The Jewish Revolts Against the Roman Empire

By Gideon

To a large extent the Jewish people are still affected today by the outcome of a series of wars which took place over 2,000 years ago between an empire that does not exist anymore and a small stubborn nation that did not accept the superiority of the world’s strongest superpower, nor its religion, morals, or way of life. The outcome of these wars was so devastating to the Jewish state that it ceased to exist for two millennia, only to be reborn again after another catastrophe of a bigger magnitude, called the Holocaust.

The Jewish–Roman wars had an epic impact on the Jews, turning them from a major population in the Eastern Mediterranean into a scattered and persecuted minority. The events also had a major impact on Judaism, as the central worship site of Second Temple Judaism, was destroyed during the war. The destruction of the temple fundamentally changed the nature of Judaism. The Jewish tradition of worshiping in the temple was over. With only the Western Wall remaining of the temple in Jerusalem, local synagogues became the new centers of the Jewish religion.The absence of the Temple ended many internal sectarian disputes. A new class of Jewish leadership emerged, the sages whose prominence was based not on heredity, but on Torah expertise. This non-political leadership of scholars laid a new direction for observant Jewish life without the Temple and priesthood.  

This is the story of that ancient war between the mighty Roman Empire and the small Jewish state called Judea.

The Jewish–Roman wars were a series of large-scale revolts by the Jews of the Judaea Province against the Roman Empire. Some sources use the term to refer only to the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE) and Bar Kokhba revolt (132–135 CE) while others include the Kitos War (115–117) as one of the Jewish–Roman wars, although this revolt started among the Jewish diaspora in Cyrenaica, and only its final stages were actually fought within Judaea Province.

When the Romans occupied Israel in 63 B.C.E. life for the Jews became increasingly difficult for three major reasons: taxes, Roman control over the High Priest and the general treatment of Jews by the Romans. Ideological differences between the pagan Greco-Roman world and the Jewish belief in one God were also at the heart of political tensions that eventually led to the revolt. Roman governors were responsible for collecting tax revenue in Israel, but they wouldn’t merely collect the amount of money due the Empire. Instead, they would hike up the amount and pocket surplus monies. This behavior was allowed by Roman law, so there was no one for the Jews to go to when tax dues were exorbitantly high.

Another upsetting aspect of the Roman occupation was the way it affected the High Priest, who served in the Temple and represented the Jewish people on their holiest of days. Although Jews had always selected their High Priest, under Roman rule the Romans decided who would hold the position. As a result, it was often people who conspired with Rome that were made High Priest – thereby giving those trusted least by the Jewish people the highest position in the community. In addition to all these things, Roman soldiers openly discriminated against them, even exposing themselves in the Temple and burning a Torah scroll at one point.

At the beginning of the Common Era, a new group arose among the Jews: the Zealots (in Hebrew, Ka-na-im). These anti-Roman rebels were active for more than six decades, and later instigated the Great Revolt. Their most basic belief was that all means were justified to attain political and religious liberty.

The Jews’ anti-Roman feelings were seriously exacerbated during the reign of the half-crazed emperor Caligula, who in the year 39 declared himself to be a deity and ordered his statue to be set up at every temple in the Roman Empire. The Jews, alone in the empire, refused the command; they would not defile God’s Temple with a statue of pagan Rome’s newest deity. When Nero became the emperor, a governor named Florus convinced him to revoke Jews’ status as citizens of the Empire. This change in their status left them unprotected should any non-Jewish citizens choose to harass them.

The Great Revolt began in the year 66. It started when the Jews discovered that the Roman governor, Florus, had stolen huge amounts of silver from the Temple. The revolutionaries first attacked Jews loyal to Rome and then overpowered a Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem, temporarily eliminating Roman control of the region. The governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus, was dispatched to restore order with thirty thousand troops. After a series of attempts he was defeated and was not able to retake Jerusalem. These initial victories convinced the Zealots that they actually had a chance at defeating the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, that was not the case.Emperor Nero appointed Vespasian to put down the Judean rebellion with greater force. Vespasian was dispatched to the region at once with the Fifth Legion and Tenth Legion. He was later joined at Ptolemais by Titus with the Fifteenth Legion. With strength of 60,000 professional soldiers, the Romans prepared to sweep across Galilee and marched on Jerusalem. By 68 CE Vespasian’s sixty thousand man army crushed the resistance in Galilee and along the Mediterranean. In December of 69 CE Vespasian became the next emperor and returned to Rome while his son Titus took over the military action.   

