Christopher B. Zeichmann

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Jews in the Early Roman Army, Part I: Unambiguous Instances in the Diaspora

I’ve found a number of inter-related issues frustrating when writing my dissertation around the question of who constitutes relevant data for discussion of Palestine and the early Roman Empire.  I’m planning a short series of blog posts around the authenticity politics of Judaism and the Roman army.

To start, it is commonly assumed that Jews were rarely or never in the Roman army.  Mary Smallwood, for instance, writes that “military service . . . was always bound to cause difficulties for the Jews of the Diaspora because of their dietary laws, which made their inclusion in gentile units impracticable, and their inability to carry out any duties on the Sabbath.”[1]  This post will offer evidence to the contrary, limiting our interest to the period 66-136 CE and those of unambiguously Jewish character.

1) A particularly well documented example is Jesus (also known as Sambathion) son of Papius who served as a decurion in Egypt.  Eight ostraca indicate he paid various taxes, ranging from 96-110 CE. The ostraca were all discovered in Edfu. Those collected in CPJ include 2.220; 2.298; 2.304; 2.311; 2.321; 2.405.

2) Hananiah the centurion paid the Jewish tax immediately before the War of Quietus broke out in Egypt (16 May 116 CE). O.Edfou 159 = CII 2.229

3) A centurion named Benjamin evidently lived in Parembole in the Nile Valley.  He had a son named Simon and a grandson named Thanoum. Notably, his grandson’s epitaph – located in Jaffa – has the word shalom on it in Aramaic script.  These suggest that Jewish identification remained important for later generations and was not abandoned as a matter of course after enlisting. CII 2.920

If we were to expand the period of interest, a number of other figures would be worthy of mention, including Hungarian Jews in the Roman army (e.g., CIL3.10315, 3.10318), Jews in the Royal Emesene Army (e.g., AE 1933.46-48; CII 1.640), as well as Jews serving under the Ptolemies and Seleucids are also known (e.g., CII 2.1450; CPJ 1.18-32).

In the next post, I will discuss a few Palestinian Jews who served in the Roman army.


[1] E. Mary Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule from Pompey to Diocletian: A Study in Political Relations (Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 20; 2nd ed.  Leiden: Brill, 1981) 127.