This essay was written before 1979 and the appearance of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’. That film not only stirred the indignation of Christians but also upset some people on the left who objected to, as they saw it, the trivialising of the Palestinian anti-Imperialist movement by the comedic depiction of the Judaean People’s Front and People’s Front of Judaea. Perhaps what irked them even more were that the barbs of this satire were really targeted at the sectarianism of the British left. This sense of humour deficit, with perhaps more justification, also extended to the new catch-phrase that the film contributed to popular idiom: ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ The dialogue in the film, in which the inept rebels list the benefits of Roman rule, was seen as an apology for benign imperialism. This phrase has become so commonplace it is often used as a flippant way of trivialising people’s grievances by pointing to the positive achievements of whatever agent of injustice they complain against.
Whilst not always posed in such a Pythonesque manner, there has been a more blatant and coordinated, (but by no means new), trend over the last decade and a half or more to justify imperialist ventures on the grounds that they are really for the benefit of the people who find themselves attacked, occupied and repressed. Usually this takes the form of ‘bringing democracy’, ‘defending human rights’, or ‘fighting terrorism’. This facade is maintained even when the growing toll of lives, the economic destruction and chaos, the social and political strife, all demonstrate that these goals have not been reached and have indeed been made even less attainable.
In dusting off this essay it occurred to the author that the background to the Jewish resistance to Rome and an account of what the Romans really did might be of wider interest to opponents of today’s imperialism. No form of imperialism or colonialism can succeed by brute force alone, without the collaboration of significant numbers of the native population. Many people do benefit from the rewards of their imperialist masters and reap real material benefits. The tactics of divide and rule, of political co-option and cultural assimilation were all used to varying effect by the Romans.
This essay looks at the resistance to Roman Imperialism as expressed not only by the Jewish revolt but also by other contemporary struggles elsewhere in the Empire. The Jewish revolt has its own able historian, Josephus. The story of the resistance of other peoples mainly comes from Roman sources, or is unrecorded altogether. Thus for example, although there were several risings by the Brigantes in northern Britain little is know of them. However, the main Roman historian of the First Century, Tacitus, does have some insights into the impact of Roman rule and responses to it. Inevitably then, this account relies heavily on these two authors. This is a story of the resistance of ‘free’ peoples. It does not cover the main form of oppression and exploitation on which the Roman Empire rested – slavery.
Imperialism and Revolt in the Early Roman Empire.
Ammianus Marcellinus was not alone among ancient historians in considering little of what occurred amongst the lower orders to be worthy of report. Consequently our knowledge of attitudes to the Roman authorities, (in whatever way that power manifested itself), has to be looked for in the more spectacular social and political conflicts which may only be the tip of an extensive iceberg of discontent. Glimpses below the waterline are afforded by papyri and inscriptions recording complaints to local officials, or appeals to the Emperor, sparked by various grievances against the administration.
But using such evidence as the basis of juridical arguments, as to whether a certain action by a particular representative of central government had a legal basis or not, is as irrelevant to an understanding of the real workings of the governing machinery as it must have appeared to the victim of oppression or exploitation. Throughout the First Century maladministration was rife and must be regarded as inherent in this stage of development of the imperial system. Procedures for obtaining redress were prohibitive for provincials apprehensive of exacerbating relationships with governors – especially in those areas unfamiliar with Roman methods of litigation. The historian Josephus portrays the Jewish client king Agrippa as warning:
‘You should flatter not provoke the [Roman] authorities, when for trifling errors you pile on reproaches, it is yourselves you hurt by your denunciation of the offenders – instead of injuring you secretly and shamefacedly they plunder you openly.’ 
Frustrations engendered by the ineffectiveness of official channels of protest constitute one of the main reasons for alienation and revolt amongst some provincial populations. Although unique in the intensity of their ideological hostility to Roman rule, the Jews demonstrate in the course of their revolts many sources of contention which must have existed elsewhere, if in a less aggravated form, between the bulk of the people and the authorities. Josephus’ detailed documentation, supplemented by Roman writers, also supplies an unparalleled example of the changing status of a province and the corresponding structure of government.
