LEAST PUZZLING in the unfolding of the events which led to the destruction of Jerusalem was the simple fact that political change in Italy could have such an impact so far away in Judaea. In political terms, the Mediterranean world was more unified under Rome in the first two centuries CE than it had ever been before and than it has ever been since. The brutal reality of the Roman empire was that the power of the emperor could reach almost every corner of this world. Decisions taken in Spain could affect the inhabitants of Turkey; unrest in Italy or Greece could change the lives of people in Syria and the northern coast of Africa.

In a dramatic scene just before the outbreak of revolt in Jerusalem in spring 66 ce, King Agrippa II stood with his sister Berenice on the roof of his palace and delivered a passionate speech, pleading with his fellow Jews not to bring disaster on their heads. According to the version preserved by Josephus, he reminded his Jewish audience in detail of the extraordinary military might that Rome had displayed in conquering, and retaining control of, so much of the known world:

Passing to your present passion for liberty, I say that it comes too late. The time is past when you ought to have striven never to lose it … There was, to be sure, a time when you should have strained every nerve to keep out the Romans; that was when Pompey invaded this country. But our forefathers and their kings, though in wealth and in vigour of body and soul far your superiors, yet failed to withstand a small fraction of the Roman army; and will you, to whom thraldom is hereditary, you who in resources fall so far short of those who first tendered their submission, will you, I say, defy the whole Roman empire? Look at the Athenians … Look at the Spartans … Look at the Macedonians … Myriads of other nations, swelling with greater pride in the assertion of their liberty, have yielded. And will you alone disdain to serve those to whom everything is subject? What is the army, what are the weapons, on which you rely? Where is your fleet to sweep the Roman seas? Where is your treasury to meet the cost of your campaigns? Do you really suppose that you are going to war with Egyptians or Arabs? Will you shut your eyes to the might of the Roman empire? Will you not measure your own weakness? Have not our forces been often defeated even by the neighbouring nations, while theirs have never met with a reverse throughout the whole inhabited world? Even that world has not sufficed for their ambition. For, not content with having for their frontiers on the east the Euphrates, on the north the Ister [the Danube], on the south Libya explored into the uninhabited regions, on the west Gades, they have sought a new world beyond the ocean and carried their arms as far as the Britons, previously unknown to history. I ask you, then, are you wealthier than the Gauls, stronger than the Germans, more intelligent than the Greeks, more numerous than all the peoples of the world? What is it which inspires you with confidence to defy the Romans?

There follows a survey of the empire, region by region, with details in each case of the minimal force needed to keep even the most rebellious peoples in check:

The Dalmatians, too, who have so often reared their heads for liberty, whose constant defeats have only led them to muster their forces for a fresh revolt, do they not now live in peace under a single Roman legion? … Again, consider what a wall of defence had the Britons, you who put your trust in the walls of Jerusalem: the ocean surrounds them, they inhabit an island no less in extent than the part of the world in which we live; yet the Romans crossed the sea and enslaved them, and four legions now secure that vast island.1

The rhetorical structure of this powerful speech, as it is reported, will have been the work not of Agrippa but of Josephus, since in ancient historiography rhetorical elaboration of speeches actually delivered, and even of speeches which should have been delivered but were not, was considered an important element of the historian's task. Nor is it unlikely that Josephus culled his detailed information about Roman administrative arrangements from an official Roman source rather than any account of what Agrippa in fact said as he faced an angry and excitable crowd of rebellious Jews. But, whether Agrippa's invention or Josephus’, the speech encapsulates perfectly both the cultural variety of the Roman world and the firm imprint upon all of it imposed by Rome. There were a few remote regions where Roman power could not reach very effectively, such as the mountains of Rough Cilicia (Cilicia Tracheia) in what is now south-eastern Turkey, but in general Rome controlled her huge empire through sheer military might. The political unity of the empire thus depended ultimately more on control from the centre, and the consent (forced or voluntary) of disparate societies to subject themselves to that control, than on any sense among Rome's subjects that they belonged to a single organic society. In the mid-second century CE the Greek orator Aelius Aristides implied, somewhat optimistically, that Rome should be seen as the queen of a constellation of separate but mutually beneficent city-states organized along the same lines as the federal leagues long traditional among the Greeks, but a façade of local freedom was hard to maintain in many parts of the empire, particularly in the first century CE, when provincial revolts all too often punctured the Roman peace.2

The underlying fragility of political unity imposed by brutal force was most blatant on the geographical edges of the empire. As the sailor journeys east on the Black Sea, he reaches the point, as the historian Arrian put it in the mid-second century CE, “where Roman power ends.”3 Despite periodic campaigns to rectify such matters, Romans were well aware that the Parthians in the East and barbarians of various kinds in Germany and elsewhere remained free from the Roman yoke. It was less easy to admit publicly to lack of political control closer to the centre of empire. Most provincial revolts were hidden from public view by a state unwilling to advertise unwelcome news. Of the many rebellions known—from career-inscriptions of Roman soldiers, incidental remarks in literary texts, and other such scattered evidence—to have taken place in the first two centuries of the empire, only a handful were noted in government propaganda. If Rough Cilicia could not be captured—or, more accurately, was too impoverished to be worth capturing—the state could simply ignore it altogether. The regime ruled regions to which access was often very difficult, so that, in the absence of a free press and investigative journalists, parts of the Roman world could be proclaimed as Roman without any need to take any military action at all. Hence the fate of Armenia, ruled by a local dynasty of Iranian origin which managed with remarkable success to persuade the Roman state of its friendship while remaining on good terms with Parthia. The political fiction was willingly accepted by successive Roman emperors, not least because of the immense difficulties involved in any military campaign in the Armenian mountains. When, in the time of Augustus, the Armenian people assassinated their king Artaxias and accepted the Roman protégé Tigranes in his stead, Augustus’ coins proclaimed ARMENIA CAPTA or ARMENIA RECEPTA even though Roman forces had in fact done nothing.4

In the eyes of most of Rome's subjects, the empire was embodied by the emperor. It had not always been so. Before the victory at Actium in 31 BCE of the future emperor Augustus, the public face of the Roman Republic was sometimes rather nebulous outside the city of Rome itself. The individual senators with whom provincials came into contact might represent the political will of only one faction in a divided ruling class. Senatus Popu-lusque Romanus, “The Senate and people of Rome,” did not always speak with a single voice even before breakdown into nearly continuous civil strife in the mid-first century BCE. Local elites in Greek cities in the eastern Mediterranean, long accustomed to negotiations with kings, attributed a personality to the new power which controlled their political lives by worshipping the personification of Rome as a divinity. The practice was helped more than a little by the coincidence that the name of Rome in Greek means “strength.” But soon after Actium worship shifted to “Rome and Augustus,” and when Augustus died it was his divinity that was celebrated alone. The imperial cult, the worship of emperors dead and alive, rapidly became one of the most powerful forces towards the unification of the Roman world.

The image of the emperor dominated the most pervasive medium for the propagation of slogans for the state, the coinage. Not only were coins issued in huge quantities, but coin types varied greatly, in each case reflecting a decision by some official within the administration of the state, but, whatever might appear on the other side of the coin, the heads of the emperors or (less frequent, but still common) members of their families were ubiquitous. All the emperor's subjects knew his appearance within months of his accession to power—or, more accurately, the appearance that he and his advisers wished him to have in his subjects’ eyes. The emperor's bust, whether placed to be worshipped in a temple among the other gods or admired on a commemorative relief, was instantly recognizable even without the iconographic convention that, from the time of Augustus, only an emperor could be depicted wearing a laurel wreath, traditionally in the Republic the privilege of a victorious general. A backwoods provincial who sought asylum in times of personal danger by clasping the emperor's statue might see in the imperial image the embodiment of the state: in Nicomedia (modern Izmit) in Bithynia in the early second century CE, when a certain Callidromus escaped from the bakers who had kept him as a captive employee, he successfully took refuge before one of Trajan's statues and in due course was able to tell his story to the local magistrates and the governor of the province.5

Thus the personality of the emperor, or in some cases his contrived public persona, mattered even to those who lived in the furthest reaches of the Roman world. The tyranny of Gaius (Caligula) from 37 to 41 or Nero from 54 to 68 could be deplored, or the beneficence of Trajan from 98 to 117 celebrated, even by provincials never remotely likely to see any members of the imperial family in the flesh. It seems likely that the qualities of the emperor that the citizens chose to praise derived, at least in part, from the qualities he and his regime chose to stress, although a study of the frequency of the representation of individual imperial virtues on denarii over the whole period from 69 to 235 reveals surprisingly infrequent reference to such standard virtues as dementiaandiustitia, and a strong emphasis on aequitas (“fairness,” probably referring to the just administration of the mint), liberalitas (celebrating the emperor's generosity), and, on coins featuring portraits of female members of the imperial family, pudicitia,“chastity.” A partial explanation of this pattern may lie in the frequent employment, on a fifth of all coins, of the helpfully ambiguous concept pietas, an old Roman virtue which referred in general to devotion, respect and duty, whether to the gods, to parents, or to dependants.6

Occasionally events at the centre of empire produced reverberations in the provinces that the emperor is unlikely to have entirely welcomed. In 19 CE Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of the emperor Tiberius, died in Syria, convinced (probably without justification) that he had been poisoned by Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria, with whom he had serious public disagreements, leading to a formal breaking of their friendship. Germanicus was in his early thirties when he died. His affability was immensely popular, not least because of its contrast to the distant aristocratic style preferred by the elderly Tiberius. There is evidence that this popularity was not wholly welcome to Tiberius, and it was widely believed that the emperor's professions of grief at Germanicus’ death were insincere. Nonetheless, in 20 CE Tiberius permitted the prosecution of Piso in the Senate. Piso protested his innocence, but, seeing the case going against him, committed suicide to protect other members of his family from harassment should he be condemned. The recent discovery in Spain of at least six copies of the text of the Senate's deliberations after Piso's trial and death shows that even quite small details of these events among the political elite were distributed widely throughout the provinces, in accordance with the Senate's own wish that “this decree of the Senate, inscribed on bronze, should be set up in the most frequented city of each province and the most frequented place in that city.”7

In the 70s CE provincials in the eastern parts of the empire expressed equal enthusiasm for another youthful, charismatic emperor, lending support to a series of individuals who claimed, fraudulently, to be the emperor Nero returning to resume his imperial inheritance. The downfall of the real Nero, who (as we shall see in Chapter 11) had in fact died ignomin-iously in 68, had begun in part because soldiers in distant Gaul were disgusted at his reputation as a matricide. What emperors did was the stuff of gossip, like that in tabloid journalism. The stories in parables found in Jewish texts are sometimes located in royal courts which bear a general resemblance to the imperial court in Rome. Such stories reflected the semi-mythical status of the emperors in the eyes of outsiders from far away. Their impact on the imagination might be no less effective for being imprecise.8

Just occasionally elite politics impinged much more directly on provincials, most obviously in times of civil war, such as the ruinous struggle for power between Pompey and Julius Caesar from 49 BCE and then, from 44 to 31, between Caesar's political heirs, and, as we have seen in Vespasian's conduct of the campaign in Judaea, the attempts by a series of army commanders to seize and retain power in the tumultuous year following the death of Nero in 68 CE. In such times of turmoil provincial aristocrats had to make hard choices, not just whether to support Rome at all but which Romans to support. For a provincial actually to see the emperor would be rare, unless he were sent to Rome on an embassy on behalf of his local community. Few emperors travelled much outside Italy except to go to the frontiers to campaign for the glory of the state, and even campaigning could often be left to competent subordinates. Those emperors who took the field in person generally did so because their military capabilities were so in doubt that they deemed a personal appearance necessary: the emperor Claudius led the invasion of Britain in 43 CE in order to be able to claim, on an inscription of 51, probably set up on a triumphal arch, that he had received there “the surrender of eleven British kings without loss,” asserting that “he was the first to subject to the rule of the Roman people barbarian peoples across the Ocean.”9

