Original Research - Special Collection: Nicholas Allen Festschrift

Jews in Republican Rome: The literary sources

Johan Steenkamp
In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi | Vol 57, No 1 | a2943 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ids.v57i1.2943 | © 2023 Johan Steenkamp | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 13 February 2023 | Published: 29 November 2023

About the author(s)

Johan Steenkamp, Faculty of Theology, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa


There is considerable literary evidence that gives us some insight into the Jewish culture in the city of Rome from different perspectives after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Yet, there are few primary accounts of Jews in the city of Rome during the 1st century BCE. In this article it is argued that there was already a significant Jewish population in Rome during the middle of the 1st century BCE and it already had a noted influence on daily life in the capital city. In the wake of the Roman Republic’s imperialistic successes, the city saw an influx of foreign peoples and cultures, including Jews, and they were mentioned in the literature of the time. The little that was written about Jews during this time pertain to those aspects of their culture and religion that appeared peculiar to the Romans, especially in the so-called higher genres of philosophical treatises or history. Yet, we also have texts describing everyday live in Republican Rome – lyric and elegiac poetry. These, too, feature references to Jewish culture. Although Roman poetry is never explicitly interested in Jews or Jewish people, it did paint a picture of Rome at street-level, so to speak, through the eyes of a literate citizen and this picture sometimes included Jews. In this article this type of evidence available to us will be reconsidered to fill in the gap in our historical knowledge.

Contribution: This article presents an interpretation of Jews and Jewish practices mentioned during the 1st century BCE in Roman poetry. The poetry of Tibullus, Horace and Ovid, written from a Roman perspective, have been contextualised in their literary traditions and informed by the established philosophical opinions of the time from Cicero, Varro and Lucretius. The result is a useful discussion of how extensive and how reliable these sources are for the understanding of Jewish culture in Rome during the 1st century BCE.


Ovid; Horace; Cicero; Jewish history; Republican Rome; Latin poetry; Tibullus

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