When Rome Ruled


Since Chanukah is soon coming to an end and I know I’ve at least occasionally had Jewish readers, I feel it’s only appropriate to write something related to this holiday. It’s sort of a multi-faith post, I suppose, as it also deals with the Christmas story and the origins of Christianity. Mostly, though, it’s about Jewish relations with Rome, and the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties.


In the tale of the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid rulers, and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the rather nasty character Antiochus Ephiphanes used it as a shrine to Zeus, one interesting bit that doesn’t come up much is how Judas Maccabeus apparently negotiated a treaty with an up-and-coming power, the famous City of Seven Hills.

As recorded in 1 Maccabees 8, it basically said that the Jews and Romans would aid each other in any future conflicts. Apparently this treaty has never been found, and there’s some doubt that it even existed. Regardless, the tradition that the two peoples became allies in the second century BC clearly exists. After defeating their Greek overlords, the Maccabee family took over the government of Judea, ruling as both kings and priests. Obviously, not everyone in the nation favored this arrangement. Some Jews wanted a Davidic monarch back on the throne, rather than the Levite Hasmoneans. The Pharisees argued for a division between kings and priests. Also, the Hasmoneans were not content with ruling their own nation, but sought to expand it through military conquest. They conquered Idumea (also known as Edom) and forced its inhabitants to convert to Judaism.

Eventually, after the death of Alexander Jannaeus (odd that they’d have a king with a Greek-derived name so soon after rebelling against the Greeks) and his wife Salome, their sons Hyrcanus and Aristobulus battled for control of the throne. It was this Judea, torn by civil war, that a Roman general named Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus sought to control. You might well have heard of him as a member of the First Triumvirate, along with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Pompey knew that a war against the Jews was a bad idea, because they had the reputation as fierce fighters who wouldn’t back down, and this was no wonder after their rebellion against the Seleucids. Hyrcanus, Aristobulus, and the Sanhedrin all appealed to Pompey for help against their opponents (which, in the case of the Sanhedrin, was both potential kings). Pompey made a show of supporting Hyrcanus, but actually did what he could to undermine Jewish independence and make Judea a vassal state of Rome. Since pretty much everyone was willing to allow Roman intervention at this point, it wasn’t that much of a challenge on Pompey’s part to take over.

Royal power in Judea gradually passed to an Idumean named Antipater, an unabashed puppet of Rome who supported anyone who had power. When Julius Caesar overthrew Pompey, Antipater threw in his support for Caesar.


Continuing this policy of siding with the current power in Rome was Antipater’s son Herod, in whose reign over Judea a famous Galilean named Jesus is said to have been born. The Gospel of Matthew has a story about Herod having all of the babies in the Bethlehem area killed, which has no independent confirmation and hence probably never happened. There’s no question as to why the gospel writer would have attributed such an atrocity to Herod, however, as murder was basically a hobby for him. He had several of his own family members killed, and had a reputation of executing many rabbis as well. He married a woman named Mariamne, a relative of the Hasmoneans, in order to secure some legitimacy for himself, but the the Jews never really accepted him. Although he professed faith in Judaism, his Idumean heritage and impious lifestyle made many of his subjects doubt his sincerity in this conviction. In fact, he eventually had Mariamne assassinated. The Herodians remained in control until 92 AD, after which Rome gave up on the puppet kings altogether.

In the first and early second century AD, the Jews launched several revolts against the Romans. The imperial armies suffered some significant losses, but eventually the Romans won, and their revenge was quite severe. The Jews were banned from Jerusalem, and Emperor Hadrian had the name of Judaea changed to Syria Palaestina, after the Philistines who had struggled for control over the area in the past. The name of Jerusalem was also officially changed to Aelia Capitolina, and it was rebuilt as a Roman town. I’ve heard that some Christians, who emerged as a distinct religious group around this time, claim that this harsh treatment of the Jews was their punishment for rejecting Jesus. Personally, I’d say a better explanation is that most imperial powers don’t take too kindly to revolts by people under their control. The development of Christianity really owes a lot to the Roman oppressors, dating back to around the time of Jesus’ birth, when the idea of the coming messiah was at its strongest. Writings from around Antiochus’ time, including the Book of Daniel and parts of 1 Enoch, tell of the Jewish hopes for a great king to save them from oppression, and this notion came back in full force when the Jews found themselves once again under an imperial power. Jesus was hardly the only claimant to the messianic title, and it could be argued that he wasn’t at all a successful messiah due to his being executed after a fairly short ministry, but he had some great publicity after his death. Judaism, on the other hand, became less messianic in nature after the revolts failed.

And with that rather bleak ending, I wish you all happy holidays!

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3 Responses to When Rome Ruled

  1. vilajunkie says:

    It’s probably different for each denomination and individual family, but I know Hanukkah isn’t that significant of a holiday even though it’s counted among the major ones. My (Reformed) Jewish friend has told me his family doesn’t really celebrate it at all; maybe having family over some nights, but all the customs that us non-Jews hear about that happen on Hanukkah were really only done when he and his siblings were still kids.

    • Nathan says:

      Hanukkah is fairly minor as far as Jewish holidays go, but gained somewhat in prominence due to the fact that it was a Jewish alternative to Christmas. As such, I think it’s more popular with children than adults.

      • vilajunkie says:

        And of course SNL writers and actors who grew up in Jewish neighborhoods who want to parody how ridiculous the forced connection between Christmas and Hanukkah really is.

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