I read this book because of my particular interest in the history of the Land of Israel, with the hope of finding some new insights into the 700-year conflict between Rome and the Jews, that started with Pompey’s conquest of Judea in 67 BCE and continued through the Roman imperial and Byzantine periods, until the Muslim conquest of The Holy Land in 638. With his eminence in the fields of both Roman studies and Jewish studies, the author seems uniquely well-placed to shed light on this.

The book’s prologue gives an excellent summary of the great Jewish revolt against Rome in 67 AD and the subsequent war, which ended (more or less) with the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in the year 70. The author then takes up the story again in part three of the book (chapter 11) with the immediate aftermath of the war, the two subsequent Jewish revolts against imperial Rome (115 and 132 AD) , and the subsequent relationships between the successors of Rome – the Byzantine empire and the Church – and the Jews.

In between, these two accounts (chapters 1 through 10), the author provides in exhaustive detail a profile of the two peoples and societies. After a three-chapter overview, he covers in the second part of the book a series of specific topics – identities, communities, perspectives, lifestyles, government, and politics – in a level of detail that far exceeded my needs or expectations. For each topic, he deals first with the Romans and then with the Jews, pointing out any similarities and contrasts between them. Throughout this systematic methodology, the author does not highlight the relevance of any of these detailed comparisons to the causes or the progress of the conflict, with the effect of creating (for this reader) a somewhat numbed impatience. Nor does this detail seem to be necessary for appreciating the the hoped-for insights, that are certainly to be found in the book.

When you read about the great revolt from the point of view of Jewish history, you hardly stop to think about Vespatian’s transformation, from Roman general in charge of putting down the revolt in 67 to emperor in 69 – except insomuch as the pause in the Roman assault that accompanied Vespatian’s withdrawal to Alexandria provided an opportunity for the Jews to regroup in Judea after their setbacks in the Galilee in the early part of the war. Goodman provides a detailed description of what was actually a civil war in Rome, the year of the 3 emperors (68) and Vespatian’s eventual coup that left him in the imperial seat. He points out that Vespatian – up to that point “an obscure senator of mediocre talent and minimal prestige” – needed to give his claim the kind of legitimacy that mattered to the Roman populace – a victory over foreigners. Hence his instruction to his son Titus to prosecute the war as rapidly and comprehensively as possible, so that he would be able to preside over a triumph in Rome. “Titus had his eye less on Jerusalem than on Rome, and the need to to proclaim to the population …that his father, the new emperor.. was not a thuggish nonentity propelled to power by a slaughter of Roman citizens in civil conflict, but a hero of the Roman state who had won victory in Judea.”

The destruction of the Temple in 70 – a state that has existed from then until the present day – is such an existential feature of Jewish consciousness, that it does not occur to ask the question which Goodman addresses “Why did the Romans not permit the subsequent re-building of the temple ?” Judaism, after all was – unlike Christianity until Constantine – a “permitted” religion. Throughout the Roman empire, temples were – sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident – destroyed and rebuilt all the time. Why not the Jewish temple ? In addition to raising the issue – an insight for this reader by and of itself – the author attempts to answer this question with an extended perspective of the motives and needs of the Flavian dynasty – Vespatian, Titus, Domitian – and the continuation of their oppressive policy towards the Jews by Trajan. Although this may not provide a definitive answer , it does give essential background to understanding the subsequent conflicts – the “War against Quietus” of 115 and the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-5.

Goodman also has a point of view on the well-aired question of whether Josephus’ contention that Titus did not intend the temple to be destroyed should be taken at face value or not (he thinks it should); and throughout the latter part of the book, he provides similarily valuable gloss on the perspectives of Josephus and other ancient historians.

This was a worthwhile read; however, it would have been a much shorter and more accessible book if some of the mass of detail in its central chapters had been better harnessed in service of its core theme, the conflict between Rome and Jerusalem.