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Judea Under Roman Rule

Greco-Roman Period
Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

We have already traced the history of the Hasmonean dynasty through the days of
Salome Alexandra to its end in recrimination and civil war in 63 B.C.E. The decline of
this great dynasty resulted, as was noted, from the very same Hellenizing forces against
which the Maccabees had risen so valiantly. The last gasp of freedom was breathed as
Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II fought the fratricidal war which handed Judea over to the
Romans.

Aristobulus was led off in chains to Rome, and Hyrcanus II was installed as high priest,
entrusted with managing the internal affairs of the nation. For all intents and purposes,
Judea was reduced to the status of a Roman tributary. It was ruled by a Roman procurator
who managed its political, military, and fiscal affairs. Its governmental structure was
reorganized by Gabinius, the Roman governor of Syria from 57 to 55 B.C.E., who
divided the country into five synhedroi, or administrative districts. This arrangement was
clearly intended to eliminate the age-old system of toparchies (administrative districts
made up of central towns and the rura1 areas surrounding them), dating from the reign of
Solomon, and taken over in turn by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, and then by
the Ptolemies and Seleucids. The intent of this reorganization was to destabilize the
nation and thus make certain that popular resistance would be impossible. Julius Caesar
restored certain territories to Judea and appointed Hyrcanus ethnarch (Greek for “ruler of
the nation”).

Hyrcanus was a weak figure who on his own could neither administer the affairs of
Judea nor collect its taxes. For this reason, it became possible for the Idumaean Antipater,
whose father had been forcibly converted to Judaism in the time of John Hyrcanus, to
insinuate himself into the halls of power. He soon took control of virtually all matters of
state, thus exercising the authority that technically belonged to Hyrcanus as high priest,
and combined with this the powers delegated to him by the Romans, who clearly saw him
as their agent. Antipater’s decision to install his sons as governors, Herod over Galilee
and Phasael over Jerusalem, sowed the seeds of the Herodian dynasty.

Herod, then a man of twenty-five, set about ridding the Galilee of what his official court
historian, Nicolaus of Damascus, called “robbers” but who in reality may have been a
kind of resistance movement against Roman rule. By 47 or 46 B.C.E., Herod’s summary
methods of justice had led him into a confrontation with the Sanhedrin. Only the
intervention of his father, Antipater, prevented him from taking revenge for their having
called him to account. Herod’s difficulties with his brethren had no impact on his
relations with the Romans, who appointed him strategos (governor and general) of
Coele-Syria, a Greek designation for the area of Palestine and southwest Syria.

In 43 B.C.E. Antipater was poisoned, leaving the fate of Palestine open. Herod and
Phasael managed to retain power, even after the accession of Antony as ruler over the
entirety of Asia in 42 B.C.E. Despite the complaints of their countrymen, who dispatched
embassies to Antony, Herod and Phasael each acquired the title of tetrarch.
Their fate, and that of Palestine as well, changed markedly with the Parthian invasion in
40 B.C.E. The Parthians allied themselves with Antigonus II (Mattathias) the
Hasmonean, the youngest son of Aristobulus II (and nephew of Hyrcanus II), who as the
last of the Hasmonean princes had long been seeking to reassert Hasmonean rule over
Judea. Unable to stem the invasion, Phasael and Hyrcanus II were lured into a Parthian
trap. Hyrcanus was maimed in the ear in order to disqualify him from serving as high
priest and Phasael took his own life. Only the wily Herod had foreseen the trap and
escaped.

Now once again Judea had a Hasmonean king. Herod determined that in order to regain
power he had no option but to seek Roman support. He set sail for Rome, where he
persuaded the Senate to declare him king of Judea despite his lack of an army and of any
real claim to the throne. He knew that the Roman desire to see the Parthians expelled
from the province would lead the Senate to support his claims. In 39 B.C.E. he landed in
Ptolemais (present-day Akko) and quickly gathered some northerners around his banner,
alongside the Roman troops ordered by the Senate to assist him. His first attack on
Jerusalem was unsuccessful, with Antigonus still holding his own in the city. But the tide
was turning against the Parthians, who had been expelled from most of Syria and were on
the run in Palestine as well.

By 37 B.C.E. Herod had subdued virtually all of the country. By order of Antony,
Sossius, the Roman governor of Syria, gave Herod aid which ultimately enabled him to
take Jerusalem. Antigonus was captured by the Romans and was beheaded at the wish of
Herod. Thus Hasmonean rule over an independent Jewish nation in the Land of Israel
was finally brought to an end.

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