Scholia Reviews 12 (2003) 34.

E. S. Gruen, Diaspora: Jews amidst Greeks and Romans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. ix + 386. ISBN 0-674-00750-6. UK£26.50.

D.B. Saddington
Classics, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

This book is both innovative and a sensible, and a necessary corrective to extreme views, covering authors who wrote in Greek but are little known to classicists and ancient historians (at least to the reviewer). It has an introduction and two parts, the first on Jewish life in the diaspora and the second on Jewish constructs of diaspora life. There is an up-to-date bibliography and a full index. As can be expected from the publisher, it is well executed and clearly printed.

The introduction (pp. 1-11) stresses the long-lasting effects the Babylonian exile of the sixth century BC had on Jewish consciousness, but then makes it clear the diaspora of the Hellenistic and Roman periods (up to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70) had largely resulted from voluntary emigration from Israel, or, as it was known in the Roman period, Judaea. Gruen then asks what were the realities of the diaspora experience (experiences might have been better) and sets out to analyse the tension between the maintenance of Jewish identities in gentile environments as well as differing levels of Jewish adaptation to their new environments.

The Jewish experience was not unique: more might have been made of the multi-cultural and polyglot character of the empire, not only in Rome itself, but in almost every city in the Empire. How, for example, did the Sidonian and Tyrian settlers in Delos and Puteoli adjust to their new places of residence? Nor was Rome itself static. The old-fashioned construct of a rigid mos maiorum championed (with exceptions for itself of course) by a wealthy Italian aristocracy was rapidly giving way to an ever-growing body of Roman citizens (including descendants of foreign-born slaves) resident in every province and an élite itself increasingly recruited from cooperative, wealthy or militarily-helpful individuals of influence in provincial communities. (The Jewish contribution in this area was always small.) Gruen usefully stresses how many earlier accounts of the diaspora were based on, sometimes subconscious, a priori positions often derived from harsh experience of ghetto diasporas in modern history.

Chapter 1 (pp. 15-53) is entitled 'The Jews in Rome'. The fragmentary ancient evidence is set forth with exemplary clarity and it soon emerges that there was no Jewish problem or Judenfrage in ancient Rome: in fact the community there was proportionately large and could even exercise political pressure. (But the fact that most Romans disliked the Jews and were often critical of them is not glossed over.) Rationalist rather than ethnically charged religious explanations are usefully advanced to place the instances of Jewish persecution in Rome in perspective. However, perhaps the expulsion of 4 000 Jews from Rome under Tiberius in A.D. 19 could be seen more against Roman economic and security arrangements than as a reaction to the alleged (magical?) poisoning of the emperor's heir, Germanicus, in that year. Gruen (p. 33) refers to the grain shortage in Rome at the time, but has not given the full picture or made it sufficiently clear that Tiberius' action was not merely a stock response of shifting blame to a vulnerable minority sharing in a scarce resource. There was a shortage of grain in both Africa and Egypt, Rome's main areas of supply, at the time.[[1]] However, Sardinia was also a source of supply, but there was a serious security situation on the island due to brigandage and other factors.

The Jews sent there were largely of freedman origin. Freedmen units, euphemistically called cohortes voluntariorum, neither fully legionary nor traditionally auxiliary in character, had been used in crises by Augustus. The 4 000 sent out correspond exactly to eight standard quingenary regiments.[[2]] And they were sent out not as a result of a hasty police action by Tiberius: the levy was authorized with scrupulous adherence to due procedure. Tacitus (Ann. 2.87) says that the Senate, Josephus (AJ 18.84) that the consuls authorized it. Tiberius had in fact made a point of consulting the Senate on army recruitment (Suet. Tib. 30). The Jewish recruits took the military oath (Suet. Tib. 36).

