A History Tour of Rome with Flavius Josephus

Flavius Josephus: Roma!

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 Of course, the serious Bible student has heard of the great historian Flavius Josephus, whose reports are considered trustworthy. Where would he take us if we were whisked back to him in ancient Roma?

Rome, A Tour with Flavius Josephus

Stephen Newdell with notes from an article by David Laskin, New York Times, March 2018

Where, but in the Eternal City, is it possible to map a 2,000-year-old eyewitness account of history onto an intact urban fabric?

Even after two millenniums of crumbling, without a book or a guide, the image of the seven-branched candelabrum — the Jewish menorah — is unmistakable on the inner wall of the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum.

arch titus 1

Stand at the base of the single-passage arch and look up. Lordosing an old spine and straining old eyes, one discerns the scene in bas-relief as it ripples to life.

Observe straining porters, trudging along what is plainly the route of a Roman triumph, bearing aloft the golden menorah and other sacred loot plundered from the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The opposite side of the arch depicts the victory lap of the chief plunderer, who did cause the stones of the temple to be knocked down and heated, because the “mortar” between them was pure gold! As Jesus had predicted, not one stone had been left upon another. If it was gold, or made of gold, or in some other way valuable, Titus ordered it plundered and brought to Rome.

arch titut 2

Gazing upon the Arch of Titus one marvels at its massive yet graceful form, and recoils from its brazen braggadocio, telling the story of Emperor Titus — who, as an ambitious young general, crushed the Jews’ revolting in Jerusalem, leveled their Temple and brought enough booty and slaves back to Rome to finance an epic construction program that included the Colosseum.

Flavus Josephus

With Flavius Josephus as our guide we begin to completely comprehend the significance of this monument in Jewish and Roman history.

“The luckiest traitor ever,” in the words of the historian Mary Beard Historian Flavius Josephus was a first-century Jewish general who threw in his lot with the Roman legions that destroyed his homeland. When Titus and his father, Vespasian, returned to Rome after the Judean war to inaugurate the Flavian dynasty — successor to the Julio-Claudian dynasty that Augustus founded and Nero destroyed — Josephus went with them. “The Jew of Rome,” as the German writer Lion Feuchtwanger called him in an eponymous historical novel, spent the rest of his days living in luxury in Flavian Rome and writing the history of his times. Historian Mary Beard called him “the luckiest traitor ever!

Turncoat? Asylum seeker? Pragmatic visionary? Clearly, the holiness had left Jerusalem and the prophetic warnings were about to come true. This was easy to see, and likely Flavius decided to go where he could be safe and secure in his retirement year. That would have been a far better alternative than to be among those older men slaughtered, or young strong ones taken into slavery!

Debatable as it may be, perhaps General Flavius Josephus made an effort to save lives and reduce cruelty.

Historians have long debated Josephus’s motives and character. What’s indisputable is that most of what is known about the violent encounter between Rome and Judea during this period comes out of his work. What’s astonishing is, with a sharp eye and a bit of research, we may yet today walk in Josephus’s footsteps in contemporary Rome. Where but in the Eternal City is it possible to map a 2,000-year-old eyewitness account onto an intact urban fabric?

Portico d'Ottavia

 

The Portico d’Ottavia in Rome>

I take no credit. Mirco Modolo, the archeologist-archivist in Rome guides us on a walking tour of the streets Josephus walked some 2020 years ago. Today this artery is a rather featureless channel running between the Colosseum  (below)

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and the Circus Maximus  — but Mirco, whose youth and reserve belie a tenacious erudition, reminded me that we were standing on the likely processional route chiseled into the marble of the Arch of Titus and inked even more indelibly on the pages of Josephus’s book “The Jewish War.” This title hints to us that perhaps Josephus did whatever he could to prevent Roman cruelty being worse than it was.

“At the break of dawn,” Josephus writes, “Vespasian and Titus issued forth, crowned with laurel and clad in the traditional purple robes, and proceeded to the Octavian walks [the Portico d’Ottavia, now a soaring ruin at the edge of the Jewish ghetto].”

