Rome’s polytheistic religious practices
were remarkably tolerant for the time, and throughout the centuries even incorporated
many deities of their former enemies. However, the Romans always experienced problems with
Monotheism. The most prominent monotheistic group in the early Roman Empire were the Jews.
This enduring people, motivated by their religion, would be a consistent thorn in the side of
Roman leaders for centuries. One of the most infamous episodes of violence between Rome
and Judaism would be the Jewish Revolt of 66-74 AD, culminating in the capture of Jerusalem
and the destruction of the Second Temple. After a rebellion against the declining Seleucid
Empire, the Hasmonean dynasty [hasma’nian] came to power in Judea during 146 BC. In 67
BC two brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus drove the realm into civil war. To the north,
Roman general Pompey had been finishing up the Mithridatic Wars, and in 63 BC thrust
south along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Upon his arrival in Damascus, he intervened
in the civil war on behalf of Hyrcanus, captured Jerusalem and eventually made Judea a client
kingdom. After a brief Parthian occupation, Rome captured
the city again in 37 BC, and installed their client Herod as king. In 4 BC he perished,
and Judea became a Roman province. Imperial authority in the region leaned heavily on
the local elites, but they often lacked the confidence of the wider Jewish population,
resulting in near perpetual strife. Throughout the early first century, Jewish frustration
grew, and they chafed under the Roman boot. This resulted in increasingly violent actions,
perpetrated by sects such as the infamous Jewish Sicarii.
Judea was a powder keg – a tangle of class, ethnic and religious divisions. In 66 BC a
Greek mob profaned the Caesarea synagogue, and that led to riots among the infuriated
Jewish population. Meanwhile in Jerusalem, Roman procurator Gessius Florus chose this
inopportune moment to collect overdue taxes. In an unwise move, he did this by plundering
17 talents of silver and gold from the treasury of the Second Temple. Reacting to this, some
young and bold Jews mocked Florus by begging for spare change in the name of the apparently
‘poverty stricken’ procurator. Infuriated, Florus executed thousands.
When he moved to bring in reinforcements, the Jews began to resist. Overwhelmed by the
local population, the Roman soldiers retreated to the citadel and the Great Jewish revolt
began. The members of the radical Jewish sect Sicarii then marched to the fortress of Masada,
where they proceeded to overwhelm and massacre the 700 strong garrison.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, the soldiers who had withdrawn to the palace sued for terms, but
were massacred when they tried to surrender their weapons. The rival Jewish factions united,
brutally capturing the fortress of Kypros and securing the surrender of Machaerus. Tensions
among the disparate populations erupted as well. Greek mobs would massacre Jews in cities
such as Ascalon, Caesarea and Tyre, while Jewish prowled the region and
retaliated. The Roman Empire could not allow such defiance,
and the proconsul of Syria, Cestius Gallus, marched south with 30 thousand troops. Gallus
sought to seize of Jerusalem in order to restore order, but the siege failed, and the legions
were subsequently ambushed at the Beth Horon pass as they retreated to the coast. Lightly
armed Jewish rebels, wielding javelins, slings and bows, encircled them and inflicted huge
losses. Legio XII Fulminata was annihilated, the army’s siege weapons were captured,
and the legionary aquila eagle standard was lost. Gallus’ punitive campaign had been
a complete catastrophe, and emboldened the rebels.
To the west, Roman Emperor Nero received word of the revolt in Judea whilst on a concert
tour of Greece. Requiring a competent general to take charge and crush the insurrection,
Nero appointed a veteran of the British campaign: Titus Flavius Vespasianus, otherwise known
as Vespasian, to command the Army of Judea. Vespasian immediately set off for Judea, taking
the overland route over the Hellespont and through the great Cilician gates. After reaching
the city of Antioch, two legions and their associated auxiliary units joined him. Vespasian
marched south to Ptolemais, while his son, Titus, was sent to Alexandria in order to
take command of another legion and march it north to join the main army Meanwhile reinforcements
also arrived from the various local allies and clients. In total, the Empire mustered
around 60,000 troops to crush the revolt. No prisoners were taken, and entire opposition
villages were reduced to ash. This proved to be effective, as the 10,000-strong Jewish
field army quickly scattered in all directions, seeking haven in the fortified strong points.
