Why did the Roman Empire fall? Alexander Demandt has published a book of 695 pages on the different explanations that have been offered over the centuries.1 A work enlivened with a good deal of dry humor, it concludes with a straight-faced listing of 210 causes alleged by one scholar or another. In it the reader finds, cheek by jowl, “asceticism” and “hedonism,” “centralization” and “decentralization,” “Christianity” and “polytheism,” “communism” and “aristocracy,” “professional army” and “indiscipline of the army,” “superstition” and “rationalism,” “urbanization” and “decline of the cities.” There is no agreement on the question when the fall began, or even whether it took place at all: “The Western Empire continues to this day,” wrote Sir Isaac Newton, and at various times Germans, Frenchmen, and Catholics have all asserted the unbroken continuity of Rome with the empire of Charlemagne, or with the First Reich, or with the papacy.
If we grant that the Roman Empire fell, what was the crucial date? Many people have chosen the sack of Rome in AD 410, but others prefer the deposition of the last emperor in AD 476, while arguments have been made for AD 300 and the reign of Constantine, or AD 180 and the reign of Commodus (Gibbon), or the victory of Augustus in 31 BC (Spengler), or the war with Hannibal in the third century BC (Toynbee). Alfred Rosenberg, the theoretician of Nazi racialism, carried his doctrine to a high point of pedantry by claiming that “the first step toward chaos” was taken when the originally separate orders of patricians and plebeians were allowed to intermarry, by a law passed in 445 BC—a date long before Rome possessed an empire at all.
Clearly these are not questions that can be, in the ordinary sense, settled. Most writing about the fall of Rome has had a strong thread of intended relevance to the writers’ own concerns and their anxieties about their own time, and there can be no general agreement on the significance of their findings. Richard Nixon said of Greece and Rome, “When the great civilizations of the past became prosperous, when they lost the will to go on living and making progress, they fell victims to decadence which in the long run destroys a culture.” It is no surprise that he went on to say, “The United States is now entering this phase.”
Professor Ramsay MacMullen, of Yale University, has written a study in what he calls “historical sociology.” Like many publications nowadays on ancient history, this one opens with a statement of the writer’s values. Historical sociology is “necessary for the understanding of the schoolboy part of history: that is, battles and political parties and who-did-what-to-whom…. The schoolboy in all of us would insist on battles and plotting and personalities in every description of the past, to give it life.” That reads strangely, and would surprise that notorious schoolboy V.I. Lenin (“Who whom?”), except that it so closely resembles other statements of faith made nowadays by ancient historians.
Something vital for the “life” of all accounts of the past is put down snubbingly as “schoolboy”—only all readers insist on getting it, and in fact the author, having distanced himself from it in theory, can indulge in it in practice. MacMullen has seventeen graphs that illustrate the phenomenon of decline: a striking one, for instance, shows the number of writers whose works have survived from successive half-century periods. Of these seventeen graphs no fewer than eleven come in the first fourteen pages. Later on in the book, the nature of which is rather misleadingly suggested by such an opening, we do indeed find an account of the crucial battle of Hadrianople in 378 and even of what followed it (“From Hadrianople, the victorious Goths, soon joined by other barbarian immigrant groups, turned to further pillage. They were quite unopposed. Indeed, a contemporary speaks of them moving over the land ‘like dancers rather than as if on campaign”‘; and so on), and of such people as the wicked Count Romanus (“From Milan, a certain Palladius, tribune and notary, set off in 367 for Carthage,” etc.).
The connoisseur may see a resemblance to the procedure of Professor Cunliffe. He begins his book by saluting “a school of ancient historians concerned with the ancient economy, who approach their study not anecdotally, as was the tradition in the past, but in terms of model-building,” and his first chapter is austerely abstract—“Individual communities throughout the hinterland are linked directly to the gateway community by a linear or dendritic market network which need not be circumscribed by political boundaries.” But as soon as we come to facts, on the first page of his second chapter, the anecdotal is shamelessly back in our midst: after a seven-year drought the people of the island of Thera consulted the Delphic oracle for advice and were told to found a colony in Libya.
Herodotus gives details of what happened: “The expedition sailed to Libya but did not know what to do next, so returned to Thera: but the Therans stoned them as they were putting in and would not allow them to land, telling them to sail back again. So under compulsion they sailed back and established a settlement on an island off Libya, called Platea.”
Later, we are told, the settlers moved to the better site of Cyrene. The story is of particular interest as an example of society’s response when population level approaches or exceeds the holding capacity of the land.
