From the source, “He gives a bizarre picture of Jewish national and religious origins (Histories 5:2–5), though in referring to traditions which variously make the first Jews Cretan, Egyptian, Ethiopian, or Assyrian exiles, or the nation of the Solymi celebrated by Homer, he is not wholly inaccurate, since the theory of Assyrian origin may fit with the biblical account of Abraham’s wanderings from Chaldea. Nor is his account wholly unfavorable, since the Romans, whose own origins were questionable (see the preface to Livy’s History), admired and envied peoples who had ancient origins. Tacitus agrees with an unspecified majority opinion which saw the Jews as plague-beset Egyptians driven into the desert by their countrymen.
Their rituals, devised by their leader Moses (cf. *Hecataeus), are designed to set them apart from all other nations. Tacitus implies that Moses invented imageless monotheism because it differed so radically from polytheistic Egyptian practices. Though elsewhere (Histories 2:78; also reported by *Suetonius, De vita Caesarum, Vespasianus, 5:6) he relates without criticism that Vespasian received a favorable oracle from a deity which had an altar consecrated to its worship on Mt. Carmel but had no temple or cult image (probably a local cult of Zeus), here he seems to censure Jewish reverence directed to such a divine presence and not offered even to kings and Caesars (Histories 5:5). According to Tacitus (Histories 5:3), the desert wanderings of the Hebrews lasted only six days; the Sabbath commemorates the end of their tribulations; Moses led them into their new land, where they consecrated an image of an ass in their Temple (Histories 5:4) because asses led them to a spring in the desert (yet in the sketch of Jewish history from Hasmonean times to the Temple’s destruction – Histories 5:1–10 – Tacitus notes that Pompey found no image in the Temple). This portrayal is almost certainly not original, but a composite biased picture derived from scandalmongers such as the anti-Jewish Alexandrian writers – *Manetho, *Chaeremon, *Lysimachus, and *Apion.
His basic contention is that Jews are aloof. Dietary laws, circumcision, Sabbath, and the ban against marrying outside their faith set them apart and, to Tacitus, make them hate non-Jews. Because Judaism attracted Romans, Tacitus, like his contemporary *Juvenal, saw this as a weakening of Roman morality since converts were taught to despise the gods, repudiate the fatherland, and disparage parents, children, and brothers (Histories 5:5). Since the Jew’s way of life was synonymous with the practice of his religion, Tacitus’ antipathy takes the form of an attack on that religion.
The emperors saw rebellious Judea as a political problem; but Tacitus, concerned with Roman morality, sees policy only in moral terms, and thinks a proper Roman political attitude grows out of proper ethical values in the tradition of earlier generations of Rome. Perhaps this is the reason why he cast the political Judean situation into a mold of condemnation of anti-Roman (to him), Jewish ethics. Walser (see bibliography) has shown that in his treatment of the Parthians, Britons, and Germans, Tacitus knew next to nothing about the psychology of the people on the periphery of the Roman Empire and that he hardly cared to know anything. Tacitus did not hesitate to modify or eliminate even facts of historical importance if they in any way impeded his customary dramatic account of events. “
Elsewhere on this website is a post detailing Tacitus’ statement regarding the Jews. Please view that post to gain a more complete understanding of the various comments that are posed on this post. Many scholars believe Tacitus’ work pertaining to the history of the Jews is incoherent and without basis. The part of Tacitus’ work in which it states “many” assert that the Jews are of Ethiopian origins has bamboozled many because they can’t figure out why he would say such a thing. This is most likely due to the fact they believe the Jews looked like the stereotypical “Middle Eastern” person. This post will attempt to give an alternative perspective on Tacitus’ work pertaining to the Jews in which we will note the two things many scholars often ignore: every theory Tacitus mentioned is connected to Africa and all of the peoples are either a black and/or mixed people.
