Reproduced with permission from ‘The Testimony’ magazine (a Christadelphian publication), November & December 2011
1. A remarkable journey
THE WORDS of the Lord Jesus were frighteningly clear. From the vantage point of the Mount of Olives he revealed to his astonished disciples what lay in store for the gorgeous buildings of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, the proud symbol of nationhood in which all Israel took such pride: “And as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts, he said, As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Lk. 21:5,6). A people that had consistently rejected the words of God’s prophets had filled up the measure of their fathers’ sins by rejecting His beloved Son, and there would be no escape for the city which, despite God’s very Presence having dwelt there, had so signally failed to recognise its promised Saviour.
This final act of disobedience could not go unpunished, and within one generation the Lord’s grim words would be fulfilled: “For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation” (19:43,44).
We well understand that these prophecies of the Lord came to pass in A.D. 70, when the temple was destroyed by the Romans and the Jews were scattered throughout the nations of the known world. What we may not be so familiar with is the subsequent story of the sacred articles looted from the temple by the soldiers of Titus. There are sufficient clues in the pages of history for us to reconstruct their movements in the following centuries, and the story takes us on a journey from Jerusalem to an abandoned site in Istanbul in Turkey which, although now filthy and over-grown, may be the last recorded resting place of the treasures rescued from the carnage of July 70.
A Roman triumph
What those articles comprised, first of all, is indicated by the one depiction we have of them from antiquity. On the underside of the Arch of Titus, at the entrance to the Forum of ancient Rome, is the famous carving of the triumph awarded jointly to Titus and his father Vespasian for their victory in Judea. It clearly shows the menorah, or seven-branched lampstand, the silver trumpets and the table of showbread being carried in procession. The originals of these items had been at the centre of Israel’s system of worship since being manufactured for the tabernacle by Moses during the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.
There is no portrayal on the arch of the Ark of the Covenant, which perhaps never survived the Babylonian overthrow of Judah in 587 B.C.; and indeed, both Jewish and Gentile sources state that, by New Testament times, the most holy place of the temple was empty. The Roman historian Tacitus describes how the Roman general Pompey outraged Jewish sensibilities when, in 63 B.C., he “entered the temple. Thus it became commonly known that the place stood empty with no similitude of gods within, and that the shrine had nothing to reveal”.1 Flavius Josephus refers to the same incident, when “Pompey . . . went into the temple itself whither it was not lawful for any to enter but the high priest, and saw what was reposited therein, the candlestick with its lamps, and the table, and the pouring vessels, and the censers, all made entirely of gold, as also a great quantity of spices heaped together, with two thousand talents of sacred money.”2 In each reference, the Ark of the Covenant is conspicuous by its absence.
The Arch of Titus in Rome (and detail), which commemorated the victory of Titus and Vespasian in Judea. The lampstand, silver trumpets and table of showbread are all depicted, but not the Ark of the Covenant.
Pictures: lower, Jeremy Thomas; top, Gunnar Bach Pedersen/Wikimedia Commons
Titus’ use of this symbology on his commemorative arch was an unmistakable claim of superiority over the Jews and, indeed, over their God. A reconstruction of an inscription found at the nearby Flavian Amphitheatre (better known as the famous Colosseum, built circa A.D. 72–80), tells us that “the Emperor Vespasian ordered this new amphitheatre to be erected from the booty.”3 This is generally taken to mean that the Colosseum was financed by the vast treasures taken from Jerusalem. Humanly speaking, the fall of Jerusalem was a huge propaganda coup for Vespasian, who, as founder of the line of Flavian rulers in Rome, was anxious to establish firm credentials for his new dynasty after the instability of ‘the Year of Four Emperors’ which followed the murder of Nero in 68. A resounding victory over a troublesome outlying province, and the glorious spectacle of a triumph on the streets of Rome, delivered Vespasian exactly what he needed in ‘PR’ terms so soon after his assumption of the purple.
There is evidence of precisely what subsequently became of the temple articles in Rome.
