The Jewish Revolt and the subsequent destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, during the summer of 70 CE, provided Emperor Vespasian (r. 69 to 79 CE) and his son, Titus (r. 79 to 81 CE), to present themselves as saviors of Rome. The architectural, numismatic, and literary imprint of this Flavian propaganda was enormous. It included massive construction projects across the Roman Empire on a scale unknown since the rule of the first emperor, Augustus (d. 14 CE), explains historian of Jewish history, Samuele Rocca.
In Rome, the Flavians constructed the Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater), the Temple of Peace, the baths of Titus, two triumphal arches, one on the Velia (Roman Forum), and the other in the Circus Maximus (now destroyed), and the Flavian Palace on the Palatine Hill. In addition, the Flavians also minted one of the most widely distributed coin types of Roman antiquity, Judaea Capta “Judaea Captured.”
When Vespasian became emperor in 69 CE, it is well known that the empire was in financial problems because of Nero’s extravagance in constructing his Domus Aurea (Golden House) and the terrible fire that devastated Rome. The second-century Roman writer Suetonius tells us that Vespasian had learned that Augustus (r. 27 BCE to 14 CE) had a plan for constructing an amphitheater in the middle of Rome. However, it is Suetonius who writes that Vespasian found the treasury in such a desperate state that he declared, at the beginning of his reign, that forty billion sesterces (billions of dollars) were needed. The largest sums of money ever mentioned in antiquity. Hence, from where did the money come to finance the most magnificent stone building constructed in Rome?
The telling of Jewish history in the foundation of Rome is often left out of our history books, educational curriculum and guided tours of Rome. It is a great pleasure for me to interview an eminent Jewish scholar Samuele Rocca about the Jewish history of the Colosseum.
Numbers are very unreliable in ancient literary sources, often contradicting, so why is it suggested that 97,000 to 100, 000 Jewish slaves built the Colosseum? Where is the evidence to support this assumption?
Well, no. It is a legend. In fact, as well demonstrated by the historian Peter A. Brunt, Free Labour and Public Works at Rome, (The Journal of Roman Studies 70 (1980), 81-100), Vespasian was well aware as his predecessors that the common people living in the city of Rome ought to be supported not just by panem et circenses (Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81), the distribution of free wheat through the Annona and palliative coming from expensive games hold till then in various areas, such as the forum, or in theatres, for example, the Theatre of Marcellus. Common folk needs to work. It is not a case that Brunt quotes a passage of Suetonius, in which is recorded an interesting dialogue between Vespasian and a mechanical engineer, who promised to transport some heavy columns to the Capitol at small expense, he gave no mean reward for his invention but refused to make use of it, saying: "You must let me feed my poor commons. (Suetonius, Vespasian 18)."
Thus, the Colosseum, as well as all the other buildings erected by the Flavians were not constructed through gangs of slave workers, but by unemployed common people. In fact, most of the slaves, including the Jewish prisoners who reached the shores of Italy, would have been sold to knights and to city councilors, living in the cities scattered through Roman Italy as well as to villa owners. Yet, Josephus narrates that the first Jewish prisoners, captured by Vespasian in his campaign in Galilee, after the conquest of Tarichae, around 6000, were sent to work on the construction of the Isthmus of Corinth, a project started by Nero, however, once he was toppled, did not continue. Of the other prisoners taken, 30.000 were sold as slaves, some more, subjects of the Jewish king Agrippa II, who stood by Rome, were given to him, but the king did not free them and he also sold them as slaves. A grim fate awaited the old people taken prisoners, more than a thousand, were slaughtered near Tiberias (Josephus, Jewish War III, 539-542). But once more, the Jews sent to work in gang slaves at the Isthmus of Corinth were far away from Rome. They did not menace the economic needs of poor Roman citizens, living in Rome.
Resh Lakish, a Sage of the middle of the Third Century, an extremely important person in the Jerusalem Talmud together with his father-in-law, Rabbi Jochanan, started his career as a gladiator in the local theaters of Galilee. Were there Jewish gladiators in Rome"s Colosseum and other amphitheaters throughout the Empire?
