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Jewish Revolt

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Jewish revolt is the name given to the war of rebellion between the Jews and the Roman conquerors of Palestine, that took place between 66 and 73 CE, resulting in the destruction of the Jewish temple, exile and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Jews and death of numerous others. After an initially disastrous incident in which the governor, Cestius Gallus  The war ended with the conquest of the fortress of Massada in 73 or 74, and the suicide of its defenders in 73 or 74 CE.

Only one set of accounts of the war, essentially, has come down to us, and that is the account of Josephus Flavius, a Jewish military leader who switched his allegiance to Rome and is regarded as a traitor. An incomplete account of the siege of Jerusalem, together with fabulous and libelous accounts of the Jews, is contained in Book 5 of Tacitus' Histories.  The revolt and its outcome changed the character of Judaism. Though the Jews despised Josephus, they largely accepted his suspect account, which blamed the revolt on the illogical actions of fanatics ("Kanaim")  and brigands, or Sicarii as he called them. Sicarii may have been a title in use for Zealots who put the Jewish law above all else, but it was also a general term for brigands and outlaws.

Josephus' accounts of the revolt and his role in it, given in his autobiography and in his book, The Jewish Wars, are somewhat contradictory and both are self-serving. Moreover, Josephus was careful to avoid dealing with general causes, which might reflect badly on his Roman masters and his own class, and tended to fill his history with petty incidents and quarrels of the Jews, making it harder to see the forest for the trees.  Therefore, it is even more difficult than usual to reconstruct the causes of the rebellion and the motivations of different parties. Dogmatic statements about what caused the rebellion abound, but should not be taken as definitive.

The Romans had taken care to divide and conquer in the land of Israel, settling it with large numbers of non-Jews, dividing the area between petty principalities ruled by the descendants of Herod and a main area directly under the rule of a procurator and under the general authority of a governor who sat in Damascus. They cemented their law through the allegiance of Jewish upper classes and the more conservative among the Pharisees, who were generally content as long as they could practice their religion.

However, according to Josephus, a very bad procurator, Lucceius Albinus, was followed by an even worse one, Gessius Florus. Albinus freed criminals by a system of bribery, and Florus seemed intent on mulcting the populace by any means possible, and setting gentile against Jew. If we believe Josephus, Florus made conditions virtually impossible. We can surmise that the conservative, pro-Roman and neutral factions could no longer protect their people in the most basic ways. Therefore, they lost the confidence of the people and were unable to govern. Consequently, a number of factional militias, guerilla bands or robber bands, depending on your viewpoint, were formed, and these raised revolt against the conservative Jewish government, against their Roman protectors, and against each other.

The trouble began in the spring of 66 in Caesaria. Gentiles were hampering a synagogue by building around it. The Jews bribed Florus with 8 talents for protection, but Florus did nothing. Gentiles caused a provocation by sacrificing a bird in front of the synagogue. Riots erupted and Jews fled.  Meanwhile, Florus, for reasons that are not explained by Josephus, entered Jerusalem and took 17 talents from the treasury there, as well as setting his soldiers to plunder. Josephus notes later that 40 talents of tribute were owed Caesar in arrears and that may have been the reason for Florus's incursion.

When the people resisted, Florus had over 2,000 killed. The Jewish King Agrippa tried to calm the populace, but at this time a new sedition arose.  Eleazar, the son of the priest, persuaded the priests not to perform the sacrifice for Caesar. Now King Agrippa called out three thousand of his soldiers, and a war broke out in the city between the pro-Roman faction and the poorer people. The latter took the trouble to burn all the records of their creditors, One Menahem obtained arms from Masada and returned to Jerusalem to lead the revolt. However, fighting soon broke out between him and Elazar's faction and Menahem was killed. The Jews overcame the Roman garrison. At about this time, supposedly on the same day as the Jews had overcome the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, the gentile inhabitants of Caesaria conducted a pogrom, killing 20,000 Jews, with the assistance of Florus's army. This provoked the Jews to massacre gentiles in other towns.

It was now autumn of the year 66. Cestius Gallus came south from Antioch with the reinforced twelfth legion, and with Agrippa and additional forces,  to pacify the Galilee and Jerusalem. After subjugating the Galilee, he invested Jerusalem, but retreated early and was caught by the Jewish forces, who beat the twelfth legion, took their standard and forced an ignominious retreat  at the battle of Beit Horon.