We know the Greeks and Romans regarded the Jewish people as being a unique people, but it is quite interesting how every component of his collection of theories pertaining to the Jews dealt with Africa in some way which is unexpected considering Palestine is generally regarded as being in Arabia. Not only that, each of the peoples Tacitus mentioned was either a black and/or mixed people. None of the people Tacitus mentioned had a pure connection to the Aryan races, so this destroys the narrative there was no physical distinction between Greeks and Romans unless the Jews being considered were of Japhetic origins who converted to Judaism which millions of people did in the Greco-Roman empire. As we have covered thoroughly, the Assyrian Empire was a racially mixed kingdom and the Egyptians had a consistent black presence, as well. Egypt and Ethiopia were racially paired together by different scholars in the Greco-Roman realm.
It is fascinating that Tacitus stated that many believe the Jews are of Ethiopian origins. This is important because he did not use the word “many” with the rest of the theories pertaining to the Jews. This is powerful because the Romans assigned the term Ethiopian to a range of black peoples of varying shades from Cush to India. The actual, Hamitic Ethiopian people were considered to be the yardstick of physical darkness in the Roman ethnography, so for the Jews to be considered to be of Ethiopian origins by many makes a statement of the core root of these people looked. Tacitus mentions the Jews were of Solymi origins and it can be argued those people may have descended from Ethiopians, so technically, he mentioned the Jews were of Ethiopian origins twice.
In conclusion, yes, Tacitus at first admired the Jews but later he viewed them as being a threat for various reasons which is highlighted in the later portions of his work history pertaining to the Jews. Yes, the reason why Tacitus’ believed the Jews were of Egyptian origins is due to them being beset by plagues. However, a specific physical image was usually tied to Egyptians in the Greco-Roman mind, as well. Since Tacitus’ asserted that “many” believed the Jews were also of Ethiopian origins, usually a physical image was tied to how Ethiopians were imaged in the Greco-Roman realm, as well. Additionally, he was honest in reporting the varying theories circulating amongst Roman elites regarding where the Jews originated from. In almost all of the theories Tacitus mentioned regarding the Jews’ origin, Africa and people with clear traces of black African ancestry are noted. This aligns with many pieces of evidence that consistently show the ancient Israelites had a consistent black presence in their nation. Israel as a people cannot be separated from Africa and Africa cannot be separated from Israel as a people. Biblically speaking, Africa (Egypt) is where Israel grew as a nation and it is apparent that Israel was connected to Africa (Egypt) in the Greco-Roman realm, as well.
Sources on this website revolving around ancient Egyptians and Ethiopians being black should be taken into serious consideration whenever viewing Tacitus’ statement because in his statement Jews were largely considered to be of Egyptian or Ethiopian origin. Tacitus gives reasons as to why the Jews were of Egyptian origins, but regarding them being of Ethiopian origins only one reason is acknowledged and that is regarding King Cepheus. Typically, the Greeks and Romans categorized people by physical appearance and by customs, so the Jews largely being equated to being of Egyptian and Ethiopian stock can be extremely telling to how many of them looked but also relates to their customs (it can be argued Egyptian and Ethiopian customs were largely the same in some cases) and the customs they broke away from (Tacitus acknowledged the ways in which the Jews broke away from the Egyptians in terms of customs). Please take note that ancient Jews came in all shades and colors (conversions did take place, as well), but it can be supported that their was a consistent black presence amongst them hence Tacitus’ statement equating them to primarily being of Egyptian or Ethiopian origin.
In conclusion, the Roman emperors viewed the Jews as being a political threat and Tacitus viewed the Jews as being moral threat to Rome due to their customs attracting Romans and causing Romans to stray from their own customs. However, it can be assumed that a physical image was usually tied to certain peoples in the Greco-Roman world. Greco-Roman peoples definitely had a stereotypical, physical image portrayed regarding Egyptians and Ethiopians. Yes, Egypt was a national construct so there were Egyptians of all colors, but their was a consistent black presence in Egypt that is attested to by the likes of Herodotus and Aristotle/Pseudo-Aristotle, as well. Ethiopians were regarded as being the yardstick of blackness even though they came in varying shades of brown and black, as well.