The history of the war was covered in dramatic detail by the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus in his work The Wars of the Jews. Josephus served as a commander in the city of Jotapata when the Roman army invaded Galilee in 67. After an exhausting siege which lasted 47 days, the city fell, with an estimated 40,000 killed and the remaining Jews committing suicide. Surviving a group suicide, Josephus surrendered to Vespasian and became a prisoner. He later wrote that he provided the Romans with intelligence on the ongoing revolt.

By 68 CE, the entire coast and the north of Judaea were subjugated by the Roman army, with decisive victories won at Taricheae and Gamala, where Titus distinguished himself as a skilled general. in Galilee over 100,000 Jews were either killed or sold into slavery. Anyone who escaped fled back to Jerusalem, but once they got there the Zealot rebels promptly killed any Jewish leader who didn’t fully support their revolt. Thus, all the more moderate Jewish leaders who headed the Jewish government at the revolt’s beginning in 66 were dead by 68—and not one died at the hands of a Roman. All were killed by fellow Jews. Later, insurgents burned the city’s food supply, hoping that by doing so they could force everyone in the city to rise up against the Romans. Sadly, this internal strife only made it easier for the Romans to ultimately put down the revolt.

The siege of Jerusalem turned into a stalemate when the Romans were unable to scale the city’s defenses. In this situation they did what any ancient army would do: they camped outside the city. They also dug a massive trench bordered by high walls along the perimeter of Jerusalem, thereby capturing anyone who tried to escape. Captives were executed via crucifixion, with their crosses lining the tops of the trench wall. Then in the summer of the year 70 C.E. the Romans succeeded in breaching the walls of Jerusalem and began ransacking the city.

On the ninth of Av, a day that is commemorated every year as the fast day of Tisha B’av, soldiers threw torches at the Temple and started an enormous fire. When the flames finally died out all that was left of the Second Temple was one outer wall, from the western side of the Temple’s courtyard. This wall still stands in Jerusalem today and is known as the Western Wall (Kotel HaMa’aravi). More than anything else, the destruction of the Second Temple made everyone realize that the revolt had failed. It is estimated that one million Jews died in the Great Revolt.

Many Jewish leaders didn’t support the revolt because they realized that the Jews couldn’t defeat the mighty Roman Empire. Though most of these leaders were killed by Zealots, some did escape. The most famous one is Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who was smuggled out of Jerusalem disguised as a corpse. Once outside the city walls he was able to negotiate with the Roman general Vespasian. The general allowed him to establish a Jewish seminary in the town of Yavneh, thereby preserving Jewish knowledge and customs. When the Second Temple was destroyed it was learning centers such as this that helped Judaism to survive.

In 66 CE, a group of Jewish rebels, the Sicarii, overcame the Roman garrison of Masada with the aid of a ruse. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, additional members of the Sicarii fled Jerusalem and settled on the mountaintop. According to Josephus, the Sicarii were an extremist Jewish splinter group antagonistic to a larger grouping of Jews referred to as the Zealots, who carried the main burden of the rebellion. According to Josephus, the Sicarii based at Masada raided nearby Jewish villages including Ein Gedi, where they massacred 700 women and children.In 73 CE, the Roman governor of Judaea Lucius Flavius Silva headed the Roman legion X Fretensis and laid siege to Masada. The Roman legion surrounded Masada, and built a circumvallation wall and then a siege embankment against the western face of the plateau. Romans took the X Legion and a number of auxiliary units and Jewish prisoners of war, totaling some 15,000 troops in order to crush Jewish resistance at Masada. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp. The walls of the fortress were breached in 73 CE. According to Josephus, when Roman troops entered the fortress, they discovered that its 960 inhabitants had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and committed mass suicide/killed each other. Josephus wrote of two stirring speeches that the Sicari leader had made to convince his fellows to kill themselves. Only two women and five children were found alive.

