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The Jews in Rome during the Flavian Period

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 January 2015

James S. McLaren*
The Australian Catholic University, St Patrick's Campus, Melbourne ,


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.

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 2013

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1 For example, see Schäfer, P., Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World (Cambridge MA 1997)Google Scholar.

2 Gruen, E.S., Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans (Cambndge MA 2002) esp. 1553CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 The significance of the ongoing devotion of the Jews who lived in Rome and their commitment to Jerusalem and its Temple (Gruen, , Diaspora [n. 2] 244-6Google Scholar) will be discussed below in the light of the Flavian commemoration of the war. For a similar depiction of the pre-war situation for Jews in Rome see Barclay, J.M.G., Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE – 117 CE) (Edinburgh 1998) 295-7Google Scholar, and Goodman, M., Rome and Jerusalem. The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (London 2008) 383Google Scholar.

4 Gruen, , ‘Roman Perspectives on the Jews in the Age of the Great Revolt’, in Berlin, A.M. and Overman, J.A. (eds), The First Jewish Revolt. Archaeology, History, and Ideology (London 2002) 2742Google Scholar.

5 Gruen, ‘Roman Perspectives’ (n. 4), reviews the evidence regarding various Jewish practices and beliefs (29-36). Gruen also makes the important point that the Romans would have been understandably outraged by the disrespect shown by the Jews through their lack of gratitude to Rome (38-39). Although not pertinent to the focus of Gruen's investigation, any such anger on the part of the Romans has important ramifications for how the Jews understood their identity and place within Rome after 70 CE, as it increased the extent to which they were now susceptible to public scrutiny of a derogatory nature.

6 Other references to the triumph include Suet. Vesp. 8.1, Tit. 6.1; Dio 66.7.1. Note that Josephus’ more extensive account of the triumph does have gaps, especially regarding the route used: see Millar, F., ‘Last Year in Jerusalem: Monuments of the Jewish War in Rome’, in Edmondson, J., Mason, S. and Rives, J. (eds), Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome (Oxford 2005) 101-28, at 103-9Google Scholar. On the triumph also see Beard, M., “The Triumph of Flavius Josephus’, in Boyle, A.J. and Dominik, W.J. (eds), Flavian Rome: Culture, Image, Text (Leiden 2003) 543-58Google Scholar, and Eberhardt, B., ‘Wer dient wem? Die Darstellung des Flavischen Triumphzuges auf dem Titusbogen und bei Josephus (BJ 7.123-62)’, in Sievers, J. and Lembi, G. (eds), Josephus and Jewish History in Flavian Rome and Beyond (JSJ Supp. 104; Leiden 2005) 257-77Google Scholar. Josephus also describes other ways the victory was commemorated outside Rome: Titus' initial celebrations held in Jerusalem (BJ 7.5-16) and at several other locations (5/7.23-25,37-39).

7 See Mattingly, H. and Carson, R.A.G. (eds), Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum (London 1983) II, nos. 31-44Google Scholar.

8 For a more detailed discussion of the following, see Millar, ‘Last Year’ (n. 6), and Darwell-Smith, R.H., Emperors and Architecture: A Study of Flavian Rome (Bruxelles 1996)Google Scholar.

9 It is possible that the Temple of Peace and the amphitheatre were concurrent projects. Domitian is credited with completing the complex (Chron. Min. 1.146)Google Scholar.

10 See Alföldy, G., ‘Eine Bauinschrift aus dem Colosseum’, ZPE 109 (1995) 195226Google Scholar.

11 It does not really matter whether or not most of the people who entered the amphitheatre read the inscription. The crucial point is that those responsible for its construction wanted to declare that the massive, new, public structure was paid for from the spoils of war.

12 The arch is also depicted on the Forma Urbis: see Millar, , ‘Last Year’ (n. 6) 120Google Scholar.

13 See Pfanner, M., Der Titusbogen, BESA 2 (Mainz 1983)Google Scholar, and P.Rossetto, C., ‘Circo Massimo. Il circo Caesarino e l'arco di Tito’, Quaderni del centro di studio per l'archeologia Etrusco-Italica 14 (1987) 44-6Google Scholar.

