Bar Kokhba Revolt: The Third Roman-Jewish War

Simmering political and religious tensions between the Jews and Romans from earlier conflicts erupted into a massive revolt. The consequences for both the Roman Empire and Jewish community were dire.

Nov 24, 2022By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology
bar kokhba revolt war emperor hadrian
Statue of Hadrian from the Camp of Legio VI Ferrata, Roman 117-138 CE, Via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; with Cave Hideout of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, Jewish Early 2nd Century CE, Via URJ Heller High


In the aftermath of the devastating First Roman-Jewish War (66-73 CE) and the Kitos War (115-117 CE), Roman authorities took measures to suppress the province of Judea and the Jewish community. However, this led to mismanagement and corruption. There were several elements that then led to the revolt, but the most prominent were the construction of a new city, Aelia Capitolina, over the ruins of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Second Temple as a temple to Jupiter. The revolt was well planned and led by the charismatic Simon bar Kokhba. Initially successful, Simon bar Kokhba (d.135CE) was hailed as a “messiah” and established an independent state that encompassed much of Judea. Eventually, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) brought together six legions to crush the revolt with devastating consequences.


The Flames of Rebellion

roman spoils cave of letters
Bronze, Copper, and Silver Spoils taken from the Romans and found in the Cave of Letters, Roman Early 2nd Century, Via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


Having already put down two earlier Jewish rebellions at great cost, Rome was determined not to face a third. The manner in which they sought to accomplish this was by suppressing the province of Judea and the Jewish community. However, this resulted in mismanagement as governors with clearly anti-Jewish sentiments were brought in. The Roman governor at the time of the revolt, Quintus Tineius Rufus, is known as Turnus Rufus the Evil in Jewish sources. In the years leading up to the revolt, the Jewish community in Judea was subjected to changes in administrative law, a shift from landowning to sharecropping, economic decline, and a diffusion of Romans into the region.


However, the most compelling and proximate reasons given for the rebellion usually center around the Roman treatment of Jerusalem and the ruins of the Second Temple. During the First Roman Jewish War (66-73 CE), the city of Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed. Now the Romans were beginning to construct a new pagan city named Aelia Capitolina atop the ruins of Jerusalem. In addition to that, they were also beginning construction of a new temple on the temple mount. According to one tradition, the Jews had been promised a new temple and then felt betrayed when they discovered it was to be a temple to Jupiter rather than Yahweh. Matters finally came to a head in 131 CE when Tineius Rufus performed the ceremonial foundation ceremony by plowing the city limits. To many Jews, this was a major religious offense, and the “Plowing of the Temple” could not be forgiven.


Simon bar Kokhba (d.135 CE)

weight and letter simon bar kokhba
Weight bearing the name of Simon bar Kokhba, Jewish 131-135 CE; with Letter from Simon bar Kokhba to one of his lieutenants, Jewish 132-135 CE, Via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


The man who was to lead the revolt was Simon ben Koseba or Cosiba, though there are several variations of its spelling.  Documents recovered from the Cave of Letters overlooking the Dead Sea in Israel include numerous variations on the spelling of his name and may include letters he wrote himself. He was selected ahead of time to try and avoid the infighting and factionalism that had doomed the first revolt. As such, he was able to rule and lead with absolute authority in all matters. Little else is known for certain about his life prior to the revolt. During the revolt, most likely sometime following its initial success, the Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva gave him the name “Bar Kokhba,” or “Son of the Star.”

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At this point, the rebels had succeeded in establishing an independent Jewish state that encompassed most of Judea. Simon bar Kokhba had taken the title “Nasi” or “head of state,” which sparked great hope among the Jewish community. Many hoped that this marked the beginning of the Messianic Age. Among those was Rabbi Akiva, who granted him the name “Bar Kokhba” or “Son of the Star” in reference to the Star Prophecy verse in the Book of Numbers 24:17: “There shall come a star out of Jacob.” Later Jewish sages, including Rabbi Akiva’s own disciple Jose ben Halaphta, did not share this assessment.


