Resistance to imperial expansion is not a phenomenon confined to modern times, as Neil Faulkner demonstrates in this richly detailed survey of the Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire in Palestine in the middle of the 1st century AD.
The Roman Empire was showing signs of disintegration. The Germans successfully revolted against the Romans in 9AD, destroying three legions. Just over 50 years later Boudicca nearly saw them driven from Britain and by the end of the decade Rome was embroiled in civil war. The resistance of the Jews and the immense power ranged against them demonstrates the potential threat the empire faced.
Clearly warfare conducted through massive land armies, battering rams, javelins and slingshots has little technically in common with warfare today. However the detail that is used to illustrate every step made by both sides in certain key moments provides us with a wealth of information. This account unfolds with astounding realism given that Faulkner is describing events that took place nearly 2,000 years ago.
Fortunately, any historian attempting to uncover the dynamics and realities of this revolt has a comparative wealth of sources. The biblical narratives of the Old Testament together with other texts that never made it into the canon provide useful background. In the 1st century AD the Bible as we know it today had not yet crystallised into a static form. It was still a living tradition of ‘origin myths, tribal laws, popular fables, wisdom literature, prayers and psalms, royal chronicles and sages, stories and sayings of the prophets’. Clearly this does not give an accurate historical account but it can provide us with helpful insights.
There were many other texts of the same time that never made it into later Bibles, some of which were uncovered in the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. These came from a sect known as the Essenes who believed an apocalyptic ‘End of Days’ was just around the corner. The differences between the scrolls and the Old Testament as we know it highlight that Judaism was far from a monolithic faith at the time. There were many divisions between rich and poor, between collaboration and resistance to the Romans, and continual disagreements over the nature and detail of religious practice. Jewish society was racked by a crisis of extreme social conflict and political instability. To derive a clear picture we need to appreciate the religious framework that surrounded the period, just as analysis of the English Civil War requires an understanding of the connections between religious ideologies and society.
The other key source of the time comes from the historian Josephus, ‘a fairly typical member of the Jewish aristocracy’. Again great care is needed in using his descriptions of events. Josephus led a failed military mission in Galilee against the Romans, but after tricking his comrades into taking part in a joint suicide pact he turned traitor and surrendered to the Romans, becoming a leading propagandist for the emperor Flavius. Josephus was a dunatos, ‘one of the powerful men’ who owed their position in society to their collaboration with Roman imperialism. Their role was one of mediation but in times of crisis this wasn’t the easiest path to take. The dunatoi’s main political opponents were the stasiastai–those aiming at revolution, for if the Romans were kicked out they would no longer hold their positions in society.
Some tenets of Judaism at the time came into massive conflict with the Roman occupiers. Jewish law dictated that every seventh year all debts should be cancelled and all slaves freed. As Roman society was dependent on slavery this was clearly going to cause some problems.
This revolution, like any other, was not a sudden overnight affair, but a culmination of processes. There was massive upheaval as the exploited refused to be trodden down both by a Roman occupying force in crisis and the elite in Jewish society, and were increasingly squeezed between the two. As Chris Harman notes in ‘A People’s History of the World’, ‘In all these clashes, class hatred of the Jewish upper classes merged with hatred of the Roman forces of occupation.’
Although the revolution was eventually defeated it certainly changed history. This is a fascinating insight that breaks through the mythology that surrounds the birth of Christianity. Faulkner provides invaluable lessons in the practice of revolution, through the eyes of the militants who rose up against the most powerful empire of the day.
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