On books: Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian

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Entrance to a cave used by Bar Kochba rebels

Admittedly, this is not my usual reading.  At the moment, I’m more likely to be stuck in mid-eighteenth century issues of the Gentleman’s Magazine, or some obscure volume on English shipping and ports.  But having picked up William Horbury’s Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian (2014), I’m glad I did, since it opened a whole new world of historical possibilities to a fiction writer.

Jewish War examines the three notable conflicts which mark the end of Judea as the homeland of the Jews: the war of Vespasian (AD 66-70), the war of Quietus (AD 115-117), and “the Last War,” better known as the Bar Kochba revolt (AD 132-136).  It’s a book that has been described as “encyclopedic,” and it is certainly a dense read.  Yet Horbury’s precision and detail make his analysis convincing as he examines each piece of available documentary and archaeological evidence to form a narrative often different from earlier ones that were less complete.

One of the most fascinating episodes pictured in this book is the War of Quietus.  This conflict, which arose between Jews and Greeks in Cyrenaica, Cyprus, and Egypt, brings eerily familiar echoes of genocidal conflicts more familiar to us: of Bosnia and Rwanda.  It left whole regions devastated, and must have created an infinite casualty list of psychological traumas and tangled human feelings.  Horbury’s approach favors complexity over simplicity: he avoids blanket statements for the causes of the conflict, and acknowledges that there is not only one historical “Jew,” or historical “Greek.”  Rather, his writing leaves the impression that motives are as varied as individuals, and that human beings are not so different now than two thousand years ago.  At the same time, given his complete treatment of the available evidences, his Jews, Greeks, and Romans can easily become living actors in a writer’s imagination.

Jewish War is, regrettably, an expensive scholarly book ($100-130 for the cheapest), and may become harder to obtain in coming years.  Interlibrary loans, however, can provide copies, and I can well recommend it as worthwhile for anyone intrigued by this period in history.

Photo Credit: Udi Steinwell, CC by 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19672598

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