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Great Jewish Revolt

From about 6 CE, Judea was ruled by Roman procurators, who were responsible for collecting taxes, while pocketing any amount above the quota. This led to increasing abuse. Tensions rose higher when pagan Rome took over the appointment of the High Priest. In 39, Emperor Caligula declared himself a god and ordered his statues to be set up at every temple. The Jews refused, alone in the whole Empire, preparing for armed revolt. Caligula's death in 43 ended the disturbance. The theft of large amount of money from Temple treasury by procurator Gessius Florus (who, according to Tacitus, "indulged in every kind of robbery and violence") contributed to radicalization and increased the popularity of Zealots, some of whom believed that any means are justified in order to attain political and religious independence from Rome.

First successes

The revolt began in 66 in Caesarea, provoked by the desecration of local synagogue by the Hellenists, with which the Greek-speaking Roman garrison did not intrude. Young priests in Jerusalem then ceased prayers and sacrifices dedicated to the Roman Emperor, and the rebels attacked and destroyed the Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem. The pro-Roman king Agrippa II and his sister Berenice fled Jerusalem to Galilee, where later they gave themselves up to Romans. Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria, brought reinforcements to restore order, but lost nearly his entire legion while retreating.

The fall

Emperor Nero appointed general Vespasian instead of Gallus to quash the rebellion. Vespasian made Caesarea his headquarters and with his legions (60,000 professional soldiers) methodically cleared the coast and the most radicalized area, the North. By the end of 68, Jewish resistance in the North has been crushed.

The leaders of collapsed Northern revolt John of Giscala and Simon ben Giora managed to escape to Jerusalem. Brutal civil war erupted: the Zealots and Sicarii executed anyone advocating surrender, and by 68 all the leadership of the Southern revolt was dead, all killed by the Jews, none by the Romans.

After the death of Nero and with the backing of the army, Vespasian was proclaimed emperor in 69 and left for Rome to take the throne from Vitellius in brief Roman civil war.

Titus Flavius, Vespasian's son, led the final assault and siege of Jerusalem. During the infighting inside the city walls, a stockpiled supply of dry food was intentionally burned to induce fight against the siege instead of negotiating peace; as a result many city dwellers and defenders died of starvation during the siege. Zealots under Eleazar ben Simon held the Temple, Sicarii lead by Simon ben Giora held the upper city. By the summer of 70 the Romans had breached the walls of Jerusalem, destroying and burning nearly the entire city. The Second Temple was destroyed on Tisha B'Av (August 29 or August 30), 70. John of Giscala surrendered at Herod's fortress of Jotaphta and was brougnt to Rome for public execution.

Some spots of resistance were not vanquished until 73, but it didn't affect the outcome of the war. The most notable is Masada, where, according to a legend, 960 defenders preferred mass suicide to surrender.

The outcome

Estimates of the death toll range from 600,000 to 1,300,000 Jews: there was "no room for crosses and no crosses for the bodies". Over 100,000 died during the siege, and almost 100,000 were taken to Rome as slaves. Many fled to Mesopotamia and areas around the Mediterranean.

The Romans hunted down and slaughtered entire clans, such as descendants of the House of David. On one occasion, Titus condemned 2,500 Jews to fight with wild beasts in the amphitheater of Caesarea in celebration of his brother Domitian's birthday.

The famous Arch of Titus still stands in Rome: it depicts Roman legionaries carrying off the Temple of Jerusalem's treasuries, including the menorah. The coins inscribed "Judea Capta" were issued throughout the Empire in order to demonstrate the futility of possible rebellions.

Titus refused to accept a wreath of victory from Helen of Judea, as there is "no merit in vanquishing people forsaken by their own God". (Philostratus, Vita Apollonii)

Before Vespasian's departure, the Pharisaic sage and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai attained his permission to establish a Judaic school at Yavneh. He was smuggled away from Jerusalem Zealots in a coffin by his students. This school later become a major center of Talmudic study. (See Mishnah)


The main account of the revolt comes from Josephus, the former Jewish commander of Galilee who switched over to the Roman side. Since Josephus had been granted citizenship and a pension in Rome and was well accepted at the courts of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, his work is likely to be biased in favor of his imperial patrons, especially Titus.

His Jewish War (c. 79), and his Jewish Antiquities (c. 99) -- especially its autobiographical appendix -- are frequently contradictory. He was loathed by the Jews as a turncoat and Roman apologist, but later in life he returned to his Jewish roots.

See also