The Great Jewish Revolt

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The Great Jewish Revolt, also known as The First Judean War, was the rebellion of Judea against Rome in 66–73 A.D.

Establishing Rome’s direct power over Judea (6 A.D.) brought with it a number of religious, social, and national conflicts. The rule of a pagan force over Israel, whose only leader can be God, was viewed as an insult to the Jewish religion, raising messianic ambitions and contributing to political unrest. Rome became a symbol of evil satanic authority in the eyes of many Jews. The anti-Roman sentiment was especially strengthened after Caligula’s attempts to introduce the cult of the Roman emperor, which came across fierce resistance, and also because of some features of the administration introduced by Rome in the provinces. Thus, in particular, the stay in Jerusalem of the Roman cohort and the supervision of the Temple services led to constant friction between the administration and the local population. High taxes and duties caused irritation among civilians. The Jews were particularly dissatisfied with the nomination of the Greek and Hellenized Syrian population of the country, which, has become the backbone of Roman rule in Judea, turned into a kind of upper class, which occupied administrative posts and was recruited into the provincial garrison. The most acute was the conflict between Jews and the pagan population in the Hellenistic cities of Judea – Sebastia (Samaria) and Caesarea.

The instigators of active resistance to Roman rule, according to Josephus Flavius, were Yehuda of Gamla and a Pharisee named Tzadok, who, raising the political freedom of Israel into a religious commandment, called upon the masses to openly disobey the Romans; thus the Zealots movement arose, developed from the radical wing of the Pharisees and became the driving force of the anti-Roman rebellion.

The immediate reason for the uprising was the robbery of the temple treasury by the procurator Florus. In punishment for the unrest that followed the theft, Florus, arriving in Jerusalem (month of Iyar, 66), gave part of Jerusalem to his army to plunder and crucified or flagellated many of the city’s inhabitants. After that, Florus demanded that Jerusalem’s inhabitants go out to meet two cohorts who came from Caesarea, the provincial capital, as an evidence of their loyalty. However, the soldiers did not answer the greetings. When the people started to murmur and shower them with abuse, they attacked the inhabitants and began to push them towards the city after the massacre had been carried out. As a result of the ensuing bloody clash between the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the soldiers, Florus chose to leave the city, leaving one of the cohorts there and leaving the city authorities to restore order. King Agrippa II, learning of the unrest, arrived in Jerusalem and unsuccessfully tried to persuade the people to obey. The regular sacrifice for the emperor’s wellbeing was canceled at the suggestion of Eleazar, the son of Hananiah’s high priest, a measure equal to the formal declaration of war. Opponents of the uprising asked  Agrippa for assistance, and with the help of three thousand horsemen that Agrippa sent to them, captured the Upper City of Jerusalem, but were soon driven out of the city by rebels who set fire to the palaces of Hananiah the high priest and Agrippa’s sister, Berenice, in revenge against the peace party.

A few days later (Aug. of 66 A.D.), the rebels captured the fortress of Anthony. The warriors of Agrippa, holding the Upper Palace of Herod, surrendered it to the rebels, and the soldiers of Florus took refuge in the three towers of the citadel. The rebels destroyed the remaining stronghold, found Hananiah the High Priest hiding from them, and killed him. The Roman part, besieged in the towers, capitulated on the condition of free exit from the city, however, as soon as the soldiers laid down their arms, the rebels attacked them and carried out the massacre. At the same time, bloody clashes began in cities with a mixed population, where the Hellenistic society prevailed, in particular in Caesarea and Skitopolis (Beth-Shean), the entire Jewish community was slaughtered; in cities where Jews were numerically predominantly, the Hellenistic population was murdered. These events forced Syrian governor Cestius Gall to intervene, who, having led significant forces from Antioch, marched through Acre, Caesarea, Lod, and Beth-Horon and set up a camp about 15 km from Jerusalem. Having repelled the attack of the rebels, Cestius went to Jerusalem and burned one of its suburbs, but his attempt to take possession of the Temple Mount was unsuccessful. Having concluded that the forces at his disposal were insufficient for mastering such a mighty fortress, Cestius retreated. On the way back, near Beth-Horon, the Roman army was surrounded by rebels and, with heavy losses, having abandoned the supply convoys, fled.

This victory caused a surge of enthusiasm throughout the nation, giving hope for a possible deliverance from Roman power. The rebels, now led by representatives of the aristocracy, the high priesthood and law teachers, began to prepare to repel the imminent invasion of the Roman expeditionary force into the country. The command of rebel forces in Jerusalem was entrusted to the supporters of moderate politics, Joseph bin Gorion and high priest Hanan; two commanders from high priestly families were sent to Edom; the defense of Galilee, which was the first to be subjected to the invasion of the Romans, was entrusted to Joseph ben Matthew (later Josephus Flavius). According to his own story, he strengthened the main cities of the region – Zippori, Tiberias, Gush Halav, Tarichea, Yodfat, Gamla, and Mount Tavor, and formed an army of one hundred thousand people. In preparation for the defense, Joseph Flavius ​​came into conflict with the inhabitants of Galilee, whose leader was Johanan of Gishal (from Gush Halav). In the spring of 67, Vespasian, on whom Emperor Nero assigned the task of suppressing the uprising, left the Acre with a force of 60,000 and invaded Galilee. Flavius’ attempt to stop the advance of the Romans ended in failure; most of his soldiers fled, while he himself, with part of his strength, took refuge in Yodfat. Despite desperate resistance, the city was taken by the Romans (Tammuz, 67) after a forty-day siege and destroyed to the ground. The defenders of the town and most of the inhabitants died, but Josephus Flavius ​​chose to save his life and surrender to the Romans. After the fall of Iodfathus, Tiberias opened the gates to the Romans, and soon the whole of Galilee passed into the hands of Vespasian.

