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First Jewish-Roman War

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: July 31, 2006 
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In 64 ad, the part of the province of Syria known as Judea came under the rule of a cruel and avaricious Roman procurator who had no respect for Jewish religious traditions. Abuses multiplied, and a reaction from Zealots — Jews long opposed to the Roman presence in their homeland — was not long in coming. Rebels whose patience had run out slaughtered a Roman garrison in Jerusalem. Others seized weapons at Masada, a fortress atop a mesa near the Dead Sea. Those acts brought about the Jewish War, a war that reached its climax in the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Roman legions and ended with the fall of Masada.

Roman rule over Judea began in 63 bc, after a centuries-long struggle over the blending of Greek culture and Jewish tradition exploded into civil war. The Roman general Pompey intervened and attacked Jerusalem in 66 bc. After a three-year siege, the city surrendered and Pompey annexed Judea to Roman-ruled Syria. Several rulers favorable to Rome — of whom Herod the Great was the most famous — governed Judea until 6 ad. For most of the next several decades, Roman procurators governed Judea as a part of the province of Syria.

The procurators could not comprehend what they regarded as the strange customs of an alien country. Actions that were insignificant in their eyes sometimes caused an uproar. When procurator Pontius Pilate moved his army from Caesarea to Jerusalem, a crowd of Jews walked 70 miles to Caesarea and lay prone around Pilate's house for five days. They were objecting to the effigies of the emperor Augustus on the standards of his infantry. To the more zealous Jews, such symbols of the emperor as a Roman god violated the Second Commandment ban on 'graven images.

The procurator whose actions ultimately triggered an armed rebellion was Gessius Florus. He released robbers from prison for a price, then allowed them to continue their thefts for a share of the booty. The Jews complained to Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria and Florus' immediate superior. Gallus could not or would not control Florus. The procurator next took 17 talents from the treasury of the Temple of Jerusalem. When the people protested, he marched his troops into the city and turned them loose to plunder and kill.

The Jewish people disagreed over what they should do. The priestly Sadducees and other leaders wanted to coexist with the occupiers and hope for a gentler successor to Florus. Nationalistic groups such as the Zealots were ready to fight. They had already been waging a guerrilla war of independence for years. One Zealot faction, known as the Sicarii, or knife-wielders, were urban terrorists who murdered people in the streets whom they viewed as Roman collaborators.

The captain of the Temple committed the first act of rebellion in July of 66 ad, when he stopped the twice daily offering of a bull and two lambs on behalf of the emperor and the Roman people. That slap in the Roman face alarmed Jerusalem's leading citizens, who requested troops from both Florus and Agrippa II, grandson of Herod the Great and king of the region north of Galilee known as Chalcis. Agrippa had no political authority in Jerusalem, but he maintained a palace there for himself and his sister Berenice. He was also in charge of the Temple.

In September, Agrippa sent 2,000 horsemen. They entered the Upper City and fought a battle of mutual slaughter against Zealots led by Eleazar. After seven days of bloody strife, Sicarii reinforcements helped the Zealots drive Agrippa's men from the city. At about the same time, the Sicarii leader Menahem and his men took Masada and returned to Jerusalem with a veritable arsenal of weapons. Their blood up, the victors in Jerusalem burned the house of the high priest and the palace of Agrippa and Berenice. They stormed the fortress Antonia, adjacent to the northwest corner of the Temple, and killed its Roman cohort. They laid siege to Herod's palace, then massacred all but the leader of its Roman garrison after promising a safe exit. Those murders on the Sabbath put the entire city in fear of both human and divine reprisal.

During that fighting, a rift developed between the Sicarii and the other zealots. The larger zealot faction drove the Sicarii out and killed Menahem, but the war between the two factions was far from over.

Cestius Gallus marched from Antioch, the Syrian capital, with an army of 18,000, destroying some towns in Galilee en route and receiving assurances of loyalty from others. Arriving at Jerusalem in early October, he entered the city through the unfinished third wall, which Agrippa I had begun building years before around the northern half of the city.

