History: Europe: Namatianus and the Sullen Jew

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For a sullen Jew was guardian of the spot,
An animal that spurns at sound human food.
He charges our bill for the bushes disturbed, the sea weed,
Struck with our sticks, and clamours that his loss
Is grievous in the water that we drink.
We fling fit answer to the filthy race,
That upholds shameless circumcision —
They are a height of stupidity; cold sabbaths charm their heart;
And yet their heart is even colder than their creed,
Each seventh day to shameful sloth’s condemned,
An effeminate picture of a wearied god!
Their other wild fancies from a bazaar of lies
Not even a child in their sleep would believe.
Would that Judea ne’er had been subdued,
By Pompey’s wars and under Titus’ sway!
The plague’s contagion all the wider spreads;
The conquered presses on the conquering race.

From On His Return, by Rutilius Claudius Namatianus, 416 A.D.

I recently devoted some time to reading the entirety of Saint John Chrysostom’s eight homilies on the Jews, an experience I’m not inclined to recommend to anyone seeking a clinical exploration of Jewish influence. The homilies are masterworks of rhetoric and invective, but, like many pre-Enlightenment texts tackling problematic Jewish behavior, they are overwhelmingly dominated by Christian theology, and empirical analysis of the socio-economic relationship between Jews and Europeans is only hinted at. It would be redundant for me to labor these points here since the best exploration of Chrysostom’s hints and allusions to Jewish socio-economic misbehavior can be found in Kevin MacDonald’s Separation and Its Discontents (pp.95-97, 116-118 in paperback), and in a 2015 TOO post by MacDonald that in turn reflects on an interesting article by Roger Pearse, a scholar of Christianity. I was, however, prompted by my reading of Chrysostom to search for ancient writers that did offer the kind of analysis or critique that met my expectations, and that hadn’t already been covered by MacDonald’s treatment of late Roman anti-Semitism in Separation and Its Discontents (pp. 109-139 in the paperback version)—at a time when anti-Jewish writing emphasized Jews enslaving Christians and accusations of Jewish greed, wealth, love of luxury and of the pleasures of the table became common.. I was also keen to move beyond some of the more familiar figures of the ancient world to whom anti-Jewish remarks have been attributed: Cicero, Seneca, Tacitus, Horace, Quintilian, Dio Cassius, Celsus, Plutarch, and Strabo. It was while reading “Cultivated Pagans and Ancient Antisemitism,”[1] a 1939 article from The Journal of Religion, that I finally encountered a substantial reference to the remarkable piece of poetry opening this essay. What follows is an effort to analyze the poem and place it in historical and cultural context.

Rutilius Claudius Namatianius was a high Roman functionary, aristocrat, and Imperial poet. He was a native of southern Gaul, having his origins somewhere near modern Toulouse. His long Imperial career saw him occupy influential roles at a time when Rome was in chaos, and Namatianus claimed to have personally witnessed the final sack of Rome in 410 and its aftermath. Around the year 415, Namatianus undertook a voyage home to Gaul, later penning a kind of travel memoir in epic poetic form titled On His Return. The poem, of which only the initial third has survived, offers unique insight into a period not normally associated with literary treasures (the early ‘Dark Ages’), as well as a singular example of late Pagan lament on civilizational decline and the characteristics and growing influence of the Jews.

The episode opening this essay occurs during Rutilius’s trip, after he passed the island of Elba and landed at the port of Falesia Portus. I have been unable to determine precisely where on a modern map this would be, but I assume it’s somewhere between modern Piombino and Livorno. At Falesia Portus, Rutilius and his travelling companions watched celebrations organized for the god Osiris, before exploring and enjoying their surroundings:

Landing, we seek the town and roam the wood;
The ponds delight us, sweet, with shoals begirt,
The waters, spread within the enclosed flood,
Allow the sportive fish amid the pools,
To dart and play.

