The Spoils of Jerusalem, Arch of Titus

The emperor Titus sacked the temple in Jerusalem and looted its most holy treasures.

Relief panel with The Spoils of Jerusalem Being Brought into Rome, Arch of Titus, Rome, after 81 C.E., marble, 7’10” high

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Fine: [0:04] We’re looking at the bas reliefs of the Arch of Titus, the most famous of which show the spoils of Jerusalem being brought into Rome in the great triumphal parade honoring the general (soon to be emperor) Titus at his great victory at destroying Jerusalem.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:22] A triumphal arch is something through which the emperor would enter with booty, with lots of attendants and soldiers and prisoners of war. This was a big moment of celebrating victory in Rome.

Dr. Fine: [0:36] At the end of which, the general of the losing army would be ceremonially murdered.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] Did that happen at this?

Dr. Fine: [0:43] Yes, a guy named Simon, son of Giora, who was one of the rebels of Jerusalem, was killed at the end.

Dr. Harris: [0:49] In art history, when we look at the Arch of Titus relief, we sometimes miss the violence, and we tend to talk about it formally because in so many ways it exemplifies ancient Roman art.

[1:01] The figures are naturalistic. There’s even an illusion of space as these soldiers carry the booty from the temple in Jerusalem through a gate of the city.

Dr. Fine: [1:12] Well, we’re very fortunate that the Jewish War had its historian: Joseph, son of Mattathias in Hebrew, Flavius Josephus in Latin.

[1:22] He was a Judaean general who switched sides in the middle of the war and was supported by the emperor’s family to write the history, to convince Jews to not be part of this war and to convince Romans that only a small part of the Jewish people were revolting against Rome.

[1:39] Josephus is standing at the moment of this triumphal parade, watching it with ultimate perplexity, I think, not knowing which side he was on. What we see here is the unique situation where a Roman triumphal parade is responded to by someone who understands the triumph and suffers the triumph at the same time.

Dr. Harris: [2:05] Josephus.

Dr. Fine: [2:05] Josephus.

Dr. Harris: [2:06] The Roman Empire is growing in the 1st century, and the Romans are moving into what we would call the Middle East and the province of Judea. Judea becomes absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Dr. Fine: [2:18] Judea has polytheists and has Samaritans, people whose holy mountain is in what’s now Nablus, and lots and lots of Jews. The Jews and the Samaritans are not so happy about these pagans coming into their country and taking over their holy land.

[2:35] The complexities of interaction boiled in such complex ways. We’re watching a culture figuring out what it means to work with this very peculiar group, with its one temple for the one God.

Dr. Harris: [2:49] And that one temple is in Jerusalem.

Dr. Fine: [2:51] In Jerusalem.

Dr. Harris: [2:52] In that temple are holy objects.

Dr. Fine: [2:55] Where most peoples would have a different temple in each city — there’d be a temple for my god here, and then I’d go to another city, there’d be another god — Jews only had one. They had special rights, for example, in the Roman Empire, to send back their donations from wherever they lived to Jerusalem, where other people weren’t allowed to send money across international lines.

[3:16] The Romans worked to find a way to take these people, who had the potential of being good subjects, but had certain odd needs. They had their temple, and they insisted upon circumcising their children. They had food laws, and they had a thing called a Sabbath.

[3:32] All of these were very weird to Romans in different ways. They weren’t all unique to Jews, though, for example, Egyptians would circumcise as well. But many of them were strange, and Judeans were so apparent because they had a religion of books and people could read them.

[3:48] The complex problem led, for example, to the building of the temple in Jerusalem that, by all intents and purposes, looks like a Roman temple of the age of Augustus, but has something odd about it.

[4:01] That is, it has no statues, no images of deities, which Romans would say, “Oh, that’s a Roman temple without the fun stuff, without the things that are meaningful,” and Jews would say, “This is the Jerusalem temple, no images here.”

Dr. Harris: [4:14] There were things in the temple, there were holy objects. That’s what we see here being carried into Rome as spoils in the Arch of Titus. We have the menorah, a very important symbol in Jewish history, especially in the Roman period, but we see other holy objects that were in the temple, like the show table.

Dr. Fine: [4:34] Table for the show bread, the table for the bread of the face of God, this bread that the Pentateuch, that the Torah says should be set before God and 12 breads placed upon it, and continued to be used, not the same table but replacement tables, until we come to the one that’s illustrated on the Arch, which is a typical Roman table. Where non-Jews would have put the images of their divinities, Jews put their holy objects that served the divinity.

[5:02] When the Romans came and took Judea, the last of the Jewish kings, a fellow named Mattathias Antigonus, minted a coin and on one side there was a menorah and on the other side was the table.

Dr. Harris: [5:13] After a long and terrible war with the Jews fighting against Roman occupation, we have the most holy objects, taken from the most holy place, shown as pure booty.

Dr. Fine: [5:26] The cool thing is that you could leave the Arch of Titus, walk under it, go 100 or so yards, and enter into a temple built by the emperor Vespasian, Titus’s father, where the greatest art of the age had been collected in a way to claim the greatness of Rome and of Vespasian.

[5:46] And on one of the pedestals see the self-same lamp stand and the same table and the same horns, and so it was possible go back and forth between the real objects described in Josephus’s text and shown in the Arch and then into this ancient museum, but not a museum like our museums, a museum of war booty and of trophies collected by a man who was about to become a god himself.

[6:16] It’s a deeply meaningful procession for Romans, but for Jews it must have been ghastly.

[6:23] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Fine and Dr. Beth Harris, "The Spoils of Jerusalem, Arch of Titus," in Smarthistory, December 16, 2015, accessed May 27, 2024,