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The Great Revolt AD 66-70, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.

Masada AerialWith the death of King Agrippa in AD 44, the Romans reverted, as we have said, to rule by procurator. The young son of the king, though sometimes referred to as King Agrippa II, did not in fact rule in Judea but was given some authority in the northern territories. In Jerusalem he was granted the right to supervise the Temple. Real power, however, remained in the hands of the procurator, and one followed anther with increasing harshness and repression towards the smoldering Jewish population. The results were inevitable. Outbreaks of violence became endemic.

The people were divided. The official leaders were mostly Sadducees, who, being priest and landowners, preferred a quiet life, even if it lacked independence, and they collaborated with Rome. The priests in any case were appointed by Roman favor, and obviously drawn from those willing to toe the Roman line.

The bulk of the population followed their spiritual guides, who were not the priests but the rabbis, the sages, the learned men, and these were Pharisees. Here, too, there was a division, but for different reasons. The moderates favored pacifism on the ground that foreign occupation of the country was the Lord’s punishment for the nation’s waywardness. The activists, equally devout and God-fearing, rejected this approach—and could point to their history to support them- if the Hasmoneans had accepted foreign tyranny as an expression of the Lord’s will, they would never have fought for and gained independence. This, the activists urged, was what the Jews should now do. The extreme activists, known as the Zealots, called for the immediate launching of armed resistance. If, in modern parlance, the moderates were “doves” the activists were “hawks” and the Zealots positive “eagles.”

The ranks of the activists began to swell with the arrival on the Judean scene in AD 64 of Gessius Florus as Procurator. His principles, says Josephus, “were so much more abandoned” than those of his predecessor that the latter “seemed innocent on the comparison.” And of his predecessor Josephus writes that “avarice, extortion, corruption and oppression, public and private, were vices equally familiar to him!” The rule of Florus was marked by massacre and savagery, and reprisals against his soldiers by the people became frequent.

The climax to one such series of incidents occurred after Roman troops at his instigation went on a murderous rampage through Jerusalem. “The Jews, from the roofs of the houses, assaulted the Romans with such violent showers of stones and darts, that, unable to make any resistance, or press through the crowds of people in the narrow streets, Florus was compelled to retreat to the palace, with the remainder of his troops.” The Jews then fortified themselves in the Inner Temple and cut access to it from the Antonia castle. Florus was unable to dislodge them, and he returned to his headquarters at Caesarea, complaining to his immediate chief, Cestius Gallus, Roman Governor of Syria, about “the rebelliousness of the Jews.” Gallus was to experience this rebelliousness personally only a short while later.

The Jews were much heartened by this modest, but successful, insurrection, and the arguments of the activists became more compelling. In AD 66 they struck. The “War of the Jews against the Romans” was to last five years and to end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70.

It started with the seizure by the Zealots of the Masada fortress. The Roman garrison of this Dead Sea outpost was wiped out and its weapons and supplies captured. The Zealot band, under the leadership of a tough commander named Menahem, then marched on Jerusalem. While they were on their way, revolt broke out in the city, the Jews gaining the upper hand. They captured the Temple area and then assaulted the Roman legionaries in the Antonia castle, taking this stronghold after two days of fighting. The surviving Romans then took refuge in Herod’s Palace, in the Upper City, and the Jews put them under siege. When Menahem arrived he took over leadership of the revolt. The Romans eventually surrendered. (Menahem himself was later assassinated.)

On the day the Roman troops were crushed in Jerusalem, almost the entire Jewish community was murdered in Caesarea by the Gentile population, with the enthusiastic approval of Florus. When this news reached the Jews in other cities, they set upon their hostile neighbors and also raided Roman garrisons. Soon, the whole country was a battleground. Roman rule collapsed. In Jerusalem, the Jews established a revolutionary administration.

The principal Roman official in the area, Cestius Gallus, now took personal action. Setting out from Antioch with a large army, he marched southwards on Jerusalem and put it under siege. Josephus says that had Gallus persevered, the besieged would have been forced ultimately to give in. But Gallus failed to realise their desperate position and gave in first. He abandoned the siege and started retiring to the north. He was pursued by lightly armed Jewish groups, less encumbered by equipment and more mobile, who struck at his rear files and harassed his flanks. When he entered the gorge of Beth-Horon, some twenty miles northwest of Jerusalem, the Jews descended upon his forces from the slopes on both sides of the defile and wrought havoc among them. Gallus’ retreat became a rout, the Romans fleeing in such confusion that they left behind their equipment, “slings, machines and other instruments for battery and attack” which the Jews seized, brought back with them to Jerusalem—and three years later used against their original owners.

