Jews under Roman Rule - W. D. Morrison

Roman Policy Before the Conquest
(B.C. 164-65.)

The Romans first entered into political relations with the Jews in the course of the second century before Christ. At this period the Romans had risen to a position of undisputed supremacy among the nations of antiquity. The power of Carthage was shattered at the battle of Zama (BC. 201); the once formidable kingdom of Macedonia was on the eve of becoming a Roman province; and the Syrian monarchy, after the defeat of King Antiochus at Magnesia (B.C. 190), had to accept such hard conditions of peace as reduced this great monarchy to the rank of a vassal state. In political sagacity, as well as in warlike qualities, the Roman people at this epoch were without rivals, and Roman power extended far beyond Roman arms. From the Pillars of Hercules in the west to the banks of the Orontes in the east Roman influence was supreme and the word of Rome was law. The might and valour of the Romans, as well as their policy and patience, had become known among the Jews, and one Jewish writer speaks of them as a people who could make and unmake kings at their will.

Very different was the position occupied by the inhabitants of Palestine. The captives who sat and wept by the waters of Babylon did not become a free people when the more ardent among them were permitted to return to their native land. The little community of Jews which settled in Jerusalem and restored the temple of their fathers still continued under the dominion of the Persians, and on the overthrow of the Persian monarchy by Alexander the Great, the Jews of Palestine simply experienced a change of masters (B.C. 332). After Alexander's death his inheritance was divided between the two Greek lines of kings which arose in Egypt and Syria, and Judaea was sometimes in possession of the one line and sometimes of the other, according to the varying fortune of diplomacy and war. During the whole of this period the Jews had no thought of asserting their independence. They were perfectly contented to remain in a state of political vassalage so long as they were permitted to enjoy religious liberty. After the exile the Jews had ceased to be a nation, and had become a church. It was not a common country, but a common faith, which united them. Patriotism did not extend beyond the feeling that the soil of Palestine was holy ground, which ought only to be inhabited by the chosen people of God.

Sometime before the Romans actually came into contact with this religious community the principles of Roman policy profoundly affected the position of the Jews. In the second century before Christ Palestine, after many struggles, finally became a part of the Syrian monarchy. Now, it had become a settled purpose with the Romans to weaken and hamper this monarchy, and to prevent its recovery from the defeat which the Roman army had inflicted at Magnesia on the Syrian king (B.C. 190). A striking instance of this policy is seen in the attitude which the Romans took up towards Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria, when he was on the point of bringing an arduous campaign against Egypt to a successful close. The king was besieging Alexandria, when a Roman envoy appeared in his camp and bluntly ordered him to retreat. Antiochus hesitated, and asked for time to consider this peremptory demand. But the envoy immediately drew a circle in the sand around the king, and said, "Before you leave this circle the Senate must have an answer." To defy the imperious messenger was hopeless; Antiochus reluctantly abandoned his enterprise and returned home (B.C. 168). Before he could possibly meet the Romans on equal terms, the king saw that it was necessary to weld the different nationalities of which his empire was composed into a homogeneous people. The only way of accomplishing this object was to induce his subjects to adopt a common form of faith He accordingly issued an edict to that effect a step which immediately led him into collision with the Jews. Syrian emissaries were sent into Judaea to abolish Judaism and establish the worship of Olympian Zeus. The abomination of desolation was set up in the Temple; the Sacred Scriptures were burnt; the practice of circumcision was forbidden on pain of death, and all the horrors of a religious persecution descended on the land (B.C. 168).

Persecution did not produce the results which the despot had anticipated. For some time the people did not pass beyond the bounds of passive resistance. At length the spirit of the community began to rise against a state of things which was making life intolerable, and it ultimately found public expression in the daring conduct of an aged priest named Mattathias. This man belonged to a family of distinction, and occupied a prominent position in the town of Modein, situated westward of Jerusalem. One day he was called upon by a royal official to use his influence in favour of the establishment of heathenism in the town. But the old man had for some time beheld with growing indignation the persecution which was being inflicted on his co-religionists. He not only refused the Syrian officer all assistance, but slew him while he was making preparations for a heathen sacrifice.

