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Ancient Revelations:

A Roman Triumphal Arch on the Temple Mount?

Minerva Magazine - April, 2007

A monumental Latin inscription, H. 0.97m, recently discovered on the Temple Mount, Jerusalem, which refers to a triumphal arch erected to commemorate the Roman subjugation of Israel after the fall of Masada in AD 74. Photo: Dr Tibor Grüll.

Back in 2002 I had the fortunate opportunity to visit the Islamic Museum on the Haram as-Sharif (Temple Mount) during the Second Intifada, when the Mount was hermetically closed to the public. A further piece of good fortune at the time was the presence of Dr Robert Shick at the Albright Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem, the well-known Arabist, who was my next-door neighbour and who showed me a photograph recently published in a book on Quran manuscripts written by Mr Khader Salameh, Director of the Islamic Museum. The photo revealed an unpublished Roman inscription which was situated in the Museum of the Haram. In February 2003 I was permitted to visit the site, where I made a squeeze of the inscription and took a number of photographs, which I immediately shared with the editorial team of the Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae-Palaestinae.

The new and extremely rare inscription is incised onto a huge limestone slab (H. 0.97m, W. 0.75m, average Th. 0.27m), which contains five broken lines of a text written in Latin with letters 11.5cm high. The text reads as follows:

[- - -]OS·E?[- - -]

[[- - -]V·L·FLAVI·A?[ - - -]]

[- - -]M?·ARCVM·DE F?[- - -]

[- - -]IO·ATHENAG[- - -]

[- - -]·MAXIMO·[- - -].

The key to this enigmatic text, paradoxically, is the second line, which was deliberately chiselled out in antiquity. The name given here is L. Flavi (in the genitive form) at whose command an arch (see the word arcum in the third line) was erected. Although the tituli of the emperors are missing from the first or preceding lines, we can claim with a high degree of probability that this Flavi(us) cannot be anyone else but L. Flavius Silva, the famous conqueror of Masada in spring AD 74. This assumption is supported by two milestones found in 1972 and 2000 on the Ophel (just a few hundred yards away from the Islamic Museum), which also contain the name of a legatus beginning with L, who was in charge under Vespasian and Titus. Unfortunately, the other names that appear on the arch inscription are less clear: a certain Athenag[oras] in the fourth line is absolutely new to us; the other, Maximus in the fifth line, is too common a name to identify a specific individual with absolute certainty. (There was, however, a procurator Iudaeae in service at that time, who was called Laberius Maximus.) The DE F[- - -] letters are also hard to interpret in the third line, but perhaps refer to a place, for instance de f[oro] (from the forum to...).

What is the significance of this new discovery? First of all this is most probably the earliest ‘monumental’ Latin inscription found in Israel, and it refers to Flavius Silva, the conqueror of Masada. But the most important implication of this inscription is architectural. If it comes from a triumphal arch, which seems to be most likely, where did it stand? Unfortunately, we do not have much information about the provenance of the stone. Dr Robert Shick informed me that he first saw the inscription in 1996, when the slab was brought to the Islamic Museum. I am inclined to suppose that the stone was found in 1995/96 when the Islamic Authorities started to build a new staircase in the area of ‘Solomon’s Stables’. In this case the question legitimately arises as to whether the arch was erected on the Temple Mount itself, which would be a quite stunning and new revelation about imperial Roman propaganda at the time of the First Jewish Revolt.

Dr Tibor Grüll, Former Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, the Albright Institute of Archaeology.

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