Dynasty Family Trees
The destruction of Jerusalem is the only subject now remaining for an epic poem; a subject which, like Milton's Fall of Man, should interest all Christendom, as the Homeric War of Troy interested all Greece. There would be difficulties, as there are in all subjects; and they must be mitigated and thrown into the shade, as Milton has done with the numerous difficulties in the “Paradise Lost.” But there would be a greater assemblage of grandeur and splendour than can now be found in any other theme … Here there would be the completion of the prophecies—the termination of the first revealed national religion under the violent assault of Paganism, itself the immediate forerunner and condition of the spread of a revealed mundane religion; and then you would have the character of the Roman and the Jew, and the awfulness, the completeness, the justice.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
IN 70 CE the great city of Jerusalem, one of the most magnificent and renowned of its day, and, for Jews, the centre of all their aspirations, both religious and national, was devastated by Roman forces after a terrible siege. Over the following centuries Jews were pushed to the margins of Roman society. Rome came to be viewed by Jews as the epitome of evil power. Such polarization of two ancient cultures which had previously coexisted amicably was without parallel in the early Roman empire. This book seeks to explain why it occurred, and to examine its consequences to the present.
My original intention when I began to write this history was simply to examine the differences between the Jewish and Roman civilizations that shaped the world in which the controversial Jewish teacher Jesus lived and Christianity was formed. But it became clear that a static depiction of similarities and contrasts between the two peoples would be misleading. Pervading the history books, both ancient and modern, is an assumption that, because in 70 CE the conflict proved so dreadful, it must have been also inevitable. This interpretation of events, based on hindsight, seemed to me worth questioning. I therefore set out to examine whether the Jews of Jerusalem in the first half of the first century CE felt themselves to be the oppressed subjects of a hostile empire, as Judaean Jews clearly did a hundred years later, when the rebel leader Shimon bar Kosiba (known to later Jewish tradition as Bar Kokhba) led them in a second bloody revolt in 132–5 CE.
SCHOLARS TRYING to discover the truth about this unhappy story two thousand years ago can make use of a remarkable amount of contemporary evidence. I shall discuss much of that evidence, and why it survives in such quantities, later in this book. But the reader should be introduced from the start to one ancient author whose copious writings will inevitably have more influence than any other on my reconstruction of the history of the Jews in the years immediately preceding 70 CE.
The Jerusalem priest Josephus (37—c. 100 CE) himself wrote an account of these years precisely in order to explain why such a disaster had befallen the Jews. He was in an outstandingly good position to know the answer, since he had himself participated in the war, first as a general on the side of the Jewish rebels and then (after his capture) as an observer inside the Roman headquarters. He composed the seven books of his Jewish War in Rome, as a Roman citizen and an acquaintance of the emperors, within a decade of the end of the conflict.1
Josephus was born into the ruling elite of Jerusalem and was much involved in the political intrigues of the city even before war broke out in 66. Just a few years before, in c. 61, he had travelled to Rome to appeal on behalf of some friends who had been sent there as prisoners by the governor of Judaea to render an account to the emperor Nero, and during that visit he had come into contact with the fringes of the imperial court. When he returned to Jerusalem he was caught up in the increasingly turbulent atmosphere and, once war appeared inevitable in October 66, joined the rebel government with responsibility for the defence of Galilee. As a general he was conspicuously unsuccessful and in spring 67 he was captured by Roman forces. According to his own account, he contemplated suicide to avoid falling into Roman hands but, persuaded by divine guidance in nightly dreams that God himself, who had created the Jewish people, had decided to break what he had made, and that a Roman victory was inevitable, he decided willingly to surrender to the Romans, taking God as witness that he was going “not as a traitor but as your minister.”
In 69 Josephus’ status as a prestige prisoner in the Roman camp was transformed by the revelation that he had prophesied, already in 67, the elevation of Vespasian, the general in command of the campaign in Judaea, to supreme power as emperor in Rome, an inspired prediction of considerable value to Vespasian in his bid for power against rival claimants to the purple. Josephus’ later career depended entirely on this prophecy: in June 69 he was released from his bonds by Vespasian and in due course, when Vespasian was safely installed in the imperial palace in Rome in 70, Josephus was provided with lodgings in the city in the house which Vespasian himself had occupied before he became emperor. Honoured with Roman citizenship and granted a pension, Josephus settled down to write over the next thirty years or so a series of books about the Jews and Judaism, and the relationship of the Jews to the gentile world.
Josephus’ vivid account of the events which led to the catastrophe of 70 CE was thus that of a participant and, in many cases, an eyewitness. He knew the terrain and the personalities of the leaders, and he understood the passions of both sides. But it would be unreasonable to expect him to be objective. He himself warned his readers that he would not try to suppress his private sentiments as he mourned the misfortunes of his native country, and his ability to exaggerate and distort his narrative to make a political or rhetorical point is revealed by some startling discrepancies between some passages in the Jewish War and parallel accounts in two of his later writings:the Jewish Antiquities, which in twenty books covered all of Jewish history from the beginnings of time to the outbreak of the war, and the Life, an autobiography published in 93 CE as a supplement to the Antiquities, in which he endeavoured to exculpate himself for having begun the war as a leader of the rebels.2
The whole of Josephus’ narrative is permeated by the ambivalence which inevitably arose from this complex political career, first as defender of Jerusalem, then an apologist for the regime that had destroyed it. He himself claims that his change of sides was inspired by dreams sent from God. Later generations of Jews have been inclined to treat such claims as self-serving, as they undoubtedly were, but even if this judgement is correct, it should not detract from the value of his firsthand testimony, particularly when he is writing for Roman readers who had also witnessed the events he describes and could know when he is fabricating the story. To accept Josephus’ often tendentious evaluation of the motives and characters of the Jews and Romans whose actions constitute his narrative would be rash, but to accept the details of his narrative, particularly when they contradict his own explanations of events, and so survive in the narrative only because they happened, is reasonable. As a result, the story of Jerusalem in the years up to 70 CE can be told in far more depth than that of any other city in the Roman empire at this time, apart from the story of Rome itself.