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Deconstructing Jerusalem

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My next Praetorian book will be released in early/mid 2021, and among the interesting places Rufinus will be finding himself wandering in book VI is the Holy City, the hub of the three Abrahamic religions. But the problem is that at the time the book is set, Jerusalem is a thing of the past… and but a dream of the future. In 193AD, on the site of that Jewish city is a Roman metropolis by the name of Aelia Capitolina.

What? Well here’s the thing. Once upon a time, during the days of the Jewish kings and the Roman republic and early empire, Jerusalem was the powerful capital city of the Jews. At its religious heart was the great Temple of Solomon, and the city had stout defensive walls that had been there for more than a millennium, with the impressive palace of Herod attached to the ramparts. The urban mass spread over three hills. Jerusalem was proud, strong, and one of the most important cities in the east.

The Temple of Solomon

The problem lies within that infamous inability of the Jews and the Romans to get along. One of the most basic tenets of the Jewish faith is that their god is the only god, and no Jew could bow to another. The Romans, unfortunately, had a series of emperors who had been deified, often while still alive, and the emperor being a god was somewhat central to Roman culture. Herein lies an unbreakable wall. The Romans could not accept citizens who defied a god, and the Jews could not recognise that god. Oops.

This trouble boiled over a number of times into violence. The first real world-changing event occurred late in Nero’s reign. A rising of the Jewish population brought down a strong Roman military response, and the future emperors Vespasian and Titus devastated the Jewish world, culminating in a siege of Jerusalem that ruined its walls, saw the city sacked, and resulted in the destruction and looting of the great temple.

Roman troops loot the temple, carrying off the menorah- frieze from the Arch of Titus

Clearly, the following decades were ever more strained, and eventually it was guaranteed to boil over once more. This happened in the reign of Hadrian and sparked a second dreadful war in 132AD, known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Tradition tries to present us with a Hadrian that was a pleasant, intelligent, calm, thoughtful and peaceable emperor. Think again. The Hadrian that dealt with this Jewish revolt was brutal in his choices.

Hadrian

Once again the Jews were stamped upon and the city of Jerusalem occupied. This time, however, the emperor was leaving no chance of further trouble. His response was impressive in its savagery. The great temple was this time torn down completely. The only remnant was a single supporting wall which still survives and is now known as the Western, or ‘Wailing’ Wall. In its place went up a great Roman temple. The city walls were torn town and the Jewish city itself more or less flattened. Herod’s palace was destroyed, barring three towers which were left to house the Roman garrison, and the famed Antonia Fortress was destroyed. Even the city’s name was wiped clean, replaced with one that carried the emperor’s own name.

Jerusalem was gone. Aelia Capitolina was born. But this was more than a mere civic rebuild or even a ‘rebranding’. This was the systematic destruction of the heart of Judaism. The temple that was the centre of the Jewish world had been removed and replaced with one to Jupiter, the walls that had protected the Jews for untold generations were gone, leaving them defenceless the ancient city was flat and had been replaced with a Roman one including triumphal arches and fora and more. But the worst thing to happen was Hadrian’s edict. No Jew was to be allowed within the city limits except on one day of mourning, a brutal opportunity for them to remind themselves what they had lost with their revolutions. In fact, according to some sources, no Jew was even to be allowed close enough to see the city. Some of this may be sensationalist reporting, of course, in that the latter would be very hard to police, but the core of it was clearly law.

The remnants of the Roman triumphal arch of Aelia Capitolina

Sources tell us that the Roman temple complex occupied Temple Mount, the Roman city occupied the main former urban region of the northern hill, and the western hill had been cleared and became the camp of the Tenth Legion. In truth, the Tenth Fretensis would be spread out in vexillations across the region, and so few troops would be left in the city garrison that the hill would be too vast for such minor occupation. Likely less than a cohort remained to police the defenceless city. Moreover, no sign of Roman defences have ever been unearthed there, except in one corner where the Herodian fortress had once stood. In fact, it seems then that the Roman garrison occupied the three remaining towers of Herod’s fortress, while the hill remained unoccupied by Rome. It may be that the western hill became a shanty town of Jews who were not allowed to enter the Roman city, if the edict did not in truth prevent Jews from even looking at their city.