This signal success against the Roman army added heart and confidence to the people of Jerusalem—and to the revolutionary government. But they knew that before long there would be another decisive confrontation, tougher and more formidable than anything encountered before, for Rome could not possibly ignore so humiliating a defeat. The government accordingly set about preparing the defenses of Jerusalem and the main cities in the country, dispatching commanders to take charge of the regional fronts, train the local recruits and organize the fortifications. For the first time since Roman rule by procurator, the Jews again enjoyed independence in the land. Coins were again struck—but now dated “Year One,” the first year of the revolt. There were to be five such dated coin issues, Year Two, Year Three and so on. (At the recent archaeological excavations at Masada, a considerable quantity of these coins were discovered, silver shekels and half-shekels and a large number of bronze coins, ranging through all the years of the revolt, from Year One to the very rare Year Five. “Jerusalem the Holy” was inscribed on one face of the shekel, and “Shekel of Israel” on the other.)

While the Jews were making their preparations, the Romans were busy too. Vespasian, their outstanding general, commander of the Second Legion in the conquest of Britain, was sent out to restore Roman rule. By the year 68, after having to fight every inch of the way on his march southwards through Palestine, he had virtually isolated Jerusalem and was ready to put it under siege. As chance would have it, Rome at this time was rocked by political upheaval, and Vespasian decided to await its outcome. Meanwhile, he suspended his campaign. The political upshot was the proclamation of Vespasian as emperor in 69. He appointed his son, Titus, commander of the armies in Judea, entrusting him with the direction of the final operations against the Jews of Jerusalem.

The Jews had been given a breathing space, but they squandered it on bitter and bloody internal conflict. Lack of unity had sapped their strength, and they revived and sought to compose their differences only when, in the spring of 70, Titus with his vast forces descended upon the city. They consisted of four legions, plus large contingents of auxiliaries. The Twelfth Legion approached Jerusalem from the west; the Fifth and the fifteenth from the north; and the Tenth from the east. The Tenth set up camp on the Mount of Olives, looking down upon the Temple from the east; the other three encamped on the west, opposite the Upper City, and began to reconnoiter and prepare for the assault. While they were doing so, the Jews sallied forth to attack them, and there were sharp skirmishes which left the Romans confounded. But not for long. Titus eventually managed to move closer to the walls and split his main force into two. He concentrated one slightly north of the present day site of Zion Square, in the town center—some four hundred yards form the Psephinus Tower, at the northwestern corner of the Third Wall (Agrippa’s northern wall). The other was based not far from the site of today’s’ King David Hotel—a similar distance form the Hippicus Tower, adjoining Herod’s Palace. The Tenth Legion remained on the Mount of Olives, a magnificent observation point from which to follow all that went on inside the city.

The Jewish defenders were led by two Zealot commanders who were former rivals, Simon bar Giora, and the dauntless Yohanan of Gush-Halav in Galilee, better known as John of Gischala, who had fought desperately in the north and had come up to Jerusalem with his small band of survivors. John’s sector was the eastern ridge—the Temple and the areas adjoining it to the north and south; Simon was responsible for the western ridge—the Upper City and the area between it and the northern wall.

Titus decided to attack from the northwest. His aim was to breach the least formidable northern wall at points just north of Herod’s Palace—Agrippa, it will be recalled, had not been allowed to complete it, and the current defenders had not had time (and had been too busy squabbling) to fortify it to a desirable strength. Once through, Titus planned to attack the second wall, and then send one force southwards to storm the Upper City and another eastwards to assault the Antonia fortress and force his way through to the Temple. The plan was made, he set his men to cutting down timber and constructing platforms to serve as embankments reaching up to the base of the wall; over the platforms he would move his battering rams. Spearmen, archers, catapulters and stone-throwers protected the men building the siege works from inference by the defenders, who not only showered them with stones and arrows from the walls, but also dashed out of the city in surprise sorties to engage them in hand to hand combat. The Jews also put into service the weapons they had seized from Cestius Gallus some years earlier.

