The Great Jewish Revolt

The Jewish Province of Judea, which was along one of the major trade routes of the time, was brought under the banner of Imperial Rome during the Third Mithridatic War (74-64 B.C.) by Gnaeus Pompey. As with most additions to the Roman Empire, it was a reluctant union and was to cause the Invaders a great deal of trouble. One of the principal reasons for this was that, unlike in other places where the natives soon became more or less Romanized, the Jews insistently and resolutely maintained their own separate ethnic identity. They had no intention of being integrated like everyone else, no wish of adopting Roman traditions for their own. Theirs was an exclusively Monotheistic religion which had served them well enough over the years and, so, no, thank you, they would not readapt it to the Pagan idol worship of the Romans. The Romans, naturally enough for conquerors, were outraged by such unseemly stubbornness from this conquered lot, and did not develop much fondness for the Jews.

Partly as a result, partly due to the sort of officials appointed in Judea, the Roman rule here was very harsh and autocratic. The Roman Procurators of Judea were often drawn from legionary ranks, tough, hard men who had worked their way up and en route developed little or no finesse. They had no empathy for the people that they found themselves now ruling, and situations that might have been diffused with tact were thus kindled instead by peremptoriness. Aside from Religious beliefs, the collection of the Annual Tax was another great point of contention. Since the Procurators were allowed to keep any extra cash beyond the assigned quota for themselves, they made certain that the population was taxed way above the necessary. In addition, New Taxes were creatively thought up to further benefit the rulers. Corruption thus became quite rampant. As if this wasn’t enough the Romans began meddling overtly in Jewish religious matters. The appointment of the High Priest, they announced, was something that Rome would henceforth decide, and by this way ensured that only the Collaborators amongst the Jews attained this important post.

Such insults chafed at Jewish pride, but for a long time went unavenged. The Jews were a pretty divided lot, with factions like the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots, the Sicarii and many others. Each of these upheld their own traditions and interpreted the Biblical Texts in their own way, and sharply objected to the traditions and interpretations of the others. For example, the Sadducees, who were the land-owners and the priests, only gave a narrow recognition to the Pentateuch, while the Pharisees had varying customs and a great number of taboos. The Essenes, from whom John The Baptist and Jesus arose, believed in a celibate and sequestered existence. The Zealots and the Sicarii were the most interesting – they were the radical, non-conformist hot-heads – they had no patience for the pacifist mind-sets of the Moderates like the Sadducees and the Pharicees, but clamored for an all out war against Rome.

It was quite easy for the Romans to take advantage of such disunity and for a long time they did. The Spark of Revolt, when it came, was ignited not by the Jews coming together against the Romans, but by the Romans going a mite too far in their excesses. This happened in the April/May of 66 B.C. when the last and most inept Roman Procurator Gessius Florus relieved the Temple Treasury of 17 talents (about $200,000) in order to make up unpaid and overdue tax debts. He probably didn’t think that the Jews would do any more than grumble; he was to be enormously surprised. Reacting with an outpouring of overwhelming rage against such outright theft, the Jewish mobs took to the streets in protest and clashed with Roman soldiers. One thing led to another and very soon a major riot broke out. The sheer numbers of the protesters, not to mention their deeply felt anger, forced the Romans to an ignoble retreat. Florus withdrew from Jerusalem to Caesarea, a Mediterranean port town established by Herod The Great. The Jews, flush with this surprising outcome, had meanwhile already began to argue amongst themselves.

The Zealots and the Sicarii, of course, were clear about what was to be done next. The revolt was to be continued until the Romans were chased out of the whole of Judea. It might take some time, but it could certainly be done. They were no more invincible than anybody else. Look at the way they had fled out of Jerusalem. Look at the bigger picture, replied the Moderates and the Pro-Roman factions like King Agrippa II and the Jewish aristocracy. They, after all, had their positions and their properties to consider, and did not wish to lose everything in a hopeless struggle with Rome; they might have vanquished a few legions, but there was no way, they knew, that they could hold out against the entire Roman might. It would mean the complete annihilation of our people, they warned. So be it, said the extremists, unmoved, and, as with most people who either have nothing to lose or don’t mind losing what they have, they soon gained the upper hand. King Agrippa II and his sister Berenice, who later became the mistress of the Roman General Titus, fled to Galilee. The Rebels seized all the defensive positions in the City, including both the huge Temple precinct and the strong Herodian fortress of Antonia. They also ruthlessly massacred a Roman Legionary Unit that had been trapped in the city after the departure of Florus and which had surrendered to them under the promise of a safe conduct from Jerusalem. With this dishonorable act the die was cast.