When the insurgents retreated to the Temple, Gallus' legionaries undermined the Temple wall and prepared to burn the Temple gate. The legate seemed close to crushing the rebellion when, for some reason, he ordered his forces to withdraw from the city. Gallus may have felt that he could not prevail against such courageous defenders. Instead of staying put, the Jews chased the retreating army, inflicting heavy damage as they went. In the northern suburb of Bezetha, the Jews descended on the column in force, killing 6,000 Romans and forcing Gallus to abandon his baggage and siege train. The rout left the rebels stocked with captured siege engines and swollen with confidence of future victories.

Many prominent Jews left Jerusalem to escape the inevitable Roman retaliation, but the leaders who remained there prepared to defend their country. They completed the third wall of the city and appointed men to mobilize resistance in different regions. To Galilee they sent a priest named Joseph ben Mattathias. Posterity would know him as Flavius Josephus, the principal historian of the Jewish War.

Josephus had visited Rome a few years earlier and knew the strength and discipline of its legions. He trained an army on the Roman model, which he numbered at 65,000 (though Josephus may have inflated some of his troop counts). He also built walls around several cities.

Not everyone in Galilee welcomed Josephus. His most determined opponent there was John of Gischala, who held a monopoly on kosher oil and netted huge profits but wanted political power as well. He resented Josephus' interference and tried to label him a traitor. He also made repeated attempts on Josephus' life. The emperor Nero, meanwhile, sent Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian) to put down the rebellion in Judea. Vespasian had fought 30 battles in Britain and captured more than 20 towns there. Although about 57 years of age, he was a trustworthy and energetic commander. He took his elder son, Titus, along as a staff officer.

Vespasian assembled an army of 60,000 at Ptolemais. Preliminary raids by the army on many towns in Galilee regularly defeated the troops Josephus had trained, and by the time Vespasian and Titus began their march in the spring of 67 ad, much of Galilee had already been pacified. The mere sight of that mighty host moving into Galilee put Josephus' army to flight. Josephus and a few others then took refuge in Jotapata, the most strongly fortified city in Galilee. Vespasian was determined to take it first. Daily battles outside the city walls preceded a 47-day siege, in which a siege platform, three 50-foot armored siege towers and 160 siege engines proved insufficient to breach the walls or overcome Jotapata's Jewish defenders. Vespasian himself was wounded in the foot by an arrow during one fierce, but nevertheless fruitless, assault. After cutting off the western approaches to Jotapata — and with it, the city's food and water supply — the Romans finally swarmed over the walls after a Jewish deserter told Vespasian when the sentries would be sleeping.

Josephus and 40 compatriots took refuge in a cave. Expecting capture and death, they made a suicide pact, drew lots and began killing one another. Josephus somehow arranged to be one of two men left alive. He then surrendered to a Roman officer, who took him to Vespasian. The fast-talking Josephus convinced Vespasian that he was a prophet. He predicted that both Vespasian and Titus would someday be emperor. In return for these glad tidings, Vespasian spared Josephus' life but kept him a prisoner.

The Romans continued the campaign until late in 67 ad, capturing Joppa, Tiberias, Tarichaeae and Gamala. Gischala surrendered, but John escaped to Jerusalem. With the conquest of Galilee complete, Vespasian wintered his troops in Caesarea and Scythopolis.

When John of Gischala reached Jerusalem, the Zealots had already occupied the Temple and elected a rival high priest named Phanias. Coveting the leadership that Josephus had denied him in Galilee, John falsely informed Zealot leaders that the other high priest Ananus and his friends were about to hand the city over to the Romans. The Zealots called for an army from Idumaea, a land to the south, to help prevent the betrayal of the capital.

Once inside the city walls, the Idumaeans went out of control. The Temple became a battleground and the city a blood bath. Ananus was killed and denied burial. Ordinary people struggled to stay alive. When the plot to betray the city proved to be a hoax, most of the Idumaeans left in disgust. Judging the moment to be right, John broke with the Zealots and formed his own party.

On June 9 in 68 ad, while Vespasian was subduing the area around Jerusalem, Nero, having been declared a public enemy by the Roman senate, committed suicide. When word of the emperor's death reached him, the general suspended activity and waited for instructions from Nero's successor.

The following year was the year of the four emperors. In rapid succession, Sulpicius Galba, Marcus Salvius Otho and Aulus Vitellius reigned, only to die by assassination or suicide. Some Jews may have interpreted the chaos in Rome as a sign of the end of history as foretold in the apocalyptic literature of the day. If God was destroying the Roman Empire, the Zealots reasoned, no Roman sympathizer deserved to live.

Following the death of Vitellius and the victory of pro-Vespasian forces led by the general's son, Mucianus, Vespasian was acclaimed emperor on December 21 in 69 ad. Impressed that one of Josephus' prophecies had come true, Vespasian freed his prominent Jewish prisoner, then left for Rome, leaving Titus in command of his forces in Judea.

Roman historian Suetonius reported that Titus was skilled with horse and arms. In the final assault on Jerusalem, he personally killed 12 of the city's defenders with successive arrows. And another Roman historian, Publius Cornelius Tacitus, noted that Titus was ever displaying his gracefulness and his energy in war. By his courtesy and affability he called forth willing obedience, and he often mixed with the common soldiers, while working or marching, without impairing his dignity as a general.

The emperor's son prepared to assault Jerusalem. He placed three of his four legions in a main camp west of the city, while the fourth legion took up position east of the city on the Mount of Olives. Josephus became Titus' interpreter. During this time, turmoil reined inside the city. A rebel leader named Simon Bar-Giora had entered the city, and he, John and Eleazar were fighting a three-way civil war. The Romans' year of inactivity had cost them nothing; Jerusalem was destroying itself.

The factions made an awkward truce while the Romans were settling in. Rebels then attacked the Roman camp on the Mount of Olives, catching the legionaries by surprise and inflicting heavy casualties until Titus arrived with other forces.

Before taking the offensive, Titus sent Josephus to ask the people of Jerusalem to discuss terms of surrender. They responded with the first of several angry refusals.

The next day, a number of Jews pretending to be Roman sympathizers came out of the city. Luring several legionaries away from their lines and toward the city gates, the Jews then attacked them. The legionaries panicked and ran. That delighted the Jews, but Titus nearly had the legionaries executed for cowardice.

Victories like that raised the Jews' confidence and reduced the Roman threat in their eyes — which only led the factions to resume their infighting. Simon controlled the Upper City and part of the Lower City with 10,000 adherents and 5,000 Idumaeans. John's 6,000 followers occupied the Temple and fortress Antonia. Eleazar and his 2,400 Zealots later teamed up with John.

Titus and some of his officers, accompanied by Josephus, rode around the city to survey the walls and plan a siege. As they approached the wall to discuss a peace proposal with some of the Jews there, an arrow struck one of the officers in the shoulder.

An angry Titus knew it was time to begin his attack in earnest, and his survey provided him with the information he needed to start the assault. He ordered timber gathered to build wood and earthen platforms on which to place siege engines. A battering ram went to work at a point on the western portion of the recently completed third wall. Legionaries hurled stones, spears and arrows from two 75-foot-high towers to prevent the Jews from interfering with the ram.

Hearing the frightful din of the ram, the Jewish factions united, but they retreated to the second wall. After 15 days of pounding, the ram did its job. The Romans breached the third wall, demolished much of it, and established a camp in the northern part of the city. By then it was late May in 70 ad.

Walls still enclosed the Temple and fortress Antonia, which stood at the highest location in the city and had their own walls. Titus put the ram to work on the second wall. Although the Jews left no method of counterattack untried, the Romans always beat them back. Both sides fought all day and then passed the night in their armor, ready for battle but unable to sleep.

