By 67 A.D. a general rebellion against Rome engulfed Palestine. Jerusalem had repulsed a Roman attack and the Jews had set up their own government which divided the country into seven military districts, each with its own commander. The Galilee command fell to a young priest, Joseph, the son of Mattathias (the future historian, Flavius Josephus). Josephus had had no military experience, and wasted most of his time suppressing various factions who opposed him.
The Roman Emperor, Nero, aware of the seriousness of the rebellion in Palestine, sent his best general Vespasian, with three legions, to quell the outbreak. Vespasian’s troops easily penetrated Josephus’ defences and dispersed the Galilean army.
Josephus himself took refuge with 40 men in the fortress of Jotapata. There each man resolved to slay his neighbor rather than be captured. Josephus cast the lots, managing by deceit to be one of the last two alive, and then persuaded his companion to join him in surrendering to the Romans. (A communal suicide pact was also made by the 960 defenders at Masada, but, there, the commander Eleazar Ben Ya’ir died with all his followers.) Josephus relates that he was imprisoned by the Romans, but Vespasian spared his life when he—Josephus—foretold greatness for the Roman commander. By this trick Josephus lived to write his famous histories, The Jewish War and The Antiquities of the Jews, which today provide a window, distorted though it may sometimes be, to those violent and passionate times. Josephus’ account of the fall of Gamla follows.—Ed.
After the fall of Jotapataa such Galilaeans as still remained in revolt from Rome now, surrendered; and the Romans received the submission of all the fortresses and towns except Gischalab and the force which had occupied Mount Tabor.c Gamla was also in league with these rebels.
Gamla refused to surrender, relying even more confidently than Jotapata upon the natural difficulties of its position. From a lofty mountain there descends a rugged spur rising in the middle to a hump, the declivity from the summit of which is of the same length before as behind, so that in form the ridge resembles a camel; whence it derives its name. (The name Gamla has the same root as the word for camel.) Its sides and face are cleft all round by inaccessible ravines, but at the tail end, where it hangs on to the mountain, it is somewhat easier of approach; but this quarter also the inhabitants, by cutting a trench across it, had rendered difficult of access. The houses were built against the steep mountain flank and astonishingly huddled together, one on top of the other, and this perpendicular site gave the city the appearance of being suspended in air and falling headlong upon itself. It faced south, and its southern eminence, rising to an immense height, formed the citadel; below this an unwalled precipice descended to the deepest of the ravines. There was a spring within the walls at the confines of the town.
This city, which nature had rendered so impregnable, Josephusd had fortified with walls and secured still further by mines and trenches. Its occupants felt greater confidence in the nature of their site than did those of Jotapata, though far inferior to them in the number of combatants; indeed such trust had they in their position that they would admit no more. For the city was packed with fugitives owing to the strength of its defences, which had enabled it to hold out for seven months against the force previously sent by Agrippae to besiege it.
Vespasianf now broke up the camp which he had pitched in front of Tiberias and proceeded to Gamla. Finding the complete investment of a city in such a situation impossible, he posted sentries wherever this was practicable and occupied the mountain that over-hung it. The legions having, according to custom, fortified their camps on these heights, Vespasian commenced the erection of earthworks at the tail end; those on the east of the ridge, over against the point where stood the highest tower in the town, were raised by the fifteenth legion, those opposite the center of the city were undertaken by the fifth, while the tenth legion was employed in filling up the trenches and ravines.
During these operations King Agrippa, who had approached the ramparts and was endeavouring to parley with the defenders about capitulation, was struck on the right elbow with a stone by one of the slingers. He was at once surrounded by his troops, but the Romans were thus stimulated to press the siege alike by resentment on the king’s behalf and by concern for themselves, convinced that men who could so savagely attack a fellow-countryman, while advising them for their welfare, would shrink from no excess of cruelty towards aliens and enemies.
With such a multitude of hands accustomed to the task, the earthworks were rapidly completed and the engines brought into position. Chares and Joseph, the most prominent leaders in the town, drew up their troops, though the men were dispirited by the thought that they could not long withstand a siege owing to a deficiency of water and other necessaries. Their generals, however, encouraged them and led them out to the ramparts, where for a while they kept at bay those who were bringing up the engines, but the fire of the catapults and stone-projectors drove them back into the town. The Romans then applying the battering-rams at three different quarters broke through the wall, and pouring through the breach with loud trumpet-blasts, clash of arms, and the soldiers’ battle-cries, engaged the defenders of the town.
