As we have seen in the first two chapters, the ancient Roman Empire, though so different from us on so many levels, did face many of the same challenges we in the West face in our present era, and the arguments they generated appear surprisingly familiar to us today. As the centuries unfolded and the great Empire devolved, these thorny issues would become ever more pressing, while the answers would become ever more illusive.
However, all that lay far in the future. For now, let’s return to our congenial Roman dinner party, where the conversation has moved on from what has become a rather lively debate over the pros and cons of ‘globalization’, and ‘immigration’, to one of the most pressing issues of the day, ‘the Jewish question’.
For these typical upper-class Roman citizens, solving the issue of ‘the Jewish question’ meant much more than mere philosophy. It had become a matter of life and death -- and money. A lot of Roman lives and a great deal of money had been expended on this bloody and seemingly endless war in Judaea (roughly modern day Israel) in an effort to quell the most recent rebellion of these tempestuous and recalcitrant Jews.* In the very first days of the uprising (which was evidently sparked by the alleged desecration of one of their local synagogues by a group of Romanized Jews), the Jews had slaughtered a whole garrison of Roman soldiers, and soundly defeated the Roman Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) sent by Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria, to restore order. Since the days when they had called in the great General Pompey to settle the violent ongoing dispute for the Hasmonaean* crown between two bitter rival siblings -- which ended up embroiling Pompey in the midst of a bloody civil war -- these Jews had proven to be nothing but trouble.
Although Pompey eventually resolved the dispute (ironically, by choosing neither brother, but, instead, installing his own non-Jewish ‘client Prince’ -- the antecedent of the famous Herod the Great), the troubles only continued. Only during the successful and prosperous reign of Herod (73-4 B.C.) did this volatile Jewish kingdom experience a period of relative stability. Even then, there were numerous uprisings and disturbances which Herod had to put down -- some within his own family. After Herod’s death, the kingdom was divided between his three sons.* Archelaus, the least competent of the three inherited Judaea and -- through no fault of Rome’s -- quickly proved to be inept. So inept, that in A.D. 6, a delegation of Jews came to Rome to beg Augustus to depose him because of the brutality of his regime and allow them a measure of self-governance. However, given their past record of instability, Augustus wisely declined their appeal for self-rule and instead chose to rule this inflammatory province directly through his own personally-chosen legates.
Thus began the long series of endlessly contentious reigns of Roman prefects and procurators (amongst whom would be the controversial Pontius Pilate).Over the years, the character, and morals of these individual Roman prefects would vary considerably -- some would leave an embarrassing legacy of bribery and corruption, of which their Jewish subjects had good reason to complain. However, for the most part, they figuratively ‘bent over backwards’ to avoid offending the religious sensibilities of the Jews, if, for no other reason, than for their own peace of mind and safety. Even so, the slightest Roman infraction of some arcane Jewish religious law could still set the crowded streets of Jerusalem ablaze.
The unfortunate Pontius Pilate(the fifth in the line of Roman Prefects) seems to have earned more than his share of violent disturbances. While in some respects, Pilate must have been relatively efficient -- the Emperor Tiberius, who was known to suffer no fools, kept him in office for an unprecedented ten years (26-36 A.D.) -- he had shown a tendency to be unnecessarily severe and heavy-handed. At the beginning of his reign, he caused a huge Jewish backlash by introducing the Legionary standards bearing Caesar’s image into Jerusalem by night and setting them up outside the Antonia Fortress* -- even though he had been warned that doing so would likely violate a Jewish law against the use of ‘graven images’. The subsequent outcry led to a five day and night Jewish ‘sit-in’ demonstration, which eventually resulted in a Jewish victory.
Pilate then appropriated money from a Temple fund dedicated to sacrifices to build an aqueduct. Even though the new water supply would have benefited the Temple area, itself, this act caused a huge uproar, which resulted in a violent and bloody riot that he put down with deadly force. Then, of course, there was the unpleasant business of the trial and subsequent execution of that newest ‘messiah’, the troublesome, and probably seditious, preacher, whom they called Jesus of Nazareth -- an unfortunate affair that would cause numerous Roman authorities untold problems well into the future. This was followed, in the procuratorship of Cuspius Fadus (44-46 A.D.), with the appearance of yet another ‘messiah’, named Theudas, who led a huge crowd of followers to the Jordan.
Finally, in order to protect the Province, Fadus had to stamp out this dangerous movement and decapitate Theudas.* Then, during the administration of the Procurator Cumanus (48-52 A.D.), there was the incredible incident of the Roman soldier’s fart -- surely, the deadliest fart in history! During the holy Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), in the Temple in Jerusalem, a soldier stationed on the roof of the portico, bent over, lifted his tunic and ‘made a lewd gesture’ (in plain language, he farted).
