Roman legions crush The Zealots’ Revolt.
Religious extremists within a traditional society in the Middle East rebel against powerful Western influences the fanatics view as threatening their faith. The society itself is torn between modernizers and those who hope to turn back the clock. Acts of terror and assassination target foreigners and locals seen as supporting them. A humiliating massacre spurs the West to strike back fiercely with its superior military technology. Meanwhile, the extremists spark a civil war and go on a killing rampage among their own people, targeting religious leaders viewed as too moderate and anyone whose religious practice and customs aren’t deemed sufficiently rigorous. In the West, the retaliatory campaign becomes a political issue.
The Middle East today? Yes, but also Roman Palestine in the first century of our era.
The complex rebellions, civil strife and opportunistic brigandage that we simplify with the name “The Zealots’ Revolt” set a pattern for the behavior of violent, bring-back-the-golden-age religious zealots in countless later uprisings in every one of the world’s major religions. The brutal Roman response showed how to deal with violent religious fanaticism. And for the Jewish people, the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the massacres committed by both sides, and the loss of even nominal self-government led, ultimately, to 19 centuries of exile.
IN THE BEGINNING …
By 66 A.D., Judea, Galilee and neighboring regions were ripe for revolt. (See Palestine map.) It was the thirteenth decade of Roman power over the Jewish homelands, exercised indirectly at first through the bloody and brutal Herodian dynasty, then directly through a prefect (such as Pontius Pilate) and, after the reign of the emperor Claudius, a procurator in Jerusalem. As the tremendous impact of Roman might and Greek culture undermined Jewish traditional culture, society split between those who avidly embraced the new; cautious appeasers; a priestly caste fixated on power; a growing number of radicals out to re-purify the faith; and the sweating human ingredients of revolution.
We know of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, and wonder at the cruelty of the Temple priests and Romans, but there’s a “backstory.” By Christ’s lifetime, Jewish society had already begun to fracture under the weight of the Pax Romana. This was an age of self-proclaimed messiahs, of omens and portents, but also of the sicarii, the “dagger-men,” assassins whose specifics are lost in the murk of the past. Historians argue over their origins, but no one disputes the existence of the sicarii – or their mobster influence on the looming Zealots’ Revolt.
The Romans wanted order and tax revenues. The Sanhedrin, the Temple-associated ruling class of Jews, wanted an end to cults, schisms and the advance of foreign culture and pagan gods. The Romans sought to extend their authority, the Sanhedrin to preserve theirs. Meanwhile, the common people suffered under a punishing system of financial levies. Banditry expanded alongside fanaticism.
By 66 A.D., Roman Palestine was ready to burst into flames.
At this worst possible time, Rome had in place the clumsiest of its procurators, Gessius Florus. Jerusalem had already been rocked by events prefiguring recent crises in Afghanistan: sacred scrolls allegedly burned by a Roman soldier and rioting after another Roman “mooned” the holy precincts. With blood already splashing the streets, Florus strong-armed the Temple priests into making a massive payment to Rome from their treasury.
Rumors made everything worse, as they do today. Florus soon found it wise to flee Jerusalem, but a Roman garrison remained behind – until inflamed radicals massacred every legionary in the city. The die was cast.
To the north, Galilee long had been home to religious extremism and popular discontent. Its people rose as well (although key cities, such as Sepphoris, remained loyal to Rome). Where populations were mixed, as in Caesarea Maritima on the coast, Greeks killed Jews and Jews killed Greeks. When the Romans regained their footing they backed the non-Jews.
The next Roman official up the chain of command, the legate of Syria, Cestius Gallus, organized a punitive force around the XII Legion. Sharp action seemed to bring Galilee under control (although the rebellion was only getting started) and, despite the advancing autumn, Gallus marched the legion and its auxiliaries to Jerusalem, determined to restore order.
But Gallus underestimated the enemy’s strength, as well as the determination of the Zealots and splinter factions. He wasn’t even prepared for the scale of Jerusalem’s fortifications. On top of that, Gallus marched through mountainous terrain ideal for guerrilla attacks on his supply line. Still worse, he had moved in such haste and overconfidence that he neglected to bring siege engines and artillery, crucial to reducing a hostile city.
