Roman Attitudes to Jews and Christians in the 1st Century AD, by David Coplowe

The Romans were deeply religious and believed that any failure to worship their gods affected the wellbeing of society. The Latin word religio can best be translated as “obligation to the gods”; Roman religion and Roman politics could not be separated.[1] The cultus deorum defined the correct way to perform traditional rites of worship and was essential in maintaining the pax deorum, the peace or goodwill of the gods towards Rome.[2] Pietas, the practice of Rome’s traditional cults was therefore both a political and a religious act, failure to practice it was atheism and was severely punished.

With some notable exceptions Romans were unusually tolerant of other races and their religions. Tiberius attempted a reform of public morals, in which traditional worship formed a major part; he abolished all foreign cults and banished their adherents from Rome.[3]  Claudius also attempted to check the growth in the worship of foreign deities and to restore the traditional gods,[4] and in 41AD Claudius issued an edict specifically banning proselytising by Jews.[5] New cults were regarded as superstitio and were proscribed by the Roman authorities.[6]

Jewish cultic praxis was recognised as being ancient by Rome, and this provided it with legitimacy; as did the regular sacrifices on behalf of the Emperor at the Jerusalem Temple. Jews were considered ‘licensed atheists’.[7] Outside Judea the worship of  local gods by Gentiles was condoned,[8]  and there is evidence of Jews taking part in traditional Roman cultic observances in the 1st century BC.

There were arguably less than 1000 ‘Christians’[9] worldwide by the middle of the 1st century AD,[10] and ‘Christianity’[11] was initially seen as a Jewish cult and benefited from the official toleration shown to Jews.[12] Most ‘Christians’ were actively proselytising messianic Jews who refused to acknowledge the Roman gods which inevitably brought them into conflict with the authorities. At some indeterminate time toleration of ‘Christians’ appears to have been revoked, however we know that by the reign of Trajan (98-117AD) merely to confess  to being a ‘Christian’ was a capital offence.[13]

I have some doubts about the received wisdom regarding the Neronic persecutions, and the accuracy of the ancient accounts; there can be little doubt however that the Roman populace would have attributed the fire, and any subsequent disasters, to the ‘atheism’ shown by ‘Christians’ refusing to worship the local deities.[14] This led to ‘Christians’ being held in low esteem by Romans in general which allowed Nero, some two years after the fire, to use them  as scapegoats.[15] After this we have no further evidence of the prosecution of Christians until the reign of Domitian, and even then it is scant. By the reign of Trajan (98-117AD) ‘Christianity’ per se was illegal and remained so until Constantine legalised it in 313AD.[16]

No actions against the Jewish community by Nero are recorded and, even after the Jewish rebellions, there is no evidence that Rome persecuted Jews outside Judea. The Jewish community in Rome survived the 69-73 AD war and subsequent rebellions with an unbroken history of accommodation with the authorities.[17]


David Coplowe



David Coplowe, B.A. Hons (Open), M.A.





[1] See Pagels 1979: pp33-4.

[2] Cicero: Deorum 2.8; Simpson 1941: pp372-81.

[3] Tacitus: Annals II.85; Suetonius: Tiberius 34-36.

[4] Dio: LX.23.1; Tacitus: Annals 11.11, 11.15, 12.3, 12.8, 12.23-24; Suetonius: Claudius 21.2, 25.5.

[5] Josephus: A.J. 19.279-290; Claudius: Ltr.Alex. [CPJ I 151: pp36–55]: L.94-95.

[6] Janssen 1979: pp131-159; Rüpke,2007: p5.

[7] This term was coined by De Ste. Croix (1963: p25).

Fredriksen (2014: p21) argues that Jews attended out of respect without actively participating in sacrifice. Herod the Great was known to have attended pagan sacrifices (Josephus: A.J. 14.388).

[8] Boyarin argues that in Exodus 22:29 Elohim is plural & that therefore ‘Judaism’ did not deny the existence of other gods. (Boyarin 2012: pp43-7.

[9] Lampe 2003: p83.

[10] Sanders 2000: p136.

[11] The terms ‘Christian’ and ’Christianity’ were not used until late in the 1st century AD, the term ‘Judaism’ until the 19th .

[12] Heemstra 2010: p198; Heemstra 2014: pp335,337,347; contra Barclay 2014: p320.

[13] Pliny: Letters: Book 10:96.

[14] It was at this time that two prominent ‘legal atheists’, Peter and Paul, one a Roman citizen, were executed by the authorities in Rome, possibly for this very same offence.

[15] Suetonius: Nero 16.2

[16] Pliny: Epist. 10:96.

[17] Barclay 1996: p319.



Primary Sources with website URLs

Cicero, Marcus, Tullius, ‘De Natura Deorum’.

Claudius, ‘I 151 The Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians’.

Dio, Cassius, ‘Historiae Romanae’.

Josephus, ‘The Antiquities of the Jews’.

Pliny the Younger, The Letters of the Younger Pliny.

Suetonius, ‘Suetonius – The Twelve Caesars (De Vita Caesarum)’.

Tacitus, ‘The Annals of Tacitus’.


Modern Sources

Barclay, John M G. 1996. ‘The Jews of the Diaspora’, in Early Christian Thought in Its Jewish Context (Cambridge: CUP), pp.27–40

Barclay, John M G. 2014. ‘“Jews” and “Christians” in the Eyes of Roman Authors C. 100CE’, in Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries: How to Write Their History, ed. by Peter J. Tomson and Joshua Schartz (Boston: Leiden Brill), pp.313–26

Boyarin, Daniel. 2012.The Jewish Gospels The Story of the Jewish Christ, (New York: New Place); Paperback 2013

De Ste. Croix, G.E.M. 1963. ‘Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted’, Past and Present, 26, pp.6–38

Fredriksen, Paula. 2014 .‘How Later Contexts Affect Pauline Content, or: Retrospect Is the Mother of Anachronism’, in Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries: How to Write Their History, ed. by Peter J. Tomson and Joshua Schartz (Boston: Leiden Brill), pp.17–51

Gruen, Erich S. 2002. Diaspora – Jews amidst Greeks and Romans (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press)

Heemstra, Marius 2010. ‘The Interpretation and Wider Context of Nerva’s Fiscus Judaicus Sestertius’, in Judea and Rome in Coins 65 BCE – 135 CE (London: Spink), pp.187–202

Heemstra, Marius 2014. ‘The Fiscus Judaicus: Its Social and Legal Impact and a Possible Relation with Josephus’ Antiquities’, in Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries: How to Write Their History, ed. by Joshua Schwartz and Peter J. Tomson (Boston: Leiden Brill)

Janssen, L. F. (1979) ‘“Superstitio” and the Persecution of the Christians’, Vigiliae Christianae, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 131–159.

Lane, William L. 1998. ‘Social Perspectives on Roman Christianity during the Formative Years from Nero to Nerva: Romans, Hebrews, 1 Clement’, in Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome, ed. by Karl P. Donfried and Peter Richardson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), pp.196–244

Lampe, Peter. 2003. Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, ed. by Marshall D Johnson, trans. by Michael Steinhauser (London: T&T Clark International)

Pagels, Elaine. 1979. The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books Edition 1989 (New York: Random House)

Rüpke, J. (ed.) 2007 A Companion to Roman Religion, Wiley-Blackwell.

Sanders, Jack. 2000. Charisma, Converts, Competitors: Societal and Sociological Factors in the Success of Early Christianity (London: SCM Press)

Simpson, Adelaide D. 1941. ‘Epicureans, Christians, Atheists in the Second Century’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association: pp.372–81

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