The exception to the general rule that emperors preferred a comfortable life in Rome was Hadrian, emperor from 117 to 138. Hadrian set himself to tour the provinces, systematically setting to rights the affairs of his subjects, proclaiming his benevolence as he did so. Other emperors were content to restrict their interventions to those issues raised with them by the provincials themselves, many of whose numerous petitions for favours, if the outcome was successful, were memorialized on inscriptions: so, for instance, an inscription set up in the town of Sabora in Spain in 78 CE by the two chief magistrates, who had it inscribed on bronze “at public expense,” recorded the greetings of Vespasian to the leading citizens: “Since you inform me that your weakness is beset by many difficulties, I permit you to build the town under my name in the plain, as you wish.”10 Provincial governors also tended to wait for prompts from below. The list of Jewish privileges preserved by Josephus in the fourteenth and sixteenth books of his Jewish Antiquities seems to derive from a dossier of inscriptions set up in the cities of Asia Minor to record favourable Roman decrees which had been issued in response to Jewish petitions. He cites a decree of the people of Ephesus:

Whereas the Jews in the city have petitioned the proconsul Marcus Junius Brutus, son of Pontius, that they might observe their Sabbaths and do all those things which are in accordance with their native customs without interference from anyone, and the governor has granted this request, it has therefore been decreed by the council and people that, as the matter is of concern to the Romans, no one shall be prevented from keeping the Sabbath days nor be fined for doing so, but they shall be permitted to do all those things which are in accordance with their own laws.11

The far more active approach of Hadrian, widely advertised by the minting of a series of coins to celebrate his arrival in each province, and commemorated in each of those provinces by the founding of cities and erection of buildings, was in stark contrast.12

For many provincials the local representatives of the empire were Roman soldiers, with whom relations naturally varied. On 6 May 124, a centurion named Magonius Valens in the military camp which bordered the date-palm groves in En Gedi by the Dead Sea made an emergency short-term loan to a Jew named Judah at an interest rate of twelve per cent per annum. A Roman soldier receiving regular pay, but with no opportunity to spend his money enjoyably in a secluded posting like En Gedi, might well find himself with spare cash and the temptation to put his money to use by lending to the provincials for a good return. In any such transaction the upper hand was inevitably with the soldier. In the document recording the loan to Judah, the outer text (the text visible without unsealing the document) stated that Judah would receive sixty denarii, but the inner text was altered during the drawing-up of the agreement, with the original reference to forty denarii erased and replaced by the addition between the lines of the word “sixty.” It seems possible that Judah was the victim of skulduggery of some kind. At any rate, it would be naive to assume that such evidence of social contact indicated friendly relations.13

Not all parts of the Mediterranean world were equally militarized. Most Roman troops were stationed in frontier provinces, ostensibly either to defend them against cross-border raids or in preparation for offensives to expand the limits of Roman power. In practice, many troops would have passed their entire careers without ever embarking on a campaign. Some provinces had very few troops at all. Corresponding in c. in CE with the emperor Trajan during his governorship of Pontus and Bithynia, the younger Pliny raised a series of issues over the deployment of an extraordinarily small number of soldiers, such as whether to allow the procurator Maximus an extra six men to help with his special mission to collect corn from Paphlagonia (the response was that Maximus should hold on to the six soldiers until his mission was finished, after which “the two soldiers you have assigned him should be enough, plus the same number from Virdius Gemellinus, my procurator under whom he serves”). Where troops were to be found, they often formed a separate society of their own within which soldiers and their families might spend their whole lives, bringing up their children in castris, “within the camp.” Their entry into the lives of individual provincials could be dramatically disruptive. In Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass, which in many respects reflects the reality of life in the empire of the second century when it was written (except that not many hapless young men can have been turned into asses by magic), the course of the narrative is suddenly altered when a soldier meets the ass and its owner and commandeers the ass for state business.14

For protection against such arbitrary action by the agents of the state, a Roman citizen could appeal to the emperor, as did Paul in c. 60 before the Roman governor of Judaea, Festus, when the latter wanted to send him to Jerusalem to be tried by the Jewish authorities.15 It was evidently at Festus’ discretion whether to allow the appeal; non-citizens did not even have such a right, and in the early imperial period only a few inhabitants of the empire held Roman citizenship. For them, redress had to be sought from the governor. In practice, the governor was the emperor's local representative, even though he was only sometimes directly nominated by the emperor—in other cases, appointment of governors lay in the hands of the Senate in Rome. Within their provinces, governors had immense power. The governor before whom a provincial brought his petition would look and behave like a regal figure, seated on a tribunal above the disputing parties in a court case, beholden to no one apart from the emperor and Senate, who might often seem far too far away to matter. The description by the Jewish philosopher Philo of the degeneration of communal relations between Jews and Greeks in Alexandria in Egypt in the 30s CE is full of unreliable animus against the governor Flaccus, who (in Philo's view) failed to stem the violence sufficiently to favour the Jews, but there is no reason to doubt Philo's picture of the practical obstacles which faced the Jewish community when it tried to make direct contact with the emperor in Rome: when the Jews wished to send a flattering message to Gaius, Flaccus would not allow them to convey it by an embassy and, despite his promises, failed to dispatch it himself on their behalf.16

Corrupt governors could hope with some justification to escape any punishment, since a prosecution of a governor of senatorial rank would have to be brought in most cases by a fellow senator, and bringing a charge against a colleague in whom emperor or Senate had shown sufficient confidence to appoint him in the first place might not be politically astute. Only those politically vulnerable for some other reason, or those who had committed crimes of particular culpability, might fear trial on completion of their office. The younger Pliny told his friend Caecilius Macrinus how he had allowed himself in ioo CE to be persuaded by the people of Baetica (in Spain) to act as counsel on their behalf in the Senate in their complaint about a certain Caecilius Classicus, who had been their governor. His initial reluctance was overcome by his natural feeling of gratification that his fellow senators wished him to take on this difficult public task, but also, crucially, “an additional influence was the fact that Classicus was now dead, which removed the most painful feature in this type of case— imperilling a senator. I saw then that I should win the same thanks for taking on the case as if he were alive, but without giving any offence.” Pliny evidently saw nothing peculiar in such reasoning, since he included this letter in the selection of his correspondence which he himself edited for publication; but in his last book of letters, which seems to have been published after his death and which certainly presents a less highly polished picture of his political and literary personas, he (perhaps inadvertently) gives readers an even better insight into the problems he himself faced when, at the end of his career, he found himself governor of Pontus and Bithynia. In his letters to Trajan, between congratulating the emperor on his birthday, asking for patronage for friends and colleagues and checking on the deployment of troops, Pliny asks for advice on such knotty issues as the legal status of foundlings, and complains about the problems he faces in imposing his will on the province.17

For a governor like Pliny, with very few soldiers at his disposal and a huge region to control, a constant cause of difficulty was lack of manpower and a shortage of reliable information about what was happening within his province. He had no civil service to give advice. For administrative help he relied on the staff of domestic slaves and ex-slaves, members of his own household, who had accompanied him from Italy. When he wanted an expert to advise on the feasibility of a major construction project, the digging of a canal to link to the sea a large lake near Nicomedia, he asked Trajan to send him a qualified expert from Rome. Trajan replied by agreeing to send someone out, but also by suggesting that Pliny might ask the governor of a neighbouring province for an engineer. Pliny's earlier request for a land surveyor to inspect public works in Bithynia had been met by a blank refusal: “As for land surveyors, I have scarcely enough for the public works in progress in Rome or in the neighbourhood, but there are reliable surveyors to be found in every province and no doubt you will not lack such experts if you will take the trouble to investigate diligently.”18


Government without bureaucracy could operate successfully only if it was government by consent—even if the motivation for consent was ultimately the fear of extreme violence by the state as penalty for open opposition. Much administration, such as the collection of taxes at the local level, was in effect carried out on behalf of the state by local urban elites in return for Roman support of their local status. The success of government thus depended upon acceptance by provincial aristocrats of the value of honours and titles bestowed by local people and recognized by Rome. Much of the extant evidence for this “empire of honour” appears to confirm such a consensus. Inscriptions on monuments from all over the empire boast about the status of local magistrates and the favours granted to them, and through them to their communities, by governors and emperors. Such evidence suggests an integrated society of provincials willingly cooperating with a benevolent and responsive state. But of course only those individuals who accepted and benefited from the system will have paid for such monuments to be erected.19

It is also hard to know how effectively the widespread imperial cult, which involved worship both of emperors and of Rome itself, produced a general sense of unity among participants. Some of the temples and altars dedicated to this worship were set up on local initiative, and can be seen as a means for provincials to make religious sense of the irruption of Roman power into the lives of their communities, but in other places (and particularly in the western regions of the empire), the worship of emperors was imposed by the state and may have been viewed by Rome's subjects just as another type of subjection.

More significant than such overt recognition by provincials of their place in the Roman system of power was the nearly universal practice of patronage to give individuals of all backgrounds a sense of connection, however tenuous, between themselves and the emperor. Almost everyone in the Roman empire knew someone who knew someone who might be able to intervene, through however many links in the chain of patronage, at the centre of power in the state. Numerous inscriptions attest to such interventions by patrons on behalf of communities. Favours might be elicited by writing letters, and thousands of such written requests survive, from the blunt petitions of peasants to officials in Roman Egypt, the original copies preserved on papyrus, to the highly polished epistles of the younger Pliny, asking for favours for his friends from fellow senators or from the emperor. But for the provincials far away from the locus of power in Rome, the most effective invocation of patronage ties was achieved either by travelling to Rome in person or by sending an embassy. Josephus, as we have seen, visited Rome in the early 60s CE to seek the release of a group of priests from Jerusalem, friends of his, “very excellent men,” who “on a slight and trifling charge” had been sent to Rome in bonds to “render an account to Caesar.” After an adventurous voyage, which (if Josephus has not embellished his account in order to impress his readers) included a shipwreck in the Adriatic, Josephus landed safely at Puteoli in Italy. On arrival he rapidly formed a friendship with Aliturus, an actor, “Jewish as to race and a special favourite of Nero.” Through Aliturus, Josephus engineered for himself an introduction to Poppaea, Nero's (current) wife, and through her secured the liberation of the two imprisoned priests, returning to Jerusalem laden with large gifts from his new patroness.20

The role of patronage, derived ultimately from the emperor in bringing to power the local leaders on whom Rome so heavily relied, was particularly blatant in the remarkable career of Agrippa I, the father of the Agrippa who tried so strenuously and ineffectively to ward off revolt in Jerusalem in 66 CE. Agrippa I was appointed king of Judaea in 41 by the emperor Claudius. His colourful career at the centre of political life both in Jerusalem and in Rome in the 30s and 40s of the first century CE exemplifies so strikingly the close interrelationship between the realities of power in both cities, and the impact of events in one part of the Mediterranean world on another, that it is worth recounting here in some detail. That this can be done is a result primarily of the interest shown in Agrippa by Jose-phus, who may well have had access to information in Rome from members of his household, including his son, Agrippa II. The early rabbis wrote about Agrippa I as a pious king; by contrast, early Christians remembered him as “Herod the King” who “killed James the brother of John with a sword” and imprisoned Peter in Jerusalem. Agrippa was equally at home in Rome and Jerusalem. His parents marked his Roman status from the start by giving him, at his birth in 10 BCE, a full Roman name, Marcus Iulius Agrippa, which commemorated the emperor Augustus’ closest colleague, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who had died two years previously. But Agrippa was also a Jew: his grandfather was Herod the Great and his grandmother the Hasmonaean princess Mariamme, whom Herod had both loved and, in an excess of jealousy, killed.21

Agrippa's reputation for piety by the time he became king of Judaea in 41 was not accidentally acquired. The Mishnah preserves an account of his methods of currying approval among Jews in the Jerusalem Temple when he carried out the duty of performing a ceremonial reading of the book of Deuteronomy, a task which it fell to the king to carry out every seven years:

They make for him in the Temple court a platform on which he sits … he minister of the assembly takes a scroll of the Law and gives it to the chief of the assembly, and the chief of the assembly gives it to the prefect, and the prefect gives it to the High Priest, and the High Priest gives it to the king, and the king receives it standing and reads it sitting. [But] King Agrippa received it standing and read it standing, and for this the sages praised him. And when he reached [the passage in Deuteronomy which states] “You may not put a foreigner over you who is not your brother,” his eyes flowed with tears [because he was a descendant of proselytes]; [but] they said to him, “Do not worry, Agrippa. You are our brother! You are our brother! You are our brother!”22

Such acceptance by acclamation, however artificially contrived, was a major achievement for an adventurer who had come to power mainly through exploitation of his personal contacts in the imperial court.

