“The Siege of Jerusalem”, Peter Connolly
Roman army progress during the siege of Jerusalem (70 AD)
Date: March–8 September 70.
Location: central Israel.
Forces Engaged: Roman: 70,000 men. Commander: Titus.
Jewish: three factions: 15,000 men under Simon Bar-giora; 6,000 men under John of Gischala; 2,400 under Eleazar.
Importance: Roman capture and destruction of Israel’s capital marked the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora.
The Zealots were a revolutionary faction in Israel during the Roman occupation, active in the first century a.d. Although the Romans rarely did anything to hamper the Jews of Israel in the practice of their religion, the Roman worship of their own gods offended many Jews. The affront they felt to their faith, coupled with a series of harsh Roman rulers, set off a revolt that had ruinous consequences for the Jewish people.
The first mention of a popular leader resisting Roman rule is that of Judas of Galilee in a.d. 6/7. He preached resistance to the census ordered by the Romans, possibly the same one mentioned in the biblical book of Luke. He was killed in this revolt, and his death gave rise to the Zealots. They were politically active in opposing Roman rule and were fundamentalist in their interpretation of the Jewish Law. They followed the extremely conservative teachings of Shammai, a member of the Sanhedrin, the semi- governing body of interpreters of Jewish Law. Any Israelite who cooperated with Rome became a target of Zealot wrath. A small faction of the Zealots, the Sicarii (from sica, a dagger), became assassins, attacking not only Romans but Jews who cooperated with them. For a time the Zealots remained a religious faction preaching their conservative values, but they came to the fore in a.d. 41, when the Romans attempted to place a statue of the emperor in Jerusalem’s temple. Zealots attacked a Roman patrol, and the Romans responded by violating a neighborhood synagogue. Such incidents could well have been blown out of proportion and used to inflame the population. Still, the uprisings remained limited until the appointment of Gessius Florus as procurator of Israel in a.d. 67.
Florus was unusually corrupt and made no attempt to take Jewish sensibilities into account in his actions. It is reported by Flavius Josephus (the only recorder of these incidents) that Florus provoked the Jews so he could bring in troops and use the disturbances as an excuse for plunder. Florus’ high-handed activities, coupled with a division within the Jewish ranks over how to respond, led to violence. When the population of Jerusalem publicly jeered Florus, he let loose his legionnaires to ransack the city. He then provoked the people further by demanding that they welcome two arriving Roman cohorts; when the Jews did so and their actions were not fully appreciated, they again vented their vocal ire. Again the troops were set loose and fighting took place throughout the city. Angry Jewish forces occupied the temple and the Zealots began taking over the abandoned forts of Masada and Herodion, built decades earlier by King Herod, which still held sizable armories.
The leading citizens of Jerusalem saw the ultimate impossibility of defeating Rome and counseled moderation, but many of the religious leaders supported the rebellion. The area governor, Agrippa II, sent troops to Jerusalem, but they proved too few to recapture the city. When the rebels massacred a Roman garrison that had been granted safe passage out of the city, it was merely a matter of time before Rome exacted revenge. Throughout Israel the Zealots and their supporters seized the population centers, with only a few remaining in Roman control. The Roman legate in Syria, C. Cestius Gallus, marched to Israel with a legion and regained much of the countryside, but was not strong enough to besiege Jerusalem. He withdrew northward but was ambushed in Beth Horon pass; those Romans not killed fled, abandoning a large store of weapons. The Jews now held siege machinery and had received a major boost in confidence.
Any hope of a negotiated peace was gone, but the Zealots could not capitalize on their early success. Instead, they quarreled among themselves, to the point of combat, and did little to prepare themselves for a war against Rome. They were rebels, not soldiers, and the leadership and discipline necessary to train and prepare did not exist.
When word of the revolt reached Rome, Emperor Nero reinforced the military with troops under the command of Vespasian, a general who had proven his worth in campaigns in Britain. He reestablished Roman control over the countryside but hesitated to attack Jerusalem, not only owing to its difficulty but because of the power struggle in Rome that followed Nero’s death in June 68. Finally Vespasian himself was named Caesar and returned to Rome, leaving his son Titus in command of operations against the Zealots. In the months that Vespasian waited for news from Rome, the Zealots had not used the time to improve the defenses of the city but continued to fight among themselves
Titus laid siege to Jerusalem in the spring of 70, with four legions and auxiliary troops on hand. He weakened the city’s defense by allowing pilgrims to enter to celebrate Passover, then bottling them up inside to strain the food supply. Titus placed three of his legions on the western side of the city and the fourth opposite on the Mount of Olives. They were surprised by a sally from the city and lost heavily. Titus, rather than ordering an immediate assault, instead sent Flavius Josephus to negotiate with the defenders. Josephus had commanded the Jewish forces during the forty-seven-day siege of Jotapata in 67; after his capture he joined the Roman forces after prophesying Vespasian’s accession to power. His writings are the primary contemporary source material for the Roman war in Palestine. His appeals to the defenders were in vain. A second sally, made by a number of Jews disguising themselves as turncoats, also killed a number of Romans and so boosted the defenders’ morale that they began fighting among themselves again.
