The revolt in Judaea from 66 – 70 AD was one of the most serious protests against Roman rule.
|Painting showing Jospehus
At the heart of the uprising was Josephus, who later wrote of his remarkable experiences.
Chaos in Judaea
Judaea, now part of modern day Israel, had been a Roman ally since the second century BC and became a Roman province in 6 AD. Decades later, it was descending into chaos.
Local people had begun to rebel against Roman rule. To some, these men were freedom fighters, but to men like Josephus, a wealthy Jewish priest, they were no more than terrorists who killed at random.
A full-scale rebellion was triggered in 66 AD, when somebody emptied a pot full of urine outside a synagogue, defiling a holy site. The Jews were furious and a riot broke out, during which some Jews shouted insults at Florus, the Roman Governor of Judaea.
Florus fluffs it
Florus summoned Jewish leaders to a meeting, where he demanded they hand over the men responsible. To co-operate with Rome without betraying their Jewish heritage was a challenge for the leaders.
They said that they could not identify the culprits. Josephus wrote how Florus, angered by their refusal, then ordered his troops to destroy the market and kill anyone they saw.
Josephus at war
The massacre by the Romans turned what had been occasional violence into a full-scale Jewish revolt. Josephus decided to join his countrymen [expert] and became one of the rebellion’s main leaders.
Within months, he was facing the tough Roman army as it moved across Judaea. He wrote that, “From one end of Galilee to the other there was an orgy of fire and bloodshed."
Massacre at Jotapata
Eventually Josephus and his men sheltered within the walled city of Jotapata, surrounded by Romans. Just before dawn on the 47th day of the siege, Roman soldiers scaled the city's walls and poured into the city. They killed around 40,000 Jews.
Josephus and 40 other men hid in a concealed cave. There was no escape. Choosing death over surrender, his followers prepared to kill themselves. Josephus argued that Jewish law prohibited suicide and persuaded each man to kill another. He was one of the last to remain alive and convinced his comrade to surrender instead.
A narrow escape
The Romans captured him and brought him before Vespasian, the Roman general who had overcome the city. Desperate to avoid slavery or death, he told Vespasian of a Jewish prophecy that predicted how a new world leader would emerge from the east. Josephus declared that Vespasian was that man.
Vespasian let Josephus live and prepared for his final attack on the rebels. However, in 68 AD, Nero’s death threw the Roman Empire into turmoil as it sank into civil war again. The campaign against the Jews came to a brief halt as Vespasian weighed his options.
A new emperor
Deciding he had as much claim to the imperial throne as anyone else, he took an army to march on Italy. The following year, in 69 AD, Josephus’ prediction came true as Vespasian took the throne.
Destruction of the temple
However, in Judaea, the campaign against the Jews continued under Vespasian’s son, Titus. In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and looted its sacred contents. With the revolt over for good, huge numbers of Jews left Judaea to make a home elsewhere.
The beginning of Vespasian’s rule had given Romans a new feeling of optimism after the civil war and the terror of Nero’s reign. Now they also had a foreign victory to cheer about.
To Romans, their victory in Judaea was a clear sign that they were still the top dog in the world. Although Josephus was hated by his fellow Jews for betraying them, he understood that, to survive in the first century AD, he had no choice but to toe the Roman line.
Where to next:
Religion in Ancient Rome – Jews in Roman Times
Emperors - Vespasian