The outraged crowd of worshippers below immediately erupted into a bloody riot and turned their wrath on the nearest Roman guards. Reinforcements had to be called in, and in the violent melee that ensued, an estimated 20-30,000 people were either killed by the soldiers or perished attempting to escape.*
To our urbane dinner guests, this evening, this level of religious fervor was incomprehensible. Through their eyes, in all of their dealings with this contentious people -- who represented a mere ten percent of the Empire; yet, seemed to cause ninety percent of the problems -- they had shown a remarkable level of forbearance. Beginning with an announcement in 44-43 B.C. issued to all the Roman officials in Asia [Minor], enjoining the Greek cities to guarantee their Jews “exemption from military service, protection of Sabbath observance (when Jews were not expected to attend the law-courts), freedom to hold religious meetings, freedom to send their money contributions to the Jerusalem Temple without molestation, the right to settle their internal legal controversies by their own jurisdiction, and instructions that their funds and sacred books should not be stolen from their synagogues”,* the Roman authorities had, it seemed, been extraordinarily fair and accommodating. Indeed, for a directly-governed province of the Roman Empire, the Province of Judaea enjoyed an unprecedented level of self-rule. In Jerusalem, itself, the Jews were governed, in almost all of their daily matters, by their own chosen Council of Elders, the Sanhedrin, under the guidance of their own High Priest,* who acted as an ambassador to the local governor -- who would intercede only in matters of the utmost importance.* And yet, in spite of all this preferential treatment -- they rebelled! Three times since the days of Pompey! And this latest rebellion was the bloodiest of them all. On this one subject, our diners all agreed --these Jews were impossible.
And now, as though Rome needed any more fanatical, rebellious Jewish zealots, there was this latest Jewish cult, these loud and obnoxious followers of that previously-mentioned, crucified Jewish preacher, Jesus the Nazarene (whom, they claim, had risen from the dead to lead them into eternity!) These latest trouble-makers, who call themselves “Christians”, had evidently already caused some serious problems throughout the Eastern Provinces of the Empire. Just recently, two of their most prominent leaders, two grey-bearded old Jews named Peter and Paul, had been executed in Rome for their alleged seditious misconduct in Jerusalem.* On this last point, our frustrated dinner guests merely shook their heads in uncomprehending disapproval.
Although our bemused Roman diners were most likely unaware of it, these two ‘grey-bearded old Jews’ had already sown the seeds of a new monotheistic supersessionist religion, called “Christianity”, whose radical followers would soon prove to be even more troublesome than those ‘impossible Jews’.Incredibly, although our dinner guests would not live to see it, this insignificant new sect, just one among so many exotic foreign cults to have found their way to Rome,* would over the next two hundred and fifty years, grow and expand to such an extent that, by the beginning of the Fourth Century, that wise and pragmatic Emperor Constantine the Great (acknowledging a virtual fait accompli) would officially proclaim Christianity the new state religion. Over the next few centuries, these emergent Christians would further define themselves and their doctrines and would finally cut themselves off completely from their Jewish origins, becoming in the process more and more intolerant of these ‘original Jews’ who stubbornly refused to acknowledge their omniscient ‘Messiah’.
In the beginning of the Seventh Century, a new ‘Prophet’ would emerge from the desert, and yet another monotheistic supersessionist religion would be born. Within a half-century, with all the fanatical zealotry of new converts, the followers of this latest Messiah, called Mohammad, would rise up and conquer all of the former North African provinces of the Roman Empire, and spread a new religion, which they called “Islam”, across these newly-conquered territories by a brutal combination of coercion and the sword. *
It is worth remembering that -- despite the occasional (politically correct) olive branches of ecumenical tolerance, it is the unambiguous mandate of all monotheistic religions to be the one and only purveyor of that elusive commodity of “Truth”. And according to this logic, it necessarily follows -- despite all the niceties of political correctness -- that all other religions are simply wrong, and therefore automatically become “Enemies of the Faith”. Although all monotheistic religions share these basic fundamentals, there are important differences between them, differences that drastically affect our world. Whereas the two oldest of these “desert religions”, Judaism and Christianity, have had two millennia to settle their innumerable internecine squabbles over doctrine, work their way through the horrors of their Inquisitions, their disruptive Reformations, and their often bloody confrontations with a long list of various emperors and kings over those thorny issues of supremacy, they have eventually found a place in that uneasy dichotomy of Church and State. However, the newest monotheism, Islam, being some 600 years, or more, behind the other two, has yet to experience any of these self-defining crises* and, as a result, has not yet found its proper place in civilization. We are presently witnessing first-hand the violent consequences of this relative ‘theological immaturity’. Whether we like it or not, we are now, as our Roman ancestors were then, in an epic “clash of civilizations”.*
There is one final point to be made on the comparisons between ourselves and ancient Rome. The Roman Empire, despite all of the lofty moral lessons drawn over the years from that overworked phrase, never actually ‘fell’; it simply slipped away, day by day, year by year, almost unnoticed. As Roman citizens prospered and became successful they became more and more reluctant to become personally involved in the defense of their vast and continually threatened Empire, increasingly relying on legions of mercenaries drawn from the lowest ranks of society, desperate men who had little or nothing invested in the society that they were supposed to be defending; or, worse still, recruited from the very barbarian societies that they were supposed to be fighting. In the end, the barbarian Chieftain who had become de facto Commander-in-Chief of the Roman Legions merely brushed aside the last nominal Roman Emperor without even raising his sword.*
If there is any moral lesson to be drawn from the legend of the “Fall of the Roman Empire” it is this. So long as the ordinary Roman citizen was willing to set aside the demands of his profitable business and leave the comforts of hearth and home to take up arms against the enemy, or to send his son in his place, Rome was invincible.
A note from Radarsite: For the complete series AMERICA AND THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, with all notes, postscript and addendum click here