Josephus tells us that at this time Vespasian also constructed a new Temple of Peace (otherwise referred to as the Forum of Vespasian) as part of the same propaganda campaign. An edifice so named would allow him to claim that, with the Jews at last subdued, the Empire could enjoy the peace it had long sought. Thus Vespasian’s popularity in the eyes of the plebeians of Rome would have soared. The Temple of Peace appears to have been designed as a sort of showcase for exceptional works of art looted from the nations defeated by Rome, and archaeological work on its site on the Via dei Fori Imperiali (where one wall and part of the floor of the original building can still be seen) suggests that these artworks were displayed to the public in a beautiful garden of exotic plants and elaborate water features. Here, in an incident powerfully reminiscent of what King Nebuchadnezzar had done with the artefacts he removed from the Jerusalem temple more than 650 years earlier (Dan. 1:2), Vespasian “laid up . . . those golden vessels and instruments that were taken out of the Jewish temple, as ensigns of his glory.” Still not quite done, “he gave order that they should lay up their Law, and the purple veils [sic] of the holy place, in the royal palace itself, and keep them there.”4
The Colosseum in Rome, which is generally thought to have been financed by the treasures taken from Jerusalem.
Rome was not to hold onto the precious trophies indefinitely, however. As foretold by the Lord Jesus in his final message to his servants, eventually her supremacy waned and the power of the Western Empire was stripped away via a series of Barbarian incursions. Among these, the one event which concerns the temple articles is the sack of Rome by the Vandals. Although they were originally an eastern Germanic tribe, by the fifth century the Vandals had established for themselves a powerful kingdom in North Africa, and it was from here, under their king Gaiseric (also known as Genseric), that the Vandals reached Rome in 455. The scale of the destruction they inflicted on the ancient city can be deduced from the fact that it is from this incident that the word ‘vandalism’ is derived.
The Temple of Peace, with its priceless treasures, did not escape the attention of Gaiseric’s hoards, and the fate of the temple articles is recorded by the ninth-century Byzantine chronicler Theophanes the Confessor. In his Chronographia, a work covering more than 500 years of Roman history, he describes how Gaiseric, “with no one to stop him, entered Rome . . . and taking all the money and the ornaments of the city, he loaded them on his ships, among them the solid gold and bejewelled treasures of the [Christian] Church and the Jewish vessels which Vespasian’s son Titus had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem.”5 From Italy the loot was transported by sea to the Vandal capital Carthage, in modern Tunisia. In Eureka, his exposition of Revelation, John Thomas sees in the fall of Rome to the Vandals the fulfilment of the second wind trumpet of 8:8,9, and it is interesting to note that—presumably with access to the same sources—he ratifies the story so far: “The pillage lasted fourteen days and nights. Among the spoils transported from the city by the king [Gaiseric] were the Golden Table and the Seven-Branched Golden Lightstand, brought by Titus to Rome, where they were deposited in the temple of peace. Nearly four hundred years after, these spoils of Jerusalem were shipped for Carthage . . .”6
The Western Roman Empire was by now in its death throes, and, in events prophesied by the third and fourth trumpets of Revelation 8 (again as interpreted in Eureka), it fizzled out just twenty-one years later on the abdication of its last emperor, Romulus Augustulus. It would be a mistake, however, to understand 476 as the final end of ‘Rome,’ since the Eastern Roman Empire was alive and kicking, and it was to its Emperor Zeno that the imperial regalia of the West were now sent as a clear sign that the Eastern (or Byzantine) Empire was now seen as the legitimate heir to the Caesars. Indeed, through astonishing changes of fortune the Byzantines held out for almost another one thousand years—referring to themselves throughout as Romans—until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, “an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year” which the sixth trumpet (9:13-21) anticipated.7 The tortuous intrigues of the Eastern Empire’s organisation, politics and religion have rightly led to the word ‘Byzantine’ being used to describe something so utterly complex that it is impossible to unravel. Yet the Empire was the dominant Christian power of Europe for much of the Middle Ages. Constantinople had been dedicated as its capital by the Emperor Constantine in 330. Relocating the Roman capital had practical advantages, given longstanding pressure on the Empire’s eastern borders, but Constantine sought too to resurrect the by now fading glory of ancient Rome, officially naming his city ‘New Rome,’ and taking the opportunity to introduce ‘Christian’ elements into the life of the state for the first time.
