By David Laskin*
Even without a book or a guide, even after two millenniums of crumbling, the image of the seven-branched candelabrum — the Jewish menorah — is unmistakable on the inner wall of the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum. Stand at the base of the single-passage arch and look up, and the scene in bas-relief ripples to life with almost cartoon clarity: Straining porters, trudging along what is plainly the route of a Roman triumph, bear aloft the golden menorah and other sacred loot plundered from the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The opposite side of the arch depicts the victory lap of the chief plunderer, Emperor Titus — who, as an ambitious young general, crushed the Jews’ revolt, leveled their Temple and brought enough booty and slaves back to Rome to finance an epic construction program that included the Colosseum.
I’ve gazed on the Arch of Titus many times in previous trips, marveling at its muscular grace, recoiling from its brazen braggadocio. But it wasn’t until I returned to Rome in October with Flavius Josephus as my guide that I fully grasped the significance of this monument in Jewish and Roman history.
“The luckiest traitor ever,” in the words of the historian Mary Beard, Flavius Josephus was a first-century Jewish general who threw in his lot with the Roman legions that destroyed his homeland. When Titus and his father, Vespasian, returned to Rome after the Judean war to inaugurate the Flavian dynasty — successor to the Julio-Claudian dynasty that Augustus founded and Nero destroyed — Josephus went with them. “The Jew of Rome,” as the German writer Lion Feuchtwanger called him in an eponymous historical novel, spent the rest of his days living in luxury in Flavian Rome and writing the history of his times.
Turncoat? Asylum seeker? Pragmatic visionary? Historians have long debated Josephus’s motives and character. What’s indisputable is that most of what is known about the violent encounter between Rome and Judea during this period comes out of his work. What’s astonishing is that, with a sharp eye and a bit of research, you can still walk in Josephus’s footsteps in contemporary Rome. Where but in the Eternal City is it possible to map a 2,000-year-old eyewitness account onto an intact urban fabric?
The silvery morning light was soothing on my jet-lagged retinas, but traffic was already roaring along Via di San Gregorio as I waited by the gate of the Palatine Hill for Mirco Modolo, the archeologist-archivist who had agreed to take me on a walking tour of Flavian Rome. Today this artery is a rather featureless channel running between the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus — but Mirco, whose youth and reserve belie a tenacious erudition, reminded me that we were standing on the likely processional route chiseled into the marble of the Arch of Titus and inked even more indelibly on the pages of Josephus’s book “The Jewish War.”
“At the break of dawn,” Josephus writes, “Vespasian and Titus issued forth, crowned with laurel and clad in the traditional purple robes, and proceeded to the Octavian walks [the Portico d’Ottavia, now a soaring ruin at the edge of the Jewish ghetto].” From the Portico d’Ottavia to the top of the Capitoline Hill, where all proper Roman triumphal processions culminated, is — and was — a 10-minute stroll. But it is clear from Josephus’s account that the imperial entourage took the long way around, circling counterclockwise around the outer precipices of the Palatine before entering the Forum on the side now dominated by the Colosseum.
Mirco and I hiked halfway up the Palatine to a terraced ledge overlooking the Forum. “See those tourists following the lady with the flag?” he asked. “They’re walking on the Via Sacra — the main axis through the Forum that the Flavian procession traversed before ascending the Capitol.”
I tried to mentally erase the T-shirts and selfie sticks and resurrect the fallen columns. Vespasian and Titus, riding chariots, would have been two dabs of purple surging up the ramparts of the Capitoline through a sea of white togas. In their train, thousands of Jewish slaves shuffled with bowed heads while the heaps of plundered gold and silver bobbed above them, winking in the sun. “Last of all the spoils,” writes Josephus, “was carried a copy of the Jewish Law” — the Torah.
Josephus reveals exactly where these spoils ended up. Vespasian had a new temple — the Templum Pacis (Temple of Peace) — built adjacent to the Forum where “he laid up the vessels of gold from the temple of the Jews, on which he prided himself; but their Law and the purple hangings of the sanctuary he ordered to be deposited and kept in the palace.” The palace, in ancient Rome, meant the Palatine (the word palace derives from the hill’s name) — and so, as the autumn sunlight brightened from silver to gold, I mounted the imperial summit.