In Jerusalem, brother-against-brother fighting plagued the streets, with priests murdered and worse to come, but it didn’t help the Romans in these early days. Gallus soon found himself short of supplies and blocked by the triple walls of a city defended by fighters ready to die for their all-consuming faith. November came in hard. Increasingly frequent ambushes nagged his rear. Yet, to abandon the campaign would only encourage the rebels …
Gallus, recognizing the extent of his blunder at last, began a withdrawal, intending to return to take the city in better weather and with a force better prepared. But his orderly withdrawal quickly turned into a hasty retreat, then into a rout. Harassed along his march route by newly confident Jews employing guerrilla tactics, Gallus blundered into a trap at the pass of Beth Horon. Roman casualties were devastating and humiliating, perhaps as many as 6,000, almost half of the force present for the fight.
For the Jews, it was a historic victory, inspiring confidence that God was on their side. That confidence would be their undoing.
AN OLD SOLDIER REPORTS
Vespasian was one of the finest generals Rome had, and his son, Titus, was a brave and brilliant subordinate commander. They arrived on the scene in December, trailed by four legions, heavy cavalry and thousands of tributary auxiliaries. When the weather warmed, the war began in earnest.
A scarred survivor of many a campaign, Vespasian was not only experienced but also cold-bloodedly methodical and calculating – the perfect man for the complex task at hand. The defeat of the XII Legion had inspired a far more powerful uprising in Galilee and Judea. The Jews improved the fortifications of their cities and savvier leaders emerged. In Galilee, John of Giscala dominated. John was a charismatic figure who worried the Sanhedrin up in Jerusalem, many of whom still sought to hedge their bets, while others wanted no rivals to their authority.
The priests dispatched Josephus to command the fighters in Galilee. A member of the priestly class himself, but seemingly short on military experience, Josephus was a choice that still baffles historians; at the same time, they’re grateful, since Josephus, a genius of treachery, became the war’s historian after he jumped sides to back the Romans. Josephus left us the most-detailed (if not entirely trustworthy) account of a Roman campaign – one he observed from both sides.
Vespasian ground down resistance in Galilee, conquering cities in their turn, slaughtering and enslaving any populations that resisted. Jotapata was a bloodbath, but the most dramatic siege was of a city built on a stark, steep spur of the Golan Heights: Gamla.
The remote, forlorn ruins left by the Roman siege remain today, as do the legends of the Jews’ impassioned faith and courage to resist. Even Roman military engineering was initially confounded by the difficulty of approaching the city’s walls, and Vespasian was reluctant to sacrifice his veterans if he could starve out a population. But in this age of messianic fervor hunger strengthened the spirit of resistance, and Vespasian at last saw no alternative to storming the city and its towering citadel.
Easier said than done. The Jewish defenders fought off one attack after another, luring the Roman soldiers into successive traps in the maze of narrow streets and on terraced rooftops. Titus himself led forays against the Zealots and their supporters, engaging in merciless hand-to-hand combat as the Romans speared and stabbed their way up the heights, while the defenders hurled down rocks on their helmets and shields.
When Roman brawn cornered the last defenders in the citadel, legend tells us that hundreds of men, women and children hurled themselves from the ramparts to their deaths rather than be enslaved. Modern studies suggest that, given the position and form of the citadel, only a small number actually could have perished through such a self-sacrifice, but an inspiring narrative was born.
Military logic ruled that, having pacified the north, Vespasian should exploit his momentum and bear down on Jerusalem. But this time the turn of events was decided by politics not in Palestine, but in Rome.
The demented emperor Nero was driven to suicide, sparking a bloody contest to seize the throne. Vespasian halted his southward advance, watching and waiting from afar as would-be emperors dueled between the Rhine, Danube and Tiber. He already had been counseled by an unlikely source that matters would work to his benefit.
That prophet was Josephus, the former Jewish general who, upon capture, immediately told Vespasian that he was destined to become emperor. The flattering prediction spared Josephus’ life, although he had remained in chains while the rebellion in Galilee was crushed.
