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June 28, 2007

Are the Flavian dynasty's self-serving attacks on Jews the roots of modern anti-Semitism? David Womersley remains unconvinced: Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations - Martin Goodman

Posted by David Womersley

Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations
by Martin Goodman
Pp. xiv + 640. London: Allen Lane, 2007
Hardback, 25

In 1993, Samuel Huntington published an article in Foreign Affairs entitled "The Clash of Civilizations?" In it, he argued that world politics was entering a new phase. He characterised the conflicts of the period since the Treaty of Westphalia as in effect Western civil wars, or conflicts within Western civilization, since Western civilization was in this period (according to Huntington) the sole motor of history. Conflicts may have - certainly had - arisen elsewhere during this period. But those conflicts had been without consequences. However, at the end of the twentieth century, the Western hegemony on significant conflict was slipping:

In the politics of civilizations, the peoples and governments of non-Western civilizations no longer remain the objects of history as targets of Western colonialism but join the West as movers and shakers of history.
The result of this broadening of influence, according to Huntington, was to be a change in the nature of conflict. Instead of conflicts being ideological or economic in origin, and acted out between nation states, in future they would be "cultural":
the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.
Implicit within Huntington's influential argument, then, was a diagnosis of what he saw as a specifically modern state of affairs, and its corollary was a scepticism concerning perennial historical conditions. The subtitle of Martin Goodman's scholarly and thoughtful new book alludes to Huntington's article, but distractingly so, because the purpose of his book is to describe and explore the origins of one particular - and virtually perennial, it is no pleasure to report - historical condition: namely, anti-Semitism.

Where does anti-Semitism come from, and why did it arise?

Casual and off-the-shelf explanations have sought a cause in the supposed character of the Jewish people themselves: aloof, unproselytising, holding themselves apart from their fellow-man. Goodman, however, argues for a much more precise and circumstantial origin. He notes that, before 70 A.D. and the Roman onslaught on Jerusalem under Titus, the son of the Roman emperor Vespasian, the Jews had prospered under Roman rule, and it was even the case that Jewish identity had been protected by Roman power.

But this happy state of affairs had been destroyed by a fatal coincidence of accident and ambition. The accident arose because of the incompetence or bad luck of the Roman governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus. In 66 A.D. he had been instructed to inflict reprisals on the Jews for a variety of insults, including refusing to offer sacrifices in the Temple on behalf of the emperor and of Rome. This he did, in a fairly brutal but also lackadaisical manner, and when he then retreated from Jerusalem in an even more lackadaisical manner, his soldiers were ambushed in the:

narrow defiles leading from the hills round Jerusalem down towards the Mediterranean coast.
The victory parade became a rout:
Cestius lost not only five thousand three hundred infantry and four hundred and eighty cavalry but also his heavy artillery . . . After such a reverse there could be no more offers of peace. The Roman empire could counter so public a humiliation only by a full and thorough punishment of the rebellious city.
It was at this point that accident fatally coincided with ambition. By the end of 69 A.D., the desperate and turbulent year of the four emperors, the Flavian dynasty in the persons of Vespasian and his son Titus were cocks of the Roman midden. Eager to establish their authority, they saw that the exemplary chastisement of the Jews could become an element in the new Roman self-identity. Titus was despatched to Judea with overwhelming force, which in due course overwhelmed the Jews. Hostility towards this stiff-necked people at that point became an ingredient of the Roman character.

How then did it survive the fall of Roman power in the West (476 or 479 A.D.), to prolong itself into the medieval, the early modern and then finally the modern worlds? Goodman's answer is that, by the time of the fifth century, the Flavian-created Roman prejudice against the Jews had infected the Christian church (which had been since Constantine the state church of Rome). There it had found a soil favourable to Jew-hating, given what the Jews were alleged to have done to Christ. Thereafter, the Roman Catholic church carefully incubated the spores of this deadly ideological toxin into the modern world.

It is, perhaps, the last link in this chain of argument which does not immediately persuade. To be fair to Goodman, it is merely asserted rather than argued in detail at the end of his book, which is overwhelmingly concerned with late antiquity.

Can prejudices so firmly rooted in the soil of antiquity ever be eradicated?
, he asks resonantly before taking leave of his reader. Might one not equally ask how they could hope to survive? We can be sure, for instance, that many - most? - all? - of those who were forward in the medieval massacre of the Jews in York knew next to nothing of the high-political concerns of the Flavians, and cared less. As always, when one reads large-scale historical explanations such as this, one's concern is for the mechanism. As Hume said, artistic inspiration runs along the earth and is caught from breast to breast, and the same is true for less elevated human impulses. The hard facts of the fall of the Roman empire in the West and the subsequent Dark Ages dig deep and wide ditches which Goodman's argument must overleap.

And yet, how consoling the identification of a precise historical point of origin for anti-Semitism might be! If we could only identify such a point, it would hold out - at least at the level of theory - that one day anti-Semitism might be eradicated, in a reversal of the poisonous action by which it was planted. Yet, surely history is a one-way street. What began as a bright idea in the cabinet of the Flavians (here Goodman is utterly persuasive) has, somehow, woven itself into the fabric of our human nature. There is no possibility of a simple reversal. This scholarly, intelligent inquiry into the origins of some of the very darkest human stains leaves the reader both enlightened and dejected.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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Interesting idea. Whilst I'm loath to comment on a book that I've not yet read, I do think it is a little simplistic. Firstly, Vespasian was the original commander of the punitive expedition to put down the Jewish Revolt, and he left it to his elder son, Titus, when he made a bid for the purple during the Year of the Four Emperors. Does this mean that anti-Semitism is even more of an historical accident as it just happened that the successful contender for the diadem was engaged in putting down a Jewish revolt rather than a Gallic revolt, a German revolt or a Parthian invasion? An interesting question.

However, the refusal of the Temple Priests to offer sacrifices for Rome and the Emperor (which they had previously done) was an open declaration of revolt, and rightly regarded as such by the Romans. They clearly didn't think they were prospering or were protected by the Roman State, at least not at that point. There is also the earlier expulsion of the Jews from Rome by Claudius, surely an earlier version of seeing the Jews as the foreign element within.

Still, suppressing the revolt was the supreme achievement of an upstart family (their origins were obscure), and was certainly harped upon in coinage, and in the building of the Coliseum. Perhaps it was rather an phase in coming to see the Jews as a disloyal alien element interrupting the smooth flow of society. Personally I see Medieval Anti-Semitism as being at least as much based on the fact that virtually all Jews the common herd came into contact with were pawnbrokers - people commonly seen as profiteers in the misery of others - than it was on any religious scruple.

Posted by: Paul at June 28, 2007 02:32 PM
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