The leaders of the Jews understood that this disaster would prompt more drastic action, and appointed Josephus to look to the defense of the Galilee. According to Josephus, in the spring of 67, Vespasian arrived with about two legions - the 5th and 10th. Titus, his son, brought the 15th legion  and additional auxiliaries were supplied by various allies, so that the whole force, according to Josephus (B.J. Book 3 chapter 4) amounted to 60,000 and additional noncombatants. Tacitus gives a more detailed account, though his Histories were written later and should be less accurate:

He [Titus] found in Judaea three legions, the 5th, the 10th, and the 15th, all old troops of Vespasian's. To these he added the 12th from Syria, and some men belonging to the 18th and 3rd, whom he had withdrawn from Alexandria. This force was accompanied by twenty cohorts of allied troops and eight squadrons of cavalry, by the two kings Agrippa and Sohemus, by the auxiliary forces of king Antiochus, by a strong contingent of Arabs, who hated the Jews with the usual hatred of neighbours, and, lastly, by many persons brought from the capital and from Italy by private hopes of securing the yet unengaged affections of the Prince... [Tacitus, Histories, 5:1]

He subjugated Gadara and Jotapata (Yodfat, Jotphat). Josephus gave himself up to the Romans at Yodfat, after treacherously surviving a suicide pact, according to his version (see Josephus Flavius). Vespasian then dealt treacherously with the surrendered inhabitants of  Tarichaea, killing or selling into slavery upwards of 30,000.  By the end of 67, Gamla (Gamala) in the Golan had fallen. In 68, Vespasian took Gadara and Jericho, but thereafter there was a pause in the fighting, owing to uncertainties in Roman rule. Nero had committed suicide or been murdered, followed by the rule of four different emperors in 69, who were generally out of office before Vespasian could ask them for instructions. In 69, however, Vespasian himself was proclaimed emperor. He left Titus to take Jerusalem and proceeded to Alexandria.  

This map shows the sites of many of the battles of the Galilee. 

Map, Jewish Revolt in the Galilee

The siege of Jerusalem began in the Spring of 70, apparently just at Passover time, when the city was swelled with pilgrims. Different factions under John of Gischala, Elasar the son of the priest and Shimon bar Giora expended a great deal of pointless effort in fighting each other, apparently burning the grain reserves of the city in the fighting, or else burning them intentionally to motivate the people to fight. The Romans advanced methodically. The factions, too late, united to fight the Romans. In late June or early July, the Romans had taken the citadel (Antonia). At the beginning of August (the 9th day of Av by the Hebrew calendar), they burned the temple. According to Josephus, this occurred by accident, but according to the account of the Christian historian Sulpicius Severus (Chronicles, 30) Titus had ordered the temple to be destroyed. Severus may have been maligning the pagan emperor without cause, or he may have been relying on the now lost account of Tacitus, who had less reason to be flattering to Titus than Josephus.

The upper city of Jerusalem, above the temple held out for slightly less than a month, until September of 70. Titus returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph in 71.  Lucilius Bassus was appointed governor, and with the X Legion, Fretensis, he  took Herodium and then Machaerus on the shore of the Dead Sea in Trans-Jordan. But Bassus died and was replaced by Lucius Flavius Silva, who attacked Masada with the a reinforced 10th legion.  The fall of Masada in March or April of 73 or 74, and the suicide of its  defenders and their wives and children, concluded the revolt.

Map of Jerusalem Battles During Jewish Revolt

1) Romans breach Third Wall (probably incomplete)  May 25 and capture New City.
2) Romans enter Second Quarter. Jews withdraw behind first wall. May 30-June 2.
3) Titus' divided attack on First Wall and the Antonia citadel fails.
4) Romans build circumvallation wall around city.
5) Romans renew assault on the Antonia. Citadel falls to Titus July 22.
6) Romans burn gates and enter Temple courtyards. On August 10 Temple destroyed by fire.
7) Romans burn the Lower City. September 2?
8) Romans assault Herod's Palace and enter the Upper City. Resistance ends on September 26.

 

Coinage in the Jewish Revolt

Coinage is a symbol of sovereignty. In the Maccabean revolt, the  Jewish Revolt (First Jewish War) and the Bar Kochba Revolt (Second Jewish War) the Jewish rebels minted coins. The coins minted in these revolts used the old Hebrew script, rather than the Aramaic script that was certainly in regular use in the first century.

 Shekel with legend "Holy Jerusalem"

Prutah - Copper Penny with the legend Freedom of Jerusalem

The fact that the rebels were able to mint coins and did so provides a measure of the success of the revolt and the seriousness of the organization, which is not the same as the picture given by Josephus of chaotic anarchy and warring armies of bandits. 70 was the last year in which coins were issued by the rebel government.

