THE ROMANS AND THEIR JEWS 

The Romans may not have liked their Jews but they never attacked them with that committed hatred characteristic of Christian (and other) rulers in Europe from the Middle Ages to the first half of the twentieth century. Judaism, one of many cults around for Romans looking for fresh religious experience, was respected; Jews were not.

The religion was puzzling and unintelligible, the habits of its practitioners distasteful and inconvenient. ‘They worship nothing but the clouds and the sky . . . they despise Roman laws . . . they have this man Moses . . . they smell of candles and tunny fish tails . . . they practise circumcision . . .’ (wrongly supposed to increase sexual potency), complained Juvenal. And on the seventh day, the Sabbath, they absolutely refused to budge, rendering them unsuitable for military service. ‘No Jew on the Sabbath,’ wrote Augustus to Tiberius (getting it wrong), ‘fasted as seriously as I did . . .’

Throughout our period, from Julius Caesar to the Emperor Nero (both venerated by the Jews), their privileges and exemptions were confirmed and honoured throughout the Empire, and, when challenged by officials or rival subjects, were usually upheld. The annual levy of a drachma, paid by Jewry in the Diaspora to the temple in Jerusalem, was transmitted intact, even during a hard currency crisis in Rome. A centurion who raised his skirt and farted, to show his contempt, in the Temple precinct was reduced to the ranks. Roman standards bearing eagles, or bulls, had to be covered when paraded through Jerusalem.

Recent excavations in Aphrodisias,5 near Smyrna in Turkey, have revealed an inscription in the stalls of the amphitheatre which reads, ‘reserved for His Imperial Majesty’s loyal Jewish subjects’. Aphrodisias, a city as large as Pompeii, was destroyed by earthquakes in the seventh century and vanished from history. Like every other town in the Empire, Aphrodisias had its quota (though there were no restrictions as that word implies) of Jews, and an inscription in creamy white marble, for which the place was famous, lists seventy, mostly with non-Jewish-sounding names, which suggests proselytes – on whom, again, there was no restriction.

Of the 4 million Jews in the Roman world (more, relatively, than in ours), half had emigrated, mostly voluntarily and happily, from Judaea. One explanation for their numbers may be that unlike many peoples in the ancient world they did not practise infanticide. They spoke the language of the country where they had settled – often Greek, though they were not Hellenized. They could read, but not necessarily understand – never a rabbinical requirement – the law and their prayers in Hebrew. Like overseas Chinese in Europe today, but emphatically not in the takeaway context, they were everywhere.

Marseilles, a Greek colony, had thousands of Jews centuries before Christ. Jews may have been in England with the Phoenicians, exploiting the mines of Cornwall. They deferred to no central religious authority (unlike the equally ubiquitous Roman Catholics of our day) and their only common link was a sentiment for Jerusalem, realized in the obligatory temple tax of one drachma6 a year. Jews were particularly strong in Alexandria, feuding with the Greeks and interrupting the Games. They were also prominent in Antioch, Cappadocia, Pontus, Phrygia and Pamphylia – everywhere in fact visited by Paul on his journeys. When he arrived, under praetorian escort, in Rome in AD 62, he would have found 40,000 Jews and fourteen synagogues. The first swathe of Jews, thousands of them, had arrived as prisoners-of-war in Pompey’s triumphal procession 100 years before in 61 BC, and were sold into slavery as part of the successful general’s perks. But as we have seen (vide chapter on slaves), with a bit of nous and application a slave in Roman times could be manumitted, and once they were free they had settled down on the wrong side of the Tiber – in what is now Trastevere – as butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers, in any kind of métier except that of moneylending, which was enjoined upon them by the Christians in a later era. Some gained unpopularity (and were occasionally banned) as fortune-tellers. A Jewish actor (as we have already seen, a questionable profession) who welcomed Josephus to Rome had insinuated himself into Poppaea’s circle, probably as master of (a certain kind of) ‘ceremonies’ at the palace.

