Philo as Historian: His Testimony on the Beginning of the Jewish Settlement at Rome as a Case Study

While dealing with Roman policy towards the Jews of Rome, Philo states that Augustus "was aware that the great section of Rome on the other side of the Tiber was occupied and inhabited by Jews, most of whom were Roman citizens emancipated. For having been brought as captives to Italy, they were liberated by their owners and were not forced to violate any of their native institutions" (Philo Leg. 155). The question is whether this passage, which is often taken at face value, may be taken as historically reliable. While Philo's positive evaluation of Augustus' policy towards the Jews is corroborated by literary and epigraphical material, the other statements of this passage raise a number of questions: when and in which circumstances Jewish prisoners of war reached Rome; whether they constituted the first bulk of the Jewish settlement; whether all or most of them were liberated by their owners and whether this means that they automatically became Roman citizens. A survey of contemporary Roman sources suggests that Philo’s statement depicts a reality much more rosy than it probably was and cannot be taken at face value. However, this does not mean that Philo consciously lied to his readers, as some scholars assume. After all, he was not a historian but rather a politician, whose political agenda was more important for him than factual accuracy. His statement on the beginning of the Jewish settlement at Rome, therefore, is probably to be seen as an example of factual inaccuracy that betrays political and apologetic aims.