Jews and Rome

How the Jews lost their homeland


The Land where Christ was born

Between 47 BC and AD 66, Judea was settling down,  more or less,  to be part of the Roman empire.  In 37 BC Herod was established as a Client King, and though he was a thoroughly nasty person (he killed his wife and his two daughters),   he was an effective ruler.  On his death, he left his kingdom to his three sons who were ineffectual and were replaced by a Roman governor.

Just how far the country could be said to be at peace can be disputed.  The Jews it must be said were not altogether blameless.  Like all monotheistic religions, if you believe there is only one god, there is a tendency to dispute over the nature of this one god, so there were constant minor disputes, in one of which Jesus Christ was caught up. The Roman rulers remained on the whole in the background, but Christ was crucified, and one of the world’s great religions was born.

To the Romans, the Jews were indeed a little odd, but their idiosyncrasies could be tolerated.  They were exempt from praying to the gods of the Roman society, for they had this belief of only praying to their own god, and this, though strange, could be tolerated.  As to their other peculiarities, the Romans never knew quite what to make of their habit of taking one day in seven off and celebrating it as the Sabbath.  Were they just being lazy?  Then not eating pork and circumcising their male children – all rather odd but could be tolerated.  So for a period of nearly a hundred years, it looked as if Judea was safely part of the Roman Empire.

Then in AD 67 it all began to go wrong.  The Roman governor was tactless and tried to clamp down on Jewish eccentricities.  A revolt flared up and the governor was not only tactless but incompetent.  The Roman army was attacked and a whole legion was defeated, and the eagle was seized.  The Roman governor was withdrawn but it was clear that the defeat must be avenged and the eagle must be retrieved.  A top general was sent out, Vespasian, who had already won his spurs in the conquest of Britain and was regarded as a safe pair of hands.  He arrived and three legions came with him, but before he could begin work, the emperor Nero was assassinated and politics in Rome were in chaos.

The year AD 69 was to become notorious as being the year of the four emperors.  Galba and Otho came and went, but then Vitellius was proclaimed as emperor by the armies in Germany.  But the armies in the east wanted to have their man as emperor and their choice fell on Vespasian.  But was Vespasian really suitable?  In rank he began as only an equestrian, not even a senator.  A good soldier yes: but an emperor?  This was solved by a grand battle when the forces of Vitellius were defeated and the armies of the east won out, and Vespasian was confirmed as emperor and hurried to Rome, leaving his son, the future emperor Titus in command in Judea. The situation was chaotic but it soon became clear that from the prestige point of view, the re-conquest of Judea would make or break the new emperor.  Fortunately for the Romans, Titus was an extremely competent general.  The war was long and fierce as recorded in great detail by Josephus.



Josephus was a Jew who first went to Rome as an ambassador, but when the war broke out he hurried back to Judea to take his place in the Jewish army.  However he was a useless soldier and was soon captured by the Romans.  He realised that the Romans were going to win so he went over to the Roman side and attempted to reconcile the two parties.  But if a poor soldier, Josephus was an excellent writer and a good historian, and his account of the Jewish war provides a remarkable story.

He represents one of the most remarkable aspects of the Roman episode: that Rome seemed to attract so many of its enemies to become historians for Rome. The Greek Polybius led the way with his account of the Punic Wars, then Manetho an Egyptian priest wrote the history of Egypt, now lost though the gist was recorded by Eusebius.  Berossus wrote a history of Babylonia,  also lost, and Josephus wrote an account of the Antiquities of the Jews and the Jewish War which have survived complete, together with a number of other works.

The re-conquest of Judea was long and protracted.  Much of the fighting was something like a civil war – Jews against Jews, or rather a war led by the Zealots against the establishment, who often preferred to make peace while they could.  After three attempts the Roman army fought their way into Jerusalem until eventually they captured the Temple and in the melée the Temple was set on fire and burned to the ground. It is not clear whether this was a deliberate act of the Roman army or whether this was an accident; but it was a disaster. Not only was the Temple as rebuilt by Herod one of the greatest buildings in the world, but it was also the very centre of Jewish religion, so to the Jews its destruction was the greatest disaster imaginable.

The Roman commander, Titus returned to Rome for a Triumph, but there was still Jewish resistance to be stamped out. Four fortresses were taken without too much difficulty, but the fifth was one of the most difficult projects in Roman history. It was called Masada.



Masada Wiki

Aerial view of Masada. The palace was at the near end, the massed storehouses just behind. The Roman siege embankment is to the right.

Masada is a great chunk of rock projecting vertically from a rocky landscape,  near the southern shores of the Dead Sea. It was well-nigh impregnable but it had a  flat top, so Herod the Great decided to make it into a last-ditch fortress. He built a magnificent palace with mosaics, baths and very extensive stores and huge cisterns for water.  If anyone tried to depose him, it would make an impregnable hidey-hole.

