Dr. Bradley Ritter, Associate Professor of Classics and History at Ave Maria University, began work on his latest publication, Judeans in the Greek Cities of the Roman Empire: Rights, Citizenship and Civil Discord (Brill, May 2015), over a decade ago. While a Ph.D. student in Classical Philology at the University of California, Berkeley, Ritter was enrolled in a number of courses that examined the subject of citizenship in Greek city-states. In a seminar with his mentor, Erich Gruen, he spent some time studying the crisis of Judeans in Alexandria in the 1st century AD. These revolts resulted in expulsions, the loss of much of privately held Jewish property in Alexandria, and, by 66 AD, the death of up to 50,000 Jews.
“As a classical historian whose training is in literature,” Ritter said, “I naturally began with that story. I thought: Why did this happen? I set aside my interest in Roman law and began with the fascinating story of crisis and death.” Following where the story led, Ritter set out on his dissertation project.
Two of his largest resources were the texts of the Jewish historians Josephus and Philo. Josephus (c. 37-100 A.D.) was a Judean general who fought in the Great Revolt against the Romans in the ’60s; he wrote a history of that war in seven volumes and a twenty-volume history of his people, beginning with creation through to the first-century crisis of the Jewish people under the Roman Empire. Philo (c. 25 B.C. – 50 A.D.) wrote exegesis in Alexandria, but he devoted two books to the history of his times, including the civic disturbances that he lived through. “Both of these historians,” Ritter remarked, “assume, as if it were entirely unproblematic, that Jews were citizens in Alexandria.”
That assumption proves the key to Ritter’s research. In the late 19th century, he explained, the German scholar Theodor Mommsen popularized the belief that Jews in the ancient world did not enjoy citizenship. “He began a line of thinking,” Ritter said, “that compared Jews in the ancient world to Jews in the modern world.” The idea was that if the advanced societies of modern times didn’t grant Jews citizenship, then surely the ancient world wouldn’t have either. Mommsen’s interpretation was taken up and enlarged upon in a more sinister way with the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s. “Scholars would explain the claim of Jewish citizenship found in ancient texts, such as in Josephus and Philo, as the result of a massive propaganda campaign by the Jews to assert that they were citizens when they were not. Some scholars even asserted, for example, that the Jews had tricked the emperor Claudius into thinking that they were citizens.”
This widespread assumption—that Jewish citizenship in the ancient world was a myth, cultivated by the Jews through an elaborate conspiracy theory—was where Ritter started out, and understandably so. The assumption, while contested here and there, has remained remarkably durable since Mommsen’s time. “But the more I read,” Ritter said, “the more I thought that the easiest explanation was really to assume that the Jewish historians Josephus and Philo were telling the truth, even if the Jews’ citizenship was occasionally controversial.”
There were two key moments in his research that led Ritter to such a conclusion. The first was when he was reading a transcript of a court case between a Roman soldier and the Roman governor of Egypt. “It was fascinating to me,” Ritter explained, “that the language used to describe his [the soldier’s] request was precisely the language being used in the Jewish conflict from a century before; the words for Alexandrian citizenship, legitimacy, etc. were all the same. That made me realize that there was something to Philo’s account, that he was using acceptable language to describe the Jewish-Roman citizenship conflict, and that the Jews weren’t the only ones having difficulty making arguments for their citizenship.”
Later on, Ritter had what he describes as an “exciting moment” when he discovered a common term uniting the citizenship conflicts in the ancient world, ranging from Alexandria to Caesarea, from Antioch to Ephesus. They all describe the conflicts as a matter of stasis—a civil discord between citizens with equal rights within their city. “That helped me to understand that in the ancient world, all sides saw this as the same sort of conflict: a civic disturbance between citizens of equal rights.” Ritter worked through roughly sixty inscriptions and hundreds of papyri dating from the 6th-1st centuries B.C. in order to confirm his conclusion. He expects some pushback from his research, since it overturns the widely accepted narrative of a Jewish propaganda campaign. But he followed where the research led and is confident of his results—namely, that many Judeans were citizens of their cities in the ancient world.
After defending his dissertation and completing his Ph.D. in 2003, Ritter decided to take a break from the project. He resumed his research two years later, and has spent the last ten years revising and editing the manuscript for publication, adding three chapters worth of new material. “I think many people,” Ritter commented, “are generally unaware that there was a significant Jewish population in most cities of the Roman Empire—let alone that they enjoyed Roman citizenship. History has become monotonic in its reading of these narratives of civic conflict as traceable to an empire-wide propaganda campaign. My research replaces the monotonic reading with a set of local histories, each of which is unique. Different things were being contested in different places.”
What aspect of his research does he find most interesting? Ritter replied: “The topic completely reversed my interest in Greco-Roman antiquity. The recognition that there was a meeting of two cultures [Jewish and Greco-Roman] before the rise of Christianity was intriguing to me. … There were questions of whether it was legitimate for Jews to export money to the Temple, or whether they could be summoned to court on a Sabbath—all of which is relevant to a modern audience, especially as regards the debate over religious liberty in the United States today.” Questions of one’s duty to one’s faith verses one’s duty to one’s city, and how the two may be reconciled, were very much present in the ancient Greco-Roman world.
Besides forming the basis of his first book publication, Ritter’s research also finds its way into his Roman History course. “I think that it changes students’ perspective; it’s important for them to see great diversity in something apparently unified, like the Roman Empire, and the ways in which the center of the Roman world could be involved in local disputes. It’s also a way to understand that the question of religious liberty predated the Church and, in many ways, anticipated the social and religious conflicts that were on the horizon.”
Dr. Bradley Ritter received his B.A. in Classics from the University of Florida. He went on to earn an M.A. in Latin and a Ph.D. in Classical Philology at the University of California, Berkeley. After teaching at Temple University and Johns Hopkins University, Ritter came to Ave Maria University. Although he considers himself primarily a classicist, his graduate studies concentrated in historical texts. His main research interests are in the Jewish Diaspora in the Greek and Roman worlds, and Hellenistic and early Roman imperial history. Besides his recent book publication, Ritter has published in the journal Scripta Classica Israelica; he has also written entries for the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception.