At the height of the Jewish rebellion against the Hellenists, Judah Maccabee pulled off a stunning diplomatic coup. Judah sent a delegation to Rome to forge an alliance with the Roman Republic against their common enemy, the Greco-Syrian Seleucids. The Roman Senate recognized the Maccabee forces as an ally and legitimized their eventual sovereignty over Jerusalem. This was one of many reasons that the Maccabees succeeded in their rebellion.
But by the twilight of the Maccabee Empire of the Hasmoneans in the 60’s BCE, Rome was no longer a supportive ally but a force that would interfere in Judean politics and dictate Jewish policy and leadership. The sons of Queen Salome Alexandra, the last leader of an independent Hasmonean kingdom, struggled to assume the throne and the High Priesthood. They made the grave error of trying to dispute this rivalry by appealing to Rome. The great Roman general Pompey, just having concluded wars against the king of Pontus in Asia Minor and having finally defeated the Seleucids, was poised to influence the internal affairs of the Jews. Perhaps the Hasmonean queen’s sons—Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II—had no choice but to appeal for the support of the emerging Roman power. But it was a conflict that almost ended in disaster.
In Damascus, Pompey chose Hyrcanus as Salome’s successor. But Aristobulus would not accept the Roman general’s decision and fled to Jerusalem with his supporters. The Romans pursued them to Jerusalem and they were forced to surrender. But there were holdouts who refused to give up and found refuge in the Temple. After a three-month struggle, Pompey occupied the Temple and turned it over to Hyrcanus. The Romans massacred the rebels or exiled them to Rome. According to historian Martin Goodman, in 61 BCE, “Aristobulus himself was made to walk, as representative of his defeated nation, in Pompey’s triumphal procession through the streets of Rome. Hyrcanus was restored to the High Priesthood, but without the title of king, and with a much reduced territory to rule.” This was end of Jewish sovereignty under the Maccabees. The Romans ruled through the puppet King Herod and later, up until the Great Revolt in 66 CE, through the direct rule of prefects and procurators. Pompey did not defile the Temple during his conquest of Jerusalem. But in 70 CE the Romans burned down the Jewish center of sacrifice and razed the Jewish capital.
What began as a beneficial alliance of a “special relationship” between Judea and Rome, ended in disaster and the loss of independence. Judah Maccabee did what he had to do before his death in battle to secure Jewish independence—the treaty with the Roman Senate was critical to Jewish victory. But what he could not foresee only a century later was the parading of one his descendants through the streets of Rome as an exile and a slave. If there is a lesson for Jews today, it is a sobering one: A reliable ally one day can turn into an interloper the next. Be wary of “special relationships.” States build their foreign policy on self-interest and if that self-interest is not served and fulfilled, the rules of the game can change overnight. While all nations must pursue alliances, the best way to do so is to build bridges with as many allies as possible and not become beholden to one special and powerful ally alone. In the end, a strong measure of self-reliance and independent genius should rule the day.