Titus, the Roman general who ordered the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to be burned to the ground on Av 9, 70 CE, must have seemed cursed.
First, only two months after ‘the wicked’ Titus, became Caesar; the Roman city of Pompeii was totally destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August of 79 CE, nine years to the month after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in August of 70 CE.
Second, when Titus visited Pompeii in spring of 80 CE, a fire broke out in Rome, burning large parts of Rome for three days and three nights, and as Cassius Dio records, destroying many important public buildings, including Agrippa’s Pantheon and the Temple of Jupiter. These two events, known by all throughout the Roman empire, were not even mentioned in Rabbinic records.
Finally, when Titus fell ill and died of a fever at the young age of 42, his last words, uttered just before he died, were: “I have made only one mistake”.
This statement must have seemed to late first century Jews to be an admission of his terrible sin of ordering the destruction of God’s Temple in Jerusalem. Titus ruled the Roman Empire for only two years, from the death of his father Vespasian in 79 CE to his own death on September 13, 81CE just a few days before Rosh HaShanah.
Roman historians have speculated on the exact nature of his death, and what was the mistake Titus alluded in his final words. Philostratus writes that Titus was poisoned by his brother and that his death had been foretold to him by Apollonius of Tyana. Suetonius and Cassius Dio maintain Titus died of natural causes.
While there was no Jewish glee over the destruction of Pompeii or the burning of Jupiter’s Temple in Rome, there is a Jewish version of the Roman speculation on the exact nature of the death of Titus, and how his death was related to the outstanding mistake Titus alluded to in his final words.
The Talmud (Gitten 56b) says: Our Sages tell us: When Titus was traveling back to Rome on a ship filled with Jewish captives and the vessels of the Holy Temple, a storm at sea threatened to drown him. He said: It seems that the God of these people has power over water. He drowned Pharaoh in water. Now He is about to drown me in water. If He wants to show His strength, let Him fight me on dry land…
Titus went ashore and a gnat came, entered his nostril, and pecked at his brain for seven years. As Titus lay dying, he instructed his servants: “Burn me and scatter my ashes over the sea so the God of the Jews cannot find me and bring me to judgment.”
But the Talmud is concerned with more important things than just personal retribution. As the Talmud (Megillah 6a) sees it: “Caesarea and Jerusalem. If someone says to you both are destroyed; do not believe it. Both are flourishing, do not believe it. One of them is flourishing, and the other is a wasteland; believe it. If one of them is prosperous, the other is laid waste.”
Now, Jerusalem is indeed filled with Jews while Caesarea is an archeological ruin. Even more important the Rome of Romulus in Italy and Constantine’s Rome in Turkey have been transformed politically and religiously.
In the near future Alexandria and Antioch can and will also be transformed politically and religiously as predicted by Prophet Isaiah (19:23-4):
“In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Syria, and the Syrians will come into Egypt and the Egyptians into Syria, and the Egyptians will worship (together) with the Syrians. In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Syria, a blessing in the midst of the earth”