The official version of Roman imperialism is voiced by Josephus in words attributed to Titus at the siege of Jerusalem: ‘First we gave you land to occupy and set over you kings of your own race, then we upheld the laws of your fathers and allowed you complete control of your internal and external affairs, above all we permitted you to raise taxes for god and to collect offerings and we neither discouraged not interfered with those who brought them so that you could grow richer to our detriment and to prepare at our expense to make war on us.
This crude apology is belied by the whole history of Judaea under Roman rule, since even the conquerors seeming tolerance of Jewish religion remained a double edged weapon in their arsenal of occupation. Through the agency of puppet kings and the Sanhedrin, whose president was appointed by those kings or the procurator, the central government sought to keep a leash on Jewish nationalism by control of its established theocratic apparatus, ‘an aristocracy’ in which, ‘the High Priests were entrusted with the leadership of the nation.’
This was in line with the general policy of Romanisation of the local ruling classes, reflected in the use of client kings such as Cogidumnus in Britain and Ptolemy son of Juba in Mauretania, or other local notables as instruments of Roman rule. Regarding Cogidumnus, Tacitus says he, ‘…maintained his unswerving loyalty down to our own times – an example of the long established custom of employing even kings to make others slaves.’ The resentment this policy incurred is evident in the Gallic revolt of 21AD when hostages were seized from amongst the sons of the Aeduan nobles at Autun by insurgents. Conversely, the dangers of relying on assimilated natives was demonstrated with disastrous consequences in 9AD ,when Arminius, a (superficially) Romanised German chieftain and commander of auxiliary troops, led a Roman army into ambush in the Teutoburg Forest, resulting in the destruction of three legions.
Perhaps because of this policy, rather than in spite of it, resistance to Roman rule was often led by members of the native aristocracy who felt excluded or humiliated. Boudica’s role in Britain is paralleled in Gaul by the Julii (Sacrovir, Classicus and Sabinus), and in Judaea by Eleazar and other priests, ‘…who had been alienated by the oppressions and corruption of the Roman nominees to the High priesthood.’ In the final analysis the viability of cooperation between native rulers and imperial regime was determined by the social and cultural conditions of the particular province – factors that in Judaea militated against any stable settlement.
Thus, on the death of Herod (4BC), whilst an embassy to Augustus, (the author of several edicts guaranteeing such ancestral rights as payment of the Temple tax), sought annexation to the province of Syria, attempts by the procurator of that very province to seize royal property in Judaea was met by armed resistance. On the one hand this incident spotlights the activities of procurators who, as the main agent of the fisc, (the treasury), were a hated symbol of Roman rule – Tacitus explicitly says of Catus Decianus, the procurator responsible for confiscating Prasutagas’ property, ‘It was his rapacity which had driven the province [Britain] to war.’ On the other hand the Jewish revolt of 4BC also reveals a basis of rural discontent which provided a reservoir of support for political subversion. Attacks on wealthy landlords and destruction of debt records was to become a feature of later insurrection under Simon bar Giora, who drew on the support of the Peraeans , inhabitants of a region which also played a leading role in 4BC.
Banditry was also rife in districts like Galilee throughout this period, although the degree of conscious political motivation in such groups can only be surmised. Hezekiah, a bandit leader executed by Herod transpires to be the father of Judah of Gamala, founder of the Zealots. Although the observation by a Rabbi in the Talmudic commentaries: ‘The enmity of a common person towards a scholar is even more intense than the heathen towards the Israelites,’ may be rhetorical, Josephus categorically states that in 66AD revolutionaries attempted ‘…to secure the support of an army of debtors and enable the poor to rise with impunity against the rich.. Debt also appears as a factor in Sacrovir’s revolt in Gaul, although the degree to which official expropriations contributed to such indebtedness, and how far it was caused by the camp followers of Roman imperialism – the merchants and moneylenders – is unascertainable.
The Frisian revolt of 28 AD was sparked off by ‘Roman rapacity rather than Frisian insubordination’ according to Tacitus, when a tax levied in hides was increased. . . Similarly unrest in Britain resulted in part from the situation whereby the tribespeople, almost reduced to starvation, were forced to buy back at inflated prices the grain they had yielded as taxes. In Judaea, Quirinus’ institution of a census after Archelaus’ exile in 6AD was regarded as a preliminary to Roman taxation sparking agitation during which the Zealots emerged as the main resistance movement. But in this instance it may have been more the offense to nationalist sentiment rather than the economic impact which fuelled discontent. But, his ambiguous answer notwithstanding, the fact that Jesus had to deal with the question of whether to pay taxes to the Romans shows that this was a current concern, an impression confirmed by Tacitus report that in 17 AD, ‘the provinces of Syria and Judaea, oppressed by the burdens, asked for a diminution in tribute’. The main feature of Roman rule in Judaea was not merely economic exploitation, but the tactlessness, often to the point of deliberate provocation, that accompanied the actions of the procurators.
The Cult of the Emperor
Whereas his predecessor , Valerius Gratus, limited himself to appointing and dismissing High priests ad lib, Pontius Pilatus presented an even more serious affront to Jewish religious sensibilities – not only did he bring signa, replete with graven images, into the Holy City, but he also sequestered Temple funds to construct an aqueduct. Admonished by mass demonstrations over the first incident he forestalled resistance to the latter by unleashing a baton charge against the crowd – unlike Varus in 4BC he could not justify his brutality on the grounds that he was suppressing a full scale revolt. After appeals by Samaritans to Vitellius, legate of Syria, Pilatus was sent for trial before the emperor – a fate spared him by the death of Tiberius.
This was not the last occasion of intercession by the Syrian legate in events in Judaea. A sectarian disturbance in Jamnia and a destruction of an altar of the Greek community by Jews determined the emperor Gaius ‘Caligula’ to make Jerusalem itself a centre of the Imperial cult. Petronius, the legate of Syria, mandated to construct and erect Gaius’ cult image in the Temple, yet aware of the gravity of the consequences stalled until the crisis passed with Gaius’ death. To recalcitrant peoples of the Empire the imperial cult must have appeared anathema as THE ideology of Romanization – in this context Boudicca’s attack on Camulodunum (Colchester) may assume more significance. Tacitus himself says, ‘the temple erected to the Divine Claudius was a blatant stronghold of foreign rule and its religion a pretext to make the priests drain the fortunes of all’.
After a brief interlude (41-44AD) under Agrippa, who proved more popular than his grandfather Herod – exhibiting some degree of independence that disturbed the legate of Syria – Judaea was once more returned to the procurators. The first occupant of this post, Cuspius Fadus, intending to demonstrate Rome’s resumed authority, demanded custody of the High priest’s vestments, but was foiled by an appeal to the Emperor Claudius; subsequently a series of insults by Roman troops against a background of increasing guerrilla activity, inter-communal tensions and executions (not alleviated by a procurator of Jewish extraction, Tiberius, Julius Alexander), resulted in the intervention of the Syrian legate, Ummidius Quadratus, the exile of the procurator Ventidius Cumanus (52AD) and a state of perpetual armed turmoil that was to persist until the razing of the city.
Judaism, an ideology forged in the process of national and religious unification and resistance to successive imperialist powers, with its’ essentially messianic theme contributed a powerful stimulus to revolt. Mounting hostility to Roman rule engendered a proliferation of politico-religious sects under charismatic leaders. Modelled on monastic brotherhoods like the Essenes such groups, focused around personalities claiming varying degrees of divinity, vowing to expel the invader by armed force, were dubbed ‘lestai’ or ‘sicarii’, ‘bandits’ or ‘knifemen’, by the authorities and ‘Zealots’ by those who recognised, ( not necessarily with approval), their religious and political devotion. Two incidents referred to in the New Testament illustrate the atmosphere that prevailed. Theudas ‘a prophet’ was vigorously repressed, along with the following he had accumulated, by Fadus. Similarly the procurator Felix smashed the movement of the messianic ‘Egyptian’, who himself disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived, to the consternation of the Roman security forces. Jesus son of Joseph was only one messiah amongst many – his deification lay in the wider appeal of his philosophy (especially as elaborated by his followers), which transcended the narrow goals of Jewish nationalism’
This phenomenon was not restricted to Judaea alone – in Gaul there arose among the Boii a certain Mariccus who, claiming divine inspiration, raised thousands of supporters against the authorities. The basis of such religious fervour can be understood by analogy with similar movements in the modern world such as the Ghost Dancers of the plain Indians, the Cattle Killing cult of southern Africa or Cargo Cults in Oceania. Such ‘crisis cults’ represent the response of traditional cultures to domination by a superior enemy which threatens to destroy their way of life, where …a supernaturalistic philosophy is developed and utilised in organising a social movement of resistance to the encroachments of a dominant, more powerful culture.’ The strategy of destroying the Druidic centre of Mona (Anglesey) appears integral to the Roman pacification of Britain and part of a conscious policy of the suppression of Druidism – a necessity which became evident in the light of politically inflammatory prognostications regarding the doom of Rome and the dawn of a new Gallic era such as were current in the Gallo-German uprising of 69AD.
