Sparked by religious intolerance and lengthened by intractable zealotry, the Jewish-Roman Wars caused the Diaspora of the Jewish people, which would lead to the beginning of the state of israel in the twentieth century.

The ancient fortress mountain of Masada rises 1,300 feet (396 m) above the Dead Sea, a stark reminder of the effect of religious zealotry on warfare. For it was here, in the year 73, that a group of almost 1,000 Jewish rebels—to be more precise, members of the fanatical wing of rebels known to the Romans as Sicarii, or “knife-wielders”—held off a determined assault by the Roman army and then, when all was lost, committed mass suicide. When the Roman Commander General Flavius Silva finally led his army into the Sicarii stronghold, he found the bodies of 960 rebels—men, women, and children. Only two women and five children, hiding in a cistern, were alive to tell the Romans what happened.

Josephus, the Jewish rebel leader turned Roman historian who chronicled the First Jewish-Roman War, wrote of Masada: “These people died with this intention: that they would leave not so much as one soul among them alive to be subject to the Romans.” Not so much as one soul. This phrase defines the three Jewish rebellions against Roman rule in Judea that occurred between 66 and 135. It is from these religious wars that we get the word zealotry. Religious fervor would be a major factor in lengthening wars in the millennia after the birth of Christ and is a major factor in the current conflicts that plague the world today.


The Jews first inhabited the city that would become known as Jerusalem and the area known as Judea—a fertile strip of land along the Mediterranean, at the junction of numerous land and sea trading routes—in the tenth century BCE, when the Israelitribes under King David conquered the area. The Israelis were in turn conquered by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, who in 586 BCE took thousands of Jews into captivity in Babylonia. But after Persian king Cyrus freed them, they returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt their Temple, the heart of the Jewish religion, and lived there for hundreds of years. The Syrian Seleucid dynasty seized Jerusalem in 198 BCE, but thirty years later, all of Judea was freed by a successful revolt of the Maccabees, a Jewish liberation movement.

Thereafter, the Jews enjoyed a century of independence until the Romans under their great consul Pompey took advantage of a civil war between various Jewish religious factions to seize Judea and annex it to the Roman province of Syria in 63 BCE. Although the Romans at first allowed the Jews to have their own leaders—the famous Herod the Great was one of these—there were numerous violent clashes between Roman authorities and extremist Jews, known as Zealots, who wanted the Romans to leave Judea. (It was into this world, fraught with violent political and religious tensions, that Jesus Christ was born; some scholars believe that his message was one of Jewish zealotry and that Christ himself may have been a Zealot.)

In 6 CE, the strife in Judea had grown to such an extent that the Romans decided to place the country under more direct control by appointing procurators—civilian magistrates or governors who reported directly to the Roman emperor—which caused a great deal of dissension among the Jewish people. For one thing, taxes (which, at 19 percent of estimated income, were already quite high) now needed to be paid in money, rather than goods, which placed an almost intolerable burden on the people of a mainly agricultural society. And the taxes had to be paid in Roman coinage. Roman coins had pictures of their goddess Roma or their divine emperor, which broke the Jewish religious strictures against graven images and paying tribute to other gods. To make matters worse, the procurators who collected these impossible sums (Pontius Pilate was one) were in the main corrupt men who despised Jews.

The Jewish leadership became divided as the population became polarized. The high-ranking, conservative religious leaders known as the Sadducees wanted people to pay their taxes, cooperate with the Romans, and avoid bloodshed, while the more radical Jews of the sect known as the Zealots preached rebellion. Matters came to a head in the spring of 66 CE when a procurator named Gessius Florus enraged Jews by seizing money from the treasury of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to make up for a shortfall in Judean tax payments. Rioting tore the city apart, and Florus sent in Roman legionaries along with Greek auxiliary troops to put it down. They did, but bloodily, killing 3,000 citizens of Jerusalem.


The stage was now set for the first of the Jewish uprisings in what would become the long and bloody conflict called the Jewish-Roman Wars. The Sadducees managed to convince Florus to remove all but one cohort of Greek troops from the city, which they thought might help cool tempers, but it was too late. The Sicarii, the most extreme of the Zealots, functioning much like a modern-day terrorist group, sent out assassins to stab to death prominent Sadducees on the streets. Even moderate Jews were targets, causing fear and panic to spread among the populace.

Then the Zealot leader Eleazar ben Hananiah, the captain of the Temple guard and the son of a former high priest, convinced those who followed him that they should not make any more of the animal sacrifices that they were required by Roman law to make to Emperor Nero. Finally, Eleazar’s forces turned to open warfare, massacring the Greek troops left in the city after most of them had surrendered.

