One of the regular features I intend for my blog is to post an excerpt or two from something I’m currently reading or have read and is on my mind for some reason. This will be the first excerpt.
Now I usually juggle three or more reads at the same time. I am not a fast reader. I usually like to savor sentences and paragraphs, so I tend to slow down and admire how the writer may have just phrased or embellished or develops a moment or a passage. Slow reading means I tend to be with a work for a while, and in order to not get bored with it I need to pick something else up. I guess it soothes some latent attention deficit disorder that I might have.
One of the works I’m currently reading is a history of the relationship between ancient Rome and ancient Jerusalem. Let me add that I am an ancient Roman history buff. I have read a bit on the subject, and while I’m certainly no expert, I would have to say I’m more knowledgeable than the average person. I find ancient Roman history—from the Republic to its fall to the early empire to the height of the majestic years of the empire to the crises years to the regrouping of the fourth century and then its final fall in the west. It’s over eleven hundred years from 753 BC to 476 CE filled with many fascinating figures.
This is the work I’m reading.
Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, by Martin Goodman, Vintage Books, New York, 2007.
The book examines the cultural, political, and religious conflicts that ultimately led up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and the consequences for the Roman and Jewish cultures afterward. So not only do I get to learn more about the ancient Romans, not only do I get to learn about the great Jewish culture of the time, I get to understand the events and circumstances surrounding Jesus, the apostles, and the church fathers of the first century CE.
The author seems particularly qualified to write on the two cultures. Here’s an inside the cover bio blip:
Martin Goodman has edited both the Journal of Roman Studies and the Journal of Jewish Studies. He has taught Roman history at Birmingham and Oxford Universities, and is currently Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford. A Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1996. He is editor of The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, which was awarded a National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship in 2002. He lives with his family in Birmingham, England.I can't quite judge the work as a whole yet. I'm about a quarter of the way in. But the prose is clean and clear, the book well organized, and the claims well substantiated. The author seems to really focus on minute details and then expand them to flesh out their total significance. While the author doesn't offer suspenseful narration, it's quite convincing as a scholarly work that engages those interested in that history.
I offer this excerpt from a section describing the general tolerance of Roman authority to local customs of the subjugated cultures.
In general, the Romans were happy to allow their provincial subjects to continue to live in their idiosyncratic ways. The tolerance of the state in allowing provincials to retain non-Roman lifestyles is all the more striking when the Romans knew well the practical advantages which would accrue to the state from cultural change. The historian Tacitus claimed that his father-in-law Agricola spent the winter of 78-9 CE during his governorship of Britain attempting “to induce a people, hitherto scattered, uncivilized and therefore prone to fight, to grow pleasurably inured to peace and ease.” This was achieved, according to Tacitus, by encouraging the building of temples, marketplaces and large houses, and by promoting the Latin language and wearing the toga, leading on to “the amenities that make vice agreeable,” such as baths and banquets. As has long been noted, so conscious an imposition of Roman culture by a single governor in so short a space of time could not possibly work, and Tacitus is not in this instance to be trusted. Nevertheless, a long-term policy along the lines ascribed to Agricola would have been perfectly sensible and feasible, and if urbanization in Roman Britain was slow and patchy over the first two centuries CE, as can be amply demonstrated from the archaeological evidence from numerous sites, this was the result of the policy not being followed even though Romans knew it might have worked. In other words, the normal attitude of the state to the provincials was laissez-faire.
But laissez-faire did not imply that in the eyes of Romans all cultures were equally valuable. Romans were not racially prejudiced in the sense of believing some peoples were inherently inferior, but they had a clear notion of the barbarian as the opposite to civilized society and outside bounds of true humanity. The whole concept of the barbarian, borrowed from its original Greek use where it denoted those who spoke languages other than Greek (thus, ironically, including the Latin-speaking Romans), provided a useful mechanism to distance the acceptable culture of the civilized metropolis from its implied antithesis. Barbarians could occasionally be held up for admiration by the cynic deploring the decline in Roman morals; hence the praise of aspects of simple German society in the Germania of Tacitus. But more often the barbarian was seen as benighted, rescuable (if at all) only by incorporation into the civilized world of Rome.