The Jewish-Roman wars

Published on 08 October 2019
Reading time: 28 minutes

The Jewish-Roman wars were a series of extremely violent revolts by the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean against the Roman Empire between 66 and 135 AD. The First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 AD) was a revolt that quickly escalated into a war to restore the Judean state's independence. The Kitos War (115–117 AD) was a far-ranging rebellion by the Jewish diaspora in Cyrenaica (today Libya and Crete), Cyprus, and Egypt that reached Judea. The Bar Kokhba revolt (132–135 AD) was another war of independence in Judea that ended with the eviction of all Jews from Jerusalem and the ban of Judaism. The Jewish-Roman wars had a profound impact on the Jewish people. They changed the face of Judaism and opened the door for Christianity to become the Roman Empire's state religion.

The root causes of the Jewish-Roman wars

Ever since Pompey's conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BC, the region of Judea had been one of the most difficult to govern for the Romans. With their keen sense of independence, the Jews never entirely accepted Pax Romana. Unlike other provincial subjects (provinciales), they were not eager to adopt all Roman traditions and customs and live under Roman rule. To fully understand the root causes of the Jewish-Roman wars and their extreme brutality, we must go back to the history of the region, the various rulers of Judea, and picture the Jewish people's daily lives in the first century AD.

Pompey's conquest of Judea

Pompey's conquest of Judea came following the Third Mithridatic War (73-63 BC), which ended with the Roman Republic's victory and led to the creation of the Province of Syria. After the death of Alexandra Salome, queen of Judea, her two sons Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, went to war over the Hasmonean throne's inheritance, the Hasmonean dynasty being the ruling dynasty of Judea. Pompey sent Aemilius Scaurus, his legate in Syria, to settle the issue, but Aristobulus's subsequent actions prompted Pompey to take Jerusalem in 63 BC. Hyrcanus' supporters let the Romans in the city, allowing Pompey to take hold of the upper city, including the Royal Palace. Aristobulus's men held eastern Jerusalem, including the City of David and the Temple Mount, surrounded by a very strong, almost impenetrable, wall.

Pompey built a wall surrounding the areas held by Aristobulus' party and erected two camps within the wall, one to the north of the Temple and another south-east of the Temple. His troops then filled the ditch to the north of the Temple, erected siege towers, built two ramparts, and brought up powerful Roman weapons, including siege engines and battering rams from Tyre. After three months of attacking the walls surrounding the Temple, Pompey's troops entered the Temple precinct on a Sabbath when the Jews were not fighting. 12,000 Jews, including priests, were slaughtered while only a few Roman troops lost their lives. Pompey entered the Temple's Holy of Holies, only accessible to the High Priest, thereby defiling it. But, so awed by its sanctity, he did not take anything from it, not even its treasures.

Pompey took Aristobulus as a prisoner back to Rome and reinstated Hyrcanus as the High Priest. Hyrcanus II, however, lost his royal title and was only recognized as an ethnarch in 47 BC. As a result, the Jews lost their independence for millennia to come. Judea became a client kingdom dependent on the Roman administration in Syria, obliged to pay tribute to Rome. The Jews also lost territory: they were forced to relinquish coastal land, depriving them of access to the Mediterranean; several Hellenic cities (forming the Decapolis), previously controlled by the Judean kingdom, were granted autonomy and incorporated into the new province of Syria.

Herod the great tissot

Herod the Great
James Tissot (1836–1902)
Public domain

The brutal rule of King Herod the Great

Hyrcanus was restored to his position as High Priest but had no political authority. Political authority and Roman interests lay with Antipater I the Idumaean, the Herodian Dynasty founder and most importantly, the father of Herod the Great. Even though Caesar had given him some political authority by recognizing him as ethnarch in 47 BC, Hyrcanus did whatever Antipater wished.

In 40 BC, Antigonus II Mattathias, Aristobulus' son, allied himself with the Parthians who had invaded Syria. The Parthians wanted a ruler opposed to Rome in Judea and put 500 warriors at Antigonus' disposal. In 40 BC, Antigonus, who represented Jewish resistance against Roman rule, was proclaimed King of Judea and High Priest. He cut Hyrcanus's ears, which rendered him unfit for the priesthood, and Hyrcanus was taken to Babylon as a captive by the Parthians, where the Jewish community highly respected him.

