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Diaspora In Antiquity

ISSUE:  Spring 2003
Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans. By Erich Gruen. Harvard University Press. $39.95

There are two delightful and unexpected chapters in Erich Gruen’s Diaspora, which deals with the mindset and the social condition of the Jews who dwelt outside Judaea in the Greco-Roman world, before Rome destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70 A.D. They examine diaspora humor, first in Jewish historical novellas of the period, and then in the reworking of various narratives taken from the Bible. Number one on the list of historical fiction is the story of Esther. A surprising choice, at first sight. Esther is the archetype of the beautiful Jewish heroine who saves her people with her courage and her intelligence. But Gruen’s notes bring out points that sober theologians have overlooked. Whoever wrote the story of Esther used the twin weapons of the humorist, exaggeration and parody, quite as deftly as Mark Twain.

We meet the silly king of Persia, Ahasuerus, whose historical model was probably Xerxes, the monarch who tried and failed utterly to incorporate Greece into his empire in the early 5th century B.C. Exaggeration marks his entry into the story: Ahasuerus hosts a banquet that lasts a full 180 days, and invites every official in his empire and every officer in his army. This orgy of imperial gluttony is to culminate in a visitation by the gorgeous queen Vashti, Ahasuerus’ trophy wife. But Vashti said no. This provokes consternation among the king’s advisors. What if all the wives in the empire followed Vashti’s example and said no to their husbands’ commands? Something must be done. Vashti is banished forthwith from the royal presence. To find a replacement, Ahasuerus orders his empire scoured for comely virgins who will be brought to the royal harem and there undergo beauty treatments for a year before the king tests their talents in the royal bed.

Mordecai, a Jew whom the Babylonian Captivity had brought to the Persian capital of Susa, has an attractive cousin, Esther, an orphan whom he has raised from childhood. He pushes her into the contest, advising her, however, to conceal her Jewish ethnicity. The year passes. The king, having sampled all the virgins offered to him, chooses Esther and crowns her queen.

Enter the evil Haman, grand vizier. The silly king issues a command that all must do obeisance to Haman whenever he appears. Mordecai the Jew refuses, and Haman’s outrage is such that he orders not only Mordecai’s death, but the annihilation of all Jews in the empire as well. Haman, the irrational tyrant driven mad by power, conforms more to a Greek archetype than a Jewish one. But there is a touch of the marketplace to the tale. Haman himself offers to pay the not inconsiderable expenses of his genocide initiative, which overcomes any scruples that the king might have had.

Mordecai resorts to sackcloth and ashes, and Esther, on hearing of it, sends him a suit of new clothes. But Mordecai expects more of her than that. He persuades her to risk an uninvited interview with Ahasuerus, and Ahasuerus is still sufficiently entranced with his gorgeous wife that he promises her anything she wants, even half his kingdom. But the prudent Esther declines half the kingdom. She merely invites the king and Haman to dine with her on two consecutive evenings.

Then chance intervenes. Ahasuerus cannot sleep at night, and knowing that nothing is more soporific than a dull history book, orders that the royal chronicles be read to him. But before the king dozes off, the reader reaches an entry which told how Mordecai had once warned of a royal assassination attempt and saved the king’s life. How had Mordecai been rewarded? Not at all, it seems. Ahasuerus is dismayed. He turns to Haman for advice. What guerdon, he asks, should be granted a man whom the king wants especially to honor, and Haman, thinking the man must be himself, replies that he should be robed in royal apparel, set on a horse with a diadem and led through the streets by a great courtier who should proclaim the honorand’s excellence to all.

The king agrees. Mordecai is set on the horse with a diadem and Haman led him through the streets of the city, and proclaimed Mordecai’s virtues. But note that the royal diadem was set on the horse. Not on Mordecai. Erich Gruen discerns a touch of republican mockery.

Then comes Haman’s final reversal of fortune. As Ahasuerus and Haman dine with Esther, the king wants to learn what her request is. Esther asks that the Jews be protected from the massacre planned by their great enemy. Shocked and horrified, the king, who had himself agreed to the massacre a few days before, demands to know who it was that ordered such an atrocity. Esther points to Haman. What happens next is tragedy turned to farce. Outraged, the king retreats to the garden, evidently to cool off. Haman throws himself at Esther’s feet, begging mercy, and the king returns, thinks that Haman is trying to rape his wife and orders his death. As it happened, Haman, never one to do things by half, had already built a gallows for hanging Mordecai which was 50 cubits high. That is 870 feet, if the author of this novella used the Roman cubit. This skyscraper gallows serves to hang Haman himself.

