roman rule in Judea, similar to arrangements in other regions of the empire, utilized a relatively small number of actual administrative personnel. For most of the period from the conquest in 63 B.C. until the beginning of the Common Era, Judea was ruled by a proxy, the most famous being King Herod. After Herod's death in the year four, Roman procurators instituted a more direct rule. As taxation increased and Roman rule became more onerous, Jewish resistance sprang up. A full-scale rebellion began in 66, which Rome crushed by 70. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, which was both symbolically and pragmatically devastating for the Jewish population. However, the Jewish religion was never targeted and continued to be protected by the Roman state.

4 Roman Attitudes After Christianity

Upon the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312, Rome became an officially Christian empire. In many ways, Jews retained the privileged legal status they had held under the pagan empire, wherein they were exempted from performing certain tasks that violated their religion. However, the legal protections for Jews began to erode in the fourth century. Jews began to be classed with heretics and other religious nonconformists and had their rights and privileges stripped away. Some of this anti-Jewish sentiment can be traced to accounts in early Christian writings describing the persecution of Christians at the hands of Jews. By the end of the fourth century, much of the tolerance towards Judaism which persisted from the Republican period until the conversion of Constantine was gone, and Judaism was viewed with suspicion by Roman authorities.

Kevin Doran has been a writer and editor since 2009 whose work has been published in the "Southwestern Journal of International Law." He received a BA in Classics from USC and a JD from Southwestern Law School and is currently pursuing an MA in History at Western New Mexico University.