The Roman occupation of Ancient Israel is a torrential chapter in the history of both the Roman Empire as well as the Jews that would ultimately lead to the expulsion of Jewish population from their homeland. With the decline in power of the ruling Seleucid dynasty of Syria in the second century B.C., the Maccabeans began to assert greater political independence for the Jewish people. Upon the death of Alexander Jannaeus in 76 B.C., his widow Salome Alexandra took over the reigns of power. However, because a woman could not hold the office of high priest, this title was given to her son by Jannaeus, Yehohanan Hyrcanus II. When Salome died in 67 B.C., a civil war broke out between Hyrcanus and his brother Aristobulus II that lasted four years, until the Roman general Pompey intervened. Pompey then conquered Jerusalem but left the powers of Yehohanan Hyrcanus as high Priest intact. From this time onward, the Romans took an active hand in the political affairs of Judea. One of John Hyrcanus chief advisors was Antipater the Idumean who saw that his own son Herod was eventually installed on the throne after the death of Hyrcanus in 40 B.C.
Herod the Great ruled Judea from 37-4 B.C. He was a superb military leader who secured control of the region under the graces of Rome. A skilled builder, Herod completely remodeled the Jerusalem Temple, designed Caesarea and other cities, and built palaces at Jerusalem, Masada, and other places. Although other rulers might be remembered foremost for these building ruins, Herod is most often associated with being King during the time of Jesus Christ’s birth. Jewish and Christian traditions portray Herod as a tyrant, primarily for over-taxation and ordering the Massacre of the Innocents. However, it is unlikely that such an event ever took place considering that such an order would have require the explicit approval of Rome and that Rome would not support an order likely to incite rebellion and revolt. This prophetic myth instead reflects Herod’s obsessive paranoia and fear of conspirators that often afflicts those in possession of great power. In 6 A.D., ten years after Herod's death, Judea came under direct Roman administration. However, growing anger against increasing Roman suppression of Jewish life resulted in sporadic violence that would eventually escalate into a full-scale revolt. In 66 A.D., while Nero was Emperor of Rome, the last Roman Procurator Florian was accused of stealing from the Temple. To mock him, protestors took up a collection of coins for the relief of the "poverty-stricken" Procurator. Showing a rather poor sense of humor, Florian sent troops to put down the disorder. This led to a full-scale rebellion. The Roman troops eventually surrendered, but were killed anyway. By now, the rebellion had grown to a full-scale war. But there was also fighting among the Jews, as the more extreme elements took control from (and eliminated) the moderate leaders, under whom the rebellion had started. Nero sent his distinguished general, Vespasian, to stamp out the Jewish rebellion. But political troubles at home led Nero to commit suicide, and Vespasian headed back to Rome to claim the Emperorship for himself, leaving his son Titus in charge of the Judaean campaign. Vespasian was ultimately successful in his quest for the throne, and as Titus was also ultimately successful in crushing the Judaean rebellion. As a finishing touch, the Temple where the last of the Jewish rebels in Jerusalem had holed up was burned to the ground in 70 A.D. After the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish High Priesthood lost its center and authority. But the dream of rebuilding the Temple still smoldered. Sixty-two years after the Temple perished in flames, the Roman Emperor Hadrian proposed to build a new city on the site of Jerusalem, including a magnificent new temple dedicated to Jupiter on the site of the former Jewish temple. Hadrian's plans fanned this dream back to flame, and rebellion flared up. Simon Bar Kochba, a Jewish leader of massive physical strength (whom many believed to be the Messiah), rallied the Jews. Caught by surprise, the Roman forces in the region were defeated. Jerusalem and its surrounding area were once again under control of the Jews. But the concentrated might of the Romans was brought to bear on the region, and it became clear that Rome would eventually prevail. The rebellion was ultimately crushed, and Simon Bar Kochba was captured by the Romans, who executed him shortly thereafter. Although the Temple had been destroyed and Jerusalem burned to the ground, the Jews and Judaism survived the Roman occupation. Without the unifying framework of a state and the Temple, the small remaining Jewish community gradually recovered, reinforced from time to time by returning exiles. Institutional and communal life was renewed, priests were replaced by rabbis and the synagogue became the focus of Jewish life.
This magnificent lead sarcophagus reveals that Judaism continued to thrive in Ancient Israel despite the brutal repression of the Roman Occupation. A circular band that once framed the central image is still visible in the bottom right corner. Inside this circle, one sees the image of a menorah surmounted by two bunches of grapes. One of the oldest symbols of the Jewish faith, the menorah is a seven-branched candelabrum used to light the Temple that is today closely identified with the Jewish holiday Chanukah. Historically, grapes were one of the most important products in Israel, grown both to eat as well as to make wine. Wine was often used in ceremonial occasions and grapes were offered at the alter. The vine and grapes are a symbol of fertility and blessing from the lord. Thus the iconography of this sarcophagus clearly identifies the deceased individual who was once held within its confines as a pious Jew who was blessed by the lord in life, as he no doubt also was in death.