Tisha B’Av: The Arch of Titus – an alternative view

Image courtesy of author

I am writing this piece in the run up to Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av)the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. The Talmud relates five major catastrophes which occurred on that day from the evil report about the land of Israel brought back to Moses by the spies in the wilderness to the destruction of the two temples and the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. Jewish tradition has linked that day to subsequent tragedies  in Jewish history from the First Crusade to the expulsion of the Jews from England, France and Spain to the outbreak of the First World War and even, by  extreme nationalists, to the implementation of the withdrawal from Gaza (sic).

The historical evidence linking these events to the ninth of Av is actually quite flimsy. Sometimes the event itself did not happen so suddenly. When for instance did the First World War break out? when Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914? or when Austria declared war on Serbia? or Germany on Russia?  or Britain on Germany? The same points can be made regarding the expulsions where the actual dates themselves are not so certain. When did an expulsion happen when the decree was promulgated? when it was announced? or over the several days it was implemented? Even with the destruction of the First temple there is uncertainty; the Books of Kings and Jeremiah give different dates for the destruction neither of them the ninth of Av. Nevertheless we have chosen to commemorate these tragedies on that date and this is sufficient for it to be a focus for our feelings. It is moreover the destruction of the Second Temple possibly the most significant event, religiously, demographically and culturally in Jewish history that has set the scene for the commemoration.

While we naturally tend to see the destruction from the Jewish point of view, it is interesting to look at it from the Roman side and where better to start, than with the Arch of Titus. The arch was built by Titus’s brother and successor, Domitian, to honour him after his death. The arch was the model for the subsequent Arch of Constantine which itself became a model for the modern arches of The Arc de Triomphe in Paris and our own Marble Arch. The scenes shown on the inside of the arch are among the only contemporary depictions of the Temple artefacts. In particular the unique depiction of the Menorah with its circular arms and hexagonal base has become its recognised image, and hence the official symbol of the state of Israel.

As is frequently the case, reality diverges from the myth. Although Josephus, the Jewish historian, describes the Jewish revolt which led to the destruction of the temple as ‘indisputably the greatest struggle’ of his age and possibly the greatest in the history of the world, the reality is much more mundane. The first five Roman emperors all came from one family the Julio Claudians collateral descendants of Julius Caesar. Vespasian the general who began the siege of Jerusalem, and whose son Titus finished it and destroyed the Temple, was the founder of a new dynasty, the Flavians. As such he was an upstart with a constant need to prove his credibility- a trait inherited by his children. The propaganda exercise began with the triumphal procession organised in Rome, continued with the support of Josephus’s history, the minting of the Judea capta coins showing an image of Judea in chains  and culminated in the construction of the arch.

In reality, the war, though its consequences were vast, was itself not such a struggle. The casualties, on both sides, were far smaller than those in the subsequent Bar Kochba revolt, which really did result in the extermination of the Jewish communities in Israel. Similarly it does not bear comparison with the great campaigns of Julius Caesar who conquered what is now France vastly increasing the land area of the empire or of Pompey  the Great who subjugated the Middle East including Palestine.

The mythology, however, has stuck. The menorah remains the symbol of the state and the arch the symbol of the captivity. At some point, we do not know when, the Jews of Rome put a Herem (a ban) on Jews walking under the arch- a ban which remained in place for centuries, if not millennia. The ban was lifted in 1948 with the Declaration of the State of Israel. One of the most moving scenes of documentaries about the establishment of the state is the footage of the Chief Rabbi of Rome conducting a service at the arch immediately following its announcement. Ten years later the State of Israel issued its own memorial gold coin in Hebrew and Latin showing Judea capta on the obverse and Israel Liberata on the reverse. My late father as a staunch Zionist bought some of those coins. I am pleased to say that despite the attentions of recent burglars I still have them.

I am proud to have been able to round off history in another way. I have visited Rome, incidentally the birthplace of Hebrew printing and the city with the oldest continuous Jewish population in the world many times. Like many others including Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday I have fallen victim to its charms. This year however for the first time I was able to walk under the Arch of Titus, see at first hand those symbols of Jewish history and assert for myself the end of Galut. It was a truly memorable trip.

About the Author
I studied at Yeshivat Kerem Beyavneh in Israel and then at Cambridge University. After practising as a commercial lawyer I became active in communal affairs. I was Co-Chair of British Friends of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. I was President of the Board of Deputies and then took a Masters at UCL in Jewish History and am now doing graduate research there.
Related Topics
Related Posts