The latter, when the first Romans entered, for a time held their ground, arrested their further advance and stubbornly repulsed them; then, overpowered by numbers pouring in on all sides, they fled to the upper parts of the town, where, rounding upon the pursuing enemy, they thrust them down the slopes and slew them while impeded by the narrowness and difficulties of the ground. The Romans, unable either to repel the enemy above them or to force their way back through their comrades pressing forward behind, took refuge on the roofs of the enemy’s houses, which came close to the ground. These, being crowded with soldiers and unequal to the weight, soon fell in; one house in its fall brought down several others beneath it and these again carried away those lower down. This disaster was the ruin of multitudes of Romans; for, having nowhere to turn, although they saw the houses subsiding, they continued to leap on to the roofs. Many were buried by the ruins, many in trying to escape from under them were pinned down by some portion of their persons, and still more died of suffocation from the dust.
Seeing in this the interposition of divine providence, the men of Gamla pressed their attack regardless of their own casualties; they forced the enemy, stumbling in the steep alleys, up on to the roofs and with a continual fire from above slew any who fell. The debris supplied them with boulders in abundance and the enemy’s dead with blades; for they wrested the swords from the fallen and used them to dispatch any still struggling in death. Many flung themselves from the houses when in the act of collapsing and died from the fall. Even those who fled found flight no easy matter; since through their ignorance of the roads and the dense clouds of dust they failed to recognize their comrades and in their bewilderment fell foul of each other.
Thus, with difficulty discovering the outlets, these fugitives beat a retreat from the town. Meanwhile Vespasian, always keeping close to his distressed troops, being deeply affected by the sight of the city falling in ruins about his army, had, forgetful of his own safety, gradually and unconsciously advanced to the highest quarters of the town. Here he found himself left in the thick of danger with a mere handful of followers; even his son Titusg was not with him on this occasion, having been just sent off to Syria to Mucianus. Thinking it now neither safe nor honourable to turn, and mindful of the hardships which he had borne from his youth and his innate valour, he, like one inspired, linked his comrades together, with shields enveloping both body and armour, and stemmed the tide of war that streamed upon him from above; and so, undaunted by the multitude either of men or missiles, he stood his ground, until the enemy, impressed by such super-natural intrepidity, relaxed their ardour. Being now less hard pressed, he retreated step by step, not turning his back until he was outside the walls.
In this engagement multitudes of Romans fell, including the decurion Aebutius, a man who had shown the utmost gallantry and inflicted the severest losses on the Jews, not only in the action in which he perished, but on all previous occasions. One centurion, named Gallus, being cut off with ten of his men in the fray, crept into a private house, where he—a Syrian like his companions—overheard the inmates discussing at supper the citizens’ plans of attack on the Romans and of self-defence; during the night he arose and fell upon them, slew them all, and with his men made his way safely back to the Roman camp.
Vespasian, seeing his army despondent owing to their ignorance of reverses and because they had nowhere so far met with such a disaster, and still more ashamed of themselves for leaving their general to face danger alone, proceeded to console them. Refraining from any mention of himself, for fear of appearing to cast the slightest reflection upon them, he said that they ought manfully to bear misfortunes which were common to all, reflecting on the nature of war, which never grants a bloodless victory, and how Fortune flits back again to one’s side. “After all,” he continued, “you have slain myriads of Jews, but yourselves have paid but a trifling contribution to the deity.h As it is a mark of vulgarity to be over-elated by success, so is it unmanly to be downcast in adversity; for the transition from one to the other is rapid, and the best soldier is he who meets good fortune with sobriety, to the end that he may still remain cheerful when contending with reverses.
“What has now happened, to be sure, is attributable neither to any weakness on our part nor to the valour of the Jews; the one cause of their superiority and of our failure was the difficulty of the ground. In view of that, fault might be found with your inordinate ardour; for when the enemy fled to the higher ground, you should have restrained yourselves and not by pursuit exposed yourselves to the perils impending over your heads. Instead, having mastered the lower town, you should gradually have lured the fugitives to a safe combat on firm ground; whereas, through your intemperate eagerness for victory, you neglected your own safety.
“But incautiousness in war and mad impetuosity are alien to us Romans, who own all our success to skill and discipline- they are a barbarian fault and one to which the Jews mainly owe their defeats. It behoves us therefore to fall back upon our native valour and to be moved rather to wrath than to despondency by this unworthy reverse. But the best consolation should be sought by each man in his own right hand- for so you will avenge the dead and punish those who slew them. For my part, it shall be my endeavour, as in this so in every engagement, to face the enemy at your head and to be the last to retire.”
By such words as these he reanimated his troops. The people of Gamla, on their side, derived a momentary confidence from their unlooked for and signal success; but when they subsequently reflected that they had deprived themselves of all hope of terms, and thought of the impossibility of escape (for their supplies had already failed them), they became sorely dejected and lost heart. Nevertheless, they did not neglect to take what precautions they could to protect themselves- the bravest guarded the breaches, the rest manned what still remained of the wall. But when the Romans proceeded to strengthen their earthworks and to attempt a fresh assault, the people began to run from the town, down trackless ravines, where no sentries were posted, or through the underground passages; while all who stayed behind from fear of being caught were perishing from hunger, as every quarter had been ransacked for provisions for those capable of bearing arms.
