During a span of seven decades across the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Jewish people challenged Roman power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Roman-Jewish wars were the backdrop for some of the most dramatic and tragic episodes from ancient history, from the sack of Jerusalem to the siege at Masada.
In three separate insurrections, the Jews revolted against Rome and its religious impositions. For the Romans, the wars in Judaea offered the chance for riches and fame. But where there was glory for a fortunate few, others lost everything.
Prelude to the Roman-Jewish Wars: Judea and the Roman Republic
The province of Judaea was situated in the Levant, in the eastern Mediterranean. It had first seriously entered the Roman political consciousness in the middle of the 1st century BCE. The Roman Republic’s most capable commander, Pompey the Great, had been busy quelling considerable unrest in the eastern Mediterranean. Top of his priorities was bringing an end to the Third Mithridatic War, finally ending the reign of Mithridates VI of Pontus, who had shown the temerity to challenge Roman power on three separate occasions! In the east, Pompey consolidated Roman control, defeating Albanians, Armenians, and Jews who opposed him. This included the siege and sack of Jerusalem in 63 BCE.
Ostensibly, Pompey had been invited to Judaea to intervene in a dispute between two rival sons – Hyrcanus and Aristobulus – over the inheritance of the Hasmonean throne. Angered by the perceived impertinence of Aristobulus, Pompey marched on Jerusalem and ransacked the city. It took three months to breach the walls and overrun the Temple precinct, and the protracted siege resulted in the death of some 12,000 Jews. Pompey himself entered the Temple’s Holy of Holies (hitherto the exclusive privilege of the high priest). Although this desecrated the Temple, Pompey otherwise showed considerable respect: no treasures were looted to be included within his Triumph, for instance, and he was quick to allow rituals to be resumed within the Temple.
Judea and the First Roman Emperors: Rising Antagonism
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Pompey’s siege and sack of Jerusalem brought an end to the political autonomy of the Hasmonean Dynasty. From now on, their power and influence would be dependent on the Romans. The region of Judaea was incorporated within the Roman province of Syria, while Hyrcanus was allowed to retain the title of high priest but not king. The first Roman procurator of the province (the administrator responsible for a province’s finances) was Antipater, who was appointed by Julius Caesar. His son, Herod, would be designated King of the Jews by the Romans in 40 BCE; he would also later be known as Herod the Great. In the Christian faith, this Herod is the notorious ruler of Judaea who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents at the time of Christ’s birth, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.
However, the inherent risk of dynastic succession (that a son might fall significantly short of his father’s example), provoked Roman intervention in the region within a few short decades. Archelaus, the third son of Herod and the ruler of Judea, proved so incompetent a ruler that his own people appealed to the Romans for support. The first emperor, Augustus, had Archelaus removed in 6 CE. Although the region had little to offer the empire in terms of wealth, Judaea did offer control of the land and sea routes to Egypt, the all-important imperial ‘breadbasket’. For a period, the Jews of Judaea even enjoyed a degree of freedom in the province, and they were able to administer their own laws.
However, tensions began to simmer toward the middle years of the 1st century CE. A particular flashpoint was the order of Emperor Caligula to have a statue of himself erected in the Temple of Jerusalem, a sacrilegious act that flew right in the face of the monotheistic Jewish faith. The legate in command of Syria was, fortunately, shrewd enough to recognize the emperor’s order for the provocation it was. Delaying the implementation of the order in 37 CE, he was able to hold off long enough for the emperor to be convinced to rescind the order. The next time Caligula ordered a statue to be placed within the Temple, the situation was becalmed by the timely murder of the emperor instead! Still, this ‘Caligula crisis’ was an early warning that tensions between the Romans and the Jewish people were beginning to fester dangerously…
The First Jewish-Roman War, 66-73 CE
The First Jewish-Roman War began in 66 CE. There was far from a single catalyst for war, rather the progressive escalation of antagonisms that eventually erupted into a wider conflict. However, the consequences of the war would be profound.
In 66 CE, religious tensions between the Jews and the Romans descended into violence, including protests against taxation and attacks on Roman citizens. The Roman decision to sack the Second Temple (built by Herod the Great) and execute several thousand Jews in Jerusalem was the spark that led to outright rebellion. Roman power was badly shaken. Not only was the pro-Roman king (Herod Agrippa II) forced to flee, but some 6,000 Romans were massacred at the Battle of Beth Horon; worse still, the legionary standards were lost. To quash the Jewish rebellion, the Romans called on the experienced general, Vespasian.
