Great Jewish Revolt

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The Great Jewish Revolt (6673 CE), sometimes called The first Jewish-Roman War, was the first of two major rebellions by the Jews of Judea against the Roman Empire (the second was Bar Kokhba's revolt in 132-135). It began in 66, sparked by religious violence between the Jews and the Hellenists; it ended when legions under Titus besieged and destroyed Jerusalem, looted and burned the Second Temple (70) and Jewish strongholds (notably Masada in 73), and enslaved or massacred a large part of the Jewish population. The defeat of the Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire notably contributed to the numbers and geography of the Jewish Diaspora, as many Jews were scattered after losing their state or were sold to slavery throughout the empire.

Contents

Background

From about 6 CE Judea was ruled by Roman procurators, who were responsible for maintaining peace and collecting taxes. Pocketing any amount above the quota had been a regular practice, which led to abuse. The tensions rose higher when pagan Rome took over the appointment of the High Priest. In 39, Emperor Caligula declared himself a god and ordered his statues to be set up at every temple. The Jews refused, alone in the whole Empire, preparing for armed revolt. Only Caligula's death in 43 ended the disturbance. The theft of a large amount of money from Temple treasury by procurator Gessius Florus (who, according to Tacitus, "indulged in every kind of robbery and violence") contributed to the radicalization and increased the popularity of Zealots, some of who believed that any means were justified in order to attain political and religious independence from Rome.

First successes

The revolt began in 66 in Caesarea, provoked by the desecration of local synagogue by the Hellenists, with which the Greek-speaking Roman garrison did not intrude. In an act of defiance, the son of high priest Eliezar ben Hanania ceased prayers and sacrifices dedicated to the Roman Emperor at the Temple and subsequently led a successful attack on the Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem. The pro-Roman king Agrippa II and his sister Berenice fled Jerusalem to Galilee, where later they gave themselves up to Romans. Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria, brought reinforcements to restore order, but was soundly defeated (Legio XII Fulminata lost even its aquila) at Beit-Horon while retreating.

The fall

Emperor Nero appointed general Vespasian instead of Gallus to quash the rebellion. Vespasian made Caesarea his headquarters and with his legions (60,000 professional soldiers) methodically cleared the coast and the North. Some towns gave up without a fight. By the year 68, Jewish resistance in the North had been crushed.

The leaders of collapsed Northern revolt John of Giscala and Simon ben Giora managed to escape to Jerusalem. Brutal civil war erupted: the Zealots and Sicarii executed anyone advocating surrender, and by 68 all the leadership of the southern revolt was dead, all killed by the Jews, none by the Romans.

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A drawing depicting the destruction of the Second Temple

After the death of Nero and with the backing of the army, Vespasian was proclaimed emperor in 69 and left for Rome to take the throne from Vitellius in a brief Roman civil war (See Year of the four emperors).

Titus Flavius, Vespasian's son, led the final assault and siege of Jerusalem. During the infighting inside the city walls, a stockpiled supply of dry food was intentionally burned to induce the defenders to fight against the siege instead of negotiating peace; as a result many city dwellers and soldiers died of starvation during the siege. Zealots under Eleazar ben Simon held the Temple, Sicarii led by Simon ben Giora held the upper city.

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The treasures of Jerusalem (detail from the Arch of Titus)

By the summer of 70 the Romans had breached the walls of Jerusalem, ransacking and burning nearly the entire city. The Second Temple was destroyed on Tisha B'Av (August 29 or August 30), 70. John of Giscala surrendered at Herod's fortress of Jotaphta and was brought to Rome for public execution.

The famous Arch of Titus still stands in Rome: it depicts Roman legionaries carrying off the Temple of Jerusalem's treasuries, including the menorah.

Some spots of resistance were not vanquished until 73, but they did not affect the outcome of the war. The most notable is Masada, where, according to Josephus, 960 defenders preferred mass suicide to surrender.

The outcome

A coin issued by the rebels in 68 CE. : ", Israel. Year 3". : "Jerusalem the Holy"
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A coin issued by the rebels in 68 CE. Obverse: "Shekel, Israel. Year 3". Reverse: "Jerusalem the Holy"

Estimates of the death toll range from 600,000 to 1,300,000 Jews: there was "no room for crosses and no crosses for the bodies". Over 100,000 died during the siege, and almost 100,000 were taken to Rome as slaves. Many fled to areas around the Mediterranean.

The Romans hunted down and slaughtered entire clans, such as descendants of the House of David. On one occasion, Titus condemned 2,500 Jews to fight with wild beasts in the amphitheater of Caesarea in celebration of his brother Domitian's birthday.

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An ancient Roman coin. The inscription reads IVDAEA CAPTA

The coins inscribed Ivdaea Capta (Judea Captured) were issued throughout the Empire in order to demonstrate the futility of possible future rebellions. Judea was represented by a crying woman.

Titus refused to accept a wreath of victory, as there is "no merit in vanquishing people forsaken by their own God". (Philostratus, Vita Apollonii). This notion would accompany Jews throughout centuries. (See anti-Semitism)

Before Vespasian's departure, the Pharisaic sage and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai attained his permission to establish a Judaic school at Yavne. Zakkai was smuggled away from Jerusalem in a coffin by his students. Later this school has become a major center of Talmudic study. (See Mishnah)

Sources

The main account of the revolt comes from Josephus, the former Jewish commander of Galilee who switched over to the Roman side. Since Josephus had been granted citizenship and a pension in Rome and was well accepted at the courts of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, his work is likely to be biased in favor of his imperial patrons, especially Titus.

His popular works Jewish War (c. 79) and Jewish Antiquities (c. 94)—especially its autobiographical appendix—are frequently contradictory. He was loathed by the Jews as a turncoat and Roman apologist, but later in life he returned to his Jewish roots.


Berenice, the tragedy written by Jean Racine in 1670, is based on the story of her love affair with Titus.

See also

de:Jüdischer Aufstand nl:Joodse Opstandhe:המרד הגדול pt:Grande Revolta Judaica

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