In this latest contribution to the Piccoli Saggi series—accessible historical essays from Salerno Editrice—Livia Capponi provides a thorough and useful analysis of the Jewish revolts that took place in Mesopotamia, Cyrene, Egypt and Cyprus under the reign of Trajan. Unlike the siege of Jerusalem, in 70 CE, and the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136 CE, the Trajanic era outbreak of unrest amongst the diaspora communities of the Roman empire in 115-117 CE has received comparatively little attention. While a number of studies have examined the revolts in their respective locations,1 Capponi’s short book attempts, often successfully, to understand the revolts as a whole, as well as their implications for Jewish-Roman relations.
The book is organised into three chapters, each of which contains a number of subheadings, with a brief introduction and conclusion, followed by a useful bibliography of secondary material, a map of the area concerned and a good index. The Introduction (p. 9-12) sets the scene of the revolts, some forty years after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Vespasian and Titus in 70 CE, noting that although the relationship between Rome and Judea was “not idyllic”, there had not been such particularly grave episodes since that date to suggest a continued period of hostility (p. 9). Indeed, as the introduction states, the book’s aim is to demonstrate how the relationship between Trajan’s administration and the diaspora communities broke down from one of relative tolerance through initiatives of philojudaism, to the degree of violence and bloodshed in which the revolts resulted.
Chapter I takes as its subject the background to the revolts, examining their religious and political causes, including Trajan’s proposal to allow the Jews to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple in order to ensure the support of the prosperous Jewish communities of Parthia following his conquest of Mespotamia and Armenia. Cassius Dio and Eusebius are given as the primary sources here, and are compared in detail for their presentation of how the revolts unfolded. Capponi provides Italian translations of the relevant sections of the texts, and neatly compares the proposed series of events, concluding that geographically speaking, the revolts of 116-117 CE extended from Cyrene—where the Jews actively promoted unrest—to Egypt and to Cyprus, and only then (later) involving Mesopotamia and the territories recently conquered by Trajan in the 114-115 CE Parthian campaigns (p. 28). Most interesting in this chapter is Capponi’s discussion—although brief—of the rabbinic texts. Pages 34-38 identify how the revolts are presented by the Talmud and argue, following the work of M. Pucci Ben Zeev, that although the rabbinic writings do not necessarily help or provide a chronological reconstruction of events, they are a useful supplement for understanding the “psychological and cultural attitudes of the time” (p. 35). 2
Chapter II, Stasis, proposes that the revolts initially broke out in Alexandria and Cyrene due to discord between the Jewish communities and their Greek and Roman neighbours. Capponi demonstrates the domestic unrest presented by Eusebius as the cause of the conflict can be confirmed by a range of primary material, including Greek papyri from Egypt, the Edict of Marcus Rutilius Lupus, and the Rabbinic discussion of the role of Pappus and Julianus in collecting funds for the reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Capponi employs a wide range of textual sources here to build a far greater picture of the cultural climate of these Diaspora communities and their interactions with municipal and imperial authorities than much previous scholarship, although the nuances and details of these varying texts do little to clarify exactly when or how the different revolts broke out. Nevertheless, by the end of the chapter it is clear that the relationship between these Jewish communities and their Greek and Roman neighbours requires greater consideration than the traditional top-down approach of how Rome treated the Jews. While many of the examples provided by Capponi are fictions, in the sense that they contain extracts of conversations and personal details that are incongruous in places, they nonetheless provide necessary colour to an otherwise opaque picture of how these communities existed together.
