Cassius Dio, Roman History LXVIII.1-2

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Nerva’s measures to forbid the excesses of Domitian’s policies
Name of the author: 
Cassius Dio
207 CE to 229 CE
Roman and Greek
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Roman History

For a short biographical presentation of Cassius Dio and of his main work, the Roman History, see Cassius Dio, Roman History XXXVII.16-17.

The sixty-eighth book of Cassius’s Dio Roman History is one of the books that have not been preserved at all. As a consequence, we only know Book 68 through the Epitome of the work that the byzantine monk John Xiphilinus made at the end of the eleventh century CE (John Xiphilinus’s Epitome includes books 36 to 80).

The passage presented here corresponds to the narrative that Cassius Dio gives of the beginning of the reign of Nerva, in which he first describes the process of the eradication of the memory of the tyrant Domitian through the destruction of his statues and of the arches on which his name appeared. Then, Cassius Dio deals with the fact that Nerva also declared illegal some measures or practices that had become usual under Domitian, especially the increase in the condemnation of men and women after they had been denounced for asebeia or for having adopted Jewish customs. Asebeia is the Greek equivalent of impietas, impiety. Actually asebeia was a legal concept that referred to a political crime whose main constitutive element was the rejection of the gods and of all the official cults. In consequence, when asebeia/impietas implied the rejection of imperial worship, the accusation turned into a political one and became a crime of lese-majesty towards the imperial power. Thus, it is possible to interpret the term asebeia in this passage of Cassius Dio’s work, as it has been epitomised by Xiphilinus, as referring to accusations of impiety towards the emperor (see Mélèze-Modrzejewski, Un peuple, p. 92). In that sense, Cassius Dio’s narrative about the illegal practices that occurred under Domitian corresponds to Suetonius’s narrative on the same subject. Actually, Suetonius makes the distinction between the beginning of Domitian’s reign during which he suppressed the accusations made by informers, delatores (see Suetonius, Domitian IX.3), and the following part of his reign during which his exuberant desires and the economic difficulties of the Empire led to the prominent role played by delatores in public life. The latter were used to get rid of political enemies and, at the same time, to seize a maximum of properties and goods that could go to the Roman fiscus (about the increased influence of the delatores under Domitian’s reign and about the connection that exists between the increase of fiscal delatio and the bad relationships of the emperor with the Senate, see Rivière, Les délateurs, p. 39-40). The problem for Suetonius, as for Cassius Dio, is not the delatio in itself. From the Principate of Augustus onward, delatores were indispensable to inquisitorial procedures (in criminal and fiscal cases) and to guarantee the security of the state and the maintenance of order inside the Empire. The problem underlined by Suetonius and Cassius Dio is that of delatores who gave false testimonies and the fact that, under Domitian, these illegal actions became a way to rule (for a different perspective see the rabbinic approach of the delatio to the Roman authorities which is generally condemned whatever the truthfulness of the accusations; see for instance Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 9:14, 24c; Jerusalem Talmud Pe’ah 1:1, 16a-b; Jerusalem Talmud Terumot 8:11, 46b). By then, it is interesting to note that in the response that Trajan addressed to Pliny regarding how to deal with Christians in Bithynia, the emperor forbade judicial proceedings being led against Christians on the basis of anonymous accusations as he wrote that it recalled the abuses committed under Domitian’s reign (Pliny the Younger, Letters X.97.2).
Thus, in his Life of Domitian, Suetonius lists various charges that the delatores used when they made false testimonies to seize numerous goods from dead or living persons. Among them he quotes when they charged someone of having offended the imperial maiestas, when they accused a Jew of being an evader of the Jewish tax or a Gentile of having adopted a Jewish lifestyle (see Suetonius, Life of Domitian XII.1-2). It is thus striking to see that Cassius Dio retains two of the charges that appear in Suetonius’s narrative – the accusation of asebeia and thus of offending the imperial maiestas and that of living according to Jewish laws – and presents them as the first charges that Nerva would have hurried to revoke (for a connection between the two texts, see Heemstra, The Fiscus Judaicus, p. 28-29). Finally, among the measures that Nerva took to control false denunciations, he also decided to improve the judicial system by stating that the disputes between Roman citizens and the fiscus should now be judged not by a procurator but by a praetor (see Digest I.2.2.32). The aim of this decision was first to prevent that the judge in charge of the case be also the person in charge of the treasury that recovered the money and the goods seized from the defendant if he was convicted. Second, the praetor could take tougher sanctions against informers who would have pronounced false accusations (Heemstra, The Fiscus Judaicus, p. 71; Heemstra, “The Interpretation,” p. 192).