Escalating violence in Judaea claimed a prominent victim in the High Priest Jonathon, a collaborator of the freedman procurator Felix (an appointee of Claudius), who was recalled after complaints to the emperor by Jews, stemming from his partisanship in quelling a faction fight in Caesarea. Although, for a second time, the situation had been defused by recourse to an embassy to the emperor, no fundamental improvement had occurred in intra-provincial relations. The imperial machinery may have been equipped to deal with the formal tasks of government but proved totally inadequate in directing the daily conduct of its personnel in practice.
Agrippa II, nominal but ineffectual head of state, (already having intervened in one crisis by his appeal to Claudius concerning the robes), after consulting with the legate’s staff, harangued the masses on the futility of challenging Rome. By this time the populous was so antagonised by procurator Florus’ abuses that Agrippa’s rhetoric fell on deaf ears – it was the king’s troops, not the procurator’s that were the first to come to the assistance of the pro-peace/pro-Roman faction already practically besieged in Jerusalm in 66AD. The decision of the insurgents to take on not only the provincial but also Imperial authority was signified by the decision to terminate the daily sacrifice in the temple offered for the Emperor’s welfare.
Centralisation and Autonomy
The contrasts of heroism and barbarity common to all uprisings, the pogroms, the military manoeuvres, inter-factional conflicts and personal tribulations of the Jewish revolt, are all vividly narrated by the renegade Josephus – but an appraisal of the historical importance of the revolt is more easily made in the knowledge of the subsequent development of the Empire.
Regarded in isolation, the revolt can be dismissed as a desperate and futile attempt to throw off the Roman yoke. But the revolt can be seen as a catalyst – engendered by inherent weaknesses in the system itself- that precipitated a chain reaction along potential lines of fission in the socio-political structure of the Empire. Responsibility for either the revolt or the general condition of the Empire cannot be simply attributed to the decadence of Nero as his contemporaries were wont to do: the nadir of his reign, the crisis year of 69 AD, resulted from the inability to resolve fundamental faults in the imperial system – faults that Flavian authoritarianism and Antonine reorganisation could only temporarily disguise, and which reasserted themselves to fragment the empire with sharper conflicts in the 3rd century.
This contradiction lies in the necessity for an imperialist system to create an apparatus, essentially bureaucratic, exerting a unifying centripetal influence in the face of centrifugal forces of the social and cultural structures on which it was based. The Jewish revolt represents one level of such centrifugal forces – the national cultural factor. Elsewhere this was not the dominant factor in opposition to the Empire . With increasing Romanisation of native populations, especially by the assimilation of the ruling classes; and with the increasing identification of the armies with the provinces in which they were stationed – (factors given de iure recognition by the Constitutio Antoniniana, which bestowed Roman citizenship on all males in the Empire) – nationalism or tribalism was sublimated to a trend towards regionalism, which expressed alienation from the central authority, not by attempts to throw off ‘Roman rule’, but by efforts to devolve that power onto local governors or military commanders.