It had been captured by the Sacarii, the most extreme sect of fanatical Jews who practised hidden assassination, not only on the Romans, but also on the Jewish establishment. If the Romans were to wipe out Jewish resistance, Masada must be captured, whatever the cost. A full legion was brought up, with auxiliaries and a considerable number of Jewish prisoners and it has become the classic example of Roman military prowess. Half a dozen siege camps were erected around the perimeter, and a circumvallation wall 11 kms long was built to prevent food getting in or the besieged getting out. They then proceeded to build an enormous ramp on top of a rocky ridge in order to bring a battering ram to attack the walls.

Eventually, they succeeded, and battered down the walls only to find that the besieged were all dead. The Sacarii, 960 in all,  preferred death to slavery and since suicide was forbidden in Jewish law, they picked out 10 men by lot who proceeded to kill all the others, and then the 10 men chose one by lot who killed the other 9, and then proceeded to kill himself.  Only two women and five children survived to tell the tale.

The site was excavated in a classic excavation by Yigael Yadin, military commander turned archaeologist, and has since become a major attraction, not only for tourists, but also for the Israelis, who regard it as a monument to Jewish heroism for modern Israelis.

The arch of Titus, built from the booty from the capture of Jerusalem

Following the fall of Jerusalem, the town was gutted:  houses were demolished, the Temple remained a ruin, and a legion was stationed on the site.  Jews continued to flourish in the rest of Judaea, but Jerusalem was empty. The amount of booty was such that it funded the building of the Colosseum, the greatest of all Roman amphitheatres, with a seating capacity of 60,000, similar to that of the major football clubs today. Titus was able to build a grand arch to celebrate his victory, situated on the edge of the Forum with views of the Forum in one direction and the Colosseum in the other.

One of the panels from the Arch of Titus, showing the 7-armed menorah or lamp-stand,  the most sacred symbol from the Temple at Jerusalem, being displayed as booty in the triumph of Titus.

And for the final ignominy, a new tax was levied on all practising Jews of two drachmas a year (a drachma was a day’s pay). The Jews had previously voluntary paid a similar tax to the Temple for its upkeep, so the Romans decided to make the tax compulsory to pay for the rebuilding of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, the greatest temple in the Roman world, which had recently been burnt down. For the Jews, this was the ultimate indignity.


The Second Jewish War

For seventy years there was an uneasy truce until a second war broke out headed by one Bar Kokhba.  Again a Roman legion was vanquished and for two years Bar Kokhba established himself as the prince of an independent nation, issuing coins with inscriptions not in Aramaic – the standard language but in a primitive form of Hebrew.  Eventually Hadrian assembled a very large Roman army – six legions together with auxiliary troops, and the Roman military machine ground down the Jewish rebels.

This time it was clear that since the Jewish religion was so much centred on Jerusalem,  Jerusalem must be fully Romanised. Jerusalem was turned into a Roman colony.  The old town was eliminated and a new town was ritually marked out by ploughing.  The town was renamed Aelia Capitolina (Aelius was the family name of Hadrian and Capitolina was the name of the Capitol Hill in Rome, the very symbol of Roman religion)  and a temple to Jupiter was built over the site of the temple. Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem, and until the foundation of modern Israel, Jerusalem has never since been Jewish.  Finally the province of Judea was renamed Palestina Syria, to wipe out the very name of the Jews.

The Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem as rebuilt by Justinian in the mid 6th century

It was Romanised and then Christianised. When Constantine became emperor and made Christianity into a tolerated and favoured religion,  his mother Helena went out to Christianise Jerusalem, carrying out extensive excavations.  These were extremely successful.  At Bethlehem she discovered the site where Christ was born and erected the Church of the Nativity, which in its 6th century form remains one of the glories of late Roman architecture.

Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre

Then in Jerusalem, Ambrose reports that she discovered the True Cross: later sources report that she discovered three crosses, but she then applied archaeological science: she had a sick woman brought who touched the first cross –  nothing; she touched the second cross – nothing.  But when she touched the third cross  she was healed, and by a triumph of archaeological science, the True Cross was finally identified.  Thus Helena is celebrated as a saint by the Christian church and more importantly, as the patron saint of archaeologists. Subsequently, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was erected over the site, which in its numerous formats remains the prime church of Christendom. The Jews were kept out of Jerusalem, but for Christians, Jerusalem became the great city of virtue,  as contrasted with Rome the great city of wickedness.

Jerusalem flourished, until in 638 the Muslims came along, captured the city,  and built the  Dome of the Rock over the site of the temple, which frustratingly for the Jews is one of the great triumphs of world architecture.  But with the foundation of modern Israel, the Jews have at long last gone some way to retrieving the disasters of Roman rule.

The Dome of the Rock, built by the Moslems over the site of the Jewish Temple


Now it is time to ask ourselves how it was that Christianity went from being a small eccentric offshoot of Judaism to being one of the world’s great religions.


17th December 2019