Paul rented a flat near the praetorian barracks, and lived there for two years, at his own expense, practising without let or hindrance the gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ – to paraphrase the last two verses of the Acts. He would have been the only Jew on the block. One wonders what happened then. Legends abound. Paul might have died before the fire of Rome in AD 64, but it is unlikely that he could have survived Nero’s persecution of the Christians – as they were not yet called – because although they did not, of course, start the fire (nor did Nero) it suited the Emperor to pretend that they had. Poppaea, the Emperor’s mistress and eventual wife, was not a Jewish proselyte but favoured Jews and protected them against the accusation of arson which fell so savagely on the Christians, a sect indistinguishable, to the Romans, from the Jews.

Few Romans could, or would, have said ‘some of my best friends are Jews’. The Emperor Gaius could have and should have because Herod Agrippa was his only friend, but being Caligula he didn’t and indeed planned a grotesque insult, which nearly broke Agrippa’s heart (vide chapter on Caligula). Jews in the Roman Empire, however successful, rarely assimilated with the powers-that-were, unlike the Jews of South Africa or at the court of Edward VII during the British Empire.

Only one Jew, a nephew of Philo the philosopher and historian from Alexandria, abandoned his religion and became Prefect of Egypt, as well as Prefect of Police and Corn and of the Praetorian Guard, one of the top jobs in the Empire. Josephus, of whom much more anon, having changed sides in the Jewish War, boasted of his Roman acquaintance; but the family which fraternized consistently with the Julio-Flavian dynasty was that of Herod the Great, who weren’t really Jews at all.7

Herod came from Idumaea, the biblical Edom, the bottom left-hand corner of what is now Israel, inland of the Gaza Strip. The Herod of the New Testament, he who massacred the Innocents, gross, cruel and stinking, like Henry VIII at the end of his life but with four more wives, has left an impression of horror difficult to dent. Immobilized by advanced arterio-sclerosis, paranoiac and communicating with his family, it would seem, only through torture and assassination, it is amazing that he survived so long, but as a young man this handsome, athletic and kind Arab – not many princes in his day bothered to ransom their younger brothers – managed to convince the Romans and the Jews he was the only figure in the landscape they could trust. He was trusted by and loyal to Antony and then, in spite of being penniless, was believed by the new conqueror, Octavian (Augustus), who added to his dominions and trusted him as completely. By the age of thirty-six, through charm, daring and political genius – much of which consisted in out-bribing the bribers – he became the King of Judaea, ‘the friend of Caesar, the most distinguished non-Roman in the Roman world, known throughout the Empire for his wealth, his splendour and his magnificence’.8

His money came not from taxation and, though he was the biggest spender in the ancient world, and second to the Emperor Hadrian the biggest builder, he was never in debt. Through his mother, whose father was a merchant in Petra – not then a picturesque spot with rose-red walls, but the most profitable trading-post in the world – he controlled the traffic from the East to the Mediterranean, owned the palm and balsam groves round Jericho, ran on Augustus’ behalf the copper mines in Cyprus and split the profits with him, and lent money to other local kings.

Though not a Jew, he professed and marketed Judaism (although the spiritual element eluded him) with as much zeal and on a greater scale than any Jewish king since Solomon. (The institution of monarchy, ‘fashionable in modern times’, as Gibbon sourly remarks, was a Jewish invention.) He rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem within an enclosure covering thirty-five acres, greater than the area of the Acropolis, and filled it with colossal buildings. The Temple was begun in 19 BC and not completed till AD 64. The little Old City of today’s Jerusalem, cosy if tortured, encircled by Saladin’s intact wall, is a fraction of the size of Herod’s and is without an edifice of any remark. Herod’s city was staggering. Here is Sir Charles Wilson, quoted by Stewart Perowne, on the Royal Portico, which he investigated 100 years ago: ‘It is almost impossible to realize the effect which would be produced by a building longer and higher than York Cathedral, standing on a solid mass of masonry almost equal in height to the tallest of our church spires: and to this we must add the whiteness of stone fresh from the mason’s hands.’