Agrippa I was descended both from Hasmonaean and from Herodian royalty, but he was separated from any real hope of influence or position in his homeland when his father Aristobulus was executed in 7 BCE by his own father, Herod, on a charge of treason. His liminality was accentuated by his upbringing. From the age of six or so, he was sent to live in Rome in close contact with the younger members of the imperial court, where his mother was a close friend of Antonia, the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, the sister of Augustus. Agrippa became close to the young Dru-sus, son of the future emperor Tiberius: the two boys were the same age. After 14 CE, when Augustus died, Drusus was heir apparent to Tiberius alongside Germanicus (evidently on the assumption that the two would somehow share power), and, following the untimely death in 19 of Germanicus (which, as we have seen, was widely publicized across the empire), Agrippa's friend looked set to inherit supreme power from his already elderly father Tiberius. But Agrippa's link to influence at the heart of empire was tenuous precisely because it was so personal. In 23 Drusus himself died in his mid-thirties, and Agrippa left Rome to face an uncertain future back in the land of his birth. The adventures which followed were governed by Agrippa's need to fund an extravagant lifestyle for which he had no regular income. He was dogged by scandal, including accusations of bribery, imprisonment for debt, and public tensions both in his relations with his uncle Herod Antipas (ruled 4 BCE–39 CE), who had been given authority by Rome over a part of Herod's former kingdom, and in his relations with Roman bureaucrats in a number of different provinces in the eastern Mediterranean. Eventually he managed to raise in Alexandria, from Alexander “the Alabarch,” a sufficiently large loan for his purposes: Alexander, a pious Jew who was brother to the philosopher Philo, in fact refused to give the money to Agrippa himself, fearing (with good reason) his prodigality, but he gave it to Agrippa's wife Cypros “because he marvelled at her love for her husband and all her other good qualities.” Armed with this cash, in the spring of 36 Agrippa sailed back to Italy.23

The political life of Rome had largely stagnated during the thirteen years of Agrippa's absence, which had seen the rise and fall of Tiberius’ confidant Sejanus, who had been his prefect of the praetorian guard until, as will be described in Chapter 9, Tiberius’ abrupt and damning accusation of treachery in a dramatic denunciation before the Senate brought Sejanus’ instant overthrow and execution. Tiberius himself was by now old, and had been living in seclusion on the island of Capri for some nine years, showing little interest in affairs in Rome and taking no action in relation to the rest of the empire. It was a testament to Agrippa's real friendship with Tiberius’ son Drusus long ago that his letter requesting permission to pay court to the emperor on Capri was received favourably and that he was welcomed to the island. It was perhaps even more a testimony to Antonia's fondness for Agrippa and his mother that, when Agrippa's failure to pay off a huge debt owed to one of the emperor's agents threatened his return to favour, she loaned him all three hundred thousand drachmas. Tiberius asked Agrippa to look after his teenage grandson Tiberius Gemellus, the son of Agrippa's old friend Drusus, who had died thirteen years before.

Since the emperor had appointed Tiberius Gemellus as one of the two heirs to his property, and since the old man could not last much longer, Agrippa might reasonably congratulate himself on his return to the centre of power in the empire. But relationships were rarely simple in the torrid atmosphere in Capri in the last months before Tiberius’ death on 16 March 37. Designated as co-heir with Tiberius Gemellus was Gaius, son of the much lamented Germanicus and grandson of Agrippa's patroness Antonia. Gaius, in his mid-twenties and patently ambitious, seemed certain to eclipse his younger cousin if Tiberius were to die soon, and Agrippa devoted himself to courting his friendship. Once again the expense was considerable, but on this occasion a freedman of the emperor, of Samaritan origin, made him a loan of a million drachmas. Clearly Agrippa's prospects looked good enough to make his future worth the investment. Precisely how Agrippa and Gaius cemented their friendship can only be speculated. Josephus mentions only time spent together at dinner or out riding together in Agrippa's chariot, but the secrecy surrounding court life on Capri encouraged gossip, and Gaius’ bizarre tastes, revealed when he eventually succeeded to power, suggest a fairly dissolute lifestyle. According to the hostile biography by Suetonius, Gaius “outdid in reckless extravagance the prodigals of all times in ingenuity … for he would bathe in hot or cold perfumed oils, drink pearls of great price dissolved in vinegar, and set before his guests loaves and meats of gold … .” His sexual exploits—heterosexual, homosexual and incestuous—were notorious. At the very least, it is difficult to imagine Agrippa trying to act as a good Jew in such company, restricting himself to kosher food or observing the regulations of the Sabbath.24

Indulgence of Gaius’ megalomaniac ambitions proved dangerous. In flattery of the young man, Agrippa expressed a wish that Tiberius would soon cease to be emperor so that Gaius could take over in his place. Unfortunately for Agrippa, the conversation was overheard by one of his freed-men, a chariot driver called Eutychus—it reveals much about attitudes to such domestic staff that Josephus describes the remark as having been made when Agrippa and Gaius were alone, even though Eutychus was seated at their feet. In due course the story came out because Eutychus ran away from Agrippa's household after stealing some of his master's clothes, and, on being arrested and brought before the city prefect, tried to secure his release by offering his secret to Tiberius. The emperor's habitual dilatori-ness delayed the revelation, but, when the truth was revealed by the disgruntled freedman, Agrippa was thrown into the custody of the praetorian guard and bound with chains.

Notwithstanding Agrippa's public punishment for speculating so rashly on the impending change of regime, in practice everyone surrounding the emperor must have been making plans for what would happen when he died. According to Josephus, Macro, the prefect of the praetorian guard, was slow to carry out Tiberius’ order to make the arrest. It would be unwise to maltreat a friend of Gaius if Gaius might indeed soon be in power. Agrippa was permitted special privileges in custody—a daily bath, visits from his freedmen and friends, his favourite food, proper clothing, a comfortable bed, all provided with the connivance of Macro and his soldiers. In six months Tiberius was dead, aided at the last, according to rumour, by Macro, who was said to have ordered that the old man be finished off by suffocation. Agrippa's tribulations now turned to his advantage. Gaius, as the new emperor, waited for the sake of decency a few days after Tiberius’ funeral before ordering his friend's release, appointing him king of the region that had been ruled, until his death in 34 CE, by Agrippa's uncle Philip, and presenting him with a gold chain of a weight equal to the iron chain with which he had been bound. Agrippa celebrated by dedicating the golden chain to the Temple in Jerusalem. As Josephus comments sententiously, “All were surprised to see him in his royal state. He was an object lesson in demonstrating the great power of fortune over mankind to those who beheld him and speculated on the contrast between his former distress and his present prosperity.”25

It is significant that Agrippa was in no hurry to go in person to settle the affairs of his kingdom when he was first appointed in the spring of 37 CE, and that, when he did go, in 38, it was not for long. Royal status brought him prestige and an income, but to exercise real power and influence it was best to be in Rome. On the other hand, as Gaius showed increasing signs of irrational despotism, the imperial court was a dangerous place to be, even for a friend of the emperor. Whether Gaius was unhinged by power was already debated in antiquity. There was general agreement that the first year, perhaps more, of his rule was good, but also a belief that his cruelty and viciousness were innate. Some of his stranger exploits in later years may be susceptible to rational explanation. Even his insistence that he be worshipped as divine may have served a real political purpose. Unlike his predecessors Julius Caesar, Augustus and Tiberius, he could boast of no military conquests whatsoever. The unearthing of a conspiracy by an army commander in the winter of 39–40 confirmed his vulnerability. All he could stress was the undoubted aristocracy of his lineage, which was underlined by the extravagant honours accorded to his sisters, above all Drusilla, with whom he was rumoured to have had incestuous relations; on her untimely death in 38 in her early twenties she was consecrated as the goddess Panthea. It was reasonable for Gaius to hope that, by depicting himself as above mortal politics while still alive, he might strengthen the authority of his regime, and it is not at all impossible that among some of his subjects he was successful.26

Not so, however, among Jews, who reacted with horror at Gaius’ plan to have a statue of himself placed for worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. Gaius petulantly refused to accept the claims of the Jews that their unwillingness to worship him as a god did not signify any disloyalty, and this suggests that his insistence on being accorded divine honours had become for him by 40 a matter of principle, regardless of the political impact of his policy. Petronius, the governor of Syria, to whom this desecration of the Temple had been delegated, tried hard to dissuade the emperor from a policy so unnecessarily inflammatory, risking his own life in the process. Gaius’ tough response, a refusal to back down or indeed compromise in any way, revealed a despot insistent on imposing his will regardless of the consequences.

When the two sides of Agrippa's double life among Romans and Jews were thus thrown into conflict, he seems to have reacted with a firm and unselfish resolve which it would have been hard to predict from his previous adventurous career. His friendship with Gaius, of which the strength had so recently been tested and found firm, gave him a unique opportunity to help his fellow Jews at a time of immense danger to their central shrine. Despite the danger to himself, Agrippa did not shirk it. His contemporary Philo, the brother of the wealthy Alexandrian whose loan had enabled him to sail for Italy a few years before, was in Rome at the time of the crisis, engaged on an embassy on behalf of Alexandrian Jews, and described Agrippa's intervention at length in an account written a few years later, in which he gave the text of Agrippa's letter to the emperor:

I, as you know, am by birth a Jew, and my native city is Jerusalem in which is situated the sacred shrine of the most high God. It fell to me to have for my grandparents and ancestors kings, most of whom had the title of High Priest, who considered their kingship inferior to the priesthood, holding that the office of High Priest is as superior in excellence to that of king as God surpasses men. For the office of one is to worship God, of the other to have charge of men. As my lot is cast in such a nation, city and temple I beseech you for them all … This temple, my Lord Gaius, has never from the first admitted any figure wrought by men's hands, because it is the sanctuary of the true God. For the works of painters and modellers are representations of gods perceived by sense but to paint or mould a likeness of the invisible was held by our ancestors to be against their religion. Your grandfather Agrippa visited and paid honour to the temple and so did Augustus … Your great-grandmother too …

The letter noted with fulsome gratitude the benefits that Agrippa had received from the emperor, but then asserted: “I exchange all for one thing only, that the ancestral institutions be not disturbed. For what would be my reputation among either my compatriots or all other men? Either I must seem a traitor to my own or no longer be counted your friend as I have been; there is no other alternative … ”27

Friendship or flattery may well have induced Philo to exaggerate Agrippa's part in saving the Temple from desecration: Philo's nephew married Agrippa's daughter. But for Agrippa to have disagreed at all with a tyrant as wilful as Gaius required considerable courage. And (even more remarkably) Gaius acceded to the request and had a letter sent to Petronius with instructions that nothing was to be changed in Jerusalem. Soon afterwards Gaius changed his mind, but that Agrippa succeeded even temporarily demonstrated the close personal ties that bound him to the most powerful individual in the Roman world. Early in 41 Agrippa's power through such ties was to be demonstrated even more dramatically. His connections were temporarily to put him into a position of extraordinary influence not only over the future of Judaism but over the fate of the whole Roman empire.

In January 41 Gaius’ increasing arrogance led him to indulge in a final, fatal series of jests. Asked, as their commander-in-chief, to set the password for the guards to use for the day, he ensured the enmity of Cassius Chaerea, a tribune of a cohort of the praetorian guard, by choosing insulting terms such as “Priapus” or “Venus” in order to mock Chaerea's alleged softness and effeminacy. Chaerea and his fellow conspirators attacked him as he was leaving the Palatine games through a narrow covered passage. Gaius was taken by surprise and his German bodyguards were of little use against the well-armed praetorians. The emperor died on the spot, and his wife and daughter were killed soon after. The state was thrown into confusion. The senators, meeting on the Capitol, announced the restoration of the Republic under the aristocratic leadership of elected consuls, and an end to domination of the state by one man. It appears that the praetorian troops who had killed Gaius had themselves no plans for any successor. It was enough to have done away with the tyrant. But for those like Agrippa, whose career had been so dependent on the favour of individual dynasts, a division of power at the centre of the state between competing aristocrats, a political system that had ended in disastrous bloodshed a century earlier, was not obviously desirable.

