- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

By Erich S. Gruen
Harvard University Press, $39.95, 386 pages

The ancient Greeks and Romans occupy a place of special importance in Western history and culture, and they occupy a correspondingly significant place in Jewish culture as well only instead of being looked to as the source of much that is good and virtuous, the Greco-Roman world stands as the archetype of evil in Jewish tradition, the would-be destroyer of community, customs, and beliefs, the source of debauchery, ruthlessness, and bloodshed. Time and again, traditional Jewish texts cast Greece and Rome as the oppressor, the Goliath to Judaism's David, the antithesis of all that is good and holy. Even today, such attitudes survive in the narratives surrounding certain Jewish observances.
The festival of Hanukkah, for example, celebrates a Jewish victory over the forces of the Syrian Greek tyrant Antiochus, who had sought to stamp out the Jews' traditional practices. The observance of Tisha b'Av a day of mourning and fasting commemorates the sack of Jerusalem by the army of the Roman general (and later emperor) Titus. One of the climactic moments of the Yom Kippur liturgy recounts the brutal martyrdom of 10 illustrious rabbinic scholars at the hands of another wicked Roman emperor.
The list could go on, but even this abbreviated count raises a central question for the student of history: What was the actual relationship between Jews and their host cultures in the ancient world? This is one of the questions University of California historian Erich Gruen sets out to answer in "Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans." Mr. Gruen, a specialist in the history of the Hellenistic period and author of the magisterial volume "The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome," explores the complex and often ambiguous place of Jewish communities in the classical world and the ways in which Jewish literary culture grew and flourished in this diaspora.
He argues forcefully that Greece and Rome were not the unrelenting oppressors that Jewish tradition makes them out to be. His review of the evidence leads him, in fact, to a conclude that Greek and Roman attitudes towards the Jews was not uniformly or even predominantly hostile.
Unfortunately, however, Mr. Gruen argues his thesis so single-mindedly that it is sometimes difficult to know whether his conclusion is the product of an unbiased consideration of the evidence or merely support for his own preconceived ideas.
In the early days of the Roman Empire, according to Mr. Gruen, Jews outside the land of Israel outnumbered those inside it. Rome itself was home to as many as 60,000 Jews during this time, and the fact that ancient writers seem to have written little about them may suggest that they were not considered worthy of special notice perhaps, as Mr. Gruen suggests, because they were fully integrated into Roman society.
For their part, he notes, the Roman authorities could be astonishingly sensitive to Jewish practices.
If the ancient philosopher Philo is to be believed, the emperor Augustus ordered the authorities in charge of the free grain distribution system to hold grain in reserve for Jews when the distribution was held on their Sabbath, a day when Jews would be forbidden by religious strictures from receiving their allotments.
The Jews were similarly integrated into the city-state of Alexandria, which in Hellenistic times was ruled by the Greek successors of Alexander the Great and which was one of the most cultured cities in the ancient world. The Jews occupied their own quarter of the city and had some sort of institutional organization, headed by a Jewish official, to decide disputes, oversee contracts, and enact decrees. The Jews enjoyed civic privileges (indeed, many of them served in Alexandrian armies) and, as Mr. Gruen states, "no barriers … existed to prevent their engagement in the social and economic world of Ptolemaic Alexandria." Moreover, the Jews were able to participate in the life of the city without compromising their own beliefs: "We have no hint of internal conflict between the 'orthodox' and the 'modernists.'"
Mr. Gruen cites abundant evidence that Jewish communities were not only tolerated but also fully integrated into many Greek and Roman towns, and that Jews participated in the civic and cultural lives of their host nations. But the true test comes not during periods of tolerance and as even Mr. Gruen concedes, there were times when Jews in the classical world came under attack. In 38 A.D., for example, pogroms broke out against the Alexandrian Jewish community, with the complicity of the Roman governor.
As with similar attacks in 20th-century Europe, Jewish shops were looted, homes were burned, and people were murdered. Mr. Gruen does not avoid discussion of such evidence, but he takes pains to exonerate the Greeks and Romans from the charge of anti-Semitism. He contends, for example, that the Alexandrian pogroms were sparked by machinations against the politically weak Roman governor in Egypt and were carried out by a marginalized and resentful indigenous population, rather than by Greeks or Romans.
Weighing this violent episode against many years of apparent tolerance, Mr. Gruen may be correct in characterizing the pogrom as an unusual and temporary interruption in the "lengthy and productive relationship between Jews and Greeks" in Alexandria, but he nevertheless seems to be in something of a hurry to reach that conclusion.
Similarly, Mr. Gruen seeks to explain away the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 19 A.D. as a blanket action against all groups who followed alien rites. In general, he says, "the [ancient] texts reveal neither intolerance or racism. And nothing in them suggests that Romans were bent on persecution." Ultimately, this question comes down to a matter of interpretation. Are the periods of tolerance more significant than the episodes of violence and persecution? Mr. Gruen obviously believes so, but one comes away from this book with the feeling that the answer is more difficult and nuanced than he suggests.

Mark Miller is a Washington writer.

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