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Rabbinic Tales of Roman Origins - The ASOR Blog

Rabbinic Tales of Roman Origins

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
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By: Sarit Kattan Gribetz

What stories do we tell about our own origins? What tales do we recount about the origins of others? What happens when our narratives – those about ourselves, and those about others – merge?

Around the year 27 BCE, Livy began composing his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita. Because of the work’s great length, only some sections of the text have survived, among them Book 1, in which Livy recounts the stories of Rome’s origins.

Livy opens with Aeneas fleeing Troy and founding Lavinium in Latium. He then recounts the birth of Romulus and Remus to Rhea Silvia, a Vestal virgin; Romulus’ murder of his twin brother and his subsequent founding of Rome at the Palatine Hill; the institution of the city’s laws and governing structures; and the rape of the Sabine women.

Livy’s account includes the appointment of Numa as the next king of Rome, the consecration of the Temple of Janus and Rome’s priestly offices, Numa’s calendrical reforms, and so on. Livy tells these stories of origin in part to demonstrate Rome’s greatness – he writes in his prologue that his recollections of Rome’s past are “a source of satisfaction to celebrate to the best of my ability the history of the greatest nation on earth.”

The first-century poet Ovid, too, wrote of Roman origins. Rather than composing a chronological prose history starting in the distant past and proceeding to more recent times, though, Ovid anchored moments of early Roman history to dates in the annually recurring Roman year. His work on the Roman calendar, titled Fasti (“festivals”), is organized by month and day. Each date commemorates a different moment in the founding and development of Rome.

(University of Chicago)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Ovid’s Fasti begins with an ode to Janus, after whom the month of January is named. We read of Janus’ two heads, one looking back into the past while the other peers ahead to the future, and this description recalls the important role that Janus and his temple played in Rome’s early history. The month of March commemorates the god Mars, his rape of Rhea Silvia, followed by her conception of Romulus and Remus, “her belly plumped with celestial weight.”

The month in which we currently find ourselves, April, occupies an important place in Ovid’s work, too. It was on April 21 that, in antiquity, the festival of the Parilia took place, commemorating the day of Rome’s foundation as a city (which Ovid calls Rome’s birthday) as well as recalling the region’s pastoral past. Ovid begins his account of the day with an ode to the god Pales, the patron of sheep and shepherds – “Night is gone, dawn lifts. The Parilia calls me, not vainly… Gentle Pales, favor my song of pastoral rites, if I honor your deeds with my service” – and he concludes by invoking Rome’s origins and it subsequently unparalleled power: “A city rises (who could then have believed it?), to set its victor’s foot upon the earth.”

Livy and Ovid were not the only Romans who wrote about the origins of the empire in which they lived. The Jewish rabbis of late antiquity – also inhabitants of the Roman Empire – told their own tales about Roman origins. Just as Ovid embedded his history of Rome into a calendrical framework, the rabbis whose voices are recorded in the Palestinian Talmud also used a list of Roman festivals to tell their own version of Roman history.

The rabbinic tractate Avodah Zarah, devoted to regulating social and financial interactions between Jews and gentiles, includes a list of Roman festivals. The list, which incorporates public and private festivals, appears in the Mishnah to clarify the days on which Jews were forbidden from engaging in business transactions with their gentile neighbors (m. Avod. Zar. 1:3). We might view this list, however, also as a rabbinic version of an abbreviated Roman calendar, and, in its interpretation in the Palestinian Talmud (y. Avodah Zarah 1.2, 39c), as the impetus for recording rabbinic stories about Rome.

For example, in his explanation of the Kalends of January, the Roman New Year, Rav explains that, when the first human, Adam, realized that the days began growing longer after the winter solstice, Adam exclaimed: “קלנדס, meaning καλον dies, how beautiful is the day!” Adam declares, in a combination of Greek and Latin, that the increased sunlight following the winter solstice is miraculous, and that is why, according to this rabbinic narrative, the Romans call the first day of January the “Kalends.” In this rabbinic story, it is not Numa, a figure from Roman history, but rather Adam, a figure from the Jewish Bible, who established January as the start of the Roman year.


Photo by Sarit Kattan Gribetz.

In the Palestinian Talmud, the festival of Kratesis, too, is said to commemorate a series of events in which biblical figures, rather than Roman kings, get credit for the origins of Rome. We learn that King Solomon’s marriage to an Egyptian princess caused the angel Michael to stick a reed into the sea, pulling up muddy alluvium out of which the city of Rome was founded. Thereafter, Jeroboam’s sin of erecting two golden calves for his people to worship, and subsequent sins of idolatry committed by later Israelite kings, precipitated the birth of Remus and Romulus and the later inauguration of Numa as king of Rome.

In the Roman coin below, issued during Emperor Antoninus Pious’ reign in the mid-second century CE, a personified Tiber holds a reed into the river, celebrating Rome’s watery origins. The Palestinian Talmud’s story inverts this Roman myth when it describes the angel Michael placing a reed into the sea. The narrative thus claims that Rome emerged from the sea as divine punishment for King Solomon’s descent into idolatry, rather than out of an act of generosity from Rome’s gods. In doing so, however, it also credits – or blames – the Jews for the foundation of the city of Rome and the expansion of its empire.

(Ancient Coins Forum)

Ancient rabbis, as did Livy and Ovid, thus used these stories to construct and cultivate their own identities – as Romans, as rabbis, or as both – through engagement with Rome’s distant past.

One of the most fascinating dimensions of these stories is their merging of Roman and rabbinic history. In the rabbinic texts, the Roman New Year, and perhaps the Roman solar calendar more generally, was founded not – as Ovid posited – by the Roman kings Romulus and Numa, but rather by the biblical hero Adam, who observed the sun like an astronomer. The festival marking Rome’s expansion into eastern territories does not only commemorate Rome’s defeat of the Seleucids in 190 BCE nor Augustus’ victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, but also recalls the sins of Israelite kings, whose idolatrous practices are presented as the true causes for Rome’s founding.

In his prologue, Livy explains that “The special and salutary benefit of the study of history is to behold evidence of every sort of behavior set forth on a splendid memorial; from it you may select for yourself and for your country what to emulate, from it what to avoid, whether basely begun or basely concluded.” The rabbinic stories function in a similar fashion. They present their ancient Jewish audiences with a version of history meant to suggest how, as rabbinic Jews, they ought to act, and the behaviors they must avoid as they live within a Roman world.

Through telling these stories, rabbis made a place for themselves in Roman history and within the Roman calendar, simultaneously resisting Roman imperial rule while participating in Roman discourses about the empire’s origins. These rabbinic narratives thus articulate a unique Roman-rabbinic identity, which claims that Jews were central to Rome’s founding, but bemoans rather than celebrates Rome’s power.

Sarit Kattan Gribetz is Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University.


For Further Reading

Mary Beard, “A Complex of Times: No More Sheep on Romulus’ Birthday,” in Roman Religion, (ed. Clifford Ando; Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), 273-288.

Denis Feeney, Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Peter Schäfer, “Jews and Gentiles in Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah,” in The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture III, (ed. Peter Schäfer; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), 340.

Sarit Kattan Gribetz, “A Matter of Time: Writing Jewish Memory into Roman History,” AJSReview 40.1 (2016), 57-86.

Translations from Ovid, Fasti (trans. A. J. Boyle and R. D. Woodard; New York: Penguin, 2000) and Live, The Rise of Rome: Books 1-5 (trans. T. J. Luce; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).


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