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Roman takeover

In AD 6, Judaea was made a full Roman province, although the Jews were allowed to keep their own laws, customs and religion - and the right to local self-government. Herod's son, also Herod, was made governor of Galilee to the north of the country. While Herod the son was in charge there were frequent anti-Roman disturbances; two leaders associated by the government with Jewish freedom movements, Yohanan (known as “the Baptist”) and Yehoshua of Nazareth, were executed.

Jews living outside Judaea (“the diaspora”) were allowed to pay an annual tax for the upkeep of the Temple. By now Jews living in Parthia (descended from those original captives taken to Babylon), Egypt, Rome and elsewhere in the Roman empire vastly outnumbered those in Judaea. But the new Temple in Jerusalem gave them hope that one day they might return …

Sixty years of 'peace' (6BC - 66AD)

In Judaea, harsh government had become normal: first the Maccabees, then Herod and his family, and now the Romans. The people were bitterly divided: by class, politics and religion. Josephus (who is our main source) was a Jew from the upper class which approved of the Romans, who kept them in power. Several Judaean groups opposed the Romans: the Zealots were a traditionalist religious sect, who hated the Jewish aristocracy and high priesthood (for whom Josephus spoke), as much as they did the Romans. They were founded in AD 6 to oppose the Roman census. As well being anti-Roman they believed that there should be no ruler of Judaea except God. A more extremist group were called sicarii by Josephus. They carried a sica (dagger) to produce terror among their enemies, including other Jews.

After Herod the Great's death in 4 BC, there was anarchy for a time, but the Romans soon restored order. From the Roman point of view, Judaea stayed mostly peaceful for the next 60 years.

There were occasional flare-ups between rival Jewish groups, and in AD 40, the emperor Caligula nearly caused a major revolt when he tried to insist on having his statue erected in the Temple:

The governor asked “Will you declare war on the emperor?” The Jews replied that they performed a sacrifice twice every day for Caesar and the Roman people, but that if Caligula wanted to set up these statues, he must first sacrifice the entire Jewish nation; they offered themselves, their wives and their children to be slaughtered …"Philo of Alexandria, On the Embassy to Gaius XXX.203.

Pilate's ring

Pontius Pilate's ring.

But the Romans backed down, and a few cohorts remained enough to keep control. They were happy to send their less competent governors to Judaea: but at first even they failed to cause any sustained anti-Roman reaction from the Jews. One became famous : Pontius Pilatus, in charge from AD 26 - 36. Tacitus, telling of the great fire in Rome of AD 64 , for which the emperor Nero was being blamed says:

Therefore to stop the rumours, Nero rounded up suspects, and tortured them: using every refinement. These people were commonly known as “Christians”, and were detested for their criminal activities. Their name comes from Christus, who was put to death when Tiberius was emperor [14 to 37 AD], by the governor Pontius Pilatus. This obnoxious faith, though temporarily crushed, became popular again: and not only in Judaea where it all started, but even in Rome: that sewer into which everything nasty and disreputable continually flows from the rest of the world. A huge number were arrested. Their execution was turned into an entertainment; they were dressed up in animal skins to be torn to bits by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set alight and used as night-time illumination.Tacitus, Annals 15.44

There were plenty of minor incidents, many of which led to bloodshed. For example, when, during the Jewish Passover festival, a Roman soldier exposed his backside and let out a fart, troops had to be called in: the crowd panicked and, according to Josephus, a large number were crushed to death in the narrow streets. But on the whole, the Jews were no trouble to the Roman occupation, and were allowed complete freedom of worship, and other privileges: for example, local coins had no human figures on them, showing sensitivity to the Jewish religion's ban on images.