In the turmoil after Gaius’ assassination, Agrippa led a squad of the praetorian guard to the palace, where Gaius’ uncle, the disabled scholar Claudius, was found hiding in fear of his life. Agrippa knew Claudius well: he was the youngest brother of Germanicus, the son of Agrippa's family friend and patroness Antonia, and, being roughly the same age as the Jewish prince, had grown up with him in Rome in the last years of Augustus’ rule. At Agrippa's instigation, the praetorians proclaimed Claudius the new emperor. Agrippa may have reminded them that it was in their interest to have an imperial patron if they were to secure their livelihoods: without an emperor, there would be no need for a praetorian guard. It was Agrippa who went to the senators, still locked in conclave, to advise them that they would be wise to abandon talk of restoring Republican rule when so fine a new emperor, already acclaimed by the armed praetorians who surrounded the Senate meeting, awaited their enthusiastic endorsement. Common sense rapidly prevailed, and Claudius was acclaimed as the new ruler of the Roman world.28

Agrippa's reward was handsome. Claudius added to his existing territory Judaea and Samaria, so that he became sovereign over a Jewish kingdom as large as had once been ruled by his grandfather Herod. Within his own realm he had absolute power, free of interference by governors of the neighbouring Roman provinces. At the same time, as Cassius Dio records in his Roman History, composed in the early third century CE, Claudius “bestowed on Agrippa of Palestine … the rank of consul, and to his brother Herod gave the rank of praetor and a principality [in Chalcis, in Lebanon]. And he permitted them to enter the Senate and to express their thanks in Greek.” Agrippa was a great foreign king, and a treaty between him and the Senate and people of Rome was ratified formally in the middle of the Forum in the city of Rome. According to his biographer Suetonius, Claudius liked to ratify such treaties in the ancient Roman way with the sacrifice of a pig. We do not know what Agrippa would have thought about the choice of such an offering.29

Nonetheless, with his new status Agrippa seems to have decided that his future should be not in Rome but in Jerusalem, his new capital, and he set out almost immediately for Judaea. Within months he was engaged in a project to extend the defensive walls of Jerusalem to enclose within the city the new northern suburbs. Agrippa's ambitions were patent—and, for fellow Romans in the region, a cause of envy and concern. In any case, during the three years of Agrippa's rule in Jerusalem, a series of complaints were made to the emperor by Vibius Marsus, governor of Syria, who professed concern that Agrippa was growing too powerful. Claudius, despite all that he owed to his friend, paid heed to the warnings sufficiently to call a halt to work on the walls. Even more public was Marsus’ intervention when Agrippa called a convention, in Tiberias in Galilee, of five fellow kings: Antiochus of Commagene, Sampsigeramus of Emesa, Cotys of Lesser Armenia, Polemon of Pontus and Herod of Chalcis. With all these kings Agrippa had ties of blood or marriage—Herod of Chalcis was his brother—but Marsus chose to interpret their meeting not as a celebration of Agrippa's elevated status but as a conspiracy: “He assumed that agreement among so many dynasts was not advantageous to Roman interests.” The kings were summarily dismissed back to their territories. The suspicion that Agrippa might wish to break away from Roman protection was hardly plausible, but, as a member of Claudius’ inner circle of friends, he had ties to the emperor far closer than those of most governors, including Vibius Marsus, and his ambitions might prove difficult to control.30

Agrippa's death soon after these events in 44 was premature and sudden. He appeared in public in Caesarea looking so splendid in his sparkling silver robes that the people shouted in flattery that he was like a god. Instead of responding to the blasphemy with horror, Agrippa appeared pleased, and (it was later believed) divine retribution was swift. Within days he was dead from an intestinal complaint: in the words of the author of the Acts of the Apostles, “the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not to God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.” On an inscription set up after his death in the western foothills of the Hauran, Agrippa was described as “Great King, Friend of Caesar, Pious, and Friend of Rome.” Coins issued in Caesarea during his rule bear his image and the superscription “Great King Agrippa, Friend of Caesar.” Agrippa's intermediary status, between the Jews who revered him in the Temple as their king and the Romans who saw him as an instrument of state control, is a striking example of the general process of patronage through personal friendships which cemented relationships right across the Roman world.31

Few people had the contacts, skills or charm to manipulate the system to their advantage as successfully as Agrippa, but, as we have seen, through village or city or some other communal authorities, almost everyone could in theory try to be heard and have their grievances settled or requests fulfilled. Only when Jews in the second century CE became so marginalized in the Roman world that they lacked any entrée into this network of friendships and obligations did it come about that pious Jews who sought help against arbitrariness or injustice in the Roman state would find no patron, not even a friend of a friend of a friend, to represent them at the imperial court. It is impossible to imagine a descendant of Agrippa I representing the interests of Judaism to Hadrian in the 130sCE in the way that Agrippa had braved the wrath of Gaius on behalf of his people and his religion just under a hundred years before.


THE MEDITERRANEAN world was to a considerable extent an economic as well as a political unity in the first century ce, even though most of its inhabitants at that period were peasants, and most economic activity was directed to the production of foodstuffs for local consumption. Prosperity, fertility, life itself depended on the orderly progression of the seasons. There hung above everyone in the ancient world, to an extent difficult now for people in the developed world to appreciate, the threat of famine when the rains did not come during hot, dry summers, and the threat was only partly alleviated by the possibility of importing grain from elsewhere in the Mediterranean world to lessen the impact of disaster. But the influence of these shared rhythms, arising from a Mediterranean climate, on attitudes to the world and on the shaping of societies should not be exaggerated. Modern tourists, whisked from one site of sun-bleached ruins to another, past endless rocky beaches set against a sparkling blue sea, may feel that the Mediterranean world differs little from Gibraltar to Alexandria or Byzantium, but the impression of continuity is a delusion. The sea and its hinterland comprise a mass of diverse ecologies, which require very different methods of exploitation, a fact disguised by long generations of human interference in the natural landscape. The Mediterranean region is best envisaged as a network of local areas linked by the sea but in other respects remarkably varied in their way of life: there were, in proximity to the sea, areas of woodland exploited for fruit, timber and animal husbandry, as in southern Spain; flood plains whose wetlands produced a constant supply of reeds, as in the delta of the Ebro; fishing bays all along the coast providing a generally reliable harvest from the sea; mountain communities, as in the central Apennines in Italy, flourishing on local grain supplies and (sometimes) long-distance transhumance; even, in Egypt, where it was possible to rely on the annual flooding of the Nile, an irrigation economy requiring state intervention to ensure the best possible distribution of water to the fields.

What unified the Mediterranean economy in the early Roman empire was thus less the climate than the comparative ease with which goods could be traded throughout the region. In his huge and heterogeneous Natural History, the elder Pliny (uncle of the younger Pliny, whose correspondence is so revealing about the vicissitudes of life as a provincial governor) described in the 70s CE a great variety of artefacts and manufacturing processes from all over the Roman world and beyond its borders. He could tell his readers about the cutting of marble into thin slabs for use as veneers, “effected apparently by iron, but actually by sand, for the saw merely presses the sand upon a very thinly traced line, and then the passage of the instrument, owing to the rapid movement to and fro, is in itself enough to cut the stone,” or the mining of gold “in our part of the world—not to speak of the Indian gold obtained from ants or the gold dug up by griffins in Scythia—obtained in three ways: in the detritus of rivers … by sinking shafts; or in the fallen debris of mountains.” He could describe in detail industrial processes from all over the Roman world, such as the making of glass, which had recently undergone major changes:

A fire of light, dry wood is used for preparing the melt, to which are added copper and soda, preferably Egyptian soda. Glass, like copper, is melted in a series of furnaces, and dull black lumps are formed … After being reduced to lumps, the glass is again fused in the workshop and is tinted. Some of it is shaped by blowing, some machined on a lathe and some chased like silver … This was the old method of producing glass. Now, however, in Italy too a white sand which forms in the River Volturnus is found along six miles of the seashore between Cumae and Liternum. Wherever it is softest, it is taken to be ground … mixed with three parts of soda … melted … and forms pure glass … There is a story that in the reign of Tiberius there was invented a method of blending glass so as to render it flexible. The artists’ workshop was completely destroyed for fear that the value of metals such as copper, silver and gold would otherwise be lowered.

But, Pliny adds, this last story “has for a long time been more frequent than certain.”

Despite his willingness to believe in the possibility of Indian gold ants and Scythian griffins, Pliny's account of industries closer to home was based on a great deal of knowledge. He is also a reliable guide to the nature of the exotic products imported from outside the empire's frontiers:

Frankincense after being collected is conveyed to Sabota [in Yemen] on camels … At Sabota a tithe estimated by measure and not by weight is taken by the priests for the god they call Sabis … It can only be exported through the country of the Gebbanitae, and accordingly a tax is paid on it to the king of that people as well. Their capital is Thomna, which is 1,4871/2 miles distant from the town of Gaza in Judaea on the Mediterranean coast; the journey is divided into sixty-five stages with halts for camels. Fixed portions of the frankincense are also given to the priests and the king's secretaries … Indeed all along the route they keep on paying … and then again payment is made to the tax farmers of our empire. Consequently the price of the best frankincense is six, of the second best five, and of the third best three denarii a pound.

At any rate, it is clear that both for luxury products and for those of moderate value, production on a large scale and long-distance distribution proved often to be worthwhile.32

Even a brief glance at the archaeological record of the Mediterranean world in the first two centuries CE confirms Pliny's assertions about the high volume of trade. The hazards of survival favour pottery above other materials—it is quite difficult to destroy a pot so thoroughly that no trace of its original appearance can be detected. From millions of potsherds archaeologists have traced the distribution of fine red Samian wares from their manufacturing bases in Italy and southern Gaul to many places around the Mediterranean and into northern Europe. The increased incidence of shipwrecks in this period is testimony to the large volume of seaborne trade, unless (as is unlikely) ships were either much less seaworthy or more unlucky. In some cases, traces of their varied cargoes survive to reveal tellingly the ambitions of their owners: quarried marble, amphorae stacked in layers in their thousands, filled with oil or wine, mixing bowls from Italy, amphorae from Rhodes filled with figs, and amphorae of a different kind, probably from Africa, containing dates. Transport by land was far more expensive, but evidently worthwhile for high-value goods and (as is clear from the distribution of the archaeological remains) even for cheaper products, like mass-produced pottery lamps, if they were not too heavy or bulky.

The contribution of pan-Mediterranean trade to the total economy of the early Roman empire was considerable, but it should not be exaggerated. It remains the case that fluctuations in the price of traded goods are best understood if the Roman world is analysed not as a single market but as a series of linked local markets. Most Mediterranean cities relied on production from the immediate vicinity to feed their populations; in this respect, the city of Rome itself was an exception. Much trade was with neighbouring regions. Most shipping hugged the coast and rarely strayed more than a few days from their home port. Navigable rivers were an important means of distribution: the Greek historian Dionysius of Hali-carnassus noted in the time of Augustus that the trees which grew on Mount Sila (in modern Calabria) were so densely intertwined that they “keep the mountain in shadow throughout the whole day,” and were “sufficient in quantity to serve all Italy for shipbuilding and the construction of houses … What grows nearest to the sea and rivers is felled at the root and taken down in full lengths to the nearest harbours … What grows inland from the sea and remote from rivers is cut up in sections … and is carried out on men's shoulders.”33

But another Greek observer, Strabo, describing part of southern Spain at roughly the same time as Dionysius wrote about Italy, knew of trade on a genuinely international scale:

All the trade of the country [around Seville] is carried on with Italy and Rome. There is good sailing [on the Atlantic] up to the Pillars [the Strait of Gibraltar] … and also on our sea [the Mediterranean]; for the sea routes all pass through a zone of fair weather, particularly if the sailor keeps to open sea, a fact helpful to merchant freighters. And, further, the winds on the open sea are regular. And added is the present state of peace, with piracies broken up, so that the sailor can be totally at ease.

