True wisdom comes to each of us
when we realize how little we
understand about life, ourselves,
and the world around us.
when we realize how little we
understand about life, ourselves,
and the world around us.
Image from Wikipedia
Jerusalem is the center of three major monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But few cities in the world have been attacked as much as Jerusalem has throughout history. The Israelites under King David, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, and various groups of Muslims have fought for, and many times conquered, Jerusalem all for their own reasons. In 70 A.D., the Romans attacked Jerusalem when the Jews of Judea rebelled against the Roman Empire for the first time. The catastrophic siege that occurred towards the end of the Jews’ first revolt against Rome is the subject of this post.
In 66 A.D., the Jews launched a revolt against the Roman Empire that had ruled Israel ever since 63 B.C. From 63 B.C. to 66 A.D. the Romans’ administration of the province of Judea became increasingly tyrannical (Telushkin, 1991). Those appointed by Rome to rule Judea were procurators who were required by Rome to collect and bring an annual tax, given to them by the Jews, to the empire. If the procurator ever raised the tax, the Romans allowed him to keep the extra portion. Naturally, the procurators took more than what was required by Rome.
The Jews were also enraged by the fact that the Romans took on the job of choosing who the high priest was. The Romans did this to ensure that the ultimate spiritual leaders of Israel were partners with Rome. In response to these events, Jews who were passionate about Jewish freedom formed fanatical groups of rebels called Zealots.
To add insult to injury, the insane Roman emperor Caligula declared himself to be a god in the year 39 and ordered the nations the Romans ruled to set up a statue, made in his likeness, in every temple throughout the empire. Out of every nation in the empire, the only ones who refused to obey Caligula’s command were the Jews who wouldn’t dare defile the temple of God with a pagan idol. In response to their defiance, Caligula planned to demolish the temple. When they heard this, the Jews sent delegators to soothe his rage. But soon afterwards, Caligula was assassinated (1991).
After decades of experiencing more humiliation from Rome, the Jews exploded in revolt. What caused this explosion was the abusive government of Gessius Florus, who began ruling the province of Judea in 64. In contrast to the Roman procurators that came before him, Gessius Florus, as described by the Jewish historian Josephus, was a procurator who publicly and unashamedly mistreated the Jews (Josephus, 1987). Jospehus describes him as a greedy and deceptive tyrant. For example, he was known for releasing thieves from prison and allowing them to continue their thievery in exchange for a share of the items they stole (Mattis, 1995).
On one occasion he allowed the Greeks to sacrifice birds to their pagan gods at the entrance of a synagogue the Jews were worshipping in. In response to this, the Jews sent men to Florus to request that he rectify the situation. But Florus refused to listen to them and had the Jews that were sent to him imprisoned.
Florus’ oppression was so great that many Jews left Israel and settled in foreign provinces. But the act that launched the revolt in 66 A.D was when Florus stole from the Temple in Jerusalem (2001). Florus sent men to take seventeen talents from the temple’s sacred treasury and claimed the money was for Caesar. The Jewish community of Jerusalem fell into turmoil and mocked Florus for his greed. Florus viewed the Jews’ actions as an act of rebellion and sent soldiers to Jerusalem who arrested and crucified many of the Jews who had criticized him.
This was the last straw for the Jews. Knowing the Romans would eventually try to take control of the heart and soul of their faith, the Temple, the Jewish rebels cut off communications between a Roman fortress and the outer court of the temple to stop Roman soldiers from occupying it (Bruce, 1971). The governor of Syria, Cestus Gallus, sent Neapolitanus, a military tribune, along with King Agrippa, to investigate the rebellion. The Jews were willing to listen to Agrippa. But when he admitted that if they submitted to Rome they would have to submit to Florus, they drove Agrippa out of the city.
One of the Zealot leaders of the revolt, Eleazer ben Simon, convinced the priests to stop offering daily sacrifices for the emperor’s wellbeing (1971). The Romans viewed this as a clear and open sign of revolt. Many of the more moderate citizens desperately tried to put an end to the revolt but support for the revolt spread like wildfire. And in September of 66 A.D. the rebels took the Antonia fortress and killed the Roman garrison there.
Hearing of the success of the rebels in Jerusalem, the Jewish rebels at the famous fortress of Masada marched to Jerusalem under their leader Menahem and took control of the western part of the city (1971). Eleazer was uncomfortable with Menahem being in Jerusalem and Eleazer and Menahem’s forces fought against each other. Menahem was killed and those that survived the fighting went back to Masada and were able to defend it against the Romans until the year 73 A.D.
