Reviews of

Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian

In Cambridge University Press, Empire, Jesse Nickel, Judaism, War, William Horbury on August 3, 2016 at 2:00 pm


2016.08.14 | William Horbury. Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. 520. ISBN: 9780521622967. Hardcover.

Review by Jesse Nickel, University of St Andrews.

Many thanks to Cambridge University Press for providing a review copy.

In Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian, William Horbury offers a fresh historical presentation of the two major Jewish uprisings against Rome that occurred in the first half of the second century CE: first, that which took place in Cyrenaica, Egypt, Cyprus and Mesopotamia in 115–117, towards the end of Trajan’s principate; and second, that which took place in Judaea in 132–135, during the reign of Hadrian. With this work, Horbury, a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the British Academy, adds to his already significant contributions to the historical study of Judaism. In this study of these enigmatic, yet major incidents of the late Second Temple period, Horbury (i) thoroughly examines the ancient sources, literary and otherwise; (ii) presents as comprehensive a historical narrative of these events as the sources allow; (iii) analyses previous scholarship and the various interpretative lenses through which these revolts have been viewed; and (iv) offers his own take on their significance within the history of Judaism, focusing in particular on questions such as: How did these incidents affect Roman perspectives on and/or treatment of Jews across the empire? To what extent do they mark the end of an “era” within Jewish history? And how can they be understood in the context of the relationship between Judaism and the early church?

In the short introductory first chapter, Horbury outlines his intentions, emphasizing that he will treat the uprisings of 112–115 and 132–135 together. This is in contrast to much of modern scholarship, which, because of the chronological and geographic separation of these two incidents, has tended to treat them independently of one another. Horbury argues that “the links between Judaea and the diaspora … make disassociation dubious” (3), and notes the unifying ideological significance of the themes of liberty and redemption, which he refers to as “Hebrew catchwords” (1). Horbury thus declares that he will make “a fresh attempt at integrating [the two incidents] into a narrative account” (3).

In chapter two, then, Horbury offers an incredibly comprehensive review of the ancient sources on the revolts, and the history of scholarship upon them. Beginning with non-literary sources such as inscriptions and coins, he then discusses the accounts of Cassius Dio and Eusebius of Caesarea, rabbinic literature, and various other ancient texts such as the Apocalypse of Peter. Horbury then turns to later ecclesiastical historians, before proceeding to discuss medieval Jewish assessment of rabbinic tradition. This overview continues through the period of early modern historiography, to scholars of the enlightenment, to more extensive focus on the significant contributions from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Horbury’s Forschungsgeschichte is impressively thorough: he not only summarizes the contributions made by previous scholars, but he also focuses on prominent interpretative trends in their treatment of these events. Horbury notes the tendency among earlier Christian scholars to interpret the revolts and their outcome in terms of judgment upon Judaism for its rejection of Jesus, as well as the more positive perspective among those more recent (especially since the rise of modern Zionism) who view the uprisings as attempts to achieve liberty and Jewish independence.

Next, chapter three focuses on the background to the two revolts, especially in the context of Roman-Jewish relations. Horbury argues that the circumstances which led to the outbreak of these violent events were significantly shaped by the war of 66–70, and by “tendencies in Roman, Jewish and Greek opinion which had been evident well before that” (100). The chapter is divided into two halves: the first focuses on the evidence for Roman perspectives on Judaism between 70–115 CE, and the second on Jewish opinions on their Roman rulers during the same period. Horbury is particularly interested in the conflict between two prominent interpretative tendencies in scholarship on these matters, one of which suggests that the Jews enjoyed a rather favourable position within the Empire during the Flavian period and into the reign of Trajan (demonstrated by Roman protection of the Jewish religion, and the evidence [found in Tacitus, Juvenal, Josephus and elsewhere] of its attraction to non-Jews), the other of which suggests that the war of 66–70 inaugurated a period of unprecedented Roman antagonism and hostility towards Judaism. Horbury examines whether and how public opinion differed from official Roman policies with regard to the Jews, and how these issues affected Jewish responses to living under Roman rule, the development of Jewish resistance to such circumstances, hopes for a coming redemption, “messianic” conceptions, and how all of this ultimately contributed to the outbreak of revolution.

Finally, in chapters four and five, Horbury presents his history of the two revolts. The uprisings of 112–115 in Cyrenaica, Egypt, Cyprus and Mesopotamia are treated in chapter four, and the Judean Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132–135 is examined in chapter five. These two chapters are incredibly detailed. While Horbury’s primary focus here is on presenting as thorough a historical narrative of the uprisings events as the sources allow, he consistently contextualizes his presentation in terms of the interpretative themes and questions to which he drew attention in the opening three chapters.

With Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian, Horbury has made a significant contribution to the study of this period of Jewish and Roman history. This is the most thorough and comprehensive treatment of these two Jewish revolts in contemporary English-language scholarship. Horbury deftly works with the rather limited ancient evidence, utilizing his careful and expert historical acumen to evaluate the sources and present a narrative of these events that is coherent and engaging. Even more significant, however, is his ability to discern the sociological, political, and theological forces at work behind and within the revolts. Horbury does not just present a list of historical points in rough chronological order—he tells a historical narrative, with clear thematic emphases. He makes a strong case for understanding these events together with one another—the events of 66–70 and the development of Judaism in the years following 135. The seemingly disparate pieces of evidence can be drawn together in such a way as to be mutually illuminating. Having researched the Bar Kokhba Revolt in my own post-graduate work, my overall impression was of a significant lack of source material on this period of Jewish history. Reading Horbury’s study, I found myself repeatedly impressed by his ability to draw all the scattered bits of evidence together into a coherent—though admittedly limited—whole. Horbury does this so well, without ever crossing over into mere speculation. Horbury’s perceptive mind is also demonstrated in his engagement with previous scholarship, which is balanced, fair, and—at the risk of repetition—incredibly insightful and thorough. Only a scholar with Horbury’s critical expertise, based on his years of accumulated knowledge and work in this field, could produce a historical study of this calibre.

It is difficult to feel equipped to engage with Horbury on any technical matters concerning his knowledge and interpretation of the history of this period or the ancient sources from which this derives. Thus, my critique of this work is minuscule and related only to technical matters. First of all, the indexes were limited and in some cases unclear. Instead of an index of ancient sources, there is only an index of “authors and literature,” inclusive of sources modern and ancient, which I found to be much less useful than two separate, more comprehensive indexes would have been. Secondly, given the nature of this study, I would have thought that more than four maps would have been provided. Additional plates depicting the various non-literary ancient sources of evidence could also have been helpful. Third, the bibliography includes only the place of publication and not the publisher—this may be due to the publisher’s formatting, but for anyone utilizing this volume as a resource for research, this could prove frustrating. Fourth—once again probably as a result of the publisher’s decision—the volume transliterates all Hebrew and Greek terms. This may be a matter of personal taste, but I find it disruptive and unhelpful. Fifth and finally, a simple timeline/chronological outline of the major events associated with these two rebellions (or, more broadly, events from 66 through 135 CE) would have provided another helpful way to visualize the vast amount of historical information which this study presents.

Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian is an impressive work of technical historical scholarship, and as such is quite dense. This is well demonstrated by the extensive footnotes, which make up almost half of the text. Therefore, the volume will primarily be useful for academic research at a graduate level and above. For any who are interested in this period of the history both of Judaism and of the Roman Empire, however, particularly in the areas of Roman- Jewish relations and military history, Horbury’s landmark study should not be missed. It will surely prove an indispensable resource for many years to come.

Jesse Nickel
St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews
jn26 [at]


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