Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian XIV.2

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Hadrian’s ban of circumcision
380 CE to 400 CE
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Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian

This text is an excerpt from the Life of Hadrian, which is part of the work known as the Historia Augusta (note, however, that the name Historia Augusta was not used at the time of the composition of the Lives, nor does it appear on the manuscripts that transmitted the Lives, but was later given to the collection by Isaac Casaubon in his edition of 1601). The Historia Augusta is a corpus that gathers imperial biographies, from Hadrian to Carinus, covering thus the period 117-285 CE (with a lacuna for the period 244-260 CE explained by a deficiency in the manuscript tradition). The Lives of the Historia Augusta are presented as being the work of six different authors, often called the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, known under the names of Aelius Spartianus, Iulius Capitolinus, Vulcatius Gallicanus, Aelius Lampridius, Trebellius Pollio and Flavius Vopiscus. Although most of these authors are unknown, some details appearing in the various biographies are introduced to give the impression that the biographers lived under the reign of Diocletian up to that of Constantine the Great. However, the fact that a lot of incongruities and peculiarities appear in the various biographies has led scholars to call into question their credibility. For instance, the biographers refer to many names of authors which are unknown and seem to be totally invented (in that perspective, Ronald Syme concludes that the Historia Augusta is a “fraud” and an “imposture,” Emperors and Biography, p. 283-284; on the question of the “bogus names,” see p. 1-16).
The first reconsideration that totally modified the approach to the source was proposed in 1889 by Hermann Dessau. The German scholar argued that this collection of biographies was a forgery written by only one author under Theodosius I, that is, between 383 and 395 CE (Dessau, “Über Zeit”). This idea that the biographies were the result of the work of only one author living at the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century CE has been accepted by a majority of scholars until today. However, scholars continue to debate vigorously regarding the identity of the author, the precise dating of the work, or the aims that motivated its composition. For instance, concerning the identity of the author, many scholars have proposed to identify him with a man that was part of the intellectual and political circles of Symmachus or of Virius Nicomachus Flavianus (André Chastagnol and now Stéphane Ratti defend the hypothesis that the author was Virius Nicomachus Flavianus himself; see Chastagnol, “Notes chronologiques”; Ratti, “Nicomaque Flavien”; whereas Jean-Pierre Callu, the editor of the Life of Hadrian in the CUF edition, sought that it was his son Nicomachus Flavianus that composed it in four steps between 390 and 400 CE). The scholars who were and are part of this historiographical trend explain the reason for the writing of the Historia Augusta by the fact that it would be a covert attack against Christianity, an attack orchestrated by the members of the “pagan reaction” present at Rome at the end of the fourth century. It is, however, important to note that a branch of the Anglo-Saxon historiography contests this reading. Even if he admitted the hypothesis that the Historia Augusta may have been composed by a single author around 395 CE, Ronald Syme contested the fact that it should be read as a pagan manifesto (Syme, Emperors and Biography, p. 29, 284-287). In the continuity of this historiographical tradition, Alan Cameron also rejects the hypothesis that the Historia Augusta was composed in a pagan circle as some kind of “pagan reaction.” His main argument is that the Historia Augusta may have been written around 375/380 CE, that is before Gratian’s anti-pagan measures of 382/383 CE. This dating has the consequence that it would no longer be necessary for the author to hide the fact that he was pagan. For Alan Cameron, the Historia Augusta was not a pagan manifesto, but the work of a man who may have wanted to pursue the work – now lost – of a previous biographer, Marius Maximus. However, due to the scarcity of the sources after Maximus’s work, he may have been compelled to become a writer of fiction. For Alan Cameron, the author of the Historia Augusta was “a frivolous, ignorant person with no agenda worthy of the name at all” (Cameron, The Last Pagans, p. 743-782, esp. 781). Thus, the ways to understand this source vary to a great extent.

The passage presented here is an excerpt from the Life of Hadrian, the composition of which is attributed in the narrative to a certain Aelius Spartianus, who is not attested by any other source. The Life of Hadrian is often considered as one of the best Lives of the Historia Augusta, even if the fact that its author may have used sources having very different points of view on Hadrian has meant that the narrative places contradictory information together. The passage presented here is part of the first section of the biography, in which the author describes a succession of factual data (I.1-XIV.7). It appears just after the mention of the fact that because of his aversion to the inhabitants of Antioch on the Orontes, Hadrian would have wanted to pull Phoenicia from Syria so than Antioch became a less prominent capital. Next, appearing in a very short sentence, is a piece of information that has been much debated by scholars. This is partly because it is the only attestation of the information it gives, namely, that Hadrian promulgated a ban on circumcision, and second that this ban was the main cause of the breaking out of the Bar Kokhba revolt (a revolt that started in 132 and ended in 135 CE).