Within his kingdom, Herod created ‘western’ cities like Caesarea, and the fortress Masada, where he planned to retreat in case of heavy trouble from his own subjects. Synonymous with munificence internationally, like a Carnegie, a Rockefeller or a Rothschild, Herod spread his euergetai – good works – throughout the Empire, repaving Antioch with marble, presiding at great expense over the Olympic Games and constantly giving hand-outs to good and bad causes.

One of his subjects, born just before his death, must have been awed by Herod’s development of Jerusalem. The young Galilean from Nazareth – not a highly rated place in his day – may have contemplated its gardens and palaces with resentment, for he was not invited in. Jesus’ only rich friend was Lazarus, in nearby Bethania (Bethany), whose hospitality he was able to repay with the ultimate gift – life. His overturning of the money-changers’ tables outside the Temple would have been regarded by the fat cats of Jerusalem as a Republican Senator would consider a raid on the souvenir shop at Fort Knox today.

The special relationship between Rome and Jerusalem, the Imperial family and Herod, could not survive his death and in AD 6, Judaea was annexed as a province and subsumed by Syria. Through the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, Herod the Great’s dominions were chopped about and administered by governors or procurators of no particular account, certain of whom are known to us for their appearance in the New Testament. Pontius Pilate was corrupt, bad-tempered and tactless; Felix, who imprisoned Paul and whom he disdained to bribe, was bent; Festus, who wanted to acquit Paul, was straight; the worst was Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria whose behaviour at Passover in Jerusalem in AD 66 provoked the Jewish War.

The Jewish War, which lasted six years – a long time if the relative strength of the parties is considered, especially since the Jews spent much of their energy fighting each other – was painful and exasperating for the Romans and catastrophic for the Jews. If Josephus is to be believed,9 and there is no one else to turn to since the usual sources – Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius – are either brief, silent, contemptuous or not extant, the Jews brought their final solution on themselves.

Josephus worked on his History of the Jewish War against the Romans from the comfort of a large house in Rome, a large income and the friendship of the Emperors Vespasian and his son Titus. His objectivity was therefore dimmed by his circumstances, but the history is exciting and readable and has been a steady seller for nearly 2,000 years. It was especially popular in Victorian households.

Aged nineteen, son of a middle-class Jewish family with property in Jerusalem, Josephus, having studied both the Sadducees and the Essenes, became a Pharisee. In the war he was commander in Galilee, one of the six regions into which the cappointedountry had been divided, but at the Siege of Jotapata, which he was defending, he changed sides – like John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, on the eve of the Battle of Sidgwick, but after more thought and with more copious explanation. Josephus maintains in his history that the Romans held him in such esteem that they thought the war would be virtually over when they secured his person. He surrendered to ‘an old friend’, the tribune Nicanor, having addressed his comrades-in-arms as follows: ‘Why, my friends, are we so anxious to commit suicide? Why should we make those best of friends, body and soul, part company?’ So Josephus opted out of a provincial war into Roman history. On meeting Vespasian, he prophesied for him the imperial purple and, if he is to be believed, became one of Vespasian’s ‘kitchen cabinet’, steering him in the ‘year of the four Emperors’ towards his destiny.

Meanwhile the war, even after Josephus’ defection to the Romans, continued. The war had begun well enough for the Jews, who had taken advantage of the disarray and rebelliousness in the provinces, caused by Nero’s rackety behaviour towards the end of his reign, to attack the occupying power. (When concentrating, Nero had been capable of quite effective foreign policy.) One Sabbath day in September AD 67 the legate Cestius, a greedy bloodthirsty brute, was booted out of Jerusalem, losing in the process 5,300 infantry and 480 cavalry. Among the dead was the commander of the 6th Legion. Jewish losses were negligible. Romans would not have been astonished by the success of the Israeli army though they would have been surprised by its discipline and its unity with the state, for though the Jews of their day fought with daring and often fanatical courage, they were dangerously disorganized. After the Roman débâcle ‘many prominent Jews fled from the city, like swimmers from a sinking ship’ (Josephus), and here we must distinguish the factions, who hated each other as much as they hated the Romans.

