Jewish Captives in the Imperial City

Arch of Titus and Colosseum detail destruction of Jerusalem Temple

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013.—Ed.

Ancient Rome was the superpower of its day. Yet, when the Romans conquered the tiny province of Judea and quashed the First Jewish Revolt in 70 C.E., it was actually a pretty big deal.

BAR readers are familiar with the Judea Capta coins issued by the emperors to celebrate the Roman victory over the Jews,a but new projects are shining a light on some of Rome’s most famous monuments and the important role of the defeated Jews in the distant city.

Restoration work was set to begin in December 2012 on the iconic Colosseum, Rome’s first all-stone amphitheater, which could seat upwards of 50,000 spectators for its gladiatorial bouts, animal hunts and mock naval battles. The work, expected to conclude in mid-2015, would include the cleaning and restoration of the familiar arcaded façade, the creation of a services center, and the restoration of numerous galleries and underground spaces.1


The Flavian Amphitheater, now remembered as the Colosseum. Photo: Diliff’s image is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5/Wikimedia Commons.

The Colosseum has been so called since at least the eighth century C.E., in reference to a colossal statue of the notorious emperor Nero that stood nearby. In fact, the original name of the structure was the Flavian Amphitheater, after the emperors of the Flavian dynasty who built it in the late first century C.E.—Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. (The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus took the emperor’s family name when he came under the patronage of Vespasian.)

As demonstrated in a BAR article by Louis H. Feldman, a hidden inscription on the Colosseum itself suggests that the construction of the amphitheater was financed by the plundered booty from the Jewish Revolt.b Vespasian faced a serious deficit when he became emperor, but the spoils of war from Judea—the riches of the Temple treasury, the golden vessels from the Temple, the seized personal treasures of Jewish citizens and the sale of the Jewish captives themselves—provided enormous wealth for the emperor and the plundering army commanded by his son Titus. Thus did the conquest of Judea fund the most recognizable structure of imperial Rome.

Herod’s desert fortress on the mountaintop of Masada was made famous as the site of the last stand between the besieged Jewish rebels and the relentlessly advancing Romans at the conclusion of the First Jewish Revolt. In the free ebook Masada: The Dead Sea’s Desert Fortress, discover what archaeology reveals about the defenders’ identity, fortifications and arms before their ultimate sacrifice.

These same plundered spoils of Judea are depicted prominently on another monument that still stands in Rome, which is the focus of exciting new research. The marble Arch of Titus was built in 81 C.E. by the emperor Domitian to commemorate the victory and triumphal parade of his brother Titus, the conquering army general, and Emperor Vespasian’s son and successor. A recent project of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies (in partnership with the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma) undertook a new study of the main relief panels on the arch, which show the triumphal parade of 71 C.E. and the deification of Titus.


Arch of Titus. Photo: Alexander Z.’s image is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5/Wikimedia Commons.

In the most famous of the panels, Roman soldiers carry the Jerusalem Temple spoils on parade, including the menorah, the showbread table and trumpets, which were then deposited in Rome’s Temple of Peace. This panel and the others were recently subjected to high-resolution three-dimensional scans, resulting in stunningly crisp, high-quality images of the relief that are accurate within less than a millimeter and are free from the distracting visual distortions of the marble’s age and discoloration.

In the most famous of the panels, Roman soldiers carry the Jerusalem Temple spoils on parade, including the menorah, the showbread table and trumpets, which were then deposited in Rome’s Temple of Peace. Courtesy Yeshiva University Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project.

The menorah was also tested for trace paint colors. The resulting discovery of yellow ochre on its arms and base is consistent with Biblical and first-century descriptions of the Temple’s golden menorah. In the next phase of the project, the team would test for paint traces on the rest of the arch.

“Jewish Captives in the Imperial City” originally appeared in Strata in the January/February 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. It was first published in Bible History Daily on January 28, 2013.



a. See Robert Deutsch, “Roman Coins Boast ‘Judaea Capta,’ ” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2010.

b. Louis Feldman, “Financing the Colosseum,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2001.