But the novella does not stop there. Ahasuerus gives the Jews the right to destroy their enemies, and they butcher Haman’s ten sons, 500 anti-Semites in the palace at Susa, 300 in the city of Susa itself and 75,000 in the provinces of the empire. Gruen concludes that the standard interpretations of the Esther story with its brave, beautiful, and bloodthirsty heroine need to be rethought. This is not a moral tale intended to console anxiety-ridden Jews, nor is it wish-fulfillment against their enemies. The mockery and exaggeration give it away. It is a witty aetiological myth which explains how the festival of Purim came to be. Once upon a time, Haman, the Agagite, the enemy of all Jews, had cast Pur, that is the lot to destroy them, in the days of the witless king, Ahasuerus. Hence “Purim”.

The novella of Judith and Holofernes, whose name Gruen spells sometimes with an “?” and sometimes with a “ph,” tells a tale of seduction, murder and finally the salvation of the Jews, and the ludicrous element is manifest. Nebuchanezzar, king of Assyria sends his great army commanded by Holofernes against the Jewish town of Bethulia, which we cannot locate. Holofernes is warned by the Ammonite sheikh Achior that when the Jews had God’s favor, they could never be conquered, but once they transgressed and God withdrew his favor, disaster followed. Consequently Holofernes would be well advised to discover what sins the Jews had committed lately so as to gauge their vulnerability. When the beautiful widow Judith deprives Holofernes of his head, the elders of Bethulia display it on the city battlements, and the sight of it causes poor Achior to faint. When he revives, he converts to Judaism, and his circumcision is described in graphic detail.

The point that Gruen makes is that none of the diaspora literature, whether it is the story of Esther, of Tobit, Judith or Susanna, or the biblical recreations of the Testament of Abraham, which tells how Abraham tries to outwit Yahweh and avoid death, or the Testament of Job which relates how Job defeated Satan, betrays any sense that the Jews saw themselves as a people pining in exile. The goyim in this literature are not too bright, but neither are they a menacing presence, even in the story of Esther which follows the familiar story line of a hero (or heroine) rescuing the Chosen People from a violent anti-Semite. This is a point Gruen develops throughout the whole of this book.

The Diaspora outnumbered the Jews in Judea very early. In 59 B.C., Cicero defended Flaccus, a former governor of the province of Asia, the western portion of Asia Minor filled with Greek cities, and he railed against the Jewish onlookers who demonstrated loudly against his client, for as governor Flaccus had interfered with the tithe that the Jews in his province sent each year to the Temple in Jerusalem. Who were these Jews and why were they in Rome? A couple years earlier, Pompey who was later to become Julius Caesar’s rival, had arrived back in Rome with booty from his eastern campaigns and some of the captives who flooded the Roman slave market were Jews, for one of Pompey’s conquests was Judaea. Roman slaves became freedmen, and freedmen’s sons became full Roman citizens, but the process took more than two years. The Jews who heckled Cicero and provoked his bitter rejoinder which we can still read in his Pro Flacco, were probably long-time residents.

More Jews lived outside Judaea by this time than within it. They had emigrated of their own free will. Roman rule was generally benign. The Romans may have thought the religion of the Jews was odd, but they respected its oddities. Even in Alexandria, where relations between the Greeks and the local Jewish community were edgy, the authorities were fair.

But Gruen confines himself to the period before the destruction of the Second Temple. In 66 A.D., as the reign of the emperor Nero was winding down, Judaea rose in revolt. Roman rule in Judaea before the revolt had been tactless, but what actuated the uprising was Jewish nationalism led by the Zealots. Did the diaspora share their ideals? Possibly not. At least not entirely, but when the Temple was destroyed in 70 A. D. and the tithe which the diaspora Jews once paid the Temple became a tax that supported the cult of Jupiter Capitolinus, the Jewish attitude underwent a change. In the Trajan’s reign, there was a bitter revolt in the diaspora, centering in Cyrene, Egypt and Cyprus, and in the reign of Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, the revolt of Bar Kochba on Judaea resulted in Jews being banished from the city of Jerusalem. But not from Judaea, and for that matter, the law banning Jews from residing in Jerusalem was, like all Roman laws, poorly enforced. Rome kept up its patronage of the rabbinical school at Tiberias where the nasi continued to direct the synagogues of the diaspora. Yet the climate of opinion in the diaspora was never what it was before the destruction of the Second Temple, the period which Gruen has chosen to examine. Rome became another Babylon, standing in the way of Jewish nationhood.

We might draw a parallel with the Samaritans, the remnant of the “Lost Ten Tribes of Israel” centered at the old religious capital of Shechem, renamed Neapolis by the Romans. They seem to have been generally loyal to Rome until their temple on Mt. Gerizim was destroyed in 484 A.D. Thereafter they rose in a series of bloody revolts which left them decimated. Gruen prefers to focus on the Jewish diaspora before the Second Temple was destroyed, and he finds that the Jews living peacefully in the Gentile communities where they had emigrated, expecting and usually receiving just treatment from government authorities, and not yet much troubled by divided loyalties.


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