At the Passover seder, a young child traditionally asks four questions about the mysterious goings-on: why do we eat bitter herbs dipped in salt water, why do we eat reclining, and so on. The questions introduce the Passover narrative, the story of the exodus from Egypt.
For the historically minded, however, there is another answer that could be given.
The unusual rituals at Passover derive from the ceremonial of an ancient Roman banquet. The Romans ate reclining. The Romans began their meals with an appetizer course of raw vegetables like the romaine lettuce often featured on the seder plate. And just as Jews drink four ritual glasses of wine at set points during the seder service, so too banqueting Romans drank their wine at the command of a master of the feast.
It might seem strange that this venerable Jewish ritual should imitate Roman forms. In Jewish historiography, the Romans are the arch-oppressors, the martyrizers of Rabbi Akiva and other holy sages, the incarnation of immorality, idolatry, and injustice. Why eat like them?
The answer to that question can be found in Martin Goodman’s fascinating and boldly revisionist new book, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, a provocative reconsideration of the Jewish-Roman encounter.
As Goodman tells it, Jews and Romans got along reasonably well for the first 100 years of their relationship, from Pompey’s arrival in the Hellenistic East in the 60s BC until the war ending in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Many Jews acquired Roman citizenship (Saul of Tarsis notable among them). A diaspora community took form in Rome and other cities of the empire, and the income from their pilgrimages to worship in the Temple provided the resources for Herod the Great’s rebuilding of Jerusalem as a showplace of modern architecture: the Bilbao of its time. Roman customs without religious significance – like the Roman banquet – were readily adopted by upper-class Judaeans, who seemed able (like many other Mediterranean peoples) to think of themselves as simultaneously Roman in civic identity and non-Roman in faith and culture.
This benign relationship came to an abrupt and (Goodman argues) unpredictable and unnecessary end with the rebellion of 66-70. The rebellion began (he plausibly suggests) not as a mass uprising against intolerable oppression, but as a riot against the maladministration of an especially incompetent Roman official. The Romans retreated from Jerusalem into an ambush: an entire legion was destroyed. That blow to imperial prestige required punishment. But the mission was not of the first order of importance, and so it was entrusted to a general of undistinguished family and only moderately successful career. We know him as Vespasian.
During the course of Vespasian’s suppression of the rebellion, civil war erupted at Rome. The emperor Nero was overthrown in 68. Three generals battled to succeed him: Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. Whichever of them emerged on top would bring a new ruling elite along with him – and the officers of the armies of the east saw no good reason why that new status should not belong to them. They proclaimed Vespasian as ruler of the empire, and prepared to install him at Rome.
This turn of events necessitated a rapid windup of the Judaean campaign. Vespasian delegated the task to his son, Titus, a capable soldier. Titus accelerated the pace of the siege. As the Romans pierced the city walls, an over-aggressive soldier set fire to the Jerusalem Temple.
Goodman makes a strong case that the fire was contrary to orders. The Romans habitually showed respect to the gods of enemy peoples, and previous Roman commander had deferred to Judaean religious sensibilities. The governor under Caligula had risked his own life by refusing an order to install a statue of the insane emperor inside the Temple. (Luckily for him, Caligula was assassinated before he heard of the disobedience.) Titus at first battled the flames. But ancient technology could not do the job in the heat and drought of a Judaean August. The Temple was destroyed.
Titus made a virtue of necessity: He claimed the unintended destruction of the Temple as a great victory. The new Flavian dynasty needed all the triumphs it could get: They were not only usurpers, but unlike the grand Caesarian clan and the even grander Claudians who had fused with them, their humbler ancestry did not accord with Roman ideas of legitimate rulership. They needed therefore to present themselves as epic conquerors – and the Judaean campaign as the greatest Roman victory since Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.
Hence the ceremonial procession of Temple spoils, hence the arch of Titus, hence the striking of commemorative coins – and hence the imperial refusal to allow the rebuilding of the Temple. The Flavians imposed a unique punitive measure on their Jewish subjects: a special head tax that was paid to the temple of Jupiter on the Roman Capitol. The idea seemed to be that the money the Jews had previously donated to the maintenance of their own temple would now support the grand central temple of Rome.
This tax had a special unexpected side effect: it hastened the separation of Christianity from Judaism, by incentivizing early Christians to identify themselves as non-Jewish. (That decision in turned contributed to the Roman persecution of the Christians. The Jews held a unique right not to participate in imperial cult devotions – a right now regarded as bought and paid for by the special tax. If they disavowed Judaism, Christians also forfeited their right to abstain from imperial cult.)
In that first generation after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, Jews throughout the empire expected rebuilding to occur sooner or later: that after all was the universal Roman practice. Even Carthage had eventually been rebuilt!
