By January 15, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Tacitus, Historiae V, 10-14: The Roman Earthworks at Jerusalem

TacitusTacitus, the Roman historian (ca. 56-ca. 118 C.E.), describes the siege of Jerusalem from the Roman point of view. While Josephus described Titus as hastening the battle out of compassion for the starving Jews} Tacitus ascribes it to base instincts. He accents as well the difficulties of the siege.

(10) Still the Jews’ patience lasted until Gessius Florus became procurator- 31 in his time war began. When Cestius Gallus, governor of Syria, tried to stop it, he suffered varied fortunes and met defeat more often than he gained victory. On his death, whether in the course of nature or from vexation, Nero sent out Vespasian, who, aided by his good fortune and reputation as well as by his excellent subordinates, within two summers occupied with his victorious army the whole of the level country and all the cities except Jerusalem. 2 The next year was taken up with civil war, and thus was passed in inactivity so far as the Jews were concerned. When peace had been secured throughout Italy, foreign troubles began again; and the fact that the Jews alone had failed to surrender increased our resentment; at the same time, having regard to all the possibilities and hazards of a new reign, it seemed expedient for Titus to remain with the army.

(11) Therefore, as I have said above, Titus pitched his camp before the walls of Jerusalem and displayed his legions in battle array- the Jews formed their line close beneath their walls, being thus ready to advance if successful, and having a refuge at hand in case they were driven back. Some horse and light-armed foot [soldiers] were sent against them, but fought indecisively; later the enemy retired, and during the following days they engaged in many skirmishes before their gates until at last their continual defeats drove them within their walls. 2 The Romans now turned to preparations for an assault; for the soldiers thought it beneath their dignity to wait for the enemy to be starved out, and so they began to clamor for danger, part being prompted by bravery, but many were moved by their savage natures and their desire for booty. Titus himself had before his eyes a vision of Rome, its wealth and its pleasures, and he felt that if Jerusalem did not fall at once, his enjoyment of them was delayed. 3 But the city stands on an eminence, and the Jews had defended it with works and fortifications sufficient to protect even level ground; for the two hills that rise to a great height had been included within walls that had been skillfully built, projecting out or bending in so as to put the flanks of an assailing body under fire. The rocks terminated in sheer cliffs, and towers rose to a height of sixty feet where the hill assisted the fortifications, and in the valleys they reached one hundred and twenty; they presented a wonderful sight, and appeared of equal height when viewed from a distance. An inner line of walls had been built around the palace, and on a conspicuous height stands Antony’s Tower, so named by Herod in honor of Mark Antony.

(12) The temple was built like a citadel, with walls of its own, which were constructed with more care and effort than any of the rest; the very colonnades about the temple made a splendid defense. Within the enclosure is an ever-flowing spring; in the hills are subterraneous excavations, with pools and cisterns for holding rain-water. 2 The founders of the city had foreseen that there would be many wars because the ways of their people differed so from those of the neighbors- therefore they had built at every point as if they expected a long siege; and after the city had been stormed by Pompey, 32 their fears and experience taught them much. Moreover, profiting by the greed displayed during the reign of Claudius, they had bought the privilege of fortifying their city, and in time of peace had built walls as if for war.The population at this time had been increased by streams of rabble that flowed in from the other captured cities, for the most desperate rebels had taken refuge here, and consequently sedition was the more rife. 3 There were three generals, three armies- the outermost and largest circuit of the walls was held by Simon, the middle of the city by John, and the temple was guarded by Eleazar. John and Simon were strong in numbers and equipment, Eleazar had the advantage of position- between these three there was constant fighting, treachery, and arson, and a great store of grain was consumed. 4 Then John got possession of the temple by sending a party, under pretense of offering sacrifice, to slay Eleazar and his troops. So the citizens were divided into two factions until, at the approach of the Romans, foreign war produced concord.

(13) Prodigies 33 had indeed occurred, but to avert them either by victims 34 or by vows is held unlawful by a people which, though prone to superstition, is opposed to all propitiatory rites. Contending hosts were seen meeting in the skies, arms flashed, and suddenly the temple was illumined with fire from the clouds. Of a sudden the doors of the shrine opened and a superhuman voice cried- “The gods are departing”- at the same moment the mighty stir of their going was heard. 2 Few interpreted these omens as fearful; the majority firmly believed that their ancient priestly writings contained the prophecy that this was the very time when the East should grow strong and that men starting from Judea should possess the world. This mysterious prophecy had in reality pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, as is the way of human ambition, interpreted these great destinies in their own favor, and could not be turned to the truth even by adversity. 3 We have heard that the total number of the besieged of every age and both sexes was six hundred thousand- there were arms for all who could use them, and the number ready to fight was larger than could have been anticipated from the total population. Both men and women showed the same determination; and if they were to be forced to change their home, they feared life more than death.

(14) Such was the city and people against which Titus Caesar now proceeded; since the nature of the ground did not allow him to assault or employ any sudden operations, he decided to use earthworks and mantlets- 35 the legions were assigned to their several tasks, and there was a respite of fighting until they made ready every device for storming a town that the ancients had ever employed or modern ingenuity invented.

30. Trans. C. H. Moore, Tacitus III, Histories 4-5 and Annals 1-3 (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge- Harvard University Press, 1931), pp. 193-9.

31. 64-66 C.E.

32. In 63 B.C.E. when the Romans first conquered Judea.

33. Prophetic signs or omens.

34. Animal sacrifices

35. A movable shelter used to protect besiegers.

Post a Comment