For the week ending 7 December 2002 / 2 Tevet 5763

Titus' Arch - an ancient mystery solved

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The Maccabees' Menorah and Titus' Menorah

When the victorious Maccabees returned to the desecrated Temple they found that much of its wealth and splendor had been plundered by the Greeks. Among the artifacts that had been stolen by Antiochos was the golden candelabrum, likely the same one that had been fashioned by the returning Babylonian exiles in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Until a new candelabrum could be crafted, the soldiers improvised a makeshift device out of hollowed spearheads. Only later was a new golden replica manufactured, which was probably lit at the official rededication of the purified Temple, the first Chanuka.

The last Hasmonean king, Mattathias Antigonos (40-37 BCE), chose to place an image of the Menorah on the coins minted under his regime. The symbolism was quite appropriate: In addition to its associations with the Temple (the coins proudly proclaimed Mattathias' position as High Priest), the Menorah served as a reminder of the heroic exploits that had brought his family to power as liberators of their people.

The representation of the candelabrum on the Hasmonean coins provides us with our oldest picture of the Menorah. One notable feature of that depiction is that it seems to be standing on a sort of tripod. This would concur with the evidence of the Talmud (which speaks of an indeterminate number of "legs"), as well as with the three-legged Menorah images that were incorporated in much of Jewish art in later centuries.

This portrayal of a Menorah supported by a tripod base is not the one that springs most naturally to our minds. Most of us imagine the Menorah with a broad, solid base, like the one that appears in the official seal of the State of Israel. The source for this image is the Arch of Titus, erected around 81 CE to commemorate the Roman triumph over the Jewish insurrection. On that Arch we can see a meticulously detailed relief of the spoils of Jerusalem's Temple being carried through the streets of Rome, and the Menorah is perhaps the most prominent of the treasures. However the base of Titus' Menorah is not a tripod, but the now-familiar two-tiered hexagonal structure.

There are many factors that testify to the authenticity of the depiction in Titus' Arch: In general, Roman triumphal arches were designed as historical documents and towards that end strove to be as accurate as possible. In this case, almost all the details attest to the sculptors' intimate knowledge of the Temple's vessels as described in the Bible and other Jewish sources. Moreover, the proportions of the candelabrum, with its oversized base, are in such blatant conflict with the classical notions of aesthetic form that it is inconceivable that a Roman craftsman would have invented them.

How then are we to explain the discrepancy between these two different renderings of the Menorah's base?

Some clues to this mystery are suggested by the ornamental designs that appear in Titus' Menorah. Though the images have been eroded over time, it is possible to discern vestiges of such figures as eagles and fish-tailed sea serpents or dragons. A similar base has been excavated from a Roman temple at Didymus, now in southern Turkey.

The eagles were, of course, the best-know symbol of Roman sovereignty. The dragons were a popular decorative motif in Roman art, and the whole candelabrum seems to testify to the strong Roman influence.

There are, however, some striking differences between Titus' candelabrum and its pagan counterparts. The Didymus lamp, for example, features a human figure seated on the back of the monster. It also portrays this creature with spiky rills issuing from its neck, an image that was explicitly prohibited by Talmudic law. Both these features are lacking in the image of the Temple Menorah. While the lack of these pagan images, plus the general Roman tendency toward pictorial accuracy, both argue for its Jewish origins, they cannot offset the strong Roman influence perceptible in the design.

As some scholars have observed, this mixture of a positive disposition towards things Roman, mitigated by a Jewish antipathy towards pagan images, fits the personality of King Herod, the despotic monarch whose prolonged and unpopular rule over Judea was made possible by his slavish obedience to his Roman masters. Throughout his career he tried to impose Roman social and religious institutions upon his reluctant subjects.

It is thus entirely characteristic of Herod's approach to introduce into the Temple itself a candelabrum that was adorned with the symbols of Roman authority and values. As in similar cases, Herod was unable to completely ignore the popular resistance to human images or explicitly pagan motifs.

If this is correct, then the Menorah that was plundered by the Roman legions was not the symbol of religious freedom that had been created by the Maccabees, but a despot's monument to foreign oppression.

This fact might account for the absence of the Menorah from the coinage of the Jewish rebellions in 69-70 and 135, which made abundant use of other symbols from the Temple worship.

When the Menorah did regain popularity as a decorative theme in Jewish art from the third century onwards, it was the original three-legged lamp that was chosen by the Jewish craftsmen as a symbol of religious pride and messianic hope.

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