Augustus with CrossExcerpted from Ancient Israel- From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Ed. Hershal Shanks. Washington, D.C.- Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999.

The Romans entered Judean politics, ironically, by invitation of one Jewish faction that was in a power struggle with another. In 76 B.C.E. Alexander Jannaeus, the last great king of the Hasmonean line, died. He was succeeded by his widow Salome Alexandra, who herself died in 67 B.C.E. The royal couple’s two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, then fought each other for succession to the throne. Both Hyrcanus (usually called by scholars Hyrcanus II) and Aristobulus (usually called Aristobulus II) appeared before the Roman legate in Syria, each asking to be recognized as the ruler of Judea. Other Jews appeared as well, asking the Romans to reject the claims of both; by this time many Jews were thoroughly disillusioned with Hasmonean rule.

The Romans at first supported Aristobulus II, but when they realized he was a potential troublemaker, a suspicion amply confirmed by subsequent events, they transferred their support to Hyrcanus II. Aristobulus considered fighting the Romans, but, realizing the overwhelming might of Rome and the hopelessness of his situation, he surrendered in 63 B.C.E. to the Roman general Pompey. The supporters of Hyrcanus opened the city of Jerusalem to the Romans.

But that was not the end of the battle for Jerusalem. Although the city was in Roman hands, many of Aristobulus’s supporters garrisoned themselves in the Temple and refused to surrender. After a three-month siege and some fearsome fighting, however, the Temple fell to Pompey’s legions (63 B.C.E.).

To punish the Jews for refusing to yield peacefully to Roman dominion, Pompey greatly reduced the territory under Jewish jurisdiction. The empire the Hasmoneans had created through war and struggle was dismembered at a single stroke. The high priest of Jerusalem now ruled only those areas populated by a heavy concentration of Jews, primarily Judea (the district around Jerusalem) and Galilee. Although these Jewish areas were not legally incorporated into the Roman Empire, they were now de facto under Roman rule. 2

Pompey Takes Jerusalem

Pompey’s conquest of Jerusalem closed one chapter in Roman-Jewish relations and opened another. A hundred years earlier Judah the Maccabee had sought and obtained an alliance with the Romans, who were then just becoming the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean. At that time, the Romans eagerly supported anyone who would help them weaken the power of the Seleucid kings of Syria. Judah’s successors followed the same strategy of seeking Roman support in their struggles for independence from the Seleucids.

Gradually, Rome’s power grew; her policy in the region, however, never wavered- Any power that might pose a threat to Roman interests was to be weakened. When the Jews were a useful ally against the Seleucids, they were embraced. When the Hasmonean state expanded, the Romans had no desire to see it become, in turn, a new threat to Roman interests. By the middle of the first century B.C.E., when the Romans at long last decided that the time had come to incorporate the eastern Mediterranean into their empire, the Jews were no longer allies but just another ethnic group that was to be brought into the inchoate imperial system. 3

Although the struggle for succession between Hyrcanus II and Aristobolus II and their appeals for Roman support provided the occasion for the Roman takeover of the Hasmonean state, we may be sure that in one way or another the Romans would have found a satisfactory excuse to exercise hegemony over the Jewish state.

The three decades (63 to 31 B.C.E.) following Pompey’s conquest of Jerusalem were extremely turbulent, not only for the Jews of Judea but for the entire Roman world, especially in the East. This was the period of the decline of the Roman republic, of the struggle between Julius Caesar and Pompey, of Pompey’s death and Caesar’s ascension to sole power, of Caesar’s assassination (on March 15, 44 B.C.E.), and of the struggle between the senate and Caesar’s supporters and later between Octavian (Augustus) and Mark Antony. The dust did not settle until the sea battle of Actium in Greece (31 B.C.E.), where Octavian defeated Mark Antony and became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. During the 20s B.C.E. Octavian consolidated his power and assumed the name “Augustus.” He established a pattern of imperial administration that would endure for centuries.

As the Romans were changing their mode of government, so were the Jews. Under the Persian and the Hellenistic monarchies, the Jews had been led by high priests who wielded political as well as religious power. However, during the initial period of Roman rule after Pompey’s conquest of Jerusalem, the high priesthood lost virtually all its temporal powers and a new royal dynasty emerged that was not of priestly stock. Its opponents claimed that it was not even wholly Jewish! The Romans, for their part, were delighted to install a dynasty that owed its very existence to Roman favor and therefore could be counted on to provide loyal support.