December 20, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Clear 7°C
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Fiction

Talking to Ourselves

Andrés Neuman's slender but astute novel examines death from three sides.

The Unknown Quantity

Hermann Broch's novel of the life and times of a 1920s mathematician is sadly overlooked.

Can't and Won't

Lydia Davis has a problem: she can't not display her ingenious bravura.

Open City

What's most impressive about Teju Cole's debut is its modulated darkness.

Never Love a Gambler

Irish writer Keith Ridgway is beautifully uncompromising in his pitch-perfect thug chronicles.

Scenes From Village Life

Amos Oz's interlocking stories are parables for a brilliant, haunted nation.

The Third Policeman

Irishman Flan O'Brien managed to introduce Disney to Swift in a comic vision of death.

Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner's 2011 debut set a fine tone for postmodern irony, but it grows repetitive.

The Underground Man

Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer endures as a detective ahead of his time.

Nonfiction

The Book of My Lives

Aleksandar Hemon's poignant memoir falters when family tragedy becomes its focus.




BOOK REVIEW
Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations
By Martin Goodman
Penguin, 2007. 639 pages

Martin Goodman has written a highly informative (and entertaining) book about the Jewish-Roman war which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem. His thesis is that this conflict, one of the pivotal moments in Western history, didn't have to happen. It was a kind of unfortunate accident having more to do with internal struggles for power among contenders for the imperial throne than any irreconcilable cultural differences between Romans and Jews in the first century of the Christian era. What began as a minor revolt in Judea was escalated by the then-general Vespasian into a brute show of force when he most needed a military victory under his belt. The final blow would come after years of worsening relationships between Jews and Romans, when the so-called Bar Kokhba revolt was crushed and Jewish political autonomy went underground until 1948.

Rich in historical and cultural detail, the book examines both the similarities and differences between Roman and Jewish society. Much attention is given to the relationship between Romans and the various ethnic minorities that populated the Empire, in which the Jews were a vital and dynamic element. Goodman has a massive breadth of scholarship, giving us critical reading of Tacitus, Pliny, Josephus (on whose firsthand account of the war all subsequent accounts are based) and the Mishnah. The most striking quality of the book is how the author put both Jews and Romans on equal footing, thereby rejecting the idea that the Jews played a minor — if historically profound — role in the development of what we call Western culture.

The final chapter proposes an intriguing gloss on the origins of anti-Semitism, telling how Jews were transformed from a normal (if highly curious) segment of the Empire into a marginalized people in only a few generations. Christianity, craving acceptance in the Roman world, adopted this hostility toward the Jews as a way of gaining legitimacy. By the time Constantine Christianized the Empire, this anti-Jewish stance was already neatly embedded in both Roman and Christian tradition. Goodman's book chronicles the development of a mindset that has proven durable almost beyond belief.

Reviewed by Marc Alan Di Martino
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