This peaceful commune with nature offers some reprieve from the omnipresent signs of social and political collapse. Problems begin, however, when the group arrive at their lodgings, a villa and gardens whose conductor (the middleman who administrated the inn and its domain) is a Jew.

But he who leased the spot,
A harsher landlord than Antiphates,
Made this reposeful loveliness pay dear.

Antiphates, of course, was the king of the Laestrygonians, described in Homer’s Odyssey as a race of giants known for devouring foreigners. The comparison with Antiphates sets the stage for Namatianus’s poetic reflections on the misanthropic, anti-social, and exploitative nature of the Jews, both in the personal interaction with the Jewish innkeeper, and in the much broader clash between Jews and the late Roman Empire. It’s worth recalling that it was unusual for Jews to be found so far north in Italy during the 400s, because, in a preference that has remained almost constant to the present, Jews tended to cluster around seats of government and commerce. In the Italy of the 400s, this meant Jewish concentration around Rome, Milan, Ravenna, and Aquileia. More predictably, it’s notable that this Jew is not a rustic farmer, soldier, or craftsman, but a middleman.

The standard narrative of most apologetic histories of the Jews will earnestly feed readers the fairytale that Jews were sons of the soil, much like any other people, until Christians persecuted them, counter-productively it would seem, into powerful and exploitative financial positions. This is despite a clear record of evidence demonstrating that the special relationship between Jews and money preceded Christianity. Jews had settled among European host populations since ancient times, with the oldest communities located in the urban centers of the Mediterranean. A list of Jewish colonies in this area can be found in the First Book of Maccabees, and in the early Roman empire clusters of Jews could be found as far north as Lyon, Bonn and Cologne.[2] The economic nature of these communities was uniform, and similar to those in the East. Even prior to the Talmudic era, c.300–500 A.D., Jews had developed a strong interest and aptitude in commerce and banking and, from its beginning, Jewish involvement in these spheres was regarded by host populations as malevolent and exploitative. In one of the earliest examples, a papyrus from the first half of the first century B.C., a man named Heracles writes to a friend in Hellenistic Egypt about some associates who “detest the Jews.”[3] In another, dated to 41 A.D., an Alexandrian merchant warns a friend to “beware of the Jews.”[4] During the fourth century, Alexandria witnessed a number of anti-Jewish riots, almost all of them provoked by accusations of economic exploitation. Under Tiberius, several Jewish middlemen in Rome were discovered to have been misappropriating silver and gold, prompting the expulsion of 4000 Jews to Sardinia in 19 A.D.[5] In short, Namatianus’s Jewish innkeeper is not so much of an aberration as might first appear to those schooled only in mainstream apologetic scholarship.

It’s clear that Namatianus already has a pre-existing animus towards Jews, an aspect of his politics and worldview presumably shaped over decades as a Roman administrator. For Namatianus, this sullen innkeeper is primarily an anti-social “animal,” and a true example of his breed. Namatianus expresses no surprise at the character traits of the innkeeper, nor does he attempt to explain his complaints. He clearly expected his readers to understand and sympathize with what he has to say about Jews and Judaism. Namatianus rather nonchalantly sets the sullen Jew in the context of his tribe, pointing out before anything else that the innkeeper is part of an ethnically solipsistic race that sets itself apart even through diet by avoiding “sound human food” like seafood and pork (similar complaints were made by Juvenal in his Satires and Tacitus in his Histories). Roman hatred of Jewish separatism ran deep, with its origins at least as far back as Pompey’s siege of Jerusalem in 63 B.C. Jewish rebellion began almost immediately, and accelerated after the establishment of the province of Judea in 6 A.D. Roman officials were unanimous in attributing this rebellious behavior to Jewish ethnocentrism, the sense of Jewish uniqueness, and the Jewish belief that, as Tacitus expressed it, the East would be victorious and leaders from Judea would come to rule the world (Historiae, 5, 13: “ut valesceret Oriens profectique Iudeaea rerum potirentur”).

