The Roman Siege of Jerusalem
The Siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD was a decisive event in the First Jewish-Roman War. It was followed by the fall of Masada in 73 CE. The Roman army, led by the future Emperor Titus, with Tiberius Julius Alexander as his second-in-command, besieged and conquered the city of Jerusalem, which had been occupied by its Jewish defenders in 66 CE. The city and its famous Temple were destroyed in 70 CE. The destruction of the Temple is still mourned annually as the Jewish fast Tisha B’Av. The Arch of Titus, depicting and celebrating the Roman sack of Jerusalem and the Temple, still stands in Rome. The Jewish Sages (Amoraim) attributed the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem as punishment from God for the “baseless hatred” that pervaded Jewish society at the time.
Vespasian had by then securely established himself as emperor and wanted a resounding success to legitimate his new dynasty. In his propaganda, Vespasian had pictured himself as the savior of the empire, the man who, after a year and a half of political chaos, had restored order and stability. There was no better way to prove this point than to bring to a successful conclusion the protracted war in Judea. In order to emphasize the dynastic implications of the victory, Vespasian appointed his son Titus to command the Roman army in its assault on the holy city of the Jews. In the spring of 70 CE, the Romans, under Titus, besieged the city and cut off all supplies and all means of escape. The fighting for the city and the Temple was intense.
The major rallying point of the revolutionaries, and consequently the major target of the Romans, was the Temple. The Temple was a veritable fortress, but it still was a temple. The priests maintained all the customary rituals, even with death and destruction all around them. Three weeks before the final catastrophe, the Tamid, the “continual sacrifice,” which was offered every morning and evening, ceased because of a shortage of lambs. The severity of the famine is illustrated in many gruesome tales by Josephus; but despite their suffering, the Jews were still willing to sacrifice two lambs every day to God. Their only hope for success was through divine intervention, and only a properly maintained cult would convince God to aid the faithful.
Divine help, however, was not forthcoming. The Romans advanced methodically toward their goal. The Jews were weakened by famine and internecine strife and, although Titus made some serious tactical errors in prosecuting the siege, the Roman victory was only a matter of time. Each of the city’s three protective walls was breached in turn, and the Romans finally found themselves, by mid-summer of 70 CE, just outside the sacred precincts.
At this point, according to Josephus, Titus called a meeting of his general staff and asked for advice. What should he do with the Jewish Temple? Some of his adjutants argued that it should be destroyed, because as long as it was left standing it would serve as a focal point for anti-Roman agitation. According to the “rule of war” in antiquity, temples were not to be molested, but this Temple had become a fortress and therefore was a fair military target. No opprobrium would be attached to its destruction. Titus, however, argued that the Temple should be preserved as a monument to Roman magnanimity. Indeed, according to Josephus, during the siege Titus offered the revolutionaries numerous opportunities to surrender or, at least, to vacate the Temple and carry on the fighting elsewhere. Even at the end Titus was eager to preserve the Temple. But Titus’s plan was thwarted. On the next day, a soldier, acting against orders, tossed a firebrand into the sanctuary, and the flames shot up, immediately out of control. Josephus insists that Titus did his best to douse the flames, but Josephus’s apology for Titus is as unsuccessful as Titus’s attempt to halt the conflagration. It is very unlikely that this fantastic account of Roman magnanimity and self-restraint contains any historical truth. Scholars debate whether this portrait of moderate generals was concocted for a Jewish or a Roman audience, but most agree that it is as exaggerated as Josephus’s other claim that the Jews were compelled by the revolutionaries to fight a war they did not want.
On the tenth of the month of Av (in rabbinic chronology on the ninth), late August of 70 C.E., the Temple was destroyed. Titus and his troops spent the next month subduing the rest of the city and collecting loot as the reward for their victory.
Upon his return to Rome in 71 CE, Titus celebrated a joint triumph with his father, the emperor Vespasian. In the procession were the enemy leaders Simon bar Giora and John of Gischala, and various objects from the Temple (notably the menorah, table and trumpets). Simon was beheaded, John was probably enslaved and the sacred objects were deposited in the Temple of Peace in Rome. Two triumphal arches were erected in the following years to celebrate the victory; one was destroyed in the 14th or 15th century, the other still stands, the Arch of Titus, with its famous depiction of the sacred objects from the Temple carried in the procession. The destroyed arch bore the following inscription:
The senate and people of Rome (dedicate this arch) to the emperor Titus … because with the guidance and plans of his father, and under his auspices, he subdued the Jewish people and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, which all generals, kings and peoples before him had either attacked without success or left entirely unassailed.
To punish the Jews for the war the Romans imposed the fiscus Judaicus, the “Jewish tax.” The half-shekel that Jews throughout the empire had formerly contributed to the Temple in Jerusalem was now collected for the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. The imposition of this tax, which was collected throughout the empire at least until the middle of the second century C.E., shows that the Romans regarded all the Jews of the empire as partly responsible for the war. Dio Cassius, a Roman historian of the third century CE, records that the Judean revolutionaries were aided by their coreligionists throughout the Roman Empire. Josephus implicitly denies this, but it is perhaps confirmed by the Jewish tax on Diaspora, as well as Judean, Jews.