While Trajan (98-117) was busy fighting against the Armenians and Parthians, a revolt which was mainly led by Jews, broke out in Cyprus, Egypt, and Cyrene on the north coast of Africa. In Cyrene, it was led by a Jewish “king” called Lukuas, and in Cyprus by Artemion. In Eretz Israel violence flared in the Jerusalem area and the Galilee where it was known as polemos shel Kitos (War of Quietus) named after the Moorish General Lucius Quitus who put down the rebellion. After almost a year of fighting, Trajan’s General, Marcius Turbo, succeeded in putting down the rebellion. In all of the cities, there was widespread destruction including the capital of Cyprus, Salamis, much of Alexandria, and most of the Island of Cyrene. In Alexandria, the great synagogue and library were destroyed as well. As a result, Jews were forbidden to live in Cyprus. The rebellion forced Trajan to abandon his campaign to conquer Babylon which continuted to provide a refuge for the Jews.

From the letters and other historical data, we learn that in 132 CE, Bar Kosiba organized a large guerilla army and succeeded in actually throwing the Romans out of Jerusalem and Israel and establishing, albeit for a very brief period, an independent Jewish state. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) states that he established an independent kingdom that lasted for two and half years. Bar Kosiba’s success caused many to believe ― among them Rabbi Akiva, one of the wisest and holiest of Israel’s rabbis ― that he could be the Messiah. He was nicknamed “Bar Kochba” or “Son of Star,” an allusion to a verse in the Book of Numbers (24:17): “there shall come a star out of Jacob.” This star is understood to refer to the Messiah. Bar Kochba did not turn out to be the Messiah, and later the rabbis wrote that his real name was Bar Kosiva meaning “Son of a Lie” ― highlighting the fact that he was a false Messiah. At the time, however, Bar Kochba ― who was a man of tremendous leadership abilities ― managed to unite the entire Jewish people around him. Jewish accounts describe him as a man of tremendous physical strength, who could uproot a tree while riding on a horse. This is probably an exaggeration, but he was a very special leader and undoubtedly had messianic potential, which is what Rabbi Akiva recognized in him. Jewish sources list Bar Kochba’s army at 100,000 men, but even if that is an overestimate and he had half that number, it was still a huge force.They overran the Romans, threw them out of the land of Israel, declared independence and even minted coins. That is a pretty unique event in the history of the Roman Empire. Rome could not let this be. Such boldness had to be crushed and those responsible punished ― brutally and totally. But the Jews were not easily overcome. Hadrian poured more and more troops into Israel to fight the Bar Kochba forces until the Romans had enlisted almost half of their entire army, as many as twelve of the twenty-four legions of the empire may have been brought into Israel (three times as many as they had sent in to crush the Great Revolt 65 years earlier) to crush the revolt. Heading this mammoth force was Rome’s best general, Julius Severus. But even with all this might behind him, Julius Severus was afraid to meet the Jews in open battle. This fact alone is very telling, because the Romans were the masters of open battle. But they feared the Jews because they saw them as being willing to die for their faith ― a mentality the Romans thought suicidal. Thanks to the numbers of soldiers and his officers, and by depriving them of food and shutting them up, he was able to crush, exhaust and exterminate them. Very few of them in fact survived. Fifty of their most important outposts and 985 of their most famous villages were razed to the ground, and 580,000 men were slain in various raids and battles, and the number of those who perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out. The Romans lost an entire legion in battle. The 22nd Roman legion walked into an ambush and was slaughtered and never reconstituted. By the end of the revolt the Romans had to bring virtually half the army of the entire Roman Empire into Israel to crush the Jews. The Jews came very close to winning the war. The sages say they lost because they were too arrogant. Having tasted victory they adopted the attitude of, “by my strength and my valor I did this.” (Deut. 8:17) Bar Kochba too became arrogant. He saw himself winning. He heard people calling him the Messiah. Certainly, if Rabbi Akiva thought so, then he had the potential to be Israel’s Ultimate Leader. He also became corrupted by his power and even beat his uncle, the great Rabbi Elazar HaModai, to death, having accepted false accusations that he was a Roman spy. Because of these faults he began to lose battles and was forced into retreat and guerrilla warfare. Bar Kochba made his final stand in the city of Betar, which is to the southwest of Jerusalem.