The insurrection of the Jews had virtually begun (B.C. 167). Mattathias and his sons fled to the hill country of Judaea, and were soon joined by others who had caught the spirit of revolt. Mattathias died in the following year, but he left five heroic sons to carry on the contest. His third son Judas, who received the name of Maccabaeus, was selected by the insurgents to succeed his father (B.C. 166-161). Under Judas the revolt assumed larger proportions, and in a short time he was able to meet and defeat the Syrians in the open field. The situation which the Romans had created in Syria was favourable to the Jewish cause. In order to find money to pay the tribute imposed by Rome upon his house, Antiochus had to undertake an expedition into the Far East, which depleted Syria of a large number of troops. During the king's absence the government of the country was entrusted to a high functionary named Lysias. Lysias took a serious view of the rebellion in Judaea, and dispatched a force under the command of three generals to suppress it. But this army met with alarming reverses at the hands of Judas, and Lysias was obliged to go to Palestine in person to conduct the campaign. Meanwhile Antiochus had been apprised of the disasters which had befallen his captains, and was hastening homewards to assume the supreme direction of affairs, when death put a termination to his career (B.C. 164). The pressure of Roman policy upon Antiochus was the indirect cause of the Jewish revolt, and the immediate cause of the king's inability to suppress it.

After the death of Antiochus, the distracted state of Syria and the struggles of rival pretenders for the crown strengthened the position of the Jewish patriots. Antiochus V., son of the late king, was only nine years old when he began to reign (B.C. 164). His father had appointed a courtier named Philip regent during his son's minority. But this arrangement did not satisfy Lysias, who had the young king in his custody, and who was carrying on the campaign in Palestine when the news of his supersession by Philip arrived. Lysias immediately left off the contest with Judas, and devoted his energies to the task of resisting Philip's claims. At this juncture, if any historic value can be attached to a statement in the Second Book of the Maccabees, two Roman envoys, Quintus Memmius and Titus Manlius, who were probably on their way from Alexandria to Antioch, offered to take charge of Jewish interests at the Syrian capital. Peace is said to have been the outcome of their efforts (B.C. 162). But it was a peace which did not endure. In the following year the Syrian king once more invaded Palestine at the head of a great army, and, in spite of the strenuous opposition of Judas, laid siege to the Holy City. Famine soon reduced the garrison to the last extremities, and their fate would have been a hard one had not the disordered condition of Syria compelled the besiegers to accept honourable terms. Whilst the siege was in progress news came to the Syrian camp that Philip had put himself at the head of a large army, with the intention of enforcing his claims to the regency. No time was to be lost, and the king, acting on the advice of Lysias, accorded the Jews religious liberty. Jerusalem capitulated; and the same order of things was established as had existed previous to the insurrection.

Soon after these events Antiochus V. was dethroned and executed by his relative, Demetrius I. In Judea the new monarch allowed the people to retain the religious liberties granted them by his predecessor, and had he exercised more judgment in the selection of a High Priest, it would have been impossible for Judas to renew the struggle against Syria with any prospect of success. The Assidans or Pious Ones, who afterwards developed into the party known as the Pharisees, and who, while their religion was at stake, were devoted followers of Judas, were satisfied with the attainment of religious freedom. But Judas and his friends, who formed the party which afterwards became the Sadducees, considered the sacrifices that the people had already made created a new situation, and were unwilling to relax their efforts till the country was completely independent. The Assidaeans, consisting of the scribes and the bulk of the population, accepted Alcimus, the High Priest whom Demetrius had appointed, and were disposed for peace. But the senseless barbarities of Alcimus threw the Assidaeans once more into the arms of the war party, and the struggle began afresh. The High Priest was obliged to flee from Jerusalem; Demetrius sent an army to reinstate him, but Judas defeated the Syrian forces, and the Jews enjoyed a short period of repose.

Nevertheless, Judas was well aware that Demetrius would not patiently endure the discomfiture of his generals, and that in a prolonged conflict the small community of Jews would eventually be overcome. He accordingly considered it expedient to seek assistance from the Romans; and two Jewish delegates, Eupolemos and Jason, were sent to Italy to form an alliance with Rome. The Senate, which never neglected an opportunity of crippling the Syrian monarchy, accorded a favourable reception to the Jewish envoys, and acknowledged the independence of their country. It was clearly in the interests of Rome that an independent nation should separate the Syrian and Egyptian monarchies, and form a barrier to any union of their forces hostile to the Republic. While these negotiations were taking place the Syrian army again invaded Palestine. Judas went forth to meet them, and, after a desperate conflict, was defeated and slain (B.C. 161). The death of their leader shattered the party of freedom, and the Romans, probably because they saw no distinct centre of authority left standing in the country, ignored the treaty they had just made with the Jewish envoys, and left Judaea to its fate.

