Friday, December 07, 2007

Martin Goodman: Rome and Jerusalem (Knopf, 2007)

Last night, in the company of people from General Seminary, I went to the Center for Jewish History to hear Martin Goodman talk on his book "Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations." I think this was the book's NY debut. This morning I woke up thinking about accidents of history. The subtitle is completely misleading.

Here's what Diarmaid MacColloch said in his review of the book in the Guardian earlier this year:--

The final part of Goodman's book expounds his theory of a tragic accident: a mixture of happenstance and narrowly cynical political calculation which depressingly foreshadows George W Bush and Tony Blair stumbling into the Iraq catastrophe. The crux of his argument is that although Emperor Vespasian chose to end an outbreak of unrest in Judaea by sending his son Titus to besiege rebellious Jerusalem, there was no original intention to destroy the temple; it followed random indiscipline by marauding soldiers. Once the temple had burned, Titus decided to brazen out the disaster; it would have seemed like incompetence to have let an army get out of control, and a bad omen thus to have destroyed a famous ancient shrine. The emperor and his son decided to proclaim their victory not just over Judaea but the religion and the culture called Judaism. Thanks to Titus's tame Jewish historian Josephus, Titus's triumphal parade in Rome is the most fully described we know: the parade featured the scrolls of the Jewish law, together with other temple regalia which were later depicted in carvings on the triumphal arch commemorating Titus's victory. Certainly Vespasian based his shaky claim to rule on his victory over the Jews, and (with one exception) his successors saw no need to challenge that handy justification for their imperial power. The Jews played into the emperors' hands by their understandable outrage that a world-famous and ancient shrine was not restored as it had been after previous destructions, and by a steadily widening eruption of renewed rebellions.

Goodman's overall argument is compelling. You don't have to accept his "accident" theory of the temple's destruction, first proposed by that excellent analyst and equally excellent spin-doctor Josephus, but the wider claim carries conviction. The most powerful man in the Roman world, uneasy about his still shaky power, decided to use war to make himself unchallengeable. Because of what happened next - atrocity after atrocity in the second-century Middle East, ending with the mass suicides at Masada - we have too easily assumed an ancient enmity, a clash of civilisations, which was not actually there. It would be pleasing to feel that international statesmen might draw lessons from Goodman's lucid account of ancient tragedy; but don't hold your breath.

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