After the failed First Roman – Jewish War in 70 CE, the Roman authorities took measures to suppress the rebellious province. Instead of a procurator, they installed a praetor as a governor and stationed an entire legion, the X Fretensis. Because the Revolt had resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin at Yavne provided spiritual guidance for the Jewish nation, both in Judea and throughout the Jewish diaspora.
In 115 the emperor Trajan was in command of the eastern campaign against the Parthian Empire. The Roman invasion had been prompted over the imposition of a pro-Parthian king on the throne of Armenia after a Parthian invasion of that land. This encroachment on the traditional sphere of influence of the Roman Empire— the two empires had shared hegemony over Armenia since the time of Nero some 50 years earlier — could only lead to war.
As Trajan’s army advanced victoriously through Mesopotamia, Jewish rebels in its rear began attacking the small garrisons left behind. A revolt in far off Cyrenaica soon spread to Egypt and then Cyprus, inciting revolt in Judea. A widespread uprising centred at Lydda threatened grain supplies from Egypt to the front. The Jewish insurrection swiftly spread to the recently conquered provinces. Cities with substantial Jewish populations – Nisibis, Edessa, Seleucia, Arbela – joined the rebellion and slaughtered their small Roman garrisons. Cyrenaica, the rebels were led by one Lukuas or Andreas, who called himself “king” (according to Eusebius of Caesarea). His group destroyed many temples, including those to Hecate, Jupiter, Apollo, Artemis, and Isis, as well as the civil structures that were symbols of Rome, including the Caesareum, the basilica, and the thermae. The Greek and Roman populations were murdered on sight. Then Lukuas moved towards Alexandria, entered the city which had been abandoned by the Roman troops in Egypt under the leadership of governor Marcus Rutilius Lupus, and set fire to the city. The pagan temples and the tomb of Pompey were destroyed. Trajan sent new troops under the praefectus praetorio Quintus Marcius Turbo, but Egypt and Cyrenaica were pacified only in autumn 117.
In Cyprus a Jewish band under a leader named Artemion had taken control of the island, killing thousands of civilians. “Under the leadership of one Artemion, the Cypriot Jews participated in the great uprising against the Romans under Trajan (117), and they are reported to have massacred 240,000 Greeks (Dio Cassius, lxviii. 32).” A small Roman army was dispatched to the island, soon reconquering the capital. After the revolt had been fully defeated, laws were created forbidding any Jews to live on the island.
A new revolt sprang up in Mesopotamia, while Trajan was in the Persian Gulf. Trajan reconquered Nisibis (Nusaybin in Turkey), the capital of Osroene Edessa, and Seleucia on the Tigris (Iraq), each of which housed large Jewish communities.
A pro-Roman son of the Partian king Osroes I, named Parthamaspatas, had been brought on the expedition as part of the emperor’s entourage. Trajan had him crowned in Ctesiphon as king of the Parthians. “Trajan, fearing that the Parthians, too, might begin a revolt, desired to give them a king of their own. Accordingly, when he came to Ctesiphon, he called together in a great plain all the Romans and likewise all the Parthians that were there at the time; then he mounted a lofty platform, and after describing in grandiloquent language what he had accomplished, he appointed Parthamaspates king over the Parthians and set the diadem upon his head.” (Dio Cassius). With this done, Trajan moved north to take personal command of the ongoing siege of Hatra.
The siege continued throughout the summer of 117, but the years of constant campaigning in the baking eastern heat took their toll on Trajan who suffered a heatstroke. He decided to begin the long journey back to Rome in order to recover. Sailing from Seleucia, the emperor’s health deteriorated rapidly. He was taken ashore at Selinus in Cilicia, where he died and his successor, Hadrian, assumed the reins of government in 118.
The Cyrenaica’s Jewish leader, Lukuas fled to Judea. Marcius Turbo pursued him and sentenced to death the brothers Julian and Pappus, who had been key leaders in the rebellion. Lusius Quietus, the conqueror of the Jews of Mesopotamia, was now in command of the Roman army in Judaea, and laid siege to Lydda, where the rebel Jews had gathered under the leadership of Julian and Pappus. The distress became so great that the patriarch Rabban Gamaliel II, who was shut up there and died soon afterwards, permitted fasting even on Hanukkah. Other rabbis condemned this measure. Lydda was next taken and many of the Jews were executed; the “slain of Lydda” are often mentioned in words of reverential praise in the Talmud. Pappus and Julian were among those executed by the Romans in the same year.
Lusius Quietus, whom the Emperor Trajan had held in high regard and who had served Rome so well, was quietly stripped of his command once Hadrian had secured the Imperial title. He was murdered in unknown circumstances in the summer of 118, possibly on the orders of Hadrian.
In 130, Emperor Hadrian visited the ruins of Jerusalem. At first sympathetic towards the Jews, Hadrian promised to rebuild the city, but the Jews felt betrayed when they found out that his intentions were to rebuild the Jewish holiest city as a Roman metropolis, and a new temple upon the ruins of the Second Temple, which was to be dedicated to Jupiter.
An additional legion, the VI Ferrata, was stationed in the province to maintain order, and the works commenced in 131 after the governor of Judaea Tineius Rufus performed the foundation ceremony of Aelia Capitolina, the city’s projected new name. “Ploughing up the Temple” was a religious offence that turned many Jews against the Roman authorities. The tensions grew higher when Hadrian abolished circumcision (brit milah), which he, a Hellenist, viewed as mutilation.
The Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva (alternatively Akiba) regarded the chosen commander Simon Bar Kokhba to be the Jewish Messiah, according to the Star Prophecy verse from Numbers 24:17: “There shall come a star out of Jacob” (“Bar Kokhba” means “son of a star” in the Aramaic language).
