This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

The Roman Emperor Vespasian came to power in 69CE after a year-long and bloody Roman civil war, which had seen no fewer than four emperors. Having little legitimacy to his newfound and tenuously held position other than the strength of the legions which had proclaimed him emperor, Vespasian needed to validate his rule quickly. As everyone knew, the best way to garner public support in Rome was to decimate a foreign enemy, and Vespasian found the perfect target: Judea, a plucky province that had recently shaken off Roman rule with a rebellion in 66CE. Vespasian sent his son Titus to the region to get the job done swiftly, which he did with brutal efficiency: the city of Jerusalem was left in rubble, and the Jews’ most holy site, the Jerusalem temple, was burned to the ground. The Jewish ancient historian, Josephus, reports a figure of 1,100,000 Jews killed in the siege and afterwards 97,000 enslaved.

Back in Rome, Vespasian was going to milk this victory for all it was worth. In a triumphal procession through the streets of Rome to celebrate the conquest, the spoils of the Jerusalem Temple, including the Jew’s most Holy objects: a large golden candelabrum and an ancient scroll of the Torah, were proudly paraded to symbolise not just the defeat of the Jewish Rebels, but a Roman victory over the Jewish religion. However, the propaganda for the victory did not stop here; Vespasian reshaped the city of Rome with an ambitious building programme: The Colosseum, the Forum of Vespasian, and the Arch of Titus, were all paid for with the booty of the Jewish Temple and all celebrated the defeat of Judea. What made this foreign conquest different from any other was that Vespasian punished not just the rebellious city of Jerusalem, but all Jews across the empire. A “Jewish Tax” was placed on every Jew, ostensibly to replace the tithe to the Jewish Temple. Such a policy that extended across an entire people was unheard of—the tax singled out Jewish communities from their gentile neighbours and isolated them as outcasts. What made this doubly insulting was that the tax was taken for the reconstruction of the temple of Jupiter Maximus in Rome. Thus, not only had the Jews lost their own temple, they were now forced to pay for a pagan one, which was highly sacrilegious. 

After Vespasian’s death in 79CE, his sons, Titus and Domitian, continued his legacy of propagandising the Jewish War. When Domitian came to power in 81CE, he had no real military victories of his own; thus, he continued to propagandise the victory over Judea as if he had participated himself. He was still minting coins until 85CE inscribed: “JUDEA CAPTA” and according to the ancient writer Suetonius, the collection of the Jewish Tax was continued and carried out “very fiercely”. Suetonius goes on to say “I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised.”. The man was being examined to determine whether he was Jewish and should pay the Jewish tax. To modern readers, the scene described will be reminiscent of the horrors of the twentieth century.  

Within this atmosphere of empire-wide hostility towards Jews, early Christianity was developing, and as a result, this sentiment found its way into some Christian viewpoints. The main Christian conviction was that the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was a realisation of Jesus’ prophecy: Jesus said: “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” (Luke, 21.5). The prophecy had come true, which Christians saw as God’s just punishment of the Jews. Justin, son of Priscus, an early Christian martyr (c100-165CE), displays in his writing the Christian vitriol towards Jews: “For the circumcision according to the flesh, which is from Abraham, was given for a sign, that you may be separated from other nations, and from us, and that you alone may suffer that which you now justly suffer; and that your lands may be desolate and your cities burned with fire, and that strangers may eat your fruit in your presence, and that no one of you may go up to Jerusalem”. Alongside this, Christians may have felt they needed to establish a clearer separation between themselves and Jews to avoid similar persecution.

Likewise, the Gospel of John, completed sometime around 90-110CE (some scholars have argued a gentile Christian wrote it), was the first text to describe the Jews as Jesus’ adversaries, and is believed to have been influenced by the empire-wide hostility to Jews. The author lumped together various Jewish groups into one, and in his writing, “the Jews” are the people who convince Pontius Pilate not to release Jesus. This “anti-Jewish” attitude that embedded itself within certain aspects of Christianity and throughout the Roman Empire would continue to be prevalent into the medieval period and beyond. As we have seen, the path that led to this pervasive anti-Semitism began with the Emperor Vespasian’s desire to curry favour with the Roman people.

By Noah Graham

Image: via Steerpike on Wikimedia Commons. Arc_de_Triumph_copy.jpg by user: בית השלום