Jews were divided over their role in the Roman world

This little bottle and the Roman town it came from represent a conflict that was raging through the Jewish community at the time. In most of the Empire, archaeological and literary evidence shows that Judaism was heavily influence by Roman culture. But in Jerusalem, the symbol of all that was Jewish, this created a crisis of identity.

On one extreme, some Jewish fundamentalists felt that that Roman culture was a corrupting influence, and that Jews should separate themselves from Rome completely. On the other side, many other Jews – including people who used bottles like this – were eager to be as Roman as possible. This led many to question what it meant to be Jewish and, in some cases, how important cultural identity really was.

Herod appealed to the hardliners in Jerusalem by rebuilding the Temple. But at the same time, he promoted Roman culture by building an entire city dedicated to the Emperor. Caesarea would eventually supplant Jerusalem as the capital of Judea, and become a shining example of Roman culture, a symbol of the dominant civilization standing in direct opposition to Jerusalem.

Herod was ethnically Jewish, which appeased some of the Jewish nationalists. But politically he was a loyal Roman. This made him an ideal client king—a member of the local elite, elevated and supported by Rome, who in return kept the province under control.

“All right... all right... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?”

from Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Herod's Pool
The ruins of Herod’s pool at Caesarea. Herod the Great was king of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. His son, Herod Antipas, was ruler of Galilee at the time of Jesus’ death. Photo courtesy of Kate Larson.