After a personal reconnaissance around the city walls in mid-May, Titus ordered the assault to begin with a ram pounding the city’s recently completed third wall, on the northern part of the city’s western face. That attack once again united the factions, but they could do little but retreat behind the second wall of the city when, after two weeks, the Roman battering ram completed its work. Titus established a new camp inside the third wall, then made plans for his next assault. The second wall, just west of the Fortress Antonia (the city’s only fortress), fell after a mere four days’ battering, although the Jews constantly counterattacked and harassed the Romans manning the ram. Once through the wall, the Zealots lured Roman soldiers into the narrow streets of the city and dealt them such severe punishment that Titus ordered his men out. Another pounding on the second wall created another breach several days later, after which Titus ordered the entire wall destroyed.
The Romans ceased attacking for a few days and Josephus resumed his fruitless appeals for negotiations. Titus ordered the construction of four siege towers near the Fortress Antonia, but well-executed undermining destroyed two of them and a “forlorn hope” attack set the other two afire. A council of war considered options on how to proceed against the Zealots. Although the food supply in the city was rapidly dwindling, secret passages out of Jerusalem allowed foraging parties to acquire food and attack Roman detachments. Titus ordered a wall of circumvallation to stop this practice. The Roman soldier, who spent more time digging than probably any soldier in history, was exactly the means Titus needed to get this built quickly: it took but three days to surround Jerusalem with 4.5 miles of wall. Construction of four more siege towers also began.
The next Roman assault was aimed at Fortress Antonia. Rams on the siege towers began their pounding with minimal success, but a mine the Zealots had dug weeks earlier collapsed and created a breach in the fortress wall. A second wall, already built, greeted the Romans that attacked, and they failed in an attempt to scale it. Two nights later, however, a secret attack overpowered sleeping Zealot guards and the Romans were inside and racing for the temple, on the highest ground in the city. Fighting raged for hours around the temple, and Titus had to be content to hold Antonia.
Roman battering rams pounding on the temple walls made little progress in six days, but fighting along the walls resulted in fires that began to burn the temple itself. Titus apparently did not want to see the temple destroyed, but in the chaos of fighting the flames became unquenchable. The Romans swept past the ruined sanctuary into control of the northern half of the city, and Jewish resistance began to crumble. The lower city also was destroyed by fire, and the upper city, the southwestern corner, held out until a ramp was built that allowed the Romans access; during its construction, thousands of Jews surrendered, including some priests who surrendered many of the temple treasures to Titus. The city came completely under Roman control on 7 September 70, three weeks after the temple had been destroyed.
In the face of the Roman enemy, the defenders finally buried their differences and held fast even though conditions in the city grew progressively desperate. With their experience in siege warfare, however, the Romans made steady progress against the successive walls the Jews defended, capturing them at the rate of one a month through the summer. In September the last of the city fell to Roman soldiers and was almost completely razed.
The numbers of people killed during the siege are incredible: Josephus claimed 1.1 million, while the Roman historian Suetonius numbered casualties at 600,000. True, Jerusalem was a major city and was packed with pilgrims attending holy day services when the siege began, but many historians think the number reflects the casualties inflicted on all Jews in the entire campaign and not just in the siege. Certainly thousands were killed, sold into slavery, or kept prisoner to be sacrificed at the games for Roman sport. Jerusalem’s fall certainly marked the beginning of the end of a Jewish homeland, for the Diaspora soon saw Jews spreading across the world as their political and religious capital was no more. A few Zealot holdouts kept up the fight for three more years, but Roman power was established until the forces of Islam swept through Palestine in the seventh century.
George C. Brauer, Judaea Weeping (New York: Crowell, 1970); Rupert Furneaux, The Roman Siege of Jerusalem (New York: David McKay, 1972); J. Alberto Soggin, A History of Ancient Israel, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984).