After the buzzing, marble-strewn congestion of the Forum, the Palatine is like a country stroll. The huge squares of weedy grass and clumps of umbrella pines outlined in brick stubs could almost be farm fields — but, in fact, most of the stubs are remains of a colossal royal residence, the Domus Flavia, inaugurated by Vespasian and completed by his wicked, wildly ambitious second son, Domitian. Josephus, whose life spanned all three Flavian emperors, would have come to the Domus Flavia to pay homage to his patrons and perhaps murmur a prayer before the sacred scroll they had cached here.
I lingered on the Palatine for half an hour, trying to conjure the nerve center of an empire from its ruins. Somewhere buried under the dandelions and broken shards stood an inlaid niche or marble alcove where the stolen Torah was caged like a captive king.
Josephus’ footsteps lie closer to the surface in the Templum Pacis. I’d never heard of this monument, though I must have passed its ruins a score of times on the wide glaring Via dei Fori Imperiali (Street of the Imperial Fora) that Mussolini carved out as his own triumphal route between the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia. On my second morning in Rome, Josephus’s text in hand, I stood by the railing near the Forum ticket booth and peered down at the ongoing excavations of the temple’s sanctuary, arcades, fountains and gardens. Josephus notes that the Templum Pacis, built “very speedily in a style surpassing all human conception,” housed not only the spoils of Jerusalem, but “ancient masterpieces of painting and sculpture … objects for the sight of which men had once wandered over the whole world.”
These masterpieces have long since vanished, but a wall of the temple still stands at the entrance of the sixth-century Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damiano, now a Franciscan convent. One of the resident brothers, who humbly insisted on anonymity, showed me around. “The Templum Pacis was not only a shrine but a kind of cultural center,” he said. “We’re standing on the site of the temple’s library where the Forma Urbis — an immense marble map of the city — was displayed.” He pointed out a rusty bent spike that once fixed marble veneer to the rough-hewed stone. “Go ahead and touch — it’s been here since the first century A.D.”
I was itching to get down to the crypt, which covers part of the footprint of the Templum Pacis, but first we ducked into the basilica and took a moment to savor its principal artistic treasure: a shimmering 6th-century apse mosaic of Christ surfing roseate clouds flanked by saints. Perhaps I’ve read too many thrillers, but as I gazed up at this solemnly joyous creation, I imagined a plumb line dropping from the tiles of Christ’s outstretched hand and coming to rest, magically, on the exact spot where the menorah had been stashed — fanciful, but not impossible.
The sacred loot has disappeared without a trace, but a shelf of thrillers could be spun from the theories, myths, sightings and urban legends about where it supposedly ended up: hidden in a cave, glittering on the altar of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, carted off to Constantinople, tossed in the Tiber, and, most recently, squirreled away in a sub-subbasement of the Vatican. Alessandro Viscogliosi, a professor of the history of architecture at the University of Rome whom I met toward the end of my stay, has a more plausible — though mundane — explanation: When the Templum Pacis burned in 191 A.D., the gold and silver vessels melted and were subsequently salvaged and recast, probably as coins.
“No one really knows what happened to the stuff,” said Steven Fine, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University in New York and the director of the Arch of Titus Project. “There’s a common desire to establish continuity through things — and certainly the visual environment of Rome fosters this.”
Copies of Josephus’s books likely burned in the fire as well, but the texts survived, thanks in large part to Christian scholars who embraced him for his early, impartial (but much disputed) mentions of the historical Jesus — the so-called Testimonium Flavianum — in “Jewish Antiquities.” His fellow Jews, on the other hand, have until recently written Josephus off as a traitor and a Roman sycophant.
Still, 1,917 years after his death around 100 A.D., Josephus remains one the most famous Jews of Rome — best-selling author, confidante of emperors, member of a religious community that was already well-established when he arrived in 71 A.D. — and is still going strong today with families tracing their lineage “da Cesare,” from the time of Caesar.
I reflected on Josephus’s life and legacy as I made a final trek to the Palatine at the end of my stay. The southwest edge of the hill commands an unforgettable view over the Circus Maximus to the skyline beyond, and in the luminous October haze I picked out the distinctive squared-off metallic dome of the Tempio Maggiore — the main Jewish synagogue — and beyond it, the majestic drum of St. Peter’s. Roman, Jewish, Christian: Josephus’s footsteps lead us through the time and place where these three spheres aligned most exuberantly, most surprisingly.
*This article was published in The New York Times, on March 28, 2018.