The insurgency AD 66

Over the years, however, the corruption and incompetence of the Roman administration, particularly their failure to control the sicarii who seemed to be able to rob and murder the rich as they pleased, and the difficulty of getting their complaints listened to, made the Jewish leaders more and more exasperated. Things came to a head in AD 66. Some non-Jews in Caesarea provoked a riot by sacrificing a cockerel outside a synagogue. The governor, Florus, did nothing. When he came to Jerusalem to help himself to cash from the Temple, he was met by an angry mob. Florus, according to Josephus:

… outraged at this, shouted to his troops to attack the upper market, and kill everyone they met. Greedy for loot, they welcomed their leader's orders and plundered not just the place they were told to, but broke into the houses and slaughtered anyone inside them. In the narrow alleys there was panic : and murder. There was robbery and looting of every kind. They arrested a large number of decent citizens, and took them before Florus. He had them whipped before crucifying them. The total number of victims, including women and children - not even babies were spared - was about 3,600. What made the disaster worse was a new type of Roman outrage: Florus did what no one had done before, flogging and nailing to the cross men of equestrian rank. They may have been Jews by birth, but they had the status of Roman citizens.Josephus,Jewish War 2.305

A young Jewish priest called Eleazar persuaded his colleagues to stop sacrificing to the Jewish God in the name of the Roman emperor. This was a declaration of war by the normally pro-Roman ruling class. A free, Jewish state was proclaimed, and silver coins were minted. They are dated year 1, year 2 etc. They are called shekels. Their inscriptions are in Hebrew, not Greek. They have slogans such as “Freedom of Zion” - and their state is no longer Judaea - but Israel.

Shekel of Eleazar

Despite help from nearby Syria, the Romans did not have enough troops to crush the rebels, even though many Jews, especially the wealthier ones, stayed loyal. Josephus, however, joined the revolution, and became commander of Galilee. The pro-Roman Jews were led by Agrippa, great-grandson of Herod. According to Josephus, he made a speech urging the Jews to stick with Rome:

You trust the walls of Jerusalem. Consider what a defensive wall the British had. They are surrounded by sea : an island much the same size as our country. Even so, the Romans sailed across that sea and made them slaves. Four legions now garrison that huge island ... Why, when virtually every nation under the sun bows down to the power of Rome, are you the only ones to fight against them? Do you not remember the fate of the Carthaginians, who, in spite of their great leader Hannibal, still succumbed to the might of Scipio?Josephus, Jewish War 2.378

Atrocities continued, and not just from the Romans. The small Roman garrison in Jerusalem had surrendered to the rebels, who had sworn to let them go peacefully if they laid down their weapons. Josephus:

Eleazar and his men surrounded them. The Romans were massacred: unarmed and defenceless, all they could do was protest about the oaths and the agreement as they were butchered. Only their officer escaped, after he promised to be circumcised and become a Jew. The loss of a few men meant nothing to the Romans, but the Jews were in great distress, realising that the vengeance of Rome would not be long in coming. The moderates were especially upset, realising they would have to pay for the crimes of the rebels. To add to the bad feelings, it all happened on the Sabbath : a day on which Jews are not supposed to perform even innocent actions. At the same time, on the same day, there was a massacre of all the Jews living in Caesarea: 20,000 were slaughtered in an hour, and the city was completely emptied of Jews...Josephus, Jewish War 2.453

The Romans retaliated, and the war spread to Syria. “The whole province was full of indescribable horrors”. In Judaea the Zealots and fanatical sicarii executed anyone who dared to speak of surrender. Obviously the Romans needed to act. In autumn AD 66, Nero sent Vespasian with 60,000 troops - about twice as many as Claudius had needed for the invasion of Britannia.

In AD 68 the reign of emperor Nero - unstable, unpredictable and cruel - was drawing to a close. As an army led by a respected senator, Galba, closed in, he committed suicide. Galba was proclaimed emperor, but soon turned out to be “the emperor with a brilliant future behind him” (or more literally, in Tacitus' words: capax imperii nisi imperasset -  “capable of ruling if he had not become ruler”). Very soon he was under threat from Otho's army, and then Otho was ousted by Vitellius. The “year of the four emperors” revealed that emperors could be created elsewhere than in Rome. Any army commander anywhere in the empire seemed eligible - so why not Vespasian in Judaea? His troops wanted it, and so he departed for Rome, where he supplanted Vitellius, and became emperor himself.

Arch of Titus

Roman soldiers in Titus's triumph parading spoils from the temple in Jerusalem. On the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum. Wikimedia.