After two grisly legion-on-legion battles near Cremona, the bloodletting over Rome came to an end. Without unsheathing his sword, Vespasian was proclaimed emperor by his troops.
It was time to go to Rome. But Vespasian left the troops a new commander: his son Titus, who would finish the task of annihilating the Zealots. As for Josephus, he shed his chains to become an adviser to Titus on the Jews and how to defeat them. The turncoat would live to a ripe old age of comfort and wealth in Rome, writing and rewriting history to his advantage.
NIGHTMARE IN JERUSALEM
After the fall of the last cities in Galilee, John of Giscala fled to Jerusalem, casting his move as a strategic withdrawal. Amid a plethora of factions and transient leaders (the confusion spoofed in Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian), two strong, jealous warlords dominated the city, Simon bar Giora and Eleazar ben Simon. John became a third. To their contending factions were added the Idumean Jews who had come to “rescue” Jerusalem and grew enmeshed in the faction fighting. Instead of uniting to face the Romans, the Zealots, the sicarii (associated with, but not identical to the Zealots), the Idumeans, John’s followers and a host of commoners fought a succession of small civil wars in the streets of the holy city.
The religious radicals behaved much like al-Qaeda in our own day, insisting that everyone practice their “purified” version of the faith, but allowing themselves special privileges and excesses. There was a foreboding sense of the “end times,” of an apocalypse, and the millenarianism took both spiritual and practical forms – the latter including seizing the assets of the rich and murdering members of the old ruling class (leading more than a few to desert to the Romans). When the legions finally approached the city in 70 A.D., one Zealot faction even burned the city’s largest grain reserve to force the population to fight to the death against the Romans, or die of starvation. It was an act of utter madness that would cost the defenders dearly, but not atypical. Within the city’s triple walls, terror, not God, reigned.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
By the spring of 70 A.D., Vespasian felt reasonably secure on the throne but needed Titus to finish the reckoning with the Jews to display his authority. He wanted a military victory for what we today would call his “public image.”
Titus, who loved to fight, was ready to oblige. He marched on the holy city. And this time the Romans did not forget their siege engines.
Nor did Titus underestimate his opponents. The Romans had learned to respect the fierceness and skill of the Jewish warriors. Titus knew this would be a fight to the death. Even so, the resourcefulness and tenacity of the Jews was about to surprise him.
The brilliant classical historian Guy Rogers notes that the rebels’ sole realistic hope militarily (if still a slight one) was to pursue a lengthy guerrilla campaign, but they chose, instead, to defend cities against unrivaled masters of siege warfare. Yet, logic had little to do with this faith-intoxicated uprising, and the emotional pull of Jerusalem made a climactic battle for its walls inevitable.
Ever brave, Titus led a detachment of cavalry ahead to judge the extent of the city’s defenses and he first beheld Jerusalem on April 23 – which was almost his last day on earth. Jewish fighters ambushed the mounted force on broken ground near the walls and split the column. Cut off, Titus had to fight his way out with his sword.
But the V, X, XII and XV Legions were close behind. Upon their arrival, Titus distributed them around the city’s defenses, with the famed X Legion placed on the Mount of Olives, across the narrow Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount and the city’s eastern gate. Confident, the legionaries shed their armor and weapons, going to work to construct their standard fort on the high ground. They were utterly unprepared when a Jewish force sallied out, raced across the valley, and struck before the Romans could form ranks.
Forced to fight on its opponents’ terms, rather than in disciplined formations, the X Legion, once the pride of Julius Caesar, was losing badly.
Witnessing the near-debacle from Mt. Scopus to the northwest, Titus immediately led a relief force into the fighting. The reinforcements drove the Jews back to the shelter of the walls and Titus advanced a fighting line into the valley to guard against another assault. After several hours, when the Zealots seemed to have given up any thought of another foray, Titus made one of his rare misjudgments: He thinned the line to allow more men to work on the fort’s construction.
No sooner had the line been weakened than the Zealots launched another attack, hitting the outnumbered Romans with breathtaking speed. Another round of savage combat drove the Romans beyond Gethsemane and back up the Mount of Olives. Once again, Titus had to send in reinforcements. This time, when the Jewish warriors had been driven off, he kept his lines strong until the fort was completed.