The Romans, not willing to lose Judea, helped Herod the Great overthrow Antigonus in 37 BC, and Herod I was subsequently proclaimed "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate. King Herod, fearing that Hyrcanus may want to regain the throne with Parthian help, invited the High Priest back to Jerusalem and gave him the first place at his table and the state council's presidency. However, the king later accused Hyrcanus of plotting with the Nabateans and put him to death in 30 BC.

The so-called "King of the Jews" is remembered throughout history as a most brutal king. King Herod had all the Hasmonean dynasty relatives executed, including his wife and all her family members. He appointed high priests not connected to the past dynasty and only loyal to him. On the positives, he initiated many large construction projects and employed many workers. However, when the construction projects ended, poverty followed, which led to riots and a rise in criminality. When Herod died in 4 BC, crime in Judea was out of control, and riots were a common occurrence.

Judea becomes Roman

In the year 6 AD, the semi-independent Herodian kingdom became officially part of the Roman Empire. The realization that Judea was now Roman shocked many Jews. When the Roman governor of Syria took the census (the Census of Quirinius), a revolt erupted led by Judas of Galilee. The rebellion was quickly put down by the Roman army, and Emperor Augustus removed Herod Archelaus, son of King Herod and deeply unpopular with the Jews. Rome instituted procurators to rule the Judeans. In the beginning, the procurators were respectful of the Jewish people's laws, traditions, and customs. For example, the Jews were allowed to rest on the Sabbath, they were not forced to participate in pagan rituals, and their coins did not bear Roman images. If a procurator disrespected Jewish traditions, the Jews petitioned the governor of Syria to get him removed. Therefore, the years 7-36 AD were relatively calm.

Conditions in Judea create a brand new religion led by Jesus Christ of Nazareth

The date of birth of Jesus is far from certain. Officially he was born between 1 BC to 1 AD or between 752 and 753 AUC in the ancient Roman calendar. The Bible makes no reference to the Roman dating system, and in the Book of Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod: "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod, the king..." (Matthew 2:1). King Herod died in 4 BC, placing the date of Jesus's birth before this date. In the Book of Luke, referring to the birth of Jesus: "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria). 3 And everyone went to their town to register." (Luke 2:1-3). As we mentioned previously, the census of Quirinius took place in 6 AD, a date that is inconsistent with the book of Luke which places the birth of Jesus during King Herod's time. Even though the date of Jesus's birth is far from certain, what is certain is that he was born in a world of ancient traditions, superstitions, and religious fervor, and most importantly, in a world under the yoke of the Romans. Even though the Romans were at first respectful of Jewish traditions, the heavy hand of Roman oppression was felt in all areas of life. Jewish resentment against the Romans was omnipresent... and growing.

Crucifixion Vasily Vereshchagin

A Crucifixion in the Time of the Romans
Vasily Vereshchagin (1842–1904)
Public domain

Growing up as a boy, Jesus would experience a brutal world and Jewish people being whipped or crucified. Back then, poverty and despair were the norm rather than the exception. People needed hope, and various preachers and prophets roamed the countryside, drawing enormous, passionate crowds. The population around him and even the Jews were deeply divided into various groups, often hostile to each other. At the age of 30, Jesus joined one of these groups and was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan river just before beginning his public ministry. Like many other preachers, he traveled around Judea, taking his message of hope to the poorest people's homes and synagogues. His message was about the coming of a kingdom greater than Rome in which the poor would find redemption. It was a completely new message which excited his audiences in a world stricken by poverty.