The fact that Hadrian promulgated a general ban on circumcision has been and still is considered as valid by many scholars, even though we will see that even for the scholars who agree with this thesis, there is no consensus on the dating of the ban (in favour of the thesis that there was a Hadrianic general ban on circumcision, see for example, Smallwood, “The Legislation of Hadrian”; for a bibliographical survey, see Abusch, “Negotiating Difference,” p. 72, n. 2). The text presented here is one of the sources (with Digest XLVIII.8.4.2 and some papyrological sources) which is quoted to confirm the existence of this Hadrianic ban. Nevertheless, we will see that the testimony given by the Historia Augusta, and more broadly all the arguments given to justify the existence of this general Hadrianic ban on circumcision, have been rejected by many scholars who propose a different understanding of the evolution of the Roman legislation regarding circumcision.
Examining the passage of the Life of Hadrian presented here, it appears at first sight that the author did not choose to speak explicitly of circumcision, for instance by using the verb circumcidere, but preferred to use the expression mutilare genitalia. This expression is ambiguous. If it was not explicitly said before that the passage dealt with Jews, we could easily confuse it with castration. As rightly noticed by Benjamin Isaac, there is a clear inconsistency between the narrative that the Jews revolted against Rome, and the alleged cause of their engagement, namely that the Jews were denied the right to mutilate themselves. One consequence of this discrepancy is that the narrative becomes ridiculous, and the Bar Kokhba revolt becomes a “ludicrous revolt” (Isaac, The Invention, p. 474). Another argument has been made to call into question the credibility of this passage, i.e. that the Jews are also mocked in another Life of the Historia Augusta, namely the Life of Elagabalus XXVIII.4. In this latter text, it is stated that the emperor sometimes served ostriches and said that Jews were commanded to eat them, even though it was not a kosher animal (passage quoted in Oppenheimer, “The Ban on Circumcision,” p. 243-244). By putting into dialogue this passage of the Life of Elagabalus and the text presented here, we can see that the author of the Historia Augusta clearly uses derogatory stereotypes to speak about Jews. Similarly, in Tacitus’s Histories V.4.1, Jewish customs are so strange that they appear as an anti-model of Roman practices: they venerate what the Romans prohibit and they abhor what the Romans allow (Oppenheimer, “The Ban on Circumcision,” p. 244). This negative stereotype that Jewish customs are nothing more than a reversion of good Roman norms may explain why the author of the Life of Hadrian insists on this image of the Jews ready to fight in order to be allowed to mutilate themselves. The passage presented here may correspond to a stereotypical representation of the Jews rather than an accurate narrative of the actions of Hadrian.
The second text which is often quoted to corroborate the existence of a general ban on circumcision under Hadrian is Digest XLVIII.8.4.2, which quotes a passage of  book 7 of Ulpian’s Duties of Proconsul in which it is stated that Hadrian reasserted that castrators should be punished under the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis (the Cornelian Law of assassins and poisoners, law of Sulla of 81 BCE) – meaning thus that honestiores would be punished by exile and confiscation and humiliores by death. The interpretation of the last sentence has been debated as it is recalled another time that doctors who would excidere shall be punished by death as anyone who would voluntarily offer himself for cutting (excidendum). For some scholars, this last sentence would show that Hadrian not only restated prohibition of castration, but also included in it a general banning on circumcision (Rabello, “Il problema,” p. 201-204; Mélèze-Modrzejewski, “‘Filios suos tantum,’” p. 120-121; Mélèze-Modrzejewski, Un peuple de philosophes, p. 378-380). However, as the verb excidere means “to take off by cutting” and could refer both to cutting the testicles or the foreskin, some scholars have argued that this passage of Ulpian’s Duties of Proconsul quoting the rescript of Hadrian only referred to castration (Schäfer, Der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand, p. 39-40; Abusch, “Negotiating Difference,” p. 77-79; about the latter’s counter-arguments see Digest XLVIII.8.4.2).
Third, some papyrological sources are sometimes quoted in order to confirm the statement of the Life of Hadrian. This papyrological evidence attests that from the middle of the second century CE, young men who wanted to become priests had to ask permission to be circumcised from the High priest (archiereus) of Alexandria and Egypt, who was a Roman high procurator in charge of the cults (see Mélèze-Modrzejewski, Un peuple de philosophes, p. 382-385; this scholar quotes P. Tebt. II.292 and 293 dating respectively from 189/190 CE and 186 CE). For Joseph Mélèze-Modrzejewski, even if we do not have a document that explicitly attests that this procedure already existed under the reign of Hadrian, it is highly probable that Hadrian made the archiereus of Egypt responsible for controlling the requests for circumcision; a situation implying that the circumcision would have been previously forbidden. To prove his point, Joseph Mélèze-Modrzejewski quotes two papyri dating from Hadrian’s time, more precisely from 120 CE, SB XII 11236 and P. Fouad 10, which both deal with the establishment of the High priest (archiereus) of Alexandria and Egypt. For him, the establishment of this High priest – later attested as being responsible for delivering the permit to circumcise – was inseparable from the privilege that would have been granted to the Egyptian clergy. He thus concludes that the Hadrianic general ban may have occurred at the end of 119 or at the beginning of 120 CE (see Mélèze-Modrzejewski, Un peuple de philosophes, p. 387-388). However, considering the two papyri dated from the reign of Hadrian, one uncertainty remains, as there is absolutely no mention of the fact that the archiereus of Egypt was yet in charge of giving his authorisation to the requests for circumcision he received (about P. Fouad 10 and SB XII 11236, see Messerer, Les relations administratives, p. 383-384, 521-523; about circumcision, p. 152-153). Quoting a precedent related to the sacrifice of calves, Carmen Messerer has even suggested that for what concerns the circumcision of the Egyptian priests, it may have been not so much the Roman authorities than the Egyptian clergy asking to put things right regarding this practice (Messerer, Les relations administratives, p. 153). If this reading were correct, it would completely undermine the third argument quoted, which could thus not be used to support the thesis of the existence of the Hadrianic ban on circumcision.
To sum up, scholars remain very divided over the question of the existence of the Hadrianic ban on circumcision. We are inclined to think that the counter-arguments brought to discredit the communis opinio are quite convincing. The author of the Life of Hadrian in the Historia Augusta may have included this reference to this alleged Hadrianic ban on circumcision for the following reasons: first, it enabled him to mock the Jews. Second, its inclusion may be interpreted as being the result of a fictional mix made by the author who confused the Hadrianic legislation regarding castration and the posterior law of Antoninus Pius regulating who, among Jews, could practice circumcision (see Digest XLVIII.8.11, quotation of Modestinus, Legal Rules VI). It is clear that the understanding of the impact of this later rescript of Antoninus Pius depends largely on the position that one chooses regarding the existence of the Hadrianic ban on circumcision (on this question see Digest XLVIII.8.11, quotation of Modestinus, Legal Rules VI).