Although this trend is realised in its most developed form in the Gallic and Britannic ‘empires’ of the 3rd century, such a situation in transitional form is already evident in Vindex’s revolt in 69AD where national grievances are compounded with attempts not to smash, but to establish control over the provincial state machinery. Vindex, himself both a Gallic noble and imperial legate of Gallia Lugdunensis, (the province centred on Lyons), limited the potential popular support for his action by appealing to other governors to support him in merely replacing one emperor by another – the Rhineland tribes, uninspired by this goal, joined the governor of Upper Germany in crushing Vindex’s Aeduan and Sequanian levies, to whom they referred to contemptuously as ‘ Galba’s lot’. Inter-tribal rivalries are here already bound up with the contest for ‘the purple’ but, as the revolt of the Batavi under Civilis demonstrates, tribes in contact with free Germany still retained independence of action to challenge Roman authority.
Even in the Romanised Gallic provinces amongst those who responded to Vindex’s call, deeper social motives than the legate’s political ambition probably played a part. It may be more than an assumption on Dio’s part when he records, ‘…the inhabitants of Britain and Gaul oppressed by taxes, were becoming more vexed and inflamed than ever.’ The way such grievances could be utilised by aspirants to the Purple is described by Plutarch: ‘…as the nefarious agents of Nero savagely and cruelly harried the provincials Galba could help the people in no other way than by making it plain that he shared their distress, this somehow brought comfort to those who were being condemned and sold into slavery.’ It is safe to assume that more practical acts of resistance than mere sympathy were adopted either by disaffected civilian and military officials, or by tribal champions such as Brinno, who roused his people in support of the Batavian revolt. The awareness that an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome- was quick to catch on following Galba’s seizure of power, especially in the legions. How much Galba’s success owed to Vindex, and how much the latter’s position developed from popular hostility to the central Roman rule, (and not merely Nero’s corruption), cannot be gauged, but they were certainly factors.
That the first serious challenge to an incumbent Emperor, (outside the endemic intrigues of the Julio-Claudian court camarillas), comes from a Romanised native aristocrat, lacking effective military forces, is not without significance. It represents a transition from national/tribal movements of liberation from Rome to the tendency for sections of the provincial state, (usually military), apparatus to assert their autonomy from, or dominance over, the centre. This was the other side of the coin of the assimilation of local elites into the political system The fact that the ambivalence of this process was recognised by contemporaries is reflected in the speech attributed by Tacitus to Cerialis, addressing the Gallic rebels:
‘Stability between nations cannot be maintained without armies, nor armies without pay, nor pay without taxation. Everything else is shared equally by us. You often command our legions in person and in person govern these and other provinces.’ The same rationale underlies Claudius’ speech on the enrolment of the Aeduans into the Senate – leading provincials were absorbed into the central government in order to reinforce their collaboration in the subjection and exploitation of their own people on the behalf of Rome. Tacitus describes frankly the assimilation process in Britain promoted by his father-in-law Agricola, ‘…he trained the sons of the chiefs in the liberal arts…The result was that in place of a distaste for the Latin language, came a passion to command it. In the same way, our national dress came into favour and the toga was everywhere to be seen. And so the Britons were gradually led on to the amenities that make vice agreeable – arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets. They spoke of such novelties as “civilisation”, when really they were only a feature of enslavement.’ 
Was Resistance Futile ?
Set against this background the Jewish situation appears anomalous. Although many Jews were assimilated and accommodated themselves to Roman rule, the Jewish population of Judaea, and much of the diaspora, were never integrated into the system of government nor the common culture of the urbanised Empire. After the first revolt the Temple was left in ruins and the tax levied for its up-keep transformed into a poll-tax on Jews for the benefit of the treasury. The unsubdued militancy of the Judean refugees proved infectious amongst the Cyrenian, Alexandrian and Cyprian Jews leading to a great uprising in 115 which lasted over two years with immense destruction and loss of life. The Jewish element in recently annexed Mesopotamia undoubtedly played a part in the general uprising in that province in 116, whilst Judaea itself remained quiet under the consular legate Lusius Quietus, (who filled what had become, since the defeat of the first revolt, usually a Praetorian post commanding a single legion).