In November of 66, Cestus Gallus marched from Syria with his legionnaires to Jerusalem. But when he discovered that he was unable to beat the rebels with his forces, he turned back (1971). As he and his forces returned, rebels ambushed and slaughtered them at the Pass of Beth-Horon. With this victory, the Jews became more confident that they could defeat Rome. Unfortunately, this was the only time when the revolt was ever truly victorious.
To stop the turmoil that was occurring in Jerusalem, Emperor Nero sent the Roman general Titus Flavius Vespasianus, or Vespasian for short, to crush the rebellion (Christianity Today, 1990). Under Vespasian, the Romans returned to Palestine with sixty thousand professional troops and first conquered Galilee, a hotbed of Jewish zealotry, and either killed or enslaved one hundred thousand Jews. Vespasian then went on to conquer the Transjordan, Peraea, western Judea, Idumea, and he eventually encircled Jerusalem. But when Nero committed suicide in the year 68, Vespasian stopped his operations in Palestine for a year and waited for instructions from Nero’s successor. The rebels thought the chaos that came about in the Roman Empire after Nero’s death, namely the Year of Four Emperors, was a sure sign that they would come out as the victors of the siege. But their hopes were ultimately shattered by their own internal division.
The city was divided into three parts. John of Gischala had six thousand zealots that controlled part of the lower city and the temple court (Witherington, 2001). Eleazer ben Simon, had two thousand four hundred zealots that controlled the temple’s inner court. And the third zealot leader, Simon ben Gioras, had fifteen thousand zealots that controlled the upper city and part of the lower city. These three factions constantly fought each other and killed any Jewish leaders who didn’t agree with their fanaticism.
In the year 69, Vespasian restarted his operations in Palestine (1971). But in the summer of that year, he was proclaimed emperor by his troops in Egypt and Judea and left for Rome when his supporters took control it. So Vespasian ordered his son, Titus, to finish the siege.
To plan his attack on the city, Titus took six hundred cavalry within range of the city to examine the city’s defenses. But rebels came out of the city and attacked Titus’s cavalry, and he barely escaped with his life. During this time, Titus sent the Jewish scholar and historian Josephus, who was captured after he fought against the Romans at Jotapata, to plead with the zealots for their surrender. But he was ignored (2001).
The siege began in April of the year 70 (1971). When they used a battering ram named Victor, the legionaries broke down the outer wall in fourteen days. The second wall took only five days to break down.
While this occurred, Jews within Jerusalem and Romans outside Jerusalem committed atrocities for various reasons (2001). The rebels killed anyone who tried to desert them. And the Romans crucified any Jews they captured and amused themselves by nailing the prisoners in different positions on their crosses. There were so many prisoners that the Romans couldn’t make enough crosses for their bodies!
When the Romans managed to break down the third wall, and another wall that John of Gischala had built, ferocious fighting ensued between the Romans and the Jews as the Romans fought their way towards the temple. The Jews failed to hold them back, and the angry Roman legionnaires set the Temple on fire. Thus, the Romans became the victors of the siege of Jerusalem.
For the Romans, their defeat of the first Jewish revolt was a victory that brought more glory to their ruthless empire. Witherington writes that even though Josephus tried to portray Titus as a moderate ruler, historians know that he used some Jewish prisoners from the revolt as entertainment for the Romans in gladiatorial games (2001).
Yet for the Jews, the siege was one of the most tragic events in their history. It is believed that as many as one million Jews died in the siege. Because of this, Telushkin wrote that the siege of Jerusalem was a catastrophe almost as horrific as the Holocaust itself. The destruction of Jerusalem marked the end of Israel’s identity as a nation until the rather recent year of 1947. And the destruction of the Temple brought about the end of what they considered to be the heart of their faith. Because of this, they were forced to refocus their faith in synagogues. Today, all that is left of the Second Temple is one outer wall from the temple’s courtyard that many call the Wailing Wall.
A.D. 70 Titus Destroys Jerusalem. (1990, October 1). Retrieved October 9, 2013, from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1990/issue28/2808.html
Bruce, F.F. (1971). New Testament History. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Josephus, T. F. (1987). The Works of Josephus. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
Mattis, R. L. (2006, July 31). First Jewish-Roman War. Retrieved November 4, 2013, from http://www.historynet.com/first-jewish-roman-war.htm
Telushkin, J. (n.d.). Ancient Jewish History: The Great Revolt. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/revolt.html
Witherington III, B. (2001). New Testament History: A Narrative Account. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
My name is Jacob Stubbs. I have a bachelor's degree in English from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and I am a writer an an artist.