The final battle of the war took place in Bethar, Bar-Kokhba’s headquarters, which housed both the Sanhedrin (Jewish High Court) and the home of the Nasi (leader). Bethar was a vital military stronghold because of its strategic location on a mountain ridge overlooking both the Valley of Sorek and the important Jerusalem-Bet Guvrin Road. Thousands of Jewish refugees fled to Bethar during the war.

In 135 C.E., Hadrian’s army besieged Bethar and on the 9th of Av, the Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples, the walls of Bethar fell. After a fierce battle, every Jew in Bethar was killed. Six days passed before the Romans allowed the Jews to bury their dead. The war was ended, and Bar Kokba met his death upon the walls of Bethar. Following the battle of Bethar, there were a few small skirmishes in the Judean Desert Caves, but the war was essentially over and Judean independence was lost.

The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE of Jerusalem in 135 CE was followed by a fierce official persecution and compulsory expulsion of all Jews from vicinity of Jerusalem. Jewish life changed dramatically in Judea, the nationalistic aspirations of an independent state were crushed and remaining Jews were forced to relocate to Galilee or to major Diaspora centers. The establishment of the Roman Aelia Capitolina on the ruins of Herodian Jerusalem began a long chapter in the history of the region without meaningful Jewish prominence.

Indescribable misery spread over the country; the land became a desert; the Jews were slaughtered; Talmud and Midrash bewail the horrors of the Roman conquest. According to Dio Cassius, 580,000 Jews fell in battle, not including those who succumbed to hunger and pestilence. It must have been regarded as an evil omen by the Jews that the pillar of Solomon in Jerusalem fell of itself. Indeed, the end of the Jewish nation had come.

The Romans also had sustained heavy losses; and it is reported that Hadrian did not even send the usual message to Rome that he and the army were well.

The Jews are said to have been brought in by false promises. Many were sold into slavery; Jews were sold for the price of a horse. Others were sold at the marketat Gaza, and the remainder were transported to Egypt. Some were fortunate enough to be able to flee either to Asia Minor, or even to Armenia.

The subsequent era was one of danger, during which the most important ritualistic observances were forbidden; for which reason the Talmud states that certain regulations were passed to meet the emergency. It was also called the age of the edict (“gezerah”) or of persecution (“shemad,” Shab. The ten martyrs, glorified in legend, in those days suffered death for their faith; for it was the aim of the government to destroy the very essence of Judaism by preventing the study of the Law. Other prohibitions were promulgated concerning the Sabbath, circumcision, tefillin, and mezuzah, and constituted a mass of ordinances usually embraced in the term “the Hadrianic persecution.” A positively inhuman prohibition was issued which prevented the Jews from walking in the vicinity of Jerusalem, so that they could not even pour out their griefs on hallowed soil.

The former plan of Hadrian was now also put into execution: after the plow had been drawn over the Temple mountain, Jerusalem became a pagan city under the name of “Ælia Capitolina. According to a Rabbinic midrash (the Ten Martyrs), in addition to Bar Kokhba the Romans executed ten leading members of the Sanhedrin: the high priest, R. Ishmael; the president of the Sanhedrin, R. Shimon ben Gamaliel; R. Akiba; R. Hanania ben Teradion; the interpreter of the Sanhedrin, R. Huspith; R. Eliezer ben Shamua; R. Hanina ben Hakinai; the secretary of the Sanhedrin, R. Yeshevav; R. Yehuda ben Dama; and R. Yehuda ben Baba.

The Rabbinic account describes agonizing tortures: R. Akiba was flayed, R. Ishmael had the skin of his head pulled off slowly, and R. Hanania was burned at a stake, with wet wool held by a Torah scroll wrapped around his body to prolong his death.

By destroying association of Jews to Judea and forbidding the practice of Jewish faith, Hadrian aimed to root out a nation that engaged heavy casualties on the Empire. Yet, Hadrian’s death in 138 CE marked a significant relief to the surviving Jewish communities. Rabbinic Judaism had already become a portable religion, centered around synagogues, and the Jews themselves kept books and dispersed throughout the Roman world and beyond.

