The Romans won their empire by force. They kept it by a combination of handshakes and spears. When their cunning and negotiating skills prevailed, backed up by the legions, all was well, and they found local elites to do business with. But often the Romans’ greed and arrogance got the better of them. Everywhere they ruled, they drove people to revolt. Mithridates in Asia Minor and beyond, Viriathus in Lusitania (today’s Portugal), Boudicca in Britain, Arminius in Germany, Tacfarinas in Africa, and the two leaders named Bato in Illyricum (roughly, the former Yugoslavia) were just some of the rebels. The Jews of the Land of Israel were similarly disposed—maybe even more so.

Jews launched three major revolts against Rome within seventy years.

Jews launched three major revolts against Rome within seventy years: two in the province of Judea, the Great Revolt (66–74 A.D.) and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–35 A.D.), and a third, the Diaspora Revolt or Kitos War (115–17 A.D.), which ranged from Libya to Mesopotamia and in which the involvement of Judea is debated but likely. Five Roman emperors or future emperors took part in putting these revolts down: Nero, Vespasian, Titus, Trajan, and Hadrian. This is to say nothing of lesser Jewish rebellions before 66 that were suppressed sharply and swiftly, sporadic rural violence, or later revolts that have left less of a mark on the historical record (e.g., the Gallus Revolt of 351–52 A.D.).

The Great Revolt is the most famous of these rebellions, although the others are no less poignant. (Consider, for example, Bar Kokhba’s bloody last stand at Beitar.) Jews lost all three revolts, with devastating results: death, enslavement, devastation, exile, the loss of most of the Jewish homeland, humiliation, and financial burdens. But the Great Revolt in particular is remembered for three reasons.

First, it caused the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, an event that has left its mark to this day, although in very different ways, on Christianity and Islam as well as on Judaism. Religious Jews pray every day, morning and evening, a heartfelt prayer to see the Temple rebuilt. Christians have at least historically believed that the destruction of the Temple fulfilled Jesus’s prophecy, and so they think it indicates divine favor for the New Israel of Christianity. And while Christians consider the site of Jesus’s burial, marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest place in Jerusalem, Muslims focus on the holiness of the Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount). It is the site of both the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque.

Members of the new dynasty played their success in Judea for all that it was worth.

Second, the Great Revolt brought a new dynasty to power in Rome, the Flavians, and with them a new architectural program. The dynasty’s founder, Vespasian (r. 69–79 A.D.), based his claim to the purple on his leading role in putting down the Great Revolt, which he achieved with the help of his son and successor, Titus. They, along with Titus’s younger brother and successor, Domitian, turned the center of Rome into a veritable world’s fair commemorating their defeat of the rebels of Judea. Monuments there included but were not limited to the famous Arch of Titus on the edge of the Roman Forum, with its relief sculpture showing loot captured from the Temple in Jerusalem; the nearby Temple of Peace, which housed some of that loot; a second arch dedicated to Titus, but no longer extant, at the entrance to the Circus Maximus; and above all, the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum. The most famous monument of ancient Rome and the symbol of the city today was built in part from spoils of war looted from Judea and served to commemorate that victory.

Members of the new dynasty played their success in Judea for all that it was worth. Judea had been a Roman province for six decades, since the year 6 A.D. (except for a brief period of independence under Herod’s grandson in the forties), but imperial propaganda treated the Jews as if they were foreign foes and not rebellious Roman subjects. Coins depicted a personified, prostrate Judea, as if it were a newly conquered realm. The triumph celebrated by Vespasian and Titus in 71 A.D. is the only triumph in Roman history ever to celebrate the defeat of the people of an existing province. Vespasian imposed a humiliating tax on all the Jews in the empire, wherever they lived, to replace the tax that Jews had paid to the Temple in Jerusalem while it had stood. Nobody asked whether they had supported the revolt in Judea or not. It was another way to emphasize the importance of Vespasian and Titus’s victory, but it also marginalized an imperial population.

The third reason for the importance of the Great Revolt is the historian Josephus, a contemporary of and participant in its dramatic events. His Jewish War, or Judean War as some translate it, is by far the most detailed account of any rebellion in a Roman province that survives, as well as an important source for the history of the imperial Roman army. In addition, it is the only substantial surviving account by a rebel—to be precise, a rebel who turned his coat and went over to the Romans. Early in the revolt, the rebels appointed Josephus as the military governor of Galilee. In 67 A.D. he commanded the defense of a fortified city in Galilee that fell to the enemy. At that point Josephus reneged on a suicide pact with his comrades and surrendered to the Romans. He proceeded to risk his life by predicting that the Roman commander, Vespasian, would become the emperor, followed by his son, Titus. It was tantamount to treason at the time, since Nero was emperor and Vespasian wasn’t even part of the Roman nobility. Yet when the prophecy came true, Josephus had it made. As Guy MacLean Rogers puts it in his new book, For the Freedom of Zion:

So Josephus rolled the dice, and they came out “dogs” or double ones in Rome—what we call “snake eyes” in craps.1

Besides, Vespasian and Titus might have been flattered by Josephus’s prediction, but more likely they were impressed by his value. Rogers writes:

A living former commander of the two Galilees and Gamala [a city in the Golan] who already had given indications of a certain situational flexibility might be used to encourage other Jews to give up.

