Age of empire

Does modern anti-Semitism have its roots in Roman times?

By RALPH AMELAN
June 3, 2007 10:57
rome book 88

rome book 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Rome & Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations By Martin Goodman Allen Lane 639 pages; 25 History, with the apparent wisdom of hindsight, seems inevitable. Certainly traditional Jewish explanations of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE speak of it as something that had to happen. Most teachings maintain that causeless hatred was the reason for the disaster, citing the murderous factional fighting among Jerusalem's defenders prior to the city's fall. Others brood on the wickedness of "Edom," the code word for Rome, as something that meant a violent collision with Jews sooner or later. Not, so, claims Martin Goodman, professor of Jewish studies at Oxford University and a specialist in the period. Jerusalem's fall, and the consequent loss of status of Jews in the Roman Empire, was mostly sheer bad luck. The fascinating, even touching, portrait he paints of Romans and Jews at the time expertly draws the reader into two different yet complementary worlds. The Romans, while building and maintaining their empire through merciless military campaigns, ran a relatively tolerant and open society, ruled by law and depending on the willing participation of other peoples and faiths for its survival. The Jews, both in Judea and in their Diaspora communities, were marked by intense pride in their rebuilt Temple and their religion, giving them specific rules for human behavior that the pagan gods of Rome did not require. Their politics were inseparable from their faith: The high priest loomed large as a source of authority. They were reserved and modest in their behavior, eschewing public displays of nakedness. Amazingly, they were not noted for a sense of humor. Yet the empire provided a generally friendly environment. A few Romans derided Shabbat observance as laziness, but Jews were not molested, and even flourished in Rome itself. Roman authorities respected Temple ritual and worship, punishing those who mocked Judaism. The Judean King Agrippa I averted a dangerous succession crisis in Rome by ensuring the selection of Claudius as emperor. But the Judean revolt of 66 CE and its bloody repression changed everything. The revolt was unexpected and unplanned: The trigger for the uprising was a violent clash between an unusually incompetent governor and the local Rome-supporting elite. The position worsened thanks to the rout of a military attempt to break the rebellion. Rome had to salvage its lost honor. But it did little for three years. Goodman makes it clear that unknown to everybody in 66 CE, Rome was about to be gripped by one of the worst crises in its history. Starting in 68 CE, five emperors ruled in the space of just over a year, and the city was racked by riots. The empire came close to falling apart. Vespasian, a colorless if competent general with few military achievements to his name, managed to seize power, but realized that to retain it, he needed to win on the battlefield, the traditional route to the imperial purple. Crushing the Judean rebellion was the obvious thing to do. And his son Titus did it, prosecuting the assault on Jerusalem as if the future of Rome depended on it, which it did in a way that had not been true four years earlier. Even had the city's defenders been united, it probably would not have made any difference. We may never know for sure whether Titus intended to raze the Temple as well: He probably did not. But once it happened, it was too late for regrets. Victory was personally important for Vespasian: It was nothing short of deliverance for Rome. After a year of chaos preceded by a period of decline under Nero, the empire had discovered a strong ruler, blessed with a son who was himself a successful general, and had crushed a dangerous rebellion which, had it succeeded, would have encouraged other malcontents to try their luck. The defeat of the revolt was inextricably associated with what was almost a second founding of Rome. It could not be forgotten. Moreover, it was a theological victory. Jewish religious belief was respected by Romans in part because of its antiquity, yet the destruction of the Temple proved to Roman satisfaction that its own gods were more powerful. To permit the rebuilding of the Temple would needlessly gift a reprieve to the God of Jerusalem, and also give ideas to religious fanatics elsewhere. Rome's victory had to visibly endure for years to come. The status of Jews throughout the empire plummeted. They were faced with the physical destruction of their religious center and the shame of apparent divine abandonment. The Romans imposed a permanent tax on them, to be devoted to the upkeep of a pagan temple. Other communities, realizing that the Jews were out of favor with the authorities, harried them violently. How long did this humiliation last? The sources suggest that Jews had a de-facto second-class status until at least some time after the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE. For all that Jewish communities still continued to thrive in the empire, and it is likely that, given time, they would have emerged from the shadows. What ensured the deepening and hardening of prejudice against them was the conversion of the empire to Christianity. From the start the Christians had sought to distance themselves from Jews. Once they attained power, the destruction of the Temple was reinterpreted as the Jews' punishment for killing Jesus. Early Christian accounts describing Jews and Judaism have a mean, vicious quality that is almost entirely lacking from earlier Roman accounts. The political reasons Rome had for making an example of the Jews were replaced by darker, deeper motives. Goodman believes that the origins of anti-Semitism itself can be found in the legacy of Roman politics of the fateful year of 70 CE and after. I am less sure: The differences between the anti-Jewish prejudice of Vespasian's time and the outright hostility of Byzantium are too great. Rome never credited Jews with diabolical powers and intentions: The Christians did. What is undoubted is that Rome & Jerusalem is a triumph. Goodman's scrupulous care with his sources, his eye for telling detail and his easy prose style combine to produce a work that will reward any reader, though prior knowledge of the period helps. There is a depth and perspective to his account that comes from hard-earned scholarship and an appreciation of the part that the unforeseeable plays in history.

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