He left his son Titus to finish the task in Judaea: only now it wasn't just an obscure general doing some routine police work in a backwater of the empire. Suddenly it became vital for Vespasian to show himself a credible leader. His mediocrity had been one of the reasons Nero had chosen him for the Judaea job. A great victory was called for, and this Titus provided in AD 70. Not only was Judaea captured, with vast loss of life - not just on the rebel side, but the great Temple of Herod was completely destroyed, and systematically looted to provide treasure for Vespasian's triumph. JUDAEA CAPTA became the soundbite which Vespasian and his family never tired of using: on coins, on buildings - everywhere. Josephus describes the final conflagration, after a long and bloody siege:

Judaea Capta


And so, though it was not what Titus wanted, the temple was set on fire. One may admire the accuracy of Destiny's calendar; she waited for the precise day in the exact month when the Temple was burnt before by the Babylonians. Old and young, priests and congregation alike were butchered indiscriminately. The roar of the flames was mixed in with the groans of the dying … the noise was indescribable: Roman soldiers shouting as they moved in for the kill, the insurgents screaming, trapped between the swords and the flames. The people in the city down below could also be heard; starving and emaciated as they were, they found strength to shriek when they realised the Temple was burning. Worse than the noise was the suffering. A wave of flame seemed to engulf the hill, but there was even more blood than fire, more killed than killers. You couldn't see the ground anywhere for the corpses, and the soldiers had to clamber over piles of dead to reach those trying to escape.Josephus, Jewish War 4.266

Titus then ordered the complete destruction of Jerusalem. As a reward for their hard work, his men were given a free hand to loot and murder. Over a million people may have died during the insurgency between AD 66 and 70.

There were still a few pockets of resistance. In AD 73, after Titus had returned to Rome, about 1,000 sicarii led by Eleazar (possibly the same man who began the revolt) occupied the isolated flat-topped rock of Masada near the Dead Sea - where Herod the Great had built a palace and fortress, complete with water supply, food stores (which were still intact after 100 years) and weapons. The Roman general, with 10,000 men, laid siege for two months and then attacked. They discovered that the defenders had committed mass suicide rather than face capture and slavery. The story is only found in Josephus, who says he got it from two women who escaped with their children by hiding in a cistern. Because their religion forbids suicide, Eleazar urged the men to kill their own families, and then each other:

No one was not up to the task: all managed to deal with their loved ones. Despite the horror of it, killing their own wives and children seemed to them the least bad option. Unable to bear the pain of what they had had to do, and not wanting to survive their victims any longer than necessary, they piled their goods up and set fire to them. They then chose ten men by lot to kill the others, and lay down beside their families, ready to have their throats cut. When the ten had completed their wretched task, they again drew lots for one to kill the other nine, and then himself.Josephus, Jewish War 4.393

Masada: Herod's palace in the foreground, and the ramp built by the Romans during the capture on the right.

During Vespasian's own reign and that of his sons, Titus and Domitian, the Jews were treated as a conquered race. They were no longer allowed any say in their own government, and an army was stationed permanently in Jerusalem. There was no question of the temple being rebuilt. They were not allowed to practise their religion. Jews throughout the Roman empire had to pay a special tax: the traditional contribution to the temple was banned. The arch of Titus, still standing in Rome, celebrating the fall of Jerusalem, was actually dedicated by his brother Domitian, over 10 years after the event. Persecution continued through the reign of Trajan (whose father had commanded a legion in the Roman conquest of Judaea), and during Hadrian's rule. Hadrian is often seen as a civilised and cultured ruler (he loved Greece and all things Greek) but towards the Jews he showed the utmost ruthlessness and brutality.

Hadrian, cousin and adopted son of Trajan, faced numerous problems when he became emperor in AD 117. His policy from the start was to consolidate the empire not expand it. Immediately he let go the provinces added by Trajan after his success against the Parthians.

Hadrian's last tour of the provinces (AD 128-129) took in Africa, Mauretania, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria and finally Judaea. Special coins were minted in each province to celebrate his arrival. This was the coin produced in Judaea: it shows Hadrian looking at a female figure; she is “Judaea”. Two children between them hold palms: the usual symbol on coins for Judaea. Hadrian is sacrificing a bull at an altar: normal Roman religious practice.

Coin of Hadrian in Judaea

What is Hadrian's message for the Jews?

