This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013. It has been updated.—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.1The 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.
Masada, the mountaintop fortress that set the stage for one of the ancient world’s most dramatic tragedies, is today one of the world’s most iconic archaeological sites. 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.
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.
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.