The Romans did not, however, institute any other harsh measures against the Jews. They confiscated much Jewish land in Judea, distributing it to their soldiers and to Jewish collaborators (like Josephus), but this was a normal procedure after a war. They did not engage in religious persecution or strip the Jews of their rights. On the contrary, Josephus reports that the non-Jewish citizens of Antioch petitioned Titus to allow them to expel their Jewish population, but Titus adamantly refused; the Jews were still entitled to the protection of the state.
The cliffs on the east edge of Masada are about 1,300 feet (400 m) high and the cliffs on the west are about 300 feet (90 m) high; the natural approaches to the cliff top are very difficult. The top of the plateau is flat and rhomboid-shaped, about 1,800 feet (550 m) by 900 feet (275 m). There was a casemate wall around the top of the plateau totaling 4,300 feet (1.3 km) long and 12 feet (3.7 m) thick, with many towers, and the fortress included storehouses, barracks, an armory, the palace, and cisterns that were refilled by rainwater. Three narrow, winding paths led from below up to fortified gates. According to Josephus, a first-century Jewish Roman historian, Herod the Great fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE as a refuge for himself in the event of a revolt. In 66 CE, at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War against the Roman Empire, a group of Jewish extremists called the Sicarii overcame the Roman garrison of Masada. After the destruction of the Second Temple, additional members of the Sicarii and their families fled Jerusalem and settled on the mountaintop, using it as a base for harassing the Romans
Titus’s triumph in Rome in 71 CE marked the official end of the war. A few “mopping up” operations remained. Three strongholds, all originally fortified by Herod the Great, were still in rebel hands, but only one of them caused any real trouble for the Romans. This was Masada (which fell in either 73 or 74 CE). Archaeological excavations confirm Josephus’s description of the magnificence of the site and the difficulty of the siege. The Romans built a ramp against one side of the plateau and pushed a tower up against the wall of the fortress. We may assume that this activity was accompanied by a constant hail of arrows and stones thrown by the rebels, although Josephus does not mention this. (Nor does he mention even a single Roman casualty!)
When the Masada rebels saw that the end was near, they had to decide whether to continue their struggle. At this point Josephus narrates a very dramatic tale. The leader of the Sicarii, Eleazar ben Yair, assembled the “manliest” of his comrades and convinced them that an honorable self-inflicted death was preferable to the disgrace of capture and enslavement. Acting upon his instructions, each man killed his own wife and family. Then ten men were chosen by lot to kill the rest. Finally, one was chosen to kill the remaining nine and then himself. All told, 960 men, women and children perished. When the Romans entered the fortress the next day, they expected a battle, but all they found was silence.
The historicity of this famous account is uncertain. The basic elements of the story are of course accurate and confirmed by the archaeological findings—the remains of the rebel presence at Masada, the Roman siege works, the Roman camps and the Roman ramp are in a remarkable state of preservation. Even the stones hurled by the Romans from their siege tower have been found. Some of the Jews slew their families, burned their possessions and set the public buildings on fire. Some of them killed themselves. That some tried to escape, however, is suggested by skeletons found at the site, which may have belonged to people who were found by the Romans and killed.
Josephus probably invented or exaggerated the use of lots in the suicide process. True, Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin found 11 “lots” at Masada, but the first drawing required several hundred lots and the second only ten. Moreover, many of the details in Josephus’s account are irreconcilable with the archaeological evidence. For example, Josephus says that all the possessions were gathered together in one large pile and set on fire, but archaeology shows there were many piles and many fires. Josephus writes that Eleazar ordered his men to destroy everything except the foodstuffs, but archaeology demonstrates that many storerooms that contained provisions were burned. Josephus implies that all the murders took place in the palace, but the northern palace is too small for an assembly of almost a thousand people. More important, the speeches Josephus puts into the mouth of the rebel leader Eleazar ben Yair are incongruous to say the least. Imagine a Jewish revolutionary leader justifying suicide by appealing to the example of the Brahmins of India! It is highly unlikely that there was time for such speeches or that the rebels acted with such unanimity.
As we have seen, the Jewish revolt was not a reaction to an unmistakable threat or provocation by the state. In the fall of 66 CE—as the result of social tensions between rich and poor, between city and country, and between Jew and gentile; of the impoverishment of large sections of the economy; of religious speculations about the imminent arrival of the end time and the messianic redeemer; of nationalist stirrings against foreign rule; of the incompetent and insensitive administration of the procurators—the Jews of Palestine went to war against the Roman Empire.