Other anecdotes and vignettes follow, and why not? Ancient historians seem to be ashamed to be seen considering certain sorts of question, or even certain sorts of evidence. If they are, it is not a virtue; and the present vogue for renouncing what one does, as one does it, recalls all too vividly a maiden lady of the old style, who kept a box of chocolates, or even a bottle of gin, under the table, and assured her visitors that she wouldn’t dream of touching such wicked stuff. Enough of these ritual pieties! Let what we write speak for itself.
MacMullen rightly emphasizes that there was no such thing as “the” decline of the empire. Things took very different courses in different places and at different times. Most of the west suffered disastrous barbarian invasions in the middle of the third century, from which it is perhaps surprising that the western empire recovered at all; but across the Channel there seems to have been no third century crisis in Britain, nor does it seem to have affected Egypt. Spain and Britain suffered a sharp decline before the end of the fourth century, but the African provinces flourished well into the fifth. And so on.
Having established this, MacMullen goes on to the theme of corruption. Like other early states, Rome had always had few paid officials, and had relied, to keep the whole system going, on the sense of duty, the noblesse oblige, and above all the competitiveness, of the upper class, both in Rome and in the cities of the Empire. That upper class worked very much by personal contacts, marriage and kinship alliances, inherited friendships; it is the situation familiar in many parts of the world until this day. It had always been difficult to apply the restraints of the law with any success to powerful men—well born, well connected, rich—who went beyond the norm in greed or violence or ambition.
A mass of skillfully deployed evidence shows us the way things had always been, with some vivid vignettes of oppressive and corrupt behavior. Army officers took bribes from the enemy and padded their rolls of men with the names of the dead; the living soldiers bought long leaves—years at a time—from their commanders; those who were still in the ranks, unpaid and unprovided through venality higher up in the system, bullied civilians and practiced the rake-off and the shakedown. (MacMullen is good on the slang terms and euphemisms, in Greek and Latin, for these practices.) Justice was notoriously at the mercy of influence and of money. The rich managed to get themselves exempted from the obligation to pay tax, passing it on gleefully to the poorer members of the upper class, with the result that that class became smaller and smaller, and consisted of a few plutocrats ruining their social equals and oppressing their dependents. Meanwhile the provincial governors could fix the rate of taxes at their pleasure, disregarding the attempted supervision of Rome.
This is all stirring to read and an excellent account of the workings of such a society. Where MacMullen goes beyond his predecessors is in regarding the prevalence of corruption as a key factor in Rome’s decline; often he writes as if he were presenting it as “the” cause, although he never quite says so. In the old days Rome was able to field invincible armies and to defeat and destroy barbarian hordes, but after AD 320 it was able to do so no longer. Its armies were reluctant to take the field, unprepared, reliant on the barbarian units within their own ranks for the fighting spirit which won battles. Why was that? What had brought a conquering people to this pass? MacMullen is right to see this as a crucially important question. He answers it by bringing out the effects throughout the system of each person in a position of power using it for his own enrichment, regardless of the common good: a process which he provocatively calls the “privatization of power.” Armies were smaller than they should have been, worse armed than they should have been, less willing to fight; they were increasingly based not on the frontier but in the cities, where it was cheaper to provision them, and where they could support themselves by squeezing the locals. Such armies repeatedly proved unwilling to fight, and when they did fight it was but feebly. When Alaric, in his march on Rome, was told that the Romans were massing to fight him, he commented, “The thicker the grass, the easier it is to mow.”
Of course the point has not gone unnoticed. Gibbon remarked on the “enervated soldiers” of the period and gave weighty judgment: “Their pusillanimous indolence may be considered as the immediate cause of the downfall of the Empire.” The gentle Erasmus, by contrast, blamed it all on the bloodthirstiness of the soldiers and the military despotism which they imposed on Rome, a verdict which perhaps says more about him than about its subject. MacMullen’s point is well taken. The Roman armies of the fourth century were clearly not what they used to be, and the sack of Rome, the loss of the western provinces, and the establishment of the Germanic kingdoms would all not have happened if they had been.
