Vandalism, usually the destruction, defacement, or desecration of a historical monument or a work of art, is undoubtedly disturbing.1 It is so disturbing, in fact, that often the first reaction to an act of vandalism may be to try to undo it, to erase, remove, or repair the evidence of vandalism. However, this is not always possible. In a case such as the one examined in this paper—the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE—the vandalism could not be undone. Despite the fervent hopes of Jews throughout the ancient Roman world that the Temple would be rebuilt or restored, it never was.2
Instead, immediately following the destruction of the Temple, the act of desecration was celebrated in Rome and some years later enshrined in the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum.3However, that was not the end of the story. Indeed, it was just the beginning. For the next two thousand years, the Arch reflected how Romans, Jews, and Christians understood themselves historically. Moreover, during that two-thousand-year span, intermittent acts of vandalism inspired new historical narratives. The first response of trying to reverse the vandalism—that is, the rebuilding of the temple—had failed.4 Instead, the vandalism provided the impetus for new histories.
What will be demonstrated below is a complex and complementary relationship between vandalism and historiography. Vandalism contributes to the writing of history, and just how it makes that contribution is the subject of this paper. We begin with an examination of the word, and concept of, vandalism.
The First Use of the Term “Vandalism”
In 1794, the constitutional Bishop of Blois, Henri Gregoire, coined the term “vandalism.” Gregoire was a cleric and a savant, as well as a liberal politician. The bishop advocated the abolition of the French monarchy and equal treatment for Jews and Blacks.5 In addition, he crusaded for the preservation of cultural objects. In a report to the National Convention, entitledReport on the Destruction Brought About by Vandalism, he decried “this ‘vandalisme’ which knows only destruction.”6 Gregoire was referring to the destruction of works of art during the French Revolution.7 While others, including Raphael8 and John Dryden,9 had earlier referred to Vandals as persons who destroyed works of art, Gregoire was the first to speak of a generalized behavior called “vandalism.” Indeed, once Gregoire coined the term, he changed forever the way the Vandals were remembered in modern European thought.10
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