This type of killing was a sign of the terrible hatred that is a hallmark of never-ending warfare. The Jews had been impoverished by decades of severe taxation, had their citizenry murdered, and had their religion scorned. It was in particular the profanation of the Temple by the seizing of proceeds its citizens had meant for the upkeep of their religion that enraged most Jews. The situation worsened almost immediately, from a Roman point of view, because the Roman governor of the region, Cestius Gallus, who was stationed in Antioch, Syria, was inept at best. He led an army to assault the Zealots in Jerusalem, but just as it seemed the Romans would defeat the Jews, he withdrew them.

On their way back to Syria, in November 66, the Romans were ambushed by Hananiah’s Zealot troops at the pass at Beth-Horon, a strategic point on a road leading out of Jerusalem where, a hundred years before, the Maccabees had defeated a Seleucid force. An awareness of history is an important thing in a small people fighting an empire. The Zealot troops rained arrows, spears, and rocks down upon the Roman soldiers. As the Romans ducked for cover, they were attacked from the front by a large Zealot force. Unable to maneuver or form up into ranks in the crowded and narrow pass, 6,000 Roman soldiers were killed or wounded.

Up until that point, it was the worst defeat suffered by troops of a rebellious province in Roman history, and an important one in terms of morale for the Zealots. More and more Jews began to flock to their banners, and the Zealots spread out from Jerusalem, taking small Roman outposts all over Judea and Galilee. They also set out to seize major ports along the Mediterranean, hoping to make it more difficult for the Romans to land troops.


In Rome, Emperor Nero was infuriated when he heard that this small province would dare to rise against the might of the Roman Empire. Like most Romans, he had little or no understanding of the power of religion in the lives of the Jewish people. The Jewish religion was interwoven with every aspect of the Jewish culture, from birth to death. When the Romans trampled upon this, they trampled upon a centuries-old way of life.

Fortunately for the Romans, Nero made an unusually good choice for the job of destroying the Jews: the general Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Fifty-eight years old in 67, Vespasianus, known in English as Vespasian, had successfully commanded a legion during the invasion of Britain and been awarded with greater and greater honors, which included being made governor of Africa in 63. However, thereafter his personal fortunes took a downturn as he fell into debt and was then dismissed from the royal court for falling asleep during one of Nero’s endless musical recitals. Nero appointed him because of his reputation as a tough, patient, and stubborn fighter—Vespasian’s nickname among his men was “the Mule Driver”—and that is exactly what the Romans got.

A war fought against guerillas who are inspired by both religion and patriotism is one of the most difficult ones for an imperial country to wage, which is why Vespasian was the right commander at the right time. Landing 45,000 Roman legionaries in Judaea, he began attacking Jewish fortresses one by one, patiently surrounding them, searching for a weak point, finding it, and then exploiting it. Little quarter was given in these battles by either side, with the Zealots either committing suicide at the end or being put to the sword by Vespasian’s men.

In the spring of 68, slowly approaching the outskirts of Jerusalem, Vespasian learned that Emperor Nero had committed suicide after the Roman Senate declared him a public enemy. In the chaotic year that followed—one that saw civil war in Italy and four different emperors upon the Roman throne—Vespasian delayed assaulting Jerusalem while he awaited orders from Rome. When, in 69, he himself was named emperor—his age, honesty, and stability being what the Romans sought—he left control of siege operations against Jerusalem in the hand of his son Titus and headed home.


The siege that Titus—a future emperor of Rome himself—conducted against Jerusalem was a classic one. It was the spring of 70 and the city had been surrounded for more than a year. Although much of this delay was caused by the fact that Vespasian had been awaiting clarity over the situation in Rome, it had worked out strategically for the Roman army. During the lengthy period, the Jewish rebels within the city had begun fighting among themselves.

One faction consisted of Zealots who had been responsible for many of the Jewish victories in the countryside over the past year. Another was a strange group led by John of Gischala, a Galilean who had his men dress, according to the historian Josephus, like women, even “plaiting their hair,” wearing eye shadow, and dousing themselves with perfume. This had the effect of momentarily confusing their enemies long enough for them to plunge a dagger into their chests. The third faction was a stark desert group led by Simon ben Giora, who sought a social revolution that was close in nature to the type that Karl Marx would later write about.

This was a bloody internecine conflict that took place in the streets and alleyways of Jerusalem, its chief weapon being assassination. It weakened the Jewish forces, but in the long run, nothing could have stopped the Roman juggernaut. In May of 70, with a shower of arrows and the thudding of huge battering rams, Titus sent his forces crashing against the city’s walls. It was no easy task. Jerusalem had three walls—the first 20 feet (6 m) high and the two inner ones 30 feet (9 m) high and 15 feet (4.6 m) thick.

