To all Jews who live in Genoa

Those Jews of Genoa had addressed their ruler, as they would have done a century or two earlier no less frankly, to ask for permission to renovate and extend their religious property. Theoderic was cautious in his response.8

To all Jews who live in Genoa

When we are the object of requests, we always wish to give our assent to what is just. Equally, however, we want to make sure that our generosity does not give rise to fraud and trickery carried out under cover of law—especially in matters of religion.

Roman emperors always had to worry about the way they were being used. Most lawmaking consisted of responses to requests from interested parties, who did not always make the fullest and most frank representation of the facts that underlay these requests, and often the imperial blessing appeared to many as a support for the grasping, the greedy, and the well connected.

So we do not want people who are devoid of God’s grace to become too full of themselves and lord it over others.

No Jew was surprised to hear this. The fundamental fact of religious life in the later empire was the absolute authority of Christianity. The question is not whether the Romans disadvantaged Judaism, but how much. This is still far from anti-Semitism in its modern sense, for Christian condemnation focused on religious belief and practice, not nationality, ancestry, or antiscientific notions of race. A Jew who converted to Christianity lost any taint of his former belief almost immediately, and gained all the advantages of converting personal tours bulgaria.

So we are approving here by these presents that it is permitted to replace the roof on the walls of your synagogue, and we grant approval to your petition insofar as it conforms with imperial legislation. But there must be no adding of adornments or expansion of the structures. And you should know that you will not escape the stringency of the law. Even in the renovations we have approved, know that we only grant authority if the thirty years prescription does not prevent it. Why do you ask for what you should be avoiding? We grant permission, but we are right to refuse to approve the prayers of those who are in error.

That “thirty years prescription”: if any property claim could be shown to have remained unchallenged for that long (in practical terms at this moment, it meant since before Odoacer’s rise to power), it would be left untouched. This was Roman conservatism enshrined at the center of Theoderic’s lawmaking and law-managing, for it put in place a strong bias in favor of the past.

Elaborately engrossed

The community that received this message—elaborately engrossed, very likely on purple-dyed vellum, ceremoniously handed over by elaborately robed and attended officials in the local hall of government—will not have mistaken its purport: very limited approval for a basic request, with stern and clear limitations. But the letter has a concluding sentence, the one we already quoted:

“We cannot impose religion, because no one can be forced to believe against his will.”

We should hear the diplomatic restraint: assertion of principle hedged with cautious enactment. This ruler leans slightly away from the most intolerant of emperors and stands in the middle of the road for traditional Roman government—that is, the government of Christian emperors of the fourth and fifth centuries Greek word as do-goodism.

Theoderic wrote to the Genoese

So when, not long after this, Theoderic wrote to the Genoese Jewish community again, beginning this time with the other platitude I quoted above (“Obeying the law is the mark of civility”), he renewed the theme of civility as the core of city life, civility that distinguishes people from rude rustic life and from the life of beasts. Whatever protections the law allowed—those they could have.

Tolerance was not universal, and on another day the Jews of Rome were the victims of a very modern-sounding hate crime: arson. Theoderic was again generous and restrained, insisting on punishment for the criminals, but cautioning that if there were any charges to be leveled against the Jews themselves, those charges were also to be the object of formal legal attention. The Jews of Rome would not have been unreasonable to think this response a mixed blessing, but it is impeccably fair in form and apparent content.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.