With his son, Titus, in tow as second in command, Vespasian — who had a colorful career that encompassed the campaigns in Britain — invaded Judaea in 67 CE. With four legions and the support of soldiers loyal to the Judaean king, Vespasian, and Titus began a campaign to eradicate clusters of rebels rather than launching a frontal assault on the heavily defended city of Jerusalem. The narrative of the war was altered significantly when Vespasian had to depart the campaign suddenly in 68/9 CE. Back in Rome, the vilified emperor Nero had committed suicide and rivals now moved to fill the power vacuum left by the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors: this was the year of the four emperors.
While Vespasian would emerge from this struggle for imperial power victorious, back in Judaea, Titus moved to bring the war to a rapid conclusion. He led the Roman forces into a siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. A deceptively successful start belied the challenge the Romans faced – although the first two defensive walls around the city were breached relatively quickly, the third and final defensive circuit was much more formidable. The inhabitants of Jerusalem eventually endured a seven-month siege before the Romans finally managed to overcome the beleaguered, weakened defenders. According to Suetonius, Titus himself was particularly bloodthirsty during the assault, slaying a dozen defenders with his bow. The sack of Jerusalem effectively brought an end to the first Roman-Jewish war. While Titus left Judaea to join his father in Rome, the remaining Roman forces in the region were tasked with wiping out the final pockets of Jewish resistance.
Consequences of the First Jewish-Roman War
The Roman victory over the Jews had a profound impact, felt keenly both in Judaea as well as in Rome. For the Jewish population, the war had been devastating. Thousands had perished in the fighting, while countless others were enslaved, sold, and shipped around the empire. The most significant Jewish city, Jerusalem, was annihilated. Vespasian also settled veterans of the conflict in Judaea at Colonia Amosa, as well as garrisoning a legion (Legio X Fretensis) in Jerusalem on a permanent basis, providing a clear statement of Rome’s commitment to keeping the Jews firmly under control.
For the victorious Romans, the successes in Judaea filled the imperial coffers and provided the nascent Flavian dynasty of Vespasian with a golden opportunity. Having come to power on the back of a civil war, Vespasian was able to use the riches won in Jerusalem to present his reign as a renewal of Roman dignity and propriety, to legitimize his authority, and to secure support for his sons. His military successes marked him out as a leader who was antithetical to the dramatic and debauched Nero, whose memory was condemned. Likewise, Titus’ success in the sack of Jerusalem led to the award of a Triumph in Rome and two triumphal arches. One of these, by the Circus Maximus, has been lost, but the other, on the Via Sacra, remains standing to this day.
Just as significant was how Vespasian used the riches plundered from Judaea. His predecessor Nero had lost favour with the Senate and people of Rome due to his megalomaniac tendencies. Perhaps the most notorious of these was the construction of his Domus Aurea, or Golden House, in central Rome. This palatial residence ate up huge swathes of public land and included the construction of a vast man-made lake. During his reign, Vespasian made a conscious effort to “return” this land to the Roman people: on the site of Nero’s lake, he built the empire’s largest amphitheater. Named the Flavian Amphitheatre, you probably know it by its other name: the Colosseum. The Colosseum was adorned with a dedicatory inscription that made clear that this vast public monument was paid for with the spoils of Vespasian’s war in Judaea.
Writing Jewish History in the Roman Empire: Flavius Josephus
“The war which the Jews made with the Romans has been the greatest of all.” So begins one of the most intriguing sources to have survived from antiquity: The Jewish War, by Flavius Josephus. The historical writings of Josephus provide invaluable evidence for the First Roman-Jewish War. Part of the importance of this history derives from the identity of the historian himself: Josephus was a Jew.
Born Yosef ben Matityahu in Jerusalem around 37 CE, Josephus had originally fought against the Roman forces led by Vespasian and Titus. As a commander of Jewish forces, however, he had been compelled to surrender to the Romans in 67 CE after the siege of Yodfat. According to Josephus’ own account, the survivors at the besieged city drew lots, each man killing the other in turn. Josephus was one of the two who survived the collective suicide and surrendered to the Romans. It then appears that the canny Josephus spied salvation in sycophancy: presented to Vespasian, he claimed the gift of prophecy and foresaw Vespasian becoming emperor. Appeased, Josephus was spared and became a slave in the imperial entourage until he was freed upon Vespasian’s accession as emperor in 69 CE – which he had accurately foreseen, after all.