Good question! We know that the Jews captured after the siege and destruction of Jerusalem were sent to Caesarea Philippi, where "Titus Caesar exhibited all sorts of shows there. And here a great number of the captives were destroyed, some being thrown to wild beasts, and others in multitudes forced to kill one another as if they were their enemies (Josephus, Jewish War VII, 23-24)". Later on, also at Caesarea Maritima, and Berytus, Jewish prisoners had to fight as gladiators. Once more Josephus writes that “While Titus was at Caesarea he solemnized the birthday of his brother Domitian after a splendid manner, and inflicted a great deal of punishment intended for the Jews in honor of him, for the number of those that were now killed in fighting with the beasts, and were burned, and fought with one another, exceeded two thousand five hundred. Yet did all this seem to the Romans, when they were thus destroying ten thousand several ways, to be punishment beneath their deserts? After this Caesar came to Berytos, which is a city of Phoenicia, and a Roman Colony, and stayed there for a longer time, and exhibited a still more pompous solemnity about his father's birthday, both in the magnificence of the shows and in the other vast expenses he was at in his devices thereto belonging; so that a great number of the captives were here destroyed after the same manner as before (Josephus, Jewish War VII, 37-40).”
Indeed, a few Jews arrived in Italy to fight as gladiators. A gladiatorial helmet decorated with a palm tree reminiscent of the iconography of the palm tree depicted on the Judaea Capta coins, found at Pompeii, demonstrates that Jews fought there as gladiators. In a graffito (CIL 4.4287), someone named Iesus, the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, mocks a gladiator, Lucius Asicius. The graffito, which reads "Edictum M(arci) Ati Primi | Si qui(s) Muria(m) | bonam volet | Petat a L(ucio) Asicio | […]bus mus[…] | Scito muriola es | Jesus" can be roughly translated as "Notice from Marcus Atius Primus: If anyone needs good brine ask Lucius Asicius. Jesus." It seems that the slur of Jesus plays on words. The fish (muria) could also indicate that Lucius Asicius was a murmillo, a type of gladiator, whose helmets where decorated with a fish. According to Curtis, a fragment of Sextus Pompeius Festus, who wrote a book, De Verborum significatione (Festus, De verb. Sign. 285M), the retiarius, a type of gladiator, often opposed to the murmillo, armed with a net and a trident, chanted a song, in which he mocked the murmillo, calling him a fish, that would soon fall in his net (Robert I. Curtis, A Slur on Lucius Asicius, the Pompeian Gladiator, Transactions of the American Philological Association 110 (1980) 51-61).
However, the Colosseum was inaugurated in 80 C.E. How many Jews, captured in the Jewish war, between the years 66 and 70 C.E., would be alive, by then, to play as gladiators. Very few. Besides, most of the gladiators, and that is quite important, were professional sportsmen. Yet, the games, described by Martial, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, were impressive! It seems that the inaugural games included venatio, or hunt of wild animals, public executions, naumachiae or mock sea battles, and of course gladiatorial games. No less than 5000, according to Eutropius, possibly 9000 wild animals (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXVI.25), such as wild bulls, lions, elephants, ostriches, were killed during the inaugural games. Public executions were performed during the interval between one game and another. These included probably damnatio ad bestias, the culprit was tied to a pole and given to wild animals, or crucifixion. According to Martial a woman was executed by a wild bull, reenacting the myth of Pasiphae (Martial, On Spectacles 6.5). To hold mock sea battles, the amphitheatre was flooded. It seems, according to Cassius Dio, that was reenacted first as a naval battle between the Corinthians and the Corcyreans and then between the Athenians and the Carthaginians. Gladiatorial games followed. Martial records the fight between a couple called Verus and Priscus (Martial, On Spectacles 31).
No doubt that the Colosseum was quite an impressive building. The choice of the location of the Flavian Amphitheatre, known as Coliseum, Coliseum possibly was not unintentional. Located on a low valley between the Caelian, Esquiline and Palatine Hills, in an area previously occupied by an artificial lake, which was part of Nero's Domus Aurea, the Coliseum stood nearby the Triumphal Arch of Titus, located on the Velia, as well as the Baths of Titus. All these buildings, planned by Vespasian and Titus, but then completed by Domitian in fact stood in the area of Nero’s Domus Aurea. The public nature of the buildings erected by the Flavians made evident their wish to hand back to the Roman people, huge traits of land expropriated by Nero. Well argues Fergus Millar that the Flavian Amphitheatre, opened in 80 CE, together with the Triumphal Arch of Titus, and the Temple of Peace, consecrated in 75 CE, were all monuments that laid emphasis on the successful outcome of the Jewish War, bestowing an enduring legitimacy on the new dynasty (Fergus Millar, Last Year in Jerusalem: Monuments of the Jewish War in Rome, in Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome (eds. Edmondson Jonathan, Mason Steve, Rives James; Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, 101-128.). Thus, the Flavian Amphitheatre is the greatest of all Roman amphitheaters.
