In 19 CE, Tiberius expelled the Egyptian and Jewish residents from the city of Rome. The move was effective only within the city itself, not across the Empire, and it was not a permanent measure. What was it, then, that Tiberius was trying to achieve?
Josephus: Jewish Antiquities, 81:
There was a certain Jew, a complete scoundrel…He enlisted three confederates…they urged her [Fulvia] to send purple and gold to the Temple in Jerusalem. They, however, took the gifts.
Tacitus: Annals, II.85:
Another debate dealt with the proscription of the Egyptian and Jewish rites, and a senatorial edict directed that 4000 descendants of enfranchised slaves, tainted with superstition and suitable in point of age, were to be shipped to Sardinia and there employed in suppressing brigandage…The rest had orders to leave Italy unless they renounced their impious ceremonial by a given date.
Suetonius: Tiberius, XXXVI:
He suppressed the foreign cults and the religions of the Egyptians and the Jews, obliging those who practised such rituals to burn their religious garments and all their paraphernalia. The young men of the Jewish people he had sent to regions where the climate was severe, ostensibly on military service. The rest of that people, and others of similar beliefs, he banished from the city...
Dio: Roman History, LVII.18.5a:
As the Jews had flocked to Rome in great numbers and were converting many of the natives to their ways, he banished most of them.
So, for Josephus it was a case of blanket punishment because of the behaviour of a few reprobates towards a wealthy convert to Judaism. It seems a bit of an extreme move. Josephus was writing about sixty years after the event, and he was beholden to the Flavian Imperial Family for his life. As much he defended the Jewish people and Jewish values, he also had to protect himself and show a suitable degree of deference to the rulers of Rome. He might have been trying to keep in Vespasian's and Titus' good books.
If Tacitus had lived today, he would have read the Daily Mail. He was a staunch defender of all things Roman; if Rome were in trouble, then it was the fault of the disintegration of Roman moral values and the influences of outsiders. Importantly, he mentioned that it would have been citizens — 'descendants of enfranchised slaves' — who were shipped off to Sardinia on military service. A citizen could not be expelled unless they were sentenced to exile after trial; Tiberius and the Senate were taking advantage of a legal loophole to rid the city of a group of citizens. But if they relinquished their beliefs, then they were allowed to stay. Tacitus' implication was that Rome needed to be protected from pernicious 'outside' influences.
Suetonius, like Tacitus, implied that Rome felt threatened by some 'alien' influence. If these 'outsiders' were prepared to acknowledge themselves as 'Roman', then they would have been allowed to stay. Again, though, because citizens were involved, they had to be banished under the pretext of military service.
The picture presented by Dio is rather different; he gives proselytism as the reason for expulsion. It certainly fits with the idea of outside pressure being placed on Rome, but he was writing 200 years after the event: can he really be trusted? Moreover, at the time that Dio was writing, there was extensive Christian proselytising taking place. It would not have been unthinkable for him to associate Christian mission to Christianity's Jewish roots. Essentially, was he projecting his present onto the past?
What is clear from the sources is that the move was expedient. It was not permanent, and it was hastily enforced. If Tiberius had felt that Rome was being seriously and consistently pressurised by outsiders, then he would have conducted a far more thorough and consistent expulsion. The most likely explanation is that Rome was suffering from some kind of unrest; there are suggestions of a food shortage, or that Germanicus' death upset the population. By banishing a large group of people it could both relieve the pressure on the food supply and make it look as if the State was taking remedial action against perceived troublemakers. Like much of Roman policy, it was a pragmatic solution to a temporary problem. The expelled populations soon returned, that is if they actually left at all in any great numbers.
Based on chapter 5 of my dissertation: Inside-out: Racism and the Early Imperial Roman Cultural Ideal
- Dio: Roman History, trans. E Cary (Harvard, 1914-1927).
- Josephus: Jewish Antiquities, trans. L Feldman (London, 1969).
- Suetonius: Tiberius, trans. C Edwards (Oxford, 2000).
- Tacitus: Annals, trans. J Jackson (London, 1943).