For Strabo, from the far eastern end of the Mediterranean, near the Black Sea, to claim the Mediterranean at its extreme west as “our sea” is itself an illustration of the perceived unity of the Mediterranean world in his day. When he stressed the importance of the suppression of piracy on the Mediterranean, achieved by Roman generals in a series of campaigns in the first century BCE, he had perhaps ruefully in mind the continuing prevalence of piracy on the Black Sea near his own home city of Amaseia:

These peoples [the Achaei, Zygi and Heniochi] live by robberies at sea. Their boats are slender, narrow, and light, holding only about twenty-five people, though in rare cases they can hold thirty in all … At any rate, by equipping fleets … and sailing sometimes against merchant vessels and sometimes against a country or even a city, they hold the mastery of the sea. And they are sometimes assisted even by those who hold the Bosporus, the latter supplying them with mooring-places, with a marketplace, and with means of disposing of their booty. And since, when they return to their own land, they have no anchorage, they put the boats on their shoulders and carry them to the forests where they live and where they till a poor soil. And they bring the boats down to the shore again when the time for navigation comes. And they do the same thing in the countries of others, for they are well acquainted with wooded places; and in these they first hide their boats and then themselves wander on foot night and day for the sake of kidnapping people. But they readily offer to release their captives for ransom, informing their relatives after they have put out to sea. Now in those places which are ruled by local chieftains the rulers go to the aid of those who are wronged, often attacking and bringing back the boats men and all. But the territory that is subject to the Romans affords but little aid, because of the negligence of the governors who are sent there.34

Some of the ships used for trans-Mediterranean trade were up to four hundred tonnes, a size similar to the merchant vessels used in Europe in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. They could sail on most quarters of the wind, but they could be held up for long periods by bad weather and they never sailed in winter. Investment in a cargo was intrinsically risky, and Roman law facilitated the spread of both risk and profit by companies in which individuals might buy shares. These were complex operations requiring substantial capital. In some cases this was facilitated by the legal capacity of a freedman or slave to negotiate on behalf of his master or former master, but on most inscriptions which refer to merchants (negotiatores in Latin, emporoi in Greek), the individuals concerned are ex-slaves, and it is most likely that the effort and risk involved in these transactions appealed most to the upwardly mobile, although there is plenty of evidence that richer Romans might try to add to their fortunes by lending money on interest to such enterprises.

Quantification of trade in different products is necessarily only very rough. Huge amounts of olive oil, used not just for food but for lighting and as an ingredient in soaps, cosmetics and medicines, were exported from the western Mediterranean to central Italy despite competition with local Italian olive production. Similarly large quantities of higher-quality wine were shipped to the larger cities all over the empire. The surviving amphorae found in the central Italian town of Pompeii suggest an even more flourishing business importing to Italy gallons of garum, fermented fish sauce, used as a condiment. Trade in these products can be traced from the pots in which they were stored, but pottery itself was also worth transporting to distant markets, probably most often as a subsidiary rather than a main cargo. The elder Pliny notes the popularity in his day of pottery from different manufacturing centres: “Among table services, Samian is still praised. This reputation is also retained by Arretium [Arezzo] in Italy … Also Tralles in Asia Minor and Mutina [Modena] in Italy have their respective products, since even thus are peoples made famous and these products from the distinguished workshops of the potter's wheel are carried to and fro across seas and land.”35 Goldsmiths, silversmiths and other craftsmen in towns and cities all over the empire relied on supplies of metals, both precious and base, transported by private shippers. The trade in marble elicited moralizing reflections from Pliny:

Mountains, however, were made by nature for herself to serve as a kind of framework for holding firmly together the inner parts of the earth, and at the same time to enable her to subdue the violence of rivers, to break the force of heavy seas and so to curb her most restless elements with the hardest material of which she is made. We quarry these mountains and haul them away for a mere whim; and yet there was a time when it seemed remarkable even to have succeeded in crossing them. Our forefathers considered the scaling of the Alps by Hannibal and later by the Cimbri to be almost unnatural. Now these selfsame Alps are quarried into marble of a thousand varieties. Headlands are laid open to the sea, and nature is flattened. We remove the barriers created to serve as the boundaries of nations, and ships are built specially for marble. And so, over the waves of the sea, Nature's wildest element, mountain ranges are transported to and fro … When we hear of the prices paid for these vessels, when we see the masses of marble that are being conveyed or hauled, we should each of us reflect, and at the same time think how much more happily many people live without them. That men should do such things, or rather endure them, for no purpose or pleasure except to lie amid spotted marbles, just as if these delights were not taken from us by the darkness of night, which is half our life's span!36

Pliny had rather more sympathy for the extensive trade in papyrus from Egypt, “since our civilization, or at all events our memory, depends very largely on the employment of paper.” Wooden slats, wax tablets and animal skins were also used as writing materials, but papyrus was preferred, and hence liable to shortages: “as early as the principate of Tiberius,” writes Pliny, “a shortage of paper led to the appointment of judges to supervise its distribution, since otherwise life was in chaos.”37 In contrast, the flourishing slave-trade was less likely to be affected by a dearth than by a glut, when the market was flooded by prisoners of war. A more regular supply was provided by breeding from existing slaves, the sale of children unwanted by their parents, and the importing of “barbarians” from across the frontiers of the empire, as on the Black Sea, where Strabo notes that Tanais “was a common emporium, partly of the Asiatic and the European nomads, and partly of those who navigated the lake from the Bosporus, the former bringing slaves, hides and such other things as nomads possess, and the latter giving in exchange clothing, wine and the other things that belong to civilized life.”38 Some indication of the size of the market in slave sales can be gauged from Cassius Dio's report of the imposition by Augustus in 7 CE of a tax on each transaction: “as there was need of more money for the wars and for the support of the night-guards, he introduced the tax of a fiftieth on the sale of slaves.”39

The flow of trade was affected above all by the overwhelming size of the consumer market in the city of Rome and the rest of Italy. Monte Tes-taccio, a huge artificial hill near the Tiber south of the Aventine, consists entirely of pieces of broken pottery from vessels which once contained goods transported to the city, mostly from Spain, between the first and the mid-third centuries CE. Strabo notes that the sheep and pigs of Gaul “supply an abundance of cloth and salt meats not only to Rome but also to most parts of Italy.”40 The success of specialist olive production on a large scale in Tripolitania (in western Libya) was achieved by using local techniques for the management of scarce water resources, but the incentive for such production came from access to the market in imperial Rome. Not that free trade benefited all. Strabo notes that competition has slowed down mining around Vercelli in the Po valley, once a major source of gold: “as for the mines, at the present time they are not being worked as seriously as before—perhaps on account of the fact that those in the country of the Transalpine Celts and in Iberia are more profitable.”41 The state showed little interest in protectionism, or indeed in any interference in the operation of the economy, except in so far as it affected the income of the state itself. Suetonius records that the emperor Domitian once “issued an edict forbidding anyone to plant more vines in Italy and ordering that the vineyards in the provinces be cut down, or at most just half of them be left standing.”42 It is interesting that Italy received preferential treatment, but the reason was probably more political than economic, since it was in the city of Rome that emperors sought public acknowledgement of their popularity and power. In any case, the incentive for the edict was moral: it had been occasioned by the coincidence of a bumper wine harvest with a shortage of grain, which prompted ruminations on the need to get back to old Roman values of sobriety. In practice, the measure was never put into effect.

Most trans-Mediterranean trade was carried out by individual entrepreneurs using private capital, but it would be misleading to underestimate the impact of the demands of the state in promoting the transfer of goods. The literary sources have most to say about the corn trade, which at the height of the empire involved fleets of ships carrying grain to Rome from Sicily, North Africa and Egypt to ensure the food supply of the city, but the predominance of evidence about this particular state intervention reflects its political as much as its economic significance. It may well be that the efforts of the state to extract metals for coinage and marble for public building projects had no less of an impact on the economy. Traces of ancient gold-mining methods from the hills of Spain and Portugal, revealing the operation of water power to extract ore by crushing rocks beneath water released from pent-up streams, attest to the efficiency with which the government built aqueducts over miles of mountainous terrain in order to redirect water supplies to the places where they could operate to the greatest commercial advantage. Thousands of ostraca excavated at Mons Clau-dianus, a fortified village in the eastern desert mountains of Egypt, reveal a huge operation in the exploitation of the imperial quarry in the first three centuries CE, including the supply of granite columns to Rome in the early second century CE for the new forum built by the emperor Trajan.43

Even if it is impossible to know what proportion of the empire's economy was fuelled directly by state expenditure or direction, and how much depended on the decisions taken by the thousands of individuals who turned the political unity of the Roman world to their commercial advantage, the cumulative effect on the Mediterranean world of all this industrial activity has been illuminated, rather surprisingly, by discoveries far to the north, in the Arctic Circle. Analysis of the ice floes, which have accreted annually since antiquity, has shown that the level of metal residues released into the world's atmosphere reached a peak in the first two centuries CE which was not to be equalled again in volume until the Industrial Revolution.44 To some extent productivity was encouraged, if not instigated, by the discovery of new technologies. Fascination with technical advances shines through the pages written on architecture by Vi-truvius in the early years of Augustus, or the works on the aqueducts of the city of Rome and on military stratagems composed a century later by the distinguished senator Sextus Iulius Frontinus. Vitruvius’ treatise, in ten books, covers not just architecture but many other topics in science and engineering (with an odd admixture of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, meteorology and philosophy), and it includes some detailed descriptions of complex machines, such as a set of pulleys which operated rather like a crane, and could be used to load and unload ships—“a machine ingenious enough and suitable for speedy use; but only skilled workmen can deal with it. Three sets of men working without a capstan quickly draw a load to the top. This kind of machine is called polyspaston [a compound pulley], because within its many pulleys it is very easy and quick to work.”45 Suetonius, in his biography of the emperor, tells the story of an engineer who promised Vespasian that he would haul columns up to the Capitol at minimal expense, presumably by making use of some sort of machine. According to Suetonius, Vespasian rejected the scheme on the grounds that it would render too many workmen unemployed, but he rewarded the engineer for his invention, and Suetonius’ telling of the anecdote suggests that refusal to take advantage of technical progress was unusual rather than the norm.46

All these specific private and public initiatives flourished in a world in many respects economically unified by the political will of the Roman state. Economic unity was symbolized by the use of a currency standard common to almost all parts of the empire. The mints at Rome and Lyons were responsible for producing the gold coinage (aurei) for the whole empire, and silver denarii and bronze fractions of the denarii for the western provinces. In the eastern Mediterranean, provincial mints produced silver coins to a drachma standard which was closely equivalent to the standard of the denarii issued in Rome, and local city mints produced bronze coins valued at fractions of the drachma. It is curious that in the early empire there were such local mints, with distinctive local designs, but in economic terms what mattered was that all these coins could in principle be freely traded and their values understood. The relationship between the gold, silver and bronze coins minted in Rome was redefined differently at intervals by different emperors—Nero devalued the amount of gold to be found in an aureus and the amount of silver in a denarius. Only Egypt seems to have had a wholly separate monetary system, based on the Alexandrian tetradrachm, although local systems of measurement remained in many other places. Above all, the safe transport of goods throughout much of the Roman world was afforded by the protection of Roman arms. Seafaring could never be wholly safe despite the cessation of larger-scale piracy in the eastern Mediterranean after Pompey's campaigns in the 60s BCE, and banditry was endemic in many mountainous areas throughout the imperial period, but Roman military roads, primarily intended for the safe passage of troops, became major trading arteries. The merchants who benefited from the expenditure and efforts of the state could feel appropriately grateful as they read the commemorative milestones which still survive in abundance even in quite obscure places. A traveller by the Danube would be reminded, by an inscription cut into the natural rock near Orşova in Romania, that “the emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Augustus Germani-cus … had this road built by cutting through mountains and levelling irregularities.”47

The army also stimulated economic productivity in less obvious ways. In the provinces where units were stationed the presence of a group of consumers with a guaranteed substantial income from the state encouraged local production to meet their requirements, a process particularly noticeable in northern parts of the empire, where legionary forts in places like Chester, originally walled off from the local population, came in time to be surrounded by shanty towns housing camp followers. The state's need to pay the soldiers required efficient extraction of a high level of taxation income, and that in turn stimulated the tax-paying provincials into greater production in order to continue to support themselves while also paying their dues to Rome. Payments to and by soldiers ensured both a large total supply of coin and its wide distribution from the empire's centre to the frontier provinces. The comparative safety of transport links encouraged the emergence of trans-regional businesses. According to the elder Pliny, “six owners were in possession of one half of the province of Africa at the time when the emperor Nero had them put to death.”48 These were absentee landlords, exploiting the ready market in the city of Rome for grain from Africa and other cash crops, notably olive oil; many, like the emperor himself, will have been Italian. The property of Augustus’ friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa included the whole Thracian Chersonese, which passed on his death into the emperor's private domain. In almost every province the emperor and his family were by far the largest landowners, with huge estates entrusted to local agents, who might exploit agricultural land by leasing to tenants, or mines and quarries by the direct employment of slaves. In all such cases, control of local management could be sporadic. An inscription from Suk-el-Khemis in the Medjerba valley in Algeria records a petition to the emperor Commodus in the early 180s by tenants of an imperial estate in North Africa. The tenants alleged that the emperor's agent had colluded with the chief lessees against the tenants’ interests by making them offer more free labour than they should:

Please help us, and—since we are poor rustic men sustaining life by the toil of our hands and unequal, in our relations with your agents, to the lessee, who stands very high in their favour because of his lavish gifts and is well known to each of them in succession by virtue of the lease— please have pity on us, and deign to instruct by your sacred rescript that we are to perform no more service than we are obliged to … that is, three periods of two days’ work per man.49

Judaea was in many ways integrated into this wider economic world, not least through the wealth imported into the country by pilgrims or sent to the Temple as offerings. From early in the first century CE the balsam groves of En Gedi by the Dead Sea were a lucrative private estate of the emperor, just as they had previously been the private property of Herod the Great (and, before him, briefly, Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt). An estate around Jamnia near the Mediterranean coast passed by bequest from Salome, one of Herod's wives, to Livia, Augustus’ consort; from her, it passed to her son, the emperor Tiberius, following which it remained the property of successive emperors. This particular imperial estate was to play a crucial role in the political history of Judaea. It was Tiberius’ agent in Jamnia, a certain Capito, who nearly succeeded in imprisoning Agrippa I as a debtor of the emperor in the mid-30s CE. Some thirty years later Jamnia became the place of detention for aristocratic Jews who deserted Jerusalem in the last months of the revolt against Rome. In the early 70s, so it was later alleged, it was the site of the most influential rabbinic academy of the day, so that its Hebrew name, Yavneh, became synonymous in later rabbinic tradition with the period of rabbinic reconstruction of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple.

Since Judaea lacked any exceptional natural resources apart from the balsam groves, investment by foreign landowners other than the emperor is unrecorded and unlikely. Apart from exploitation of the balsam, there will have been few opportunities to specialize effectively in the production of cash crops for the wider Mediterranean market. The elder Pliny and other non-Jewish observers noted a few specialties of the region: the salt fish of Tarichaeae on the Sea of Galilee; the asphalt harvested from the Dead Sea, which had medicinal uses; the remarkably sweet juicy dates produced by Judaean palms. (It is probably significant that a common pictorial symbol of Judaea on coins issued both by Rome and by the independent Jewish state in 66–70 was a date palm.) In a document drawn up on 2 December 127, at a government office in Rabbat, east of the Dead Sea, four date groves in Maoza were registered by their owner, as part of a provincial census ordered by the Roman governor. Each grove was precisely defined and described: “within the boundaries of Maoza a date orchard called Beth-phaaraia, the area of sowing twenty sata of barley … abutting [the property of] Tamar daughter of Thamous, and a road.” Most of the tax to be paid on these date orchards was to be delivered in kind: “paying as tax, in dates … three kaboi, ‘splits’ two koroi, and for crown tax eight ‘blacks’ and forty-five sixtieths.”50


Despite the political and economic force of the Roman state, the underlying cultural unity of the Mediterranean world was less Roman than Greek. From the third century BCE to the second century CE, the civilization of classical Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE represented the pinnacle of human achievement to many inhabitants of the Mediterranean world, even though by the first century CE Athens was a political backwater, and admirers of Greek culture might never visit, or even have any historical connection with, Greece itself. The impetus for the spread of Greek culture in the Near East following the conquests of Alexander the Great had been political, since Alexander and his successors gave preferential treatment to those in local elites who openly espoused Greek culture. As the Athenian orator Isocrates (436—338 BCE) put it, rather fulsomely, in the generation before Alexander, “our city [Athens] has so much surpassed the rest of mankind in thought and in speech that her students have become the teachers of the rest of humanity, and she has made the name of the Hellenes [Greeks] to seem to be no more the name of the race but of a way of thought, so that those who share our education, more than those who share a common nature, are to be called Hellenes.”51

Much of this shared Greek culture seems so natural now to those educated in the European tradition that only contrast with quite radically different societies—in China, for instance, or in New Guinea—can bring home properly the distinctive characteristics, such as the high value assigned to logical argument, which have endured in Western society since antiquity. Classical Athens had a highly politicized culture, in which rhetoric, spoken or written, was prized not least as a tool of political persuasion. Visual arts celebrated the external appearance of the idealized human form. Drama and poetry sought to encapsulate the dilemmas of individuals in extreme circumstances, most notably when duties to family or community came into conflict with each other, and philosophers strove to find a logical basis for the moral and political structures of societies.

It was in Athens that Plato and Aristotle had taught in the fourth century BCE, and after the death of Alexander the Great the city became home to distinguished philosophers from all over the Greek world who set up schools there. Plato's own school at the Academy moved away from his interests to deal mainly with ethics and, from the mid-third century BCE, to preach rejection of all kinds of dogmatism. The Lyceum, where Aristotle had taught, became a centre for scientific research. Epicurus (341—270) founded a close community which sought pleasure derived from imperturbability, to be achieved by the realization that the universe runs of its own volition and that man is simply a collection of atoms, and by avoidance of any activity which might arouse emotion. Most influential of all was Zeno (335–263), whose school of Stoics was named after the stoa poikile, “painted hall,” where they met. Stoicism developed considerably during the Hellenistic period as it gained popularity, but it was always based on the tenet that the only good lies in virtue, which means living in accordance with the will of nature. The ideas of these philosophers spread throughout the Greek-speaking world, as did the more idiosyncratic scepticism taught by Pyrrhon of Elis (c. 365–275), who advocated a refusal to make any positive judgements at all, and the diatribes against the vanity of human pretensions preached by wandering Cynics, who all took their inspiration from the distinctive unconventional life ascribed to Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412–c.321), even if their specific doctrines often diverged considerably.

From this varied legacy the search for rationality, explanations, order and beauty became integral, at least in very general terms, to all later European civilizations. All of the different societies in the Mediterranean world under Roman rule adopted and used aspects of this Greek culture in one way or another, even if in the West it was generally mediated through Latin. Hellenism proved very adaptable. The Greek pattern of education, which placed a high premium on teaching children to read and write and, at secondary level, on the exposition of literary texts, was followed in cities and towns throughout the Roman world. The main elements of the literary canon were generally accepted in the Greek world by the first century: the poems of Homer above all, then the tragic plays of Euripides, the comedies of Menander and the speeches of Demosthenes; but children also studied other epic poems, drama and lyric poetry and (although less) the prose of historians (especially Thucydides) and the moral fables of Aesop and Babrius. In the West a parallel canon of Latin writings took the place of the Greek. The rather tedious teaching methods revealed in schoolbooks found in Roman Egypt seem to have been standard. A great deal of learning was done by recitation and constant repetition, and by committing lists to heart: in appreciation of the Iliad, a child might be asked “which gods were favourable to the Trojans?” (expected answer, in alphabetical order, “Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Leto, Scamander”) or “who was the king of the Trojans?” (answer: “Priam”).52 Sciences and mathematics were taught, but literary studies were accorded much greater attention in a society that valued highly the written word (including the preservation of huge numbers of commemorative texts on stone). At the same time Greek rhetorical education, which involved training both in the evolution of coherent arguments and in public declamation, served a purpose in urban political life at many levels, not least because oral presentation of petitions played a major role in the relationship between inhabitants of the empire and the representatives of the state. Greek philosophy was less commonly studied as part of the ordinary school curriculum—such higher education was the preserve of the wealthy—but philosophical ideas were popularized in the commonplaces inscribed on gravestones, with their references to the concepts of the soul, fortune and fate, or to a lifetime as a thread spun by the divine, or to death as the repayment of a life which had only ever been on temporary loan. In the towns of Roman Spain, a schoolboy might be unwittingly educated in the basics of Stoic and Platonic notions about the world soul and its relation to the individual simply through study of the speech of Anchises to his son Aeneas in Vergil's epic poem.

This was a culture shared across the Mediterranean sea: no half-educated person in this world could be unaware of the stories in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. At the same time, the poems of Homer could be revered by millions without imposing a Homeric value system or lifestyle on those who treated them as founts of wisdom. On the contrary—and in this respect there is a close parallel to the use of the Bible in medieval Europe— no one in the first century CE wished to live literally in the moral universe of Achilles or Odysseus.

The cultural consensus in according prestige to Greek culture ensured that provincial aristocrats in all parts of the Mediterranean world in the first century CE could be certain of much common ground with their counterparts elsewhere. As one travelled from one urban centre to another, from Spain to Syria, most of the cities looked and felt very much alike: small towns, with rarely more than ten thousand inhabitants, with the standard accoutrements of marketplace, temples, theatres, and often gymnasia and baths; local elites committed to participation in local government based on shared responsibility exercised through a city council and elected magistrates; monumental columnar façades and porticoes which continued to make much use of the traditional Greek orders of architecture (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian). Even in the West, where Latin was the lingua franca, it was possible to get by as a trader with Greek as your only language, as seems also to have been the case among early Christians in Rome and in Gaul. Indeed the remarkable cosmopolitanism of the early Christian movement is in itself a testimony to the ubiquity of Hellenism. Paul, who came from Cilicia (in modern Turkey), could expect the complex arguments expressed in his letters, composed in a sophisticated Greek, to be comprehensible to fellow believers not just in Asia Minor, Syria and Greece but in Rome and Jerusalem too.

Nevertheless, the prestige of Greek culture, and the widespread adoption of much Greek lifestyle and ways of thinking, did not mean that everyone in the first-century-CE Mediterranean world thought of themselves as Greek. On the contrary, a surface Greek culture might disguise a variety of underlying local cultural patterns, whose nature might indeed sometimes be described most elegantly in Greek: in the mid-first century CE the Egyptian priest Chaeremon of Alexandria wrote in Greek about Egyptian religion and customs in order to educate both fellow Egyptians and the outside world. The adoption of Greek culture provided opportunities for such people not to abandon their native traditions but to express them in different ways. The Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos, apparently written at the beginning of the second century CE, claims (spuriously) to be a translation for a Greek readership of a work on the Phoenician gods written by a certain Sanchuniathon some time before the Trojan War, but most of his account of the nature and origins of the gods and his adventurous etymologies (often relating to Greek names) seems to have been a product of his Greek education and a desire to make sense in Greek terms of practices not properly understood by Phoenicians themselves.53

The relation of Romans and Jews to Greek culture was not dissimilar to that of these other Mediterranean peoples, and Rome and Jerusalem would have provided good examples of the adoption and adaption of Hellenism around the first century CE even if they did not have a special claim on our interest. Thus Rome was never conquered by Greeks but, as Horace puts it, “Greece captured has taken captive the savage victor and brought the arts to rustic Latium”: the image is of a beautiful slave-girl, a prisoner of war, who captures the boorish heart of her master and teaches him refinement.54 From at least the late third century BCE, Romans tended to see themselves, and all the world, through Greek categories of historiography, ethnography and myth. Their art, architecture, sculpture, poetry, drama, rhetorical techniques, philosophical traditions and even some of their religious practices had all been borrowed to some extent from Greece. Romans knew this well, and that it had come about largely because in the process of conquering the Greek world from the late third century BCE Roman aristocrats had become uneasily aware of the poverty of their own martial, agrarian culture in contrast to a complex civilization which had matured during centuries of settled urban prosperity.