The Sadducees were the hereditary high priests, no more religious than the noblesse of the ancien régime who monopolized the plump offices of the Church in France. They were property-owners who employed hard men to collect their rents. From their palaces on Mount Zion,10 special only because it was the highest point in the city and attracted the first rain, they could walk along a covered way to the Temple. The Sadducees, perhaps because they could not credit that it could be an improvement on the one they enjoyed, did not believe in the afterlife and being anxious at all costs to preserve their earthly position co-operated (like Vichy) with the occupying power. They thought they were there for ever, but as Abram Levy, Haham of the Sephardic congregation in London, asked: ‘Where are the Sadducees now?’

Needless to say, the Sadducees were often at odds – politically, socially and economically – with the Pharisees, who were priestly, scholarly, intellectual, bourgeois, believers in the letter and spirit of the Law. Their attention to hygiene, for instance, amounted to the obsessive. Saul, who was a prize Pharisee before he became Paul, joked that the Pharisees would have washed the moon had they been able to. The self-appointed monitors of society, they interpreted, practised and guarded the Law, notably from the often unintentional insults of the occupying power, and were not always so narrow in this role as they are cast in the Gospels. Professor Hyam Maccoby, the most tolerant and readable of modern Jewish scholars, maintains that the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin were not continuously hostile to Jesus, nor to his followers after his death, indeed that occasionally friendly references to both peep through, uncensored, in the Gospels. Professor Maccoby claims that Jesus was a Pharisee. (Alas for the Jews, he is their most famous man.)

Nothing Jesus is reported to have said conflicted with the Jewish law he had come ‘to fulfil and not to destroy’. The same Dr Abram Levy told me the only doctrinal difference between Jesus and Judaism is the Christian emphasis on forgiveness. Jews are not obliged to be so agreeable, being a people known, as Disraeli put it, ‘never to forgive an injury, nor forget a benefit’, but equally they do believe that the Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath, which means that considerations of serious illness or danger take precedence.

None of the above, of course, would have been of any interest to the Romans, in whose literature the only reference to Jesus is in Josephus, and that a forgery. Awareness of followers of the cult of Jesus – the term ‘Christian’ was not current till long after his death – being separate from other Jews, cannot be detected till the fire of Rome and they were not systematically persecuted till the end of the century. Anatole France has a story which may well describe the effect of the new religion on the Roman mind at the time of Nero. Anxious to know more about the background of the followers of Jesus, the Foreign Office (as it were) sent a young man to question Pontius Pilate, the governor who had him crucified, now in retirement in Baiae (Naples). Pilate is delighted at the opportunity to talk shop and evades the matter in hand with a series of reminiscences in the vein of I-wonder-what-happened-to-him? Finally, exasperated, the young diplomat asks Pilate directly to tell him about Jesus of Nazareth, founder of this new subversive cult which is giving trouble to the authorities. Pilate looks puzzled.

‘– whom you had crucified,’ repeats the young man, ‘thirty years ago.’

‘Rappelle pas,’ says Pontius Pilate.

The followers of Jesus, the disciples of his brother James, the ‘Jerusalem Christians’, as historians called them later, may have fought the Romans in the Jewish War, but they are – tactfully, perhaps – nowhere mentioned.

Another sect with whom early Christians have been (mistakenly) compared were the Essenes. Though there is no monastic arm in Judaism, monasticism and monkish habits, coming from the ashrams in India around 1,500 BC, were adopted by colonies of Jews and of these, since the discovery in 1947 of scrolls around the north-west corner of the Dead Sea, the colony in the caves at Qumran is the most famous. We know now that the Essene community there was destroyed by Vespasian after his capture of Jericho inAD68. Josephus describes them thus:

The Essenes profess a severe discipline . . . They eschew pleasure-seeking as a vice and regard temperance and mastery of the passions as a virtue. Scorning wedlock, they select other men’s children and fashion them after their own pattern . . . contemptuous of wealth, they are communists to perfection . . . each man’s possessions go into the pool . . . Men to supervise the community’s affairs are elected by a show of hands, chosen for their tasks by universal suffrage.