The war was characterized, as we have seen, by internecine fighting. The fighting was not only between revolutionary groups but also between the revolutionaries and large segments of the populace. Josephus is surely correct that many Jews opposed the war. Moreover, the number of people enrolled in the revolutionary parties was quite small. Many Jews had no desire to participate in the struggle. It was one thing to riot against the procurator, quite another to rebel against the Roman Empire. Wealthy and poor alike were afraid that war would mean the loss of everything they had, and since the Romans had not done anything intolerable, there was no compelling reason to go to war. This attitude was widespread. Aside from Jerusalem, only Gamla was the site of fierce fighting. Galilee, Perea (the Transjordan), the coast, Idumea—all these saw some anti-Roman activity, but all were pacified immediately upon the arrival of the Roman forces. Jerusalem was the seat of the rebellion—where it began, where it ended and where the vast majority of the combatants maintained their strongholds.
The causes for the failure of the war are not hard to see. The war began with little advance planning, the revolutionaries were badly divided and the timing was off. Had they rebelled a few years earlier while the Romans were fighting the Parthians, they might have been able to succeed at least to the point of exacting various concessions from the Romans in return for their surrender. Had they waited two years beyond 66 CE—after Nero’s assassination in 68 CE—their odds would have been immeasurably better. At that time, the empire was in chaos; the succession was vigorously disputed; Gaul had risen in revolt. This would have been a perfect moment for revolt, but for the Jews it came too late.
The site of Masada was identified in 1842 and extensively excavated between 1963 and 1965 by an expedition led by Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin. While a hike up the Snake Path on the eastern side of the mountain (access via the Dead Sea Highway) is considered part of the “Masada experience,” a cable car operates at the site for those who wish to avoid the physical exertion. Due to the remoteness from human habitation and its arid environment, the site has remained largely untouched by humans or nature during the past two millennia. The Roman ramp still stands on the western side and can be climbed on foot. Many of the ancient buildings have been restored from their remains, as have the wall-paintings of Herod’s two main palaces, and the Roman-style bathhouses that he built. The synagogue, storehouses, and houses of the Jewish rebels have also been identified and restored. The meter-high circumvallation wall that the Romans built around Masada can be seen, together with eleven barracks for the Roman soldiers just outside this wall. Water cisterns two-thirds of the way up the cliff drain the nearby wadis by an elaborate system of channels, which explains how the rebels managed to have enough water for such a long time.
Inside the synagogue, an ostracon bearing the inscription me’aser cohen (tithe for the priest) was found, as were fragments of two scrolls; parts of Deuteronomy 33-34 and parts of Ezekiel 35-38 (including the vision of the “dry bones”), found hidden in pits dug under the floor of a small room built inside the synagogue. In other loci fragments were found of the books of Genesis, Leviticus, Psalms, and Sirach, as well as of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.
In the area in front of the northern palace, eleven small ostraca were recovered, each bearing a single name. One reads “ben Yair” and could be short for Eleazar ben Ya’ir, the commander of the fortress. It has been suggested that the other ten names are those of the men chosen by lot to kill the others and then themselves, as recounted by Josephus.
Archaeologist Yigael Yadin’s excavations uncovered the skeletal remains of 28 people at Masada. The remains of a male 20–22 years of age, a female 17-18 and a child approximately 12 years old, were found in the palace. The remains of two men and a full head of hair with braids belonging to a woman were also found in the bath house. Forensic analysis showed the hair had been cut from the woman’s head with a sharp instrument while she was still alive (a Jewish practice for captured women) while the braids indicated she was married. Based on the evidence, anthropologist Joe Zias believes the remains may have been Romans the rebels captured when they seized the garrison. The remains of 25 people were found in a cave at the base of the cliff. Carbon dating of textiles found with the remains in the cave indicate they are contemporaneous with the period of the Revolt and it is believed that as they were buried with pig bones (a Roman practice), this indicates the remains may belong to Romans who garrisoned Masada after its recapture. All the remains were reburied at Masada with full military honours on July 7, 1969.
Cable car heading down from Masada
The Masada story was the inspiration for the “Masada plan” devised by the British during the Mandate era. The plan was to man defensive positions on Mount Carmel with Palmach fighters, in order to stop Erwin Rommel’s expected drive through the region in 1942. The plan was abandoned following Rommel’s defeat at El Alamein.
The Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), Moshe Dayan, initiated the practice of holding the swearing-in ceremony of soldiers who have completed their Tironut (IDF basic training) on top of Masada.
The ceremony ends with the declaration: “Masada shall not fall again.” The soldiers climb the Snake Path at night and are sworn in with torches lighting the background.
Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. An audio-visual light show is presented nightly on the western side of the mountain (access by car from the Arad road or by foot, down the mountain via the Roman ramp path). In 2007, a new museum opened at the site in which archeological findings are displayed in a theatrical setting.
A 2,000-year-old seed discovered during archaeological excavations in the early 1960s has been successfully germinated to become a date plant, the oldest known such germination.