October 6, 2012

Middle East Politics: How Rome Did It (Part 2)

The outbreak of the Jewish war under Nero in AD 66, and the subsequent loss of a legion and cavalry division at the hands of Jewish rebels proved how unreliable the system of dependent kings could be. By AD 68 the rebellion was confined to Jerusalem and three major mountain fortresses including Masada. Vespasian’s troops led by Titus succeeded in conquering Jews and created a province and legions occupied territory to control it. Millar writes that, “Nothing could have served to emphasize more clearly the degree to which the coherence of the Empire depended on at least passive acquiescence of the provincial populations, or at the very least the absence of any coherent local or regional nationalisms which might offer a challenge to Rome”. The creation of the Judean province marks the change from Roman bridgehead in Near East to a stabilized integrated provincial and military system like rest of empire. Millar questions if this transition from dependent kings and dynasts to provinces controlled by Roman procurators is evidence of a master plan. He states that sources and archaeology do not provide evidence for a master plan. The movement of XII legion to Melitene thus forming a Euphrates frontier seems planned, but according to Josephus was in punishment for their defeat by Jewish rebels. Thus what appeared as a calculated move to strengthen Roman hold along the Parthian border is in fact a coincidental happening.

This new area was truly a frontier between Parthia and Rome within the Fertile Crescent. The Legion began typical Roman frontier construction in area such as roads, waterworks, outposts & forts. Millar notes that the dependent kingdoms in area gradually disappear and are absorbed into Roman province of Syria. During Vespasian’s rule, in AD 70’s we see an “intensification and geographical expansion of Roman presence.” as well as the replacement of royal rule, royal taxation, and royal forces with Roman provincial rule in Euphrates area, Judea, Commagene, and steppes of Palmyra. The unifying influence of Greek as a common language, due to Hellenization of area under Macedonian conquest, in facilitating the exchange between Rome and its Provinces is briefly discussed by Millar.

Trajan’s rule represents the apex of Roman holdings in the east with the natural borders of the Taurus Mountains and the Euphrates along with the acquisition of all arable land in the Fertile Crescent. It also marks turning point in Roman/Parthian relations. Rome would henceforth refuse the old diplomatic routes used to keep an uneasy peace between the two empires, opting instead, beginning with Trajan, to launch a series of successful conquests east of the Euphrates. It is important, as Millar stresses, to remember that the area of the Fertile Crescent, while appearing large on a map, in reality was a long but narrow stretch of arable land sprinkled with cities, but surrounded by unusable and arid desert. What truly set this phase of Roman Eastern expansion apart from those previous was fact that these battles were fought by Roman not Royal forces; were led personally by the emperor; were aimed at permanently adding territory west of Euphrates. This was a sign of Roman strategic commitment to region that would last till Islamic conquests. The fact that Trajan led personally shows how empire could be ruled and maintained by a mobile “capital”, an example that was to become the rule rather than exception of later emperors.

After death of Trajan, Hadrian following his example set off on a systematic tour of the empire. Following the three year Bar Kochba revolt, put down by massive Roman military led personally by Hadrian in Syria Palentinia (Judea), the province was changed into a two legion, ex-consul governed, with two Coloniae becoming highly Romanized and of major importance. Again Roman roads with watch towers and forts are built in area solidifying Roman control.

Image Credit: mikhail shiyanov / Shutterstock

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