The Jews in Rome during the Flavian Period

By McLaren, James S. | Antichthon, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Jews in Rome during the Flavian Period


McLaren, James S., Antichthon


ABSTRACT

During the late republic and early principate the Jews who called Rome their home occasionally found themselves in the public gaze. Some of their customs and aspects of their ways of life also attracted occasional comment, often for their apparently strange and foreign manner. At no stage, however, during this period did they feature prominently in the public sphere of life in Rome. The aftermath of the war of 66-70 CE brought about an abrupt change in circumstances for the Jews living in Rome. Apart from the immediate visual celebration of the triumph, there followed a number of substantial monumental and numismatic commemorations of the Roman victory. In this article the purpose and function of those commemorations and the possible consequences for the Jews who lived in Rome are examined. In particular, the impact of the public profiling of the war on Jewish identity and of how the writings of Josephus are to be read in this setting is explored. Rather than regard Josephus as a supporter of the Flavian rulers, writing an account of the war that encouraged fellow Jews to collaborate with Rome, it is argued that he was offering Jews in Rome a counter-narrative to the way the war was being publicly commemorated.

Much of the recent work of Erich Gruen has drawn our attention to the issue of identity in the ancient world. In particular, his contributions on questions associated with the identity and place of Jews in the Graeco-Roman world are extensive and provide many significant insights into how we should interpret the available evidence. The following discussion focuses on one particular aspect of Jewish identity in the ancient world, the situation for Jews who resided in Rome during the Flavian dynasty.

There are three main reasons for the focus on Rome during the Flavian period. One is the distinctive circumstance that was associated with this period for the Jews, especially for those in Rome: the war in the Jewish homeland had a direct and immediate impact on the nature of the relationship of Jews to the Roman Empire. The founder of the new dynasty had commanded the effort to reassert Roman control over the Jewish homeland. Furthermore, his successor was in command of the Roman army that achieved victory in the battle for Jerusalem. A significant issue to address, therefore, is the impact this distinctive link between the rulers and the Jews may have had on the identity of those Jewish people who lived in Rome. The second reason is that there is scope to explore a feature of the situation the Jews encountered in Rome that has not been the subject of detailed investigation. The deliberate and extensive commemoration of the war by all three Flavian rulers focussed public attention on the Jews of Rome in a manner they had not previously experienced. Significant claims were made about the Jewish way of life, especially in regard to their cult and the worship of their god, and these necessitated a response. The third reason is that it provides an opportunity to recast the way the literary activity of Flavius Josephus is generally interpreted. His writings offer important insight into how some Jews in Rome were addressing questions and claims about their identity. Josephus should not be viewed primarily as a spokesperson for the Flavians interested in recounting past events. Instead, he should be viewed as an author offering a counter-narrative to the Flavian commemoration.

Jews in Rome prior to Flavian Rule

Various attempts have been made to argue that the Jews were the target of systematic attacks by officials and other ethnic groups in the Graeco-Roman period.1 2 At the same time, an enduring question posed regarding those Jews who lived outside the homeland is the extent to which they saw themselves as a people living in a form of exile with an expectation and/or hope of eventually returning to the 'homeland'. In both of these lines of inquiry the evidence regarding the circumstances of the Jews who resided in Rome has featured prominently. …

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