The  rabbis of the Talmud:

“The rabbis of the Talmud shared the perspective of Josephus in The Jewish War: The revolutionaries were crazed fanatics who did not listen to the sage counsel of the rabbis and persisted in their folly. They brought disaster upon the entire house of Israel. In the Talmudic account, the hero of the war is Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, a man who fled from Jerusalem, went over to the Roman side and acknowledged the suzerainty of Vespasian, the Roman general and soon-to-be emperor. Isaiah’s prophecy that “Lebanon shall fall to a mighty one” (Isaiah 10:34) was interpreted by Yohanan ben Zakkai to mean that the Temple (constructed from the cedars of Lebanon) would fall into the hands of Vespasian (a mighty one). The rabbinic hero thus hailed the Roman general as victor and emperor well before his actual victory and his elevation to the purple. From the perspective of the revolutionaries, this was treason; but from the perspective of the rabbis, viewed with acute hindsight, this was wisdom, a course of action that to their regret had not been followed.” []

The Rambam and Rav Tzvi:

“Rav Tzvi Yehuda would note that Rambam’s view that the Mashiach need not be a performer of miracles – derived from Rabbi Akiva’s relationship to Bar Kochba, and his dedication to the role of the ideologue of the Bar Kochba rebellion. The Mashiach must be somebody with national leadership qualities. Bar Kochba was perceived to be the Mashiach until he was killed, and when that happened, it became clear that he was not the Mashiach. None of the scholars of the time ever asked Bar Kochba for any sort of outward sign that he was the Mashiach…Rav Tzvi Yehuda would also point to Lag Ba’omer as the memorial day for all those Jews who sacrificed their lives throughout the generations, from the students of Rabbi Akiva, to the young people of our generation. It is possible to say, in essence, that the Bar Kochba rebellion never really ended, and that today we are still experiencing its continuation.” []

Modern Scholars:

“In the modern period, two schools of thought emerged with respect to his revolt. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and most of his generation, saw in Bar Kochba a heroic leader who could be a source of inspiration for the youth of Israel who were being asked in 1948 to fight for the reestablishment of their homeland. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Revisionists led by Zeev Jabotinsky named their youth movement after Beitar, where Bar Kochba’s forces were finally defeated by Rome.

The second view of Bar Kochba was represented by Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former head of military intelligence. In the late 1970s he accused Bar Kochba and his supporters of bringing national disaster upon the Jewish people by conducting a war against all odds to defeat the Roman Empire and by relying upon an “unrealistic assessment of the historical and political circumstances” they faced.

So how should we relate today to Bar Kochba? Should he remain as a legendary hero as he was depicted by Israel’s founders?

Prof. Yigal Yadin made the point that it is hard for us today to judge the wisdom of those who launched a guerilla war against Rome in 132. There are serious dangers emanating from misusing the history of the Bar Kochba Revolt and its results to analyze Israel’s political options in modern times. Had the Jewish leadership of the Yishuv in 1948 relied upon the alternative interpretations of Bar Kochba as a guide, they might not have declared Israel’s independence, fearing the invasion of six Arab armies (they probably would have invaded anyway, just to grab territory). Also, Israel would not have launched a preemptive strike in the 1967 Six-Day War when Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq were massing their armies along its borders.” [Dore Gold]



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Israeli archaeologists say they’ve found a trove of gold and silver coins that date back to the Bar Kochva Revolt some 2,000 years ago.


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The treasure discovered near Kiryat Gat is believed to have been stashed there by a wealthy woman during the Bar Kochba revolt

“This is probably an emergency cache that was concealed at the time of impending danger by a wealthy woman who wrapped her jewelry and money in a cloth and hid them deep in the ground prior to or during the Bar Kokhba Revolt,” said archaeologist Sa’ar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “It is now clear that the owner of the hoard never returned to claim it.” The trove included 140 gold and silver coins as well as gold jewelry. Scientists said the coins date to the reigns of emperors Nero, Nerva and Trajan, who ruled the Roman Empire from about A.D. 54 to 117.




Replica of Jerusalem before the destruction – Israel Museum, Israel 2015




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