Polemos, the third chapter, describes how this period of civil unrest, or stasis between the Jews and their neighbours escalated into open conflict between the Jews and the Roman administration. The first four subsections take each geographical location of revolt, namely Cyrene, Egypt, Cyprus and Mesopotamia and the evidence for such, followed by a discussion of the career of Lucius Quietus, the governor of Judaea in 117 CE and the spread of the revolt to that province, and finally the role of Hadrian in suppressing discontent following the death of Trajan. It is in this chapter that the book’s reliance on textual evidence is most apparent; although the epigraphic sources for Cyrene are well-indicated and confidently deployed, more could have been made of the archaeological evidence for the Jews' destruction of the urban centres in which their revolts took place. There is ample scholarship on the damage paid to the Temple of Hecate in Cyrene,3 or on the rebuilding of the basilica,4 which would have illustrated Capponi’s points even further. Although it is not possible to offer similar archaeological evidence for all of the sites of the revolts—there is little confirmed archaeological evidence for the revolt in Cyprus, beyond restoration to the agora that took place at some point in the 2nd century CE, for example—inclusion of more material evidence would have added further substance to many of the well-argued and carefully references points of Capponi’s discussion.
The book concludes with a brief summary of the three chapters, noting that Trajan’s initially moderate, even tolerant, policies towards the Jews reached their peak with his promise to allow the rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple and for the Diaspora Jews to return from exile. His failure to do so in the aftermath of the Parthian campaigns incited the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, already suffering from discordant relations with the Greek and Roman inhabitants of their shared cities, to revolt, initially against their neighbours and later in direct opposition to Roman rule. This is a short, but very useful study that has done well to highlight the many and varied sources that deal with these events, but which are so often overlooked in broader histories of Judaeo-Roman interactions. In particular Capponi should be complimented for her excellent integration of the Jewish texts in her argument; valuable sources have been often sidelined by traditional scholarship, which has favoured the Greek and Roman authors’ accounts of events.
1. See e.g. S. Applebaum, Jews and Greeks in Ancient Cyrene, (Leiden: Brill, 1979); G. Firpo, Le rivolte giudaiche (Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1999); A. Fuks, “The Jewish Revolt in Egypt (A.D. 115-117) in the Light of the Papyri” in Aegyptus, 33 (1953), p. 131-158; W. Horbury, Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); A. Kerkeslager, “Jews in Egypt and Cyrenaica 66-c. 235 CE”, in Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume 4: The Late Roman Period (ed. Steven T. Katz; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 53-68; M. Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insights, (Leuven: Peeters, 2005); M. Pucci Ben Zeev, “The Uprisings in the Jewish Diaspora, 116-117,” in Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume 4: The Late Roman Period (ed. Steven T. Katz; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 93-104.
2. See M. Pucci Ben Zeev, “La rivolta ebraica in Egitto (115-117 d.C.)” in Aegyptus, 62 (1982), pp. 195-217; Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insights, (Leuven: Peeters, 2005).
3. See e.g. A. Kerkeslager, “Jews in Egypt and Cyrenaica 66-c. 235 CE”, in Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume 4: The Late Roman Period (ed. Steven T. Katz; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 53-68; Serafini, Nicola, “La dea Ecate a Cirene fra storia, culto e iconografia (con un catalogo degli hekataia editi e di tre inediti)” in Cirene ‘Atene d’Africa’: attività delle missioni archeologiche internazionali a Cirene e in Cirenaica (ed. M. Luni ; Roma: L'Erma di Bretschneider, 2006) p. 107-126; S. Walker, “Hadrian and the Renewal of Cyrene” in Libyan Studies 33, (2002) p. 45-56.
4. See S. Applebaum, “A note on the work of Hadrian at Cyrene” in Journal of Roman Studies 40 (1950), p. 77-90; L. Gasperini, Le iscrizioni del Cesareo e della Basilica di Cirene, (Quaderni di archeologia della Libia; Roma: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1971); M. Luni, “La Basilica nel Foro di Cirene” in Cirene e la Cirenaica nell'antichità: atti del convegno internazionale di studi: Roma-Frascati, 18-21 dicembre 1996 (ed. L. Gasperini , S. Marengo ; Tivoli: Tored, 2007) p. 377-400; S. Walker, “Hadrian and the Renewal of Cyrene” in Libyan Studies 33, (2002) p. 45-56.