As a preacher, Jesus showed profound concern for the poor, which can be seen throughout the New Testament. Although his message was proving popular, his disciples' claim that he was the son of God offended many people. His ideas were revolutionary for the time and threatened the prevailing social order. In around 33 AD (again, this date is far from certain), Jesus traveled to Jerusalem for the Jewish ceremony of Passover. Thousands of pilgrims from around the world would go to the money changers to exchange their foreign money to buy animals to sacrifice. Jesus, horrified by such trade taking place at the holy site, wrecked the stalls of the money changers: "Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables" (John 2:15). This outburst enraged Jewish religious leaders even though Jesus had always kept a conciliatory attitude towards the Romans ("Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's" Matthew 22:21). The Jewish religious leaders complained to the then Roman prefect of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, who had Jesus crucified on a charge of treason.

The execution of Jesus did not make his movement disappear. Far from it, his execution turned him into a martyr and a prophet and made Judea even more unstable. Pontius Pilate had unknowingly kick-started a brand new religion that in time would spread across Rome and, eventually, the world.

After 37 AD, Emperor Caligula had to face even more trouble in the region. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the unrest, but it is probably due to multiple factors, including the spread of Greek culture, the imposition of Roman law, the rights of the Jews, and... Caligula himself. Caligula did not trust Aulus Avilius Flaccus1, the prefect of Egypt, loyal to his great-uncle Tiberius. Flaccus had also conspired against his mother and had connections with Egyptian separatists. In 38 AD, he sent Herod Agrippa I to Alexandria, Egypt, unannounced, to check on Flaccus. The Greeks in Egypt, who saw Aggrippa as the king of the Jews, derided the visit. Flaccus tried to appease both the Greeks and Caligula by placing statues of the emperor in various locations, including in synagogues. This resulted in large-scale religious riots throughout the city. Caligula responded to the riots by removing Flaccus and executing him. In 40 AD, new riots erupted in Alexandria between Greeks and Jews who were accused of not honoring the emperor. Riots also erupted in Judea, in the city of Jamnia (today Yavne), where Jews were angered by the erection of a clay altar that they subsequently destroyed. Caligula responded to the riots by ordering the erection of a statue of himself in Jerusalem's Jewish Temple. The then governor of Syria, Publius Petronius, recognizing the recklessness of such an order, delayed its implementation by nearly a year until King Aggrippa convinced Caligula to reverse the order.

In 46 AD, a violent uprising by the Jews broke out in Judea, launched by the two brothers Jacob and Simon ("the Jacob and Simon uprising"), which lasted two years. The uprising, which was concentrated in the Galilee, climaxed in 48 AD. It was finally put down by Tiberius Alexander, the procurator of Judea province from 46 to 48 AD, who had both brothers executed.

The First Jewish-Roman War or the Great Jewish revolt

Things took a turn for the worse with Gessius Florus's institution as procurator in 64 AD under Emperor Nero (reign: 54 – 68 AD). Florus favored the local Greek population over the Jewish people, and the Greek people took advantage of Florus' disdain to denigrate the local Jews. The Jews attempted to petition the governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus, to have the procurator replaced, but their efforts were in vain. Florus's disdain for the Jewish population became clear when he imprisoned Jews who had opposed the desecration of a synagogue by a Hellenist. When Florus stole 17 talents from the Jewish Temple's treasury in Jerusalem, he set in motion the Great Jewish Revolt. It began with unrest in the city of Jerusalem, with Jews mocking Florus, for example, by passing a basket around to collect money for him. Florus' response to the unrest was brutal. He sent soldiers who raided the city, arrested several senior Jewish leaders, and had them publicly whipped and crucified, including leaders holding full Roman citizenship (crucifixion was a form of punishment forbidden for Roman citizens). These actions led to a broader, large-scale, out of control rebellion (called the Zealot revolt), which destroyed the Roman garrison and forced Roman officials and King Herod Agrippa II to flee Jerusalem for Galilee. Jerusalem's Jewish Christians also fled to Pella, according to 4th-century church fathers Eusebius and Epiphanius.

