The dignified speaker turned around and directed his sincere gaze at the audience, and then to his opponent. He called attention to the large contingent of Jews who made up a distinct and recognizable segment of the assembly. “You know what a big crowd this is, and how those people always stick together, how influential they are.” He continued, now lowering his voice to a stage whisper as if to prevent his words from being overheard by the wrong ears, “for there is no shortage of people who would be pleased to incite the Jews against me and against every respectable person. Well, I shall not make it easier for them to do so.” He went on to accuse the Jews of flouting respectable convention by persisting in their barbaric religion—and to make things worse, they insist on sending contributions to Jerusalem rather than supporting local causes.
The preceding scene was not taken from some recent show trial convened in an Islamic capital, nor even from a session of the American senate. It was from a speech delivered at a trial that took place in Rome in the year 59 BCE, and the speaker was none other than the celebrated Latin orator Marcus Publius Cicero. Cicero was serving as the defense attorney for Lucius Valerius Flaccus, the former proconsul of Asia Minor (roughly, the territory now occupied by Turkey) who had been accused of assorted misdeeds during his term of office. Trials of this sort to punish extortion of the provincial natives (under the law of “de repetundis”) had been instituted in response to widespread abuses of colonial authority; but they could also be exploited as a convenient meeans of discrediting political rivals. The full list of accusations against Flaccus has not come down to us, and can only be reconstructed through a careful reading of Cicero’s summary arguments.
Among those who felt that they had been mistreated by the former governor were the province’s Jewish communities. They had long enjoyed the privilege of sending their annual half-shekel tributes for the upkeep of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, in accordance with the time-honoured practice that allowed all the Jews of the world to be equal participants in the nation’s communal offerings. Governor Flaccus had suspended that privilege in Asia in 62 B.C.E. as part of economic measures that were designed to stabilize fiscal irregularities that were plaguing the empire. The edict forbade all exports of gold from Asia.
In this particular instance, the scattered Jewish communities of Asia had already transferred their year’s donations to four main centres from which they were to be sent to Jerusalem in large shipments. After Flaccus had these sums confiscated, government officials duly registered the amounts and deposited them in the state treasury, the aerarium. The prosecution insisted that this action was an illegal violation of an established Jewish privilege and an unprecedented insult to Jewish religious sensibilities. After all, even when Pompey conquered Jerusalem a few years earlier, he had scrupulously refrained from plundering the Temple’s treasury.
Based on his snide allusions to the sinister “Jewish lobby” and its dreaded power to cause unspecified harm to its opponents, some historians were quick to lump Cicero together with more outspoken representatives of ancient anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories who routinely lambasted the Jews for their alleged xenophobia and superstitions. To be sure, Cicero had great admiration for one of those certified Jew-haters, his own instructor in rhetoric Apollonius Molon of Rhodes, who had authored a tract attacking the Jews for being uncouth misanthropes. However, Cicero’s high regard for Apollonius was evidently confined to his skills as a teacher of rhetoric, whereas he never quoted any of his libels against the Jewish religion. In fact, apart from his speech on behalf of Flaccus, Cicero appears to have had very little interest in the Jews or their religion. Therefore, most scholars now assume plausibly that Cicero was not expressing any personal opinions, but rather he was simply doing one of the things that he did best —namely, making use of any rhetorical tricks that he thought would persuade the judges of his client’s innocence. In his days as in ours, skilled trial attorneys would try to discredit their opponents and witnesses not only by casting explicit aspersions on their morals, but also by the subtle use of innuendo. In the cosmopolitan setting of Rome, ethnic stereotyping was an accepted weapon in such courtroom confrontations.
Whatever this episode might teach us about Cicero and his attitudes toward the Jews, it contains some tantalizing information about the beginnings of the Jewish community in Rome. For one thing, even if we make allowance for possible exaggerations, we learn from Cicero’s words that the Jews made up a recognizable component of the city’s population, and were a political force that could not be ignored, though they were relative newcomers to the capital.
It is no less remarkable how this small immigrant community involved itself so actively in the political life of its host society. Their involvement was not merely a matter of showing up at a high-profile trial in order to show their support for one of the sides. It would appear that the Jewish community of Rome took a vital role in the ongoing political frictions that occupied the last years of the Roman republic. The political landscape then was quite similar to the current American political structure. There was a blue-blooded conservative party, of which Cicero himself was one of the most eloquent spokesmen, who championed traditional values and old-time pagan religion. These were pitted against a “democratic” alliance of miscellaneous disenfranchised ethnic and social factions. Cicero and his companions looked with suspicion at these foreign bodies that were subverting the integrity of traditional Roman society and its values. In particular, he feared that such groups, including the Jewish ethnic minority, were likely to be manipulated by populist demagogues such as his arch-enemy Publius Clodius Pulcher who did eventually succeed in bringing Cicero to ruin and having him exiled from Rome. The ensuing factional wars brought an end to the Roman republic, which gave way to the absolutist régime of Julius Caesar.
In the end, Cicero won this case and Flaccus was acquitted of the charges against him. Some scholars still maintain that Flaccus was guilty, and that his exoneration must be ascribed entirely to his lawyer’s clever rhetorical tricks. An ancient tradition even attributed Cicero’s courtroom triumph to his use of an off-colour joke that was afterwards removed from the published transcript of his oration.
Although we have now come to regard such things as normal, I find it quite remarkable that Rome’s fragile and insignificant Jewish community could be counted on to rally to the defence of their coreligionists in distant lands—especially when it involved the welfare of their holy city and its beloved sanctuary.
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