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Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome$

Jonathan Edmondson, Steve Mason, and James Rives

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780199262120

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199262120.001.0001

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Flavian Religious Policy and the Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple

Flavian Religious Policy and the Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple

(p.145) 7 Flavian Religious Policy and the Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple
Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome

James Rives (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, looking at it from the point of view of Flavian religious policies. Vespasian and Titus were fully aware of the ramifications of the destruction. In Roman religious terms, their actions would result in the elimination of the major cult centre of the Jews. The removal of the chief cult objects (the menorah, the table, and the sacred vessels) to Rome symbolized the end of the cult in Jerusalem, and emphasized the notion — found in Josephus — that the Jewish God had abandoned his people and gone over to the Roman side. In some senses this amounted to a sort of evocatio of a foreign deity, as so often occurred when Roman armies captured enemy cities. Vespasian was keen to close down cult centres that he considered potential focal points for further Jewish resistance against Rome.

Keywords:   Flavian emperors, Flavian victory, Judaea, religious policy, Roman religion, Evocatio deorum, Temple of Jerusalem, Temple at Leontopolis, Jews

In destroying the Temple in Jerusalem, the Romans dealt a devastating blow to Judaism: that much is generally agreed. It is much less clear whether this blow was deliberately aimed or merely an accident of war. That is to say, were the Roman leaders concerned with the effect that their actions would have on Judaism as a religion, or were they instead focused solely on military, political, and financial matters?

In this chapter I will address this question in two stages. First, is there reason to see the destruction of the Temple not simply as incidental to the suppression of the Jewish revolt but as integral to a larger pattern of decisions, that is, as an element of a policy? If there is, to what extent and, more importantly, in what sense was that policy religious, that is, consciously concerned with its effect on Judaism as a religion? Given that Vespasian and Titus were undoubtedly aware of the unique importance of the Temple in Jewish religion, we might reasonably interpret a policy aimed at its suppression as a deliberate attempt to wipe out Judaism. In other respects, however, they seem to have upheld the rights of Jews to practice their religion, suggesting that any policy concerning the Temple could not have been directed against Jewish religion. The crux of this problem, I will argue, lies not so much in determining the facts as in refining what we mean by ‘religion’.

(p.146) The Destruction of the Temple

Before asking whether the destruction of the Temple was an element of a wider Flavian policy, we must consider whether the Flavian leaders actually intended to destroy the Temple at all.1 This question exists largely because Josephus, who provides the best and most detailed account, says that Titus expressly stated his intention not to destroy the Temple and did all he could to save it when it caught fire. Since Josephus was present in the Roman camp throughout the siege (BJ 6. 96–112 and 365; cf. Ap. 1. 48–9), had access to Titus' hypomnemata in preparing his account of the siege of Jerusalem (Vit. 358), and claims to have won for it Titus' approbation (Vit. 363), his account has a prima facie claim to authority. Yet there are reasons to doubt it.

According to Josephus (BJ 6. 236–66), on the eighth of Loös the Romans set fire to the Temple gates and were thus able to breach its outer defences. On the ninth, Titus held a council with his leading officers to discuss the Temple's fate. Some urged him to destroy it, while others argued that he should do this only if the Jews continued to use it as a fortress. For his part, however, Titus declared that he would not destroy it even if it were occupied, but would instead preserve it as an ornament of the empire. The tenth began with skirmishing between the Romans in the outer court and the rebels in the inner court; after Titus withdrew, there was a further engagement between the sanctuary guards and the Roman soldiers who were extinguishing a fire, apparently in the inner court. It was amidst this that a Roman soldier picked up a brand and, ‘moved by some divine impulse’, threw it into a window, thereby setting on fire the buildings next to the sanctuary. When Titus heard this, he rushed to the scene to have the fire extinguished, but in the resulting confusion was unable to make the soldiers obey. At this point, Titus and his officers entered the sanctuary and viewed the treasures there. Since the fire was still confined to the outer buildings, he then made another attempt to save the building, but the soldiers again would not obey. Finally, one of them thrust a brand into the hinges of the doors, causing a fire (p.147) within. Titus then withdrew from the scene, so that there was no one to prevent those outside from setting the sanctuary on fire. And so, concludes Josephus, the Temple was burned against Titus' wishes.

Other accounts, however, say nothing about Titus' opposition to the Temple's destruction.2 Indeed, Josephus himself, writing some twenty years after he composed the Jewish War, could casually refer to the day when ‘Titus captured and burned the sanctuary and the city’ (AJ 20. 250). Dio, in his very different version of these events, which unfortunately survives only in Byzantine epitomes (66. 6. 2–3), simply describes the Romans storming the Temple and says that when the soldiers hung back because of superstitious fear, Titus forced them on. Lastly, there are two accounts from Latin Christian writers of the early fifth century CE. Sulpicius Severus says that Titus summoned a council and considered whether or not to destroy the Temple; some argued there was no need, but others, including Titus himself, thought that it ought to be destroyed so that the religio of the Jews and the Christians could be more fully wiped out (Chron. 2. 30. 6–7). Orosius reports that after the Temple had been taken, Titus deliberated whether to burn it or preserve it as a monument to his victory. But since the Church was already spreading throughout all the world, it was God's will that the now useless Temple be destroyed, and so Titus did (7. 9. 5–6). Although the evidence of these two late writers would hardly seem to rival that of the contemporary Josephus, there are good reasons to believe that they drew on the account of the Temple's destruction given by Tacitus in the now lost part of Histories Book 5.3 Even though we cannot hope to reconstruct the actual words of Tacitus (Barnes 1977: 227), we can be reasonably confident that he made Titus responsible for the destruction of the Temple.