But the Roman army was expert at siege tactics. For them, siege was not a long investment, hoping to starve the enemy out or wear him down—that tactic, which we recognize today, began in the Middle Ages. Instead, the Roman siege was an aggressive, offensive action, a repentina oppugnatio (“violent assault”). In this case, the Roman frontline troops brought up movable wooden towers 75 feet (23 m) high, from which they showered down spears, stones, and arrows on the city’s defenders. In the meantime, Roman battering rams shook Jerusalem’s outer wall, day after day.

After fifteen days of fierce attack, the Romans broke through the first wall of defense and the Zealots retreated to their second wall. Four days after that, the Romans broke through that and the Jews were at last forced behind their final line of defense. As those on the ramparts fought bravely, parties of Zealots and Jewish civilians, seeing that destruction was near, began to escape through Jerusalem’s extensive series of sewers. To stop this, Titus ordered a huge wall to be built around the city, a structure 4½ miles (7.2 km) around, replete with thirteen forts, which was completed in just three days’ time, according to the writer Josephus, at the cost of denuding the once heavily forested hills surrounding the city.

Showing that he was fighting a war without mercy, Titus had those Jews who surrendered to Roman forces crucified in full view of the city’s defenders. By early July, legionaries at last breached the last defenses of Jerusalem and drove its defenders into three hilltop fortresses, including the Temple. Knocking the Temple doors down with battering rams, the Romans set fire to it, driving the last remaining Zealots out and slaughtering them.

The bloody fighting didn’t end even then, for Titus hunted the Jews through Jerusalem’s sewers and subterranean water tunnels until these doomed brick caverns ran red with blood. Titus kept 2,000 men, women, and children with which to celebrate his brother Domitian’s birthday—by sending them into gladiatorial rings to be torn apart by wild animals.

As a parting gesture, Titus ordered the entire city of Jerusalem destroyed, leaving only a portion of the wall on the western side—which is today’s Wailing Wall—standing to protect his garrison of legionaries.


Writing at the end of his history of the Jewish-Roman Wars, Josephus describes the Romans surveying the dead Zealots at Masada and goes on to say: “Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of the Jews’ resolution and the immoveable contempt for death which so great a number of them had shown when they went through with such an action as [the mass suicide].”

The first Jewish-Roman War officially closed in 73, when Masada fell, but in actuality the war never really ended at all. The “courage of the Jews” impressed the Romans so much that they made it their practice in the years post-Masada to hunt down entire lineages of Jews and attempt to exterminate them, understanding that their enemy never gave up. This, along with the general devastation of the war (perhaps one million Jews died in seven years; Roman losses are unknown, but certainly in the thousands), led thousands of other Jews to emigrate from the country to different parts of the Roman Empire.

One ingredient of long warfare is long memory, and the Jews in the years after the First Jewish-Roman War never forgot the horrors perpetrated on them, their country, and their religion. The Romans owned the known world at that time, so there were few places the Jews could go that would be outside the reach of those who had despoiled Jerusalem and its Temple. Still, many Jews joined existing Jewish communities in Egypt, Cyprus, and Cyrenaica, which is the northeastern part of modern-day Libya, making lives for themselves as tradesmen, farmers, and herders.

Around 115, the Roman emperor Trajan, an able administrator who sought to consolidate the borders of the Roman Empire, launched a war against Parthia (which encompassed modern-day Iran and Iraq and parts of modern-day Afghanistan) and Armenia. As he was busy waging what would turn out to be successful actions in these areas, a major Jewish revolt began in Cyrene, the largest town in Cyrenaica. It was led by a man named Lukuas (sometimes called Andreas), who may have been a messianic figure, since the first thing that Lukuas ordered his followers to do was destroy the pagan temples of Apollo, Artemis, Hecate, Demeter, Isis, and Pluto, all Greek gods, and to attack those who worshipped them. “Seized by a terrible spirit of rebellion,” as the Greek historian Eusebius wrote, they burned these temples to the ground.

Thousands of Greek citizens (all Roman subjects) were killed by the Jews, and many more fled to Alexandria, Egypt, where there was a population of perhaps 150,000 Jews, making it the largest Jewish center outside of Judea. Even though the Jews in Alexandria had nothing to do with Lukuas and his followers, they were persecuted, and many of them massacred, by the enraged Greeks who had lost property and family members in Cyrene. The following year, in 116, the Jews of Egypt had their revenge, destroying Roman and Greek temples in Alexandria and, with especial symbolism, despoiling the tomb of Pompey, who had captured Jerusalem two centuries before.


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