Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rome & Jerusalem - Martin Goodman

 When I started this blog I fully intended to keep it as strictly fiction based. As a rule I read more non-fiction than fiction and I actually wanted to start yet another blog on the non-fiction I read. But as I have quickly learnt from this blog alone, and the running of two, it requires a lot of time and effort. Not to mention a considerable amount of work!! I'm sure you with a blog, or blogs, that you regularly update can testify and relate too this!

 So I have decided to forgo another blog and incorporate some of the non-fiction I read into this blog alone. I hope what I read and review is of interest to some of you and in the process of use. After all the world of the written word is immense and it is often interesting to know what others thought of something we ourselves may be contemplating reading. My hope is that others with an interest in history like myself will read, benefit and leave well reasoned comments along the way.

 So what is it about? The title should give an indication! In short Martin Goodman has written a quite thorough and exhaustive treatise on the Jewish revolt of 66AD which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70AD. Goodman starts the book off with a short prologue that quickly skims over the events of those 4 years. At the end he asks the question, was this inevitable? To answer his own question he juxtaposes life from both the Roman and Jewish point of views. What quickly becomes apparent is the fact that even though Rome was the dominant power it tolerated, and to a large degree, left the Jews alone to their own devices.

 Goodman does this by analyzing every conceivable aspect of life of these two ancient peoples. From food to religion to sex to parenthood to burial procedures etc etc etc. Everything thing possible about life is looked at. What Goodman is doing by this thoroughness is not only pushing forward his own obvious deep knowledge, but in the process showing the reader how the events of 66-70 AD were in no way inevitable. Even though both Romans and Jews were quite different in every aspect of life they did live together fairly harmoniously.

 So what happened to change all this?? In essence it was a small insignificant matter that ballooned out of all proportion. In many respects it mirrors the origins of WW 1 as the nations stumbled their way into a quite un-necessary, preventable war. Flours, Roman Governor of Judea in a fit of political folly and grandstanding ordered the Jewish population of Jerusalem to exit the city and acknowledge the entrance of some Roman troops. The Jews declined and hot heads prevailed, scuffles started, and the next thing a Legion from Syria was involved. But against all odds the Jews all but massacred the legion as it was poorly withdrawn from the city.

 This led to Emperor Nero in having to retaliate. This was mainly to stop other regions of the Empire rising up in imitation as the Jews had done. But before retribution could be extracted Nero died and in quick succession there erupted a civil war as three men tried to take the role of Emperor. Eventually Vespasian was made emperor and in 70 Ad he sent his son Titus to Judea with a huge force of 60,000 men including foreign auxiliaries. What ensued was the capture or Jerusalem and the inadvertent destruction of the Jew's most holy site. Incredibly its destruction was a mistake as Titus was under no orders to destroy it even though he let his troops loot the temple and Jerusalem.

 ( What happened was in the heat of the moment the Roman equivalent of the ' Molotov Cocktail ' was thrown by a Roman soldier into the Temple. Titus in fact tried valiantly to have the fire put out but failed. ) Emperor Hadrian actually rebuilt Jerusalem but renamed it Aelia Capitolina and forbid all Jews from ever worshipping there. ( Salt was rubbed in the wound by the introduction of a universal tax on all Jews in the Empire. Anti-semitism had started ). Is it no wonder we see modern Jews using The Wailing Wall because they are unable to use the actual spot where the temple used to be?? It is staggering when you realise how old Judaism is and how long its collective memory is with it. When I read this my eyes opened even further to the almost insoluable problems that permeate modern Jerusalem.

 The first half of the book is a look at life in Rome and Jerusalem . Whilst interesting the second half is the better because it goes into the hows and whys. It is absorbing reading and anyone who wishes to know more about the rise of anti-semitism should read this. I didn't realise that the destruction of the temple was a mistake that the Flavian era of Roman emperors turned into a myth. This was because they couldn't admit it was a mistake so they turned it around into a great victory against a dangerous enemy. It is from this that anti-semitism arose as the Romans painted the Jews in the most vilest light possible.

 Goodman then brings in the Christians and the influence they had on the rise of anti-semitism. Of course Christianity was born out of Judaism. But under the Romans Christians wanted to distance themselves from their Jewish roots and joined in the Roman campaign of hate against the Jews. One thing interested me in regards to Emperor Julian. He of course wanted to return the Empire back to its pagan ways. One of the ways he intended to do this was to discredit Christianity by re-building the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. He of course died before he was able to do so. ( I recommend Gore Vidal's historical novel Julian which whilst fiction is a good place to start if contemplating reading this emperor ). All this is extremely interesting and I was absorbed by it all. It is incredible to think that the events of 2000 years ago are still resonating today. And what fascinated me was they were created by an empire that has long gone and yet the things it done are still with us.

 So Martin Goodman winds his superb book up with a final word on the evolution of anti-semitism. In the process he answers the question he asked in the prologue. Was it all inevitable??  Were Roman and Jew on an unpreventable course? The answer is an indefatigable no. Although tensions arose at times it really was the stupidity of a mediocre Roman administrator that precipitated what was to come.

 This is not a book for anyone less than above average reading ability. It is not that it is difficult to read it is just extremely, extremely detailed. I mean Goodman can take the reader from end of the Mediterranean to the other ....and back in just one page!! It is 585 pages long and it took me a week to read. I have read criticisms that it is too dry and boringly written. But I refute this because Goodman's target audience is obviously fellow scholars and anyone with a deep understanding of the period. I'm neither!! But even though my knowledge was somewhat limited the amount of information here is staggering and the whole book engaged me from cover to cover. As I read it I thought ' I'm not taking this in as it is too detailed '. But once I finished and thought about it I realised I had absorbed much of it. In fact as soon as I finished it I wanted to read it again!!

 So be warned this is not light reading! Believe me you won't read this one in a night! But if you are a competent enough reader with a love of history then this is a highly recommend book from me. I have been interested in anti-semitism for some time now and this book perfectly explained to me its origins. I found it uncontroversial considering its subject matter as Martin Goodman uses prodigious use of classical documents like The Dead Sea Scrolls to back up his ideas. In fact I was surprised that a book of such depth could be written out of a seemingly dearth of surviving original sources. But obviously there are enough!

  Maybe not the easiest of reads but it is extremely detailed and deeply fascinating. For me it expanded prodigiously on my initially limited knowledge of the period. The destruction of the Jews Temple is fascinating beyond words and it inspired a trip to wikipedia to see pictures of the site. In my ignorance I didn't realise that it is the same site that is Islam's third holiest site Dome of the Rock. I now know why it is so contentious!! But it all started in 66AD with a poor administrative decision and its effects are still felt in our world today.

 Fascinating stuff. In the process it shows how such simple events can can lead to bigger more cataclysmic ones. What it will also do is clarify the origins of the controveries etc involving modern day Jerusalem and why it is the centre of three religions. And it was all the Roman's fault!! But they are no longer here to point the finger at and demand recompense!!

 Click here for an interesting site devoted to the Second Temple:


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