And sure enough, when the Flavian dynasty ended in 96 with the assassination of Vespasian’s second son, Domitian, the new emperor Nerva relaxed (without outright abolishing) the Jewish tax. Jews interpreted the abolition as a promise of more tolerant times to come.
But Nerva’s position was a fragile one. An elderly, childless, civilian, he lacked all the instrumentalities of power save only one: his high aristocratic status. That did not impress the army, which rebelled against him – or perhaps was manipulated into rebelling. Whatever exactly happened, Nerva decided in 97 to adopt one of Rome’s leading generals as his heir: the man we know as Trajan. Nerva died the following year and Trajan inherited power.
Trajan abruptly reversed Nerva’s more lenient policies toward the Jews. Trajan’s father had been one of Vespasian’s generals, had served in Judaea, and had participated in the plot that installed the Flavians as emperors. Trajan remained devoted to his father’s memory: when adopted by Nerva, he added Nerva’s family name to his father’s rather than (as would have been customary) substituting it. Whether he regarded continuity with the Flavians as important to his legitimacy or for some other reason, he reverted to their anti-Jewish attitudes.
Here is where Goodman makes some bold guesses.
In 116-117, Jews in North Africa staged rebellions against Roman power. Goodman hypothesizes that these rebellions were triggered by Trajan’s invasion of Mesopotamia – inspiring Jewish fears that the largest and most important Jewish communities in the diaspora world, which had till then enjoyed the relative freedom of Persian rule, would soon be subjugated. In sympathy or perhaps as a diversionary tactic, Jews in the Empire took up arms (in Goodman’s telling) to force Trajan to abandon his eastern war.
If that was the plan, it did not work. But it left both Trajan and his adopted heir, Hadrian, more convinced than ever of the need for hard measures against the Jews.
Now comes another bold guess. Goodman hypothesizes that this turn to an even harder policy inpsired the decision to sever the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and its monuments once and for all. A Roman military colony, Aelia Capitolina (named for the temple of Jupiter to whose upkeep the Jewish tax was supposedly dedicated), was installed atop the Temple mount. A legionary camp was built alongside. The province of Judaea was renamed Palestina, after the Jews’ ancient Philistine enemies. All these measures, Goodman argues, preceded and provoked the famous Judaean revolt of 135, rather than (as traditionally taught) following it.
That third revolt failed. Much of the dwindling Jewish population of Judaea was enslaved and banished, and the province largely depopulated. The Roman-Jewish relationship hardens into one of oppression and resentment for the next 200 years.
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century only aggravated the tension. The rising Christian Church taught that Jesus had prophesied that the Temple would be destroyed and never rebuilt. So obviously no rebuilding could be tolerated. And as Christianity emerged as the official religion of the state over the next century, Roman and Christian anti-Judaism fused together into a severe new ideology … one that would shape the fate of the Jews of Europe for centuries still to come.
That’s Goodman’s story line, but this simple summary does not begin to do justice to the richness and detail of his scholarship. Rome and Jerusalem is one of the most engaging and thought-provoking books on ancient history that I have ever read, and although more knowledgeable people may well be able to rebut some or all of Goodman’s revisionist suggestions, his case certainly seems powerfully convincing to me.
Some reviewers of the book have invited readers to draw contemporary lessons from this story – an invitation accepted by the publisher in its evocative subtitle. Here is the interpretation offered by the reviewer for the Guardian:
The most powerful man in the Roman world, uneasy about his still shaky power, decided to use war to make himself unchallengeable. Because of what happened next – atrocity after atrocity in the second-century Middle East, ending with the mass suicides at Masada – we have too easily assumed an ancient enmity, a clash of civilisations, which was not actually there. It would be pleasing to feel that international statesmen might draw lessons from Goodman’s lucid account of ancient tragedy; but don’t hold your breath.
Only in Britain can a book about the murderous attempt to break the connection between the Jews and their ancient homeland be interpreted as … a critique of the Iraq war.
Here’s another interpretation, one perhaps a little more grounded in the history Goodman narrates. Through a series of tragedies and disasters 2000 years ago, hostility to the very concept of a Jewish state in Judaea was encoded into the cultural DNA of the two great sources of Western culture, Romanitas and Christianity. The very language of the Western world reflects this hostility: The Roman nonce-word “Palestine” has almost universally replaced “Judaea” as the name for the territory of the ancient Jews.
This hostility has been a source of violence, cruelty, and injustice for centuries – injustice that continues to this day. And if we’re going to follow the Guardian’s example of drawing dramatic contemporary parallels, how about his: Just as the Flavian emperors vilified the Jews in order to legitimate their grab at absolute power, so 2000 years later today’s tyrants from Teheran to Caracas seek to solidify their own brutal rule in exactly the same way.