Apart from their misogyny, Josephus could be describing Chassids in North London or the Bronx, and apart from their silence and severe piety, an early Kibbutz in Israel. Certainly, like latter-day kibbutzniks, the Essenes were famous for their fighting capacity, their only personal possession being a knife.

In the Jewish War the Romans also came up against the Zealots and the Sicarii, so-called from the daggers hidden on their persons. During the Siege of Jerusalem, Titus found three factions fighting each other and occasionally successfully combining against him. As Josephus explains, ‘Men highly organized and trained to fight according to the book and in obedience to orders are more quickly demoralized by unorthodox and enterprising tactics.’

Finally, after hundreds of thousands of Jews had died through slaughter or starvation in every corner of the once wealthy kingdom of Herod, and after the capture of his fortress Masada, where the Romans found corn, wine, oil, pulses and dates, in a perfect state, hidden by Herod 100 years before, resistance by Jews expired. It had been an unequal fight. As Josephus had warned his compatriots, the Romans were destined to rule the world. ‘What corner of the earth escaped the Romans, unless heat or cold made it of no value to them?’ God was on the Roman side.

Titus, son of Vespasian, fulfilled the prophecy of Jesus (recorded after the event), that not one stone in Jerusalem should remain on top of another, by levelling Herod’s city. Only the tower Herod built for Mariamne I, the wife he loved and murdered by mistake, was left standing. Perhaps Titus wanted to leave a souvenir, perhaps he liked it. It is still there.

Vespasian and Titus, like all successful Roman generals, were reasonable towards the reasonable. We have seen how they treated Josephus. Unnecessary trouble should be avoided. Romans would always deal. When Rabbi ben Zakkai had himself smuggled out of besieged Jerusalem in a coffin and explained to Vespasian that he had not planned on a martyr’s death, he was allowed to start a theological college in Sfad. Titus, returning to Jerusalem, was, according to Josephus, appalled at the destruction he had ordered but reflected that the Jews had only themselves to blame. Those in the Diaspora were made to pay for the folly of the homeland by having their annual levy to the Temple in Jerusalem diverted to a temple dedicated to Jupiter in Rome, but in no other way.

When the not-so-good citizens of Antioch besought Titus to revoke the privileges of Antioch’s Jewish community, the second richest in the Empire next to that of Alexandria, Titus refused. Robin Lane-Fox, in Pagans and Christians (Penguin, 1988), points out that for centuries of the common era the synagogue in a Roman city remained a more substantial and prominent building than the Christian ‘house church’. But the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was a trauma from which the Jews have never recovered. It has never been rebuilt; the sacrifices detailed at length in the current Jewish Book of Common Prayer have never been performed; the Sanhedrin has never sat.11

This chapter began with the observation that the Roman world was not averse to new religious experience. Judaism had now been tainted by its connection with an unpleasant little war; an alternative was waiting in the wings.

The whole of Rome turned out for the Triumphs of Vespasian and Titus. (The Senate had voted them one each but they decided to combine.) The Roman Triumph was a triumph of organization and glory. Every stop was pulled out. By AD 71, the end of our period, the choreography, as it were, was fine-tuned. The Triumph was an amalgam of display, religiosity, terror, feasting and debauch. Only the Romans could have invented it. It was also a superb instrument of foreign policy, demonstrating to client kings, allies and potential enemies the power and the generosity of Rome – and the cruelty, for the Triumph ended with the execution of the principal enemies, who had formed part of the procession.

Mark, the youngest of the Gospel writers, is said to have witnessed the Triumph for the Jewish War. If he did he would have seen the treasures of the Temple, the richest in the world, paraded through the streets of Rome: the golden vessels and the golden trumpets, the altar of solid gold, the five scrolls of the Pentateuch, the menorah in solid gold with its seven branches – the latter two the most holy objects in Israel: Also in the procession was Simon the Zealot, the invincible hero of the Siege of Jerusalem, in chains, walking to his execution. Mark must have decided that a new religion could not succeed if it offended Rome.

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