Let us now discuss the second major piece of information given by this text: the fact it was the Hadrianic ban on circumcision which was the main cause of the breaking out of the Bar Kokhba revolt. Many scholars who believe in the existence of the Hadrianic ban on circumcision, and who thus give credit to the account of the Historia Augusta, have accepted the validity of the causal relationship mentioned in the text presented here. For instance, even Joseph Mélèze-Modrzejewski, who has proposed to date the Hadrianic ban from the end of 119 or the beginning of 120 CE, that is twelve years before the beginning of the outbreak of the Bar Kokhba revolt, has concluded that the alleged ban on circumcision under Hadrian would have been an indirect cause of the start of the revolt (Mélèze-Modrzejewski, Un peuple de philosophes, p. 392-393). The importance of the chronological gap between the two events weakens more than it confirms the account of the Life of Hadrian. In the last decades, this causal relationship has been largely undermined (see Schäfer, “The Causes,” p. 85-88; Schäfer, Der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand, p. 38-50; Abusch, “Negotiating Difference”). Among the arguments quoted to call into question this causal relationship, there is of course the fact that the link between the ban on circumcision and the outbreak of the Bar Kokhba revolt is only based on the testimony of the Historia Augusta,and is directly challenged by Cassius Dio, who explains the revolt by the foundation of Aelia Capitolina (see Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIX.12.1; Epistle of Barnabas 16.1-5). Aharon Oppenheimer has also proposed a new reading of all the talmudic sources (Mishnah Shabbat 19:1; Tosefta Shabbat 15:9; BT Bava Batra 60b) which were usually mentioned to confirm the fact that the Hadrianic ban on circumcision occurred before the Bar Kokhba revolt. He concludes that the image that comes from these talmudic sources is that “the ban on circumcision belonged to the repressive legislation following the Bar Kokhba revolt, and has no connection to the cause or causes of the revolt” (Oppenheimer, “The Ban on Circumcision,” p. 255). Another relevant argument brought to justify this point of view is that there is an inconsistency between the fact that the revolt took place only in Judea and the general and ethnic scope of the alleged ban on circumcision under Hadrian that concerned all the Jews of the Empire. All these elements lead us to think that the causal relationship between the Hadrianic ban on circumcision and the outbreak of the Bar Kokhba revolt seems very uncertain; a fact that undermines once more the accuracy of the passage of the Life of Hadrian presented here.

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Bibliographical references: 
Schäfer, Peter, “The Causes of the Bar Kokhba Revolt”, in Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann (ed. J. J. Petuchowski , E. Fleischer; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1981), 74-94
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Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian XIV.2
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Tue, 03/06/2018 - 14:37
URL: http://judaism-and-rome.cnrs.fr/historia-augusta-life-hadrian%C2%A0xiv2
Visited: Fri, 03/23/2018 - 19:53

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