`THIS IS THE MASADA of the Palestinians', an anonymous Israeli general is supposed to have said at the height of the battle for the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank in April 2002. New recruits to the Israeli Defence Force regularly swear an oath of allegiance at the ancient fortress of Masada, which fell to the Romans in 73 or 74 CE, and conservative Jews pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for the reconstruction of the Temple destroyed in 70 CE. The conflict in the Middle East today is fought amid the echoes of another war 2,000 years ago, in which an overwhelming military force destroyed a people's aspiration to national self-determination.
Palestine--by which I mean the southern Levant, today comprising Israel, the Occupied Territories and western Jordan--is one of the bloodiest places on earth. In antiquity, it lay on one of history's great route-ways. Caravans laden with eastern exotica destined for the Mediterranean market passed through. Waves of nomadic refugees from the desert--including the ancient Hebrews around the twelfth century BCE--were periodically washed up in `the Land of Canaan'. And two great centres of early civilisation repeatedly met and clashed here: the Egypt of the Pharaohs and successive Mesopotamian empires ruled by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and others. Consequently, periods of political independence and national unity for the peoples who inhabited the region in ancient times tended to be brief. Palestine was too much a prey to periodic bouts of imperial conquest ever to remain in local hands for long.
By the first century CE, Rome was the dominant power in the Levant. The nineteenth-century view of Rome as a fount of civilisation and culture is still held in many quarters. Even though historians of latter-day monstrosities--like Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia--are not persuaded of their subjects' virtue by architectural monuments, Rome's roads, aqueducts and hypocausts are sometimes allowed to turn an equally monstrous system of exploitation and violence--the Roman Empire--into a model of human achievement and an object of admiration. But `The Grandeur That Was Rome'--the towns, villas and monumental architecture, the mosaics, frescoes and sculpture, the leisured aristocratic class that enjoyed these things--was made possible only by creaming off agricultural surpluses from thousands of villages across the empire. A Jewish peasant in Palestine in the first century--after the region had been incorporated into the Roman Empire as the province of Judaea in 6 CE--would have experienced the world of Rome not as `civilisation' but as so many parasites--the tax-gatherer, the landlord, the priest, the debt-collector, the soldier--coming to steal the fruits of his hard labour on a tiny hillside plot.
By the middle of the first century of the Common Era, society in Palestine was deeply divided. On one side stood the ordinary people, most of them Jews, living in the countryside; on the other the Romans, Greeks and the Jewish upper classes. The Romans were few in number but their authority was upheld by the power of the Imperial army. There were just a hundred or so army officers and civil servants on the staff of the procurator of Judaea and perhaps two or three thousand Roman soldiers, but there were more than ten times that number in nearby Syria, a few days' march to the north. Rome, in any case, had many friends among the population of Palestine. There were the Greeks, who occupied numerous cities on the coast and in Transjordan, forming a series of privileged urban enclaves surrounded by the mainly Jewish countryside. These cities were ruled by oligarchs who enjoyed the backing of the Roman authorities. The general population of artisans, petty traders and small farmers had a colonial mentality, jealously guarding the privileges of Greek citizenship, and capable of occasional outbursts of murderous antisemitism. …