It was not by direct intervention that the Romans helped the Jews forward on the path of independence; it was by the disintegrating action of Roman policy on the kingdom of Syria. The Jewish leaders did not fail to take advantage of the opportunities which were thus afforded them. About nine years after the death of Judas Maccabaeus, the Romans started a new pretender to the Syrian crown in the person of Alexander Balas, a young man of unknown origin (B.C. 152). Supported by the allies of Rome, Balm was able to take the field against Demetrius, who became alarmed at the threatening aspect of affairs. Jonathan, a brother of Judas, was then at the head of the Jewish patriots (B.C. 161-142), and Demetrius attempted by concessions to win him over to his side. When the pretender Balas heard of this, he immediately outbade Demetrius, and offered Jonathan the High Priesthood as the price of his support. Jonathan sold himself to the highest bidder, and, notwithstanding further profuse promises from Demetrius, the Jewish leader remained true to his allegiance.

The war between the two rivals did not last long; Demetrius was overthrown and slain (B.C. 151), and at the marriage of the new king, Jonathan was appointed civil and military governor of Judaea. Whilst these changes were taking place in Syria, the Romans had completed the ruin of Carthage, and reduced Greece and Macedonia to the position of provinces. Jonathan who was a sagacious statesman, and had secured more for his people by diplomacy than the sword, no doubt understood the meaning of such events and dispatched an embassy to Rome. While his agents were negotiating an alliance with the Senate, Jonathan was basely murdered by a fresh Syrian pretender, and Simon his elder brother became head of the community.

Under the wise guidance of Simon (B.C. 142-135) the Jews attained a high degree of happiness and prosperity. From being a religious community, they had once more become a nation, and as a reward for Simon's services, the people at a solemn assembly proclaimed him and his descendants High Priests and Ethnarchs till a faithful prophet should arise. Simon assisted Demetrius II., king of Syria, in resisting the pretender Trypho, who had murdered his brother Jonathan; and Demetrius, in return for this aid, renounced all claim to tribute, and acknowledged the political autonomy of Judaea. Simon, however, had little faith in the promises and concessions of Syrian monarchs, and, like his two predecessors, trusted for security to an alliance with Rome. Numenius was charged with the conduct of the negotiations, and his labours were so successful, that the Romans issued a decree to all the peoples of the East, announcing that they had entered into a league of friendship with the Jews. It is not likely that this resolution of the Senate came into the hands of Demetrius, for at this period he was taken prisoner by the Parthians, who were steadily pressing westwards, and absorbing the Syrian possessions beyond the Euphrates.

Demetrius was succeeded by his brother Antiochus VII. (B.C. 141-131), a man of character and ability, who finally disposed of the pretender Trypho, and quickly made himself undisputed master of Syria. Antiochus was the last Syrian king who displayed capacity on the throne, and during his reign the Maccabaean princes had to submit to a curtailment of their authority. As long as Antiochus was engaged in fighting Trypho, he maintained a very friendly attitude towards Simon, but when this pretender was disposed of, the king altered his demeanour and demanded possession of the citadel of Jerusalem, the coast towns of Joppa and Gazara, together with the arrears of tribute which he had formerly consented to remit. Simon offered to pay a hundred talents as tribute for Joppa and Gazara, but Antiochus was not satisfied with this proposal, and sent an army into Palestine to enforce his claims in full. Simon was too old to take the field in person, but the Syrian forces were defeated by his two sons John and Judas who commanded the Jews. Simon did not long survive this victory; he was basely assassinated by Ptolemaeus, one of his sons-in-law, who was plotting to obtain the chief power (B.C. 135).

Simon's son, John Hyrcanus (B.C. 135-105), now became head of the state. He soon disposed of Ptolemaeus and his pretensions, but Antiochus was a far more formidable difficulty; he had no thought of abandoning his claims on the Jews because one of his commanders had been defeated in attempting to enforce them. Conducting a second campaign into Judaea in person, Antiochus compelled the Jews to seek shelter within the walls of Jerusalem, which he besieged. After a time hunger forced the brave defenders to sue for terms. As a result of the negotiations, the Jews had to surrender their arms, to give hostages, and five hundred talents in money, in order to be spared the presence of a Syrian garrison at Jerusalem. They had also to pay an annual tribute for Joppa and Gazara, and for some other places under Jewish rule, which were reckoned by Antiochus as a part of Syria (B.C. 134).