By the first century CE the Romans themselves debated only the extent to which Hellenization had enhanced or swamped traditional Roman values, and whether Greek influence was to be welcomed or rejected. The great moralist Cato the Censor, the archetypical “antique Roman,” who dominated the political and cultural life of Rome in the first half of the second century BCE, had argued fiercely against the infiltration of foreign ideas which might sap the moral fibre of his countrymen, but he did so with the aid of rhetorical techniques which had themselves been learned from the Greeks, and he was the first, in his Origines, to bring into the field of Latin prose literature the Greek art of historiography. Hostility combined with acceptance was a recurring pattern, although sometimes Greek customs were adopted as Roman without Romans noticing quite what had happened. The historian Livy (59 BCE–12 CE) knew that the god Apollo had long been worshipped in Greece before cult was first accorded to him in Rome in the fifth century BCE, when a temple was vowed to him “on behalf of the health of the people,” but once Livy's contemporary Augustus had adopted Apollo as his special god, dedicating a new temple to him on the Palatine close to the imperial palace, the Apollo cult came to be seen as entirely Roman.55

The attitude of Jews to the Greek culture they adopted and adapted was equally ambivalent. Distaste for Greeks, inspired by political realities in the world order after Alexander the Great's conquests, spilled over in the last chapter of the biblical book of Daniel, composed in the second century BCE, into rhetoric about the incipient fall of the Greek empire, the last of the four kingdoms envisaged in God's plan as revealed to the seer. The vituperation, found in many Jewish texts, against all gentile practices as constitutive of actual or incipient pagan worship, may sometimes have had specifically Greek gentiles in mind, although, even at the height of Jewish awareness of the dangers posed to Judaism by Greek culture around the time of the revolt of the Maccabees (see Chapter 1), the gentile customs lambasted by Jewish authors tended to be generic. The specific gentiles singled out for hostility by the author of 1 Maccabees were such neighbouring people as Ammonites and Gileadites. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon, a work (now found in the Apocrypha) composed by a philosophically minded Jew probably in the second century BCE, reserved his polemic for the animal gods of the Egyptians: “Miserable are they, and in dead things are their hopes, who called them gods, which are the works of men's hands, gold and silver, to show art in, and resemblances of beasts … ”56

For more specific attacks by Jews on Greeks for their cultural traits, the earliest specific testimony is to be found only in the apologetic treatise Against Apion. This was Josephus’ last literary work, written in the mid-90s CE to refute misconceptions in the Greek and Roman world about Jews and Judaism and as a polemic against those Greek authors who peddled such lies. Josephus portrays Greeks as fickle, prone either to forget or to change their laws, sexually immoral, unduly enthusiastic about innovation, inclined to value rhetorical style above historical accuracy, unable to put their fine words into practice, lacking any real regard even for their own nation's writings, and contradicting each other even about their own history. As Josephus puts it, picking up an internal Greek critique to be found in the writings of Plato, “among the Greeks, everything is new, dating, so to speak, from yesterday and the day before.” The list of Greek vices seems to owe more to the catalogue of Roman sneers against Greeks than anything Josephus is likely to have picked up from his Jewish literary heritage. In metropolitan Rome in Josephus’ day, provincial intellectuals competed fiercely for the attention of the imperial court and other wealthy patrons. The trading of insults between individual writers, and between one group and another, was endemic. The same caricatures of Greeks which had surfaced three centuries earlier in the polemic of Cato the Censor could still be espoused, now in a satirical poem, by the Latin author Juvenal (himself from Spain), and only partly in jest: “There is a race of men which the very wealthiest among us find highly acceptable socially, but which I avoid above all others. About this race I am eager to speak, and no shyness shall stand in my way. Citizens, I cannot bear a Rome that has become a Greek city. And yet, what portion of the dregs in our city comes from Greece?” The reasons for Juvenal's venom about Greeks as glib and brash may have been personal, but he expected his Roman readers to appreciate his sentiments.57

Both Jews and Romans wanted the best of both worlds. They wanted to adopt and borrow from Greek culture whatever they liked, while despising the Greeks. In Greek literature written by Jews the audacious claim was sometimes made that the best things in Greek culture came from the Jews. A Jewish writer of the mid-second century BCE named Eupole-mus picked up the tradition, well known to Greeks, that Greeks learned their alphabet from the Phoenicians, but added the novel twist that the Phoenicians in turn got their alphabet from the Jews. Artapanus, probably a contemporary of Eupolemus, attributes to Moses—“he was called Mou-saios by the Greeks; this Moses became teacher of Orpheus”—the invention of “ships, and machines for lifting stones … and philosophy.” One might imagine from Josephus’ rude comments about Greeks in Against Apion that he would wish to distance Jews from responsibility for what Greeks had achieved, but, rather inconsistently, he portrays Plato as having followed to some degree the example of Moses. The bizarre idea that Plato's philosophical system was only an elaboration of the Jewish law underlay the whole voluminous religious and philosophical agenda of Philo, the aristocratic Jew from Alexandria who had acted as an ambassador for his community before Gaius in the crisis of 40 CE and who was described by Josephus as “not inexperienced in philosophy.”58

No such claim to priority over the Greeks was made by any Roman. Some Romans enthusiastically adopted the notion, enshrined in and to some degree stimulated by Vergil's Aeneid, that the foundation of Rome had been bound up with the heroic history of early Greece, when Aeneas escaped from the sacked city of Troy at the end of the Trojan War. Jews also occasionally linked their own origins to Greeks in similar fashion, notably with the curious assertion, found in 1 Maccabees, that Jews and Spartans shared a common ancestry, an idea rendered no less implausible by the apparent willingness of the Spartans to agree with it in a letter sent to Judaea at the time of the Maccabean revolt in response to a Jewish embassy: “Areus, king of the Spartans to Onias, the great priest, greeting: ‘It has been found in a writing about the Spartans and Jews that they are brethren and that they are of the family of Abraham.’ ” Neither Jews nor Romans were unusual in the Mediterranean world in their search into Greek prehistory for such links to their origins. Many people besides the Romans claimed a link to Troy, and claims of Spartan ancestry were quite common.59

Lacking in either the Jewish or the Roman evidence is any sign of a serious concern, after the first generations of cultural fusion in the second century BCE, that adoption of Greek culture would eradicate native traditions. Among the Romans the polemical tone of Cato was dropped in favour of the language of adaptation: there was no need for Romans to reject Hellenism, but they had to ensure that it did not infringe values that Romans held dear. In the process the Romans constructed some contrasts which for centuries afterwards retained a strong hold on their self-image, such as the notion—found in the juxtaposition by Cicero (106—43 BCE) of the theoretical scientific achievements of the Greeks compared to Roman expertise in engineering—that Greeks were interested only in ideas whereas Romans were practical.

By the first century CE much the same ambivalence towards Greek culture was true also of the Jews. The struggles before and during the Mac-cabean revolt in the second century BCE had produced a stronger rhetoric against Greek culture than in Rome. The traumatic persecution by Anti-ochus Epiphanes was portrayed both by Jews and by gentiles as an attempt to impose Greek culture on a native population unwilling to change ancestral customs—according to the Roman historian Tacitus, Antiochus Epiphanes had “tried to give to the Jews the customs of the Greeks”; for the Jewish author of 2 Maccabees, an emotional retelling of the story of the revolutionary struggle intended to edify diaspora Jewish readers of later generations, the struggle was between two abstract concepts, ioudaismos (“Jewishness” or perhaps “Judaean-ness”), a neologism by the author of 2 Maccabees, and hellenismos, the ways of the Greeks.60 But the opposition to Greek ways within Jewish society, which had been part of the rallying cry of the Maccabees, did not last long. The author of 2 Maccabees attacked Jason, the High Priest who had been replaced by the Maccabees, because he

took delight in establishing a gymnasium right under the citadel itself, and induced the finest of the young men to wear thepetasos hat [the special broad-brimmed felt hat used by athletes]. Such was the acme of Hellenism … No longer were the priests interested in the service of the altar. Despising the Temple and neglecting the sacrifices, they would hasten to participate in the unlawful exercises of the palaestra as soon as the summons came for the discus-throwing. They valued as nothing the customs their fathers honoured, and coveted only the Greek honours as worthy of attainment. Because of this, dire calamity fell upon them …

But, in contrast to the horror expressed by the author of this text at such “new customs forbidden by the law,” by the late second century BCE the Hasmonaean dynasty had itself incorporated Greek culture sufficiently for Aristobulus I, who ruled from 104 to 103, to style himself a philhellene, “lover of things Greek.” The dynastic tombs of the Hasmonaeans were entirely Hellenistic in their architectural style. Many of the coins of Alexander Jannaeus, who ruled from 103 to 76, bore a Hebrew legend on one side, “of king Alexander” in Greek on the other. After a brief flurry of open antagonism to Greek culture, Jews, like Romans, adapted it for their own purposes and treated it as entirely natural.61

THUS THE LONG-HELD notion that there was a conflict between Judaism and Hellenism in the time of Jesus has been a product less of the ancient Jewish evidence than of other issues: attempts by nineteenth-century thinkers to establish the foundations of European culture, the self-definition of Jews in the period of emancipation in Europe, and the history of early Christianity. Heinrich Heine wrote in 1840 that “all men are either Jews or Hellenes,” claiming that two types of human nature are intrinsically opposed: the gloomy, ascetic, intellectual spiritualism of the Jews contrasted to the cheerful, practical, realistic, life-affirming sensuality of the Greeks. The contrast was picked up, modified and popularized in England by the poet Matthew Arnold, who believed that European civilization would be perfected when Hebraism and Hellenism, which had always been in tension through the ages, finally existed in harmony: “The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience.” But Arnold was not interested in real Jews at all, except those of the remote past, and Heine's attitude to Judaism was complicated by his ambivalence towards his own Jewishness, which continued to matter to him throughout his life despite his conversion to Christianity. For both men, the study of ancient history was of importance precisely because of what it meant for the present. In the course of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “Hellenism” came to stand for different cultural stances in different European countries, often idealized and romanticized, not least in Germany. Jewish intellectuals, as they gained political freedoms and began to see themselves as part of wider European culture, resurrected with gusto the language of conflict, either among the “orthodox” (a new term in the nineteenth century) to warn against any involvement with the modern world, or as a symbol of modernity for secular Jews for whom the Jew who wanted to live must be liberated from Judaism and become a Greek—an Athenian in Jerusalem. The contrast continues now within the rhetoric of debates about the true nature of Jewish identity in the modern state of Israel.62

Among some Christian scholars the contrast between Judaism and Hellenism sometimes masked a crude antisemitism: Christianity had to be rescued from its Jewish origins; the Church had captured the hearts of the Roman empire only because Pauline Christianity was a Hellenized and not a Jewish phenomenon. Kant had already in 1793 argued that Judaism was not a real religion and that Christianity was born from a “Greek mind.” In fact, however, the contrast between Judaism and Hellenism does not seem to have been a major issue among early Christians any more than it was among other first-century Jews. Paul wrote sometimes as if Jews and Greeks were opposites, like masculine and feminine, but the term “Greek” in his letters means simply “gentile”: “There will be tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that does evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek; but glory, honour, and peace, to every man that works good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”63 The same use of “Greek” to mean “gentile” is found also in the writings of Josephus later in the first century CE. But by the first century the culture of Jews in Judaea as much as in the diaspora incorporated so many elements from the Greek world that it too has been rightly termed “Hellenistic Judaism.”64All Jews, in Jerusalem as much as elsewhere, were acculturated to some extent to Greek language, art, commerce, philosophy and literature. Precisely the apparent lack of self-consciousness of Jews after the Maccabean period about the relationship of Judaism to Greek culture made Hellenization easy. The enigmatic passages in the Mishnah and later rabbinic texts about attempts to limit the teaching of Greek and Greek wisdom to Jewish children are exceptional in a history of general acceptance. All that can validly be asked is whether some Jews imbibed Greek culture more than others, and to what extent variations can be traced between places and over time.65

THE IMPACT on the Mediterranean world of the specifically Roman adaptation of Hellenism was limited primarily by the use of Latin rather than Greek in much Roman literature. The spread of Latin, the language of the army and of Roman jurists, into the eastern Mediterranean was minimal. Ambitious provincials hoping to enter the Roman Senate needed to acquire enough of it to get by, but in the early imperial period such a career was possible only for a minuscule part of the population. In most respects the official language used by the Roman state in all parts of the empire east of the Balkans was Greek. This fact is in itself testimony to the extraordinary prestige of Greek culture; it is hard to think of many other states which have privileged the language of a subject people in this way. Roman treatment of Greek contrasts with the universal use of Latin in the western parts of the empire, where native languages such as Celtic or Punic, still spoken in the early first century ce, were ignored by the state. Nonetheless some aspects of Roman rather than just general Greek culture did become widespread throughout the Mediterranean world in this period. New Roman architectural techniques such as vaulting spread quite soon all round the Roman world, as did other technological advances, such as blown-glass production (invented, probably in Syria, in the first century BCE) and hypocausts, used especially to heat baths. Public baths in the Roman style were widely adopted in eastern as much as western provinces, and often, in the East, treated as a particularly luxurious version of a Greek gymnasium. The provision by aqueducts of adequate water supplies for such purposes was a striking benefaction of the Roman state to many of its subjects: aqueducts impressed both by what they achieved and by their visibility on the landscape as evidence of Roman power and beneficence. But the most distinctively Roman element in the common culture of the Mediterranean was the celebration of the imperial cult, with gladiatorial games, a specifically Roman form of entertainment, enthusiastically adopted throughout the Mediterranean world in the first two centuries CE: in the western provinces specially constructed amphitheatres were common from the late first century BCE, while in the eastern Mediterranean theatres were often adapted for the purpose. The notion once widely held that Greeks could have had no taste for the barbaric spectacles characteristic of Rome does not stand up to scrutiny.66


TO A REMARKABLE extent, men and women from one part of this unified Mediterranean world came into contact with people from other areas at all levels of society—the very rich as landowners and state officials; others as soldiers, merchants and slaves. Roman provincial administrators could expect to visit places hundreds, or even thousands, of miles apart in the course of their careers. A certain Titus Haterius Nepos, who came originally from Fulginiae in Umbria, was posted in the reign of Trajan to Britain to help with the provincial census in the early second century CE, then to Armenia, then, after a spell organizing public games and other official activities in the city of Rome, to Egypt, where he became governor under Hadrian: an inscription records that on 18 February 121 he heard the sound emitted by the statue of Memnon at Thebes, a favourite tourist attraction. Important officials like him would have got to know local rich landowners, both because it was in their political interest to become his friend and because, although he would have a main residence in the province, a governor and his staff needed to rely on the hospitality of locals when travelling around on assizes.

