First Romano-Jewish War

The Romans first occupied Judea in 63 BC and it was to remain a province of the Roman Empire for the next 350 years yet few of her conquered territories was ever as fractious as Judea despite the fact that many Jews were happy to co-operate with their occupiers and prosper under their rule. Others however were determined to resist, the problem was that they disagreed with each other more than they ever disagreed with the Romans.

An uneasy occupation was made worse by the Roman’s contempt for a conquered people who dared to not only consider themselves civilised but were devoted to their absurd monotheistic religion and they suffered frequent indignities at Roman hands including their soldiers exposing themselves at Jewish Religious Festivals and being regularly mocked and jeered at as they left the Jewish Temple. But the major Roman preoccupation was raising taxes, and they exploited the Jewish people mercilessly.

To help facilitate the process of asset stripping, at which the Romans excelled, they co-opted the wealthier and most respected members of Jewish society to do their dirty work for them appointing the Priesthood from among their more trusted acolytes and collaborators.

In Jerusalem the soon to depart Roman Procurator Gellius Florus, had entered the Jewish Temple and helped himself to those valuables that took his fancy claiming that they were gifts for the Emperor when all knew it was his own pockets he was lining.

This was an outrageous violation of Jewish sensibilities and tensions rose as Florus was abused and jeered at in the streets. Roman officials did not appreciate being ridiculed and the small Roman garrison in Jerusalem was reinforced and then used to round up Jewish leaders known to oppose Roman rule who were later executed.

As a result the Jewish people rose up and wiped out the garrison.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, who is considered by many Jews to have been a traitor and a collaborator, the revolt actually broke out in AD 66 in the region of Caesaria and was provoked by Greeks who were seen to be disrespectfully sacrificing birds outside a Synagogue during an important religious ceremony, but he may have been trying to apportion blame for the future troubles elsewhere.

Judea, which was always a place of heightened tension had reached boiling point.

Violence soon became commonplace and Greeks were physically attacked on the streets.

At first, the Romans were left alone but the violence soon spread and it was no longer safe for Roman citizens to leave their homes.

And in Elianza ben Simon, also known as Hariana, the rebels were to find a leader.

As the violence spread the Jewish puppet King Agrippa II, perhaps knowing his people only too well, fled to the Roman camp.

The Roman Governor of nearby Syria, Cestius Gallus, faced by a similar revolt decided to quell it by force.

His attempt to do so however ended disastrously when his legions were routed at the Battle of Beth Horon.

It now dawned on the Romans that this was more than a little local difficulty and as they scrambled around for a response the rebellion quickly spread.

The Emperor Nero, for whom the running of his Empire was a distraction from his artistic endeavours and an inconvenience now dismissed Gallus and appointed General Vespasian to crush the revolt.

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Vespasian had previously been in disgrace for failing to stay awake during one Nero’s interminable performances now was his opportunity to win back the Emperor’s favour and he was determined to grasp it with both hands.

With his son Titus and an army of 60,000 men, many of whom were Jews loyal to Agrippa he began his campaign by crushing the revolt in the north.

In this initial campaign he was largely unopposed as the local Jews were in dispute with each other, unable to unite, and most of the Jewish towns surrendered without a fight.

There was now much talk within the Jewish leadership about seeking a negotiated settlement with the Romans and proposals were set forth mostly made by the northern leaders who had just seen their territories conquered.

Aware of this members of the Sicarii, so named for the daggers they kept concealed in their cloaks for the purpose of assassination intercepted their convoy as they fled south and murdered them.

The fanatical Sicarii would not countenance anything other than a Judea free of the foreign presence and they would not tolerate any suggestion of talks, and would kill anyone who advocated such.

The Sicarii, along with the more political Zealots who took their inspiration from the Talmud and religious texts had no doubts as to the righteousness of their cause and believed that any means were justified in the pursuit of Jewish political and religious freedom.

Indeed, it has been suggested by some that the Sicarii were a splinter group of the Zealots who believed that they had been compromised by their pursuit of power and not just freedom.

Even so, despite the fanaticism of the Sicarii and the Zealots the rebellion in Galilee was easily crushed.

Josephus reported that as many as 100,000 Jews were killed or sold into slavery.

In the meantime, events had taken a dramatic turn back in Rome.

In AD 68, the Emperor Nero had been forced to flee the city and commit suicide.

His successor was the veteran General Galba, but he was to reign only a few months when his attempt to root out corruption and restore discipline in the army led to him being murdered by his own troops.

Learning of the events in the capital of the Empire the ambitious Vespasian immediately set off for Rome with the intention of taking the Imperial Purple for himself.

He assigned to his son Titus, the task of crushing the Jews.

The Romans continued their advance on Jerusalem almost unopposed, as the Jews were still too busy killing each other.

By AD 69 the Romans stood outside the city walls and Jerusalem was effectively under siege.

The Jewish leadership had been expecting this and had made provision for a long siege. Arms had been stashed and food stockpiled.

