Colossus: Stone and Steel by David Blixt

Yis’gadal, v’yit’kadash sh’mei  raba. . . . May his great name grow exalted and sanctified. . . The Jewish mourner’s Kaddish, spoken in every Jewish prayer service. Unlike other prayers which are in Hebrew, the mourner’s  Kaddish is in Aramaic, the language spoken in Judea at the time of the Roman conquest. I always assumed that this was because the Romans gave Judeans many thousands of opportunities to say it.

David Blixt’s Colossus: Stone and Steel brings the struggle between Rome and Judea vividly to life. The fictional heroes of the story are twin brothers Judah and Asher ben Matthias, both master stone masons. The twins are identical but have very different personalities: Judah is a warrior while Asher is a scholar. Judah remains in Jerusalem with his father while Asher goes off to Alexandria to pursue learning.

Judea is governed by Gessius Florus, a Roman equite whose rapacity and brutality are extreme even by Roman standards. Florus has provoked the Judeans to arms by profaning the Temple of Solomon. Judah has taken up arms to avenge his brother, whom he believes has perished at the hands of the Romans in Alexandria. A battle takes place at Beth Horon, and Judah heroically manages to capture the Roman eagle, the sacred standard of the 15th legion. Judah wishes to marry Deborah, the brother of Phannius, another mason, but even the capture of the eagle doesn’t persuade the girl’s mother, who thinks Judah’s family beneath hers.

Ancient Rome might occasionally lose battles, but it did not lose wars.  When Caesar Nero gets word of this rebellion while on his concert tour of Greece, he appoints his general Vespasian to bring several legions to Judea to put down the rebels. Vespasian is only too happy to comply because he knows he has deeply offended Nero by falling asleep during one of the Caesar’s performances, and if he doesn’t get a command his days are numbered. This also gives him a chance to promote the career of his son Titus by giving him command of a legion.

The Judeans are profoundly disunited. There are several factions, each at odds with all the others. The Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Nazarenes. The people of Jerusalem have little in common with the rough-hewn peasants of Galilee. An ambitious priest, Joseph ben Matityahu, known to history as Josephus Flavius, is assigned to the command of a Judean armed force in Galilee. Although wounded, Asher has somehow survived the conflict in Alexandria and returned home. He and Judah answer the call to arms and join Joseph in Galilee.

The struggle between Rome and Judea has a sort of David versus Goliath quality to it, but it is very clear that, in this instance, David has no chance to win. Nevertheless, you have to admire the zeal and courage of Judeans who fought the colossus of stone and steel.  David Blixt’s fine novel makes it all real.

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