Meanwhile. beyond its walls, in the teeming streets of a city whose population now numbered well over a million, many had begun to wonder what precisely it meant to talk of the Roman people. Rome, as Claudius had reminded the Senate in his speech, had been founded on immigration. Exotic languages had been heard in the city for centuries. Street names still bore witness to the settlement of foreigners on them in ancient times: the Vicus Tuscus, where Etruscans had once congregated, and the Vicus Africus. Yet even as many Romans saw in their city’s diversity the homage paid by the world to its greatness, and a potent source of renewal, so others were less convinced. All very well to host immigrants, so long as they ended up Roman; but what if they preserved their barbarous ways, infecting decent citizens with their superstitions? ‘In the capital, appalling customs and disgraceful practices from across the world are forever cross-pollinating and becoming fashionable.’ A sobering reflection, to be sure: that to serve as the capital of the world might render Rome less Roman.
Such an anxiety was nothing new. Back in the first century of the Republic, a mania for outlandish cults had seen the Senate legislate to ensure that only the traditional gods be worshipped, and only with traditional rites. Since then, there had been numerous attempts to purge the city of alien ways. In 186 BC, the Senate had even launched a campaign of suppression against the worship of Liber, on the grounds that a Greek soothsayer had perverted its rituals and fostered unspeakable orgies. Egyptians and astrologers from Mesopotamia also tended to be regarded by most right-thinking citizens with profound suspicion. More alarming yet were the Syrians, with their devotion to a goddess, lion-flanked and jewel-adorned, whose cult, sinister as only a Syrian cult could be, had long been a thing of revulsion to every decent Roman. There was no value so fundamental, no propriety so settled, that her worshippers might not trample on them, and howl in exultant frenzy as they did so. Appearing to slaves in visions, the
Syrian Goddess had been known to encourage them to rebel; driving mad her most frenzied devotees, she would inspire them to make a sacrifice of their testicles. Galli, these self-castrated priests were called: matches who, abandoning the privileges and responsibilities of manhood, had willingly chosen to become women. With their painted faces and their feminine robes, their depilated bodies and their braided hair dyed blonde, they could not possibly have been more offensive to Roman sensibilities. Unsurprisingly, then, the authorities had done all they could to prevent their fellow citizens from joining their ranks, banning the practice of self-castration outright at first, and then, from 101 BC, permitting it only under the tightest of regulations. Yet this had done nothing to diminish the popularity of the cult: disturbingly, it had turned out, some Romans quite fancied living as women. By the time that Claudius, surrendering to the inevitable, finally lifted all legal restrictions on citizens becoming Galli, processions in honour of the Syrian Goddess, complete with flutes, tambourines and spectacular displays of self-laceration, had become a common sight in Rome. Naturally, those who held fast to traditional values continued to find it all revolting. ‘If a god desires worship of this kind,’ Seneca declared flatly, ‘then she does not deserve to be worshipped in the first place?“ For those on the cutting edge of fashion, however, a protestation of devotion to the Syrian Goddess had become an easy and entertaining way to shock. Rumour had it, for instance, that she was the only deity for whose cult Nero had any respect.
Yet when it came to sheer jaw-dropping weirdness, not even the beliefs of the Syrians could compare with those of their near neigh~ hours, the Jews. Immigrants from Judaea had been settling in Rome for two centuries, mainly in the cheap housing on the far side of the Tiber, where the principal temple of the Syrian Goddess was also to be found; and in all that time, they had never lost their distinctive ness. No people in the world had customs more perverse or ludicrous. They abstained from pork; they took every seventh day off; they obstinately refused to worship any god save their own. Yer Jewish practices and beliefs, although self-evidently grotesque, were not without a certain glamour. Like the cults of the Egyptians or the star charts of the Mesopotamians, they were capable of seducing those with a taste for the exotic. This was why, from the moment that Jews had first settled in the city, the authorities had periodically sought to expel them. The policy, though, had never proven effective. Whether in 139 BC, when the Jews had been banned from Rome ‘for trying to corrupt Roman values’, or in AD 19, when Tiberius had repeated the measure, or thirty years later, when Claudius had banished them yet again for making trouble at the instigation of a sinister-sounding agitator named Chrestus they had always crept back.
(( It is possible, indeed probable, that this is an allusion to arguments in Rome‘s Jewish community about the claims to messianic status of Jesus. (Chrestus. it is true, was a common name, particularly for slaves; but against that. there is no recorded instance of a Jew in Rome ever being called
up number of scholars have suggested that Suetonius might have derived his info from a police
report. and that Chrestus’ is mistransliteration of Christus. The truth, though, is ultimately unknowable.
A decade on from their expulsion by Claudius, they had once again returned to Rome. The fascination that they were capable of exerting, and the corresponding sense of alarm that they provoked in those contemptuous of foreign rituals, reached to the very top. ‘They are the most wicked of peoples."’ Seneca’s mistrust of the Jews would only have been confirmed for him by the reported interest of Poppaea in their teachings. The appeal of alien superstitions, it seemed, reached even into Caesar’s bedroom. Many in Rome, when they contemplated the slave quarters of their own homes, or the shrines in the streets raised to mysterious gods, or the tenements crammed with immigrants from every corner of the world, dreaded what loathsome practices might be brewing in their city. Nervousness about mass immigration and the peculiar cults that it had brought to Rome came to a head in 61, when the City Prefect, the man charged with the maintenance of order in the capital, was stabbed to death. His killer was one of his own slaves -and this, by the terms of a stern law passed half a century before, required that every slave in the murdered mans household be executed. The savagery of the penalty generated widespread revulsion; and it seemed in a debate on the matter in the Senate House, that clemency might prevail. In the event what swung senators into backing the execution of hundreds of slaves owned by the murdered Prefect was a bloodcurdling reminder of the numerous alien practices that had been imported into Rome. (Nowadays, the slaves in our households come from across the world, and engage in every kind of weird cult- or none at all. Terror tactics alone can serve to keep this rabble in check. The law was duly upheld, the death sentence confirmed. Out on the streets, where many of the protestors were themselves freedmen, or else the descendants of slaves, furious demonstrations were held. Crowds armed with stones and torches sought to prevent the sentence from being carried out. Nero, rather than permit agitators to override the law, issued them with an official rebuke, and ordered soldiers to line the route along which the wretched slaves were led to their deaths. Yet there were limits to the vindictiveness that he was prepared to sanction. When it was proposed that the freedmen of the murdered Prefect be rounded up and deported, Nero vetoed the motion. ‘What mercy has failed to moderate,’ he declared, ‘should not be aggravated by savagery.