14 As noted by Josephus (BJ 7.218) and Cassius Dio (66.7.2).

15 See Millar, , ‘Last Year’ (n. 6) 101, 111, 116, 127Google Scholar. See also Goodman, M., ‘The Fiscus Iudaicus and Gentile Altitudes to Judaism in Flavian Rome’, in Edmondson, , Mason, and Rives, (eds), Josephus and Flavian Rome (n. 6) 167-77, at 170-1Google Scholar, and Overman, J.A., “The First Revolt and Flavian Polities’, in Berlin, and Overman, (eds), The First Jewish Revolt, (n. 4) 213-20, at 213-7Google Scholar.

16 It is important to note that these monuments were intentional decisions on the part of the Flavian rulers, and were designed to convey messages to the people of Rome and the wider Empire: see Zanker, P., The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor 1988)Google Scholar, and. Hölscher, T., Römische Bildsprache als semantisches System (Heidelberg 1987)Google Scholar. On the role of coinage as conveying ideological meaning, see Ando, C., Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley 2000) 212CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It is possible that the family members were not necessarily always in total agreement as to how the war should be celebrated (Suet, . Tit. 4.3Google Scholar, cf. 4.4, Dom. 2.2).

17 See Mattem, S.P., Rome and the Enemy. Imperial Strategy in the Principate (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1999) 163210, at 171Google Scholar.

18 The notion of this war as the conquest of a foreign enemy is evident in Tacitus' depiction of an interaction between Mucianus and Vespasian (Hist. 2.76). Note, however, that in his introductory summary of Jewish history, Tacitus refers to Pompey as the first Roman to ‘subdue’ the Jews (Hist. 5.9). An obvious benefit of focusing on this ‘foreign’ war is that it deflected attention away from the conflict which had directly impacted on people in Rome -the civil war of the proceeding year. It is also a further example of how Vespasian cast his actions as Emperor as following the example set by Augustas.

19 Millar, , ‘Last Year’ (n. 6) 123Google Scholar, points out that these arches were dedicated to Titus.

20 The falseness of this claim is often noted: see Rajak, T., Josephus. The Historian and His Society, 2nd edn (London 2002) 203Google Scholar, and Millar, , ‘Last Year’ (n. 6) 120Google Scholar.

21 Note also the existence of several stories of Titus as a soldier engaged in the fighting (Suet, . Tit. 4.3, 5.2)Google Scholar.

22 There are five key actions undertaken by the Flavians: Titus' decision to offer sacrifices on the site of the Temple; the dismantling of the Temple, with the site left in reins; the storage of key utensils associated with the cult in the Temple of Peace; the replacement of the annual tax levied on male Jews with the new Fiscus Iudaicus; and the closure of the Temple at Leontopolis. See Goodman, , Rome and Jerusalem (n. 22) 449, 452-3Google Scholar; cf. Paget, J. Charleton, ‘After 70 and All That: A Response to Martin Goodman's Rome and Jerusalem’, JSNT 31.3 (2009) 339-65, at 350-3Google Scholar. On the Flavian decision to remove the Temple cult also, see Magness, J., “The Arch of Titus at Rome and the Fate of the God of Israel’, JJS 64.2 (2008) 201-17CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Rives, J., ‘Flavian Religious Policy and the Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple’, in Edmondson, , Mason, and Rives, (eds), Josephus and Flavian Rome (n. 6) 145-66Google Scholar.

23 See Gruen, , Diaspora (n. 2) 243-52Google Scholar, and Goodman, The Fiscus Iudaicus’ (n. 15) 172, 174-5Google Scholar. The basis of the Flavian decision to destroy the Temple and the cult was the central role which they played during the war: their removal was part of an attempt to prevent further conflict.

