The story of Masada is fairly well known. A small number of Jews made one last desperate stand against the Romans on an isolated desert fortress. One might debate the number of defenders, the size of the siege ramp, or how long the siege actually lasted, but anyone who has been to Masada knows that a remarkable drama unfolded there. The story of Masada raises some interesting questions. How did the Romans view the war with the Jews? Did they see it as just another region that needed to be subdued? Or was there a religious aspect to the war?
The Romans raised a substantial army, equal to about one-seventh of the whole Imperial army, to fight against the Jews. None of the other cities in the region joined in the rebellion or any of the other Semitic peoples. Tacitus notes that the Arab forces who served under Titus were imbued with ‘hatred characteristic of neighbors’. (Millar 1993, 78) After Titus conquered Jerusalem, he made Jewish captives fight in gladiatorial games or fed them to wild beasts in arenas throughout Syria. In this way, Josephus says, Titus provided “lavish displays in all the cities of Syria through which he passed, using the Jewish captives to demonstrate their own destruction.” (Josephus, Jewish War)
After their defeat, Jews were no longer allowed to contribute money towards the temple, a privilege allowed them under Julius Ceasar. Instead, they were made to pay a tax to the Capitoline Jupiter. A special series of coins were minted that depict a woman mourning under a palm tree and the words ‘Judea Capta’. The ultimate symbol of defeat was the triumph celebrated in Rome and commemorated on the Arch of Titus. This arch portrays items taken from the temple in Jerusalem paraded through the via Sacra in Rome. According to Fergus Millar, Titus was the only emperor “ever to celebrate the subjugation of the population of an existing province”. (Millar 1993, 79) Avidov adds, “All this was meant to send a clear message throughout the Roman domain: Jewish superstition had been rooted out at its very source, and the pax decorum restored; no longer would the adherents of the pernicious cult enjoy the peaceful existence accorded to all civilized religions of the empire.” (Avidov, 2009)
When viewed in its larger historical context, the uprising of the Jews, and the crushing defeat inflicted on them by Vespasian and Titus, were the continuation of a longstanding conflict between the imperial powers of the Greek and Roman world and the Judeans (and later, the Christians) who rejected the values and religion of Greece and Rome.
Just as Titus and Vespasian sought to impose uniformity across the lands conquered by Rome, so too did the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, and the Roman emperor, Hadrian. These rulers were cosmopolitan in their outlook. They believed in the universal brotherhood of all men united by Hellenistic culture. Who could wish otherwise? Hellenism was both attractive and enticing, and gave opportunity for the expression of almost every human impulse.
It was natural for those nations that adhered to a polytheistic belief system to assimilate the prevailing ideas of the Hellenistic world. But the Jews and Christians could not accommodate the dictates of Rome without also denying the essential tenets of their faith. They were different. And this created the very real potential for conflict.
The Romans thought that the destruction of the temple was the final victory of Imperial Rome over the religion of the Jews. But the conquering armies of the Roman empire were several decades late. The real temple was destroyed in 33 AD (John 2:19). The world had already changed.
Avidov, A. (2009). Not reckoned among nations : the origins of the so-called “Jewish question” in Roman antiquity. Tübingen, Germany, Mohr Siebeck.
Millar, F. (1993). The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.-A.D. 337. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.