As the rebellion got utterly out of control, Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria, sent the legendary Legion XII Fulminata (translated as the "Thunderbolt Twelfth Legion," the legion that accompanied Julius Caesar during the Gallic Wars) reinforced by auxiliary troops to restore order and quell the revolt. The legion initially made some advances (conquest of Narbata, Sepphoris, Jaffa, Lydda, and Afek) and went as close as Jerusalem but was ambushed at the Battle of Beth Horon. At the pass of Beth Horon, the Romans experienced mass missile fire, and, unable to get into formation within the pass's narrow confines, they lost cohesion. As a result, 6,000 Roman soldiers were massacred. Some managed to flee in disarray, including Gallus, who left behind the aquila and many Roman weapons and military equipment. The defeat at Beth Horon was an utter catastrophe and shocked the Roman leadership. Historians consider it as one of the worst military defeats against a rebel province in the Roman Empire's history.

The Jews formed the Judean provisional government in Jerusalem with the high priests Ananus ben Ananus2 and Joshua ben Gamla as its leaders. Historian Josephus in "The Jewish War" describes Ananus as "unique in his love for liberty and an enthusiast for democracy" and an "effective speaker, whose words carried weight with the people." It is worth noting that Ananus is also the high priest who ordered the execution by stoning of James The Just, the brother of Jesus (in reality a half-brother or cousin) when Christianity was just a small sect and considered a heresy against the Jewish faith. Even though they formed a provisional government, the Jews were quite divided: victorious militias included Sadducee, Pharisee, and Sicarii factions, with the peasantry, led by Simon Bar Giora, also playing a significant role. The Sicarii later tried to take control of Jerusalem and failed in their attempt. Their leader, Menahem ben Yehuda, was executed, and the Sicarii were expelled from the city to their stronghold of Masada, previously taken from a Roman garrison. The faction of Simon Bar Goria also took refuge in Masada and stayed there until the winter of 67-68 AD.

Arch of Titus Menorah

Arch of Titus in Rome
showing Menorah and trumpets of Jericho
CC BY 3.0

Emperor Nero sent general Vespasian to crush the Jewish revolt.3 Vespasian landed at Ptolemais, an ancient port city on the Phoenician coast (also called Ptolemais in Phoenicia), in April 67 AD with legions X Fretensis and V Macedonica. He was joined by his son Titus who headed Legio XV Apollinaris, and by the armies of several allies in the region, including King Agrippa II's army. In total, Vespasian had gathered more than 60,000 soldiers! Vespasian headed his troops towards Galilee where Judean rebels were divided into two camps. Josephus's forces were loyal to the central government in Jerusalem, representing the wealthy and priesthood classes, and the Zealot militias made of farmers, poor fishermen, and refugees from Roman Syria. Many towns linked to the Jewish elite gave up without a fight (e.g., Tiberias, Sepphoris) while Zealot forces' towns were taken by force. Gischala (named Jish today) was the stronghold of Zealots and the Galilee's last city to fall to the Romans. The Roman army laid siege to the town, taking it by force as Zealots abandoned it amid the siege, heading to Jerusalem with the bulk of their force. By the year 68 AD, Vespasian had managed to crush all Jewish resistance in the north, and he made Caesarea Maritima his headquarters. He then continued by annihilating all opposition in the coastline, thereby avoiding direct conflict with Jerusalem's rebels. The Roman army's conquest of Galilee resulted in 100,000 Jews killed or sold into slavery.

Vespasian remained in Caesarea Maritima until spring 68 AD where he prepared for his next campaign in the Judean and Samarian highlands. The Jews driven out of Galilee rebuilt Joppa (named Jaffa today) previously destroyed by Cestius Gallus, including the city walls, and used a naval flotilla to disturb trade off the coast of Syria, Phoenicia and Egypt. In Jerusalem, a brutal civil war erupted between Zealot militia headed by John of Gischala and Eleazar ben Simon, the Sicarii, and forces loyal to the Judean provisional government. The Zealots took control of large parts of the fortified city, and together with the Sicarii they executed anyone advocating surrender. John of Gischala then spread the false rumor that Ananus ben Ananus had contacted Vespasian for help in retaking control of Jerusalem, prompting the Idumeans to come to Jerusalem with an army of 20,000 armed men. Together with the Zealots, they executed the Judean provisional government heads, including Ananus ben Ananus and Joseph ben Gurion, and massacred a significant number of civilians in the notorious Zealot Temple Siege. As he received the news of the slaughter taking place in Jerusalem, Simon bar Giora left Masada and began pillaging Idumea with his loyal troops. He then set his headquarters in Na'an and joined forces with Idumean leaders, including Jacob ben Susa.

