World History 1 120 - 7.5.2 The People of the Empire

The diversity of those living in the Roman Empire meant that Romans felt compelled to define the status of different groups. Not everyone was considered a proper Roman. As the definitions of foreigner and citizen shifted during Rome’s long history, the empire accommodated new peoples in different ways.

Citizens and Foreigners

The Roman Empire policed both its cultural and physical borders. In addition to maintaining their frontier with an army, Romans carried on a perpetual debate about citizenship, or civitas, and whether to extend its benefits to different groups. To gain civitas at birth, a person needed to be the child of two citizens. Citizenship conferred voting rights, the right to perform military service, the right to run for public office, and certain marriage and property rights, among others. The extent to which non-Romans were barred from enjoying these rights was not always clear. Foreigners themselves were categorized into different groups, including free provincials, or peregrini, who were not Roman citizens; army recruits; and those living beyond the Roman border. Foreignness was not a stable category, however; a person could move from one group to another, and the definitions were always changing.

People could gain citizenship through other means than being born to Roman citizens. Enslaved people who had been manumitted and allied fighters in times of conflict were likely to be granted citizenship. “Latin Rights,” a limited form of citizenship, were often extended to existing communities when they were brought under Roman control. Finally, in 212 CE, the emperor Caracalla issued an edict that extended citizenship to all free people of the Roman Empire. Its effects are not clear; the emperor was accused of having an ulterior motive, and the surviving text of the edict appears to exclude a group of stigmatized foreigners or freed people. In any case, differences in status and ethnicity persisted among Romans despite the edict.

A person could also lose the privileges of citizenship. Exile and expulsion were a common punishment for criminals. In a series of works, Ovid, a poet during the reign of Augustus, lamented his own exile to a city on the Black Sea. The reasons for his banishment are unclear, but he seems to have angered the emperor, alluding to “a poem and an error” (carmen et error) as the cause of his exile. People could also exile themselves voluntarily to avoid further punishment from Rome, especially the death penalty. There were eventually degrees of exile in which a person might lose their property or in fact be able to return to Rome. Finally, whole groups of people could be expelled from the city of Rome, including Jewish people and followers of Isis in 19 CE, as well as astrologers, philosophers, and actors during the reigns of the emperors Nero and Domitian.

A Special Case: The Jewish People in the Roman Empire

The Jewish people had a deep history in the Mediterranean by the time of the Roman Empire. For a considerable length of time, they had occupied the region of the Levant, which was founded as the Roman province of Judaea in 6 CE. Roman writers expressed varied attitudes toward Jewish people; some were sympathetic, while others were overtly hostile. There was often respect for the long tradition of Judaism, but it was offset by slander and violence.

After the creation of the province of Judaea and the incorporation of the local ruling dynasty into the empire, various Jewish uprisings occurred. Inspired by the region’s reorganization, riots occasionally broke out in the cities of the eastern empire. For instance, when images of the emperor were placed in synagogues in Alexandria, riots occurred in 38 CE. There must have been dissatisfaction with the general treatment of Jewish people by the Roman state, but the worship of the emperor was clearly an issue. Further riots occurred in 40; only the death of the emperor Caligula in the next year prevented real war from breaking out.

Several wars did occur between Rome and the Jewish people in the first two centuries CE. Revolts against taxation and the Roman looting of the Second Temple in Jerusalem led to war in 66 CE. Roman forces besieged Jerusalem, and in 70 the Temple was destroyed during the conflict. Following the war, the Arch of Titus was erected in Rome in 81 to honor the emperor Vespasian and his son Titus for leading the Roman forces (Figure 7.21). The Arch of Titus and the Colosseum (the latter was built in 79) were paid for with wealth looted from Jerusalem and the Temple. The destruction of the Temple led to a profound change in Judaism; the Temple had functioned as a symbolic center for the Jewish people, and its destruction led to their splintering into different communities based in synagogues around the Mediterranean.

A photograph of an old, faded, and broken in places carving on a wall is shown. Gold colored, the images are carved rising out of the background. The back of the wall is small squares across the bottom and larger squares across the top. In the image, a line of at least seventeen people are walking to the right. All of them wear short robes, belted at the waist, with lariats around their heads. Most have short or shoulder length curly hair and large noses. Many of the legs are missing from the carving as well as some of the figure’s arms and one head. They are seen carrying various items – three rectangular objects on long sticks, a large box with two long sticks in a crisscross pattern across the front, and a large two-tiered and high decorated pedestal with a candle holder with seven arced arms coming out of the middle pole.
Figure 7.21 This recreation of a relief panel from the Arch of Titus, constructed in Rome in 81 CE, shows the Roman looting of the Jewish temple. (credit: “Arch of Titus Menorah” by “Steerpike”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

Roman views of the Jewish people were complex and contradictory. The historian Tacitus, for example, narrates the events of Titus’s capture of Jerusalem and the suppression of the Jewish revolt in his Histories. He begins by giving an overview of Jewish custom and history: “To establish his position over the race for the future, Moses introduced novel rites, quite different from those of the rest of the human race. In them everything we hold sacred is profane, and conversely they permit what for us is taboo.” Tacitus goes on to discuss Jewish fasting, observance of the Sabbath, and abstention from pork, all in hostile terms his Roman readers would identify with. He also reports that the Jewish people were from either Mt. Ida on Crete or Egypt, a common view among Romans.

Official Roman attitudes to the Jewish people were not consistently hostile, and the Jewish view of Roman treatment also varied depending on the political and cultural climate. Philo, an Alexandrian Jewish ambassador sent to Rome following the riots of 38 CE, recounts in his Embassy to Gaius that he explained to the emperor Caligula how past emperors and officials granted his people particular privileges: “[Augustus] knew that the large district of Rome across the river Tiber was owned and inhabited by Jews. Most of them were Roman ex-slaves; brought to Italy as war captives, they had been set free by their owners, without being forced to alter any of their ancestral customs.”

Philo contrasts Caligula’s hostility toward Jewish people with Augustus’s apparent approval of Judaism. But we also learn about the Jewish population in the city of Rome. Philo explains that there was a particular district of the city in which Jewish people lived, and that there were synagogues within the city. He also suggests that many Jewish people in Rome were formerly enslaved people who had been captured in conflict. It seems therefore that a substantial portion of the Jewish population was made up of freed people. Confirming some of these claims, archaeological evidence of the existence of synagogues and Jewish catacombs in Rome suggests that there was a substantial Jewish population during the imperial period.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax