The Siege of Jotapata [Yodfat]

Jotapata was certainly the safest place in Galilee, hidden away in the mountains and practically invisible until you reached it. Perched around a precipice, guarded on three sides by ravines so deep that the bottom was out of sight, it could be attacked only from the north, where the lower part of the city sloped down the mountain and then up to a slight ridge. At this strategic point, another wall had recently been built, on Josephus’s instructions, to defend the ridge. The approach road through the hills was scarcely better than a goat track, just about adequate for men on foot but not for horses or even for mules, and the little mountain city must have seemed impregnable to those who had never encountered Roman sappers. Its one grave weakness was the lack of a spring inside its walls so that it depended for water on rain stored in its cisterns.

Our sole source for the siege of Jotapata is what Josephus cares to tell us in The Jewish War, since he does not make any mention of it in the Vita, and no other history of the period contains any reference to Jotapata. It has to be remembered, too, that as always he was writing some years later, with two very different audiences in mind: the Romans whom he had joined during the war and the Jews whom he had abandoned. In addition, he was trying to portray his behavior in the best light possible, as that of a heroic commander fighting against impossible odds.

Whether he liked it or not, he was in command and had to fight the Romans. If he attempted to escape, the Jotapatans would try to kill him, and even if he succeeded he stood a fair chance of being caught by enemy patrols who would give him short shrift. In The Jewish War he portrays himself as the gallant and determined leader, the strategos (general) who was always resourceful, always undismayed. In reality, during the forthcoming siege he became increasingly desperate to negotiate but was never given the opportunity.

Yet even if some of his account in The Jewish War is obviously distorted, most of it is plausible enough and carries conviction, in particular when he is not describing his own actions. There is another reason to believe that the broad outline of the siege is correct: when Josephus was writing his history, he knew that it was going to be closely read by the man who had been the commander of the Roman army in the siege. This was the eagle-eyed Vespasian, who lent him his notebooks of the Palestinian campaign. A substantial number of details, especially those concerning the Roman army—such as troop numbers and the names of the enemy commanders—can only have come from Vespasian’s notebooks.

Jotapata’s strength made it a priority for Vespasian. If he succeeded in taking the place, no other Galilean stronghold could think itself impregnable. Moreover, he knew that large numbers of fanatical Jews were in the city. When a deserter told him the governor of Galilee was there as well, he was delighted and thought it divine providence. “The man whom he considered his cleverest opponent had shut himself up in a self-appointed prison,” Josephus modestly records. The Roman general’s first move was to send Placidus and the decurion Ebutius, “an exceptionally brave and resourceful officer,” with a thousand men to surround the city and ensure that the governor did not escape. “He thought he would be able to capture all Judea if only he could get hold of Josephus,” says The Jewish War. This sounds like boasting, yet it may be true since he knew that Vespasian was going to read the account.

On 21 May, a few hours before Josephus reached Jotapata, Vespasian had arrived there with his entire army. He chose a small hill about three-quarters of a mile north as the site of his camp so that it was within full view of the defenders, whom, he hoped, would be terrified by the sheer number of besiegers. His first action was to fence the city off with a double line of infantry and another of cavalry, preventing anyone from getting in or out.

Next day, the Romans launched a full-scale assault. Some of the Jews tried to stop the attackers before they reached the walls, but Vespasian engaged them at long range with archers and slingers while he led his infantry up a slope to where the walls were easiest to climb. Realizing the danger, Josephus rushed out with his entire garrison and drove the legionaries back from the walls. The fighting went on all day, the defenders losing seventeen dead and six hundred wounded, while thirteen Romans were killed and many more wounded. The Jews were so encouraged that the next morning they again sallied out and attacked the enemy. Sorties and savage hand-to-hand fighting continued for five days, with many losses on both sides. When a lull at last ensued, the Romans had inflicted such heavy casualties that the Jews began to lose heart.

Even so, the Jews had fought effectively enough for Vespasian to realize that their city’s walls were a much more serious obstacle than he had appreciated. After consulting his senior officers, he ordered the construction of a siege platform next to the section of the wall that looked the weakest. His troops set about cutting down every tree on the neighboring mountains and gathering big stones and sacks of earth. Layers of wooden hurdles protected them from the javelins and rocks that rained down as they built the platform.

At the same time, the Roman siege artillery, a hundred and sixty “scorpions,” fired nonstop at the walls, together with the catapultae and the stone projectors. There seem to have been two types of scorpion—a big, repeating crossbow, and a smaller, portable version of the catapulta. Mounted on carts, catapultae had multiple strings of twisted catgut and shot armor-piercing bolts or stone balls at very high velocity. Stone projectors (onagers) were huge mechanical slings that hurled boulders, barrels of stones, or firebrands in bundles. This artillery was so effective that some defenders were too frightened to go up on to the ramparts. Nevertheless, some particularly gallant Jews made sorties again and again, pulling off the hides, killing the sappers beneath them, and knocking down the platform.

In response, Josephus built up the wall opposite the platform until it was thirty feet higher, using shelters covered in the hides of newly slaughtered oxen to protect his workmen against missiles. The moist skins gave but did not split when hit and were more or less fireproof. He also added wooden towers along the wall together with a new parapet. The Romans were taken aback by these measures, while the Jews took fresh heart and stepped up their sorties at night, raiding and burning the siege-works.

Irritated at the siege’s slow progress and impressed by the defenders’ pugnacity, Vespasian decided to starve Jotapata into submission, so he pulled back his troops while continuing the blockade. The city had all the food it needed, but not enough rain fell to replenish the cisterns, and water had to be rationed. However, when Josephus saw that the Romans suspected the inhabitants were suffering from thirst, he made them hang heavy garments from the walls, dripping with water. Vespasian was so discouraged that he resumed his daily assaults on the walls.

Despite a close blockade, for a time Josephus was able to communicate with the outside world and obtain at least some of the supplies that he needed. There was a narrow gully, so nearly impassable that the Romans did not bother to guard it, down which he sent couriers disguised by sheepskins on their backs. But eventually this stratagem was discovered, and the city became completely cut off.

What is fascinating about Josephus is how he sometimes lets us see into his mind, in a way that is almost akin to honesty. As he admits, he had gone to Jotapata for his own safety, but now he began to lose his nerve. “Realizing the city could not hold out much longer and that his life might be in danger were he to stay, Josephus made plans to escape with the local notables,” he blandly informs us. He had no qualms about leaving its people to be butchered. Hearing rumors of his plans, a large mob gathered and begged him not to abandon them. “It was wrong for him to run away and desert his friends, to jump from a ship sinking in a storm, in which he had embarked when everything was calm,” they cried. “By leaving, he would destroy the city—nobody would dare go on fighting the enemy if they lost their one reason for confidence.”

Without mentioning that he was worried about his own safety, Josephus replied that he was leaving the city for their sake. If he stayed, he could not do them any good even if they survived, while should the place be stormed he would be killed pointlessly. If he got away from the siege, however, he would be able to do a lot to help, since he could raise a new Galilean army, a huge one, and draw off the Romans by attacking elsewhere. But he really did not see how he could aid the people of Jotapata simply by staying put. It would only make the Romans intensify the siege because what they wanted more than anything else was to capture him.

This eloquent appeal had no effect. The citizens of Jotapata were determined that he should stay; children, old men, and women with babies fell down in front of him and clung to his feet, wailing. They all felt they would be saved if he remained in the city. Realizing that if he stayed they would think he was answering their prayers, but that if he tried to leave he would be lynched, he graciously agreed to remain. He even claims that what made up his mind was pity for them. “Now is the time to begin the struggle when hope of safety is there none!” he declaimed nobly. “What is really honorable is to prefer glory to life by doing heroic deeds that will be remembered from generation to generation.” Then, so he informs us, he immediately led a sally against the Romans, killing several of their sentries and demolishing some of the siege works. For the next few days and nights, “he never left off fighting.”

The legionaries had withdrawn from the front line, waiting for the moment they could mount a full-scale assault. The scorpions and stone throwers kept up their fire, as did the Arab archers and Syrian slingers, inflicting many casualties. The only way the Jews could respond was by repeated sallies, exhausting their strength. By now, the assault platforms had almost reached the top of the walls, so Vespasian decided it was time to use a battering ram. This was a huge baulk of timber like the mast of a ship, its end fitted with a massive piece of iron in the shape of a ram’s head, which was slung by ropes from scaffolding on wheels. Repeatedly pulled back by a team of men, then hurled forward, the iron head could demolish most sorts of masonry. While the Roman artillery stepped up its bombardment, the enemy hauled the ram into position, protected by hides and hurdles. Its first blow made the whole wall shake. “As though it had already fallen down, an awful shriek rang out from those inside,” recalls Josephus.

He tried to lessen the ram’s impact by letting down sacks filled with chaff, but the Romans pushed them aside with hooks on long poles. Recently built, the wall began to crumble. However, the Jews rushed out from three different sally ports and, taking the enemy by surprise, set fire to the ram’s protective superstructure with a mixture of bitumen, pitch, and brimstone, which destroyed it. “A Jew stepped forward whose name deserves to be remembered,” says The Jewish War. He was Eleazar ben Sameas, born at Saab in Galilee. Lifting an enormous stone, he threw it from the wall on to the ram, knocking off the head. Then, leaping down among the Romans, he seized the head, which he carried back to the wall, where he stood waving it until he collapsed, mortally wounded by five javelins, writhing in agony but still clutching his prize.

The besiegers rebuilt the ram and toward evening started to batter the same section of wall. Panic broke out among the Romans when Vespasian was wounded in the foot by a spent javelin (which shows he must have been standing dangerously close to the wall). As soon as they realized he had not been seriously hurt, they attacked with real fury. Josephus and his men fought throughout the night, sometimes sallying out to attack the team working the ram, although the fires they lit made them an easy mark for enemy artillery that was invisible in the dark. Clouds of the scorpions’ monster arrows cut swathes through their ranks, while rocks hurled by the ballistae demolished part of the ramparts and knocked corners off the towers. The lethal power of this weaponry is gruesomely described by Josephus; for example, he wrote that a man standing near him had his head torn off by a stone and flung over 600 yards and that when a pregnant woman was hit in the belly, the child in her womb was thrown 300 feet.

The siege machines made a terrifying clatter, and the endless whizzing of the arrows and stones fired by the Romans was no less frightening. The sinister thud of dead bodies hitting the ground as they fell down off the battlements was equally dispiriting. Women inside the city were shrieking incessantly, while many of the wounded were screaming with pain. The area in front of the wall flowed with blood, while the corpses were heaped as high as the ramparts. To cap everything, the noise was made even more dreadful by the echoes from the mountains that surrounded the city.

Toward morning the wall finally collapsed under the ram’s ceaseless battering. After letting his men have a brief rest, Vespasian got ready to launch his assault at daybreak. Dismounting the pick of his heavily armored cavalrymen, he stationed them three deep near the breaches, ready to go in as soon as the gangways were in position. Behind them, he placed his best foot soldiers. The rest of the horse remained mounted, in extended order farther back, to cut down anyone trying to escape from the city once it had fallen. Still farther back, he ranged the archers in a curved formation with bows at the ready, together with the slingers and the artillery. Other troops were ordered to take ladders and attack undamaged sectors of the wall, to draw off defenders from the breaches.

Realizing what was coming, Josephus placed the older men and walking wounded on the part of the wall that was still standing, where they were more protected and could deal with any attempts at escalade. The fitter men he positioned behind the breach, while groups of six—drawn by lot and including himself—stood at the front, ready to bear the brunt of the assault. He ordered them to plug their ears to avoid being frightened by the legionaries’ war cry and to fall back during the preliminary rain of missiles, kneeling under their shields until the archers had used up their arrows, and then to run forward as soon as the Romans pushed their gangways over the rubble.

“Don’t forget for one moment all the old men and all the children here, who are about to be horribly butchered, or how bestially your wives are going to be put to death by the enemy,” he exhorted them. “Then remember the fury that you feel at the idea of such atrocities and use it in killing the men who want to commit them.”

When daylight came and the women and children saw the three ranks of Roman troops menacing the city, the great breaches in the walls, and all the hills around covered by enemy soldiers, they raised a last, dreadful, despairing scream. Josephus gave orders for them to be locked in their houses to stop them from unnerving their menfolk. Then he took up his post in the breach. Strangely, he had prophesied to some of those around him that the city would fall and that he would be taken prisoner—predictions that were plausible but scarcely good for morale.

Suddenly, the serpentine Roman trumpets sounded their booming summons to battle, the legionaries bellowed their war cry, and the sun was blotted out by missiles—javelins, arrows, scorpion bolts, slingshot, and a hail of stones from the onagers. Josephus’s men, remembering his instructions, had plugged their ears, and they sheltered under their shields. As soon as the gangways went down, they charged forward to meet the attackers. They had no reserves, however, while the enemy, who had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fresh troops, formed a tortoise with their big, oblong shields and began to push forward over the main breach.

Josephus had expected this, however, and was prepared. He ordered boiling oil to be poured down from the sections of wall that flanked the breach onto the tortoise. Leaping and writhing in agony, the legionaries fell off the gangways, their close-fitting armor making it impossible to save them from an excruciating death. When the Jews ran out of oil, they threw a slippery substance—boiled fenugreek—on to the gangways, which made it hard for new waves of attackers to keep their balance, some falling over and being trodden to death. Early that evening Vespasian called off the assault.

He then ordered that the three assault platforms further along the wall should be raised much higher, equipping each one with a fireproof, iron-plated siege tower that was fifty feet tall. His archers, slingshot men, and javelin throwers were able to shoot down at the defenders in comparative safety, and at close range, from the tops of these towers, which also mounted the big repeating crossbows.

In the meantime, Vespasian did not confine himself to besieging Jotapata. He sent 3,000 troops under Ulpius Traianus, commander of the Tenth Legion—and father of the future Emperor Trajan—to sack the town of Japha seventeen kilometers away, whose people had joined the revolt, and he sent his son Titus to help him with additional troops. Together, Trajan and Titus killed over 15,000 Jews, taking another 2,000 prisoner. At the same time, Sextus Cerealis, prefect of the Fifth Legion, marched into Samaria, which despite its traditional hostility to Jews looked as if it was on the verge of rebellion, and slaughtered more than 11,000 Samaritans who had gathered on Mount Gerizim

On the forty-seventh day of the siege of Jotapata, the assault platforms overtopped the walls. A deserter informed Vespasian that the defenders had become too exhausted to put up much of a fight and that sentries often dropped off to sleep in the early hours of the morning. Just before dawn the Romans crept to the platforms, Titus being one of the first to climb over the walls, accompanied by a tribune, Domitius Sabinus, with some men from the Fifteenth Legion. They cut the throats of the watch and then entered the city very quietly, followed by the tribune Sextus Calvarius, Placidus, and other troops. (Josephus must have obtained these details from Vespasian’s campaign notebooks.)

Within a short time the Romans had captured the citadel on the edge of the precipice and were sweeping down into the heart of Jotapata, yet even at daybreak the defenders had not realized that their city had fallen. Most were still fast asleep, having collapsed from fatigue, while a dense mist enveloped everything. The few who were awake were too tired to be alert. Only when the Jotapatans saw the whole Roman army running through the streets and killing everybody it met did they understand that it was all over.

The city quickly turned into a slaughterhouse. The legionaries had not forgotten what they had suffered during the siege, especially the boiling oil. The weapon they used was their principal sidearm, the “gladius” or short, doubled-edged Roman thrusting sword (more like a big knife than a sword), which was ideally suited for massacre. They drove the terrified crowds down from the citadel to the bottom of the hill through the narrow streets, so tightly jammed together that those who wanted to fight could not raise their arms. When they were able, some of Josephus’s best men cut their own throats in despair.

A few held out in one of the northern towers but were overwhelmed, seeming to welcome death. The legionaries suffered only a single casualty. A Jotapatan who had hidden in a cave shouted up to a centurion called Antonius that he wanted to surrender, asking him to reach down and help him out, but when Antonius did so he was stabbed in the groin from below with a spear. Having killed everybody they found in the streets or houses, the Romans spent the next few days hunting down defenders hiding underground. During the siege and the storm they killed at least 40,000 Jews. (This is the figure given by Josephus, who for once may not be exaggerating.) The only prisoners they took were about 1,200 women and children.

Even so, the little city of Jotapata had put up an astonishing resistance. It was a heroic achievement to hold out for nearly eight weeks against the most efficient and best-equipped army in the world. Once again, the Jews had shown that they knew how to fight as if by instinct and that despite their lack of any sort of military training and their pitifully inadequate weaponry, they could be formidable opponents.

Although Josephus may have been a disaster as governor of Galilee in peace time, during the siege of Jotapata he had shown himself to be a gallant and resourceful commander—even if at one point he had thought of running away and deserting his men. His leadership of the city’s defense was one of the great triumphs of his life.


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