Josephus was thus apparently alone in his insistence on Titus' attempts to preserve the Temple. Moreover, his account of the (p.148) destruction contains discrepancies that confirm the assumption that he deliberately shaped his account.4 For one thing, he almost certainly omitted a key episode in the destruction of the Temple. At some point Titus removed from the inner sanctuary the gold menorah and offering table that were later to have a central place in his triumph. But although Josephus describes in some detail how Titus obtained other Temple goods (BJ 6. 387–91), he says nothing at all about the two great treasures from the sanctuary. In the absence of any other indication, we may guess that Titus gave the orders for their removal at the time when, according to Josephus, he entered the inner sanctuary and ‘viewed the things therein’ (BJ 6. 260).5 Josephus' failure to provide any information on this point indicates that at the very least he was carefully selective in describing Titus' actions.

More importantly, Josephus hedges on the question of whether the destruction of the Temple was ever really avoidable. Control of the Temple was unquestionably a fundamental Roman military objective, and Titus and his staff had clearly decided to take it by storm; such a decision made at least its partial destruction inevitable. Josephus himself explains that Titus decided to set fire to the outer gates because ‘he saw that his sparing of foreign temples was a source of injury and death for his soldiers’ (BJ 6. 228). The same rationale may also explain the mysterious fire in the inner court on the tenth of Loös.6 At any rate, there is certainly no need for us, like Josephus, to invoke a ‘divine impulse’ in order to explain why a soldier might throw a brand into a fortress that he was attempting to storm. And as Valeton long ago pointed out (1899: 136), once a fire was raging around the sanctuary, there was little chance that the Roman soldiers, who were busy battling the rebels, would have had an opportunity (p.149) to extinguish it even had there been sound reason to do so. In short, it is highly unlikely that Titus, once he had determined to take the Temple by storm, could have been quite as shocked by its destruction as Josephus says.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine why Titus should have been so keen to preserve the Temple in the first place. Josephus' claim (BJ 6. 241) that it was because of the building's magnificence is not very persuasive, although it is perhaps possible, as Orosius suggests, that Titus hoped to preserve the building as a monument to his own generalship. A more serious possibility is that he may have been hindered by religious scruples (Valeton 1899: 117–28). The Romans generally considered it proper to respect the shrines even of foreign deities. Yet this was by no means a binding obligation: if they took a city by storm, they were just as likely to destroy its temples as to spare them. Although there might be some concern for the power of the gods who inhabited them, there were various ways to handle this. The traditional method was the ritual of evocatio, whereby the Roman general would summon deities away from the enemy city and offer them a home among the Romans. It is not impossible, although rather unlikely, that Titus employed this ritual in the siege of Jerusalem.7 Yet it was for practical purposes unnecessary, since a story had apparently gained currency that the Jewish god had already vacated his Temple.8 Whether Titus originated or simply exploited this story, it would have effectively eliminated any religious scruple that might have restricted his treatment of the Temple.

Lastly, it is worth noting that Titus afterwards did not seem to show the slightest sign of regret for the Temple's destruction. In this case an argument from silence carries some weight, for if Titus had in fact shown any regret, Josephus would surely have said so. Instead, once the Roman victory was complete, (p.150) Titus ordered the remains of the Temple to be razed instead of preserving them as he did other parts of the city (BJ 7. 1–2). If anything, Titus seems to have regarded the destruction of the Temple as one of his signal accomplishments: a depiction of it being set on fire was evidently paraded in his triumph (BJ 7. 144), and the poet Valerius Flaccus (1. 12–14) evoked it as his most distinctive achievement. Titus' own actions point in the same direction. According to Josephus, it was immediately after the firing of the sanctuary, and indeed while it was still in flames, that his soldiers set up their standards in the Temple courtyard and hailed him as imperator, a highly significant acclamation that not only indicated a claim to victory but also marked his status in the new regime (BJ 6. 316; cf. B. W. Jones 1984: 80–1, Levick 1999: 186).

There are thus cogent reasons to suspect that Josephus' account of Titus' role in the Temple's destruction is misleading, and a number of scholars have believed this to be the case. If so, however, we must wonder why Josephus would have depicted Titus in the way that he did and how he hoped to get away with it, since as we have seen he submitted his work to Titus himself for approval. Yet the problem is perhaps not so acute as it may seem. For one thing, Josephus' depiction of Titus may be misleading without being absolutely false. Although Titus' primary concern was undoubtedly to wrest control of the Temple from the rebels, he may indeed have hoped, for whatever reason, to preserve the Temple if it could be taken without being destroyed; it is possible that he declared this intention in the council, and that Josephus merely emphasized that declaration while downplaying the more important decision to storm the Temple (Valeton 1899: 111–17; cf. Smallwood 1976: 325–6). It is equally possible that, upon learning that the Temple had been fired in his absence, Titus hurried to the scene and perhaps even attempted to slow the blaze; after all, he had not yet had a chance to ransack the Temple for spoils. In short, Josephus may have been relatively accurate in reporting Titus' actions, but have shaped his account in such a way as to represent those actions in a misleading light.

But why should Josephus have done this at all? There are various possibilities for explaining his motivations. On the one hand, he may have wished to demonstrate to the respectable (p.151) Jewish elite that the Roman high command had not been directly responsible for that crushing disaster; this would fit with his general programme in the Jewish War of deflecting the blame for the war from both the Roman rulers and the respectable Jewish elite and assigning it instead to the ruffians who had led the people astray (e.g. Rajak 1983: 81–91). On the other hand, he may have been using this episode to elaborate his rhetorical depiction of Titus' clemency (e.g. Yavetz 1975: 423–6); this might also explain why Titus himself had no objection to the spin that Josephus had put on his actions, since he seems by the later 70s to have been quite eager to appear clement (for other views on Josephus' treatment of Titus' clemency, see Mason and Chapman, Chs. 12 and 13 below). In addition, Josephus may have had private reasons: he may have wanted to distance his personal patron from one of the greatest disasters ever to befall his people. But he may have had historical reasons as well; I will return to this question at the end of my paper.

As I mentioned in my introduction, the Roman leadership could hardly have failed to foresee the religious implications of the Temple's destruction, whether that was one of the deliberate goals of their campaign or merely a possible outcome. It was well known that Jews generally celebrated the sacrificial cult of their god only in the Temple in Jerusalem, with one main exception that I will discuss below.9 Consequently, the Flavians must have been aware that in destroying the Temple they were putting an end to this cult: the two were in effect inseparable.10 Their later actions suggest that, even if they did not intend from the start to end the Temple cult permanently, this soon became a conscious policy.

(p.152) We must first consider the fact that Vespasian and Titus made the gold menorah and the offering table from the Temple sanctuary a central element in the triumph that they celebrated in June 71 CE.11 According to Josephus (BJ 7. 148–50), the most conspicuous of the spoils carried in the triumph were the golden table and lamp from the Temple. It would of course hardly be surprising if Josephus personally regarded these treasures as the most conspicuous objects in the procession. Although the Arch of Titus was a memorial dedicated after Titus' death rather than a monument of the actual triumph (see Millar, Ch. 5 above), it nevertheless presumably provides a reliable indication of what the Flavians regarded as its key elements. It is therefore significant that the menorah and offering table are the focus of one of its two great inner reliefs, opposite to that of Titus in a triumphal chariot. Since the Jerusalem Temple notoriously lacked a cult statue, it is likely, as Schwier (1989: 324) has argued, that these two treasures represented the Temple cult as a whole. Their role in the triumph therefore suggests that the Temple cult was central to the Flavian interpretation of the suppression of the Jewish revolt. Further evidence lies in the fact that, four years later, Vespasian placed these two treasures in the great monument of the new dynasty, the Temple of Pax (Jos. BJ 7. 158–62; cf. Dio 66. 15. 1): the Roman despoiling of the Jewish sacrificial cult was closely bound up with the peace of the empire.

At much the same time as the triumph (CPJ 2. 113–14), Vespasian took another action that similarly advertised the end of the Temple and its cult. According to Josephus, ‘he imposed a tax on Jews wheresoever they were, ordering them to bring each year two drachmas to the Capitolium, just as previously they contributed to the Temple in Jerusalem’ (BJ 7. 218; cf. Dio 66. 7. 2). As Josephus elsewhere explains (AJ 3. 194–6), there had been a law among the Jews that all free men between the ages of 20 and 50 should annually contribute a half-shekel to the service of their god (cf. Exod. 30: 11–16). In the Roman (p.153) period, this money was gathered by local Jewish communities throughout the world and forwarded to the Temple; the funds collected there were very substantial. Although this practice at times aroused the ill-will of their neighbours and the occasional Roman governor (e.g. Cic. Flacc. 67), the central Roman authorities had always upheld the Jews' right to continue it (Jos. AJ 16. 27–61 and 160–78; cf. Smallwood 1976: 124–7, Rajak 1984: 113–14). Now, however, with the Temple destroyed and its cult symbolically held captive in Rome, Vespasian transferred this tax from the Jewish god to the chief Roman god. Although his motivations were no doubt in part financial, the decision also had obvious implications for the Temple cult: the funds that once supported it were now redirected to the needs of Rome and its god, thereby precluding any possibility that they might be again available to support the cult of the Jewish god.

Lastly, Vespasian gave orders to close the Jewish temple at Leontopolis in Egypt. This temple had been established around 160 BCE, amidst Antiochus Epiphanes' attempts to Hellenize the Jewish cult, and for the next two hundred years the cult of the Jewish god was celebrated there more or less as it was in the Temple in Jerusalem (HJP 3. 145–7). According to Josephus (BJ 7. 409–19), after the fall of Masada a group of sicarii went to Alexandria and tried to stir up resistance to Rome. The prefect reported these disturbances to Vespasian, and ‘he, suspicious of the Jews’ incessant tendency to revolution and fearing that crowds might again gather in one place and draw others along with them, ordered Lupus to destroy the temple in the so-called territory of Onias' (BJ 7. 421). Lupus removed some of the offerings from the temple and shut its doors, and his successor Paulinus stripped it of all its treasures and closed the gates, barring all access and leaving no trace of worship (BJ 7. 433–5). Now this temple, so far as we know, had played no role in the Jewish revolt nor even in the disturbances in Alexandria. The evidence in fact suggests that relatively few Jews, even in Egypt, acknowledged its legitimacy or that of the cult celebrated therein.12 It is very likely that Vespasian was aware of all this, so that (p.154) his decision to close it and end its cult indicates that he wished to take no chances of allowing a revived Jewish temple cult.13

The evidence, therefore, strongly suggests that at least by a year or so after the destruction of the Temple, regardless of whether the destruction itself was planned, Vespasian had decided not to allow the Temple cult to be revived: the parading of its chief cult objects in the triumph and their later placement in the Temple of Peace, the transfer of the Temple tax, and the closing of the temple at Leontopolis all point in this direction. These decisions, taken together, constitute what we may reasonably describe as a policy, even if that policy was something looser and less elaborate than the products of modern think-tanks to which we normally apply the word. It is important to stress that this policy concerned the Temple not simply as a building, a potential fortress for rebels, but as the cultic centre of the Jews: its goal was apparently the permanent abolition of the Jewish sacrificial cult.14 The question is now to determine what concerns Vespasian was addressing in acting as he did.

Flavian Religious Policy

Given the central importance of the Temple in Judaism, the most obvious interpretation would be that Vespasian, in abolishing the Temple and its cult, intended to destroy the Jewish religion. Since there had long been considerable hostility towards the Jews, which the revolt would have only increased, such a goal would not have been unthinkable. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that Flavian policy was meant to wipe out Jewish religion tout court, because there is no significant evidence (p.155) that either Vespasian or Titus took any other actions against it.15 Unlike Antiochus Epiphanes before them or Hadrian after them, they did not prohibit circumcision or the reading of the Law or any other important Jewish practice. On the contrary, they are said by Josephus to have upheld the established privileges of the Jewish populations of Antioch and Alexandria even when petitioned by the local elites to revoke them (Jos. BJ 7. 100–11; AJ 12. 121–4), and Vespasian rejected accusations brought by one of his own governors against Jewish leaders in Cyrenaica and elsewhere (Jos. BJ 7. 447–50). According to rabbinic traditions, Vespasian even authorized R. Yohanan ben Zakkai's foundation of a ‘rabbinic academy’ in Yavneh.16

In fact, seen against the background of traditional complaints about the Jews, Vespasian's policy appears rather paradoxical. It was Jewish exclusivity and refusal to worship other gods that had always provoked gentile hostility (e.g. Schäfer 1997), whereas the Temple and its cult were for most gentiles one of the most ordinary and least peculiar aspects of Jewish religion; Roman emperors and their representatives had even patronized it.17 Yet Vespasian did not interfere with the observances that most sharply distinguished the Jews from their neighbours, such as circumcision or the dietary laws, but instead abolished the Temple cult. This has suggested to some scholars that the Flavian policy was not directed towards Jewish religion at all, but resulted from other considerations. Two recent scholars have advanced comprehensive interpretations along these lines.

