BMCR 2002.11.04

Die Juden und das Römische Reich. Geschichte einer konfliktreichen Beziehung

Ernst Baltrusch, Die Juden und das Römische Reich : Geschichte einer konfliktreichen Beziehung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2002. 223 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 3534155858 EUR 34,90.

The years between 38 CE and 135 CE witnessed four major crises in the Jewish-Roman relationship: the riot in Alexandria in the time of emperor Gaius, the Jewish war at the beginning of the reign of the Flavian dynasty, the diaspora revolt under Trajan, and the Bar Kokhba revolt under Hadrian. Why did these violent clashes happen in an age which is otherwise considered as one of the most peaceful and happiest of Roman history? This is the fundamental question underlying the new book written by E. Baltrusch (henceforth B.), professor for ancient history at the Freie Universität Berlin. Content neither with the answer given by the ancient sources, which hold certain individuals — mad emperors, incompetent governors or “robbers” — responsible for the events, nor with modern research dealing only with the immediate causes for each single event, B. has the ambitious aim to find the common reason for all these conflicts in political and social structures. In order to achieve this aim he has to go a long way back: In six chapters covering the time from the last days of the kingdom of Judah in the eighth century BCE to the governorship of Gabinius in 55 BCE he describes how these structures that finally led to catastrophe evolved.

Chapter I “The law of your God and the law of the king” (pp. 21-39) deals with the emergence of Judaism during the last days of the kingdom of Judah, the Babylonian exile, and the beginnings of the Second Temple Period under Persian rule. The Judaean kings Hezekiah and Josiah tried to take advantage of periods of weakness of their Assyrian overlords to gain political autonomy. Their religious reforms (destruction of certain cult symbols, removal of objects connected with astral cult, centralization of cult in Jerusalem, “discovery” of the Torah) were an integral part of this policy: The purified religion symbolized and divinely legitimized autonomy, whereas vassalage — as was shown by Hezekiah’s successors Manasseh and Amon — was bound up with syncretism. During the Babylonian exile religion was the means to maintain a distinct Jewish identity. Sabbath observance, food laws, circumcision and strict monolatry became boundary markers of the Jewish community. The following Persian rule over Palestine (539-322 BCE) was, according to B., a crucial period for formative Judaism. Although the Persian kings always strove for expansion of their territory, they never intended the unification of the laws, customs, or religions of their subjects. Quite the reverse, recognition of autonomy was an essential way of ruling for the Persians. These were the ideal overlords for the community of the Jewish repatriates settling in a small area round the temple of Jerusalem, which was rebuilt with royal permission from royal funds and in which every day prayers were spoken and sacrifices were offered on behalf of the king and his sons. The Jews were loyal subjects who obeyed the law of the king and followed their divine law which secured their identity and autonomy.

What B. says about the emergence of Judaism as a political phenomenon, a means for maintaining autonomy and a distinct collective identity, is of crucial importance for the rest of the book. Therefore the reader may expect an especially careful and sound argumentation. The beginnings of Judaism are a much debated field in contemporary research. The old consensus is attacked from many sides. Even the historicity, not to mention the contents or the aim, of the Josian reform is questioned; as to Hezekiah’s reform, the majority of contemporary scholars consider this a deuteronomistic fiction (apart from the destruction of the bronze serpent called Nehushtan); and many aspects of the Persian rule are re-evaluated in the current debate. B. himself mentions some of these problems briefly; he does not, however, draw any conclusions from them. So the ground on which B.’s often far-reaching assertions in the following chapters are based may not be as firm as he suggests.

Chapter II “That all should become one people, and that everyone should give up his usages” (pp. 41-58) deals with the changes that Alexander’s conquest and the kingdoms of the Diadochi brought about for the situation of the Jews. The “ideal” state of affairs when loyalty and autonomy were compatible did not endure forever. There are already hints of troubles beginning during the Persian reign, e.g. in the book of Esther. A major fracture, however, was the encounter with Hellenism. After a concise survey of the political history of Palestine between 332 BCE and 167 BCE, B. discusses two royal decrees that stand symbolically for the changed situation. In 198 BCE Antiochus III allowed the Jews to live according to their ancestral laws. Only thirty years later his son Antiochus IV in the famous edict leading to the Maccabaean revolt demanded that the Jews give up their traditions and forced them to take part in pagan sacrifices. Despite the radical difference between the two documents, B. wants to detect a common structure underlying both of them: In the hellenistic kingdoms the autonomy of the Jewish people no longer had a function in the political system as in the Persian empire; the Jewish religion was deprived of its political dimension. The right to live according to its commandments — in the eyes of the Jews divine commandments beyond human arbitrariness — was a privilege granted (or withdrawn) according to royal benevolence. The precarious situation of the Jews is specified in two sections. The first deals with the Jews living in hellenistic poleis, who, however hellenized, remained a group apart, since full integration in the civic community would always have amounted to apostasy. The second section shows that the constitution of the hellenistic kingdoms, which was centred upon the person of the victorious king, added to the uncertainty of the situation of the Jews.

The encounter between Judaism and Hellenism has been the object of innumerable important studies. The chapter would have benefitted if B. had tried to connect his new interesting theory with the results of these studies. Instead, he pretends that all of them deal only with the immediate causes of the Maccabaean revolt, whereas he himself detects the deeper reason. Somewhat disconcerting is the harsh polemic against recent research done by renowned experts in the field of Hellenism, which shows that in the Seleucid kingdom the tendency towards integration and hellenization was balanced by an astonishing amount of pluralism and respect for indigenous traditions.

