Revolution in the ancient world has plenty to teach us today, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh, welcoming the new edition of Neil Faulkner’s Apocalypse, looking at the Jewish revolt of AD66-73

Neil Faulkner, Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome AD66-73, 2nd ed. (Amberley Publishing 2011), 284pp.

A land suffers under the rule of an imperial power, which rubs in its exploitation with calculated insults to the area’s major religion. There have been several rebellions, all answered with vicious repression, and such is the economic pressure caused by the imperial expropriation of resources that in many places former peasants are driven by poverty to social banditry. Finally things come to a head in a full scale revolt. The uprising is headed initially by aristocratic nationalists, but these are soon overthrown in a popular revolution. The revolutionaries win some incredible victories against the retribution of the imperial power, and while the revolt is eventually crushed, and with great brutality, it is never forgotten.

Stripped down in this way to its essentials, you might guess that this was any number of twentieth-century nationalist revolts, but you would be nearly 2000 years out. This is the story of the Jewish revolt of 66-73AD, which began with the expulsion of the procurator of Judea from Jerusalem in May of 66 and ended with the deaths of the Zealots at Masada in April of 73. As Neil Faulkner makes clear in this fascinating account, even ancient history can be of more than academic interest to modern revolutionaries.

The Jewish revolt, as recounted here by Faulkner, is a reminder of how the history of class conflict did not begin with capitalism. The proletariat is the revolutionary class, but this does not mean that it was impossible for the oppressed to fight back before the proletariat existed. The Jewish revolt in many ways looks surprisingly similar to modern revolutions. Faulkner points out, for example, a period of dual power in Jerusalem, while the nationalist leaders were ostensibly in control but actually being driven by revolutionary pressure from below, which matches Trotsky’s identification of the phenomenon in the Russian revolution some 1900 years later.

However, that these revolutionaries came from the peasantry, rather than from a then non-existent proletariat, was crucial. As Faulkner says, ‘peasant revolution is always limited. The peasant is an individualist whose ambition is restricted to his own farm; he wants to defeat his oppressors and then be left alone to work the land with his family; he has no vision of a wider social transformation involving the collective action of peasants in general. There is rarely such a thing, therefore, as a peasant state, for when peasants destroy the old state they do not create a new one in its place; they just go home’ (p.188). In the Jewish Revolt, the millenarianism of the various messianic sects helped to change this dynamic, as did the fact that many peasants were dispossessed either before or during early stages of the revolt, so that Jerusalem could be filled with people who had been separated from the parochial context of the villages. It could not, however, transcend it entirely, and the very millenarianism which enabled people to imagine a collective struggle for a new society could eventually undermine their capacity to resist. When Jerusalem finally fell to the Roman troops in the year 70, a crowd of the defenders massed on the roof of the Temple to wait for what they thought would be a sign of deliverance from God, rather than attempting to resist the Roman soldiers.

The reconstruction here of the Jewish revolt in class terms, as a revolution, is particularly impressive because, unlike the revolutions of the twentieth century, those describing it for posterity did not see it as such. Our main source for the events of the revolt is the writer Josephus, and for him, the explanation for the revolution did not lie in terms of class forces, but in the failings of the individuals involved. So, for example, for Josephus, the people of Jerusalem rose up against the procurator of Judea not because he was the representative of the oppressive imperial power but because the individual, Florus, was a particularly bad man.

This disinclination to see revolution as a revolution is remarkable especially because Josephus was himself part of it. A member of the initial revolutionary government, he was military governor in Galilee until the area was recaptured by the Romans. However, Josephus was a member of the aristocracy, as much opposed to the revolutionary poor as he was an enemy of the Romans, and he had another excellent reason for not blaming the imperial system per se. When his comrades in the Galilee committed suicide together, he reneged on the pact, surrendered to the Roman general Vespasian and wormed his way into the good graces of the Roman elite. He was so successful at this that he was eventually given citizenship and ended up living in Rome. This makes clear the roots of his inability to criticise the Roman Empire itself, as opposed to the occasional poor choices of its servants. It is also worth reflecting that a determined denial of systemic oppression has always been a facet of bourgeois ideology also. That our evidence for the revolution is provided by the self-justifications of one of the aristocrats who sold it out makes its reconstruction a particular challenge, but Faulkner’s account shows that it is possible to look behind Josephus’ limited perspective.

The relevance of a Marxist understanding of the Jewish revolt comes out clearly in Faulkner’s work, and it is accompanied by a wealth of impressive detail on the military history of the uprising and its suppression. It is set apart here from standard military histories by the focus on ordinary soldiers, rather than just on the generals. Instead of the usual descriptions of generals making decisions and their machine-like troops carrying them out, what we are presented with are considerations of what it takes to make soldiers actually kill each other or civilians. The reactions of ordinary soldiers are shown to be just as important as the tactics decided on by the generals. The key to the military supremacy of the Roman army here appears not as the genius of its generals, or even its weight of numbers, but the organisation which meant that it functioned even when brilliance of leadership was lacking. The Roman army system meant that it mattered less than you might think if the Roman aristocrat who ended up in charge on his way up the cursus honorem (career ladder) was not gifted in the military department or, like Vespasian’s son, the future emperor Titus, brave, good at fighting, but just a little bit dim.

The Roman Empire was a vicious, repressive system which owed its continuance to the terrifying military machine which was the Roman army. As in Faulkner’s other works on the Roman Empire, The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain (Tempus 2000) and Rome: Empire of the Eagles (Pearson 2008) a major theme of Apocalypse is the brutality of the Empire itself. This is an aspect of the Empire which tends to be neglected by bourgeois scholarship. The Roman Empire worked where it could by co-opting local elites; selling them the benefits of Romanitas in return for the use of their power structures to maintain imperial rule and suppress the local population. The propaganda on the benefits of empire this entailed was so pervasive that, with a little help from the British Empire, we’re still largely buying it 2000 years later. The famous scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian relies for its joke on the understanding that the Roman Empire was a good thing for its subject populations. Reg, the revolutionary leader, points out that the Romans have bled Palestine white, and asks rhetorically what they have ever given them in return. ‘The aqueduct’ comes the answer. ‘Sanitation. And the roads. Irrigation. Medicine. Education. Health. And the wine…’ The Jewish revolutionaries here are ridiculous because they don’t realise that their enemy is actually benefiting them.

In reality, as Faulkner reminds us, the Roman Empire was vicious and exploitative in the extreme. The violence of the campaign against the Jewish revolt is appalling, and apologists for the Roman Empire should note that it was carried out not by admitted monsters like Caligula or Nero but by Vespasian and Titus, the supposedly good Flavian emperors who would usher in what is supposed to be the golden age of the pax Romana. In fact, there was no imperial golden age of Rome for the vast majority of the people of the Empire. The senatorial class who had the leisure and resources to write the histories might have had a nice time, but for the rest, far from bringing the benefits of civilisation, the Empire destroyed agriculture and local economies by trying to extract far more than they could afford to give, and massacred whole populations when they tried to resist.

The point is that there are not good empires and bad empires, just as it was that getting rid of a few bad apples would not fix the problem with the procuratorship of Judea. All empires are bad for the lands they occupy and for the ordinary people suffering under the imperial power. The lesson of the Jewish revolt is that all imperialism requires resistance.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.