The Romans breached the second wall after four days, but Titus still wanted to preserve as much of the city as he could, so he left the wall standing. The rebel leaders took advantage of that situation, attacking the invaders in the narrow, unfamiliar streets and encircling them. Although the Jews wounded many legionaries, Titus and his bowmen checked the rebel advance and enabled the Romans to escape through the narrow breach in the wall. Several days later, the Romans broke through the second wall again, and this time they demolished it.

To give the rebels a chance to consider their plight,Titus relaxed the siege for several days. He paraded his entire army in a display of Roman power, while Josephus circled the city delivering emotional appeals to surrender. The rebellious Jews had trusted in arms rather than God, he told them. They had made the Temple a fortress in a senseless battle of Jew against Jew. So, said Josephus, I am sure the Almighty has quitted your holy places and stands now on the side of your enemies. Their only sensible course, exhorted Josephus, was to stop fighting — for their families' sake if not for their own. Regarding Josephus as a contemptible traitor, the Jews again ignored his plea.

Despite their seemingly hopeless predicament, the Jews showed great resourcefulness and courage. The Romans spent 17 days building four platforms, two of them next to the fortress Antonia. John and his men tunneled until they were under those two platforms. Then they dug out cavities and supported the ceilings with wooden beams, which they set afire. The burning beams collapsed, leaving the ceilings unsupported, and the platforms and the siege engines upon them fell into the pits, caught fire, and were destroyed.

Two days later, three Jews with torches and swords dashed through a gantlet of missiles and attacked the siege engines on the other two platforms. Their success empowered other rebels to join them, and the engines and platforms eventually went up in flames.

Stung by that setback, Titus called a council of war. Some of his officers advised bringing up the entire army, since only a portion of it had fought so far. Others wanted to rebuild the platforms. Still others advised the commander to wait and starve out the inhabitants, since food was already very scarce in the city. The warring factions had burned the granaries some time ago to keep the food supply out of the hands of the opposition. But people were still sneaking out of the city through a network of tunnels. They smuggled in supplies, harassed Roman detachments, and attacked those who carried in the Romans' water supply.

The council decided to build a wall around the entire city to prevent passage in or out. In only three days, the legions completed a 4.5-mile wall and 13 forts to guard it. They also began building four platforms to use against fortress Antonia, as a steppingstone to the Temple.

The Temple sat on a hilltop that Herod the Great had extended to accommodate its large outer Court of the Gentiles. That not-quite-rectangular court had an area of about 1.6 million feet, with colonnades along all four sides. In the central region of the outer court was the inner court, which was actually several courts, bounded by porticoes, walls, steps and gates, and having much restricted access. Only the priests could enter the sanctuary and its holy of holies. The sanctuary was 150 feet in height and width, a splendid edifice of gold and white marble. Priests sacrificed animals on the altar of burnt offering in front of the sanctuary as prescribed in the Law, or Torah.

Although forbidden to do so by the rebel leaders, some people still managed to leave the city and surrender to the Romans, some swallowing gold coins before they left. After a Syrian auxiliary soldier saw a Jewish refugee picking coins from his excrement, he and other Syrians and Arabs began cutting open the escapees and searching their bellies for coins. Titus learned of this and made further such acts a capital crime.

The Romans completed their platforms next to the wall of fortress Antonia, placed their rams upon them and began battering. The rams made little progress, but in the night, a tunnel that John's men had dug a few weeks earlier collapsed and took a section of the wall with it.

Behind the collapsed wall, the defenders had built another. Rather than try to demolish it, Titus asked for volunteers to scale it. Twelve men made a gallant attempt, but all were killed or wounded.

Two days later, the Romans quietly climbed the wall at night and cut down the sleeping sentries. Seeing the infidels closing in on the Temple, the rebels became fired with new zeal. The two forces engaged in savage hand-to-hand combat and fought until after noon the next day.

At one point, a centurion named Julianus single-handedly drove the Jews into the inner court of the Temple. He seemed invincible until his nail-studded boots slipped on the stone floor and he fell on his back with a great crash of armor. The Jews killed him with repeated blows, and the Romans had to be content with holding fortress Antonia.

