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In the Roman empire, the legal status of religio licita (tolerated religion) meant that adherents of a certain religion enjoyed privileges such as collecting taxes, exemption from military service, and exemption from the official Imperial cult. In the early empire, Judaism was the only tolerated religion besides the Imperial religion itself. This was not uncontroversial, Tiberius argued for the banishment of all "foreign cults" from Rome, "especially the Egyptian and the Jewish rites".

In Roman understanding, in marked contrast to Greek tradition, religion was something that was practiced in public, and participation in any sort of mystery religion was punishable by law. Christianity was expressedly declared religio illicita (illicit religion) by Domitian in the 80s AD as it was perceived as a superstitio Iudaica, a Jewish superstition divided from Judaism proper.

Under Constantine the Great, Christianity and other religions became tolerated with the Edict of Milan in 313. Toleration did not extend to religions that practiced human sacrifice, such as Druidism. This state of affairs lasted until 380, when Nicene Christianity was adopted as the Roman state religion, and in the following years, persecution of pagan and non-Nicene cults began, Priscillian executed for heresy in 385, and Theodosius I outlawing pagan rituals in 391.

It is often asserted that the Roman empire differentiated between "lawful" (religio licita) and "illicit" (religio illicita) religions. For example, that Judaism was a religio licita and Christianity a religio illicita. The term religio licita first appears with Tertullian (160-235), in Apologia 21, and apparently "had no official connotation"[1] and Tessa Rajak goes so far as to argue that Tertullian originated it.[2]

There is no evidence that the Romans spoke of Judaism as a religio licita and arguments sometimes raised[3] that an edict of Julius Caesar granted Judaism this status is by no means accepted by all. This argument is based on the account of the Jewish historian Josephus in his Antiquities (14.211-28) but nothing there amounts to granting Judaism the status of religio licita. Both Rajak and Leonard Victor Rutgers[4] address the problematic nature of Josephus' evidence.

Rutgers argues that the Roman state had no "Jewish policy." The various edicts listed by Josephus were local, ad hoc rulings by Roman magistrates formulated in response to particular incidents and situations as they arose.[5] These edicts of toleration were not general and empire wide, but seem to have been issued on a city by city basis. Though these senatus consulta were ad hoc in nature, they also served as legal precedents to which future governors and emperors could appeal.

There is no evidence at all for the claim often made that under the emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 CE) Christianity became a religio illicita; in fact, it would be strange if Domitian could have made such a ruling since the term did not yet exist and as noted, was not used officially. From the evidence it is far from clear that Domitian was even aware of Christianity as a group distinct from Judaism, much less persecuted its adherents.[6] J.E.A. Crake observes that "It cannot be said that there is a very clear picture of Domitian's attitude toward Christians. Christian writers have picked him out as hostile, but they seem a little uncertain why he merited this distinction."[7]

The evidence against Domitian derives largely from Eusebius, who preserves in his Ecclesiastical History what purports to be a portion of a work by Melito of Sardis, who died ca. 180 and who was supposed to have been bishop of that city. Only fragments of his work remain and most of it comes to us (as with so many other early Christian writings) by way of Eusebius. This document, entitled Petition to Antoninus, refers to persecutions by Domitian: "Of all the emperors, the only ones ever persuaded by malicious advisers to misrepresent our doctrine were Nero and Domitian, who were the source of the unreasonable custom of laying false information against the Christians" (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.26). But as T. D. Barnes notes, “All other authors who depict Domitian as a persecutor derive their information directly or indirectly from Melito. This dependence nullifies their testimony. For Melito himself had no precise evidence: he employed (or invented) the story of persecution by Domitian to justify his argument that only bad emperors condemned Christians.”[8] Even W. H. C. Frend, who says that "Domitian was not a man to tolerate religious deviations", cannot summon up much enthusiasm for a Domitianic persecution, concluding that "the persecution of Domitian does not appear to have amounted to very much."[9]

As Crake concludes, "As most scholars recently have argued, there was no law, either existing section of criminal law, or special legislation directed against the Christians, under which Christians were prosecuted in the first two centuries" and that "there is little evidence to support the notion of Domitian as a prosecutor of Christians"[10] and T.D. Barnes agrees, going on to observe that "It would be a mistake to assume that there was a single Roman policy towards foreign cults which was unambiguous and unchanging - or even that Roman law provided unequivocal guidance on the subject."[11]

It is therefore incorrect to speak of any official Roman designation of a religion being religio licita as such a designation implies an official policy that cannot be shown to have existed. The Roman government did not interfere with the ancestral customs and traditions of the various ethnic groups under its rule if they did not pose a threat to the state; and if Judaism was tolerated it was because in general, all religions (as indistinguishable from culture and ethnicity) were tolerated. Rutgers argues that "Roman magistrates treated the Jews the way they did not because they were consciously tolerant, but simply because they had no reason to hinder the free exercise of Jewish religious practices."[12] There was, in effect, no rational basis for an edict declaring Judaism to be religio licita or for Christianity to be designated as a religio illicita; it would have been unnecessary in a world where while frowned upon, superstition (superstitio) which is how many Romans saw Judaism and Christianity, was not illegal.[13]

See also


  1. ^ Solomon Grayzel, "The Jews and Roman Law," Jewish Quarterly Review (1968), 95; cf. Ben Witherington III, "The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 1997), 542
  2. ^ Tessa Rajak, "Was There a Roman Charter for the Jews?" JRS 74 (1984), 107-123
  3. ^ E. Mary Smallwood, "The Jews Under Roman Rule," (Brill, 2001),539
  4. ^ “Roman Policy towards the Jews: Expulsions from the City of Rome during the First Century C.E.,” Classical Antiquity 13 (1994), 56-74
  5. ^ Rutgers, 58-59
  6. ^ This inability to distinguish Jew from Christian would not have been limited to emperors. Julie Galambush believes that "one cannot conclude that a new religion called Christianity existed at the turn of the second century." See idem, The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005)
  7. ^ J.E.A. Crake, "Early Christians and Roman Law," Phoenix 19 (1965), 66
  8. ^ T.D. Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford, 1985), 150
  9. ^ Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (New York University Press, 1967), 158
  10. ^ Crake, 70
  11. ^ T.D. Barnes, "Legislation against the Christians, "JRS 58 (1968), 50
  12. ^ Rutgers 73
  13. ^ Rutgers, 68. "Before the fourth century, no technical legal term for religious crimes seems to have existed."


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