Life & Culture

The Roman road to Judea’s destruction

Eli Abt visits the British Museum's Nero exhibition to shed light on the background to Tisha b'Av


Marble bust of Nero. Italy, around AD 55. Photo by Francesco Piras. With permission of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e per il Turismo ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari.

Did Nero set fire to Rome in July 64 AD and, as some would have us believe, strum his lyre while watching the conflagration devour half his capital?

An absorbing show at the British Museum convincingly challenges the classical accounts of this emperor’s reign (54 – 68 CE), written well after his death by historians with their own axe to grind.

The traditionalists strongly disapproved of Nero’s undoubted musical talents as unbecoming for an emperor, hence that “fiddling while Rome burns” story and other fictions.

As to the fire, the exhibition’s nine-day timeline shows that when it broke out Nero was 40 miles away at his seaside villa at Antium. He hurried back to lead the relief efforts, pleasing the populace but not, apparently, his enemies in the Roman elite and Senate.

Tragically, Nero’s relevance for us lies in the fact that it was this emperor who despatched his commander Vespasian to Judea in the year 66 to deal with the Jewish revolt. After military successes in Britain against Boudicca this was not at first seen as an exceptional challenge to Roman power. There were early successes against Judea, 6,000 of whose prisoners were sent to dig what we now know as the Corinth canal. The show even displays one of their excavated pickaxes.

Yet Nero’s Jewish record is surprisingly benign. Josephus, for example, our only contemporary witness, tells us he went to Rome to plead with the emperor on behalf of friends imprisoned there by Judea’s procurator Antonius Felix.

Introduced by the Jewish actor Aliturus, a court favourite, to Poppaea Sabina, the emperor’s second wife (who was strongly attracted to Judaism, as indeed were many Roman women of her class), he persuaded the empress to support his case, whereupon Nero ordered the men’s release.

In the end, faced with Servius Galba’s revolt and abandoned by the Praetorian guard, the emperor fled Rome and committed suicide in the year 68. He was not to know that the conflict he had launched in Judea would offer the greatest challenge to Roman authority in its long history.

Remarkably, the Talmud (BT Gittin 56a/b) suggests an alternative end to Nero’s life. When a boy, quoting Ezekiel 25:12-14, tells him that “Edom”, the rabbinic name for Rome as Esau’s heir, would be crushed in its war against God’s people Israel, the emperor flees to become a proselyte and ultimately the ancestor of Rabbi Meir, the great “illuminator” of Jewish teaching.

What are we to make of this extraordinary narrative? The death throes of the western Roman empire were to coincide at the close of the fifth century with the completion of the Talmud in Babylon. The teachers in the great academies of Sura, Pumbeditha and Nehardea who produced that encyclopedic work clearly felt heartened by what they saw as the vindication of Ezekiel’s prophecy in Rome’s collapse and Israel’s survival, and may have used this allegory to express their consolation.

It’s the same talmudic passage that describes R. Yochanan b. Zakai’s dramatic escape in a coffin from besieged Jerusalem, probably in the year 68, to meet Vespasian and predict he would succeed Nero as emperor. With the fulfilment of that astute forecast the sage won Vespasian’s approval of Yavneh as the new centre of Jewish governance, ushering in the remarkably productive transformation into our post-Temple Judaism.

Inevitably it’s for Vespasian’s son and heir, “Titus the villain”, that the rabbis reserve their fiercest invective. We’re told that upon his deathbed he asked his attendants to burn his body “and scatter my ashes across the seven seas lest the God of the Jews should find and judge me.” Not surprising, given how he left our hallowed Temple in flames after looting its sacred vessels, their images flaunted on the triumphal arch bearing his name. In the accounts we have of the slaughter overseen by Titus, Tacitus calculates 600,000 Jews died in Jerusalem alone, while Josephus puts the total at a million, numbers uncommon even by Roman standards.

Not content with that carnage the general made survivors face wild animals in Caesarea’s amphitheatre or fight each other to the death in its arena. Tens of thousands were shipped to Rome in chains as slaves, marched as exhibits in a colossal Triumph, and forced for years to build the Colosseum, its funding from the Temple’s ample spoils intended as the ultimate humiliation.

We can only guess at the traumatic effects of these sufferings on Jewish communities in Rome and elsewhere, and the anguish in which each Jew was henceforth made to pay an annual monetary tribute to Jupiter, replacing the half shekel sent previously to Judea for the Temple’s upkeep.

Certainly the ultimate tragedy was that, with the legions at the gates, Jews had been fighting each other for supremacy within Jerusalem’s walls well before their fall. “Sin’at Chinam”, senseless enmity, was why the Temple was destroyed, say the rabbis (BT Yoma 9b).

Have we learnt anything from that cataclysm? As we mark its grim anniversary on the ninth of Av we might do well to question where some of the ongoing conflicts within our own Jewish world are taking us notwithstanding that, thank heaven, our circumstances bear no comparison with the turmoils of 70 CE.


Nero: the man behind the myth” is at the British Museum until October 24. Eli Abt writes on the Jewish arts

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