Neither Constantine nor Constantinople adopted Christianity overnight, and some of the subsequent conflicts played out between the old Roman system and Constantine’s version of Christianity are symbolised by the events of Revelation 12, where the pagan dragon is driven out of the political ‘heavens’ and forced to make way for the still recognisably Christian—yet clearly not virginal—woman who, later in the prophecy, becomes the great harlot.
As befitted a second Rome, the Empire was scoured for ancient artefacts and works of art to beautify Constantine’s city and to emphasise its new primacy. To this day, tourists visiting the remains of the Roman hippodrome in Constan- tinople (modern Istanbul) wander among monuments like the obelisk from ancient Egypt and the bronze column commemorating the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C.—the latter in particular is a tangible reminder of the sequence of the empires of Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome well known to us from the prophecy of Daniel 2. These monuments, and many more, were brought to the new capital to demonstrate the Empire’s superior might and status over all other civilisations and deities, in just the same way that the temple articles had been taken to Rome to demonstrate the Empire’s victory over God’s land and God’s people.
Removal to Constantinople
We left those articles in the hands of the Vandals at Carthage after the fall of the city of Rome a hundred years or so after the time of Constantine. The ups and downs of the Eastern Empire make for fascinating reading,8 but by the sixth century, in the reign of Emperor Justinian I, it was enjoying a resurgence of power sufficient to organise a military campaign to recapture some of the territory of the West which had been lost to the Barbarians.
Amongst the areas restored to the Roman Empire by Justinian’s general Belisarius was Vandal North Africa, and the contemporary historian Procopius of Caesarea records the next stage in the journey of the Jerusalem treasures. He writes that, in anticipation of defeat by the Byzantines at the Battle of Tricamarum in late 533, the Vandal King Gelimer placed his valuables on board a ship in the nearby harbour at Hippo Regius, hoping to be able to escape to Vandal Spain should the battle be lost. However, unfavourable winds brought the ship back to shore and into the clutches of Belisarius.
Procopius’ imprecise references to “all the royal treasure” of the Vandals and “the enormous sum . . . plundered from Gelimer’s treasure”9 would be inconclusive by themselves did he not go on to describe the triumph awarded to the Byzantine general on his return home. For among the thousands of talents-worth of gold and silver booty paraded through the streets of the capital were “the treasures of the Jews, which Titus, the son of Vespasian, together with certain others, had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem”10 nearly 400 years earlier.
Back in Constantinople, the Emperor Justinian’s hold on power had not always been secure. Only two years before Belisarius’ return, he had almost lost his throne during the ‘Nika’ rebellion when his palace had been besieged and more than thirty thousand people were put to death in the bloody suppression of the riots. So, while Procopius is not clear on just how long the temple articles remained in Constantinople, he does state that they were not brought under the cautious Justinian’s roof. Fascinatingly, it appears to have been a Jew who dissuaded the Emperor from such folly, for “one of the Jews, seeing these things, approached one of those known to the Emperor and said: ‘These treasures I think it inexpedient to carry into the palace in Byzantium. Indeed, it is not possible for them to be elsewhere than in the place where Solomon, the king of the Jews, formerly placed them. For it is because of these that Gaiseric captured the palace of the Romans, and that now the Roman army has captured that of the Vandals.’ When this had been brought to the ears of the Emperor, he became afraid and quickly sent everything to the sanctuaries of the Christians in Jerusalem.”11
Where exactly the treasures ended up, if Justinian did return them to the Land from where they had been taken so many years before, we do not know. Perhaps it was in one of holy places ‘rediscovered’ by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, in the fourth century; another suggestion has been the Nea Ekklesia (‘New Church’), which had been built by Justinian in Jerusalem in 543.12 We cannot be certain, for here the historical trail goes cold. But if Justinian was so superstitious as to forbid the temple articles to enter his palace, can we say where precisely in Constantinople they may have been housed, as we could in Rome?
