Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
The fall of Rome has been widely discussed and written on. Various reasons can be given, including the introduction of Christianity into the Empire, and the internal strife that resulted in many civil wars. One of the earliest signs that Rome was not the ultimate power came from a little corner of the backwoods, Israel (Judaea), which refused to give in completely and would rather have died than have the benefits of Roman rule. The siege of Masada showed the Roman army and government that they would have to struggle to conquer some areas and not everyone wanted to be a part of their Empire. Though many other cultures had resisted the Romans, the Jews went further than anyone else had by committing suicide. The siege of Masada became a turning point in the Roman Empire and gave it an awareness of its mortality.
During the time of the Jewish revolt and the siege of Masada (A.D. 66-70), Rome was in its usual state of governmental chaos. Nero (A.D. 54-68 - rule) was not known for his kindness and reasonable state of mind. In fact, he was known for quite the opposite. In his appetite for extravagance and his decline in mental capacity, Nero did not let any aspect of his own ruin avoid the involvement of Rome. He nearly spent the Empire into bankruptcy. He blamed everyone for his mistakes along with anything that needed a scapegoat such as the fire in A.D. 64 on which he blamed the new followers of Christianity. It was with his suicide that the Empire found itself in the midst of civil war as the seat of emperor was fought over. Rome was growing and dealing with new conquests, settling down areas of revolt that demanded their own favored emperor, and fighting amongst themselves in Rome.
One very important aspect of Roman culture and attitude that is important is the Empire’s view of other religions. Overall, Romans viewed foreign religions as interesting and easily assimilated. It was not uncommon to find where religions melded into the Empire. This was perfectly fine as long as all the followers of those religions also recognized the emperor as one of their gods. When this happened, everything ran smoothly on the religious front. It was when it did not that things got out of hand.
Rome was an empire that defined itself by always absorbing new things while turning it into something Roman. It did not mind new religions, new traditions, or new lands. All was welcome as long as it accepted itself as Roman. There was no in-between. This became very evident when it came to Judaea.
The Jews called a small section of the Middle East their home. In comparison to the Roman Empire, this area was small and insignificant. It was a country that tended to keep to itself as it considered anyone outside of their religious faith as ‘unclean.’ The religion of this nation was what controlled the people. Though Rome had conquered the nation and established its own rulers, the Jews did not recognize them as such. Their world revolved around the Temple and their religious orders found in the Talmud.
The laws in the Jewish religion were very precise. Certain foods were prohibited. All food preparations had to be done according to the law. The manner of dress was dictated to the people. Worship was crucial and had to be followed precisely. There was not one area of life that the laws did not touch on. Every act of a Jew had to remind them of their God.
Having a foreign power such as Rome controlling them was not something the Jews would have danced in the streets over. Surprisingly, Rome was very tolerant over the Jews practice of self-segregation and monotheistic religious practices. It was not condoned but tolerated. Tensions could get high periodically as many Jews resented Roman control to the point of calling for a revolt. Other Jews were not happy with Roman control but were willing to take a more practical viewpoint and tolerate it. All these zealots needed to help push the rest of Judaea to a revolt was a blatant violation of their rights. In A.D. 66, Rome gave it to them.
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- Cappelletti, Silvia. The Jewish Community of Rome: From the Second Century B.C. to the Third Century C.E. Boston: Brill, 2006.
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