The incredible news of the Roman debacle and the spreading Jewish rebellion reached Cestius Gallus, the Legate of Syria, and he summarily arrived at the head of a huge force of over 300,000 to restore order. For a while there didn’t seem to be any doubt that the rebellion was going to be forthwith quelled, and certainly the Romans reoccupied Northern Judea without too much trouble and marched on with calm determination towards Jerusalem. After eight days of continued assault, the city’s defenders lost heart and were on the point of giving up, when suddenly and unexpectedly the tide changed. Cestius Gallus, in what surely is one of the most inexplicable and astonishing blunders in the history of warfare, abruptly withdrew his legions and gifted the Jews with regained hope. This Roman withdrawal, they decided, surely had to be by Divine Providence – their God had not abandoned them then – and with renewed vigor they fell upon the retreating Romans and Gallus lost nearly his entire army in the ensuing blood-bath. The Jews won yet another victory, and for them it was a very major one – vanquishing an army of this size sky-rocketed their confidence and the thought of complete victory now didn’t seem so implausible to anybody – the dissenting Jews stopped quibbling and joined the fray, notably amongst them the young aristocrat, Josephus, who left behind the only eye-witness account we have of these volatile times.

The ignominious defeat of Cestius Gallus was a great blow to the prestige of the Roman Empire. That a small band of Jews could rise up and win was a dangerous precedent that could not under any circumstances be allowed to spread to other parts of the Empire. It now became even more imperative to crush the Rebellion and one of the best Generals of the time, Vespasian, was dispatched to Judea by Emperor Nero. His orders were clear – to win at all costs and so effectively that nobody would ever again dream of challenging the might of Rome.

Vespasian, with his son Titus and a force of over 60,000 troops, arrived in Galilee in the spring of 67 B.C. The Jews there did not even put up a defense. Josephus, who had been given the command of Galilee, took refuge in the fortress of Jotapata and held out for about a month. Then, making a suicide pact with his surviving men, he ensured that they all died before his turn came and then remained alive himself to surrender to Vespasian. The latter treated him well – so well, in fact, that Josephus switched sides and from then on became a Roman supporter. He went along with the Roman Army and recorded the Siege and Battle for Jerusalem for posterity. Except for him the event might have vanished in the blurring annals of history, but even so Josephus, an undoubted traitor, remains universally unappreciated amongst his people. In contrast, the Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who also went over to Vespasian and pleaded for his life so he could establish a Judaic school at Yavne later, is greatly honored for keeping Jewish learning alive. Seems a bit unfair.

The Jewish Defense collapsed by 69 B.C. The well-trained Roman legions and their own internal strife and inadequate preparation and leadership finally proved too much for them. Starvation and disease engulfed the besieged population of Jerusalem, and they began resorting to all kinds of villainy against one another in their hunger madness. There was little will left for continuing battle against the Romans, the only reason the Romans didn’t subdue them earlier was because of the outbreak of civil war within the Roman Empire. Vespasian withdrew to resolve the power struggle, which he himself finally won, leaving his son Titus to wipe up the Jews. This Titus did with finality, destroying Jerusalem and, much more importantly, razing that symbol of Jewish Pride and Identity, their Temple. Looted Religious Relics and Treasures were carried back along with the defeated, enslaved people to be displayed in his spectacular Victory Parade in Rome in 71 B.C. Coins were struck to commemorate the event and Titus’s brother, Domitian, had a magnificent Triumphal Arch erected in his honor. This arch still stands in Rome.

Of course it wasn’t exactly a complete victory. Some of the Sicarii still remained free and hostile in the desert fortress of Masada. Lest they embarrass him, especially after his premature celebrations, Titus dispatched Flavius Silva to decimate this last bastion. The Siege of Masada ended with the 960 surviving Jews inside the Fortress preferring mass suicide over surrender. At least, so we understand from Josephus’s sole account. Present-day Archaeologists, going by the evidence, or rather the lack of it, discovered at the site, have raised doubts about the veracity of this account. And it isn’t just the absence of considerable skeletal remains, but also the fact that, in Jewish religion, suicide is considered a great sin. It doesn’t seem likely that the Sicarii, who were religious fanatics of the first order, would break one of their most important covenants. Yet, if Josephus is completely mistaken, questions would have been raised and his version would not have been so easily accepted by his contemporaries. Whatever the real story, the heroes of the Masada did come to a tragic ending.

The devastated Jewish Community never quite recovered from their Roman encounter. Neither Jerusalem, its population dead or dispersed, nor the Jewish Temple were rebuilt. The yearly Temple funds were now, under the orders of Vespasian, directed straight to Rome. The Sadducees, the Zealots and the Sicarii had all been annihilated and the remaining Pharisees were to feeble to be of any importance. No Jewish political entity remained. Rome reigned supreme. But not unscathed. It had been a Pyrrhic Victory.