We may remark in passing that another interesting question raised by Rome’s fall is this: Was it a bad thing that it fell? Do we wish, should we wish, that the Mediterranean world, from Northumberland to the Persian Gulf, were still ruled by a Roman emperor? Like most of those who write on this subject, MacMullen seems to go on the unstated premise that we should prefer it. There was a vogue among Germans, and even some Victorian Englishmen, for saying that the barbarian invaders were much better than late Romans (more moral, taller, blonder) and their destruction of the western empire was a good thing; that seems to have blown over, and the whole question is eminently unanswerable, but something within us—less the schoolboy this time, perhaps, than the undergraduate—can derive pleasure and even instruction from considering it. The ancestors of the Greeks and Romans themselves were, in the beginning, northern invaders who forced their way south to the sea, the sun, and the lands of the olive and the vine.
MacMullen is clear, and convincing, that there is no single thing that can be called “the fall.” This being so, what is the status of his emphasis on corruption? No doubt it was, as he charmingly puts it, “baneful or, if one prefers a more scientific-sounding word, dysfunctional.” But two difficulties present themselves. First, even the most shocking stories of remissness, selfishness, and venality from the late empire can be paralleled from the early empire or even the late republic. Cicero’s prosecution of Verres for his misconduct as governor in Sicily produces all and more of the charges brought 450 years later against Count Romanus. Provincials clamored for redress against scandalous abuses in the first century of the empire, and highly placed friends and brothers-in-law got the culprits off. The reliance on barbarians to defend the empire, another feature of the late period which MacMullen, like others, sees as disastrous, was begun in the second century by the irreproachable Emperor Marcus Aurelius. When and how did things which had once been tolerable become intolerable? MacMullen’s view is that things changed about AD 250. Thereafter, the courts were more notoriously venal, the government more violent, the law more intrusive, the emperor more isolated; corruption increased, the servants of emperors became less trustworthy.
That is a hard thesis to prove. There is a great deal of evidence in the form of complaints and hard-luck stories, but there always had been: the declamations of Juvenal and the jeremiads of Tacitus were composed in a “good” period of the empire. MacMullen, aware of the difficulty, meets it by saying that in the earlier time wrongdoing was felt as wrong, but in the later age it was felt as, in a way, right: that is the great difference. But the most fertile authors in evidence for moral decline are pagan historians and Christian fathers, who agree in denouncing precisely these practices as wrong. The episodes that MacMullen quotes from the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (c.330–c.400) are generally accompanied, in his pages, with criticism as scathing as MacMullen’s own. Those who took the bribes sometimes maintained that they were within their rights to do so, and he is right to point to the process by which the irregular exaction of one time became the legal right of another; but society as a whole knew quite well what was antisocial.
The second difficulty is that what we call the fall of Rome was in reality only the fall of the western empire. Constantinople—new Rome, Rûm as the Muslims called it—remained in existence for centuries, and the eastern empire was far less roughly handled than the west. Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt: these regions did not suffer before the coming of Islam in the seventh century, and some parts survived it. Yet the stories of corruption at Antioch are no less horrific than those at Rome. That is in a way a debating point: as MacMullen has been careful not to claim that his theme suffices to explain Rome’s fall, he can claim it as unfair if he is called on to explain why it sufficed in one part of the empire but not in another. But it does draw attention to a limitation that is more than trivial.
The book pays no serious attention to the barbarians whom the empire had to fight. In the East there were Parthians and Persians, in the West the Germanic tribes; the latter were far more difficult to deal with, for reasons some of which we can see. They were too numerous; fresh hordes kept arriving out of the North and East, and they found a long and exposed Roman frontier. They were prolific in offspring, devoted to war, driven on from behind and consequently in search of land for settlement. The western empire was “persistently hammered” (as Sir Moses Finley put it) in a way that the east was not; and so vices that could be lived with in the east were fatal to the survival of the west. Had the barbarians been different, Rome might have been able to cope, despite its mafiosi grandees and the “dead souls” on the regimental rolls.
It must also be said that MacMullen’s single-minded concentration on one cause leads him to neglect others. For instance, the rise of Christianity certainly had some part in creating attitudes unhelpful to the authorities of the earthly city, and those attitudes need to be taken into account. Thus, Saint Ambrose is quoted for his “depressing estimate of the life he saw round him in the courtier world of Milan,…increasing avarice and corruption,” and so on. We must remember how Ambrose, son of a high-ranking imperial official, himself a brilliant state servant until he became a bishop, a man of dominating talents and personality, turned those talents to use in the service of his fellow men. His first great public clash with the Emperor Theodosius arose when the emperor issued an order that a bishop who had encouraged a mob to burn down a synagogue should be made to pay for its rebuilding and to punish those responsible. Ambrose forced the emperor to retract this just and sensible ruling. And after the disastrous defeat of the Roman army at Hadrianople, which cost the life of the Emperor Valens and admitted the Goths to the empire, Ambrose could find no more realistic or practically helpful comment than that such defeats were inevitable as long as Roman emperors, though Christian, were heretics; only when emperors were not Arian but orthodox would they win battles.
