The Rome of Josephus

April 2, 2018 | David Laskin

In the midst of the Judean Revolt of 66-70 CE, the Jewish rebel officer Josephus, his unit defeated, defected to the Roman forces; eventually the emperor Vespasian and his son and successor Titus became Josephus’ patrons, and he went on to have an illustrious career writing about Jewish history and defending Jews and Judaism against their slanderers. He came to the city of Rome in 71 CE, and most likely lived there until his death around the year 100. David Laskin reports on traveling through Rome with the works of Josephus as his guide. Here he imagines the imperial parade—memorialized in the Arch of Titus—during which the emperor celebrated the Jews’ defeat and the destruction of their Temple:

I tried to erase from my mind [today’s] T-shirts and selfie sticks and resurrect the fallen columns. Vespasian and Titus, riding chariots, would have been two dabs of purple surging up the ramparts of the Capitoline [hill] 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. “Last of all the spoils,” writes Josephus, “was carried a copy of the Jewish Law”—the Torah.

Josephus reveals exactly where these spoils ended up. Vespasian had a new temple—the Templum Pacis (Temple of Peace)—built adjacent to the Forum where “he laid up the vessels of gold from the temple of the Jews, on which he prided himself; but their Law and the purple hangings of the sanctuary he ordered to be deposited and kept in the palace.” The palace, in ancient Rome, meant the Palatine (the word palace derives from the hill’s name). . . .

Josephus notes that the Templum Pacis, built “very speedily in a style surpassing all human conception,” housed not only the spoils of Jerusalem but also “ancient masterpieces of painting and sculpture, . . . objects for the sight of which men had once wandered over the whole world.” . . .

The sacred loot has disappeared without a trace, but a shelf of thrillers could be spun from the theories, myths, sightings, and urban legends about where it supposedly ended up: hidden in a cave, glittering on the altar of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, carted off to Constantinople, tossed in the Tiber, and, most recently, squirreled away in a sub-sub-basement of the Vatican. Alessandro Sciogliosi, a professor of the history of architecture at the University of Rome whom I met toward the end of my stay, has a more plausible—though mundane—explanation: when the Templum Pacis burned in 191 CE, the gold and silver vessels melted and were subsequently salvaged and recast, probably as coins.

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