In Louis H. Feldman's essay Financing the Colosseum, (Biblical Archaeology Review; Jul/Aug 2001) he discusses how a German epigrapher Géza Alföldy (in 1995) noticed earlier holes from bronze lettering behind a later 5th century CE inscription on an architrave (CIL VI, 40454a) for the Colosseum.
A close examination clearly shows earlier lettering holes dated to 79-80 CE. In addition, the inscription notes that the building project was the will of the Flavian emperor Vespasian and would be dedicated by his son, Titus.
I[mp(erator)] Caes(ar) Vespasi[anus Aug(ustus)]
[ex] manubi(i)s [fieri iussit?]
Imperator Caesar Vespasian Augustus ordered
a new amphitheater to be made from the spoils of war.
The inscription has a long history. Carlo Fea, who in 1814 visited the Colosseum found a Late Antique inscription, which once restored, indicated that the building had been repaired during the reigns of Theodosius II and Valentinian III in 443 or 444. However, little holes among letters, indicated that the block had been reused, and that under the Late Antique inscription, stood another inscription, which was deciphered only in 1995 by Professor Geza Alföldy, which reads "The emperor Titus Caesar Vespasian Augustus had the new amphitheater built from the profits of the war" “The emperor Titus Caesar Vespasian Augustus had the new amphitheatre built from the profits of the war” (Geza Alföldi, Eine bauinschrift aus dem Colosseum, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 109, 1995, 195-226/Louis H. Feldman, Financing the Colosseum, Biblical Archaeology Review 27.4, 2001). Clearly, the inscription refers to the huge loot taken by Titus, after the destruction and the sack of the Temple of Jerusalem. Some of the objects were carried during the triumph of the Flavians. The plunder, also depicted on the triumphal arch of Titus, included the Menorah, the golden seven branched lampstand, the showbread table and the trumpets, which were used to announce the coming of the Shabbath, as well as a copy of the Jewish Law.
Thus, Josephus wrote that " and for the other spoils, they were carried in great plenty. But for those that were taken in the temple of Jerusalem, they made the greatest figure of them all; that is, the golden table, of the weight of many talents; the candlestick also, that was made of gold, though its construction were now changed from that which we made use of; for its middle shaft was fixed upon a basis, and the small branches were produced out of it to a great length, having the likeness of a trident in their position, and had everyone a socket made of brass for a lamp at the tops of them. These lamps were in number seven, and represented the dignity of the number seven among the Jews; and the last of all the spoils, was carried the Law of the Jews. (Josephus, Jewish War VII, 148-150)". After the triumph, the objects found their way in the Temple of Peace, with the exception of the " the purple veils of the holy place", which was kept in the imperial palace, which stood on the Palatine. Of course, there was more than that, much more. Ancient temples were also used as banks. No one would have robbed a Temple, a sacrilege! So, it was a safe place to keep money. We know of many ancient temples that were used as banks. Besides, in the Temple were also kept the money that the Jews living in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora sent each year for the upkeeping of the Temple, the Mahazit Ha Shekel, or half shekel, as stated in the Bible (Exodus 30:11–16).
Many years earlier, the propraetor Flaccus, who ruled Asia in 60 B.C.E., was accused on the charge of “de repentundis”, or concussion. Among the accusers, represented by Laelius, who acted on behalf of the cities of the province of Asia, stood the representative of the local Jewish communities, who complained that the rascal had embezzled the half-shekel that they sent to Rome. Besides, Josephus records a collection of various decrees, which concern the Jewish communities of the Province of Asia, dated to the years of the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. All these documents, which record an ad hoc intervention of Roman authorities in local politics in the Province of Asia on behalf of the Jewish communities. The Jews living in the city of Asia, complained, this time, among else, that the local civic bodies had more than once prevented the Jews from sending the half-shekel to Jerusalem, their religious obligations.
