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Jews could have kept kosher, Passover in ancient Roman army, per new paper

The Roman military may have made dispensations on Shabbat as well.

“Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae: A Roman Legion” (from Trajan's Column) by Marco Dente. Published by Antonio Salamanca in the 16th century. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae: A Roman Legion” (from Trajan's Column) by Marco Dente. Published by Antonio Salamanca in the 16th century. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Scholars have long maintained that Shabbat- and kosher-keeping Jews were poor fits for armies of the Roman Empire. But a new paper in Jewish Quarterly Review suggests that Jews could have served in large numbers. And not only could a Jewish soldier maintain observant practice at the time, but the Roman Empire tailored its military to accommodate a range of religious and cultural practices.

“The adage ‘An army marches on its stomach’ is traditionally attributed to either Napoleon or Frederick the Great, yet it applies to all armies, including those of the Roman Empire—whose soldiers included Jews,” Haggai Olshanetsky, a University of Basel postdoctoral fellow, wrote in the paper. (He did not respond to a query by JNS.)

The Roman military exempted Jews, who comprised an estimated 5% to 15% of the empire, from service in the later part of the first century C.E. But that appeared to be an exception, and Jews could otherwise be found among the empire’s legions.

The paper suggests that Romans were aware that Jews, Syrians and Egyptians had specific dietary restrictions, and an ostracon (potsherd) dated 96 C.E. records a military man writing to a colleague about collecting wheat to send “to the Jews.”

“This ostracon is the only one to describe the sending of wheat to Jews, instead of the bread already issued to them or that was supposed to be issued to them,” Olshanetsky wrote. The shard dates to a time that Josephus interpreted to parallel the Jewish month of Nissan, during which Passover occurs.

It seems likely that “Jews needed wheat because they abstained from bread and needed to make unleavened bread or other unleavened food,” according to the article.

More research is required, but if this was the case, Olshanetsky thinks it demonstrates 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.”

‘Accustomed to the lack of meat’

In his analysis, Jewish soldiers could have otherwise kept kosher year-round. Roman soldiers cooked their own meals, and although pig remnants have been found in relevant sites, beef was the most common meat. Mutton and deer were also common, as were chicken, goose and duck—all kosher. Animals arrived alive, so Jewish soldiers could have ritually slaughtered the animals.

And the diet was largely the “Mediterranean triad” of bread, oil and wine; many in the empire were also used to mostly vegetarian eating. “Jews, like others, were accustomed to the lack of meat,” wrote Olshanetsky.

In later periods, soldiers received mutton (lamb) two-thirds of the time and pork the other third. “It presumably would have been easy for a Jewish soldier to trade his portion of pork for something else,” per the article. “Moreover, it is possible that Jewish soldiers were exempted from receiving portions of pork, and received mutton instead, throughout the campaign.”

Olshanetsky also thinks Jews and others with restrictive diets may have made their mark on Roman auxiliary units, which tended to be made up of noncitizens, like Jews and Egyptians. A decline in pork consumption began between the years between 40 C.E. and 70 C.E.

“It is possible that the Roman army enacted a new regulation allocating a smaller percentage of pork in the supply of the auxiliary compared to the amounts supplied to the legions,” he wrote. “Such a directive would allow for an easy transition in the swapping of units, each of them consisting of individuals with different religious beliefs, without changing the already organized supply lines.”

“If this was indeed the case, then it would mean that to keep a strong army, the Romans had to be cognizant and tolerant toward the needs of a very ethnically, religiously and regionally diverse fighting force, and thus they designed the logistics and supply chain of the armies accordingly,” he wrote.

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