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison

Hyrcanus, however, was determined at the first opportunity to set aside the arrangements which necessity had forced upon the Jews. With this object he sent three ambassadors to Rome, after the death of Antiochus (B.C. 129), to renew the treaty of friendship which had existed between the Romans and his predecessors, and to complain of the Syrians for depriving him of places, which the Senate had formerly acknowledged as Jewish territory. In accordance with the settled principles of Roman policy in the East, the Jewish mission was received in a very friendly manner, their grievances were attentively heard, and a decree was issued, ordering the Syrians to relinquish their claims to tribute, and declaring void whatever Antiochus had done in Judaea in opposition to previous declarations of the Senate. Whether the Syrians obeyed or disregarded the injunctions of the Senate is not known. In any case, the Jews had not long to wait for the restoration of what they had lost. The prolonged disorders which followed the death of Antiochus, enabled John Hyrcanus not only to resume his old position, but also to add Idumaea and Samaria to his dominions.

After the subjugation of these two provinces, John endeavoured to settle some parts of Samaria with Idumaean colonists. But the Samaritans resisted this line of action, and sought assistance from Antiochus Cyzikenus (B.C. 113), who was then king of what still remained of Syria. Antiochus responded to the call of the Samaritans, and, invading Judaea, captured some towns along the coast, of which Joppa was one. These coast towns had been specially recognized by the Romans as parts of Jewish territory, and John sent ambassadors to the Senate to complain of Antiochus. The Senators accordingly issued a fresh decree, ordering the Syrian garrisons to retire, and likewise forbidding Antiochus to molest the allies of Rome. But the progress of events showed that it was no longer necessary for the Jews to lean on Roman support in their contest with the decaying Syrian power. The forces of Antiochus were incapable of holding the field against the Jewish prince, and had to withdraw from Palestine.

The latter part of the reign of John Hyrcanus brings us to a period when the Jews had no longer anything to fear from the hostility of Syria. At the close of a fifty years' conflict, the Jews from being little more than a purely religious community had again become a nation, and were in possession of the ancient boundaries of the promised land. Under Hyrcanus they attained as high a pitch of prosperity, as in the famous days of David and Solomon. This success was due partly to their own heroism, and partly to a fortunate conjunction of circumstances. Nothing could exceed the bravery of the little community in asserting its claims, first to religious and then to political liberty. But the admirable qualities displayed in the Maccabaean revolt, would have been wasted in the end if the Syrian monarchy had not been in a state of embarrassment and decay. At the time the Jews began to show symptoms of revolt, and during the whole course of the struggle, the Syrians were weakened from within by dynastic troubles, and from without by the pressure of the Parthians on the east, and the Romans on the west. The resources of Syria must have been sorely exhausted by the interminable civil wars which the different pretenders to the throne waged against each other. But in spite of these internal troubles, Syria would have ultimately proved too strong for the Jews if her power had not been undermined by Roman diplomacy, and her territory constantly diminished by Parthian invasion.

At the time the Jews were fighting for their independence, the Parthians were making themselves masters of the Syrian provinces beyond the Euphrates, and the Romans were not only extorting a heavy tribute from the Syrian kings, but also compelling them to keep such a small army, that the monarchy was reduced to a condition approaching military impotence. It is doubtful if the various alliances of the Jews with Rome did much to help them forward on the path of independence. Some of these supposed alliances rest upon very slender historical foundations, and none of them, as far as can be seen, were of a very practical character. Roman professions of friendship were never backed up by Roman arms; the Senate willingly made use of the Jews to effect the destruction of Syria, but it did not desire to involve itself in adventures which would have necessitated additional conquests in the East. This is very probably the reason why Roman interference on behalf of the Jews was merely diplomatic and never military.

In the next chapter we shall see the Romans, in consequence of an alteration of the balance of power in the Republic, abandon the old policy of abstaining from military intervention in Eastern affairs. We shall at the same time find the Jews displaying an utter lack of capacity to form themselves into a homogeneous nationality; we shall also see the two parties within the young state—the Pharisees and Sadducees—producing such a condition of disorder as to lead to Roman interference, and the downfall of Jewish independence.