Chapter III “To spare the humbled, and to tame in war the proud” (pp. 59-81)1 is a long excursus about Roman foreign policy in the second-century BCE in general preparing the ground for the treatment of the relations between the Maccabees and Rome in the following chapter.

Chapter IV “They offered friendship to as many as came unto them” (pp. 83-113) deals with the first encounters of the Jews living in the land of Israel with the Romans 164-63 BCE. It starts with an interpretation of the laus Romanorum in 1Macc 8, and its core is a thorough analysis of the six treaties between the Maccabees (respectively the Hasmonaeans) and Rome.2 B. shows how common interests led to an intense partnership until John Hyrcanus I (135-104 BCE). The Jews put great hope in Rome; they thought that it would not strive for direct rule in the East but would permanently support the small independent states that emerged in the territory of the declining Seleucid kingdom. However, a period of alienation between the Hasmonaeans and Rome followed under John Hyrcanus’ successors. Like the other small Eastern kingdoms (e.g. Pontus, Armenia, and the Nabataeans) the Hasmonaean state became a source of danger in the eyes of Rome and was eliminated when Pompey conquered the East in 63 BCE.

In chapter V “Every city has its religious observances and we have ours” (pp. 115-123) B. attempts to show that the hopes the Jews placed in the Romans were from the beginning based on a fundamental misunderstanding. He shifts from foreign policy to domestic policy, from the relations between Rome and the Hasmonaeans to the Jewish diaspora under direct Roman rule before 63 BCE. There it becomes evident that under direct Roman rule there was no place for Jewish autonomy. This is true for the capital itself; proselytizing Jews were expelled from Rome in 139 BCE because they threatened the religious homogeneity of Roman society. But the same applies also to the provinces: The Greeks were indignant about the Romans’ confirming Jewish privileges despite their principle of strict legality. So tensions between Greek politai and Jews settling in their poleis heightened under Roman government. In the end the Romans sided with the Greeks, the Jews were viewed as notorious troublemakers and anti-Jewish sentiments grew among the Roman elite.

This picture of Jewish-Roman relations in the diaspora drawn by B. in just nine pages is far too simple. B. ignores new research based on epigraphical and archaeological material that has shown the sheer diversity of diaspora “Judaisms” and their various, often amazingly trouble-free, relations to their non-Jewish neighbours. Or, to be more precise, he rejects this whole promising field of research out of hand already in the introduction (pp. 14-15), to his own detriment.

Chapter VI “How their descendants, in their quarrel for the throne, dragged the Romans and Pompey upon the scene” (pp. 125-147) deals with Pompey’s reorganization of Palestine 63-55 BCE. When he conquered the East, the Hasmonaean kingdom was going through a difficult crisis. The power struggle between the sons of queen Alexandra Salome, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus, in which the Idumaean Antipater and the Nabataean king Aretas III were involved, weakened the country and heightened the tensions between the religious parties of the Sadducees and Pharisees. In contrast to his precursor M. Aemilius Scaurus, who had promised the crown to Aristobulus after having been bribed by him, Pompey tried to resolve the problems. According to the Roman principle of strict legality, Hyrcanus was confirmed as legitimate heir of Salome Alexandra. The wishes of the anti-Hasmonaean party were also taken into account: Hyrcanus was no longer king but only High Priest and the position of the synhedrium at his side was strengthened. But, most important, Judaea came under direct Roman rule. And under direct Roman rule there was — despite Pompey’s well thought-out solutions, his benevolence towards the Jews, and their willingness to compromise with Rome — no place for Jewish autonomy. The symbol for this was Pompey’s visit to the Temple. From a Roman point of view he entered the holy of holies iure victoris to demonstrate that in the Roman empire there was no place exempt from Roman power but not to humiliate the Jews or to violate the sanctuary (he did not touch anything nor did he rob the temple treasure). For the Jews his visit was one of the worst catastrophes in their whole history.

In Chapter VII after a brief summary B. draws the conclusions from this (pp. 149-157). Judaism as a means for maintaining autonomy and a distinct collective identity and Roman principles of government were incompatible. The internal crisis of Rome, the civil war, and the reign of the Roman client king Herod the Great were delaying factors. But after Herod’s death under the principate everything took its inevitable course.

The abrupt end of the book is its most serious flaw. Despite the several remaining questions already mentioned, the book could offer a controversial but inspiring new thesis about the reasons for the Jewish-Roman conflicts if B. had only taken the trouble to prove the validity of his claims regarding the violent clashes during the first and second centuries CE. Instead, he maintains that the structural antagonism between Judaism and Rome was the Ursache ( αἰτία) of all the events in the following two hundred years, compared to which the Anlässe ( προφάσεις) were irrelevant, and thus leaves the reader with the unsatisfactory impression of a rather “deterministic” conception of history.

The text is followed by extensive notes (pp. 159-200). They testify to B.’s thorough knowledge of the whole of all relevant source materials (many passages are cited in the original language, i.e. Latin, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew) and secondary literature. The bibliography (pp. 201-217) includes about 250 titles in German, English, French, Italian, and Hebrew. The volume closes with short but useful indices of names and subjects (pp. 219-223). Unfortunately there is no index of passages cited.


1. The table of contents gives wrong page numbers for chapters III-VII.

2. B. is an expert in the field of ancient international law, cf. his Habilitationsschrift Symmachie und Spondai. Untersuchungen zum griechischen Völkerrecht der archaischen und klassischen Zeit (8.-5. Jahrhundert v. Chr.), Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 1994.