Collisions of faith and might still echo

Rome and Jerusalem
March 30, 2007

When Pompey captured the city of Jerusalem and, with a conquering soldier's disregard for local concerns, entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple, he was amazed to find nothing there: no treasure, no wonderful statuary, nothing to take back to Rome. What sort of a religion could build a massive and profoundly impressive building to house an emptiness?

Two hundred years earlier, when Ptolemy, Alexander's general, busy founding his own dynastic kingdom, marched on Jerusalem, he met with no resistance because it was the Sabbath and the Jews would not fight. This baffled and outraged historians from Agatharcides in the 2nd century BC to Plutarch in the 1st century AD: Jewish superstition, as they called it, lost the city (and the opportunity for the historian to turn out a good "sack of a city" narrative). War enforces polarities, but the Jews, for the Greeks and the Romans, were a cultural oddity who required a conceptual as much as a military response.

Martin Goodman's huge but wholly engaging Rome and Jerusalem is tellingly subtitled The Clash of Ancient Civilisations . The author wants to understand the deepest levels of the cultural conflict that resulted in the Temple being totally destroyed by Titus in AD70 and the city of Jerusalem being ploughed up by Hadrian in AD135 after the Bar Kochba revolt and replaced by a Roman city, Aelia Capitolina. Only 60 years after Titus and Vespasian had responded so heavily and destructively to the situation in Judaea, how could the Jews have rebelled again with such enthusiasm and optimism that they struck coins with the new date of Year 1 of the new kingdom? What was it that brought the Jews and the Roman Empire into conflict? Why did the Romans treat the Jews with such cultural as well as military hostility?

The attempt to answer these questions in a less than trite way - and there are many trite answers to such questions available in the literature - has led Goodman to produce a book of monumental scale.

In his first section, "A Mediterranean world", he looks at the background history of empire that grounds the Roman response, and the development of the city of Jerusalem in this context. In the second section, "Romans and Jews", he explores the social differences between Roman and Jewish attitudes to government, to religion, to citizenship, through the now familiar catch-alls of cultural history: "Identities", "Communities", "Perspectives", "Lifestyles" and so on. In the third section, "Conflict", he offers a detailed narrative history of the military and political engagement from the 60s through the 130s and onwards into the Christian empire. In this way, Goodman links cultural history with military history, social history with narrative history.

This multiplicity of perspectives makes this book the best available general account of a turning point not just in the history of the Roman Empire but also in the development of the modern West - and of a set of conditions and attitudes that are with us still. Classicists have often asked "how did the Romans/Greeks view the Jews?" (and answered with varying degrees of sophistication and prejudice); scholars of religion have also asked how the Jews, in particular the Rabbinic circles, responded to Greco-Roman civilisation. A great strength of Goodman's work is his ability to see such questions in dynamic response to each other.

The book's two main arguments are compellingly articulated. First, Goodman claims that in AD70 the Temple was not destroyed because of an extended, fierce and ideologically motivated resistance to Roman rule. Rather, a more local hostility to a specific Roman governor overboiled, and Vespasian took the opportunity with his son Titus to orchestrate a splendid and overwhelming victory for his own purposes. Vespasian needed a military triumph to bolster his claim to the imperial throne - and the capture of Jerusalem appeared immediately on the coinage, a major act of political propaganda, and, of course, on Titus's triumphal arch in Rome. This was conjoined with an extended disparagement of the Jews, through a new tax and through legal and social prejudice.

Second, Goodman notes that Romans preferred to appropriate rather than to destroy other religions (although the Druids are an obvious exception), and the decision to refuse to allow the Jews to rebuild the Temple was an unusually harsh and punitive measure. He traces how the years between 70 and 132 were increasingly desperate for Jewish hopes and sees the Bar Kochba revolt as a direct response to this extreme Roman policy. This account not only puts the Jewish rebels' coins with their images of the Temple in a vivid light but also helps explain the pointedness of Julian the Apostate's later willingness to rebuild the Temple in the 4th century.

These two central arguments are framed and supported by the broad contrasts between Roman and Jewish culture drawn by Goodman.

As the book is written for the general audience, there is much material in these sections that will be rather familiar to one group of scholars or another, and, inevitably, there are some sections that read more superficially than others. The discussion of Jewish views of time, for example, or the cultural history of sexuality, could have been developed and nuanced. Occasionally, he reads ancient historians too much as if they meant what they said and said what they meant.

The incisive polemic and dense scholarship of Seth Schwartz's Imperialism and Jewish Society or the works of Daniel Boyarin are mentioned in the notes here, but Goodman's is a very different style of engagement. Nor is there any real discussion of the fascinating historiography of the issues raised. References are mainly to ancient sources: hints towards further reading are extremely brief, though well chosen.

All of this can be explained easily as setting the right tone for the proposed audience. And in this, Goodman has hit the mark superbly. The book is written with great clarity and a decent pace: and although it is aimed at a general market, its contribution to our historical understanding is important and powerfully expressed.

Simon Goldhill is professor of Greek literature and culture, Cambridge University.

Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilisations

Author - Martin Goodman
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 639
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9447 9

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