The loss of Galilee, as well as Jaffa, which served as the naval base of Judea, caused awe in the ranks of the rebels, who blamed the failure of the central leadership of the people. The bloody clashes in the winter of 68/69 in Jerusalem, where the most radical-minded elements flocked, ended in the destruction of moderately-minded leaders; power in the city was seized by radical leaders, the most extreme of which was Johanan of Giskhal, who led an implacable struggle against everyone who was suspected of a tendency to compromise with the Romans. Jerusalem’s aristocracy tried to free the city from the radicals’ dictatorship. The Jerusalemites, incited by Hanan ben Hanan, besieged the Zealots on the Temple Mount, and those in the minority turned for help to the Edomites under the pretext that the opposing side was preparing treason. Significant forces of the Edomites arrived in Jerusalem and, together with the Zealots, carried out a massacre in the city, in which the leaders of the aristocratic party and many townspeople died. After the wave of murders and robberies subsided, the Edomites, convinced that the Zealots had deceived them, left Jerusalem, which was now under the single rule of the Zealots led by Johanan of Giskhal.

Vespasian, having decided to wait until the rebel forces are exhausted in the internecine struggles, postponed the siege of Jerusalem for a while, and meanwhile sent a legion to beyond the Jordan river. In the spring of 68, he captured Antipatris, Lod, and Yavne and moved to Edom. Then, turning north and passing through Samaria, he reached Jericho. Meanwhile, it became known about the death of Nero (June 9, 68); Vespasian returned to Caesarea and began to expect developments. However, a new wave of unrest in pacified Judea made him act: Shimkon Bar-Gior, who led a significant army to the south of the country, appeared in Judea. This time Vespasian succeeded in establishing control over the whole country; in the hands of the rebels remained only Jerusalem, the Masada fortress, and a small part of the territories beyond the Jordan river.

Meanwhile, changes took place in Jerusalem: in an effort to get rid of the terror of Johanan of Giskhal, the inhabitants called on Shimon Bar-Gior, who entered Jerusalem in the month of Nisan, 69 A.D.. Shimon, however, failed to break the resistance of Johanan, and the internecine war in Jerusalem resumed with renewed vigor. Soon, a third, Eleazar ben Shim ‘on, joined the two warring factions in Jerusalem. The struggle between them did not stop and was so fierce that they did not hesitate to destroy the food supplies in the city in order to damage each other.

At the beginning of the Hebrew month of Nisan in 70, Titus, the son of Vespasian, who in the meantime was proclaimed emperor and left Judea, at the head of four legions went up to the walls of Jerusalem. Civil strife in the city not only did not stop but, on the contrary, intensified even more after the massacre perpetrated by the people of Johanan, as a result of which the Eleazar’s group was destroyed. Only after the first attack of the Romans on the northern wall of the city, Johanan and Shimkon agreed on joint actions. Fifteen days later (17 Tammuz), the Romans took possession of the first city wall, and a few days later – the second wall, despite the heroic resistance of the besieged. Rebel outings interfered with the siege of the Romans, and Titus decided to strengthen the blockade of the city, and to surround it with a rampart, completely interrupting all communication of the besieged with the outer world. Famine started in Jerusalem and undermined the strength of its defenders. The blows of the ram finally brought down the third wall, but the rebels managed to erect another one behind it, so the assault was challenging. However, on the second attempt, the Romans succeeded in capturing Anthony district and reaching the outer wall of the Temple Mount. After the battles in the Anthony district with varying degrees of success and the unsuccessful attempts of the Romans to bring down the wall of the Temple Mount, Titus ordered to set fire on the temple gates, and the way to the courtyard of the Temple was opened. However, the rebels continued their resistance, preventing the Romans from entering the Temple and making desperate forays from there. Apparently, by order of Titus (although Josephus argues that by accident), the Temple was set on fire and burned to the ground together with its defenders (10th of the Hebrew month Av; according to the Talmudic tradition – 9th of Av; Ta’an. 4: 1).

Johanan and Shimon concentrated the remaining forces in the Upper City, but could no longer seriously resist the enemy: the wall was destroyed, the Romans broke into the Upper City (7th of Elul) and burned it the next day.

After a five-month siege, Jerusalem was captured, the inhabitants were partly killed, partly sold into slavery, while the city was totally demolished. Just three citadel towers were left as evidence of the former power of Jerusalem’s fortifications. The Tenth Legion was stationed on the ruins of the city, which was entrusted with a garrison service. A triumph was held to celebrate the victory of Vespasian and his two sons in Rome, in which the sacred utensils of the Temple of Jerusalem were carried as trophies. After the triumph, Shimon Bar-Giora was executed, and Johanan of Giskhal was imprisoned until the end of his days.

However, the uprising was not finally crushed after the capture of Jerusalem: in the hands of the rebels, there were still several fortified points, among them Herodion and Masada, which soon remained the last center of the uprising in Judea. Eleazar bin Yair led the defense of Masada. Several hundred fighters with families were concentrated in the fortress, with the total number of besieged reaching about one thousand people. By the time when the defenders of Masada realized that their situation was hopeless, they, on the advice of Eleazar, murdered their wives and children and then killed each other. During Passover in 73 A.D., the fortress fell into the possession of the Romans, and this occurrence ended the history of the Great Jewish anti-Roman revolt.

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The Great Jewish Revolt

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