By Gil Gambash
Routledge (2015) h/b 206pp £90 (ISBN 9781138824980)
G. has detected a gap in our studies of the Roman empire: rebellions, seeing these as a way of helping to determine the attitude of imperial central government to their provincials. His approach is not chronological nor geographical, but thematic. He examines the tensions which led to uprisings, the handling of the revolt, the imperial officials who dealt with the rebellions, commemoration, and finally the Jewish revolts. While acknowledging the value of such an approach, it does lead to repetition. Reiteration of, say, the Boudican rebellion could have been avoided, at least to an extent, by quoting the relevant sources in one place.
G. concentrates on a limited number of revolts: Boudica in Britain, Tacfarinas in Africa and the several Jewish uprisings. There is no consideration of the rebellion of the Ordovices of north Wales put down by Agricola on his arrival in Britain, the Batavian Revolt of 69-70, nor the Thracian rebellion following the annexation of the kingdom by Claudius in AD 45. Yet he finds space to discuss the resistance offered by Caratacus following the invasion of Britain in AD 43. These omissions are serious. Agricola set out to ‘exterminate’ the Ordovices, the reason being that they had previously submitted to Rome. Septimius Severus ordered Caracalla to take the same action in AD 211 following the rebellion of the Caledonians and Maeatae. These two episodes need to be taken into account when analysing the Roman reaction to the Jewish revolts. The aftermath of the Batavian Revolt is also interesting, for the pattern of military deployment was (briefly) changed.
These omissions are puzzling until we reach the penultimate chapter, which ‘sets the uncharacteristically aggressive Roman treatment of the Jews against the background of the regular conciliatory approach towards restless local populations’. This statement can only hold water if the two British examples cited above are ignored; if they are taken into account, the harsh treatment meted out following the 66-73 rebellion falls into a pattern. But, in any case, G. answers the question, pointing out that the actions of all Flavian emperors both during and after the rebellion related to the need to add legitimacy to the new dynasty.
There is another way to view the Roman attitude. A pattern does emerge from analysis of all the Jewish revolts. G. emphasises that the Jews were granted special privileges in relation to their religion (including freedom from military service, not discussed by G.), yet they were not only jealous of their privileges but sought or were granted more, and were troublesome when their demands were not met. This is acknowledged by G. In these circumstances it would not be surprising that Roman officials became exasperated, as G. suggests in relation to Gaius ordering the placing of his statue in the Temple, and earlier Tiberius following the demands of Tacfarinas. It may be possible to interpret Pilate’s actions in such a light following ten years of seeking to maintain balance, while Vespasian’s supposedly harsh treatment followed the destruction of a Roman army 6,000 men strong. Rome’s patience simply snapped at times in the face of frequent provocation. It is possible, therefore, to see Jewish revolts within a slightly different framework from that proposed by G. but one closer to his general thesis in which Rome generally acted leniently to the defeated rebels. The occasions when she did not might relate to the dispositions of individual governors, as G. acknowledges in relation to Suetonius Paullinus in Britain.
The Boudican episode is interesting in another way. Cerealis led a ‘rash’ charge south to try to quash the rebellion in its infancy, but received a bloody nose (p. 66). Cerealis acted in accord with normal Roman procedure, as did Varus in 4 BC (p. 64); he was merely unfortunate in that the rebellion had grown too large to be dealt with in that manner. So, too, Vespasian acted sensibly in Judaea in keeping his army together, thereby not falling in the same trap as, for example, Varus in AD 9.
G. suggests that prior experience of an area or a province would be a consideration in making appointments, and indeed it probably was, but too much should not be made of this. Agricola surely obtained his appointment as governor of Britain as much—or more—as a Flavian supporter than an expert in the province. Varus, governor of Syria at the time of the death of Herod, had married into the imperial family, and it would be useful to know whether his appointment was as a result of that connection or his genuine ability.
The book would have benefitted from improved copy editing. In spite of the statement that ‘dates in this book are CE, unless specifically stated otherwise’ (p. 16, n. 5) CE and BCE occur throughout. The phrase ‘to be sure’ should have been expunged. The language is American English, and the style also. A bibliography is provided at the end of each chapter, rather than at the end of the book, which leads to repetition. Sometimes, a secondary source is cited rather than the primary source, which is frustrating for those wishing to check references.
Has G proved his thesis that ‘an examination of … provincial revolt … should be able to produce not only a better understanding of how Rome dealt with provincial unrest, but also a clearer picture of the way the empire was run in order to secure the absence of opposition and the prevalence of peaceful routine’ (p. 4)? The answer is certainly in the affirmative.
David J. Breeze—Honorary Professor, Edinburgh University