In the subsequent campaign into Galilee during 67 AD, Vespasian systematically moved through
the region, brutalising any defiant settlement and often allowing his rapacious legionaries
free reign to loot, burn, murder and pillage as they pleased. Critical settlements defending
the region were captured. Jotapata fell to Vespasian first, followed by Joppa, Tiberias,
Tarichaea and Gamala before his army was finally billeted in its winter quarters, leaving a
subdued region in its wake. The fall of Galilee to Vespasian’s legionaries
prompted more internal strife among the Jewish factions. As the campaigning season of 68
AD began, Vespasian was in no hurry to intervene, stating that ‘Since our enemies are busy
dying by their own hands’ the best course of action would be to ‘stay as spectators
instead of taking on fanatics who welcome death and are already busy murdering each
other.’ Content to leave Jerusalem to its internal
squabbling, the Roman general marched across the mountainous province of Perea and Judea
proper, taking almost every settlement of note one by one, laying waste to the countryside
and slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians. The campaigning season of 69AD began similarly.
Dispatching his subordinates to the peripheral regions, Vespasian marched on Jerusalem itself.
He established garrisons in the towns that anchored his supply lines to the coast, while
the Roman horsemen rode down and destroyed any remaining hostile units in the vicinity
of Jerusalem. It seemed like only a miracle could save the rebels from Vespasian’s wrath.
They would get one very soon. Discontent with Emperor Nero’s infamous
excesses had been building throughout the 60s AD, and now finally it came to a head.
Back in March of 68AD, the provincial governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, Vindex, rebelled against
Nero. His revolt was quickly crushed, but it set the tone for the Year of the Four Emperors,
as another pretender named Galba was declared Emperor and marched on Rome. Deserted by his
praetorian guard, Nero was forced to commit suicide. Galba did not last long, and a few
months later he was usurped by Otho, who subsequently was dethroned by Vitellius.
Spiralling defiance of imperial authority also resulted in a Batavian revolt on the
Rhine river and grain supplies to Rome from Africa being cut off. With the Empire suddenly
in the process of eating itself alive, the campaign into Judea came to a halt as Vespasian
paused to consider his options. Finally, on July 1st 69AD, Vespasian was proclaimed Caesar
by the prefect of Egypt in the presence of his legions. The Flavian faction – Vespasian,
his family and supporters – then held a war council where their strategy was decided.
Vespasian would establish his headquarters in Egypt, while Titus, assisted by Tiberius
Alexander, would conclude the campaign of subduing the Jews.
Titus began the Jerusalem campaign in spring of 70AD, departing Alexandria and marching
up the Mediterranean coast towards Caesarea. The army assembled there was even larger than
that commanded by Vespasian in the previous years. At its core were four Roman legions:
Legio XV Apollinaris, Legio V Macedonica, Legio X Fretensis and Legio XII Fulminata.
In addition, 20 cohorts of auxiliary infantry, 8 alae of cavalry and many thousands of native
troops were present, commanded by the Roman client kings in the region. This was a massive
force totalling around 70,000 troops. Using the network of garrisoned strong points
his father had established, Titus marched straight at the city of Jerusalem by the main
road, whilst sending some other legions on alternative routes to alleviate supply problems.
Upon nearing the city, Titus rode ahead with 600 handpicked horsemen to perform reconnaissance
on the city. However, as this force approached the Psephenus Tower, a large force of Jews
charged out of the city and cut down many of Titus’ men. The commander himself was
almost captured, but narrowly managed to escape. Advanced Roman units from legions 15 and 12
appeared on the hills to the north of the city on April 23rd. During that night, Legio
V arrived, followed by Titus himself the next morning. The Jews had been preparing for such
a siege since the times of Herod, and they had managed to fortify the city considerably.