This time, the representatives of Rome intervened favorably (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XIV, 235-264). Besides, the years between the reconstruction of the Temple by King Herod the Great and the beginning of the Jewish war were years of peace, the Pax Romana, the peace that the Romans imposed on the defeated peoples and cities, that, nonetheless, permitted safely to the Jews living in the Diaspora in the shadow of the Caesars to send their monies to Jerusalem each year. By 70, when the Romans sacked the Temple, this sum would have been quite large, even if part of it was used for the annual upkeep of the Temple. Besides, rulers showed their appreciation to the Temple, sending expensive gifts. The Letter of Aristeas, which records the translation of the Pentateuch in Greek, describes the marvelous gifts, golden vessels, sent by the Lagid king of Egypt, Ptolemy II, to the Temple. Also, Augustus and Marcus Agrippa, friends of Herod the Great, made expensive gifts. In the years that preceded the revolt, the royal family of Adiabene, Queen Helena and his son Monobazus, who converted to Judaism, and was buried in Jerusalem in the Tomb of the Kings, an impressive funerary monument, also sent golden vessels to be used on the day of atonement, and a golden candlestick.
Last but not least. Josephus records that Crassus, one of the triumviri, together with Pompey and Julius Caesar, on the way to the campaign against the Parthians, in 54 BCE, stole 2000 of the 8000 talents, which was then, the total amount of the Temple treasury. By 70, the total amount would have been much bigger. Enough to finance the Colosseum and many other buildings.
Some historians estimate that there were about 5-7 million Jews living in the Roman Empire and at least 60% of that number were living outside the land of Israel. In fact, Alexandria and Egypt are said to have been the most cosmopolitan cities of that era and had a Jewish population of about 250,000 and boasted the largest synagogue in the world. Rome had 10-12 synagogues, and only one was found in 1961 at the port of Ostia Antica. Is there a scholarly consensus among Jewish scholars to estimate about how many Jews lived in Rome?
It is quite difficult to estimate the size of the Jewish population of Rome in this period. Josephus in a passage of Antiquities states that 8000 Jews welcomed the Jewish delegation to Augustus (Josephus, Antiquities XVII, 300). Besides, Josephus in another passage of Antiquities and Tacitus in the Annales, record that in the aftermath of the expulsion of the Jews in 19 C.E. under Tiberius, 4000 Jews were drafted into the army (Josephus, Antiquities 18.83-4 and Tacitus, Annales 2.85.4). Possibly these 8000 included most of the Jewish population, for, in another passage of Antiquities, Josephus clearly states that the “whole Jewish population went to meet an imposter, who wanted the Jews to believe that he was Alexander, the son of King Herod by Mariamne, the Hasmonean princess (Josephus, Antiquities XVII, 330).
According to David Noy, the Jews living in Rome reached something between the 2% and 6% of the population living in Rome, and numbered between 20.000 till 60.000 (Noy, Foreigners at Rome: 257-258). On the other hand, Heikki Solin argues that the Jews living in Rome would have numbered almost 40.000 (Heikki Solin, Jüden und Syrer im westlichen Teil der römischen Welt: Eine ethnische-demographische Studie mit besonderer Berücksiochtigung der spralichen Zustände, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II, 29.2. Edited by Hildegard Temporini (Berlin-New York: de Gruyter, 1983): 616.698-701.).
According to Lawrence Tacoma, it is possible to estimate the number of Jews living in Rome in this period amounted to 15.000 – 40.000 (Lawrence Tacoma, Moving Romans, Migration to Rome in the Principate, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016, 61-62.). Rudolf Brändle and Ehkehard W Stegemann argue that during the rule of Nero no less than 20.000 Jews lived in Rome (Rudolf Brändle and Ehkehard W. Stegemann, The Formation of the First “Christian Congregations” in Rome in the Context of the Jewish Congregations, Judaism and Christianity in first-century Rome. Edited by Karl Paul Donfried and Peter Richardson (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: 1998): 117-27). These figures, however, are quite problematic, as 40,000 or even 20,000-Jews would have left more substantial traces. It looks like the Jewish population in Rome during the first century undulated between 10.000 to 15.000/20.000 souls, although the former minimalist number should be preferred. The Jewish population, therefore, was no more than 1/2% of the total population of the city, that under Augustus numbered 800.000 and by the early second century 1.000.000.