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Thursday, February 21, 2013

From Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations by Michael Goodman. (Part II)

A second excerpt from Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations by Michael Goodman; read the first. 

This excerpt comes from Chapter Five: Communities where Goodman compares how the Roman and Jewish communities thought of themselves.  I find this passage so insightful and fascinating.


Dulce et decorum est patria mori.  [Hor. Carm. 3.2.13]  “Sweet it is, and fitting, to die for the fatherland.”  So wrote Horace, in uncharacteristically somber mood, about old Roman virtues of endurance, courage, independence and reticence.  Thus were the great heroes of the past remembered, those who had died for Rome.  The glorious Jewish dead, by contrast, were believed to have given up their lives for God, as in the dreadful tortures inflicted, it was said, during the persecutions which preceded the revolt of the Maccabees in the 160s BCE: 

It came to pass also, that seven brothers with their mother were arrested, and compelled by the king to taste swine’s flesh forbidden by the law, and were tormented with scourges and whips.  But one of them made himself the spokesman, and said, “What do you intend to ask and learn of us?  We are ready to die, rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.”  Then the king, being in a rage, commanded pans and cauldrons to be made hot…[2 Macc. 7. 1-3]

Nonetheless, Jews as much as Romans envisaged their nation as a person.  Rome was a goddess, Dea Roma, much worshipped outside Rome but also within the city itself from the time of Hadrian.  To see Israel or Jerusalem as similarly divine was of course impossible for Jews, but Israel was envisaged as the spouse of God within the covenant between God and Israel brokered, according to the account in Exodus, by Moses and sealed on Mount Sinai, or as the wayward child of a loving father.  In both societies the body politic could be understood through metaphors of health and disease.  Sallust described the collapse of morals in Rome during the late Republic: “At first these vices grew slowly; now and then they were punished; finally, when the disease had spread like a deadly plague, the state was changed, and a government second to none in equality and excellence became cruel and intolerable.”  [Sall. Cat. 10.6]  So too Josephus, writing about the state of Judean society before the outbreak of war and perhaps reflecting, like Sallust, the historiographic influence of Thucydides: “That period had become somehow so prolific of crime of every description among the Jews that no deed of iniquity was left unperpetrated…Thus everyone, both in private and in public, was sick.”  In the 50s CE, as soon as one group of disorders was reduced in Judea “another part flared up again, as in a sickening body.”  Josephus addressed himself rhetorically to Jerusalem in the middle of the Roman siege, when the blood of corpses formed pools in the courts of God: “What misery to equal that, most wretched city, have you suffered at the hands of the Romans, who entered to purge with fire your internal pollution?” [Josephus. BJ 7.259-60; 2.264; 5.19]

The differences between Romans and Jews lay in conceptions of what the state is for.  Neither society indulged as much as Greeks had done in the classical and Hellenistic periods in abstract political philosophy and analyses of the structure of the perfect state, but their shared Greek background ensured that some Jews and some Romans reflected on such matters at least a little, and the vocabulary and rhetoric conventional in each society revealed much about their political conceptions.  Among Romans, more extended political philosophizing was not unknown, but in the imperial period it tended to take the form, as in Seneca’s writings, of personal advice to rulers on ethical conduct and advice to subjects on how to maintain both dignity and morality when deprived of power.  Cicero’s treatise On the Republic, written in the political chaos of the late Republic, contained an analysis of the constitution of the ideal state which combined monarchy, oligarchy and democracy, an analysis which owed much to his judgment about earlier Roman history and the political turmoil of his own times, but such theoretical discussions were not much favoured under the benevolent rule of the emperors. 

[Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, by Martin Goodman, Vintage Books, New York, 2007. p.196-7]

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