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Citizens of Rome

Lawrence Bush
April 3, 2017

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caracalla, known simply as Caracalla, emperor of Rome from 211-217, was born on this date in 188. In 212 he declared all free residents of the Roman Empire to be citizens of Rome, including Jews, many of whom remained in the empire after the destruction wreaked by the Jewish-Roman Wars of 66-73 and 132-136 CE. Rome had built its power by incorporating conquered peoples into its polity, but Caracalla — a notoriously brutal emperor, whose declaration was designed simply to expand his power of taxation — was the first to grant citizenship privileges to Jews. Caracalla is considered by some scholars to be the “Antoninus” mentioned in the Talmud as an ally and benefactor of Judah HaNasi, the leader of the Sanhedrin and the Jewish community, who oversaw the compilation of the Mishnah. Caracalla identified with the Egyptian pharaohs, which has led some latter-day Africanist writers to claim him as a black emperor; he was born, however, in Gaul, and more strongly identified with Alexander the Great, whom he imitated in many ways -- including by dying as a young man, assassinated by his own bodyguard before his 30th birthday.

“It is said that as a boy of 7 he had a Jewish playfellow, and having heard that the latter had been cruelly whipped on account of his religion, he could not for a long time endure the sight either of his own father or of the boy’s father, both of whom were responsible for the punishment . . . The anecdote may be credited, since his mother, Julia Domna, was a Syrian.” --Jewish Encyclopedia

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.