Peter Brown is on record as saying, “Perhaps the most basic reason for the failure of the imperial government…was that the two main groups in the Latin world—the senatorial aristocracy and the Catholic Church—dissociated themselves from the fate of the Roman army that defended them.”2 We are reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s attack on the unmilitary English upper class of his time:
Idle, openly idle, in the lee of the forspent line.
Kipling, who thought a good deal about the Roman Empire and its fall (the fate of the British Empire being always between the lines), is one of the more important absentees from Demandt’s book.
Marxists have seen slave-owning as the crucial factor; biologists and mineralogists have alleged that the soil or the mines were becoming exhausted; doctors have pointed to the effect of lead in the water pipes; moralists have denounced the Romans’ love of hot baths (mostly in general terms as vaguely “enervating,” but one enquirer conducted experiments on the genitals of dogs and claimed that overhot baths made Roman men impotent). Perhaps it is hard to improve on the verdict of Byron, as Childe Harold gazes at the ruins of the Eternal City:
There is the moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
First Freedom, and then Glory—when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption,—barbarism at last.
The surprising thing, really, is Rome’s duration, rather than its eventual fall. Moderns have harangued the Romans for the vices that lost them their empire, yet Frederick the Great, Mussolini, Hitler, and the British imperialists, all liberal with their criticisms of Rome, founded regimes that proved notably shorter lived. MacMullen has contributed a powerful account of the vices of late Roman society, which certainly helps us to understand some aspects of its partial fall. And contemporary relevance—? He concludes by observing that “almost as I write, the charges against various present and former wearers of the [military uniform], accused of illicit sale of weapons to their country’s enemies at enormous profit, half-unravel in piles of shredded paper; for the chief upholder of the law in the palace (himself under renewed investigation for his profits from the sale of influence) has proved rather slow to investigate.” As ever, the study of the past is a mirror in which we see the present.
MacMullen’s book follows the tradition of classical historians in its concentration on the Roman side of the story. Barry Cunliffe, who is not a classicist but an expert on Northern Europe, begins his with the proposition that “for far too long the study of the classical world of the Mediterranean and of the barbarian communities of temperate and northern Europe have remained very separate disciplines,” but that in the last twenty-five years attempts have begun to bring them closer together. His book is a contribution toward that laudable goal.
The high cultures of Greece and Rome, from the time of the Mycenaeans to the late Roman Empire, drew in raw materials such as tin, copper, and iron, woolen fabrics and furs, amber, spices, exotic animals, and (above all) slaves. They exported manufactured goods—ceramics, worked metal, luxury items, olive oil and wine. That simple statement seems not to get us very far. The interest of Cunliffe’s book is the way in which the implications and effects of it are worked out. He sets out theoretical models of “core” and “periphery” zones, related by different types of economic exchange, along the lines indicated by Karl Polanyi and Kenneth Hirth. This enables him to take superficially quite different historical subjects—the situation of a Greek “colony,” for instance, isolated in a non-Greek setting in the sixth century BC and the trading relations between Rome and Germanic tribes over the imperial frontier—and bring out their similarities. The mechanisms of exchange are explored both according to theoretical considerations and to quantifiable data (there are seventy-six maps, charts, and graphs).
The most stimulating part of all this is the discussion of a question usually overlooked: What was the impact on the barbarians of their trade and dealings with the more sophisticated societies? When Greek cities in the west, notably Massalia (Marseille), began to trade with the tribal peoples of central and eastern Gaul, what the Greeks sent them included luxury objects such as bronze, ivory, gold, and wine. Archaeologists find, at this time (c. 600 BC), that richly furnished graves begin to appear in the north, in which chieftains are buried with showy collections of Greek consumer durables, especially the luxury furnishings of the Greek-style drinking party, its mixing bowls, jugs, cups, flagons, cauldrons, and tripods. This in turn means that the tribes now include leaders powerful enough to possess such things, and to take them out of circulation at their death. Those chieftains must have paid for their treasures, and the most obvious currency which they could have used was slaves. So the presence of Greek luxury goods coincided, it seems, with the appearance of chieftains with a position in their own society far more dominant than that possessed by anybody before 600 BC; for at that time burials were much more egalitarian in wealth and equipment.