The gravity of this revolt belies the claim that Jewish military resistance to the imperialists was inherently futile – a coordinated revolt on the late 60s could have had disastrous repercussions for the Empire. The Pharisees which led, and kept tranquil, the émigré communities saw their authority usurped by popular leaders like ‘King’ Loukas in 115 and by Bar Kochba, the last of the great Jewish military messiahs in Judaea in 135. After the suppression of the last revolt, provoked by Hadrian’s scheme to found a colony on the site of the Holy City, the province was placed under a consular legate and the name changed to ‘Syria-Palestina’ as if to exorcise Jewish claims to the land.
One view of the dubious benefits of Roman imperialism is recorded in a saying of the Rabbi Simon ben Yohai in the Babylonian Talmud, ‘All that they have made they made for themselves: they have built market places to put harlots in, baths to rejuvenate themselves, bridges to levy tolls for them.’ This opinion must have been shared not only by many Jews, tenaciously preserving their local culture, but by other provincials excluded from the material and social advantages of world empire – probably the vast bulk of the population.
Perhaps the most eloquent indictment of Roman imperialism comes from Tacitus himself in the form of Calgacus’ supposed exhortation to the Britons about to encounter Agricola’s invading army at Mons Graupius in Caledonia (84AD). The Romans won that battle, but their ambition to conquer the whole of Britain was never realised.
‘Our goods and fortunes are ground down to pay tribute, our land and its harvest to supply corn, our bodies to build roads through woods and swamps. Slaves, born into slavery, once sold, get their keep from their masters. But as for Britain, never a day passes but she pays and feeds her enslavers…Brigands of the world, the Romans have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder. The wealth of an enemy excites their cupidity, his poverty their lust for power…They are unique in being as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealthy. Robbery, butchery, rapine these liars call Empire: they create a desert and call it peace.’ 
The analogy between this and modern imperialisms is too obvious to require any further elaboration.
Pax Romana – Pax Americana.
 Josephus .Bellum Judaicum .II.351)
 Jos BJ VI.
 Josephus Antiquities .XX.10).
 Tacitus .Agricola .14.
 Applebaum, ‘The Zealots – The case for revaluation’ Journal of Roman Studies1971
 Tacitus Annals .iv.72. p.188 Peng Class ed
 Tac. Ag. p.70-71 Peng Class. ed.
 Tac.Ann.ii.42. p.96
 Tac. Ann . XIV.31
 In modern parlance this would be, gangsters and gunmen ie‘terrorists’),
 Sahlins & Service.’ Evolution and Culture’ 1960 .
 Despite the relative stability of the years following the suppression of the Jewish revolt to the death of Marcus Aurelius (70-193AD), this relationship between the political fragmentation of the Empire and social and political unrest reasserted itself under the conditions of economic crisis in the 3rd century when increasing banditry and the jacquerie of the Bagaudae reflect a degree of discontent that must have emanated from wide sections of the provincial population. This discontent, coupled with the realisation that preferential treatment could be expected from a Princeps whom the provinces, or the legions based there, had elevated to power themselves, significantly augmented the centrifugal forces within the Empire. The elevation of Gordian by the victims of Maximinus’ exactions in Africa in 238 is a clear illustration of this process.
 Tac. Hist 1.51
 The Batavi dwelt on the ‘island’ between the Waas and Rhine rivers.
 Dio.Cass. Hist. Rom XXII.
 Plutarch . Life of Galba IV
 Tac. Hist.IV.74
 Tac.Ag 21
 The way such ubiquitous dissatisfaction was expressed varied in different social and cultural groups as the Empire evolved. Apart from attempts to seek redress via the ‘legitimate’ channels, opposition also adopted forms of direct action extending from demonstrations and riots to armed ‘banditry’ and open revolt – often in support of an usurper, or later, and more dangerously, an invader. Ideological opposition took the form of hostility to the established values and customs of the state, especially in the religious sphere contributing to the growth of Christianity and other esoteric cults. Imperial apprehension of subversion is not only evident in the sporadic attempts to suppress Christianity but in the general proscription of unofficial assemblies and associations. With the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, ethnic and social differences are also expressed through schisms within the church itself.
 Tac. Ag 30-31. .p.80-81 Peng Class 1967 ed.