Manning their stations behind Jerusalem’s three formidable walls, the garrison of the
city probably amounted to over 20,000 well-armed troops, and who still possessed the siege
artillery captured at Beth Horon. Many of the Jews defending the city had lost their
families in the previous Roman campaigns and wanted revenge.
Despite its population being swollen by refugees, water was not a problem, as Jerusalem had
many cisterns and pools that could be filled with rainwater. However, food stores had been
burned in the inter-Judaic strife months before and the situation was therefore tenuous. This
strife was still ongoing even with the Romans so close, and the defending forces were split
into three sub-factions. Realizing his newly arrived legions must be
exhausted from the night march, Titus gave orders to construct two camps to the west
of the city: one joint camp for the twelfth and fifteenth legions at a stop ¾ of a mile
west of the city walls, and another camp 600 yards further back for the fifth legion. Shortly
after this, the tenth legion arrived and was ordered to encamp to the east of the city,
on the Mount of Olives. The looming Roman siege temporarily united
the squabbling Jewish factions, and they agreed on an immediate attack against the soldiers
of the tenth legion, who were busy constructing their hilltop camp. Sallying out of the city,
a detachment of rebels rushed up the slope and cut down droves of legionnaires. Encouraged
by this initial success, reinforcements were sent to press the attack, and they managed
to drive the men of the tenth legion from their uncompleted camp.
Hearing of their plight, Titus arrived with his cavalry bodyguard and struck the Jews
from the flank, driving them back into the ravine between their camp and the city walls.
However, they then attacked again instead of retreating. Under this renewed assault,
the Romans broke and fled to the heights, leaving their general. Ashamed, and realizing
Titus had not fled, the legion regrouped, charged and prompted the Jews to flee back
to the city. The camp on the hill was subsequently finished, though now it was clear that the
Jews would not meekly submit to them. Aiming to prevent this happening again, Titus
posted strong contingents of horse and footmen to the east of the city to deter further sorties,
and ordered that the ground between the Roman camps and the city was to be levelled. This
would both deny the guerilla fighters a favourable hiding place and allow siege engines to advance.
With this done, Titus decided on concentrating his assault on the western flank of the Third
Wall, between Psephinus Tower and the Western Gate.
The three legions facing this section of the wall were each ordered to construct an earth
and timber ramp. The construction efforts were initially disrupted by sorties out of
the city, but the concentration of Roman artillery, including large stone-throwing devices and
quick-firing iron bolt-throwing scorpions, pinned the Jews down long enough for the works
to be completed. Retaining a steady rain of missiles on the
walls, Titus then ordered three battering rams to smash the western wall, which were
initially unsuccessful until three siege towers were brought up to reinforce them. After a
long period of pressure, on the 15th day of the siege, Roman siege engines punched a hole
through the wall. With their entire force now at risk, the defenders quickly withdrew
to the Second Wall, leaving Titus to occupy the New City.
Unwilling to surrender their momentum, the legions immediately moved their rams up to
the Second Wall, where they began to batter the Tower Gate. After just four days of attacks,
one of the Rams brought it down and made a breach. Legionaries flooded through it into
the eerily silent Second City. However, as they advanced, rebels sprung from ambush positions
and bombarded the Romans with missile fire. Quickly forming into their tight shielded-squares,
the legions fought their way back to the narrow breach, where many died struggling to push
through. Eventually, auxiliary archers arrived and drove the Jews away, allowing the bewildered
legionaries to escape. After the Jews resisted in this area for four
more days, the Romans finally broke through. This time, Titus ordered the entire northern
section of the Second Wall torn down. The defensive front now narrowed [widened?], and
the Jews were able to bring more forces to bear on their enemy.
