Ancient and modern

Vespasian’s Middle East policy (it should be ours, too)

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

As Ahmed Rashid argued last week, it is hard to see what the West is doing in the Middle East, occasionally dropping bombs on Isis, whose effect may well be to hand Syria over to al-Qaeda. The Roman general Vespasian (ad 9–79) would propose a different strategy.

The Romans had never found the Jews easy to get on with — the feeling was mutual — and semi-provincialising Judea in ad 6 had not helped matters. In ad 66 a major revolt broke out there, and the legate in Syria, Cestius Gallus, was ordered to crush it. He was driven off in disorder, and in ad 67 the emperor Nero sent Vespasian with a much larger force to restore Roman control. He attacked rebel towns, dealt out punishments and took Galilee. As a result, rebel forces and refugees flooded into Jerusalem to defend themselves there.


The consequence of this influx was savage political infighting between different Jewish factions in the city. According to the contemporary pro-Roman Jewish historian Josephus, one faction believed in the ‘Fourth Philosophy’—that no mere mortal should ever rule the Jews; the Zealots, supported by the especially savage Idumaeans, pursued active war against Rome to preserve the purity of Temple cult; the sicarii (‘knifemen’) were mercenaries, out for hire to any faction, concealing knives and mingling with crowds to kill for money; and so on. All the factions were hostile to Rome, all believed they alone could maintain and defend the city, the Jewish law and the temple cult, and all thought killing the opposition was the way to do it.

So when Vespasian encircled Jerusalem in ad 68 and his men urged him to take advantage of the chaos and attack at once, Vespasian demurred: let these suicidal lunatics get on with slaughtering each other; why invite disaster by plunging into battle? The Romans would win without lifting a finger.

Which makes one wonder whether Vespasian should not be driving our engagement in the Middle East: let the Arabs get on slaughtering each other while we wait to see who is the last man standing.

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Show comments
  • We are and have been manipulating the region for at least 100 years now. Our leaders learned these lessons at our top universities and have been implementing them as part of a continuing middle East policy that they didn’t start, just kept going…

  • William Haworth

    Vespasian didn’t have millions of their friends living in his cities back home. Makes it a rather more tricky problem today than 2000 years ago.

    • Kennybhoy

      Aye he did. No’ familiar with Juvenal then…? 🙂

  • omgamuslim

    The author is right and should be commended on his incisiveness. Yes, bring Vespasian. Vanquishing the zionists should be our top priority. If we succeed the Middle East will be a sea of tranquility. But it is difficult to see the Spectator types being enthusiastic about the prospect.

    • Sausage McMuffin

      I don’t see any Zionists doing any mass beheading, raping and enslaving of women and children, or throwing people off high buildings. Neither can I detect their hand in the Shia-Sunni conflict, or in the freedom struggle of the Kurds. But I guess that’s just the bias of our our Jewish-controlled western media.

      • omgamuslim

        So you do not know much about the zionists. You are right re Jewish controlled media. Even you were kept ignorant by them re the zionists. Did you know they wanted to kill Churchill with a bomb sent through the post?

        • Damaris Tighe

          Tee hee, Cameron’s coming for you!

          • blandings

            I don’t think he appreciates humour Damaris

          • Damaris Tighe

            Yes, I wondered whether my comment would be lost on him.

        • jtk

          Perhaps I should be more specific. Can you read history and do you read todays newspapers. You would learn that Muslims are killing and have killed more Muslims than the Zionists and the Great Satan combined. Still why should you let facts get in the way of the ideology of your primitive inferiority complex. Oh, and just to reinforce the point, it is inferior and it is primitive. Have a happy afterlife..

          • Mary Ann

            There is no afterlife, it’s just wishful thinking.

          • davidshort10

            Opinion.

          • Hamburger

            I like your certainty.

    • jtk

      Can you read?

      • omgamuslim

        Can you?

        • blandings

          The lesson that Peter Jones wished us to learn was that we in the civilised world, the modern equivalent of the Romans, should allow the modern day savages, the mohammadens, fight amongst themselves.
          I agree with him.

          • omgamuslim

            Peter Jones cannot teach you anything. He does not know who the savages are. I was hoping to help him out.

          • doramin

            Problem is Europe is doing nothing to prevent the refugee jihad. They’re guaranteeing the next Arab bloodletting will be them.

    • Mary Ann

      You really think that getting rid of the Jews will stop the Arabs fighting amongst each other.

      • omgamuslim

        I do.
        Worth a try. Don’t you think?

  • terence patrick hewett

    The notoriously parsimonious Vespasian, Roman emperor, and all round good egg; on being criticised by his son Titus for taking revenue from the public lavatories of Rome withdrew a coin from his cloak, raised it to his nose and quizzically remarked “it does not smell”

    This story is still used today to say that the value of money is not tainted by its origins:

    “your s**t may stink but by gum there’s owt wrong wi’ yer brass.”

    Vespasian’s name still attaches to public urinals in France (vespasiennes), Italy (vespasiani), and Romania (vespasiene).

    • blandings

      Well, I didn’t know that.
      I don’t think I would want a pissoir named after me though, as in “I’m off to point percy at the blanding”

      • doramin

        Is the “commode” named after Emperor Commodus?

        • blandings

          Hmm, probably.

  • drnono

    But then the Roman Empire was near its height.

    The situation of the west today is more like 330 years later, when the Roman Empire was subject to immense floods of refugees at its borders which it could not defend against.
    Rome had routinely used mass immigration of alien cultures which swamped its own culture.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0Ly96WK0CY

  • Bonkim

    Vespasian was clever.

  • John Mackie

    I’ve long thought we should ring fence the whole festering region and let them slaughter each other. Jews and Arabs/Muslims. Sick of them all. Hence the choice of my avatar.

  • Dr Corvus

    Is Peter really suggesting the policy of Vespasian? How would that look?

    Invade Saudi Arabia, besiege Mecca, let the inhabitants kill each other for a while as they run out of food (as per the article), enslave everyone who has defied the power of the West, then ritually violate and destroy the most sacred places of Islam, ban Muslims from Mecca on pain of death and establish a colony there for Western ex-servicemen. Crucify anyone who dares to look sad about it. There are some who argue this would indeed turn Islam into a religion of peace. But is this really what Peter Jones is advocating? Really?

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