They could, however, do no more than delay. Eventually, the embankment was completed and the battering rams were ordered up to the walls. The ram was part of a mobile tower which carried on its top platform archers and stone-throwers who force the defenders on the wall to keep their heads down and allow the ram to batter away without disturbance. Nevertheless, when the battering started on the Third Wall, the defenders rushed to the vulnerable point and despite the enemy missiles flung firebrands against the siege engines and showered their operators with stones and arrows. Bolder groups of Jews sallied forth and tried to overpower the crews of the rams. Titus brought up cavalry and bowmen to shield the engines, beat off the fire-throwers, and neutralize the men hurling missiles from the towers. After stiff fighting the Jews were repulsed. One Jew was taken alive, and Titus ordered him to be crucified before the walls, hoping –in vain—that the sight would terrify the defenders into surrender.

This was the pattern of fighting for some time. Inevitably, however, the wall was finally breached and the Romans poured through into the northern suburb. Here they established themselves, and began probing attacks against the Second Wall. John of Gischala’s men fought from the Antonia fortress and the northern colonnade of the Temple, to defend their section of this wall. Simon’s force manned the southwest section which protected the Upper City.

It was in Simon’s sector that the Second Wall was eventually breached, and the Romans rushed through, only to be set upon heavily by the defenders (who were more familiar with the narrow alleys), and driven out. It took them four days to crash through the improvised breach-fillings and consolidate their position inside this wall. One wall alone, the First Wall, now lay between them and the beleaguered Jews. The assault proper on the Temple and the Upper City could now begin.

Titus ordered the construction of platforms for his battering rams in front of the Antonia fortress, key to the Temple, and before the monument to Hyrcanus, key to Herod’s Palace and the Upper City. (The site of the monument to Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean, also known as the “Tomb of John,” was close, says Josephus, to the Amygdalon Pool, the “Pool of the Patriarchs, and lies between the Jaffa Gate and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.)

John and Simon well knew that here was their last line of defense, and their men fought most bitterly to prevent the completion of the siege works. They were also aware of the danger of demoralization among their starving people. So desperate was the food situation that while “commando” units went out at night on raiding sorties, others issued forth to forage for herbs and roots. Titus soon set cavalry ambushes for them, and any survivors from the ensuing skirmishes were scourged and tortured in other ways and then crucified on the walls. Josephus, who witnessed this great siege of Jerusalem from the Roman side, relates that there were days when more than 500 crucifixions took place, so that after a time there were not enough crosses for the bodies and not enough wall for the crosses.

After seventeen days of continuous toil and battle, the Roman platform near Antonia was completed, and Titus was ready to move up his battering rams. John of Gischala meanwhile had tunneled under it from within the city, supporting the tunnel with wooden props and covering the wood with “a bituminous inflammable matter.” As the rams above were moved into position and about to batter the wall, John’s men fired the pillars. As these burned and fell away, the entire tunnel collapsed, and into the crater fell “the whole fortification with a hideous crash,” platform, battering rams and all. “At first only dust and smoke appeared; but at length the flames bursting forth to view, the Romans were perfectly distracted.” Consternation was followed by despondency. There was no point in trying to put out the flames, for with the platform gone, the wall was inaccessible, and the assault on Antonia was off.

Two days later, Simon’s Zealots had their chance. In their sector, two platforms had been erected and the battering rams were already in operation and already rocking the wall. A breach was imminent. Three of the bravest Zealot officers thereupon dashed out with torches in their hands “as if,” says Josephus, “towards friends, not massed enemies; they neither hesitated nor shrank back, but charged through the center of the foe and set the engines on fire. Though opposed by darts and arrows, they resolutely persevered, till the whole erection was in a flame. The Romans used every effort to save the battering rams, the covers of which were by this time consumed; but the Jews advanced even into the flames to prevent them; nor would they let go their hold, though the ironwork was then of a burning heat.” With the fires spreading to the platforms, “the Romans found that they were encompassed with flames, and retreated to their camp.”