Church of St Polyeuctus
In 1960, workmen constructing the foundations of the new City Hall in Istanbul unearthed by chance two marble blocks bearing Greek inscriptions. On examination, the inscriptions were found to match the text of a seventy-six-line epigram already known to scholars from the Palatine Anthology, a collection of Greek poems dating from around A.D. 1000. The epigram referred to the construction, by one Princess Anicia Juliana, of a church dedicated to St Polyeuctus. The building had long been familiar to historians from this and other documents, even though its location in Istanbul had never been established. Then, in 1964, bulldozers digging out a new underpass at a busy road junction adjacent to City Hall came across similar marble blocks. Work on the second site was immediately halted, and for six seasons archaeological excavations were held under the auspices of the Dumbarton Oaks Institute from Washington, D.C. As inscriptions on further discoveries were deciphered, it became clear that much of Anicia Juliana’s epigram had formed a giant marble frieze running round three sides of a building, confirming that the remains of the church of St Polyeuctus had at last been found.
Amongst the blue-blooded ladies of Byzantium, Anicia Juliana (462–c.528) stands out as the daughter, the granddaughter and the great-granddaughter of both Eastern and Western Roman emperors. Born into the lap of luxury, she has been described as “the most aristocratic and the wealthiest inhabitant” of Constantinople.13 At one point even her own husband had been offered (but had declined) the throne of the East, and, perhaps unsurprisingly for one with untold riches and unequalled prestige at court, she had set her sights on her own son becoming Eastern emperor one day. However, in 518 the throne went instead to Justin I, who, although by then a soldier of high rank, had begun life as a peasant swineherd. (Justin never actually learned to read and write, ‘signing’ official documents by means of a specially made stencil.)
The contrast with the proud princess, who could trace her illustrious ancestry back to Constantine himself, could not have been greater, and she held the illiterate Justin, along with his nephew and eventual successor Justinian I, in utter contempt as parvenu usurpers. Feelings were mutual, and when Justinian one day attempted to steal a march on Anicia Juliana by obliging her (as he was entitled) to hand over her fortune towards the construction of his own magnificent Hagia Sophia church, which still stands in Istanbul, she invited him over to help himself. One can only imagine Justinian’s chagrin when, on arrival at Anicia Juliana’s estate, he saw that she had had her stores of gold hammered into plates to adorn the roof of ‘her’ church of St Polyeuctus! Justinian could have forced the canny Anicia Juliana to acknowledge the superiority of his own building only by committing sacrilege.
But who (who on earth!) was this ‘St’ Polyeuctus, to whom Anicia Juliana had dedicated her church? Tradition has it that Polyeuctus was a wealthy officer in the army of Emperor Valerian, and that he hailed from Melitene in central Turkey. On conversion to Christianity circa 259, so the story goes, Polyeuctus marched to the central square of the city and openly tore up a copy of the edict obliging the townspeople to worship idols. Polyeuctus next intercepted a procession of idols, which conveniently happened to be passing by at just that moment, and trampled them underfoot. He was arrested, tortured and beheaded, thereby earning himself a place in the list of Christian martyrs around whom cults of devotion sprang up, and whose mortal remains were subsequently venerated. The relics of ‘St’ Polyeuctus found a resting place in his eponymous church in Constantinople—and there is a good possibility that so did the treasures from the Jerusalem temple, as we shall see in Part 2 of this article.
(To be concluded)
1. Tacitus, Histories, 5.9. The Testimony, November 2011
2. Josephus, The Jewish Wars, 1.7.6.
3. Hopkins, K. & Beard, M. The Colosseum (London, Profile Books, 2011).
4. Josephus, op. cit., 7.5.7.
5. Cited by Kingsley, S., God’s Gold (London, John Murray, 2006).
6. Thomas, J., Eureka, vol. II.b., p. 70 (Birmingham, The Christadelphian, 1981).
7. The fact that “the [Roman] beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame” (Dan. 7:11) only in 1453 is brought out by Geoff and Ray Walker in their exposition of the Apocalypse, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Alsager, Bible Student Press, no date).
8. The most readable (and entertaining!) account is perhaps the Byzantium trilogy by J. J. Norwich.
9. Procopius, Wars, 4.4. 10. Ibid., 9.4.
13. Maas, M., The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (Cambridge University Press, 2005).