Rome and Jerusalem: The clash of ancient civilisations, by Martin Goodman

The doom of the Temple
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Rome and Jerus-alem is a monumental work of scholarship that left this reviewer crying out for less. Martin Goodman could have usefully précised the first 380 pages of his scrupulously balanced, objective account of the most baneful of all imperial Rome's relations with a subject people, before he properly gets down to business in chapter 10. Until then, he has overwhelmed the reader with a relentless dissection of the similarities and differences between the two cultures. Family and sexual relations, moral perspectives, eating habits, religious worship and personal hygiene are just some of the subjects dealt with in exhaustive detail.

Goodman has, so to speak, spent his academic career between Rome and Jerusalem, and is a formidable authority on both. But in the early chapters he is in danger of losing the wood for the trees.

I count myself moderately knowledgeable about Jewish history from the Hasmoneans (circa 165BCE) to the destruction of the Temple (70CE), but frequently got lost in a maze of kings, emperors and cross-references. At times, it is like trying to work out who is who in a Russian novel: "Agrippa I was descended from both Hasmonean and Herodian royalty, but... when his father Aristobulus was executed in 7 BCE by his own father Herod... he was sent to live in Rome... where his mother was a close friend of Antonia, the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, the sister of Augustus."

Goodman tries to stuff several quarts into a pint pot, with much tiresome anticipation or retrospection. But when he does finally get to the nitty-gritty, he tells a riveting tale with admirable fairness, a judicious sifting of Roman and Jewish sources, and concern always to place sources in political and historical context. The one surprising exception is when he appears to accept at face value Josephus' account of the mass suicide of 960 zealots at Masada.

Ostensibly, there was little reason why Judaea and its inhabitants should be more difficult to govern than any other subjugated province. Live and let live was imperial policy, provided that taxes were paid regularly and public tribute offered to the gods as a visible symbol of Roman rule. For over 100 years, from Pompey's conquest of Jerusalem in 63BCE until the onset of total war in 66CE, a modus vivendi generally held. There might be occasional rebellions and outbreaks of violence when visitors from over the Jewish world thronged into Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrim festivals.

During the festival of Passover in the late 40s, a Roman soldier started a major riot by baring his bum at the pilgrims. On another occasion, Jewish youths invited heavy reprisals by mocking the Roman governor. But with a standing army of around 250,000, Rome only ever found it necessary to keep a few thousand in Judaea.

The Romans considered Jewish fidelity to one God incomprehensible, the avoidance of pork amusing, and circumcision bizarre, while the Jews were disapproving of Roman licentiousness, sexual immorality and casual nudity; but tolerance and grudging admiration were the prevailing attitudes on both sides.

Seneca might censure the Jews for laziness in spending a seventh of their lives in Sabbath rest, but Josephus reported that there was not a single city, Greek or barbarian, that had not adopted the Jewish custom of abstaining from work on the seventh day. Roman emperors were particularly tactful in respecting Jewish sensitivities about their holy shrine, the Jerusalem Temple.

Why did the compact break down? In Goodman's analysis, Rome and Jerusalem stumbled into the war of 66-70. A power struggle in Rome and civil unrest in Judaea combined, with disastrous consequences.Discontent had been simmering for years. A series of maladroit colonial administrators had stirred local resentments. The Jewish ruling elite in Jerusalem was desperately trying to keep control of an increasingly volatile population, but had lost confidence in the ability of the Roman governor and army to maintain order. Sectarian violence escalated, with the dagger the favoured weapon of assassination in the narrow streets of Jerusalem. The parallels with modern-day Baghdad are all the more resonant for Goodman studiously avoiding them.

Cestius Gallus, governor of Syria, was despatched to restore the situation, but his legions were cut to pieces by the rebels. Vespasian, a reliable general who had made his name in the conquest of Britain more than 20 years earlier, was appointed to teach the Jews a lesson. When he left the siege of Jerusalem in July 69 after Nero's sudden death, to launch his bid for the purple, he gave command to his son Titus, who fully understood his father's need for the gloss of foreign conquest to gild his image as a warrior hero. Hence the savagery of the fighting, with terrible Jewish and heavy Roman casualties, although the burning of the Temple, which would indelibly colour relations, came about by accident. The triumph of Christianity under Constantine two-and-a-half centuries later merely exacerbated antipathies, with consequences in European history down to our days.

It is to be hoped that any re-issue of this masterly account - with a shortened first half - will include a proper bibliography and an amplification of the current derisory index.

David J Goldberg is Emeritus Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London, and author of 'The Divided Self' (IB Tauris)