In the spring of 68 AD, Vespasian went after rebel strongholds in Judea and recaptured several towns, including Joppa. He then continued into Idumea, Peraea, and the Judean and Samarian highlands where Simon bar Giora's factions were worrying the Romans. By July 69 AD, he had retaken control of important towns, including Gophna, Ephraim, Bet-El, and Hebron. In the meantime, in Rome, Emperor Nero, who persecuted Christians and even blamed them for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, had an increasingly erratic behavior. Nero’s conduct led the Roman Senate, the Praetorian Guard, and several prominent army commanders to conspire for his removal. In 68 AD, the Senate declared him an enemy of the people, and Nero fled Rome to commit suicide. A brief civil war followed Nero's death in 68 AD during the Year of the Four Emperors. The year between 68 and 69 AD saw four emperors: Galba, then Otho, then Vitellius, and then Vespasian. Vespasian, uninvolved in the civil war, was hailed emperor by the legions under his command. As he gained widespread support, he decided to return to Rome to claim the throne leaving his son Titus to finish the war in Judea.

Titus advanced through the hill country, conquering town after town with shocking brutality. Titan advance created a wave of Jewish refugees seeking shelter in Jerusalem, where a civil war was still raging. John of Gischala assassinated Eleazar ben Simon and attempted to rule over the city. The remaining surviving provisional government leaders invited Simon bar Goria into Jerusalem to stand against John's Zealot faction. With a significant force of 15,000 troops, Simon quickly took control over much of the city.

Titus' siege and capture of Jerusalem

Outside the gates of Jerusalem, Titus' army started the siege of the highly fortified Judean capital. As the first attempts at breaching the city walls proved unsuccessful, Titus established a permanent camp outside the city. His troops dug a trench around the city walls and built a wall as high as the city walls themselves. Anyone caught in the trench attempting to flee was captured and crucified facing the city on top of the dirt wall with as many as 500 crucifixions happening each day.

When the Romans began to build ramparts for the siege, the two opposing Zealot leaders, John of Gischala and Simon Bar Giora, joined forces to defend the city. The Zealots burned a stockpiled supply of dry food to induce the defenders of the city to fight against the siege. As a result, many city dwellers and Jewish soldiers died of starvation. There were no fewer than 600,000 besieged in Jerusalem according to Tacitus (there were around 1 million according to Josephus). Everyone that could pick a weapon did, men and women alike, preferring death to a life of slavery far from home.

In May 70 AD, the Romans attacked the third wall which had been built right before the siege and was as a result not as strong as the other walls, and broke through the second wall to finally penetrate the city of Jerusalem in the summer of 70 AD. The Roman attack was brutal. Roman soldiers slaughtered the population and ransacked and burned nearly the entire city. During the final stages of the Roman attack, John of Gischala held the Second Temple while Simon Bar Giora held the upper city. On Tisha B'Av (August 4th, 70 AD), Roman legions destroyed the Second Temple.

Titus returned to Rome in 71 AD in a glorious procession with treasures from Jerusalem and Jewish slaves in chains. When offered the laurel of victory, Titus said:"There is no merit in vanquishing a people forsaken by their own God". The Arch of Titus depicts Roman legionaries carrying treasuries from the Temple of Jerusalem including the Menorah. The Temple was on the site of what is today the Dome of the Rock. All that is left from it is the Western Wall, were Jews pray, and overturned stones, traces of burning that can still be seen today.

