The Great Revolt

The First and Second centuries of the Common Era saw the tensions between
Jews and Romans erupt into open warfare, not once, but three separate times
between 66 to 132 CE. The Roman occupation of the Land of Israel stoked the
flames beneath a seething cauldron of competing Jewish sects, and of
growing social-economic unrest.  Jewish rebel groups, usually collectively
referred to as Zealots, added fuel to the fire. Their religious commitment
to anti-Roman political activity inspired by  revolutionary messianism
would overturn the volatile mix, drowning Jerusalem, as Josephus describes,
in a "sea of flame" and an "ocean of blood."

The story of the Jewish revolt was preserved over the centuries in the
writings  of Yosef Ben Mattityahu or Josephus Flavius. His Antiquities and
The Jewish War  portray the many years of Roman domination, the Jewish
resistance, and eventually, the crushing Roman victory. Ben Mattityahu was
born in Jerusalem (37 CE) to a priestly family related to the Hasmoneans.
As a young man, he lived as a novice among the Essenes. When the Great
Revolt broke out against Rome in 66 CE, he became the regional commander of
Jewish forces in the Galilee. Eventually, his command post at the Yotfat
fortress was surrounded to Roman troops. Prepared to die rather than live
as Roman prisoners of war, his troops agreed to draw lots. The fighter with
the short lot would wait until all the others had committed suicide, deal
with any necessary clean-up operations, and then kill himself. Ben
Mattiyahu, strangely, drew the short lot. After all of the others had
fulfilled their promise, and lay dead about Yotfat, Ben Mattityahu and one
other survivor turned themselves over to the Roman General Vespasian. Ben
Mattityahu, accompanied by Vespasion's son, Titus, travelled to Rome. In
Rome, he became a royally sponsored historian, writing his The Jewish War
in the late 70's or early 80's of the First Century. Although Josephus'
account can not be accepted as completely accurate and impartial, it does
provide an amazing chronicle of some of the most momentous events in all of
Jewish history.

The prelude to the outbreak of the Great Revolt began soon after the death
of Herod. Herod's brutal efficiency in maintaining public order was not
inherited by his successors. Eventually, by the turn of the First Century
CE, the Romans decided that direct Roman Rule in Judaea and the Galilee,
without the intermediation of local vassal kings, would best insure order
and obedience. However, the Roman prefects and procurators, often times
acted to only further sow salt deep in Jewish wounds. Pontius Pilate,
Governor from 26-36 CE,  introduced images of the deified emperor into
Jerusalem as his first act of office. Well aware of Jewish prohibitions
against graven images, and sure of Jewish opposition; he made sure that the
symbols of the imperial cult were erected under cover of night. The Jews,
perhaps aware that a violent reaction to Pilate would only result in
greater bloodshed, gathered in an act of non-violent resistance, and
marched to the Roman administrative capital at Caesarea. The procession
must have taken several days to march from Judaea up the coast to Pilate's
residence. On arrival, the Jews demanded an audience with Pilate, and
requested that the paraphernalia of the imperial cult be removed from
Jerusalem. A sit down strike lasted for six days paralyzed the city.
Pilate, anxious to quell the demonstration before unrest spread to other
parts of the country ordered his troops to attack the protesters. When the
protesters responded by announcing that they preferred death rather than
see Jerusalem defiled, Pilate acquiesced to Jewish demands. Perhaps Pilate
hoped that magnanmity in the present would engender respect for him among
the Jews in the future.  When Pilate pillaged the Temple treasury to
finance the construction of a new water line for Jerusalem, he may have
wrongly assumed that based on his earlier deference to Jewish protests,
that now, the Jews would forgive him the expropriation of Temple funds for
an important municipal project. Street fighting between Jews and Roman
troops resulted in thousands of casualties.

Throughout the period, the Temple served as a focal point for Jewish-Roman
conflict. The Romans could not fathom the concept of an invisible god, nor
could they accept that among all of the nations throughout the Empire, only
the Jews consistently refused to take part in the worship of the Roman
emperor and state. Eventually, an imposing Roman fortress, the Antonia was
built in a menacing overlook from the North-West corner of the Temple
Mount.  During the governorship of Cumanus (48-52 CE), tensions continued
to mount. Josephus relates that during Pesah, Roman troops were stationed
strategically around the Temple Mount in order to prevent disturbances. A
Roman sentry, who perhaps had been standing to long under the hot Judaean
sun, decided to clarify his position to the Jewish pilgrims.  "One of the
Roman soldiers pulled up his garment and bent over indecently, turning his
backside to the Jews, and making a noise as indecent as his attitude." (The
Jewish War. II, 233). The insult sparked rioting that resulted in,
according to Josephus, over 30,000 dead.

The insult of Roman rule was not only symbolic. Heavy taxes and high
unemployment excacerbated tensions between Jews and Romans, between Jewish
towns and non-Jewish cities, and between the Jewish poor and the Jewish
aristocracy. Highway robbery became common, especially in the Galilee as
robber bands attacked caravans, and raided settlements. In Jerusalem, the
expansion and refurbishing of the Temple Mount, begun by Herod in 20 BCE,
was concluded by 60 CE. Almost 20,000 workers were suddenly unemployed. In
a country already on the brink of chaos, 20,000 young men wandering the
streets, filling the markets and  public houses, and unable to provide for
their families meant that the pressure on the political barometer was
increasing. The rumble of the stormclouds of revolt could be heard
approaching fast.

