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Ancient and modern

Vespasian’s Middle East policy (it should be ours, too)

Let these suicidal lunatics get on with slaughtering each other — why invite disaster by plunging into battle?

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

As Ahmed Rashid argued last week, it is hard to see what the West is doing in the Middle East, occasionally dropping bombs on Isis, whose effect may well be to hand Syria over to al-Qaeda. The Roman general Vespasian (ad 9–79) would propose a different strategy.

The Romans had never found the Jews easy to get on with — the feeling was mutual — and semi-provincialising Judea in ad 6 had not helped matters. In ad 66 a major revolt broke out there, and the legate in Syria, Cestius Gallus, was ordered to crush it. He was driven off in disorder, and in ad 67 the emperor Nero sent Vespasian with a much larger force to restore Roman control. He attacked rebel towns, dealt out punishments and took Galilee. As a result, rebel forces and refugees flooded into Jerusalem to defend themselves there.


The consequence of this influx was savage political infighting between different Jewish factions in the city. According to the contemporary pro-Roman Jewish historian Josephus, one faction believed in the ‘Fourth Philosophy’—that no mere mortal should ever rule the Jews; the Zealots, supported by the especially savage Idumaeans, pursued active war against Rome to preserve the purity of Temple cult; the sicarii (‘knifemen’) were mercenaries, out for hire to any faction, concealing knives and mingling with crowds to kill for money; and so on. All the factions were hostile to Rome, all believed they alone could maintain and defend the city, the Jewish law and the temple cult, and all thought killing the opposition was the way to do it.

So when Vespasian encircled Jerusalem in ad 68 and his men urged him to take advantage of the chaos and attack at once, Vespasian demurred: let these suicidal lunatics get on with slaughtering each other; why invite disaster by plunging into battle? The Romans would win without lifting a finger.

Which makes one wonder whether Vespasian should not be driving our engagement in the Middle East: let the Arabs get on slaughtering each other while we wait to see who is the last man standing.


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