Sited for defense as well as holiness, classical-era Jerusalem was protected on three sides by valleys, leaving the flatter northern approach the obvious choice for assaults. The Romans went to work assembling their siege engines, building assault towers, and bombarding the walls. But whenever the Romans approached the battlements, Jewish bands appeared from nowhere to stymie their progress.
The first planned storming of the outer wall fell apart when Jewish “commando squads” burned the Roman assault towers. Titus’s response was to build them again: Fiery in battle, the emperor’s son was icy and implacable as a strategist.
Inside the city, the summer heat rose as the food supply dwindled. Zealots broke into houses to steal provisions from those who didn’t match their fanaticism – or who simply presented promising targets. Although the factions had finally united to fight the Romans, each guarded its own territory within the city, competing in barbarity toward fellow Jews. Worsening a dreadful situation, the city’s population had been swollen on the eve of the siege by worshippers who had arrived for a holy festival.
Hunger became starvation. One tale told of a mother who ate half of her own infant before being discovered, and that was not the only echo of cannibalism. As the Romans fought their way into the city, it must, indeed, have seemed like the end of the world.
It was certainly the end for Jerusalem and the Second Temple in its glory. Through siege-craft, hard fighting and ruses, the legionaries advanced from the third (outer) wall to the second, then approached the last comprehensive defenses. Men fought atop mounds of rubble and the Zealots forced the Romans to engage in narrow alleys where they could not form for battle. From late July into August, the Zealots, the men with “a zeal for God’s law,” put up perhaps the toughest defense Roman arms had ever faced.
Within the walls, the city was divided into three parts: The Temple Mount dominated the southwestern corner, with formidable walls of its own and the nearby Antonia fortress; the old Lower City, north and northwest of the temple (forming the city’s eastern half); and the newer Upper City across a shallow valley to the West.
On or about August 10, the Romans broke into the Inner Court of the Temple. A tossed torch started a conflagration inside, sparking screams of terror and agony. The Romans fought their way through the flames, bleeding for every inch. Crowded with priests, Zealots, refugees, women and children, the Temple became a place of gory sacrifice to a lost cause as the legionaries, enraged by their own losses and maddened with bloodlust, slaughtered every creature they could find. No cries for mercy or offers of ransom availed. Roman swords slashed down times beyond counting. Meanwhile, other legionaries hauled off the Temple’s remaining treasures, desecrating the Jews’ holiest shrine.
What the soldiers could not do, the flames did for them. Titus, ever amid his troops, must have narrowed his eyes in satisfaction at the spectacle of the blazing Mount.
Even then the fight wasn’t finished. The Upper City still had to be taken, where the Herodian palace formed another citadel.
With the eastern half of the city smeared with blood and stinking of death, the Romans went back to work, stripping the last timber from distant hills to construct more siege engines to assault the remaining fortifications from multiple sides. Meanwhile, Jewish survivors tried to flee, sneaking through sewers or winding their way down the steep slopes beneath the southern walls. When the Romans apprehended them, some few who could prove that they had been no more than prisoners of the Zealots were allowed their liberty. For the rest, it was death for the poor and chains for those judged wealthy enough to pay ransoms.
Inside the last Jewish stronghold, famine, disease and terror marked the scorching August days as the defenders, still barely able to master their rivalries, waited for the end. Simon bar Giora even had Idumean Jewish leaders executed on the suspicion of dealing with the Romans. At some point in the siege, a second leader and priest, Eleazar ben Simon, disappeared from history. And to underscore the all-or-nothing nature of the fight to their enemies and their own kind, the Zealots publicly tortured captured Romans.
On September 7, the Romans were prepared for the final assault. This time, the siege machinery did its work quickly and the brief combat was almost an anti-climax. After a sharp exchange, resistance collapsed. Overtaken by panic, the remaining Zealots and their allies tried to escape.
