In the year 63 BC, the Roman General Pompey was invited to intervene in Judea’s internal power struggles. The Romans spent the next two centuries fighting an endless succession of wars in an effort to subjugate this most rebellious province in the empire. By the end of the Great Revolt, they mistakenly believed that Jewish aspirations for automony were crushed forever, and the emperor prematurely celebrated this final victory by erecting a triumphal arch in Rome. This arch bears what the most famous engraving in ancient Jewish history: the sack of the Great Temple. It is believed to be the only surviving contemporary visual record of Jerusalem and the Great Temple in the 1st century AD. The Arch of Titus is part of the Historic Center of Rome UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the mid-2nd century BC, even as the Maccabees struggled for independence from the decaying Seleucid Empire, a new power was rising in the west. After centuries of warfare and expansion in Italy, the Romans were beginning to absorb the tiny city-states and small nations that had emerged in the break-up of Alexander’s Empire in the east. From Macedonia and Greece and Asia Minor they pressed eastwards, climaxing in a titanic struggle against the Seleucids, the most powerful of Alexander’s successor states. The Seleucids, weakened by their wars with Persia and by rebellions in Judea, were defeated, leaving the rest of the east wide open to the Romans.
In 63 BC, the people of Judea were engulfed in civil war even as the Romans arrived on their doorstep. One of the two claimants to the throne, Aristobulus II, sent an envoy to Pompey asking for his aid. Pompey sent in his legions and restored order. Soon afterward, the Romans began playing off the various factions against each other, until Judea’s rulers were little more than puppets. By the time the people and leaders of Judea realized what had happened, it was too late, and Judea was a client kingdom of Rome.
However, foreign rule did not sit well with the Jews. Due to perpetual restlessness, the Romans were forced to maintain large standing armies in the province. In the end, they were forced to put down three major rebellions. The first rebellion, also known as the Great Revolt, is the one that is most horribly etched in the collective memories of all Jews. After some brief Jewish victories in 66 and 67 AD, the Romans regrouped and invaded Judea with the most powerful army the region had ever seen. General Vespasian, hand picked by Emperor Nero, systematically crushed the Jewish revolt throughout the countryside, then turned his sights on Jerusalem.
The Romans laid siege to the holy city of the Jews. Jerusalem’s defenders, the Zealots, fought back ferociously, but in vain. On Tisha B’Av the city fell. Towards the end of the fighting, the Temple of Herod was set on fire. It soon lay in ruins, along with the rest Jerusalem. In the ensuing days, the city was sacked, and its treasures hauled back to Rome as booty. To commemorate the victory, the Romans constructed a triumphal arch in honor of Emperor Titus. The Arch of Titus is one of the most complete surviving monuments of ancient Rome. It is most famous for its depiction of the sacking of the Second Temple and the theft of its great golden menorah. For nearly two-thousand years it was tradition among Jews not to walk beneath the arch. This tradition was broken in 1948, when thousands of Italian Jews marched beneath the arch in celebration of Israel’s independence.
The Arch of Titus is part of the ruins that mark what was once downtown Rome. It stands inside the Forum near to the Palatine Hill. At fifty feet in height, it is one of the largest surviving monuments of ancient Rome. Completed at the end of the 1st century AD, the arch has remained in remarkably good condition, though it did undergo substantial restoration in the 1700s. It is covered with bas-reliefs, scrollwork and engravings celebrating the great victory of Vespasian and Titus in Judea. A later engraving dating from the 19th century signifies the arch’s rededication by the Catholic Church.
The bas-relief for which the Arch of Titus is most famous depicts the looting of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. In the depiction, Roman soldiers and slaves, the latter probably Jewish, are seen tramping through the ruins of Jerusalem. The building in the background is likely the Temple. The slaves are hauling away treasures, including the giant golden menorah which once crowned the Temple. They are also carrying out the sacred trumpets as well as other unidentifiable objects. This bas-relief is famous for being the only contemporary depiction of the Second Temple in any form ever found.
The Roman Forum is located just southeast of the center of the modern city of Rome, and is easily accessible on foot or by public transportation. The entire Roman Forum, including the Arch of Titus, has been preserved as an open-air museum. It is open every from 9:00am until one hour before sunset. Admission to the site is Eu11.00. Web: www.capitolium.org (official website)
A Jewish community has existed in Rome since the 1st Century BC. Strangely, despite the fact that Rome was home to the Roman Catholic Church, the Jews survived in Rome far longer than they did in many other more tolerant places. The greatest legacy of the early Roman Jews is the Catacombs of the Villa Torlonia. So named because an entrance was discovered in the residence of the Torlonia family, these underground crypts extend out over a wide area. They are one of the few, and certainly the largest, Jewish catacombs ever discovered. Another famous such site being the Jewish Catacombs of Venosa in southern Italy. In 1986 the Great Synagogue of Rome was the site of one the greatest moments in Jewish-Catholic relations, when Pope John Paul II became the first Pope since Roman times to enter a synagogue, where he publicly prayed with Rabbi Elio Toaff.