The sullen Jew encountered in Falesia Portus is money-driven. He “charges our bill for the bushes disturbed, the sea weed, Struck with our sticks, and clamours that his loss, Is grievous in the water that we drink.” Namatianus and his companions finish their enjoyment of the landscape only to find that their every move has been watched, and every broken branch accounted for. We might presume that this is a well-used process of exploitation for the innkeeper, regularly employed to milk ignorant travelers for more profits. Jews are thus not merely presented as a people apart, but unscrupulous, unreasonable, and untrustworthy in financial transactions of any type. In a scene almost comical, the Jewish innkeeper is so miserly and exploitative that he would even go so far as to demand money for water drunk from pools on his land, pleading that, by quenching their thirst, Namatianus and his men had caused him a “grievous” financial loss. Namatianus’s account of this stingy Jew, shamelessly hard in business, is a pointed rejoinder to those who claim that ‘tropes’ about Jewish financial misbehavior were a side-effect of the putatively accidental (!) entry of the Jews into highly lucrative moneylending niches during the Middle Ages.

Namatianus recounts that he responded to the innkeeper’s attempted exploitation with “fit answer to the filthy race,” by which we must assume that he responded with verbal abuse or aggression of some kind. The term “Jew” was itself a pejorative at the time, with even the Jewish Midrash containing a story about two Roman women who argue only to later reconcile apart from one outstanding issue — the insulted party could not forgive the other party for saying she “looked like a Jew” during the argument.[6] Roman aversion to Jewishness was such that both Vespasian and Titus refused to accept the honorific ‘Judaicus’ after having suppressed the great revolt and their victory in Judea (unlike the very willing traditional adoption of titles such as “Britannicus,” “Germanicus” and “Africanus”).

In popular Roman culture, two aspects of Jewish identity were singled out for particular scorn and derision — circumcision and the sabbath. As with diet, both were viewed as symbols of Jewish separatism, but both also included further strata of meaning. Namatianus’s use of the term gens obscena, “filthy race,” is directly connected with the remark on circumcision, and it’s likely that Namatianus responded to the innkeeper not only by referring to his Jewishness, but also with some kind of reference to circumcision and perversion. In the Roman mind, both were linked, and accusations of hyper-sexuality or perversion among Jews are common in the literature of the period. At the more comedic end of the scale, Juvenal chuckled at the strangeness of Jews who “worship the sky” and “by and by, shed their foreskins,” (Satires, 14.99), while at the more serious end there were accusations from figures like Tacitus that Jews were addicted to lust. Sexual slander of competing groups was of course extremely common on all sides during the period. The Jewish literature, for example, depicted Romans as addicted to pederasty, and gentiles in general as prone to bestiality. In this regard, Tractate Avodah Zarah 22b, an entire chapter of the Talmud dedicated to the subject, has some truly remarkable allegations, including the stunningly improbable account of a Rabbi who says he witnessed a gentile engage in bestiality with a goose before roasting and eating it, and the claim that “The animal of a Jew is more appealing to gentiles that their own wives.”

Namatianus’s comments on the sabbath are equally interesting. The allusion to the “chilly” nature of the sabbath, and coldness more generally in the first instance, is a likely reference to the then frequently mocked fact Jews could not light fires on that day. But Namatianus immediately reflects on something deeper in the Jewish personality, implying that this “cold” concept of a day of rest “charms their heart” because “their heart is even colder than their creed.” For Namatianus, there is something fundamentally cold, sterile, and inhuman about the Jews and their religion, something hinted at first in the exploitative approach of the Jewish innkeeper, but now expanded upon as a primary racial characteristic. The philosophical background influencing many Roman aristocratic groups, to which Namatianus belonged, included a respect for humanitas—the ability of men to be sociable. The coldness of Jews is found in their lack of humanitas, which was an essential structuring aspect of higher Roman society. Being incapable of humanitas, Jews were inevitably seen as being themselves disruptive and undesirable within a society they were not prepared to co-operate with but merely exploit. Such perspectives are remarkably similar to complaints made about the social behavior of Jews in the early twentieth century, as they entered and ascended the Western middle class, upsetting many social conventions in the process.