Further down the social scale, the main agent for the transfer of men across the empire in huge numbers was the army. Recruits were expected to serve in areas distant from their homeland. Following the extensive legionary movements under Augustus, it gradually became normal during the first century CE for legions to stay in one place for many years, but soldiers were still often attached to units stationed in areas far away from where they were recruited, especially after 70, and individuals were sometimes uprooted by their specialist units being posted for service elsewhere: hence, in 136—7, the presence on Hadrian's Wall in Britain of auxiliary troops from Syria, the “first cohort of Hamian archers.” The family of a soldier might move with him: the tombstone of Titus Flavius Virilis, who died in the early third century CE in Lambaesis in Africa at the age of seventy after he had served forty-five seasons, was erected by his wife, whose name, Lollia Bodicca, suggests that they were married while he was stationed in Britain. The prestige status in provincial society of soldiers, with their guaranteed salaries from the state, gave every encouragement for mixing. “The provincials were accustomed to live with the soldiers, and enjoyed association with them; in fact, many civilians were bound to the soldiers by ties of friendship and marriage,” wrote the historian Tacitus, describing the legions in Syria in 69.67 Conversely, the fact that Jews, unless they abandoned their Jewish customs, did not become soldiers in the Roman army will have hindered such processes of social integration. There is a striking lack of evidence for Jews joining the Roman army voluntarily, probably because they objected to the requirement to participate in the pagan religious ceremonies, especially sacrifice to the military standards, which were normal for Roman troops as demonstration of their loyalty to their commander-in-chief, the emperor. Josephus reports Roman governors taking seriously a claim by the Hasmonaean ruler Hyrcanus II in 43 BCE that Jews “cannot undertake military service because they may not bear arms or march on the days of the Sabbath; nor can they obtain the native foods to which they are accustomed.”68

If, nonetheless, Jews came into contact with many other peoples in the Mediterranean world of their day, the reason lay in the existence of a far-flung and well-established Jewish diaspora whose origins lay in earlier centuries. By the early first century CE Jews were already to be found in many coastal cities of the eastern Mediterranean, in the countryside in Egypt and in Syria around Antioch, on the Anatolian plateau in modern-day Turkey, and in many other places. The nucleus of some of these diaspora communities lay in the settlement of captives after wars on the territory of Palestine either in the very distant past, as was the case for the Jews whose ancestors had been brought to Babylonia in 586 BCE (see Chapter 1) or in the Hellenistic period: in the mid-second century BCE the author of the Letter of Aristeas recorded, probably correctly, that Jews had been taken as prisoners to Egypt by Ptolemy Soter in the late fourth century BCE. By the mid-first century CE, Agrippa I, as cited by Philo, could claim with exaggerated rhetoric: “The holy city … is the mother city not of one country Judaea but of most of the others in virtue of the colonies sent out at various times to the neighbouring lands … as well as the lands lying far away … most of Asia up to Bithynia and the corners of Pontus, similarly also in Europe … And not only are the mainlands full of Jewish colonies but also the most highly esteemed of the islands … I say nothing of the countries beyond the Euphrates.”69

Other Jews must have travelled to the diaspora voluntarily in search of a living, what we would now call economic migrants, compelled to leave their homeland by over-population caused not least by the distinctive Jewish antipathy to abortion and infanticide. Their choice of destination will have been determined in large part by distance: the biggest diaspora communities were in Egypt and Syria, the regions closest to Judaea. Many must have been attracted by the prospect of joining existing Jewish communities which might offer charitable help, a religious framework, a social base or employment. Papyri from the Egyptian countryside in the Ptolemaic period (from 301 to 30 BCE) reveal Jews as shepherds, farmers, vine-dressers, potters and weavers. Philo referred to Jewish traders in 38 CE whose merchandise was seized by Greeks when they put in to harbours on the Nile, and to the artisans in Alexandria whose workshops were ransacked by a Greek mob in the same year. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Aquila, a Jew from Pontus who lived for a while in Rome before moving to Corinth, was, like Paul of Tarsus, a tent-maker by trade. In pre-Roman times, Jews also sold their services as mercenaries in Egypt to the Persian state, and later in both Egypt and Cyrene to the Ptolemies, while the Seleucids used them for the same purpose in Asia Minor. Hellenistic kings had good reason to believe that Jews would be “faithful and excellent guards,” as Josephus described them, and not only “because of their piety to their God … their good faith and zeal in doing what they are asked”: Jews in such alien places depended for their own security on the support and protection of the state, and the state could therefore in turn rely upon their loyalty. Jews were thus spread widely across the eastern Mediterranean world by the first century CE—indeed, to the angry emperor Claudius, attempting in a stern letter to the city of Alexandria dated 10 November 41 to bring to an end intercommunal disturbances between Jews and Greeks, Jews seemed to be everywhere.70

As the Alexandrian case demonstrated all too clearly, living in the same city did not necessarily lead to good neighbourly relations. Jews were notorious for abstaining from the two main means of social intercourse with non-Jews. In the early second century CE Tacitus put it with characteristic succinctness: Jews stay “separate in their meals [and] apart in their beds … [and] abstain from sleeping with foreign women.” It was a caricature that was largely, but not totally, true. For pious Jews to eat with non-Jews, sharing a convivial table, was possible, but difficult. “Aristeas” depicted the seventy-two sages who translated the Jewish Law into Greek in Alexandria as seated at dinner with the king, Ptolemy, to whom each provided an individualized soundbite of sage advice. Clearly they are depicted as sharing the king's dining room, but, as the author makes clear, the royal food was specially kosher for the occasion by order of the king: “Everything … will be served in compliance with your habits; and for me also along with you.” But such pragmatic and irenic solutions to Jewish food taboos cannot have been the norm—if they were, it would be hard to understand the issues at stake in the early Christian community in Antioch according to Paul's accusation of Peter: “For before certain people came from James, he ate with the gentiles. But when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.” The pious Jewish author of 3 Maccabees, writing probably in Egypt in the late second century BCE, wrote of the Jews that “reverencing God and conducting themselves according to his law, they kept themselves apart in the matter of food, and for this reason they appeared odious to some.” In a thoroughly hostile account of the Jews incorporated into a narrative of the relationship of the Hasmonaeans to the Seleucid king Antiochus Sidetes in the late 130s BCE, the historian Diodorus Siculus asserted in the mid-first century BCE that “the Jews had made their hatred of mankind into a tradition, and on this account had introduced outlandish laws: not to share a table with any other race, nor to show any good will at all.” It seems unlikely that many Jews contrived commensality with their gentile neighbours by taking the vegetarian option at civic banquets.71

The issue of intermarriage is rather more complex, since it was not in fact the case, despite the perceptions of both Jews and gentiles, that marriage links between Jewish and gentile families could not take place. Best attested of such marriages are those of political import, such as the spouses selected by Herod the Great for his offspring from the families of rulers of nearby kingdoms. The political significance of the marriage to the daughter of Aretas IV, king of the Nabataeans, of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee from 4 BCE to 39 CE (described by Jesus as “that fox” according to the Gospel of Matthew), became horribly apparent when he repudiated her out of passion for his brother's wife Herodias. Aretas unsurprisingly bore a grudge at the slight done to his daughter, and in 36 CE used a boundary dispute as an excuse for war, in which Antipas’ army was comprehensively defeated. Such intermarriage was disguised within the normal Jewish practice of endogamy by the legal fiction of conversion to Judaism (on which more in Chapter 4). Exactly what a gentile woman had to do in order to become Jewish is uncertain, but the conversion of a gentile man contemplating a mixed marriage must have required, at the least, circumcision, since this sometimes proved a problem. The two daughters of Agrippa I both married kings from other parts of the Roman Near East: Berenice's husband was Polemon of Cilicia, and Drusilla married Azizus of Emesa. Both gentile kings submitted to circumcision for the sake of their marriages. In the case of Azizus, he won his wife only because her first betrothed, a son of Antiochus of Commagene, “was not willing to convert to Jewish customs.” Both marriages nevertheless fell to pieces. Berenice pursued a series of notorious love affairs, first (it was rumoured) with her brother Agrippa II, then quite publicly with the Roman general and future emperor Titus. Drusilla forsook Azizus and married the ex-slave Felix, who had become the Roman governor of Judaea through his brother's influence over the emperor Claudius. Josephus expressed particular disgust at this last liaison, although whether he objected to Felix as ex-slave, or as gentile, or as seducer of married women, is unclear:

Drusilla's marriage to Azizus was dissolved under the impact of the following circumstances. At the time when Felix was procurator of Judaea, he saw her, and, inasmuch as she surpassed all women in beauty, he conceived a passion for her. He sent to her one of his friends, a Cyprian Jew named Atomus, who pretended to be a magician, in an effort to persuade her to leave her husband and to marry Felix. Felix promised to make her supremely happy if she did not disdain him. She, being unhappy and wishing to escape the malice of her sister Berenice … was persuaded to transgress the ancestral laws and to marry Felix.

Josephus adds a sad postscript. Felix and Drusilla produced a son, whom she named Agrippa, presumably in memory of her father. The young man and his wife disappeared during the eruption of Vesuvius which engulfed Pompeii in 79 CE.72

The legal fiction of conversion which enabled Herodian princesses to marry gentiles was equally available to other Jews, but how many took advantage of it cannot be known. The lack of specific evidence for such marriages outside the Herodian dynasty does not prove that they did not take place, since not all proselytes may have wished to advertise on their funerary inscriptions or on their other documents their previous status as gentiles. Some Jews, of course, must have married out of the faith altogether, such as the Jewish mother of the Timothy mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, whose father, according to Acts, was a Greek, but again, it is difficult to trace such mixed marriages in the surviving evidence except when, as we shall discuss in Chapter 4, the child of the union was considered Jewish. What strikes most is the concurrence of Jews and gentiles that Jewish endogamy was the rule. Philo warned: “Do not enter into a partnership of marriage with a foreigner, lest, defeated by warring customs, you one day give in and inadvertently miss the road to piety by turning into a place that has no roads.”73

MUCH THUS encouraged a sense of unity among those who inhabited the Mediterranean world in the first century CE. Economic relations, social ties and threads of a shared culture ensured that those who lived in Spain would recognize as similar to their own many aspects of the lives of people in Greece, Asia Minor, Syria or Judaea. Reinforcing this sense of unity was the stark fact of political domination by one individual, the emperor in Rome. And yet, as will emerge in the next chapter, behind this façade of unity existed a great number of diverse societies whose values and lifestyles were often at variance with the norm.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!