Little Man, Big Men

In the early years the relationship between ancient Rome and ancient Judaea wasn’t so bad. There was curiosity exchanged, amusement, even scandal concerning the culture of the other, but there wasn’t any overt animosity or any overly outlandish feelings of discord which could be considered out of the ordinary as far as one country being annexed by another was concerned. This early stage relationship, as we know, didn’t last- something went wrong, something went terribly wrong, and like the fall of Rome itself some centuries later, it wasn’t just one thing which went wrong. Was it a clash of religions and value systems, or cultural disrespect, suppression gone too far?

The answer is all of the above and more, and it is one of the “more” subjects which I want to highlight here for the reason that it’s a quick study on the human condition- which fundamentally never changes no matter the century. While this issue is not as obvious as the forced emperor worship, excessive taxes, and heavy handed dealings of rebellions- not unique for a Roman occupation, this issue is more subvert, that is, the lose-lose situation Judaea’s governors found themselves in. Unlike being granted a prized governorship in Hispania (Spain), or Asia Minor, Judaea was a back water country full of curious monotheists, and then after a few years, full of troublemaking monotheists. Judaea didn’t attract the best leaders from Rome and the men who did get there were mostly committed to getting out and moving up the political ladder as soon as possible. To make the situation even more inconvenient, the ruling royal household, the Hasmoneans/Herodians, a family who recognized early on where the future lay, were pretty buddy-buddy with the emperors themselves, particularly the Herodian family.

“In any case, governors will have been uneasily aware that the political clout in Rome of some members of the Herodian family was considerably greater than theirs. In the first year of his reign, in 54, Nero placed the government of Armenia Minor into the hands of Aristobulus, son of the deceased Herod of Chalcis, for no known reason apart from his royal ancestry. By contrast, all governors of Judaea were of comparatively lowly Roman status- none was a senator, and Felix, governor from c. [AD] 52 to 60, was an ex-slave.”[1]

The passage goes on to tell of how close Judaea’s Agrippa I and Agrippa II were to the emperors of their lifetime, close friends having grown up together in Rome. Eventually the Agrippas went home to Judaea to rule and the future emperors became emperors. Whenever one was in town they went out for some drinks together, caught up with how each other’s families were doing, shared stories of years gone by, and traded ideas about the role each of their respective countries was going to play on the world stage (obviously, this latter topic was a little one sided and imperialistic in its outlook, but hey, we all have a friend like that).

This incomplete triangle dynamic is fascinating because it is not often a rather low level politician gets sent to govern a low level country which was ruled by a royal family of greater clout and sway than the low-level man coming in to implement the will of Rome. Instead of being present with the full glory and might of one of the most outstanding empires in history, these appointed governors were coming in often times as somewhat of a third wheel, just with really fancy armour. Judaea was not yet a province and they were still ruled by their king who was often on better terms and in less trouble with the emperor than the governor himself because of his inability to keep Judaea quiet. Nothing strikes me more as a ripe environment of excessive muscle flexing than the little man trying to be a big man in a monstrous man’s world. Maybe this is one of the overlooked reasons why Judaean governors had such a hard hand in dealing with rebellious Jews and perpetuated a key factor in the coming war: they were hard handed not necessarily because they were exclusively getting annoyed with the Jews, but because they felt like they had to prove their worth in order to stay relevant. In one way this third wheel mentality worked, because Judaea eventually felt the full wrath of Rome and the governors gained a province to rule rather than just to occupy.

It’s something to think consider.


[1] Goodman, Martin. “Rome & Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations.” 2007. P.382


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