1. Elisabetta Povoledo, “Colosseum Makeover to Start This Year,” The New York Times, August 2, 2012.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Arch of Titus in Color
Watch an exclusive video of the scholars’ groundbreaking work

Yeshiva University Project Shines a Colorful Digital Light on the Arch of Titus

A Second Triumphal Arch of Titus Discovered


Posted in Temple at Jerusalem, The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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19 Responses

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  1. Stan says

    I have read with interest the story. The Roman Empire was coming to end. They used every opportunity to slap them-self on back and Jewish rebellion is good example. Now we have duplication of same behavior with USA, the Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, Granada. The newspapers were full of “heroic” action against opponents who did not have a smallest chance to defend them self. The history is just repeating and is easy to learn from present about the past.

  2. DOUG says

    Hard to tell if Stan’s comments are an observation or a political statement???

  3. Elias says

    It’s neither…it is the truth.Is it so hard “to tell” ???

  4. Andrew says

    I believe most of these reliefs were painted at the time, as were most statues that seem so familiar to us today as bare, white marble.

    I look forward to seeing the completed reconstruction of this panel. Perhaps a computer-generated illustration of the whole arch as painted when new would also be very interesting.

  5. JAllan says

    Stan: would it surprise you if archeologists unearthed Roman chariots with bumper stickers such as “UNAM NATIONEM SUB JOVEM” (one nation under Jupiter)? That’s only a satirical statement, but any parallels between today and the Roman Empire are only approximate. The Romans were, in their eyes, retaining a rebellious province, much like our Civil War, while WE are, in (most of) our eyes, trying to keep other, independent nations from using their independence in ways that would hurt us.

    And of course, the Empire was not nearly at an end in 70; it lasted, depending on which event you consider the “end”, until 325 (Nicene Creed, official conversion to Christianity), 410 (Christian Rome sacked by Goths and Vandals), or 1453 (Christian Constantinople taken by Turks).

    A more exact parallel, as might be used in a science fiction story, might predict that about 2350 the U.S. would, on its own, and because the persecuted Muslims become the majority, replace the First Amendment with Sharia law; Washington would be sacked by China about 2430, and Dallas would fall to the United Hispanic Alliance about 3360. Or maybe the entire Earth will fall to aliens first; the Ferengi of the Star Trek universe appear to be running the GOP already.


    If its the truth, perhaps Rome should now be owned by the Jewish people?

  7. Eliyahu says

    I would like to see a monetary breakdown of the hoard, people, gold, whatever. There should have been almost no treasure except for the ritual items because everything else was supposed to be dispersed to keep the Temple workers and the poor fed and clothed. If there was a hoard then, guess what, there shouldn’t have been.

  8. rabbielimallon says

    The original BAR article about Temple gold financing the Colisseum was interesting, but purely speculative. Even the present article says that the Hebrew inscription merely “suggests…” but in no way proves that “Jewish gold” built the Colisseum. I don’t think that we have anywhere near enough evidence to go forward on such an assumption.

  9. Lou says

    Funny, to try to tie the Roman Empire to today’s America. The Romans were absolutists, and rewrote history to please themselves. Almost 2,000 years later, we still ignore the fact that Rome reshaped history and burned the books of captured peoples. Want a parallel to today? Try Al Qeda burning the library at Timbuktu, or maybe the Moslem Brothers destroying the works in Alexandria. Rome was Nazi Germany writ large.

  10. Elias says

    Good Lord,in the end the truth IS hard to “tell”…
    “United Hispanic Alliance”,”Ferengi of the Star Trek”,”Rome owned by the Jewish people”…my good Lord.
    Hollywood in excelsis…!