Gruen's treatment of Gaius' actions against the Jews in 39 and 40 could also perhaps be extended by further attention to the Roman background. His choice of terms like 'lunacy' and 'antics' to describe Gaius' actions is also perhaps uncharacteristically extreme. Gaius was obviously mentally unbalanced and had a highly idiosyncratic and cruel sense of humour, but it is uncertain whether he actually bordered on the insane. To modern Christian and Jewish monotheists his order to set up his image in the Temple at Jerusalem and to demand worship as a god is blasphemous and arouses instinctive abhorrence, as it did to the Jews of the time. But it should be noted -- but it would take too long to develop the point here -- that Gaius was acting within the widely understood framework of the worship of the emperor as an expression of provincial loyalty. In fact, his religious demand can perhaps even be nuanced within the Graeco-Roman tradition of the synnaos theos. Furthermore, initially Gaius was prepared to modify his decisions after representations by Petronius, the governor of Syria, and by Agrippa I, the Jewish king. There was a serious threat of rebellion in Judaea. Gaius may well have been unwise to insist on rigid obedience rather than make a judicious compromise, but such an approach had been adopted by many another Roman.

Chapter 2, 'The Jews in Alexandria' (pp. 54-83), sheds judicious light on a notoriously complicated situation. Chapter 3 (pp. 84-104) is on the Jews in Asia, where it is good to have Hyrcanus' relations with the diaspora set out so clearly (88ff.). Gruen does not dismiss out of hand the notorious Roman edicts referring to the Jews in Asia which Josephus quotes, but shows how they fit into the Roman political situation of the time. Chapter 4 (pp. 105- 30) covers the civil and social institutions of the diaspora, with a useful discussion of the synagogue. A valuable distinction is made between the actually often extensive rights and privileges which the Jews enjoyed in differing Graeco-Roman cities and the unprofitable search for a precise definition of a supposed Jewish politeuma or politeia in them.

As noted, Part II breaks new territory. Basically, Gruen gives a shrewd literary rather than a theological or historical analysis of the works various Jewish authors wrote on Jewish themes in Greek in the diaspora. He ranges over books like Esther and II Maccabees (in the Bible or the Apocrypha) to the obscure but important figure who wrote the notable Letter to Aristeas. Because one has known the magnificent story of Esther from childhood one has been too ready to accept it at face value. But Gruen is incisive, even high-lighting the unsavoury vindictiveness of Mordechai's revenge at the end. But it is with some surprise that one discovers that Gruen finds a large element of humour in it and the other works discussed (some of it directed against the Jews themselves). This is a fresh, but perhaps not a central, key to understanding the genre. The pious or traditional reader may have missed this aspect, but humour is an element even in Greek tragedy and the medieval miracle plays, such as the York cycle. Humour releases tension and (gentle) satire is often the only weapon the marginalized can use. Humour is notoriously difficult to define: it is not always easy to see the humour Gruen finds.

An element of exaggeration, of acceptance of the miraculous and even the absurd is prevalent in ancient fiction, hard as it is for the modern reader of detective novels to stomach it, particularly perhaps in works dealing with religious subjects where nineteenth and twentieth-century higher criticism has done its worst. Perhaps more contextualization might have helped. Gentiles produced similar types of work, such as Philostratus in his life of Apollonius of Tyre, where it is difficult to distinguish the philosopher from the fictional magician.

Occasionally Gruen's tone is a little arch, and even patronizing towards earlier scholars, and the position he adopts is not as unique as he seems to imply.

Much attention is now shifting from an analysis of Hellenization and Romanization today to an emphasis on the character and way of life of the diverse peoples that made up the population of the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman Empire. Especially in the West in the latter there is little to go on beyond scattered references in the Roman historians and the material culture left behind, naturally mainly by the co-operative and the élite, in the archaeological record. In the East the works of many authors such as Plutarch or Dio Chrysostom are instructive, but their's is largely the voice of a cultured and an assimilated élite. Gruen has drawn attention to an important different source, namely the attitudes of a sophisticated and significant group, and the Jewish constructs of Hellenism and Jewish self-conceptions during the period analysed have been presented extremely well.


[[1]] Cf. G. Marasco, L'Africa romana VIII 1990 (ed. A. Mastino, Sassari 1991) 649-59 at 657.  

[[2]] Cf. Y. Le Bohec, La Sardaigne et l'armée romaine (Sassari 1990) 22f.; 98.