Few did. The Romans went on a rampage, butchering civilians, ravishing women, looting and setting the Upper City alight. When the fury settled, Titus put his men to work dismantling the city’s walls, sparing only three towers and their connecting curtains to serve a military garrison from the X Legion. The Temple lay in ashes, the city in ruins, polluted by the stench of dead fires and corpses. It meant the end of Jerusalem’s grandeur as the capital of the Jews for two millennia, until Israeli freedom fighters fought their way back into its streets in 1947.
In the final days of the revolt, two surviving Jewish leaders had dominated the city, Simon bar Giora and John of Giscala. Their ends were ignominious. Despite years of exhortations to their followers to fight to the death, neither man did. John went to ground within the city, emerging to surrender when hunger vanquished the last of his resolve. Simon tried to bluff his way to safety but was caught. Both men still had one last act to play.
Along with the fittest Jewish male captives – who were destined ultimately for the arena – the two commanders were taken to Rome to parade in the triumph arranged for Titus by his grateful father. Titus, who would rule the empire in his own turn, put on a grand show, with dramatizations of highlights of the war on an immense scale. In the great procession through the streets, John and Simon plodded behind their conqueror, dragging their chains. We lack insight into the Roman reasoning, but John’s life was then spared, although he faced a lifetime in a prison. Simon did not fare so well.
The climax of the triumphal procession came on the Capitoline hill. Before a massed, delighted crowd, Simon was tortured horribly before being strangled with artful slowness. (The Romans never concerned themselves with the human rights of terrorists.)
The great revolt had been shattered, but its echoes were not quite done. Last bands of Zealots and other factions withdrew to a few last fortresses or faded into the countryside. Step by step, the Romans broke the resistance and tracked down the remaining bands. Finally, only one mountaintop fortress remained, a breathtaking aerie expanded and perfected by Herod the Great: Masada. A holdout band of Zealots (possibly sicarii) perched atop the sheer cliffs. Brilliantly designed for a long siege, Masada had a network of water cisterns, ample food stocks and plenty of weaponry. The only approach was along the “snake path” on the eastern face, a narrow zigzag trail totally exposed to defenders on the battlements above.
You can walk up an improved version of that trail today and, reaching the top, look down on the remarkably well-preserved outlines of the legionary camps 2,000 feet below. You come away with respect for the courage and sacrifice of the defenders, but in awe of the Roman war machine’s capabilities.
On the western face, the drop is several hundred, not thousands of feet. Trained engineers, the Romans began the brute labor of constructing a massive earthen approach ramp in the desert heat (the ramp, too, is still there today, only slightly weathered). The man-made mountain was finished in 20 days, although completing a special siege tower that could mount the ramp, building more powerful stone-hurling artillery, and, finally, hauling the tower up the steep incline took another two months. In the final days of the siege, the defenders must have watched the huge siege tower slowly climbing toward them as though it were a monster crawling from Hell.
The war had gone beyond compromise or mercy: Rome would not let even the slightest hint of resistance endure, even if it meant immobilizing entire legions to besiege a few threadbare rebels. The Romans understood how to deal with fanatics – until they faced the baffling contagion of Christianity, a religion that, initially, eschewed the sword. But that is another tale.
Masada’s defenders did what they could to block the besiegers’ progress, but at the apogee of empire Rome was unstoppable. At last, all was ready. The Romans merely needed to drop assault platforms onto the walls. Their commander ordered a morning attack.
Masada’s defenders denied the Romans their victory with an immortal gesture. Rather than be taken prisoner, the men killed their own wives and children during the night, then lay down beside their loved ones as 10 men who had drawn lots cut their throats, the 10 finally slitting their own throats. When the Romans stormed onto the high plateau at dawn, ready for a desperate fight, they were met by silence and emptiness. Then they found the bodies, neatly grouped.
Two women and their children had hidden during the ceremonial suicide. They told the Romans what happened. It stunned even hardened centurions.
Today, amid a re-born Israel, Masada towers over the desert as a symbol of resistance unto death, of courage and faith that, however challenged by human excesses and errors, gleamed amid slaughter with a divine grace.
Ralph Peters is a longtime member of the “Armchair General” team, a retired Army officer and former enlisted man, and the author of the critically acclaimed novels “Cain at Gettysburg” and “Hell or Richmond.”
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Armchair General.