Giovannini (1996) has argued that Vespasian's foremost concern was financial. His chief goals were to gain control of the (p.156) immense wealth stockpiled in the Temple and, even more, to transform the Temple tax into a lasting source of income. It was the latter in particular that made necessary the suppression of the Temple cult, for only in this way could he redirect the tax to Rome without incurring the charge of impiety. This interpretation certainly has much to recommend it. Vespasian was fiscally very prudent. Nero had created a huge debt, a problem only exacerbated by the civil wars that followed his death. Vespasian not only erased the debt, but engaged in an extensive building programme and left a substantial surplus of funds at his death (Levick 1999: 95–106). In all this the spoils from the Jewish war and the revenue from the new Jewish tax clearly played an enormous part. We now know that the spoils paid for the Colosseum (Alföldy 1995; see further Millar, Ch. 5 above) and presumably the Temple of Peace as well, and the revenue from the tax is likely to have been enormous (see e.g. CPJ 1. 80–2 and 2. 111–16, Smallwood 1976: 371–6).

Quite a different interpretation has been proposed by Schwier (1989: 308–37), who sees Vespasian's motivation as essentially ideological. The point of Flavian policy was primarily to demonstrate the absolute victory of the Roman god Jupiter over the god of the Jews, and thereby obtain legitimacy for the new dynasty. For example, the triumph was designed to display the emperor moving from the temple of the Egyptian gods, who had already given him their blessings, to that of the great Roman god Jupiter, whose recognition he would now obtain by offering to him the attributes of the defeated Jewish god. The new Jewish tax served the same purpose: not only the attributes but also the income of the Jewish god were turned over to the victorious Jupiter. The victory of Jupiter, and the legitimacy of the Flavian dynasty, therefore required the suppression of the Jewish Temple and its cult, since only in this way could its symbols be brought to Rome and its revenues transferred to Jupiter. Again, this analysis is highly plausible. Vespasian was establishing a new dynasty, the first since that of Augustus. Although his career had been successful enough, neither his ancestry nor his accomplishments were such as to justify his claim to the supreme position. As many scholars have emphasized, it was the Jewish war that would serve as his foundation myth.

Without rejecting these analyses, I would argue that Ves (p.157) pasian was equally concerned with the effect of his policy on Jewish religion, and not only with his own financial or ideological advantage. There has often been an implicit assumption that either Vespasian was hostile to Judaism or he was not. If he was hostile, it is difficult to account for his apparent indifference to Jewish religion apart from the Temple cult, while if he was not we must assume that in abolishing the Temple cult he was unconcerned with religion and interested solely in political or financial issues; neither option is entirely satisfactory. The problem, I would argue, lies in the modern Western conception of a religion as an integrated system of practices and beliefs that springs from and embodies a single fundamental understanding of the divine. (This may describe well enough the view of the Jews themselves, or at least of those Jews who regarded the Torah as governing all their practices and beliefs; but here I am concerned with reconstructing the quite different Roman view.) There is little reason to think that Vespasian himself would have regarded Jewish religion in this way, since his own ‘religion’ did not itself form such a system. There instead existed in the Graeco-Roman tradition a variety of modes in which people could think about and interact with the divine world, of which cult, myth, iconography, and philosophy were the most important. These overlapped and interacted in various ways, but neither formed an integrated system nor sprang from a unified understanding of the divine.18 When a Roman leader like Vespasian looked at the Jews and their traditions, therefore, he is not likely to have seen a ‘religion’. What might he have seen instead? (In what follows, I am not of course claiming to divine Vespasian's actual thoughts; rather, I am trying to recreate, on the basis of available evidence, how someone of his general background might have perceived things.)

Literary evidence indicates that Greek and Roman observers used several overlapping sets of terms to describe Jewish traditions. One such set centred on the idea of national custom. This idea originated in archaic Greece, when increased contact with other cultures revealed that customs varied from people to people; it later became a central part of the ethnographic (p.158) tradition. For example, in a famous passage on the Egyptians, Herodotus explains that their ἤθεα and νόμοι, their customs and usages, are the opposite of those of other peoples (2. 35. 2). Since these terms could cover everything from gender relations to hairstyles, they naturally proved useful in describing particular aspects of Judaism. So for example, the geographer Agatharchides of Cnidos in the second century BCE reports that the Jews have the custom (ἐθίζειν) of observing the sabbath (Jos. Ap. 1. 209). Both Diodorus Siculus (1. 28. 3, 55. 5) and Strabo (17. 2. 5) describe circumcision as a Jewish νόμιμον, usage. This was apparently the language normally used by Roman officials when ruling on the rights of Jews to maintain their traditions: Claudius, for example, employed it in his letter to the Alexandrians, and it often appears in the documents included by Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities.19

Another set of terms had to do with philosophy. Greeks and Romans often identified the wisdom traditions of other cultures with their own tradition of philosophy, and identified the carriers of those traditions as philosophers. The result was a category of ‘barbarian philosophers’ that included among others the Egyptian priests, the Persian magoi, and the Indian brahmans. Arnaldo Momigliano (1975: 83–92) demonstrated that the earliest Greek writers to discuss the Jews, in the late fourth and early third centuries BCE, put them in the same category, but that this understanding of the Jews did not become widespread. Nevertheless, the language of philosophy continued to be useful for describing certain aspects of Jewish tradition, particularly monotheism and the rejection of divine images. Perhaps more importantly, some Jews embraced the language of philosophy as the best way of interpreting their traditions for others (Mason 1999). So for example Philo can describe the activity of synagogues as ‘instruction in ancestral philosophy’ (Leg. 156; cf. Mos. 2. 216), and Josephus can present Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes as philosophical sects in the Greek sense (BJ 2. 119–66; AJ 18. 11–25).

