In today’s Guardian, Naomi Wolf denounces the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that expands the government’s right to perform strip-searches, because “forcing people to undress is the first step in breaking down their sense of individuality and dignity and reinforcing their powerlessness.” It reminds me of the Roman treatment of the Jews, and of a coin issued by the emperor Nerva in 97 AD.
Nerva had come to the throne after the fall of his anti-Semitic predecessor, Domitian, whose brother had been responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple two decades earlier. Their father, the conqueror of Judaea, had ordered the yearly tribute Jews formerly paid to the temple be diverted to the cult of Jupiter. Many Jews objected to this, understandably, and in time refused to pay what they saw as a religious tax. Domitian did not suffer such civil disobedience gladly, and matters got ugly.
Those who refused to pay the tax were required to undergo physical examination, to ascertain whether they were in fact Jewish and so subject to the tax. As the historian Suetonius writes, “I remember being present in my youth when a ninety year-old man was inspected in front of the procurator and his crowd at court, in order to see whether he was circumcised,” Interfuisse me adulescentulum memini, cum a procuratore frequentissimoque consilio inspiceretur nonagenarius senex an circumsectus esset (Life of Domitian, chapter 12).
What could possibly have the purpose been of forcing a man in his nineties to undress in public? The tax was two drachmas, about two days’ wages—not a nominal amount, but surely not so much that an Empire depended upon it. The intention of what can only be called a strip-search was ideological, motivated by a desire to break the will of a conquered but still obdurate people, one person at a time. [Good Friday addendum: The Romans well understood the power of public intimidation, as the crosses that lined their much-vaunted roads would attest.]
It is worth remembering just how soul-crushing it can be when the state exercises its power in an individual’s personal privacy. As Wolf notes in her Guardian article, the man whose case the Supreme Court heard, Albert Florence, felt deeply mortified and powerless when subjected to two strip-searches. “I consider myself a man’s man,” he told the New York Times. “Six-three. Big guy. It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man. It made me feel not better than an animal.”
When Nerva arrived to power, he was an old and wise man. He instantly recognized that such tactics were counterproductive and abolished the practice, issuing a series of coins in Judaea which stated on their reverse FISCI IVDAICI CALVMNIA SVBLATA, “The accusation of the Jewish tax abolished.” Nerva continued to collect the tax, of course; the coin had been minted, after all, to be submitted as revenue. But, significantly, the deliberate humiliation was no longer in effect, and this was a matter worth declaring publicly. Someday, perhaps, our government will be able to make a similar boast.