Archaeology'The Romans respected the demands of some Jewish holidays'

Roman army may have included kosher-observant Jews 2,000 years ago, study finds

High numbers of Jews likely served in the legions that brought down Jerusalem and could have constituted even up to 15% of the vast empire’s army

The “Grande Ludovisi” sarcophagus, with a battle scene between Roman soldiers and Germans, in a marble sarcophagus from 251/252 CE. (Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Altemps, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
The “Grande Ludovisi” sarcophagus, with a battle scene between Roman soldiers and Germans, in a marble sarcophagus from 251/252 CE. (Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Altemps, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A new study published in the Jewish Quarterly Review shows that the Roman army allowed various minorities to maintain their religious and dietary practices, including Jews.

The possibility that Jews served in large numbers in the Roman army is a startling find since the Roman army is generally portrayed as an enemy to the Jewish nation. In various military campaigns, the Roman army destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and plundered its way through Judea to the last holdouts on Masada around 73 CE, in addition to military campaigns against the Jews in the second century CE.

“All wars and our entire history are more complicated than we portray them,” explained Dr. Haggai Olshanetsky, the author of the study and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

“There were Jews in the Roman Army, and Jews fighting against the Roman Army,” he said, adding, “There were Jews fighting among themselves — that was always a problem.”

Olshanetsky is part of the University of Basel’s Roman Egypt Laboratory: Climate Change, Societal Transformations, and the Transition to Late Antiquity, and this research into military history is one of his subprojects.

An army marches on its stomach

According to researchers, there were an estimated 4.5 to 7 million Jews in the ancient Roman empire around the first century, accounting for five to fifteen percent of the population. As the empire expanded, the army needed soldiers for new campaigns and to maintain order across the empire, and the Jews were too large of a group to be given widespread exemptions.

“All empires needed men, and they also needed the minorities to serve,” said Olshanetsky. Jews, pagans, and all sorts of ethnic minorities were required to serve in the Roman Army, and many did.

Dr. Haggai Olshanetsky, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Basel in Switzerland. (courtesy Haggai Olshanetsky)

“All cultures throughout history had their own rules about what you can’t eat or can eat,” he added. However, Jewish dietary laws are considered among the strictest and most complex. If Jews could find ways to serve while observing their dietary restrictions, other ethnic groups should be able to do the same, Olshanetsky said.

The Roman army did give some military exemptions to Jews, but only from around 49 BCE to 14 BCE, and only to certain communities in modern-day Turkey. Olshanetsky believes this was done as a gesture in order to encourage the rest of the Jewish community to join the army.

In the study, published in the Winter 2023 issue of the University of Pennsylvania’s Jewish Quarterly Review, Olshanetsky examines the diet of the soldiers based on an extensive survey of ancient texts and the results of archaeological digs at Roman military camps across western Europe.

Can I get a modius of grain with that?

The diet for Roman soldier was based on the “Mediterranean triad” of bread, oil, and wine. Although soldiers received some provisions from the state, their food was deducted from their salary in the first and second centuries. The soldiers were expected to supplement the basic rations with whatever they could purchase, or, during campaigns, plunder from the areas around them.

Soldiers were also required to prepare the food themselves, including grinding the grains into flour, slaughtering the animals, and baking the bread, though sometimes the bread was made in central camps and distributed to the soldiers in loaves. Most conscripts and infantrymen were divided into contubernia, eight-person groups, sometimes with two slaves or porters, that shared a tent and donkey for carrying supplies. The contubernium is the modern equivalent of a squad.

It’s likely that Jews who observed the dietary laws served in contubernia together, and therefore cooked together, meaning they could cook according to their dietary needs. Animals were often delivered to encampments alive, allowing Jewish soldiers to slaughter the animals according to their religious beliefs.

A scene from Trajan’s Column in Rome that depicts Roman soldiers around the first centuries CE. (Cassius Ahenobarbus, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

In times of peace, each day Roman soldiers received an eighth of a modius of grain (around 100 grams or 3.5 ounces), 44 milliliters (3 tablespoons) of oil, 250– 500 grams of meat (0.5 lb to 1 lb), and up to half a liter (1 pint) of wine. Vegetables, cheese, and fruit were also part of the soldiers’ diet. Often, merchant stalls popped up around Roman military encampments to sell soldiers luxury foods such as spices or exotic fruits, and some soldiers even made their own cheese.

Archaeological remains of Roman camps in England have revealed that soldiers ate a variety of meat, including beef, pig, deer, goat, wild boar, hare, and even fish and seafood. This variety led Olshanetsky to conclude that soldiers who did not eat pork for religious reasons, which included quite a few ethnicities in the first century, would have had other options and could have traded or bartered for other options.

“All wars and our entire history are more complicated than we portray them

In 2014, an ostracon discovered in Egypt suggested that the Roman army may have actually gone out of its way to support minority soldiers in their observance of religious customs. The ostracon, etched letters on pottery, was a letter from a military officer named Turranius, who was in charge of obtaining supplies. The ostracon talked about temporarily sending wheat to the Jews rather than the military bread. The ostracon is dated to the 12th of Pharmouthi, a month that is parallel to the Hebrew month of Nissan, when the holiday of Passover occurs.

“Jews needed wheat because they abstained from bread and needed to make unleavened bread or other unleavened food,” Olshanetsky wrote. “If this was indeed the reason for this request, it could have far-reaching implications. Primarily, this shows that the Romans acknowledged and respected the demands of some Jewish holidays and that they were even ready to execute special tasks to allow for their observance.”

Revising perceptions of the past

In Olshanetsky’s study, careful examination of what exactly Roman soldiers ate and how they received their rations showed that Jewish dietary laws could feasibly be incorporated into service in the Roman army. The conclusion means that Jews probably did serve in much higher numbers in the Roman army than popular history has led the public to believe.

“The study of history is not an exact science, and we will never have the historical ‘truth,’ or as we define, exactly what happened, but we try to get as close as possible to what happened, and in many cases, we can get very close,” Olshanetsky added.

He said that fact that minorities served in the Roman army is common knowledge due to the vast spread of the Roman empire from which the army recruited its soldiers.

“The question of what they did to facilitate all those minorities was not always asked. An occupier or empire doesn’t unanimously belong to one nation,” he said. “The entire definition of an empire is to rule others, and if you want to rule for a long time, you have to assimilate the minorities to a certain level.”

“The Praetorian Guard,” a marble relief now housed at the Louvre, showing Roman soldiers, from the Roman Imperial era. (Christophe Jacquand, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The study requires that the public grapple with the likelihood that Jewish soldiers in the Roman army were part of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Julius Alexander, a Jewish general, was the second-in-command of the Roman army and oversaw the destruction, Olshanetsky pointed out. It’s an uncomfortable fact, but it illustrates how people are complicated and divided, even thousands of years ago.

“When we get closer and closer to how antiquity looks like, and how our past looks like, we can understand it differently,” he said. “We can revise how we perceive not only the past, but also the present, and possibly the future.”

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