(p.159) A third set of terms derived, as we might expect, from the language of cult. Both Greeks and Romans regarded the worship of the gods as consisting primarily in the performance of various rituals. In their own traditions, the most important of these rituals were prayer and sacrifice, especially blood sacrifice, but they acknowledged that a wide variety of practices could fall into this category. In Greek, such practices were called ἱερά; in Latin, they were sacra or ritus. In describing Judaism, writers tended to apply these terms especially to the Temple cult, but they also used them of other Jewish observances, such as the sabbath.20 Roman officials made use of this language as well, and were apparently as likely to describe Jewish traditions as hiera as they were to call them customs or usages; it is in fact not uncommon to find both sets of terms together.21 Roman observers were therefore prepared to identify a whole range of Jewish customs as types of cult activities, even if they were far removed from the traditional practices of Graeco-Roman cult.

Vespasian, then, is more likely to have understood what we call Judaism as an aggregation of national customs, philosophical positions, and cult practices than as an integrated system. Seen from such a perspective, his actions in abolishing the Temple cult while simultaneously tolerating other aspects of the Jewish tradition are potentially more coherent. To identify that coherence, we must ask what it was about the Temple cult in particular that would have led Vespasian to suppress it. It is extremely unlikely that anything in its actual rituals would have provoked such an action.22 Although ‘Roman religious tolerance’ is a more problematic notion than is sometimes thought (Garnsey 1984), (p.160) it is true that Roman authorities were never much interested in restricting or banning specific cult practices. Despite elite hostility to practices that were at odds with the mainstream of their own tradition, such as ecstatic possession (e.g. Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 2. 19. 2–5; Apul. Met. 8. 24–30) or the depiction of gods in animal shape (e.g. Cic. Tusc. 5. 78 and Rep. 3. 14; Juv. 15. 1–13), the only cult practice that Roman authorities ever seem to have banned outright was human sacrifice (Plin. NH 30. 12; Paul. Sent. 5. 23. 16; Porph. Abst. 2. 56. 3).

Roman authorities were, however, very much interested in cult organization and structures of religious authority. In this area they seem to have had definite if not explicitly formulated ideas about what was and was not acceptable. The most acceptable form of cult organization was civic cult, that is, cult integrated into the organization of the civitas, or city. Civic cult had a number of distinctive features.23 For one thing, the rituals of civic cult took place in a public space, whether a temple or simply the streets and plazas. Secondly, public funds were used to pay for these rituals; in some cases, specific sources of revenue might be set aside for particular cults. Thirdly, the people who presided over these rituals were civic officials, whether priests or magistrates, who represented the community in its relationship with the gods. Although the actual presence of the populace was often not required, popular participation in major festivals was common enough, and served to strengthen group solidarity and affirm the individual's membership in the larger community; indeed, identification with the gods of one's city was a fundamental aspect of civic identity in the ancient world. Civic cults of this sort, long established in the older cities of the empire, were encouraged and sometimes even mandated by Roman authorities.

In contrast, Roman officials tended to view with suspicion other types of cult organization and other ways of structuring (p.161) religious authority; for example, they restricted the power and influence of the great temples in Egypt and Asia Minor (Gordon 1990 b: 240–2). Private cult associations could also cause concern, as indeed did any sort of private association. Nevertheless, there is abundant evidence for an extensive variety of private or semi-public associations in the cities of the imperial period, ranging from ethnic and professional groups to benevolent societies for the poor, and in all these associations cult played a greater or lesser part. The fact that so many private associations apparently existed without any hindrance makes it clear that they enjoyed an extensive if de facto acceptance on the part of Roman authorities.

In terms of its organization, then, how might Vespasian have viewed the assemblage of behaviours and traits that constituted Judaism? In the first place, he probably considered the range of beliefs and practices normally characterized as national customs or sacra to be matters of individual or family observance, and so lacking altogether in cultic organization. Secondly, he would certainly have been aware that Jews frequently formed local associations that regularly assembled in community buildings to study their holy books and worship their god. Such groups would probably have seemed to him much the same as other ethnic associations that met to worship their ancestral deities. Lastly, he would no doubt have identified what took place in the Temple in Jerusalem as the civic cult of the Jews. It was in the Temple that the hereditary priests performed the appointed rites on behalf of the people as a whole. It was to the Temple that Jews from all over Judaea and even further abroad came to participate in the great public festivals. And it was the Temple that was supported by a special tax to which all adult Jews were liable. Above all, the god whose cult was uniquely celebrated in the Temple was the god whose worship defined Jewish identity. In all these ways the cult of the Jewish god in the Jerusalem Temple would have seemed the equivalent of the cult of Athena Polias in Athens, Artemis in Ephesus, or Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome.

