Republican Party

The Romans Had Them, but There are no Republican Edicts of Toleration

Last updated on July 17th, 2023 at 06:06 pm

Syrian currency celebrates Roman Emperor Philip the Arab. Think Republicans would ever celebrate Barack Obama?

I find myself wondering more and more what has happened to this country, to America. At the hands of Republican legislatures we’ve seen tyranny unimagined by colonial Americans at the hands of King George and his parliament. Compared to what we’re getting from Republicans, the Founding Fathers and their generation rebelled over trifles.

We are experiencing not just a lack of representation (though we have that too) but an unrelenting war on women, on children, on working Americans, on ethnic and religious minorities, on science, on the environment, on the very air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.

Each day we see headlines that are more terrible than any we have seen previously, like recent Wisconsin legislation that would allow in-laws to make reproductive health choices for you. Imagine your mother-in-law deciding you can’t have an abortion. If that’s the case, maybe you should get to trump her bypass surgery.

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And you wonder: where’s the tolerance? Where is the so-called freedom Republicans are always talking about? Where is the small government that stays out of your business? It’s nowhere to be seen. It’s tyranny. Endless, unrelenting, often horrifying – as when a woman goes to prison for having a miscarriage, or is forced to carry a dead fetus to term – tyranny.

Meanwhile, the Romans, so reviled in Christian memory, managed to make all sorts of concessions to strange foreign customs. After all, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “Had not the Roman government permitted free enquiry Christianity could never have been introduced.” Be damned if we can get free inquiry from this bunch. Their minds are closed.

I am not going to advance the claim here that the Romans were the most tolerant people who ever lived. They engaged in their fair share of genocide (as have we). But let us take a look here at some of the concessions and privileges granted by the Romans to the Jews by the Roman state (and feel free to compare and contrast, if you will, American treatment of the Native Americans in the 19th century – a supposedly enlightened “Christian” century). Take special note of the third point:

  • No Quartering of Troops on the Native Population (Ant. 14.10.2 § 195). Nor did the Jews have to generally even see Roman troops, except on holidays such as Passover, when they were present in Jerusalem to keep the peace. The Roman garrison appears to have been stationed largely in Caesarea, a Greek-speaking area.[1] One might think back to the situation in the American Colonies in the days leading up to the revolt and the role quartering played on American sensibilities. This was one annoyance spared the Jewish population of Palestine.
  • Tax allowances (Jews allowed to deduct out of their tribute every second year the land is let (in the Sabbatic period), a corus of that tribute (Ant. 14.10.5 §201)
  • The Jews allowed to live “according to their own customs” (Ant. 14.10.8 § 214).
  • Jews excused from military service by Prefect of Asia (Ant. 14.10.11-12 §§ 223-228) “on account of the superstition they are under” (Ant. 14.10.14 § 232) in other words, Sabbath restrictions on travel and fighting, etc. Note that this does not mean that Jews could not, if they wished, serve in the military, and also that it is a far cry from excluding Jews from military ranks by the Christian Roman Empire (C. Th. XVI.8.24).[2]
  • Roman acquiescence of Jewish ban on images customarily observed by procurators (Ant. 18.3.1 §§ 55-56). This included the re-routing of Roman troops (no doubt at great expense) due to the Jews finding the images on the standards offensive when paraded anywhere on “Jewish” soil, as shown by the incident with Vitellius described by Josephus (Ant. 18.121-122). The Romans went so far as to omit from coins struck in Judaea “any sign or symbol that might be offensive to the religious feelings of the Jews…”[3] It is interesting to compare the coins of Herod, which while also observing the ban on images, do bear Pagan religious symbols, for example a coin of 37 BCE which portrays the tripod of Apollo and on the reverse, the Dioscuri cap topped with a star.[4]
  • Augustus confirmed Jewish privileges conferred originally by Julius Caesar (Ant. 16.6.1 §§ 160-165) “that the Jews have liberty to make use of their own customs, according to the law of their forefathers” See also Philo, Leg. ad Gaium 309-319.
  • The Sacred Money was not to be touched (Ant. 16.6.2 § 163) – This was violated on several occasions, including, allegedly, by Pontius Pilate (Ant. 18.3.2 § 60) and on one occasion the proconsul of Asia, L. Flaccus in 62/1 BCE confiscated the temple contributions from his province (Cicero, Flacc. 66-9) but his action was not repeated.[5] See also Ant. 16.6.3 § 166, where Augustus commands the recipient, the proconsul of Sardinia, to let the Jews “send their sacred money to Jerusalem” freely and a similar letter from Herod Agrippa to the Ephesians (Ant. 16.6.4 §§ 167-168). There is also an example from Berenice in Cyrenaica, where the local Jewish community commemorated a Roman official for his part in seeing that the sacred money was not diverted from the Temple to pay the tax levied on resident aliens.[6]
  • Anyone stealing the Jewish holy books will be deemed a “sacrilegious person” and his property confiscated (Ant. 16.6.2 § 164). We should note the punishment meted out to a Roman soldier (by Roman authorities) for profaning the Torah: The procurator, Josephus tells us (Ant. 20.5.4 113-117), “took care that the soldier who had offered the affront to the laws should be beheaded; and thereby put a stop to the sedition which was ready to be kindled a second time.” By way of contrast, the United States is continually being accused of mishandling the Qu’ran but the US Government pretends it never happens and so far, no American soldiers have been punished.
  • Exempted from participation in the imperial cult and allowed to make prayers in their own temple on behalf of the emperor (War 2.10.4 §197; Against Apion 2.7 §77) instead of to the gods in Pagan temples.[7] Philo tells us that the cost of these sacrifices was born by the Roman government and not the Jewish people (Spec. Leg. 157).
  • Gentiles were not allowed into the sacred precincts of the temple (Tacitus, Histories 5.8; Josephus, War 5.193; Ant. 12.145, 15.417; cf. Philo, Leg. 212). This prohibition (of which Paul runs afoul Acts 21.28-29) has been proven by archaeological findings.[8]
  • Far from persecuting the Jews, the Roman government served as their advocate: “The Romans appear at times to have chosen to put their influence behind Jewish communities in dispute with their neighbors…and did not even cease after A.D. 70.”[9] For examples, see Josephus, Ant. 14.10.12-26).
  • Jews exempted from court on the Sabbath.[10]
  • Claudius renewed the edict of tolerance issued by Caesar and renewed by Augustus, making it empire-wide (Ant. 19.5.3 §§286-291). The edict is not specific; Rajak argues “that Claudius is not doing much more than expressing his good will towards the practice of the Jewish cult and establishing a lead for Greek cities to follow.”[11] If, as Rajak argues, this falls short of a Jewish Magna Carta, it still illustrates the extent to which Rome permitted self-rule and represents a general good will not mirrored in Europe for the fifteen centuries following the end of Pagan rule.

