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Rome and Judea in Transition

Hasmonean Relations with the Roman Republic and the Evolution of the High Priesthood


Chris Seeman

Rome and Judea in Transition is the first English-language book to study exclusively the first century and a half of Roman-Judean political relations (164–37 B.C.). It presents a comprehensive reassessment of the Late Republic's involvement in the Levant, the motives of Hasmonean diplomacy, and the development of the Jewish high priesthood. Therefore, it is of interest to classicists, ancient historians, biblical scholars, and students of Judaica alike.
Previous studies have often mischaracterized this period as a consistent unfolding of Rome’s hegemonic will at Jewish expense. By contrast, this book argues that the Republic harbored no imperial designs on Judea prior to Pompey’s opportunistic intervention in 63 B.C., and that Rome’s subsequent intermittent meddling in the region’s governance did not significantly alter the dynamics of the Hasmonean state. Only with the Parthian invasion of Syria in 40 B.C. – and because of it – did the Republic unilaterally reshape Judean politics by its elevation of Herod the Great as «King of the Jews.»
Judea’s alliance with Rome began in the context of Judas Maccabeus’ revolt against Seleucid rule. Scholars have therefore understandably assumed that the primary hope of Judas’ successors was that Roman recognition would secure and extend Judean sovereignty. This book argues that the main motive for Hasmonean diplomacy was domestic: to advertise the legitimacy of the Maccabees against their Jewish rivals. For this reason, the documentary record of relations with the Republic is of great value for studying the ideology and institutional growth of high priestly power during this period.


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The specter of Rome casts a threatening shadow across the Jewish imagination. According to one famous rabbinic tradition, each step in Rome’s rise to power coincided with a crisis in Israel’s own history: Solomon’s idolatrous marriage, Jeroboam’s crafting of the golden calves, the passing of Elijah. In midrashic texts, Rome is regularly cast in the role of Esau/Edom, Israel’s fraternal nemesis. Most portentously, Jewish apocalyptic writings equated Rome with Babylon, the wicked city par excellence. 1 The reasons for these ominous associations are not difficult to discern. Jews suffered all manner of hardship—mostly as bystanders, sometimes as participants—in the violent dawn of Rome’s eastern empire: war, enslavement, privation, loss of sovereignty. In 70 AD, as punishment for rebellion, Roman legions burned and razed Jerusalem’s temple, the irreplaceable center of Jewish piety. Adding insult to injury, Jews everywhere were compelled to transfer their yearly contributions for the defunct sanctuary to the shrine of Rome’s state god, Jupiter Capitolinus, an annual reminder of their subjugation. In the wake of two more failed revolts, Jews were forbidden to set foot in Jerusalem, and for a time their religious observances became the target of official repression. By the mid-2 nd century AD, Rome had secured its place in the annals of Israel’s oppressors.2 This tale of woe began in 63 BC, when the Roman general Pompey, having laid claim to the Levant, besieged and captured Jerusalem. For more than half a century, Judea had been an independent nation ruled by native dynasts,...

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