Jewish Captives in the Imperial City

Arch of Titus and Colosseum detail destruction of Jerusalem Temple

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


5 Responses

  1. Robert Boone Jr says:

    No, because the they were white washed during the Renaissance period. The original paintings in Russian icons, of Poland, etc.In fact if you really would like to see what the original paintings looked like before the white washing occurred.I studied Art History as well as Divinity and had to critique art. You will notice the age markings on the originals compare them to re-painted ones done by Michael Angelo. I would love to send them to you.

  2. 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?

  3. Allan Panek 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!

  4. melquiadesp 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.

  5. Gerry vK 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).

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