Cunliffe takes the view that the availability of the imported luxuries was a prime cause in this great social change: powerful people achieved positions which enabled them to afford such things, the possession of which, and their distribution to favored subordinates, then became the linchpin of a new, more hierarchical, society in which prestige was a central value. A shortfall in the production of such goods, or in the ability of chieftains to afford them, would quickly lead to the collapse of that structure of society. That may have happened around 400 BC and played a part in causing the Gallic migrations of the succeeding years, including the sack of Rome by Gauls in the year 387 BC.
A similar thesis is worked out in greater detail for the relations between Rome and Gaul in subsequent centuries. As Rome established itself in Southern Gaul (Provence, “the province”), it had a great impact on Gallic society north of the frontier. The political pressure and the example of Rome led to a development from isolated tribal units to larger federations with increasingly clear constitutions. These larger units issued coins, on a far greater scale and from fewer mints than in the old tribal days. The area nearest to the Roman frontier became semi-Romanized, passing on as middlemen the raw materials produced in the less assimilated areas of the north.
Both in Gaul and, a century later, in Britain, there is a visible process by which first a certain region is taken over by Rome, with a periphery increasingly affected by Romanization and, beyond it, a less affected region: that region, however, is increasingly drawn into the system, especially as a source of slaves and a recipient of wine and luxuries. With the passage of time the Romanized area advanced to annex the periphery and convert the area beyond it into a semi-Romanized periphery in its turn. In Britain that began in the southeast, the first region to be characterized by roads, towns, coinage, and trade with the continent of Europe. It is curious to see how Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain is repeating the pattern in reverse, the southeast becoming more and more the most favored and prosperous area. From Kent the Romans found themselves drawn on by the logic of this process all the way to the lowlands of Scotland.
The pattern Cunliffe finds consists of a core zone of consumers and importers, ports of trade, an intermediate zone through which imports and exports pass, an “elite redistribution zone” in which the luxury exports from the center are processed and distributed by local potentates, and finally a least civilized zone in which raw materials and slaves are actually procured. It recurs in the relations of Gaul and Greek Massalia in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, in those of Gaul and Rome in the second and first centuries BC, in Britain, and in the relations of Rome with the Germanic tribes between AD 20 and 160. In each case the effect of luxury imports in one direction, and the need to procure slaves to pay for them in the other, was to influence and distort the barbaric societies. Cunliffe’s account is in general convincing and illuminating. He might have extended it to include a discussion of the role of the barbarians in the fall of Rome. The result would perhaps have resembled the theory of F. Altheim.3
MacMullen shows the Rome-centered sensibility of a classicist; it must be said that Cunliffe occasionally shows a certain one-sidedness of the opposite kind. Mistakes in classical names are numerous: “Carthago Novo,” “the Bosphorous,” “Fanum Martius,” “emporiae,” “the oppida of Noviodunum,” “portoria was charged,” “agri decumantes,” are all slips that betray unfamiliarity with Latin. More startling are a few historical assertions: “In 146 BC, Rome had sacked two of the greatest cities in the Mediterranean—Corinth and Carthage—and thus become master of Greece and Africa” is the reverse of the truth; having already won that mastery, Rome indulged herself by destroying those cities.
More surprising still is the assertion that the “civil war…was to last for four years, until the two protagonists, Caesar and Pompey, met on the Spanish plain of Munda. Triumphant, Caesar returned to Rome; a year later, on the Ides of March 44 BC, he was stabbed to death”—for every schoolboy knows that Caesar defeated Pompey far from Spain, at Pharsalus in northern Greece, not in 45 but in 48 BC. Pompey was then killed in Egypt, and the battle of Munda was fought against his sons. Unfortunately one lifetime seems hardly enough to allow a scholar full mastery of every aspect of huge subjects like these.
Something very close to such mastery is, however, shown in the posthumous work of Elias J. Bickerman, for many years a professor at Columbia. The Jews in the Greek Age was originally given as lectures in the 1950s, and its eventual appearance is something of a work of piety. The book has no footnotes and—rather tiresomely, in view of the considerable number of topographical descriptions—no maps. The reader is advised to have an atlas handy, but the book itself is highly readable and packed with information, much of which will be new even to those with some knowledge of one side or the other, Jewish or Greek.
