Thursday, February 09, 2012

Roman conquest and dispersion

We attended an enlightening lecture at AACI given by Dr. Hank Citron, former Professor of History at US universities for 40 years who has an apartment in Netanya and shares his time between here and the US. His talk was on "Roman conquest and dispersion," namely how is it that the Jews survived the Roman conquest and are still with us, while many other cultures vanished after such conquests. He pointed out a stele in the British museum dated to 1290 bce that translates as "Israel is captured and its seed destroyed." Not quite!

He started with the conquest of the Incas in South America by Franciso Pissaro the Spanish conquistador. From 1532 Pissaro defeated the forces of the Inca Kings and subsequently laid waste to their land. He destroyed every city they occupied, except for Macchu Picchu that was hidden up in the high Andes. Millions of Indians were murdered and their culture never recovered. They were converted to Christianity and to speaking Spanish and their religion did not survive.

The Jews in Judea would not accept Roman practices, especially that the Roman Emperors were Gods. They revolted in 66 ce and the Emperor Vespasian took four Roman Legions to subjugate this stiff-necked people. His son Titus, who later became Emperor, completed the conquest of Jerusalem in 70 ce. They attacked the city, overcame its defences, and then set it on fire. They destroyed the Temple, the focus of the Jewish religion and culture, and then forbade the practice of Judaism throughout the land and expelled all Jews from Jerusalem. In so doing so they killed approximately 2 million Jews and forced another ca. 900,000 into slavery (according to Josephus in "The Jewish Wars"). The Arch of Titus, the oldest of only three surviving Roman triumphal arches, famously has reliefs on its walls depicting the removal of the Temple implements, including the huge gold menorah and silver trumpets, as spoils to Rome. Jews were not allowed to live in Jerusalem for 300 years! Yet, somehow the Jews survived the Romans whereas the Incas did not survive the Spanish onslaught.

Much credit for this must be given to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who although alive was taken out of the Temple in a coffin. He then moved to Yavne, a small and obscure village by the sea, where he set up a secret academy (yeshiva) and where he and other scribes for the next several hundred years wrote down the oral laws and practices of the Jewish people. He was instrumental in making sure that Judaism and the Jewish people survived without the focus on the Temple in Jerusalem. Several hundred years later Jewish academies thrived in Gallilee, for example in Zippori, where Jews and Greek-speaking Romans lived side-by-side. Jews were dispersed to Europe and other areas by the Roman conquests, some as merchants others as slaves, and many moved to regions outside Roman influence, such as Persia and Babylonia (where the remnants lived until Saddam Hussein).

The only nation to survive intact from antiquity are the Jews. It was because the Jews had a literate culture and powerful beliefs as well as other factors that they managed to retain their continuity despite the hostility of the surrounding peoples. Only in our times, with the ingathering of the exiles and the establishment of the State of Israel has the process of the Roman conquest and dispersion been reversed.


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