Tradition of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakka in in the Jewish Revolt

According to Jewish Talmudic tradition, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai played dead and was smuggled out of the city by his students, ostensibly in order to be buried. Once out of the city, he presented himself to Vespasian, prophesying that he would be emperor, and asked to be allowed to set up a center of learning in Jamniah (Yavneh). It should be noted that the siege of Jerusalem did not begin until 70, and was conducted by Titus. Vespasian had been proclaimed emperor in July of 69 and had gone to Alexandria and thence to Rome.

 

Aftermath of the Jewish Revolt

Josephus claims (Jewish Wars, Book 6:9)  that 1,100,000 people were killed in "this whole war"  (not clear if the reference is to the siege of Jerusalem or the entire Jewish War) and 97,000 were taken captive, to be sold as slaves, exhibited in the triumph or killed in gladiatorial contests. The siege had begun on Passover, when the entire nation of Jews had collected in Jerusalem to make the Passover sacrifice. At that time 256,500 sacrifices were made. According to Josephus's arithmetic, this would imply over 2.7 million people (it is not quite clear how he arrived at this number, multiplying 256,500 by 10 in Jewish Wars 6:9:3). It is hard to imagine how this great multitude could be confined in the tiny space that constituted the old city of Jerusalem, but that is what Josephus records, with a reasonable basis for his population estimate. Tacitus provides a much smaller estimate, with less certainty:

I have heard that the total number of the besieged, of every age and both sexes, amounted to six hundred thousand. [Tacitus, Histories, 5:13]

In addition to this great carnage, the wars and devastation caused Jews to flee the country to neighboring areas of the Mediterranean, adding to the diasporas that had existed in Antioch and Beirut (Berytus) and Alexandria.

Shimon Bar Giora was paraded in the triumph in Rome and thrown from the Tarpian rock in the traditional Roman fashion. The temple Menorah and the golden table were likewise paraded in the triumph. The triumph was commemorated in the Arch of Titus which shows a relief of the Menorah and other spoils. Supposedly, it originally held the actual Menorah that was carried off to Africa during the sack of Rome.

Menorah

Detail of the arch of Titus, showing what may be victors with laurels carrying the Menorah.

Following the conquest of Judea, Vespasian issued coins with the legend "Judea Capta" ("Judea in captivity") and a weeping woman and Roman soldier on the reverse side to his own image. The purpose was apparently to help legitimize the rule of the Flavian dynasty by showing they had triumphed, as well as to warn of the dire consequences of revolt. 

Roman silver Denarius coin of Vespasian, about 71 CE. The obverse shows Judea weeping next to a Roman trophy. These coins were issued after the fall of Jerusalem, but before the revolt was over. .

Roman bronze Sestertius Coin of Vespasian about 71 - Imp(erator) Caes(ar) Vespasian Aug(ustus) with head of Vespasian. On obverse "Judea Capta" (Judea conquered) S.C. (Senatus Consultum - issued by decree of the Senate), Showing a palm tree, a weeping woman and a Roman soldier guard.

Roman bronze Sestertius Coin of Titus - Augustus, son of the deified Vespasianus, with head of Titus On reverse "Judea Capta" (Judea conquered) S.C. (Senatus Consultum - issued by decree of the Senate), Showing a palm tree, a weeping woman and a Roman soldier guard. Very similar to the Vespasianus coin.

The silver Denarius coin of the emperor Titus below was once thought to commemorate the Roman victory over the Jews, However, it has been shown that these coins were issued to commemorate victories in Caledonia. The kneeling subject is male. Judea was always depicted as female. There is no "Iudea" legend, the kneeling captive does not wear greaves typical of Jewish warriors, and there are other signs to indicate that the subject is not Judea.  (See: Cody, J. M., “Conquerors and Conquered on Flavian Coins.” In Flavian Rome: Culture, Image, Text, 103-123. Edited by A. J. Boyle and W. J. Dominik. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003;Wolson, Stanley, Thule And Caledonia: The Achievements Of Agricola's Navy In Their True Perspective Bar Bs459, British Archeological Society 2008)

Mistaken attribution: Roman Denarius coin of Titus showing a captive kneeling before Roman soldier. Once thought to be commemorative of the victory over the Jews, but evidently not so.  

Ami Isseroff

May 16, 2009


Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: Ethiopian Jews

 


Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.


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This work and individual entries are copyright © 2005 by Ami Isseroff and Zionism and Israel Information Center and may not reproduced in any form without permission unless explicitly noted otherwise. Individual entries may be cited with credit to The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel

 

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