2015 - Judaea in the Age of Nero
Curated by Eric Klingelhofer, Department of History
This display was unveiled on March 16, 2015
Alexander the Great seized the land of Judaea (territory around Jerusalem) from the Persians in 332 B. C. and began the Greek-inspired cultural transformation known as Hellenization. Judaea would thereafter be ruled by various dynasties – the Greek Ptolemies and Seleucids, the Jewish Maccabee/Hasmoneans, and even Antony and Cleopatra - before the Roman Empire absorbed it as part of the province of Palestine. The last stages of this process took place under Augustus Caesar, the Roman Senate appointing Herod as king.
Throughout those generations, Hellenistic multi-culturalism continued to grow in Judaea. This change can be seen in commonplace objects; traditional pottery from Israel stands in contrast to mass-produced amphorae jars with Greek factory stamps. Everyday life in Judaea became little different from the rest of the Mediterranean, from house construction, eating utensils, exercise and personal hygiene, funeral rites, and even the Koiné (common) Greek used in the writing of the Gospels.
The first Roman imperial dynasty, the descendants of Augustus or his wife Livia, ruled the Mediterranean for a full century, 31 B.C. to A.D. 68. It was a time of internal peace (Pax Romanum), prosperity, and broad cultural homogeneity - but also of an increasingly authoritarian government. The last of the family, Claudius Nero Caesar, became a despot, though he was very popular and considered to be a good emperor during his first 5 years. He was a lover of performing arts, classical culture, and all things Greek. But he hated republican virtues, his generals, and especially Christians in Rome, whom he tried to exterminate in A. D. 64 after the Great Fire there. While Nero’s persecution of the Christians did not extend beyond Rome (he was looking for a scapegoat to deflect blame that he had caused the fire), he caused the deaths of his step-brother, his mother, his wife, and thousands of innocents. He was a monster.
In the last years of Nero’s reign, his misgovernment dangerously undermined Roman authority: he refused to support adequately the Roman army, and he appointed unqualified friends and flatterers as provincial authorities. In Palestine, the incompetence and injustice of imperial procurators (administrators) over Judaea led to the Great Jewish Revolt. In A.D. 68, the army finally turned against him; his overthrow and suicide soon followed. Nero had built a huge, opulent palace complex in the center of Rome. Overlooking it was a huge statue of himself as a god, rivaling one of the ancient Wonders of the World, the Colossus of Rhodes. After his death, the statue was destroyed. Near its pedestal was erected the largest public amphitheater in the empire, from its location nicknamed the “Coliseum.” In a sense, Nero’s egoistic dream lives on.
The Great Jewish Revolt, which had started against Nero’s rule, climaxed in A. D. 70 when a large Roman army under Titus, son of the new emperor Vespasian, finally captured Jerusalem. As punishment, the Temple of Jahweh was destroyed. Unrest would lead to the city becoming a Roman colony, from which Jews were barred after the Bar Kochba revolt in A.D. 132-135. Later, religious practices in Judaea changed dramatically after emperor Constantine re-unified the empire, legalized Christianity, and in 330 built a new capital at the old Greek city of Byzantium. The ancient Greco-Roman-Near Eastern polytheism slowly faded away. The Christian capital was called Constantinople, but historians refer to the new civilization as Byzantine. In Judaea, this society would end with the surrender of Jerusalem to Muslim Arabs in 637. Since then, Judaea has been populated by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and each group further divided quarreling over scriptural interpretation and religious sites.