Roman authorities had long been aware that the civic cult of the Jews was a potential source of practical problems: the great crowds that filled Jerusalem at the major festivals were well known to be volatile and liable to unrest, and it was no doubt (p.162) largely because of them that Roman leaders had taken the unusual step of stationing a garrison in the city (Millar 1993: 45). Nevertheless, they seem on the whole to have regarded the cult without much concern. The Jewish revolt, however, must have led Vespasian to reconsider its role very carefully. As I suggested in the previous section, the ultimate result of this reconsideration was a policy to abolish it. It has often been noted that the Temple was ‘the symbol of Jewish resistance’ (B. W. Jones 1984: 55) and ‘the theological centre of Jewish opposition’ (Schwier 1989: 314), and that its destruction was necessary both to bring the revolt to an end and to prevent any future revolts. This is an important observation, but one that can be further refined. Vespasian was no doubt perfectly familiar with the importance that a major civic cult had as a focus for national zeal, and would have been keenly aware that all the areas involved in the revolt had their civic cult in the Jerusalem Temple. But he would have understood the ties that bound these areas to the Temple not merely as symbolic or theological, but also as something much more tangible. In Rome, the greatest physical embodiment of the populus Romanus would have been the great crowds that filled the public spaces during the Ludi Romani. Likewise, the greatest physical embodiment of the people who revolted against Rome would have been the great crowds that filled Jerusalem during the major festivals, crowds that came not only from Judaea but also from Galilee, Peraea, and Idumaea. For someone like Vespasian, it was precisely through their participation in the Temple cult that the inhabitants of these various regions became, in a very physical sense, a single people. Consequently, it was only the abolition of the Temple cult that could unravel these strong physical connections and remove the basis for future revolts.24

Yet Vespasian knew that the ties that bound Jews to the Temple cult extended far beyond Judaea and its environs, and that the problems that the cult posed for Roman authorities were consequently not limited to the area of the revolt. It (p.163) is worth considering how Vespasian might have regarded these problems, even if my treatment must necessarily be rather speculative. I would suggest that in so far as Vespasian identified the Temple cult as the civic cult of the Jews, he would also have regarded its organization as anomalous and problematic. It was not only the inhabitants of Jerusalem or even of Judaea whose identity was defined by their worship of the Temple's god, but Jews all over the empire. Although other immigrant groups maintained their devotion to ancestral cults, that of the Jews went much further by excluding any participation in local cults. Moreover, their ties to the ancestral cult centre were more formally organized than those of other diaspora groups. When possible, Jews from other parts of the empire visited Jerusalem to take part in the great festivals there, just as the citizens of other cities participated in their own festivals.25 More regularly, and therefore more strikingly, all Jews contributed to the support of the Temple in Jerusalem, just as public funds were used to maintain public cults in other cities. The Temple cult therefore functioned as a civic cult, but the people whom it bound together were not the inhabitants of a single city or region. From Vespasian's point of view, this anomalous organization would have made the Jews to some extent a shadow civitas, a people who identified themselves primarily not with the city in which they lived nor even with Rome, but with Jerusalem and its cult. Jerusalem would thus have appeared as a kind of rival to Rome, the only other city whose ‘citizens’, so to speak, were scattered throughout the empire.26

Underlying the immediate problem of the Jewish revolt, then, was the more diffuse problem of the place of the Jews in the Roman empire. Vespasian's creation of the Temple tax and his closing of the temple in Leontopolis suggest that in his policy (p.164) on the Temple cult he was looking beyond the immediate problem to the wider one as well.27 As long as the Temple cult acted as a sort of civic cult for Jews everywhere, it would bind them together into what I have described as a shadow civitas, a people with a common shrine and priesthood as well as shared customs and beliefs. And as long as the Temple cult was supported by the regular contributions of Jews all over the world, there would be a physical centre in which the wealth and power of this far-flung people could be concentrated. I would suggest that in abolishing the cult, Vespasian was not simply taking a precaution against further revolts in Judaea, but hoping to eliminate the anomalous cult organization that made the Jews throughout the Roman world into a people with an alternative focus of loyalty and national identity.28 Without their ‘civic cult’ centred on the Temple, Jews could be expected to become much more like other groups in the Roman empire: a people with their own national customs, ancestral philosophy, and local ethnic associations, but without any centralizing institution and alternative focus of national allegiance. In this way they would presumably pose much less of a problem for Roman authorities.29

Whether Vespasian had in mind all these implications from the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem is very uncertain. It is important to remember that he had a great deal on his mind in the years 68 to 71, and was faced with a number of more pressing (p.165) issues than the role of the Jews in the Roman empire. Yet the evidence suggests that Vespasian was very deliberate in his decisions: cautious, perhaps, but with an eye on the long term (Levick 1999: esp. 207). He certainly had good reason to ponder the situation of the Jews, and good connections to provide him with information. Although as I have argued the destruction of the Temple was probably at least anticipated if not actually planned, it is likely that the larger policy for the permanent abolition of its cult took shape only gradually, as the immediate problems facing the new emperor began to recede and as the advantages arising from the destruction became apparent.

I would argue, then, that Flavian policy was indeed concerned with Judaism as a religion. We can only grasp its coherence, however, when we realize that it was directed not against what we identify as Jewish religion, but against what Vespasian would have identified as the civic cult of the Jews. It was this, in his view, that not only provided the framework for the Jewish revolt but also made the Jews a problematic group within the empire; his policy of abolishing the Temple cult was intended not only to forestall future revolts but also to eliminate the anomalous cultic organization that hindered the integration of Jews into the empire. If this was in fact the case, however, his hopes turned out to be quite misplaced: less than fifty years after the destruction of the Temple, a fierce revolt broke out in Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Cyprus, followed some twenty years later by another in Palestine. The reasons for Vespasian's miscalculation, I would suggest, lay in the distance between Roman and Jewish religious traditions. Although Vespasian could understand the importance of the Temple cult in terms of the civic cults with which he was familiar, the role of the scriptures and the law in Jewish life had no real parallel in the Graeco-Roman religious tradition. These provided the basis for a strong national identity that could continue to flourish even in the absence of the Temple cult. It is hardly surprising, however, that someone of Vespasian's background would have failed to foresee this development.