In some ways the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great in 334–331 BC changed very little for the Jews. The Persians had given them a very good deal, allowing them to return to Jerusalem and reestablish the ritual of the Temple; the Torah was declared by the Persian king to be the unchangeable law of the land, and all Jews, defined by their religion, were required to live under it. Hence the very favorable account of Cyrus and Artaxerxes in the later books of the Old Testament. The Greeks came as conquerors, and in brutal style: in the wars that followed Alexander’s death, as his generals scrambled for his legacy, Jerusalem changed hands six times in nine years (320–312 BC). The Greek dynasties that finally established themselves, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria, then ruled the land in succession.
They were financially oppressive, but new technology was introduced, the footpowered potter’s wheel, for instance, the rotary, mill, the oil press, and Archimedes’ screw for lifting water. A less universally welcome import was athletics, which in Greek culture necessarily meant nakedness; at this period a gymnasium was built in Jerusalem, and Jews competed in the Olympic Games. Even more insidious was the secular character of Greek thought. Many things that for Jewish tradition were sacred were for Greeks profane, such as questions of diet, the stuff of which clothes and blankets were made, and the measurement of time. Even the nature of the world itself was open to scrutiny by the Greeks; it was a cosmos whose workings could in principle be understood, not an absolute monarchy run by the arbitrary and passionate will of God.
King Antiochus III renewed the Persian ruling that the law of Moses should be the law of Moses should be the law of the land. He also continued the tax exemptions enjoyed by the Temple and the very large subventions made from the royal funds to the maintenance of its services. The Greek kings in fact enlarged the position of the Jewish priests, by accepting them as the spokesmen for their people as a whole, as the Ptolemies accepted the Egyptian priests as the spokesmen for the people of Egypt; and especially the high priests, the family of Zadok, worked well with the kings. One is reminded of the desire of the British Empire that there should be a chief rabbi in London, to be analogous to the archbishop and moderators who headed other religious groups; despite the strong reservations of some of the faithful, a chief rabbi was duly produced and adopted into the establishment.
It was partly in consequence of these policies that the priests in Jerusalem became richer, sleeker, and more cosmopolitan (which meant in practice more tolerant of things Greek) than country clergy like the Maccabees, under whom the accumulating resentment at all this, brought to the boil by the incautious actions of Antiochus IV, reached the point of exploding in a rebellion which is, perhaps, rather oddly minimized in Bickerman’s account. The Maccabees were the subject of Bickerman’s first book,4 and he seems to have been reluctant to repeat himself.
Two crucial developments are convincingly ascribed to this important transitional period in Jewish history. It was the time when the study of the Law came to be felt as a duty by many Jews who were not priests. The Bible itself imposes no such obligation: the obligation is only to keep the Law. Partly in response to a Greek culture that based itself on the study of the poems of Homer, all Jewish culture became Torah-centric: “The study of the law by laymen was a Hellenistic innovation in Jerusalem.” That was of incalculable importance. In addition to the priests, lay experts appeared for the first time as interpreters of the Law. So it was that when the Temple was finally destroyed and its cult ceased, there were still men who knew the sacred books and kept them alive. In Egypt and Babylon only priests knew the texts, and their disappearance meant the disappearance of the texts, too.
It was also the period in which prayer became important. The many Jews who flourished away from Jerusalem, where alone sacrifice could, strictly, be offered, built “houses of prayer,” which became increasingly central. The Temple ritual was overwhelmingly one not of prayer but of sacrifice (in the Bible the festival of Yom Kippur is little mentioned and of small significance), but since sacrifice was impossible away from Jerusalem’s Temple, and consequently prayer became the custom of many Jews, even in the Temple itself, by the second century BC, prayer without sacrifice could find a place. Gradually it became more and more usual. This meant that the abolition of sacrifice rituals when the Temple was destroyed in AD 70 found the Jews ready to accept prayer, without sacrifice, as the normal way to approach God. This was of cardinal importance for Christianity, too. Nonetheless, I feel that Bickerman goes rather far when he says that the Emperor Titus, who destroyed the Temple, by stopping sacrificial rituals which neither Socrates nor Jesus had stopped, was “the greatest religious reformer in history.” A note of puckish humor, perhaps, from a great scholar beyond the grave.
March 16, 1989
Der Fall Roms (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1984). ↩
The World of Late Antiquity (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), p. 118. ↩
Niedergang der Alten Welt (Frankfurt: V. Klostermann, 1952). ↩
Der Gott der Makkabäer (Berlin: Schocken, 1937); English translation, The God of the Maccabees (E.J. Brill, 1979). ↩