  11. Richard says

    I think there is little doubt that Rome found enough treasure in the Jewish Temple – coupled with personal Jewish wealth and the sale of Jewish slaves – to rebuild their economy. One has to remember that all ancient economies were built on slaves and plunder…To compare the ancient Roman Empire to modern America only goes to show how little people truly understand history – as if the economics, morales, etc of 1st century Rome can – or should – be seen through the economics, morales, etc of 21st century America…Foolishness…

  12. AnitaK says

    Does that mean than, the Pope has all of the Jewish artifacts in their possesion but not the Ark of the Covenant which is hidden somewhere in Jerusalem. Maybe that is why all of a sudden the Muslims what Jerusalem as well as the Pope.

  13. Krzysztof says

    30 Rome legions (each one:500-1500 soldiers) kept 100 000 enemies Galians for 500 years in non rebellion because of the fear for the god… Cesar.Why? the pastors of temples to Augustus were the first noble in the country.The same refers to Spain, Greece@Asia at that time (in Psychologie de foules, by Le Bon,1899.To have a perspective how the “idea” rules the masses@the uniqueness of Jewish rebellion.

  14. Angela says

    This is so amazing..Please continue the good work..Thank you..

  15. JAllan says

    Considering the many contradictory conspiracy legends about the Ark of the Covenant, and the fact that it is NEVER mentioned in Scripture after David moved it into the future Temple site, the most probable outcome is that the Ark was either destroyed or taken as booty. Two or three kings of Judah had to give tribute to Assyrian or Egyptian kings, and the Temple was sacked during the Babylonian invasion. Ethiopian Coptic Christians believe that the (apocryphal) son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, as an adult, visited Jerusalem, and someone (Solomon? High Priest?) gave him the Ark to take back to his kingdom, where those Christians claim it is stored to this day; but only one priest in each generation is allowed to see it. Rumors and legends by the Masons and Templars claim it was found during the Crusades and brought to Scotland, or maybe France, depending on the source of the rumors.

    The sober, boring, most probable story is that sometime between David and Nebuchadnezzar it was stolen, and if stolen it was probably burned (the Torah says it was made of wood) to collect the molten gold covering. The objects within were probably discarded, and the only item inside that would not have decayed is the pair of stone tablets. If they were not deliberately destroyed, they may someday be found, but I for one do not think this is likely.

    Indiana Jones is a Hollywood character, the Da Vinci Code is a novel, and the Ethiopian Coptic Church has a vested interest in their members believing in the holiness of their temple. The most likely truth is: the Ark no longer exists, if in fact it ever existed as a durable, rather than an ephemeral, periodically rebuilt “stage prop.”

  16. Gerry says

    Harry Mulisch in his 1992 novel The Discovery of Heaven (turned into a fabulous movie with Stephen Fry) uses this Arch to say the ark was brought to Rome by Titus. The tablets of the law are later found hidden in … (OK I won’t spoil the story).

  17. melquiades says

    The destraction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. by Rome was an actual prophecy by Jesus chirst in the Bible…read this account in your bible and study further about this prophetic account for the importance for our day.

  18. Allan says

    The arch of Titus depicts powerfully the fulfilment of the prophecy of Jesus spoken by him on the eve of Nisan 14 33 CE as recorded in Matthew 24. The attack on Jerusalem initially in 66CE and the return of the Roman army in 70CE were predicted in this prophecy. The predicted ferocity of the destruction and the loss of lives during the relatively short campaign was only exceed in WW2 by the casualties at Stalingrad (Saint Petersburg). Certainly this event was momentous for the Roman Empire. The suggestion that the coliseum was built with the spoils of held in Jerusalem’s temple treasury is further evidence of the wealth held in the temple treasury.This war brought to a dramatic end the Jewish system that had centered around the temple and was the catalyst for the Jewish diaspora. Aspects of Jesus prophecy extend to our day, and herald the convulsive end of human society as we know it presently. What happens next? Suggest you read for yourself the Bible account for a reliable answer!

  19. Jim says

    There are large groups surfacing these days that are saying the Jews in those times were Black, doesn’t the sculptures and paintings disprove that?

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