October 8, 2012

Middle East Politics: How Rome Did It (Part 4)

As Roman expansion east ground to a halt, the state and city were integrated more and more increasing centralized control which increased tensions between state and cities. This led to a division of loyalties and even contradictory goals, especially in regards to the issue of Christianity. Local governors in the cities, which contained increasingly larger populations of Christians, were forced to deal with a central government that fluctuated in their treatment of the breakaway Jewish sect alternating between passive disdain and outright persecution.

Millar concludes part one with a look at the imperial claim to the legacy of Alexander. He uses the passage in Eusebius on the submission of the Indians to highlight this claim. This submission amounts to a claim that the Roman Empire was as great as that of Alexander or greater still because of its westward expansion to Britain. This is in part, Millar claims, why Rome became so focused on Eastward expansion. Another reason posited by Millar and others is the role of eastern trade routes. These provided access to exotic goods and of course customs taxes.

In part two, Millar seeks to answer the question of how Roman forces, local populations, and settlers interacted. More specifically he seeks to find whether or not any ethnic or cultural group was able to maintain their identity in the face of overwhelming Greco Roman cultural hegemony. This “takes the form of a map of surface appearances, of communal and cultural identities, as seen by both insiders and outsiders”. In short, his answer is, with the exception of the Jews, no group was able survive Romanization. When Rome took over an area, indigenous political power disappeared. Roman legions kept the peace, Roman officials collected taxes, Greek and Latin replaced local language, renaming centuries old locations and divinities, all was consumed by the Roman machine. Greco-Roman governmental and civil structures supplanted any such local entities with speed and efficiency. A good example of this is how, much like Alexander’s Macedonians before them, Romans supplanted local gods by equating them with their own Greco-Roman ones. The role of Greek language in facilitating this change cannot be exaggerated. Millar notes how not only governmental but also historical, mythological, and religious ideas were transmitted via the language.

How could any group retain an identity under such pressures? Millar places the Jews as the sole survivors of the Greco-Roman onslaught. No other group retained a national identity as well as the Jewish people. This proto-nationalism caused considerable trouble for the empire on two major occasions, the Jewish War in 66 and the Bar Kochba war in 132. Both these wars were very costly and resulted in fundamental shifts in the administration of Roman Provinces. The key to Jewish unity and identity was the Jewish Bible. Contained within its pages (or scrolls as it were) lay not only a religious document, but also a cultural and social history of a people who could trace their line back to the creation of the world. The historian Josephus is an example of how, transplanted from his homeland, living in Rome, writing in Greek, Jews were still able to retain a strong sense of their national identity. Josephus himself points to the Scriptures as the reason for this as Millar points out. With such a strong self-identity that centered on a holy text and worship of a singular omnipresent God, it is no wonder that the Jews were able to resist Roman influence. More than resist as Millar points out; the lack of respect paid by Roman invaders, either in ignorance or intentionally, to the Jewish temple and customs angered the people and led to open revolt. After the destruction of the temple in AD 70 by Titus, and the later dispersion of the Jews from Judea by Hadrian, the Sacred text and its uniting message was translated into Greek and carried with the Jews all across the empire. Ironically this dispersion of the very people and cultural touchstone which held them together would ultimately conquer the conqueror.

Image Credit: Leon Forado / Shutterstock

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