This, then, is the place into which I am about to throw Rufinus. A city that is Roman and sterile, anti-jew and forbidden. A city of gleaming Roman monuments, garrisoned by a cohort in the ancient palace of the kings, with not a Star of David/Seal of Solomon in sight, and a tent and shack city of ousted Jews clustered on a ruined hill, watching in dismay the site of their fallen capital.

Remains of the Herodian palace

In the future, Jerusalem would regain powerful walls, acquire the Dome of the Rock and many Christian churches, grow to far beyond those original hills, once more become the centre of the Abrahamic world and then eventually the centre of the Jewish world again. It would become a jewel fought over by crusading nations from Britain to Constantinople, from Algeria to Iran. But that is not the Jerusalem of the Antonines and Severans and not the Jerusalem of Praetorian VI. Rufinus is about to enter a city with an incredibly complex identity. Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride…

Written by SJAT

December 31, 2020 at 11:00 am

Scourge of Rome

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It took me far too long to find time to catch up with one of the very best historical series in the current world of books. I’ve missed Valerius Verrens. Due to the time I left between this book and the last one it took me a few short chapters to get back into the swing of things, but once I was reaquainted with Verrens and Serpenrius and reminded of how things stood at the end of the previous volume, I was dragged along with the plot at breakneck speed as usual.

An outcast from Rome, due to his conflict with the unpleasant Domitian – son of the new emperor – Valerius seeks out the one place he thinks he can recover his reputation, at the side of the emperor’s other son, Valerius’ old friend Titus, who is busy prosecuting the war against the rebels in Judea. What follows is a gradual building in tension and action filled with good guys, bad guys, and my favourite – realistic grey, part good, part bad, guys. The book introduces us to a powerful queen and her clever, beautiful servant, who Valerius immediately has eyes for, helping him forget Domitia back in Rome, to a scarred tribune who knows Valerius of old, to the Jewish rebel leaders, and to the complex Josephus. It culminates with the dreadful siege of Jerusalem.

There are many things that commend this book (as with all Doug’s work). The writing, which is clear, expressive, direct and yet subtle. The characterisation, for he creates seemingly real people we can believe in. The settings, which are vivid and lovingly described. The action, which is exciting and well-told. The plot, which is perfectly constructed and at no time drags, strays or confuses. But there are two particular things for me that made Scourge a win over even many others in this very series:

The siege of Jerusalem. This is one of the most powerful events in the history of the Roman empire, and one that could easily prove to be divisive and troublesome for a writer (touching on the subject of the destruction of the Jewish world from the viewpoint of those destructors.) And yet the subject is handled lovingly, sympathetically and yet with such stark horror and brutality that the real terror of what happened over those awful weeks. Moreover, Doug’s visual reconstruction of the magnificence that must have been Jerusalem before its sack is unparalleled. This siege is one of Doug’s best pieces of writing and one of the best battles I have ever seen described, actually almost on a par with his genre-defining Colchester burning scene in Hero of Rome.

And, the character of Josephus. I knew of Josephus before the book, as will many followers of Roman history. We know of him from his account of the Jewish wars, and I for one have read much of that account. But I had never thought much about the man behind that writing. In my head I had him pegged as a good guy – a Jew who compromised and consequently survived the war to bring us the history of it. It had never occurred to me to think on how he might have come about all his knowledge of the war, on how he managed to survive in a world where he might well be killed just for his heritage, and on how he might be viewed by his own people. Josephus was the most surprising thing for me in the book, and a characterisation I value highly.

So, in short, this book is as good as any other in the Valerius series (which is to say a cut above most other series in the genre) and is actually probably the second best in the whole saga. It is unrelenting in pace, vivid, surprising, horrifying and even heart-warming in places. A testement to Jackson’s ability, it comes highly recommended. Go read it.

Written by SJAT

January 15, 2017 at 2:38 pm