24 For example, see Mart. 7.55.7-8; Quint, . Inst. 3.7.21Google Scholar; Tac, . Hist. 5.4.1Google Scholar. Indeed, it is unclear whether or not Tacitus would have provided his readers with the lengthy introduction on the Jewish people if there had not been such extensive Flavian attention having already been placed on the conflict: see Goodman, , “The Fiscus Iudaicus’ (n. 15) 177Google Scholar, and Millar, , ‘Last Year’ (n. 6) 127-8Google Scholar.

25 Goodman, , “The Fiscus Iudaicus’ (n. 15) 171Google Scholar.

26 As noted by Paget, , ‘After 70’ (n. 22) 353Google Scholar.

27 Josephus has often been depicted as a servant of Flavian propaganda interests. See e.g. Weber, W., Josephus und Vespasian: Untersuchungen zu dem Jüdaischen Krieg des Flavius Josephus (Stuttgart 1921)Google Scholar; Cohen, S.J.D., Josephus in Galilee and Rome (Leiden 1979)Google Scholar; and Saulnier, C., ‘Flavius Josephe et la propaganda flavienne’, Revue biblique 96 (1989) 545-62Google Scholar. Rajak, T., Josephus (n. 20) esp. 201-20Google Scholar, provides a detailed interpretation of Josephus that proposes a balance between continued adherence to his Jewish heritage and an accommodation and acceptance of the realities of Roman mie.

28 The statement by Josephus that he presented the work to Vespasian and Titas (Vita 361; C. Ap. 1.5051Google Scholar) also often features as part of the case for a pro-Flavian stance: e.g. see Rajak, , Josephus (n. 20) 200-1Google Scholar. A careful reading of the context of these two passages indicates only that selections of the text were shown to Vespasian and Titus, not the entire work. In a forthcoming study it will be argued that the Bellum Judaicum was compiled early in the reign of Domitian.

29 There were numerous examples of people who suffered because their comments were not sufficiently veiled (Aelius Lamia [Suet, . Dom. 10.2Google Scholar], Hermogenes of Tarsus [Suet, . Dom. 10.1Google Scholar], the younger Helvidius Priscus [Suet, . Dom. 10.3Google Scholar]): see Ahl, F.M., “The Art of Safe Criticism in Greece and Rome’, AJP 105 (1984) 174208Google Scholar; Mason, S., ‘Figured Speech and Irony in T. Flavius Josephus’, in Edmondson, , Mason, and Rives, (eds), Josephus and Flavian Rome (n. 6) 243-88Google Scholar; Rudich, V., Dissidence and Literature under Nero: The Price of Rhetoricization (London 1997)Google Scholar; and Bartsch, S., Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge MA 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Complicating the matter was the merging of views deemed to be publicly acceptable with the interests of the Imperial family, against whom any slander could be construed as maiestas.

30 Rajak, , Josephus (n. 20) 196200Google Scholar, refers to the literary context in which Josephus constructed his account, but she does not discuss the author's need to display caution when making public comment.

31 As noted by Barclay, J.M.G., “The Empire Writes Back: Josephan Rhetoric in Flavian Rome’, in Edmondson, , Mason, and Rives, (eds), Josephus and Flavian Rome (n. 6) 315-32, at 321Google Scholar.

32 The depiction of Titus is regarded as particularly important. Hence, Rajak introduces her discussion of the depiction of the two Flavian rulers in the following manner: “There were many opportunities within it [BJ] to present the persons of Vespasian and Titus in a glowing light, and these opportunities were not missed by the author. In this way he acknowledged his patrons, and rendered them ample service’ (Josephus [n. 20] 203).

33 In other words, the following discussion seeks to show that the very evidence used as testimony of the pro-Flavian nature of the work is actually provided by Josephus to undermine the Flavian commemoration of the war. The presence of positive images of the Flavians in the work is not contested. Instead, what is disputed is that Josephus was writing as a friend of Rome. Thus, the arguments regarding the pro-Flavian reading of Josephus will not be discussed in detail here. For another approach regarding Josephus as responding to the impact of the war on Jewish identity see Mason, S., Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins. Methods and Categories (Peabody MA 2009) 239-79, esp. 252-5Google Scholar.

