The First Jewish Revolt: Archaeology, History, and Ideology

By Andrea M. Berlin; J. Andrew Overman | Go to book overview
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Roman perspectives on the Jews in the age of the Great Revolt

Erich S. Gruen

The “Great War” of the Jews against the Romans struck Josephus as a contest of monumental significance. He spared no rhetoric in the preface to his War (1.1): this war was not only the greatest of any in his own time but nearly the greatest of any conflict between cities or nations throughout history. This, of course, is wild hyperbole, a patent attempt to imitate Herodotus and Thucydides who made similar claims for the wars about which they wrote-with rather more justification. For the Jews, to be sure, this conflict did have momentous implications. To confront in all-out war the predominant imperial power of the world could only have been viewed as a clash of colossal proportions. Such, at least, would be a Jewish perspective.

But how was it perceived in Rome? Who were these strange, mad creatures, the Jews? Many a Roman must have asked himself that question when word arrived of the outbreak of rebellion-and, more particularly, when the rebellion persisted and the rebels persevered. How could this puny nation venture to challenge the awesome might of the Roman empire? For many Romans, the uprising must have appeared bizarre, inexplicable, even unthinkable. Certainly it provoked a harsh and brutal retaliation that left an enduring mark on all subsequent Jewish history.

Not that the Jews were unknown or unfamiliar to Romans. Roman governors, procurators, tax-farmers, various public officials, military officers, rank and file soldiers, visitors and tourists had spent time in Judea over the past two generations. And even Romans who had never been abroad knew about the Jews. A large Jewish community existed in the city of Rome, indeed had existed there for a long time. Philo reports that they occupied a substantial proportion of Trastevere, most of them freedmen or descendants of freedmen (Embassy to Gaius, 155). Moreover, the Romans knew full well that close ethnic, political, and cultural ties bound together the Jews resident in Rome and those in the homeland or elsewhere in the diaspora. They had occasion to appreciate that fact as long ago as the age of Cicero. When the Roman governor of Asia, L. Valerius Flaccus, prohibited the exportation of gold from his province, he struck, whether intentionally or inadvertantly, at the Jews resident in his jurisdiction who were accustomed to sending their annual tithe to Jerusalem. The matter had a direct impact in Rome. The


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