According to Pliny the Elder, the Temple of Peace was one of the three most beautiful buildings in the world. Only the Basilica Aemilia and the Forum of Augustus rivaled the sanctuary in splendor.
More than a century later, the building had lost none of its glory. The historian Herodian praised the temple as “the most beautiful and largest building in the city”. According to his description, it was also “the richest of all temples, packed with golden and silver votive offerings …”
the construction of the temple
Emperor Vespasian was the patron of the temple. In 71 CE he decided to have it built. According to Flavius Josephus, the imperial historian, Vespasian was able to release a fortune for its construction. He had acquired this wealth during the Jewish war. As punishment for their rebellion, the emperor had left the Jews with nothing. They lost both their property and their freedom.
The Jewish captives formed a major part of the spoils that the Romans brought back from Judea. The price of a good slave was more than a year’s salary. Since transportation costs were high in antiquity, most of the Jewish slaves were sold in the Middle East. Only the strongest or most beautiful slaves found their way to Rome. There they worked in households, or on construction projects such as the Colosseum and the Temple of Peace.
the decoration of the Peace Temple
Pax, the goddess of peace, was central to the Peace Temple. However, her statue was not the only thing that people came for to the sanctuary. The temple was full of art. Josephus wrote about this: “all art that used to be scattered around the world, […] was collected and exhibited here”. According to Pliny, it was mainly art that Nero had stolen to fill his palace.
And the Flavians added newly looted art to this collection. The most famous example is the menorah from the Jewish temple, which Titus carried with him during his triumphal procession (see the image on the left ).
But that was not the only biblical object exhibited there. According to Josephus, the entire inventory of the Jewish temple found its way to the Temple of Peace. The only exceptions were the Torah scroll and the veil of the Holy of Holies. Because of their great religious importance, Titus kept those in the imperial palace.
why did Vespasian have the Peace Temple built?
The Roman historian Suetonius wrote in his biography of Vespasian: “An ancient belief had spread throughout the Orient that people of Judea would seize world domination at that time”. We know from the Bible that the Jews also held this faith. They called their coming world ruler “the Prince of Peace,” or “the Messiah”. Emperor Vespasian took this Eastern belief seriously and his policy was to obtain that title of “Prince of Peace” for himself. In doing so he hoped to augment his authority.
In various ways, he tried to persuade his subjects to accept his claim. For a start, of course, by winning the Jewish war: after the fall of Jerusalem, peace reigned over the entire empire. Vespasian boasted that he had brought that peace. And after the end of the war, he closed the doors of the temple of Janus. This was an ancient tradition. During a lasting peace, the Romans locked their god of war up. For they no longer needed his help.
The inauguration of the Temple of Peace (in 75 CE) was the crowning glory of the imperial policy. The temple was dedicated to Pax, the personification of peace. But, as I already stated, not only the statue of the goddess took shelter there. Vespasian also housed all the treasures from the destroyed Jewish temple in it. This had great symbolic value: the Jews were integrated into the empire. In order to perform their sacrificial service, they became dependent on the emperor.
Vespasian as Messiah
The question arises, of course, whether the imperial policy succeeded. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the faith in the coming Messiah: “This mysterious prophecy had actually pointed to Vespasian and Titus…” In Flavian times, few Romans doubted that interpretation. No one dared to dispute Vespasian’s claims to the title “Prince of Peace”. And also Vespasian’s sons benefited from this: both Titus and Domitian were later proclaimed emperors.
But how did the Jews feel about Vespasian? The only religious movement that had survived the war were the Pharisees. And although they accepted imperial authority, there is no indication that they supported the emperor’s messianic ambitions. One Jew did: Flavius Josephus. In his account of the Jewish war, he wrote about the messiah: “They [the Jewish rebels] thought that the prophecy applied to themselves. And many of their sages were misled. While the oracle clearly referred to the reign of Vespasian“. This comment pleased the emperor. In gratitude, Josephus received an estate, a state grant, and a statue. In my novel The Third Temple, this statue is placed in the Peace Temple, right next to the menorah, to the astonishment of the other Jews.