First Phase of the Bar Kokhba Revolt 131-132 CE

parade helmet roman with relief inscription cohort legion
Parade helmet of a Roman Auxiliary Cavalryman, Roman 117-138 CE; with Inscription of the VIII Cohort of Legio X Fretensis, Roman 1st-2nd Century, Via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


The revolt was led by Simon bar Kokhba and the Jewish scholar Eleazar of Modi’im. Moving quickly, the rebels succeeded in cutting off Jerusalem or Aelia Capitolina from the rest of the region, isolating the Roman forces in the area. They were met by Legio X Fretensis, which was based at Aelia Capitolina, and heavily defeated the Romans. At this point, Legio VI Ferrata was brought in from its base in the Yizrael Valley bringing the total Roman strength to around 20,000. Nonetheless, the Romans were unable to defeat Simon bar Kokhba’s forces which nearly succeeded in taking Aelia Capitolina. It was around this time in 132 CE that Tineius Rufus disappeared from the historical record; his ultimate fate is unknown.


Realizing that more troops were going to be necessary to overcome the stalemate, both sides now sought reinforcements. The Romans brought in Legio III Gallica from Syria, Legio III Cyrenaica from Arabia Petraea, and Legio II Traiana Fortis from Egypt. It is thought that the Legio XXII Deiotariana was also brought in from Arabia Petraea but was disbanded after it was nearly destroyed in an ambush. In any event, the total Roman strength in Judea now stood at around 80,000. However, they were still inferior in number to the forces of Simon bar Kokhba, which are said to have stood at around 400,000. Many Jews of the diaspora had returned to fight the Romans. The rebels also had a better knowledge of the terrain and possessed strong defensive fortifications.


Second Phase of the Bar Kokhba Revolt 132-133 CE

bronze bar kokhba coins
Bronze Coin (top) of the Bar Kokhba Revolt depicting a Palm Tree and Grapes, Jewish 132 CE; with Silver Coin (bottom) of the Bar Kokhba Revolt depicting Grapes and a Harp, Jewish 134-135 CE, Via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


The rebellion had caught the Romans by surprise as the Jew initially relied on covert action and guerilla warfare. As their numbers swelled, they turned to open warfare and were able to capture several cities and fortresses. Roman attempts to meet them on the battlefield ended in defeat. It was at this stage of the Bar Kokhba Revolt that Simon ben Koseba adopted the title “Nasi Israel” and was given the name “Bar Kokhba” by Rabbi Akiva. The era of the Redemption of Israel was announced, new contracts were signed marking the era, and a large quantity of Bar Kokhba Revolt coinage was struck over foreign, mostly Roman, coins.


Having suffered several humiliating defeats in the field, the Romans adopted a new strategy to put down the Bar Kokhba Revolt. They began a slow, methodical advance aimed at cutting supply lines and taking cities or fortresses. Although the rebels outnumbered the Roman forces, they could not match them in weaponry, discipline, or military professionalism. As such, they switched to a defensive approach centered on a vast network of caves and tunnel hideouts beneath Judean towns and villages. As of 2015, some 350 such hideouts have been documented in 140 villages. From these hideouts, the Jews conducted raids and ambushes on the Romans. In this way, the Jews were able to slow and, in some cases, turn back the Roman advance.


Third Phase of the Bar Kokhba Revolt 133-134 CE

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Inscription from the Triumphal Arch of the Legio VI Ferrata, Roman 136 CE, Via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


Following this series of setbacks, Hadrian brought in general Sextus Julius Severus to put down the Bar Kokhba Revolt. In addition, the Romans brought in additional legions such as Legio X Gemina and cohorts of the Legio V Macedonica, Legio XI Claudia, Legio XII Fulminata, Legio IV Flavia Felix, along with 30-50 auxiliary units. It is also possible that the Legio IX Hispana was brought in but was massacred, leading to its apparent sudden disappearance from the historical record. These reinforcements brought the total Roman troop strength to somewhere around 80,000-120,000 men. Simon bar Kokhba now established a secondary headquarters at the city of Herodium. This important fortress was commanded by Yeshua ben Galgula, the second or third in command of the Jewish forces.


It has been proposed that, at this time, one of the most crucial battles of the war may have taken place at Tel Shalem in the Beit She’an valley. This site is near the camp of Legio VI Ferrata, where archaeologists have also unearthed a triumphal arch dedicated to the emperor Hadrian. It is believed that this arch commemorates a decisive victory over Simon bar Kokhba’s forces in the vicinity of the camp. If this interpretation is correct, it would imply a significant extension of the area that the Bar Kokhba Revolt encompassed. This would now include the northern valleys and Galilee, instead of just Judea and Idumea. However, more work is necessary before we can confirm the validity of this interpretation, as there could have been other reasons for the construction of the arch.


Fourth Phase of the Bar Kokhba Revolt 134-136 CE

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View of the ruins of Herodium, Jewish 22 BCE-135 CE, Via Wikimedia Commons


With the newly arrived reinforcements, the tide of the Bar Kokhba Revolt began to swing in favor of Rome. Slowly and methodically, the Romans ground down and eliminated the smaller fortresses and hideout systems of the towns and villages. In 135 CE, the city of Herodium, which had been an important Jewish stronghold, also fell to the Romans. By this point, the campaign to put down the Bar Kokhba Revolt had become a campaign of annihilation. In response to the loss of territory, Simon Bar Kokhba and his forces retreated to the fortress of Betar. The Legio V Macedonica and Legio XI Claudia were tasked with reducing the fortress. This was accomplished by building a wall of circumvallation and then breaching the walls. According to Jewish tradition, the fortress fell on the fast of Tisha B’av, the ninth day of the lunar month of Av, which is a day of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples.


The Rabbinical tradition ascribes the defeat to Simon bar Kokhba, having executed his uncle as a suspected collaborator. In doing so, he had forfeited divine protection. Once inside the walls of Betar, the Romans ruthlessly massacred all of those they came across. The fate of Simon bar Kokhba is unclear. One tradition has him dying of a snakebite or other natural causes during the siege, while the other has him executed by the Jewish Sanhedrin, an assembly of elders, as a false messiah. It is also said that his severed head was presented to Hadrian after the siege.



womens effects cave of letters
Women’s Effects from the Cave of Letters, Jewish 132-135 CE, Via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


Following the fall of Betar, Roman forces, primarily the Legio III Cyrenaica, went on a systematic killing spree destroying every village in the region. Eight leading members of the Sanhedrin, including Rabbi Akiva were executed in the most brutal ways possible. It was reported that 50 fortresses and cities, and another 985 villages and towns were destroyed. Today no village in the region that has been excavated does not bear signs of being destroyed during the Bar Kokhba Revolt. It was also reported that some 580,000 people were killed in the fighting, a high number but one that is plausible. Many others died of starvation, disease, or were sold into slavery. There were so many Jewish slaves that the market temporarily collapsed. Those who were not sold into slavery were forcibly deported.


In putting down the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Romans had suffered extraordinarily high casualties and as a result Jewish political and religious authority was suppressed more brutally than before. Torah Law and the Hebrew calendar were prohibited, Jewish scholars were executed, the province of Judea was renamed Syria Palaestina, and Jews were forbidden from entering the new city of Aelia Capitolina. Upon the Temple Mount, Hadrian built a temple to Jupiter where he ceremonially burned the scrolls of Jewish Law and had statues of himself and Jupiter installed. The Jewish communities of Samaria and Galilee, which had supported the Bar Kokhba Revolt without becoming directly involved were also punished.


Legacy of the Bar Kokhba Revolt 

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Hanukkah Lamp with Bar Kokhba Coins along its base, Jewish 1914-1929 CE, Via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


The disastrous end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt brought about major changes in Jewish religious thought. Jewish messianism became more abstract and spiritualized, where it had been understood in a more literal manner. In line with this change, the name Simon bar Kokhba does not appear in the Talmund. Instead, he is referred to as Simon bar Koziba or “son of the lie,” to indicate that he was a false messiah. In the aftermath of the First Roman-Jewish War (66-73 CE), Rabbinic Judaism had become a portable religion centered on synagogues, which became crucial following the increased Jewish diaspora. During the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Jewish Christians had been persecuted by both sides, but especially by the followers of Simon bar Kokhba. As a result, the Jewish Christians began to further distance themselves and move towards becoming their own religion. Rabbinical political thought became more cautious and conservative as well, focused on trying to rebuild and protect the community.


In the post-rabbinical modern era, the Bar Kokhba Revolt has become a symbol of valiant national resistance and pride. The Zionist youth movement Betar took its name from Simon Bar Kokhba’s last stronghold, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, took his Hebrew last name from one of the rebel generals, and the revolt is memorialized in song and public monuments. However, the scars of the failed Bar Kokhba Revolt still dot the land. Modern archaeological excavations of sites such as the Cave of Horrors, where the remains of 40 men, women, and children who were refugees from the fighting bear grim witness to the dire consequences of the revolt.

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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.