By this time, Josephus was in the full employ of the Romans and accompanied Titus to the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. With the emperor’s son, who he served as a translator, Josephus was a keen observer of the war. His narrative of the war, which begins with a summary of Jewish history from the Hellenistic period, was probably written around 75 CE. First written in Josephus’ native tongue, the version that has survived into modernity is the ancient Greek translation. Alongside Tacitus’ Histories, the Jewish Talmud, and material culture (including Jewish coinage), Josephus’ narrative is a crucial source for the First Roman-Jewish War. Because of the text’s focus on Jewish history, it continued to be of interest to audiences long after the fall of the Roman Empire.
The Kitos War
The Second Jewish War, also known as the Kitos War or ‘Rebellion of the Exiles’, is rather overshadowed by the two conflicts that occurred before and after. The conflict broke out in 115 CE, coinciding with Trajan’s campaign against the Parthian Empire. With Roman attention concentrated on the expansion of the empire’s eastern frontiers, unrest among Jewish communities in Cyrenaica, Cyprus, Egypt, and Mesopotamia erupted into violence. Across these regions, Roman garrisons and citizens were slaughtered by the rebels. The bloodshed is luridly narrated by Cassius Dio, the Greek senatorial historian of the early 3rd century, who describes cannibalism and grotesque torture, as well as a staggering (and surely fictitious) 220,000 casualties!
The rebels were eventually defeated, primarily through the efforts of Lusius Quietus (whose name was given — in corrupted form — the conflict). The decisive blow was struck with the siege and sack of the city of Lydda (modern Lod) in Judaea. Although the rebellion had been crushed for now, tensions in Judaea remained high into the reign of Trajan’s successor, Hadrian.
The Third Roman-Jewish War: Emperor Hadrian and the Bar Kokhba Revolt
In the aftermath of the first two Roman-Jewish wars, the imposition of Roman control over life in Judaea had progressively increased. A large military presence was maintained in the region (although this was probably also done in case of Parthian aggression), while there were also policies that encroached on sacred Jewish traditions.
A significant one of these occurred with the visit of the itinerant emperor Hadrian in 129-130 CE and the decision to found a new colony — Aelia Capitolina — on the site of Jerusalem. More inflammatory still, a temple of Jupiter was dedicated on the site of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount where, prior to Titus’ sack of the city, the Second Temple had once stood. A carefully calculated rebellion erupted in 132 CE, led by the charismatic Simon bar Kokhba (the Third Jewish War is sometimes called the Bar Kokhba War). The Jews were initially successful, inflicting damaging casualties on the Romans and bloodying the nose of the Legio X Fretensis at Aelia Capitolina. Bar Kokhba’s raids were so successful to begin with that the Romans were driven from areas of Judaea. This allowed the Jews to establish an independent region of their own, leading to Bar Kokhba being hailed as a messianic figure.
The Jewish successes against the Romans could not be sustained, however, and soon more legionary forces poured into Judaea from neighboring provinces. Hadrian’s masterstroke was to summon the experienced general, Sextus Julius Severus, from his post in Britannia. He arrived in Judaea in 133-4 CE, backed by an expansive army of well-drilled soldiers. Severus’ forces chipped away at the Jewish rebels, forcing them finally to withdraw to the fortress of Betar in 135 CE. When the Romans eventually breached the walls, the slaughter that followed was horrific, with the Jewish Talmud presenting a particularly harrowing account of the massacre of the Jewish defenders.
A People Punished: The Aftermath of the Jewish-Roman Wars
The defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt extinguished Jewish resistance to Roman imperial might. Seeking vengeance for the bloodshed, the imperialists responded by wiping out whole swathes of Jewish communities. According to Cassius Dio, “fifty of their most important outposts and nine hundred and eighty-five of their most famous villages were razed to the ground”, while countless numbers were lost to the wars, and the famines and disease that followed. Many others, it should be said, were sold into slavery, dispersing the Jewish people far from their homeland. Judaea was devastated and left desolate.
The Romans themselves were evidently keen to obliviate any legacy of the Jewish insurrections. The Jewish people were displaced and replaced by a cosmopolitan mix of inhabitants from across the empire. Edicts issued by Hadrian restricted Jewish religious worship, and Jewish literature was burned. To reaffirm Roman power, statues of himself and of Jupiter were erected on the Temple Mount. Perhaps most significant was the loss of identity. The region of Judaea itself was subsumed into a re-imagined provincial map and it would now be a part of Syria-Palestina, while Jerusalem remained — officially at least — Aelia Capitolina.
Expelled from their homeland, forbidden to enter their most sacred city, and with their religion heavily repressed, the Romans strove to expel from memory the legacy of a culture and a people that had so dangerously challenged the might of the empire.