34 Schwartz, D.R., ‘Herodians and Ioudaioi in Flavian Rome’, in Edmondson, , Mason, and Rives, (eds), Josephus and Flavian Rome (n. 6) 6378, at 72-3Google Scholar; Mason, , ‘Figured Speech’ (n. 29) 256Google Scholar, also draw attention to these themes as being contrary to what the Romans were proclaiming.

35 See also BJ 1.25, 27. Note also the comment of Josephus that, when Titus offered peace, the Jews preferred to engage in sedition (3/6.216).

36 The comment in BJ 5.367 about power now resting with Rome suggests Josephus believed the Roman Empire had an expiry date that would be determined by God.

37 There are also miraculous events during battles which help ensure that the Romans are victorious (5/4.76; 7.318-19).

38 Note that, although Titos claims it would be a disgrace to wait for famine and fortune to defeat the Jews rather than conquering them by arms (BJ 6.44), Josephus consistently assigns the outcome of the war to famine and God. The importance of discipline (BJ 3.479) and desire for glory (5/3.480) is noted by Titus when speaking to his troops (5/3.472-84)

39 For examples of a reading that views Josephus' account as supportive of the Flavians, see Paul, G.M., “The Presentation of Titos in the Jewish War of Josephus: Two Aspects’, Phoenix 47 (1993) 5666CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jones, B.W., “The Reckless Titus’, in Deroux, C. (ed.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History VI (Bruxelles 1992) 408-20Google Scholar; and Rajak, , Josephus (n. 20) 204-18Google Scholar.

40 See BJ 3.501; 4.97-102; 6.115. See also Yavetz, Z., ‘Reflections on Titus and Josephus’, GRBS 16 (1975)411-32Google Scholar.

41 Mason, , ‘Figured Speech’ (n. 29) 262-5Google Scholar, adopts a similar approach. See also McLaren, J., ‘Josephus on Titos: The Vanquished Writing about the Victor’, in Sievers, and Lembi, (eds), Josephus and Jewish History (n. 6) 279-95, at 282-7Google Scholar, in which the description of Titus' behaviour is compared to Roman views on how a general should behave.

42 This is in contrast to the view of Parente, F., ‘The Impotence of Titus, or Josephus’ Bellum Judaicum as an Example of “Pathetic” Historiography’, in Sievers, and Lembi, (eds), Josephus and Jewish History (n. 6) 4579, at 66Google Scholar, and Yavetz, ‘Reflections’ (n. 40).

43 In fact, Josephus does include statements which indicate that Titus willingly destroyed the Temple (BJ 6.440; 7.1). It is even possible that the Flavian commemoration of the war was part of the target of Josephus' criticism in the prologue (BJ 1.6-9).

44 If hoping for a Roman audience, Josephus was possibly also trying to provide a message for Domitian and other Romans charged with oversight of Jewish affairs: do not think that you have power over the Jews – it is the God of the Jews who decides their fate and that of the Temple. Furthermore, good governance meant restoring the Temple. Note also that the description of Roman role in the Jewish homeland is not a complimentary one. The experience of being mied by the Romans equated with being a slave (BJ 2.355, 361; 6.42, 206; 7.323-24) and was a constant drain on the resources of the local population (BJ 2.368, 372, 383,386).

45 At the same time, self-preservation was another key factor for Josephus. Such a concern must be taken for granted on the basis of his decision to surrender to Vespasian rather than fight to the death.

46 At several points in the narrative Josephus' dislike of Rome is apparent: e.g. Tiberius' summary of life under Roman mie (AJ 18:172-77 [cf Tac, . Ann 4.6Google Scholar; Aesop Fable 314; Arist, . Rhet. iiGoogle Scholar. 1393 b 23-1394 a 1]), and the retelling of Daniel's prophecy regarding the power of God over human affairs (AJ 10.272-81Google Scholar).

47 Gruen, , Diaspora (n. 2) 6Google Scholar.

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