Following the fall of Jerusalem, Jewish survivors were taken into slavery. John of Gischala surrendered at the fortress of Jotapata and was sentenced to life in prison. Insurrection continued in various isolated locations until 73 AD and the new military governor, Lucilius Bassus, was put in charge of mopping up military operations in Judea. With the help of the legion X Fretensis, he captured the fortress of Machaerus on the shore of the Dead Sea, where Judean rebels had been gathered. Bassus fell ill and was replaced by Lucius Flavius Silva who in 72 AD moved against the last Judean stronghold at the fortress of Masada, situated on top of an isolated rock plateau on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert. The fortress of Masada had been one of the most difficult to capture and Silva surrounded the fortress with military camps. When his troops broke through the walls of Masada in 73 AD, they found that 960 of the 967 Sicarii rebels had committed suicide.

The second Jewish-Roman war or The Kitos War (115-177 AD)

Jewish religion transformed

In 73 AD, Jerusalem laid in ruins with the once magnificent Second Temple completely destroyed 4. According to Josephus, 1,100,000 Jews had been killed, most of them by other Jews during the civil war or from illness and famine. Close to 100,000 Jews had been captured and enslaved by the Romans or had escaped to other regions in the Mediterranean. The destruction of Temple,mentioned in the book of 2 Baruch, had a deep impact on Jews and marked a turning point in Jewish history. It transformed Jewish religion, with changes to the Jewish Law. Judaism became stricter in its observance of the commandments of the Torah. Synagogues replaced the Temple as the central meeting place. Scholars agree that rabbis replaced the High Priest and created a new kind of Judaism through their books and teachings.

Before Vespasian's departure to Rome, Yohanan ben Zakkai, a Pharisaic sage and Rabbi, had obtained the general's consent to establish a Judaic school at Yavne. Zakkai had been smuggled away from Jerusalem in a coffin by his students. Later, his Yavne school became a major center of Talmudic study and led to the development of Rabbinic Judaism, meaning the practice of Judaism without the Temple and far away from the Holy Land, in diaspora.

The Kitos War (115-177 AD)

Gradually and over a number of years, life came back to normal for the Jews. Jews prospered even within a system entirely created by the Romans that maintained and protected their rights. However, the return to normalcy and prosperity did not mean that they were satisfied with living under Roman rule. Generation after generation, the desire for independence grew. The destruction of the Temple was something that no Jew could ever forget or... forgive. Tensions continued to build in the region. Things became worse when the Roman armies under emperor Trajan left to the eastern border of the Roman Empire to fight the Parthians, thereby creating a security vacuum in the region. Tensions reached a climax in 115 AD when major uprisings by ethnic Jews spiraled out of control first in Cyrenaica, to then spread to Egypt, Cyprus, Mesopotamia and finally to Judea. The extreme violence of the uprisings shocked the Roman leadership. Jewish rebels destroyed Roman temples, civil buildings such as the Roman baths, slaughtered a large number of Roman citizens (including Greco-Roman citizens in Cyprus where 240,000 Greeks were massacred) and left-behind Roman garrisons.

These uprisings are known as the Kitos War, from the nomen of the Roman general Lusius Quietus, and lasted from 115 to 117 AD, as it took two entire years for the Roman legions to finally subdue them. The Roman response to the uprisings was of an extreme brutality and barbarity that is hard to describe. The colossal number of casualties greatly reduced the Jewish and Greco-Roman populations in the region and even led to a depopulation of Cyrenaica and Cyprus. The depopulation issue was so bad at the end of the Kitos War, that Romans moved in these areas to avoid a complete depopulation.

The key leaders in the rebellion were Lukuas in Cyrenaica and the brothers Julian and Pappus. The rebels under the leadership of the brothers had gathered in the town of Lydda (today Lod). General Lusius Quietus, who had vainquished the Jewish rebels in Mesopotamia laid siege to Lydda. His legions finally took over the town and the brothers Julian and Pappus were executed along with many of the rebellious Jews. It is worth noting that the "slain of Lydda" is often mentioned in words of reverential praise in the Talmud.

aelia capitolina

Aelia Capitolina

The Third Jewish Roman War or the Bar Kohba Revolt (132-136 AD)

The situation in Judea remained tense for the Romans. Emperor Hadrian moved permanently the Legio VI Ferrata to Caesarea Maritima in Judea to ensure stability in the region. However, tensions became worse when, in 130 AD, he visited the Eastern Mediterranean and made the decision to build a Roman city on the site of the ruined city of Jerusalem and to call it Aelia Capitolina, derived from Hadrian's nomen gentilicium, Aelius. Hadrian also built a temple dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus on the site of the former Jewish temple, hence the name Capitolina.