The will of Nerva to eradicate denunciations has been put in parallel with the production of sestertii minted in 96-97 CE bearing the debated legend fisci Iudaici calumnia sublata (see RIC II, 58, p. 227; II, 72 and 82, p. 228; about these various issues, see Heemstra, “The Interpretation,” p. 193, n. 22). Of course the interpretation of this legend depends on the way one understands the nature and scope of Nerva’s reform. Some scholars think that Nerva wholly suppressed the Jewish tax during his reign, even for practicing Jews, whereas other have suggested that Nerva only suppressed abuses that existed under Domitian but that practicing Jews – that is Jews who practiced their religion, followed the Jewish customs, were members of their synagogues – who declared themselves as Jews in front of Roman authorities were still concerned by the payment of the Jewish tax (for the first interpretation see among others Goodman “The Meaning of ‘Fisci Iudaici,” 88-89; Goodman, Rome & Jerusalem, 469-475; for the second interpretation see Heemstra, The Fiscus Judaicus, p. 67-84; Heemstra, “The Interpretation,” p. 189-195). The main problem with the hypothesis according to which Nerva would have wholly suppressed the Jewish tax is that calumnia would thus referred to the tax instituted by Vespasian (Heemstra, “The Interpretation,” p. 189). The singular form of the name calumnia has led Marius Heemstra to argue that it would refer to the fact that the accusation formulated by the agents of the fiscus Iudaicus that men “led a Jewish life” was illegal as it was considered as being formally outside the jurisdiction of the officials of the fiscus (about the accusations of leading a Jewish life, see Suetonius, Life of Domitian XII.1-2 and Cassius Dio, Roman History LXVII.14.1-2; Heemstra, The Fiscus Judaicus, p 70-71; Heemstra, Marius, “The Interpretation,” p. 191). Nerva may have thus abolished the practice attested under Domitian’s reign which consisted in denouncing to the officials of the fiscus Iudaicus the Gentiles which were suspected of “leading or living a Jewish life” so as to get rid of enemies or rivals and/or to seize their goods. The accusation of atheism formulated in 95 CE against Flavius Clemens, accusation about which Cassius Dio specifies that it was frequently used also against men “who drifted into Jewish ways” and that caused his execution and spoliation, is an example of these practices now forbidden by Nerva (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXVII.14.1-2).

Thus the reform related to the fiscus Iudaicus led by Nerva since the very beginning of his reign shows his will to break up with the previous policy led by Domitian. By criss-crossing this text of Cassius Dio with other passages of the Roman History, with that of Suetonius, with the passage of the Digest and also with the legend of the sestertii minted under Nerva and mentioning the abolition of the calumnia of the Jewish fiscus, we can suggest that Nerva’s reform was made of various components. First, Nerva may have tried to limit the dangerous phenomenon according to which judgements were rendered according to the necessities of the imperial treasury, and he tried to do so by adding an extra-praetor who was responsible for the judgement of the cases between the taxpayers and the fiscus Iudaicus. Second, he tried to limit the role of informers by placing them under the threat of harsher sanctions if they were convicted of having made a false denunciation. A third aspect may have been that the accusation of leading or living “a Jewish life” may have disappeared. Finally, the last aspect of Nerva’s reforms – not presented in this text – is related to the redefinition of the Jewish tax liability. This issue remains debated today but the nature of the measures taken by Nerva may have had as a consequence a decrease of the number of taxpayers of the Jewish tax compared to the previous period.

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Cassius Dio, Roman History LXVIII.1-2
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Mon, 09/24/2018 - 10:48
Visited: Sat, 10/20/2018 - 03:03

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