Titus sent Josephus to implore John to move the field of battle outside the city in order to spare the sanctuary. Once again, Josephus got nowhere. The fighting soon resumed, and another Roman attack on the Temple by way of fortress Antonia failed. The Romans battered on the wall for six days without result. An effort to undermine the wall foundations was also unsuccessful, and the Jews repelled a siege ladder assault, as well.

All the while, the Temple was slowly being consumed by fire. The Jews burned the colonnade on the northern perimeter of the outer court adjacent to fortress Antonia. The Romans burned another colonnade. The Jews burned still another, luring Roman legionaries onto its roof and subsequently watching them die in the flames. Finding the Temple impregnable by other means, Titus ordered its gates burned and a road to the gates constructed.

According to Josephus, Titus did not want to burn the sanctuary. Nevertheless, during the battle for the sanctuary, a soldier picked up some burning material and threw it through a door or window. Soon the sacred building was in flames. Titus shouted orders to quench the blaze, but in the noise and confusion of battle, no one heard him.

The Temple was destroyed, and the victors overran the Lower City, setting it on fire. Embankments and rams on the western wall gave entry to the Upper City. Many rebels tried to hide in the sewers, and those who continued to resist were captured or killed. John surrendered and was sentenced to life in prison, and the Romans razed the city. As Jesus Christ prophesied, according to Matthew 24:2, Mark 13:2, and Luke 21:6, the Romans did not leave one stone upon another that was not thrown down.

Titus took the treasures of the Temple to Rome and displayed them in a victory celebration. Seven hundred Jewish prisoners, the golden table of shewbread, and the golden seven-branched candelabrum were part of a grand procession. Commemorative coins were minted. The Sicarii leader Simon was tormented while dragged by a noose, then executed in the Forum. The Arch of Titus stands in the Forum today as a memorial to the Judean campaign.

The Jews at Masada held out for three more years in their lofty stronghold. Finally, under the command of Flavius Silva, the Legio X Fratensis (10th Legion) built a huge ramp and mounted a battering ram on a high, wheeled tower. They rolled this engine up the ramp and then battered and broke through the fortress wall. The Jews had built a backup wall of wood and earth, but the Romans set it on fire and destroyed it, too. Rather than face capture, the Masada defenders killed each other (to get around the Jewish law forbidding suicide). Only two women and five children survived.

The turncoat Josephus went to Rome, where he was rewarded with Roman citizenship, a pension and an apartment in Vespasian's private residence. There he began writing The Jewish War, the history for which he is best remembered.

The loss of the Temple cut many of the foundations out from under Judaism. Early in the siege of Jerusalem, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai had some of his pupils smuggle him out of the city in a casket. The Romans took him prisoner and sent him to a detention center at Jamnia (or Jabneh). Nevertheless, he received permission to teach a group of pupils.

That circle of scholars evolved into an academy that redefined Judaism in the absence of a Temple. The rabbis designated the 24 books that they regarded as sacred Scripture. Prayer replaced Temple sacrifice, and worship in the synagogue and study of the Torah became the central characteristics of the Jewish faith. In so doing, the scholars re-established Judaism's original form as a faith of the book, endowing it with a mobility that would become essential to the religion's survival over the centuries to come.


This article was written by Richard L. Mattis and originally appeared in the December 1995 issue of Military History magazine.

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5 Responses to “First Jewish-Roman War”


  1. 1
    JJ08 says:

    … and 2000 years later, the Jews returned to Judea and reestablished sovereignty. Israel was reborn. And the Romans had long dissapeared from the stage of world history.

  2. 2
    Matthew says:

    [...] passage (22:7), Matthew appears to be making a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem during the First Jewish-Roman War (64 CE).  However, he does so somewhat dispassionately, as we would expect from someone who is [...]

  3. 3
  4. 4

    [...] supposedly lived, and documented the war between the Romans and the Jews. If you read his work, you [...]

  5. 5

    [...] a history of the time and place when Jesus supposedly lived, and documented the war between the Romans and the Jews. If you read his work, you will notice there are parallels between the events in the war and events [...]



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