But if Vespasian was unable fully to understand Judaism, Josephus was equally unable to understand Flavian policy regarding his people and their traditions. For a Jewish priest like Josephus, Temple and Torah, cult and custom, formed an indissoluble whole. He must have found the Roman point of view (p.166) just as baffling as many modern observers find it, and have had a similar difficulty in understanding how the same rulers could on the one hand deliberately destroy the Temple and on the other hand uphold the Jews' right to observe their ancestral law. I would suggest, somewhat tentatively, that his account of Titus and the Temple may have been in part an attempt to understand what would have appeared to him as contradictory actions on the part of the Flavian leaders. If Titus did give some indication of wishing to avoid or delay destruction of the Temple, Josephus may have seized on this as evidence that the Flavians were not actually hostile to Jewish tradition as such, a fact that elsewhere in the Jewish War he seeks to emphasize. It is striking that he nowhere connects later Flavian actions such as the Jewish tax and the plundering of the Temple treasures with the permanent abolition of the Temple cult. In the end, despite his association with Vespasian and Titus and his long residency in Rome, his understanding of religion remained as much Jewish as that of the Flavians was Roman. It was only with the spread of Christianity that the twain would eventually meet.


An earlier version of this paper was given at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Ancient Historians in May 1999; I would like to thank the audience for their comments, and also John Barclay, Martin Goodman, Tommaso Leoni, and Steve Mason for their suggestions and remarks on various drafts.

(1)  The most important discussions are Bernays 1861: 52–61, Valeton 1899, Montefiore 1962, Weiler 1968, Alon 1977: 252–68, and Rajak 1983: 206–11; see now Leoni 2000, with full references to earlier scholarship.

(2)  Rabbinic accounts, notably b. Git. 56b, also stress Titus' culpability; but despite Alon 1977: 253–4, their historical value is slight (e.g. Yavetz 1975: 413–14).

(3)  See Barnes, Ch. 6 above; the objections advanced by Montefiore (1962) have been amply met by van Andel (1976: 42–8) and Barnes (1977: 226–8). The reference to the Christians, however, must be due to Sulpicius rather than Tacitus (Montefiore 1962: 164–5; Barnes 1977: 228); Laupot (2000) presents new arguments for its Tacitean origin, but these seem to me based on a petitio principii.

(4)  See variously Valeton 1899: 111–17 and 129–37, Weiler 1968: 141–7, Alon 1977: 256–62, and Giovannini 1996: 30–2; for a defence of Josephus' account, see Rajak 1983: 206–11.

(5)  This is assumed with little or no comment in various modern accounts, e.g. B. W. Jones 1984: 53; Smallwood 1976: 324. Yarden (1991: 29–32), however, who argues that there was more than one sacred menorah and table, suggests that the treasures paraded in the triumph may have been among the spoils mentioned by Josephus in BJ 6. 387–91.

(6)  Josephus says nothing about the origin of this fire, which was the ultimate cause of the sanctuary's destruction, unless his vague statement that ‘the flames took their origin and cause from the natives’ (BJ 6. 251) is meant to explain it; if so, the very fact that he chose not to say anything more explicit suggests that he was waffling.

(7)  On evocatio, see further Basanoff 1947 and Le Gall 1976. Whether this ritual was maintained in the imperial period is very uncertain: its last known use (in a modified form: cf. Beard, North, and Price 1998: 1. 133–4) was in 75 BCE (AE 1977, 816), although the elder Pliny (NH 28. 18) notes that it remained part of the pontifical discipline even in his own day. Orlin (1997: 15 n. 13) thinks that the role of evocatio even during the Republic has been much exaggerated.

(8)  Jos. BJ 6. 299–300; Tac. Hist. 5. 13. I am not persuaded by the suggestion of Valeton (1899: 126–7) that this story was invented by Josephus because, as a Jew, he could hardly attribute efficacy to the Roman ritual of evocatio.

(9)  There is some slight evidence for Jewish sacrifices in other contexts. Some scholars believe that Jews in the diaspora offered the Passover sacrifice (Philo Spec. 2. 145–6; cf. Colautti 2002: 232), and some of the civic decrees from Asia that guarantee Jews the right to observe their ancestral customs seem to refer to sacrifices (AJ 14. 244–6, 257–8, 260; cf. Gruen 2002: 117). The Essenes may have made their sacrifices elsewhere than in the Temple (cf. AJ 18. 18–19). Sacrifices presumably also continued in the Samaritan Temple, which Titus did not destroy (AJ 12. 10); this indicates that the Romans clearly distinguished them from the Jews, despite the ambiguity in their relationship (AJ 9. 288–91). I owe these references to Steve Mason.

(10)  The possibility that the sacrificial cult continued after the destruction of the Temple is considered, and rejected, in HJP 1. 521–3 and by Smallwood 1976: 347–8; Colautti (2002), however, argues for the continued celebration of Passover outside Jerusalem after 70 CE (cf. AJ 2. 313).

(11)  Titus' return to Rome is generally dated to mid June 71 CE. A papyrus (P Oxy. 2725) shows that he reached Alexandria on 25 Apr. 71, and it is usually assumed, following Chambalu 1885: 517, that he would have left Alexandria when the south winds began to blow, around 10 May, and that the trip to Rome would have taken at least a month: so B. W. Jones 1984: 78 and Halfmann 1986: 181. Josephus (BJ 7. 121) says that the triumph was only a few days later.

(12)  There are references to it only in Josephus and rabbinic texts. The latter (e.g. m. Menah. 13: 10) suggest that at least some Jews vowed offerings in the temple at Leontopolis, although the rabbis thought they should fulfil them in the Jerusalem Temple. Tcherikover (CPJ 1. 44–6) notes the absence of any reference to this temple in Hellenistic Jewish literature, in stark contrast to the reverence shown for the Jerusalem Temple.

(13)  Vespasian had close relations with both Agrippa II and Ti. Julius Alexander; the latter, from a prominent Alexandrian Jewish family and a former prefect of Egypt (HJP 1. 456–7; see also Rajak, Ch. 4 above), would have been particularly well able to apprise him of the Leontopolis temple's significance.

(14)  Contrast the assessment of Smallwood 1976: 346: ‘The destruction [of the Temple] was in a sense only accidental, and was certainly only incidental to the crushing of the revolt, and did not symbolize any Roman intention of eliminating Judaism.’ Goodman (1987: 234–9; 1994a: 42–4) rightly stresses the deliberateness with which the Roman leaders chose to abolish the Temple cult and the unusualness of their decision.