Titus now held a council of war with his principal officers. It was clear to most that conventional weapons would continue to prove ineffective against the besieged when they were in such a fighting mood. They would have to be weakened by starvation, and only thereafter should a fresh assault be mounted. Thus did Titus decide. He insisted, however, that the ring of siege be complete, so that no supplies would reach the beleaguered people, and he accordingly erected a circumvallation, or siege wall, right round the city. It was 4 ½ miles in length, and it ran from a point on the west somewhere along the Jaffa road of today’s Jerusalem; eastwards across the Kidron valley and the Mount of Olives; southwards to Siloam; westwards to about where today’s railway station stands; and northwards back to the Jaffa road past “the sepulcher of Herod”—actually Herod’s family tomb next to the King David Hotel.

Titus now applied himself to inflict the final coup. He concentrated on reducing the Antonia fortress and ordered the raising of four platforms against it, bigger and stronger than the ill-fated earlier ones. When they were completed and the rams brought up to the wall, the defenders continued to assail them from the ramparts with torches, arrows and rocks. But the Roman sappers, working under a roof of shields and with covering “fire” from fellow units, hacked away at the wall, undermining the foundations with hand and crowbar while the rams battered the upper sections. They finally affected a breach. Blood battles followed within the confines of the Antonia fortress and the Jews were steadily pressed back. They retired and fortified themselves within the adjoining Temple compound.

Titus’ call to them to surrender was again spurned, and he therefore ordered his men to flatten Antonia and erect platforms against the Temple ramparts. He then brought up the rams and pounded away at the outer wall of the Temple. Six days of battering and undermining proved ineffective, so solid was the wall. Attempts to scale it with ladders were also fruitless. The Romans then set fire to the gates, the metal melting and exposing the woodwork to the flames. When the fire had abated, picked men of all the cohorts fought their way through the openings and, in hand to hand combat, steadily thrust forward until they were in eventual occupation of the colonnades and Outer Court of the Temple. The Jews fell back to the Inner Temple—the sanctuary itself, the Court of Israel and the Court of the Women—and continued to hold out from there.

On the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Ab, the very month and day on which 657 years earlier the Babylonians had sacked the first Temple on this site, the one built by Solomon, the forces of Titus broke into the Inner Temple and set the sanctuary ablaze. “The flames of fire were so violent and impetuous that the mountain on which the Temple stood resembled one large body of fire, even from its foundations.”

Apart from the soldiers who fell in the fighting, thousands of civilians, priests and laymen, women and children, were butchered as the legionaries charged through the compound, and many thousands more fell victim as the Romans proceed all the way down along the eastern ridge into the Lower City, as far as Siloam, slaughtering and setting the city aflame as they went.

Simon bar Giora had joined forces with John of Gischala when Titus was delivering his main blow against Antonia and the Temple. Both now managed to escape with decimated remnants of their Zealot followers, crossing from the southwest gates of the Temple esplanade and through the Tyropoeon valley into the Upper City. There they made their last ditch stand, with Herod’s Palace as their stronghold. They held out for another month. Then it was all over. Thus ended the great siege of Jerusalem.

Titus ordered the entire city to be razed, except for the three Herodian towers, Phasael, Hippicus and Mariamne, and the western wall, to protect the camp of the Tenth Legion who were to be left as a garrison.

After executing many of the survivors, Titus carried off the rest as slaves—though many of these perished in gladiatorial combat or were thrown to wild beasts at the “games” held at Caesarea by the Romans to celebrate the victory. Titus then returned to Rome where, together with his father, the emperor Vespasian, he conducted a triumphal procession. Most prominent among the spoils on display were the treasures taken from the Temple in Jerusalem, notably the golden seven-branched candelabrum and the code of Jewish laws.

Also on display and marching in the procession were the Jewish captives brought from Jerusalem. Among them was the surviving Zealot leader who had been taken prisoner, Simon bar Giora. When the procession ended, the dignitaries waited, in accordance with an ancient custom, until news came that the commanding general of the enemy army was dead. Simon bar Giora was dragged forth, a rope round his neck, led to the Forum, and there publicly executed. Titus and Vespasian could now return to the palace to preside over their victory banquet.

To commemorate his capture of Jerusalem, the “Triumphal Arch of Titus” was erected in the Forum Rome. Its outstanding relief, which may be seen today, shows a float being carried in the Roman victory procession bearing the Temple spoils, the most prominent being a representation of the sanctuary candelabrum.

Posted in: Roman Period I

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