This is the 2,179th anniversary of the world’s first war of national liberation. There have been many since. To a surprising extent, such wars have followed the pattern first established by the Maccabees. They, like later heads of independence movements, were leaders of a people conquered and occupied by a great empire. They fought to claim the right of national self-determination.
Resentment of foreign rule may simmer for a long time, but war is often remembered as beginning in a dramatic incident. In Switzerland, this memory belongs to William Tell. He was the national hero who in 1307 refused to bow to a hat belonging to the Hapsburg governor, which was set on a tall pole in the center of Altdorf for the sole purpose of forcing Swiss freemen to genuflect to it. Tell’s defiance sparked the fight for Swiss independence.
The story about Tell may be true, but it was not recorded until the 1560s. The Jewish “William Tell” moment occurred in the Year 167 B.C.E., when a priest named Matityahu (Mattathias) refused an order to make a sacrifice to a Greek god. Matityahu’s story is better documented than Tell’s, since it comes from the Book of First Maccabees (not the later II, III, and IV Maccabees), a text actually written in the Maccabean period.