Excerpted from Dawn to Destiny:
"At the moment Shlomo married the daughter of Pharaoh, the divine emissary Gavriel descended and drove a reed into the sea. Silt gathered around it, upon which was built the great city of Rome.”
The Sages understood that the rise of the great and awful Roman Empire was no mere historical accident, but Hashem’s response to a decline of spiritual sensitivity and commitment within the Jewish nation that traces its roots back to the generation of Shlomo Hamelech. It is therefore worthwhile to examine briefly the evolution of Rome, to better understand the role it played — and continues to play — in the unfolding of Jewish history.
We have already explained (in Sections 7.4 and 7.5) that Hashem decreed the division of the Jewish kingdom because of the idolatry practiced by Shlomo’s wives. According to Roman legend, Rome was founded in 753 BCE — during the period of Shlomo’s great-grandson Asa’s reign, who failed to seize the opportunity to reunite the divided Jewish kingdom. In 509 BCE, about the same time that Menasheh Hamelech’s campaign of murder and idolatry sealed the heavenly decree of Jewish exile, the citizens of Rome drove out their Etruscan rulers and established the first Roman Republic. And by 264 BCE, during the reign of the same Ptolemy Philadelphus who commissioned the Septuagint, Rome had consolidated its rule over the Italian Peninsula and embarked upon its earliest expansion in the first of the Punic Wars, the beginning of its rise toward European domination.
By the second century BCE, Rome had extended its reach far enough to tilt the balance of power in the Middle East and prevent either the Seleucid Greeks or the Ptolemaic Egyptians from gaining absolute control over the region. For the next hundred years, Roman policy unwittingly aided the Chashmona’im in playing one aggressor against the other, helping first to establish and later to preserve Jewish autonomy.
But the benefits of Roman expansion came to an abrupt end shortly after the arrival of Pompey. As we have already recounted (in Section 15.5), the Roman general’s conquest and occupation of Syria in 63 BCE prompted the feuding brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus to seek his mediation in their fruitless civil war. Pompey took their request as an invitation to occupy Judea and make it a vassal state of Rome. Thus began a series of tragedies culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the great Diaspora.
Pompey was a powerful political player as well as a successful general. Returning to Rome in 60 BCE, he allied himself with Crassus, a fellow general and one of the richest men in Rome, and with an influential Roman politician who would soon become known to the world as Julius Caesar. Together, these men seized control of the Roman government and declared themselves the First Triumvirate.
The alliance endured for a decade, until Julius Caesar, flush with his military success in defeating the tribes of Gaul, turned his army back toward Rome and crossed the Rubicon River to enter the poorly defended capital. Pompey fled and raised his own army, but was defeated by Julius in Greece at the Battle of Pharsalus the following year (48 BCE). Pompey fled again, this time to Egypt, where he was murdered.
Julius consolidated his forces and became Caesar of Rome by 45 BCE, marking the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. But his success was short-lived, for he was assassinated the following year. The sage Hillel, a contemporary of Julius, was ostensibly referring to Pharaoh when he said, “Because you drowned others, you were drowned; and those who drowned you will ultimately be drowned.” But his words apply equally well to Julius, who was murdered entering the Roman Senate. Indeed, of Caesar’s assassins, Cassius committed suicide after the defeat of his forces at the Battle of Phillipi in 42 BCE, in which his co-conspirator Brutus was killed. Ptolemy of Egypt, who was responsible for the murder of Pompey, was himself drowned in the Nile.
The victors of Phillipi were Marc Antony, Julius’s former deputy Lepidus and Julius’s godson Octavian (who would later become Caesar Augustus). Together, they formed the Second Triumvirate, which, like the First, lasted about a decade before disintegrating into civil war. After defeating the combined forces of Marc Antony and his mistress, Cleopatra of Egypt, at Actium in 30 BCE, Octavian ruled unchallenged for the next sixteen years.
Like a cat with many lives, Antipater Ha’edomi survived one political upheaval after another. In many ways, it was the political instability within the Roman Empire that provided an ideal environment for Antipater and, later, his son Herod to manipulate their way into power. In the process, both would subject the Jewish people to capricious violence and pointless suffering.
Lobbying persuasively for his puppet, Hyrcanus, Antipater won the support of Pompey, then successfully switched his allegiance to Julius Caesar, and then to Caesar’s assassin Cassius. Even after Antipater’s brutal governing tactics led to his own assassination, Herod showed the same guile in parleying his father’s connections to his own political advantage. Herod ingratiated himself with Marc Antony and later with Augustus until he had attained the highest reaches of power.
At first indifferent to Jewish custom and practice, the Romans grew increasingly hostile toward Jews. Ironically, the Romans viewed the Jews as atheistic for their belief in a single, incorporeal G-d and their rejection of the Roman pantheon. They bristled at the Jewish belief system that demanded segregation from Roman culture, implicitly negated everything that Roman society stood for, and became seen as the source of Jewish rebellion. Furthermore, the Romans didn’t know what to make of a people who had no interest in “bread and circuses,” the gladiatorial spectacle and epicurean revelry the Roman nobility used to pacify the lower classes and indulge the privileged. In particular, the ritual of circumcision, which symbolized the Jewish values of modesty and moderation, struck the Romans as bizarre and incomprehensible.
No longer willing to let the Jews live in peace as Roman subjects, Rome eventually institutionalized the suppression of Jewish observance. Vespasian imposed — and his son Domitian strictly enforced — a two drachma “Jewish tax” as tribute to the Roman god Jupiter primarily to humiliate the Jews and make them complicit in idolatry. When the Jews persisted in asserting their unique cultural character, they found themselves subject to a level of violent oppression that eventually exceeded that of their previous three oppressors — Bavel, Persia, and Greece — combined.
In the curses prophesied in the Torah by Moshe Rabbeinu, he declared: “Hashem will bring upon you a nation from afar, from the ends of the earth, swooping down like an eagle. This nation’s language you will not understand — an arrogant nation, with no respect for the old and no compassion for the young” (Devarim 28:49–50). In the armies that marched under the standard of the Roman eagle, the Sages saw the fulfillment of these verses.