After advancing into the Second City, Titus now split his legions into two army groups,
which each constructed two siege ramps. The tenth and fifteenth legions attacked the First
Wall opposite the Tomb of John Hyrcanus, while the fifth and twelfth legions besieged the
Antonia fortress – named by Herod the Great in honour of Mark Antony. The ramps were finally
completed on May 29th, followed by an all-out assault, during which Titus brought up additional
battering rams and siege engines to assault the Antonia fortress. They did this under
constant artillery fire from bolt-shooters and stone-throwers which the Jews had taken
from Gallus in 66. As the assault began, Jewish sappers dug under
the Roman siege lines, undermined the ramps and set fire to the tunnel. This caused the
ground to collapse in on itself in a clattering roar, swallowing the Roman ramps and siege
towers, which demoralised the legions, as they had spent weeks constructing these engines.
To improve security, tighten the blockade and restore morale, Titus ordered that an
8 kilometre long wall of circumvallation was to be constructed, cutting the besieged sections
of Jerusalem off from the outside world. This massive undertaking was, typically, finished
in only 3 days by the Romans, and had 13 fortresses along its circumference to strengthen it.
Before it was made, the Jewish rebels were able to quite easily venture out of the city
to forage for food and supplies, but this was now made impossible. Famine quickly descended
on the city and its inhabitants slowly began to starve and die.
This done, Titus now focused all his efforts on conquering the Antonia Fortress again.
A day of assaults initially yielded no results, however the Romans had accomplished more than
they had realised. The foundations of the Antonia fortress, undermined by heavy rain
and the Jewish saboteurs’ tunnel which had destroyed the Roman siege engines, collapsed
during the night. The first Romans who exploited this gap discovered to their horror that the
Jews had built up a secondary wall behind the first, which was eventually overcome when
a contingent of brave legionaries attacked it during a night assault. The first of several
battles for the Temple Mount occurred after this, during which the Romans failed to break
out onto the forecourt. In its aftermath, Titus ordered the Antonia fortress destroyed.
On July 17th, the Romans attempted to seize the Temple’s courtyard again, but were again
repulsed in close quarters fighting, during which Jews were often wearing captured Roman
equipment. This confused the combatants and made ‘friendly fire’ incidents common.
Neither side was able to gain an advantage under these conditions.
After the second failure, Titus ordered that four siege ramps were to be constructed and
used against the northwest corner of the Temple Mount. At the same time, the Jews proved they
were not beaten when a major sortie was launched against the siege wall protecting the Mount
of Olives, but was repelled. The Jews also abandoned the area of wall where the Roman
siege ramps were mounted. However, they had rigged the area with a fire trap, and this
killed many soldiers as they advanced, seemingly unhindered.
By August 9th, withering artillery fire and Roman offensives had made the Jewish defence
of the courtyard untenable, and they pulled back to the inner defences at the Temple itself.
On August 10th, during the heavy fighting, a fire began in apartments near the Outer
Court, which spread and famously set the Second Temple alight, being spread due to the arid
conditions and the flammable materials all around. With Jewish attention divided between
fighting the fires which blazed through their most holy place, and defending against the
Romans, they were finally broken, and the entire temple mount was seized in an orgy
of butchery and looting. With their bloodlust finally sated, the Roman
soldiers proclaimed Titus ‘imperator’ – victorious general. With this done, the
legions were unleashed on the lower city, burning houses, government buildings, archives
and anything else the legions could get their hands on. Clearing this area of rebels took
two days and, after another short assault, Herod’s Palace was taken by September 7th.
The slaughter during the Fall of Jerusalem supposedly resulted in the death of at least
hundreds of thousands of civilians, pilgrims and soldiers. Titus returned to Rome, where
his father Vespasian, now the Roman Emperor after his victory in 70 AD, granted him a
triumph. The Arch of Titus was also dedicated to him, which remains to this day. While a
few isolated rebel strongholds remained, notably the Sicarii fortress of Masada, the Jewish
Revolt had been essentially crushed at Jerusalem. But this was not the end of Jewish resistance
and more wars would be fought between them and the Empire. New videos on the Roman history are on the
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