Roman Conquests: Egypt and Judaea, John D. Grainger

Roman Conquests: Egypt and Judaea, John D. Grainger

Although the title focuses on Judaea and Egypt, this book actually covers the wider area of Syria and Egypt, looking not just at Judaea but her neighbours in the area of Syria once dominated by the Seleucid Empire (this includes a wider area than modern Syria, extending across modern Jordon and Israel (although with more detail on events within Judaea, at least in part because we have better sources for that area).

The first thing that strikes you is how complex the position was in ancient Syria. The collapse of Seleucid power had led to the emergence of a number of independent kingdoms, including Judaea and Nabataea. There were also independent cities and a wide range of other independent and semi-independent entities. As Pompey entered the area he had rapidly to learn about the existing situation before he could make changes, and the same was the case for each of the Roman regimes that followed.

One is also struck by the impact of the repeated changes of power within the Roman world.  We start with Pompey representing the Republic. He is followed by Julius Caesar, visiting after the defeat of Pompey during the civil wars. Caesar is followed by Cassius, one of his assassins, then by Mark Antony after the defeat of the conspirators, and then finally by Augustus after his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Local leaders thus had to adapt to four changes in power, and it is quite amazing that some regimes managed to survive intact for long periods (Herod and his family in Judaea or Cleopatra in Egypt being the best known examples). 

The text is very readable (although I did wonder why the author chose Kleopatra over the more familiar Cleopatra, but kept Mark Antony instead of Marcus Antonius, without even a cross-reference in the index). There is a good deconstruction of Josephus, demonstrating that many of his claims can be disproved from other reliable sources (or on occasions from later comments in his own text!).

These campaigns illustrate some of the problems faced by the Roman Empire as it reached its greatest extent. It was difficult to maintain buffer states when they were nearer to the enemy (in this case Parthia) than to Rome. The time it took messages to reach Rome also caused problems - even Augustus could be swayed by the views of the first person to reach him after a disagreement in the East. The great expansions of Roman power in the east came at periods when the man on the spot could make the important decisions (Pompey or Caesar being the best examples). Once power was centralised in the Emperor it was much harder for the local authorities to respond quickly to threats or opportunities, and even when they did their decisions were never final. This is a fascinating read and helps explain why the expansion of the Roman Empire came to an end.

1 - Judaea: Pompey's Conquest
2 - Gabinius
3 - The Emergence of Antipater and Kleopatra
4 - Caesar
5 - Herod
6 - Kleopatra
7 - Octavian
8 - Holding Egypt: A New Roman Frontier
9 - The Arabian Expedition
10 - The Judean Problem
11 - Kings and Governors
12 - The Jewish Rebellion: Campaigns in the Country
13 - The Jewish Rebellion: Vespasian's Approach
14 - The Jewish Rebellion: Jerusalem
15 - The Jewish Rebellion: Aftermath
16 - The Desert Frontier

Author: John D. Grainger
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 256
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2013

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