At the time Jewish Christians were still a minor sect of Judaism, and most historians believe that it was this messianic claim in favor of Bar Kokhba that alienated many of them, who believed that the true messiah was Jesus, and sharply deepened the schism between Jews and Christians.
Bar Kokhba revolt
The Jewish leaders carefully planned the second revolt to avoid numerous mistakes that had plagued the first Great Jewish Revolt sixty years earlier. In 132, a revolt led by Bar Kokhba quickly spread from Modi’in across the country, cutting off the Roman garrison in Jerusalem.
A sovereign Jewish state was restored for two and a half years that followed. The functional public administration was headed by Simon Bar Kokhba, who took the title Nasi Israel (ruler or prince of Israel). The “Era of the redemption of Israel” was announced, contracts were signed and coins were minted in large quantity in silver and copper with corresponding inscriptions (all were overstruck over foreign coins).
Rabbi Akiva presided over the Sanhedrin. The religious rituals were observed and the korbanot (i.e., sacrifices) were resumed on the Altar. It has been believed that attempts were made to restore the Temple in Jerusalem, but the evidence—letters written in Jerusalem and dated to the revolutionary era—has turned out to belong to the revolt of 66–70.
Simon bar Kokhba, the commander of the revolt, was acclaimed a Messiah (rather than The Messiah), a heroic figure who could restore Israel. The revolt established a Jewish state for over two years, but a massive Roman army finally crushed it. The Romans then barred Jews from Jerusalem, except for Tisha B’Av. The revolt is also known as The Second Jewish-Roman War, The Second Jewish Revolt, or The Third Revolt (counting the Kitos War, 115 – 117, as second).
The outbreak took the Romans by surprise. Hadrian called his general Sextus Julius Severus from Britain, and troops were brought from as far as the Danube. The size of the Roman army amassed against the rebels was much larger than that commanded by Titus sixty years earlier. Roman losses were very heavy. Among its losses it is believed that an entire legion, the XXII Deiotariana was completely wiped out.
The struggle lasted for three years before the revolt was brutally crushed in the summer of 135. After losing Jerusalem, Bar Kokhba and the remnants of his army withdrew to the fortress of Betar, which also subsequently came under siege. The Jerusalem Talmud relates that the numbers slain were enormous, that the Romans “went on killing until their horses were submerged in blood to their nostrils” (Taanit 4:5). The Talmud also relates that for seventeen years the Romans didn’t allow the Jews to bury their dead in Betar.
According to Cassius Dio, 580,000 Jews were killed, 50 fortified towns and 985 villages razed. The Talmud, however, claims a death toll in the millions. The latter figure is unlikely, because there were simply not that many Jews in the region at that time. Cassius Dio claimed that “Many Romans, moreover, perished in this war. Therefore, Hadrian, in writing to the Senate did not employ the opening phrase commonly affected by the emperors: ‘If you and your children are in health, it is well; I and the army are in health.’”
Hadrian attempted to root out Judaism, which he saw as the cause of continuous rebellions. He prohibited the Torah law, the Hebrew calendar and executed Judaic scholars. The sacred scroll was ceremoniously burned on the Temple Mount. At the former Temple sanctuary, he installed two statues, one of Jupiter, another of himself. In an attempt to erase any memory of Judea, he wiped the name off the map and replaced it with Syria Palaestina, after the Philistines, the ancient enemies of the Jews; previously similar terms had been used to describe only the (smaller) former Philistine homeland to the west of Judaea.
Since then, the land has been referred to as “Palestine,” which supplanted earlier terms such as “Iudaea” (Judaea) and the antiquated “Canaan.” Similarly, he re-established Jerusalem as the Roman pagan polis of Aelia Capitolina, and Jews were forbidden from entering it.
Constantine I allowed Jews to mourn their defeat and humiliation once a year on Tisha B’Av at the Western Wall. Jews remained scattered for close to two millennia; their numbers in the region fluctuated with time.
Modern historians have come to view the Bar-Kokhba Revolt as being of decisive historic importance. The massive destruction and loss of life occasioned by the revolt has led some scholars to date the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora from this date.
They note that, unlike the aftermath of the First Jewish-Roman War chronicled by Josephus, the majority of the Jewish population of Judea was either killed, exiled, or sold into slavery after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, and Jewish religious and political authority was suppressed far more brutally. After the revolt the Jewish religious center shifted to the Babylonian Jewish community and its scholars. Judea would not be a center of Jewish religious, cultural, or political life again until the modern era, though Jews continued to live there and important religious developments still occurred there. In Galilee, the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled in the 2nd–4th centuries. Eventually, Safed became known as a center of Jewish learning, especially Kabbalah in the 15th century.
Historian Shmuel Katz writes that even after the disaster of the revolt:
”Jewish life remained active and productive. Banished from Jerusalem, it now centered on Galilee. Refugees returned; Jews who had been sold into slavery were redeemed. In the centuries after Bar Kochba and Hadrian, some of the most significant creations of the Jewish spirit were produced in Palestine. It was there that the Mishnah was completed and the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled, and the bulk of the community farmed the land.”
The disastrous end of the revolt also occasioned major changes in Jewish religious thought. Messianism was abstracted and spiritualized, and rabbinical political thought became deeply cautious and conservative. The Talmud, for instance, refers to Bar-Kokhba as “Ben-Kusiba“, a derogatory term used to indicate that he was a false Messiah. The deeply ambivalent rabbinical position regarding Messianism, as expressed most famously in the Maimonides “Epistle to Yemen“, would seem to have its origins in the attempt to deal with the trauma of a failed Messianic uprising.