The Zealots, learning of this destroyed the stockpile of food believing that it undermined the Jewish peoples’ willingness to fight.

It was an act of madness and one they would soon come to regret.

For Titus was methodical in his approach to warfare and was in no rush to storm the city.

On 21 December, AD 69, Vespasian was made Emperor of Rome following the defeat of his rival Vitellius in battle the previous day.

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When the news reached Titus he was elated – he would take and sack Jerusalem for the greater glory of his father, his family, of Rome, and of himself.

As the Romans lay siege to Jerusalem the people within starved. But as they desperately sought any means of sustenance merely to survive a murderous and suicidal civil war was taking place around them.

Many Jews tried to flee the city but those who succeeded were invariably captured by the Romans who had them killed as rebels.

Those who failed to escape were killed by the Zealots and the Sicarii as traitors for doing so.

By the summer of AD 70, The Romans were making incursions into Jerusalem but they were made to pay a heavy price as the Jews fought ferociously for every inch of their city.

But though the fighting was fierce there was little organised defence for when they weren’t distracted fighting the Romans the factions within Jerusalem continued to battle amongst themselves.

It wasn’t until the fall of Jerusalem appeared imminent that the two Zealot leaders Elia ben Simon and John of Gischala, and the Sicarii leader Simon bar Giora, at last buried their differences and joined forces.

But it was too late the walls of the city had already been breached and Roman soldiers were flooding into its streets.

In these last desperate hours all the people of Jerusalem took up arms, women and children as well as men.

Often armed only with sticks and stones they defended their streets and their homes like furies but it was less like a battle than it was a massacre.

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On 29 July, the Jewish Temple, the Holy Shrine of the Israelites, was ransacked and destroyed despite Titus ordering its preservation.

It was never to be rebuilt.

Simon bar Giora, who had led the defence of the Temple, died in the fighting.

John of Gischala escaped and was to surrender himself to Agrippa II and spend the rest of his life in prison.

Those Sicarii who escaped in those frantic last hours of fighting fled to the fortress of Masada.

Masada was a formidable structure that stood atop an 1800 foot high plateau and it was to be here that the last great drama of the Jewish Revolt was to be played out, but not just yet.

First Titus was to ruthlessly re-impose Roman rule.

Those captured who were believed to have been involved in the revolt were executed and their families sold into slavery.

The Jews would also have to pay a huge indemnity for the cost of the war as well as seeing the centre of their cultural and religious life destroyed.

Laden with booty and slaves Titus now returned to Rome in triumph, the worthy son to a new Emperor whom he would succeed in AD 79.

In AD 72, the new Governor of Judea, Lucius Flavius Silva decided to eradicate the last bolt-hole of resistance to Roman rule.

He marched with his Legions on Masada.

The Jews in Masada did nothing to impede the Roman advance instead occupying, themselves with attacking nearby towns they thought had collaborated with the Romans killing many hundreds of their own people in the process.

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The Fortress of Masada was commanded by Eleazor ben Ya’ir (who many believe to have been Eleazor ben Simon).

Those within the fortress were thought to have numbered around 950, mostly women and children.

The climb to Masada was steep and arduous and the defenders had blocked the paths ensuring that any advance was undertaken under a hail of missiles which despite the Romans adoption of the testudo, or shield shell for protection, caused many casualties.

So the Romans instead would scale ramparts of their own construction to reach the fortress.

As such, the siege was to last for two months even though the defenders were slight in number.

In the meantime, the Sicarii were able to repulse a number of half-hearted assaults but they knew that a full-scale attack with all the forces at the Romans disposal was imminent.

Rather than permit the Romans the triumph of taking Masada by force of arms Eleazor ben Ya’ir gathered the people together and ordered that they must now take their own lives.

The mass-suicide would show the Romans that they would rather die than acknowledge defeat and witness the elimination of their religion.

But suicide is anathema to Judaism and so to overcome this difficulty Eliazer ben Ya’ir had the people draw lots to see who would kill whom.

When the Romans advanced on Masada they met no resistance.

On entering the fortress they found just 2 women and 5 children alive.

These they sold into slavery.

The Jewish attempt to throw off the yoke of Roman rule had failed, but it was not to be their last attempt to do so.

In AD 131, the Emperor Hadrian visited the ruins of Jerusalem and decided that the best thing for Judea would be for it to be Romanised.

The Jews resisted for four long, bloody, years but by the end of the Second Roman-Jewish War, Hadrian had completed the work begun by Vespasian and Titus.

Some 50 towns had been destroyed, 985 villages razed to the ground, and 500,000 Jews killed.

The Jewish Sacred Scroll Hadrian had ceremonially burned on Temple Mount, the Jewish Scholars he had executed.

Judea was renamed Palaestinia and Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina.

By the time the war ended in AD 136, the Jews no longer had a homeland.

It was the beginning of the Jewish diaspora.

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