From the Portico d’Ottavia to the top of the Capitoline Hill, where all proper Roman triumphal processions culminated, is — and was — a 10-minute stroll. But it is clear from Josephus’s account that the imperial entourage took the long way around, circling counterclockwise around the outer precipices of the Palatine before entering the Forum on the side now dominated by the Colosseum.

Overview

Above an overview photo: includes the Forum, with views of the Colosseum, the Arch of Titus and the Via Sacra, the central axis of the Forum.

Mirco walks us halfway up the Palatine to a terraced ledge overlooking the Forum. “See those tourists following the lady with the flag?” he asked. “They’re walking on the Via Sacra — the main axis through the Forum that the Flavian procession traversed before ascending the Capitol.”

Via Sacra

Via Sacra

Time has laid the columns low. Vespasian and Titus, riding chariots, would have been two dabs of purple surging up the ramparts of the Capitoline through a sea of white togas. In their train, thousands of Jewish slaves shuffled with bowed heads while the heaps of plundered gold and silver bobbed above them, winking in the sun. Josephus reports, “Last of all the spoils, was carried a copy of the Jewish Law” — the Torah.

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Rabbi holding Torah During Worship Ceremony

By God’s Grace, the Torah, God’s law and hidden messages, went everywhere Jews went and by a mystical power wielded by only God Almighty, it kept them together as a community and today returns them to the homeland of their forefathers. “THIS year in Jerusalem!”

Good to Know:  In the time of Ancient Rome, most kings couldn’t write their own name. Meanwhile, since the time of King David, 1000 BCE (approximately 3,010 years ago) it was required by the king that all children must begin to learn to read the first five books of today’s Bible, which today is called, “The Torah.”

The word “Torah” in Hebrew means “to guide/teach” (cf. Lev 10:11). The meaning of the word is therefore “teaching”, “doctrine”, or “instruction”. It commonly is thought of as the Word of God, and Jesus amongst the Jewish people was called by some “Torah” which meant, “The Living Word of God walking among us.”

Learning to read

Jewish children in Orthodox Jewish communities begin learning to read Torah, in Hebrew, at age 6 or 7

They are expected to be able to read Hebrew and translate Torah from the Hebrew they are reading, into English reasonably well by age 13, at which time there usually is a “Bar Mitzvah” celebration, indicating the child has become an adult. Bar (בַּר) is a Jewish Babylonian Aramaic word literally meaning “son” (בֵּן), while bat (בַּת) means “daughter” in Hebrew, and mitzvah (מִצְוָה) means “commandment” or “law” (plural: mitzvot). Thus bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah literally translate to “son of commandment” and “daughter of commandment”.

Reading Torah2

When this young person can read and write Hebrew and understand Gods Law as was handed down through the generations in its original language, and then perform a ceremony including the reciting and singing of prayer before the congregation, his/her formative religious education is completed.

Those who choose to continue to study to become a Rabbi must prove their competency in language reading and translation, and their understanding of the law during oral questioning. When the questioning is done, the college professors determine where in the educational program the student will fit in and continue study for an additional 4 to 5 years with the final year completed in Israel.

Jewish people are sometimes called, “The People of The Book.” For them, God’s Law is paramount. It is everything. Thus, being allowed to bring a copy of The Torah to Rome was seen by many as God’s favor and a miracle. Even in their slavery and misery they could still have a copy of The Torah near them, and someone to read from it to them. Through the many years that have followed they have never forgotten that they were dispersed across the known world because their forefathers turned their back on God, and threw God, His righteous ways and His Law out of their society, their classrooms, their Temples, their homes and their lives. The punishment for this was the conquering and destruction of Jerusalem and the collapse of Israel.

America has followed the same pattern. Could America also be conquered and her people dispersed as slaves across the world? Prophecy seems to indicate so!

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