To make things even worse, Hadrian had put forth a number of sanctions against the Jews. The sanctions, the renaming of the city of Jerusalem, the construction of a temple dedicated to a Roman god on the site of the old Jewish temple, led to the eruption of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132 AD, led by Simon Bar Kokhba. The extremely violent revolt was concentrated on Judea and strained the Roman army to its breaking point.

Bar Kokhba was initially successful against Roman forces and even managed to establish a state for over 2 years, up to 134 AD. Emperor Hadrian responded by assembling a large scale Roman force and brought legions from across the Empire including Syria, Egypt, Arabia and Europe, for a total force of well over 100,000 Roman soldiers! He invaded Judea in 134 AD under the command of General Sextus Julius Severus. The resulting Roman onslaught was so brutal that it is described by some scholars as a genocide against the Jews. According to Cassius Dio, 580,000 Jews were killed, 985 villages and 50 fortified towns were razed to the ground. Many more Jews died of famine and disease and a large number were sold into slavery. At the end of the Third Jewish Roman war, only a small Jewish community of several thousand survived in Galilee. Other smaller communities existed in other parts of the Mediterranean, along the edges of Judea, in Golan, Caesarea and the Bet Shean Valley. Emperor Hadrian banned Jewish faith across the Roman Empire. He prohibited the Hebrew calendar, the Torah and executed Judaic scholars. To erase any memory of Judea or Ancient Israel, he wiped Judea's name off the map and renamed it Syria Palaestina. Jews, including Jewish Christians, were barred from Jerusalem except for attendance in Tisha B'Av.

The ban of Judaism lasted until Hadrian's death and was lifted in 138 AD. Aelia Capitolina remained the official name of Jerusalem until 638 AD, when the Arabs conquered the city and used the islamic name Iliyā' derived from Aelia. The Bar Kohba revolt also separated Christianity further from Judaism: during the revolt, Jewish Christians, who considered Jesus as their Messiah, did not support Bar Kohba. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, Jewish Christians were killed and suffered "all kinds of persecutions" at the hands of rebel Jews when they refused to help Bar Kokhba against the Roman troops.

The consequences of the Jewish-Roman wars are felt to this day

Interestingly, the Talmud refers to Bar Kohba as "Ben Kusiba" a derogatory term to indicate that he was a false Messiah. Only much later did the Bar Kokhba Revolt become a symbol of brave national resistance: the Betar Zionist youth movement founded in 1923 took its name from Bar Kokhba revolt's last stronghold and David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, took his Hebrew last name from one of Bar Kokhba's generals.

The Jewish-Roman wars changed the face of Judaism and had a dramatic impact on Jewish society. The Sadducees, who were priests centered around the Temple, disappeared, leaving the Pharisees to maintain a rabbinic form of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism, facing the new reality of Judea without autonomy became deeply cautious and conservative, and a religion centered around synagogues. The persecution of Jews and the practice of Rabbinic Judaism encouraged the dispersion of Jews throughout the Roman world and beyond (the Jewish diaspora). Being a minority in a largerly Christian world, Jews had to endure centuries of persecution in Europe. It is only with the Zionist movement in the late 19th century and with the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948 AD, that Jews regained their dominance in their ancestral homeland. Nevertheless, after centuries of persecution, old stereotypes have not disappeared. Jews around the world continue to practice a rabbinic form of Judaism centered around synagogues, remembering the destruction of the Second Temple.


  1. Flaccus (Philo of Alexandria)
  2. Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (Martin Goodman, Vintage reprint edition, November 11, 2008)
  3. De Bello Judaico (Wars of the Jews) (Josephus)
  4. Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple (Hershel Shanks, Prentice Hall revised edition, June 21, 1999)


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