(15)  That is, if we discount the claim of Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 3. 12) that Vespasian's attempt to destroy all descendants of David led to a great persecution of the Jews. As Goodman (1987: 236–9) has suggested, the Jewish War no doubt led the Roman elite to view Jewish tradition with increased hostility, but this hostility does not seem to have resulted in the formal suppression of any particular traditions apart from the Temple cult. Domitian's attitude may well have been different, but even he did not attempt to suppress Jewish traditions (Smallwood 1976: 376–85).

(16)  The evidence comes entirely from late rabbinic sources: b. Git. 56a–b, Lam. Rab. i. 31, and Abot R. Nat. 4, all available in Alon 1977: 297–307; see the critical assessments of Alon 1977: 269–313 and Schäfer 1979.

(17)   HJP 2. 309–13. In so far as it involved the worship of a national god in a temple with regular blood sacrifices, the Temple cult conformed quite closely to the expectations most people in the Graeco-Roman tradition would have of a typical public cult; only the lack of a cult statue was in any way problematic (see below, n. 22).

(18)  For an expression of this view among ancient scholars, note the so-called theologia tripertita expounded by Varro (Ant. div. fr. 7 Cardauns = Aug. De civ. D. 6. 5) and elaborated by Dio Chrysostom (Or. 12. 39–48); see further Feeney 1998: 12–21.

(19)  Claudius: CPJ 2, no. 153, lines 85–6 (νενομισμένα and ἔθη); Josephus: e.g. AJ 14. 213–16 (letter of proconsul to Parium: πάτρια ἔθεα); AJ 14. 227 (Dolabella to Ephesus: πάτριοι ἐθισμοί); AJ 16. 27–61 (Agrippa in Ionia: νόμοι οἰκείοι). On the importance of this language, see Barclay 1996: 407–8; on parallels in Josephus, see Mason 1991: 96–106.

(20)  Roman writers frequently describe the sabbath as a dies sacra, a holy day (Tib. 1. 3. 18; Ov. Ars 1. 76; Just. Epit. 36. 2. 14; cf. Frontin. Strat. 2. 1. 17: nefas to conduct business). Similarly, Horace declares that he has no religio to observe the sabbath (Sat. 1. 9. 69–71; cf. Just. Epit. 36. 2. 15). There are also references to Jewish sacra (Val. Max. 1. 3. 3) and ritus (Sen. ap. Aug. De civ. D. 6. 11) that seem to refer to general observances; Tacitus (Ann. 2. 85. 4) and Suetonius (Tib. 36), in referring to the expulsion of Jews from Rome, refer generically to their sacra and ritus.

(21)  e.g. Jos. AJ 14. 213, 227, and 244–6. One example is particularly striking. According to Josephus (AJ 16. 164), Augustus, in a decree guaranteeing the rights of the Jews in Asia and Cyrene, declared that anyone who stole the sacred books or sacred funds from a synagogue would be treated as a ἱερόσυλος, a temple robber, and would forfeit his property to the public treasury; in other words, such actions would count in Roman law as sacrilegium, the crime of temple-robbery.

(22)  The absence of a cult image was thought peculiar (Schäfer 1997: 34–50), but would not have been a reason to suppress the cult; aniconism existed in other parts of the Roman Near East (Millar 1993: 12–15) and elsewhere, and does not seem to have provoked any formal action.

(23)  What follows is a generalization: it would not be difficult to think of exceptions and marginal cases; I nevertheless think that it reflects tolerably well the usual assumptions of the time. For useful discussions, see Sourvinou- Inwood 1990 and 1988, Gordon 1990 a and b, and the critical assessments of Woolf 1997 and Bendlin

(24)  It was also through the Temple cult that the Jewish aristocracy was articulated (cf. Jos. Vit. 1–2); if Goodman is right to argue that the Flavian policy of abolishing the Temple cult was a response to the participation of the Jewish ruling class in the revolt (1987: 239; cf. 249), this would highlight another aspect of the cult's importance from the Roman point of view.

(25)  See esp. Acts 2: 5–11; for pilgrims from Judaea and its environs, see e.g. Jos. BJ 1. 253, 2. 10, 2. 43 (also Galilee, Idumaea, and Peraea), and 2. 232 (also Galilee); see in general Jeremias 1969: 58–84 and Rajak, Ch. 4 above.

(26)  As Agrippa I allegedly pointed out in a letter to Gaius (Philo Leg. 281): ‘[Jerusalem] is the capital not of the single country of Judaea but also of most other countries, because of the colonies which it has sent out.’ For the importance of the ties between diaspora communities and Jerusalem, especially the Temple, see Barclay 1996: 418–21; note also S. Schwartz 2001: 47 and 95, who suggests that Jerusalem's status as the metropolis of the world's Jews was due largely to Herod the Great.

(27)  Josephus, writing after Flavian policy was firmly established, seems to hint at a Roman concern that a Jewish temple would provide a focus for Jews ‘from everywhere’ (BJ 6. 239; cf. 7. 421).

(28)  Martin Goodman has pointed out to me that Vespasian, in establishing a special tax to which all Jews were liable, was simultaneously creating another structure that endowed the Jews with a distinctive corporate identity. Regardless of the extent to which the Jewish tax actually had this effect (see e.g. S. Schwartz 2001: 107–8), I would argue that Vespasian's primary concern was not so much with Jewish corporate identity in and of itself as with its being focused elsewhere than Rome; the new tax, payable as it was to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, clearly worked to link the Jews to Rome and its god.

(29)  As Millar (1993: 76) has pointed out, the enormous resources required in the siege of Jerusalem would have made all the more apparent ‘the degree to which the coherence of the Empire depended on … the absence of any coherent local or regional nationalisms which might offer a challenge to Rome’; from Vespasian's point of view, the Temple cult would have provided the framework for such a nationalism on an imperial scale. As Seth Schwartz has recently argued (2001: 105–6 and 110), the abolition of the Temple cult, together with the failure of the later revolts under Trajan and Hadrian, did indeed result in increased integration of Jews into the mainstream of Roman imperial culture.