As well as “coldness,” the sabbath is also linked to the idea that Jews are given over to a “shameful sloth,” dictated by a god apparently lassatus or “wearied” and therefore, in a Roman culture where masculinity was linked to motion and action, irredeemably mollis or “effeminate.” When not engaged in active rebellion or sedition, one of the primary perceptions of Jews among the Romans was of a people prone to, as Tacitus put it (Historiae, 4, 3), “the charms of indolence.” That the brief interaction with the sullen innkeeper at Falesia Portus would prompt a reflection on the sabbath may indicate Namatianus’s opinion that the innkeeper was slothful. The complaint that Jews are unique in their apparent dedication to avoiding physical work has been common in anti-Jewish writing for almost 2000 years, and the linkage here is difficult to side-step. For Namatianus, the sullen Jew is cold and lazy, preferring, like a spider, the passive exploitation of those who fall into his web rather than the active earning of his own daily bread. In the Roman aristocratic worldview, such an approach to life is not only lacking in morality and human warmth, but is fundamentally effeminate.

It’s especially interesting that Namatianus implies that Jews are not merely superstitious in holding to these traditions, but also prone to advancing falsehood. He situates Jewish religious customs, “wild fancies,” as originating from “a bazaar of lies, Not even a child in their sleep would believe.” The reference to the bazaar or marketplace (catasta—literally, the stage on which auctions take place), is a further association with Jews and merchant activity, but it also suggests a proliferation or abundance of falsehood for profit, and the idea that the Jews themselves are a fountain of lies and exaggerations.

The section’s final four lines are perhaps the most thoughtful and poignant. Namatianus regrets that Judea had been conquered by Pompey and Titus because these conquests facilitated the ingestion of that which could not be digested. The annexation of Jewish territories and the free movement of Jews within the empire brought into the Roman body a “plague’s contagion” that “all the wider spreads.” The sullen Jewish innkeeper, who, in his rejection of humanitas, is not prepared to co-operate with his guests but merely to exploit them, is therefore merely symbolic of the broader gens obscena who reject humanitas and thus live within the Roman Empire not to co-operate and take part in it but merely to exploit and destroy it. Through such an approach, inconceivable though it may have been to his contemporaries, Namatianus argues that “The conquered presses on the conquering race.” The term has close resonance with Seneca’s complaint of the Jews that “the vanquished have given laws to their victors,”[7] as well as with some of the most famous and pessimistic anti-Jewish texts of the nineteenth century including Marr’s The Victory of Jewry over Germandom and Toussenel’s The Jews: Kings of the Epoch. Marie Roux comments, in her analysis of On His Return, that “The biological metaphor used by Rutilius forms part of his argumentation according to which Jews are and will remain pernicious enemies of Rome that had clearly taken advantage of Rome’s generosity. … Jews are presented as internal enemies that show the limits of Rome’s imperialist policy.”[8]

By making such clear references to Jewish misanthropy, financial exploitation, social disruptiveness, and status as an “internal enemy,” this remarkable poem by Rutilius Namatianus offers a shocking riposte from the early fifth century to those keen to portray such concepts as simply the warped byproduct of Christianity or as the recent invention of bigots. One of the most surprising aspects of the poem is how fresh it appears in its concerns and complaints. One might imagine it written today, referring perhaps to a sullen slumlord in Brooklyn, or to Jewish influence in the declining American empire. It is this last element that I find especially haunting. Namatianus was a man writing at the twilight of his age, in almost total disbelief that the all-conquering European force to which he belonged had succumbed to something so outwardly pathetic and yet so inwardly fanatical, cold, and unmoving. For me, the poem speaks volumes.

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