All right. Now show me even a fraction of this level of tolerance from any Republican legislative body in the past 15 years. It can’t be done.

I should note here that these sorts of edicts of toleration were not general and empire wide, but seem to have been issued on a city by city basis. Though these senatus consulta were ad hoc in nature, they also served as legal precedents to which future governors and emperors could appeal.

Leonard Rutgers makes an important point when he notes that “Rome did not have a standard policy toward the Jews: Roman magistrates responded to situations.”[12] Which, if nothing else, shows the ability of the Roman administration to think on its feet, rather than along strict ideological lines. There is a nuance and a responsiveness lacking in modern-day Republican thinking – about anything.

Arnaldo Momigliano, not alone among scholars, takes note of the fact that “the members of the ruling class of Rome were ready to transact business with people who worshipped different gods and were used to different political traditions. Roman polytheism could adapt itself to, and indeed merge with, what we may call the provincial traditions.”[13]

That is not possible under today’s Republicanism. The only religious freedom Americans have under Republican ideology is to be Christians, or at least, what they imagine to be Christians, and it is already more than apparent that Republicans, unlike the ancient Romans, are not ready to transact business with people who worship different gods.

The Romans even had an emperor, Philip the Arab, who got far less grief from his people than Obama does from Republicans. Philip was born in Shahba, just south of Damascus. Philip had an easier time pursuing his dream in ancient Rome than he’d have trying to pursue it in modern America.

I would suggest that the Republicans could learn from history, but let’s face it, at this point, I’d look silly making that suggestion to these charlatans. So I’ll just make the point to those of you who have open minds, and you can make the point to them next time you vote.

Image from Wikipedia


[1] Maurice Sartre, The Middle East Under Rome, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005), 103.
[2] Leonard Victor Rutgers, “Roman Policy towards the Jews: Expulsions from the City of Rome during the First Century C.E.,” Classical Antiquity 13 (1994), 58.
[3] F.W. Madden, History of Jewish Coinage (London: Bernard Quartich, 1864), 135.
[4] See David M. Jacobson, “Herod the Great Shows His True Colors,” Near Eastern Archaeology 64 (2001), 100-104. As Jacobson states in relation to the cap of the Dioscuri, “such an image might have been offensive to the Jews.”
[5] Tessa Rajak, “Was there a Roman Charter for the Jews?” JRS 74 (1984), 107; cf. Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem, 399.
[6] For the example of Cyrenaica see Martha W. Baldwin Bowsky, “M. Tittius Sex.f. Aem. And the Jews of Berenice (Cyrenaica),” The American Journal of Philology 108 (1987), 495-510.
[7] It has been demonstrated that sacrifices in the Imperial Cult were generally made on behalf of rather than to the emperor. See S.R.F. Price, “Between Man and God: Sacrifice in the Roman Imperial Cult,” The Journal of Roman Studies 70 (1980), 28-43. For this reason, the Jews had no difficulty accommodating the needs of the Empire just as they had in the past accommodated other foreign rulers. They simply prayed to their God to watch out for the emperor rather than to the gods of the State; the Romans, quite sensibly, were also satisfied with the arrangement since there was no rejection of YHWH implicit in polytheism. Claims that the Jews (or Christians, for that matter) were required to worship the emperor miss the mark.
[8] The warning inscriptions would have been difficult to miss: They were inscribed in Greek and Latin in red-painted letters on white limestone. Discovered by Clermont-Ganneau in 1871, the inscribed stone reads: “No foreigner may enter the forecourt beyond the barrier rail around the sanctuary; Anyone who is caught will have himself to blame for his own death.” See Elias J. Bickerman, “The Warning Inscription of Herod’s Temple,” JQR 37 (1947), 387-405. Bickerman compares similar inscriptions found at Pagan temples and notes that “The pagan visitor of the Temple however was shut out not because his hands or his heart were unclean but because he was an alien.”
[9] Rajak, 107.
[10] Jerry F. Daniel, “Anti-Semitism in the Hellenistic-Roman Period,” JBL 98 (1979), 45-65.
[11] Rajak, 115.
[12] Rutgers, “Roman Policy,” 58-59.
[13] Arnaldo Momigliano, On Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), 123.

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