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Tacitus on the Destruction of the Temple

Kelly Shannon-Henderson

University of Alabama

This paper considers how Tacitus may have portrayed the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the now-lost portion of the Histories, and how this might have affected readers’ experience of the Histories as a religious narrative. The similarities Tacitus sets up between the Jews and the Romans, and between the Temple in Jerusalem and the Capitoline temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome, underscore the hopelessness of Rome’s relationship with the gods during the Flavian Dynasty. In the famous Jewish excursus (H. 5.1-13), while Tacitus’ portrayal of the Jews is clearly hostile, it also invites a perceptive reader to see the ways in which the Jews and the Romans are similar (Feldherr 2008; Sailor 2009). The Jews and the Romans of AD 69 (particularly Vespasian) share a propensity to superstitio that negatively affects how they interpret signs from the gods (2.78.1, 5.13.1). Since Tacitus tells us that such signs are largely negative but sometimes difficult to understand (1.3.2), the stakes are high, and the problem extends all the way to the top of the imperial hierarchy. Rome’s relationship with the gods is not on sure footing.

If the Romans and the Jews have similarities, the same is true also of their religious sites: like the Jewish temple, the Capitoline temple (3.71-72) was also destroyed as a result of a war that ultimately led to the Flavians’ rise to power. Each temple was founded early in its respective people’s history in the context of a war won against neighboring peoples (3.72.2, 5.3.2). Each had survived or been reborn after an earlier war (3.72.3; 5.9.1). The temples even have physical similarities: each is described as an arx approached via a colonnade (3.71.1, 5.12.1). Tacitus also attributes similar significance to the destruction of each building. The destruction of the Capitoline temple emphasizes the glaring hole at the heart of Rome’s physical and religious/moral landscape: while the temple was physically rebuilt, “the broader emotional fault-lines were still there in the collective memory” (Ash, 2007: 237). A similar attitude to the Jewish temple is evident in the one potential surviving fragment, preserved in Sulpicius Severus’ Chronica (2.30.6), of Tacitus’ description of its demise, in which Titus deliberates about whether to destroy the Temple. (cf. Barnes 1977, though spurious, this fragment is Tacitean.) The fragment expresses a similar idea: if the temple were to be destroyed, its empty footprint would leave “an eternal mark of [Roman] cruelty” (perennem crudelitatis notam). And both temples are the site of bad omens prior to their destructions (1.86.1, 5.13.1). If the temples are similar, and the irreligiosity of the Romans and Jews prevents each group from correctly responding to omens, Tacitus perhaps suggests that the peoples’ fates could also be similar. The Jews are the ones who are destroyed this time, but it is not impossible that the Romans could be next. Through the comparison of both temples, we can use these portions of the Histories to hypothesize about the lost books, and Tacitean views on religious conduct.

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Tacitus and the Incomplete

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