While the more adventurous were stealthily escaping and the feebler folk dying of famine, the effective combatants continued to sustain the siege until the twenty-second of the month Hyperberetaeusi when three soldiers of the fifteenth legion, about the time of the morning watch, crept up to the base of a projecting tower opposite to them and began secretly undermining it; the sentries on guard above failing, in the darkness, to detect them either when approaching or after they had reached it. These soldiers, with as little noise as possible, succeeded in rolling away the five chief stones and then leapt back; whereupon the tower suddenly collapsed with a tremendous crash, carrying the sentries headlong with it. The guards at the other posts fled in alarm; many who essayed to cut their way out were killed by the Romans, and among them Joseph, who was struck dead while making his escape across the breach. The people throughout the town, confounded by the crash, ran hither and thither in great trepidation, believing that the whole of the enemy had burst in. At the same moment Chares, who was bedridden and in the hands of physicians, expired, terror largely contributing to the fatal termination of his illness. The Romans, however, with the memory of their former disaster, deferred their entry until the twenty-third of the month.
On that day Titus, who had now returned, indignant at the reverse which the Romans had sustained in his absence, selected two hundred cavalry and a body of infantry, and quietly entered the town. The guards, apprised of his entry, flew with shouts to arms. News of the incursion rapidly spreading to the interior of the town, some, snatching up their children and dragging their wives after them, fled with their wailing and weeping families up to the citadel; those who faced Titus were incessantly dropping; while any who were debarred from escape to the heights fell in their bewilderment into the hands of the Roman sentries. On all sides was heard the never ending moan of the dying, and the whole city was deluged with blood pouring down the slopes.
To aid the attack on the fugitives in the citadel Vespasian now brought up his entire force. The summit, all rock-strewn, difficult of access, towering to an immense height, and surrounded with precipices, everywhere yawned to depths below. Here the Jews worked havoc among the advancing enemy with missiles of all kinds and rocks which they rolled down upon them, being themselves from their elevated position no easy mark for an arrow. However, to seal their ruin, a storm miraculously arose which, blowing full in their faces, carried against them the arrows of the Romans and checked and deflected their own. Owing to the force of the gale they could neither stand on the edge of the precipices, having no firm foothold, nor see the approaching enemy. The Romans mounted the crest and quickly surrounded and slew them, some offering resistance, others holding out their hands for quarter; but the recollection of those who fell in the first assault whetted their fury against all.
Despairing of their lives and hemmed in on every side, multitudes plunged headlong with their wives and children into the ravine which had been excavated to a vast depth beneath the citadel. Indeed, the rage of the Romans was thus made to appear milder than the frantic self-immolation of the vanquished, four thousand only being slain by the former, while those who flung themselves over the cliff were found to exceed five thousand. Not a soul escaped save two women; these were nieces, on the mother’s side, of Philip, son of Jacimus, a distinguished man who had been commander-in-chief to King Agrippa. They owed their escape to their having concealed themselves at the time of the capture of the town; for at that moment the rage of the Romans was such that they spared not even infants, but time after time snatched up numbers of them and slung them from the citadel. Thus, on the twenty-third of the month Hyperberetaeusj was Gamla taken, after a revolt which began on the twenty-fourth of Gorpiaeus.k
(Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press from Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War (translation by H. S.. Thackery) Loeb Classical Library, Vol. III, Book IV, pp. 3ff.)
a. Jotapata was a fortress in the Galilee where Josephus, who was commander of Jewish forces in the Galilee, took refuge from the Romans and where he surrendered to them in 67 A.D. after forty-seven days of siege.
b. Gischala was a Jewish settlement in northern Galilee which was subdued in 67 A.D. by the Roman army led by Titus. However, the Jewish leader, John of Gischala, escaped to Jerusalem.
c. Mt. Tabor, located in southern Galilee, was another Jewish fortification which was captured by Vespasian in 67 A.D.
d. Josephus writes about himself in the third person.
e. Agrippa II was the great-grandson of Herod the Great and the last Jewish king of the Herodian line. He ruled Palestine at the time of the Jewish revolt against Rome. Agrippa tried to convince the Jews that they were powerless against Rome. He failed and subsequently supported Rome in the ensuing war. Agrippa fought in Vespasian’s campaign and was slightly wounded in a battle near Gamla.
f. Vespasian—full name Titus Flavius Vespasianus—was the best general of the Roman emperor, Nero. When the Jewish revolt broke out in Palestine Vespasian was dispatched with three legions to quell the outbreak. Vespasian subdued Gamla.
g. Titus, with his father, Vespasian, led Roman forces to put down the Jewish revolt. Titus besieged Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D.
h. The God of War (or fortune) who demands blood.
i. c. November 9, 67 A.D.
j. c. November 10, 67 A.D.
k. c. October 12, 67 A.D.