Two flashpoints sparked the beginning of the revolt in 66 CE: Caesaria and
Jerusalem.  In the Talmud, no two cities, one the seat of Roman power in
Palestine; the other, the holy city of the Jewish people, could be so
spiritually distant. "If someone should tell you that both Caesaria and
Jerusalem are in ruins, do not believe them. Believe them if they say -
Caesaria is in ruins, Jerusalem remains. Believe them if they say -
Jerusalem is in ruins, Caesaria remains." (Megillah 6a)

Caesaria was a largely pagan city with a minority Jewish population. For
many years, an uneasy truce allowed coexistence in Caesaria. A land dispute
over a lot bordering a synagogue between the Jewish community and a Greek
brought split tension wide open. Fighting between Jews and non-Jews in
Caesaria spread to other mixed cities throughout the Galilee, and to Jewish
attacks on Gedara and Bet Shean.  In Jerusalem, the Temple become, once
again, the focus of Jewish-Roman conflict. The Roman Governor Florus (65-66
CE), like Pilate before him, robbed the Temple treasury. His excuse that
the funds were needed for  municipal work projects was rejected by the
Jews. Armed clashes with Roman troops took place around Jerusalem.

>From the Herod's conquest of the Galilee, Jewish rebel groups had been
bolstered by the increasing instability. Although referred to as the War
Party, or the Zealots, the rebel groups were numerous, as prepared to fight
with each other, as they were to fight the legions of Rome. In the early
stages of the revolt, elements of the priesthood played a central role in
focusing the revolt around the symbol of Jerusalem and the Temple. Elazar
Ben Hananiah, the son of the high priest,  suspended the sacrifice in honor
of the emperor and Roman state that had been instituted by Roman
collaborators among the priesthood. Leading Jewish troops into battle
against the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, Elazar managed to  beat back
Florus. Jews suspected of treason were executed.  Jerusalem plunged into

The infighting between various rebel groups increased when a Jewish rebel
band, known as the Sicarii, challenged Elazar Ben Hananiah. Sicarii refers
to a small, easily concealed dagger. Employing a campaign of political
terror, the Sicarii sought to wipe out any element, be it Jewish or Roman,
that opposed their power. The Sicarii leader, Menahem,  led a campaign of
political assassination and robbery aimed at the priestly aristocracy.
Hananiah, the father of Elazar was hunted down by the Sicarii and murdered.
When Menahem appeared in the war torn streets of Jerusalem dressed in royal
purple, in an attempt to pronounce himself king, the priestly
revolutionaries fought back. Menahem was killed, and his followers quit
Jerusalem. Led by Menahem's nephew, Elazar Ben Yair, the Sicarii sat out
the rest of the revolt at the mountain fortress of Masada.  Although the
Sicarii were the most extreme of the Jewish rebel groups, all of the groups
shared the idea that the Jewish people could never accept foreign rule. For
the War Party, and it's constituent factions, the true king of the Jewish
people was God. Only God could choose a human ruler to act as his
legitimate representative over Israel.  For Jewish tradition, only a
descendant of the House of David could fulfill this role. The Zealot bands
saw their willingness to battle against Rome as an act of faith.
Realistically, they must have known that Jewish rebel forces could not
defeat Rome. However, through their act of faith, they held that God would
reward Israel by sending his messiah. First and foremost, the Messiah, as
understood during the Second Temple Period, was that human figure
designated by God to bring political freedom to the Jewish people.

The revolt in Judaea was small, however, the Romans could not allow the
flames of revolt to spread to other areas of the Empire. Roman troops
poured into the Land of Israel. In the North, Vespasian's legions crushed
the Jewish resistance at the fortresses of Yotfat and Gamla. By the summer
of 68 CE, Jerusalem remained the last major center of the revolt.  With the
assassination of Nero that summer, Vespasian returned to Rome to take the
throne. The political intrigues of Rome kept Vespasian occupied. By the
summer of 69 CE, he had proclaimed himself emperor. Only in 70 CE, did he
order his son Titus to lead the Roman assault against Jerusalem. Between
the absence of Vespasian and the appearance of Titus, the Jewish rebels
were unable to create a unified front. Jerusalem was starving. Rebel bands
raided noble homes for food. The city stores were razed to the ground.
Rebel groups fought for pieces of turf. John of Giscala (Yohanan of Gush
Halav) controlled the Lower City and the Temple Mount. Simon Bar Giora
reaked havoc in the Upper City. The aristocracy battled the proletariat as
Jerusalem collapsed into civil war. Fear, hunger, and disease ran rampant.

In August of 70 CE, on the Hebrew date of the Ninth of Av, after prolonged
siege, and the fall of the Antonia to Roman forces, the Temple was
destroyed. Twenty-nine days later, the Upper City, today the Jewish
Quarter, was decimated. Still today, Josephus' vivid description of the
Fall of Jerusalem bears witness: "The Temple Mount, enveloped in flames
from top to bottom, appeared to boiling up from it's very roots; yet the
sea of  flame was nothing to  the ocean of blood, or the companies of the
killers to the armies of the killed; nowhere could the ground be seen
between the corpses, and the soldiers clambered over the corpses as they
pursued the refugees." (The Jewish War. V:277) Archaeological excavations
since the early 1970's in the Jewish Quarter have turned back the layers of
history to reveal direct evidence of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem : a
charred roofbeam,  ash-covered mosaics, charcoal stained frescoes, and most
amazingly, the arm bone of a young woman, an iron spear just out of hands

Destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and again by Rome in 70 CE, with
Jerusalem in ruin, what would happen to the Jewish people?