According to one writer he even seems to have banned the traditional Jewish practice of circumcision:

The Jews began the war because they were forbidden to mutilate their genitals Historia Augusta, Hadrian, 14.2

In fact Jerusalem was to become a Roman colony, with at its heart a temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. For information we rely on someone who wrote a summary of Cassius Dio:

At Jerusalem he founded a city in place of the one which had been flattened, naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the god he built a new temple to Jupiter. This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration, for the Jews could not bear the thought that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religion practised there. As long as Hadrian was still close by in Egypt and Syria, they stayed quiet, but when he went further away, they openly revolted. They did not dare to challenge the Romans in open battle, but they occupied the strong-points in the country and strengthened them with tunnels and walls, so they would have somewhere to hide and meet together unobserved underground; and they made holes in these tunnels at intervals to let in air and light.

At first the Romans took no notice of them. Soon, however, the insurgency spread to the whole of Judaea and the Jews everywhere were gathering together, and demonstrating their hatred of the Romans.

Hadrian sent his best generals against them. First of these was Julius Severus, who was transferred from Britannia, where he was governor. Severus did not dare to attack his opponents in the open at any one point, - there were too many of them and they were too desperate - but by intercepting small groups and by depriving them of food and shutting them up, he was able, rather slowly, to be sure, but with comparatively little danger, to crush, exhaust and exterminate them. Very few of the Jews in fact survived. Fifty of their most important outposts and 985 of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. 580,000 men were slain in the various raids and battles, and so many died of famine, disease and fire that it was impossible to find out the number. Thus nearly the whole of Judaea was made desolate. Many Romans, too, perished in this war. Therefore when Hadrian wrote to the senate, he did not use the usual opening formula, "If you and our children are in health, it is well; I and the legions are in health." Cassius Dio, Roman history 69.12.1-14.3

Hadrian's new city was not only to lose its traditional name, but Jews were to be totally barred from it. His aim was undoubtedly to put a stop once for all to the hopes of Jews elsewhere, who had themselves revolted in many parts of the empire during Trajan's reign, and been brutally crushed; hopes that there might still exist a focus for their religion in Judaea, where it had originated. As well as Jerusalem being renamed Aelia, the province itself got a new name: no longer Judaea, land of the Jews, but Syria Palaestina: the old Greek name, which meant 'land of the Philistines' : enemies of the Jews for 1,000 years since the time of David and Goliath.

The insurgents had been led by Simon bar Kosiba (also known as Simon bar Kokhba). Archaeological evidence confirms they did indeed use tunnels, just as Cassius Dio says. For example, Herod's 'palace-in-a-mountain' at Herodion is riddled with underground passages used by Simon. Simon also issued coins: some with the words SHIMON NASI YISRAEL [Simon, prince of Israel]. By AD 135 their defeat was total, but Hadrian, though he had been present in person, did not go back to Rome to celebrate a triumph, like Vespasian in AD 70. He realised that what he had done in Judaea didn't quite go with his image as a cultured man of peace. The Romans tried to pretend it had never happened; and worse, that the Jews had never lived in Jerusalem.

With Hadrian's complete destruction of Jerusalem, and the change of name, the history of Judaea in one sense ends. Not all the Jewish inhabitants joined the diaspora : but, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire (after the Constantine's Edict of Milan in AD 313) Palaestina suddenly found itself more important that it had ever been. Constantine's mother, Helena, claimed to have identified the spot where Yehoshua had been crucified, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over it. Since then, every Christian sect has tried to get a piece of the action here: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic and Syrian churches all have their own areas: quarrels and disputes, sometimes violent, have been a constant theme.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Fighting between Orthodox and Armenian monks

Fighting between Orthodox and Armenian monks Jerusalem, 2008

By the 4th century AD, the centre of Jewish life and culture - and probably of poulation - was no longer Syria and the former Judaea, but Mesopotamia. Palestine remained part of the Roman empire, which became the Greek Byzantine empire when the empire split into east and west soon after Constantine's rule. But from about AD 640, neither the Byzantines nor the Persians (who briefly occupied Jerusalem in AD 614) could stop the expansion of the Arabs, and their new religion, Islam. The Muslim Arabs were tolerant of the other “peoples of the Book” (Jews and Christians), and for the first time in 500 years, Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. A mosque was built on the platform where once Herod's temple had stood: inside it is the rock from which Mohammed was said to have ascended to heaven.