Released from chains, Josephus served in the entourage of Titus, who conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D. Afterwards, Josephus got to live out his life in a villa in Rome as a Roman citizen and guest of the new dynasty.

Josephus was a traitor. To be fair, he wasn’t simply a traitor. Although he lived out the rest of his life in Rome, an environment hostile to many Jews, Josephus went to great effort in his writings (which include several books besides the Jewish War) to defend the Jewish people, and that took courage. For example, although Josephus criticizes the rebels frequently, he goes out of his way to emphasize the decision of Masada’s defenders to commit suicide en masse rather than give up or face death or enslavement at the hands of the Romans. Still, imagine that our only detailed account of the American Revolution came from the pen of Benedict Arnold, and you have a sense of how peculiar Josephus’s book is.

The Temple, the Colosseum, and Josephus: three reasons for the importance of the Great Revolt.

The Temple, the Colosseum, and Josephus: three reasons for the importance of the Great Revolt. A fourth is the existence of the state of Israel, which has given the Jewish people sovereignty in their homeland for the first time in nearly two millennia. The support of both history-writing and archaeology in Israel has only benefited this new interest in the Great Revolt and its legacy. Indeed, important research on Josephus, the Great Revolt, and Roman imperial rule in the East has been produced in recent decades, and by citizens of many countries.

Now comes an excellent addition to this distinguished collection in Guy MacLean Rogers’s For the Freedom of Zion: The Great Revolt of Jews against Romans, 66–74 C.E. A professor of classics and history at Wellesley College, Rogers has previously published a prize-winning book on ancient Ephesus as well as a lively biography of Alexander the Great, among other works. In For the Freedom of Zion, he has produced a deeply impressive work of scholarship. It is a readable and authoritative account, essential for all future discussions of the subject.

Rogers writes with passion and erudition and with no little sense of humor. He describes Nero’s reaction to the news of a Roman defeat in Judea thus:

While the young men of Jerusalem were taking a crash course in combat tactics, the Roman emperor Nero was in Achaia [Greece] from August 66 through December 67 practicing his musical scales.

He demonstrates a knowing eye for politicians and their ways. He describes how King Herod deftly switched his allegiance from Mark Antony, after the general’s defeat in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., to Octavian, the victor. In a meeting on the island of Rhodes the next spring, Herod theatrically took off his diadem (the ancient equivalent of a crown) so that Octavian could re-crown him king. Rogers writes:

Both men had taken each other’s measure. Large gifts to Herod’s new patron Octavian, including no less than eight hundred talents of silver, followed, and Herod’s kingship was once again confirmed by the Roman Senate.

A reader is struck by the detail of the work. Rogers offers careful discussions, for example, of the food and water requirements of a Roman army on the march or its speed or the length of road its column might have taken up. He cuts down Josephus’s inflated figure of 1.1 million deaths in the siege of Jerusalem, explaining why Josephus would want to exaggerate to impress his Roman patrons. In fact, Jerusalem was a small city, so a figure of tens of thousands of deaths is far more likely. As for the famous last stand at Masada, Rogers carefully sifts through the evidence to show why most of the Jews there were civilians and not soldiers. He takes the reader step by step through the Roman attack on the fortress and the defenders’ response.

Rogers is a judicious scholar. Consider, for example, his account of the destruction of the Temple. Josephus describes a council of war held in the summer of 70 A.D., during the conquest of Jerusalem as the Romans prepared to take the Temple. According to Josephus, Titus decided at the council to spare the structure. And yet the Romans burned down the Temple shortly afterwards. It was the work, says Josephus, of rampaging and out-of-control Roman soldiers. Since that account conveniently gets the future emperor off the hook for destroying one of the world’s most famous and holiest places, some scholars suspect that Josephus falsified matters.

The most famous passage in Josephus is the mass suicide at Masada.

Rogers takes a different tack. He accepts Josephus’s account, but he still assigns the overall blame to Titus. Since the Temple was destroyed “on Titus’s watch” as commander, Rogers writes, “he bore ultimate responsibility for its destruction.” Rogers further notes that Titus managed to loot the Temple before it burned down. “Titus evidently had time to rob the Temple but not to save it,” he remarks. As a failed commander, he concludes, Titus should have been sacked. Instead, he was granted a triumph.

Titus’s inconsistent behavior suggests an additional possibility: he (and Vespasian) wanted to destroy the Temple all along, but they also wanted to avoid the obloquy for the deed. Titus wanted, in short, what is now called “plausible deniability,” so he ordered the Temple to be spared but allowed the order to be flouted. It is noteworthy that after the revolt’s end, Vespasian ordered the destruction of a Jewish temple in Egypt as a way of preventing a new insurrection. What applied to a venerable Jewish shrine in Egypt applied a fortiori to the Temple in Jerusalem, thereby giving the Romans a reason to raze it.

The most famous passage in Josephus is the mass suicide at Masada. A symbol of resistance that is stirring by any measure, Masada has also played a notable role in Israeli nationalism. Archaeologists working at Masada in the 1960s said they had found evidence supporting the historicity of Josephus’s account, but subsequent research has found holes in their arguments. Some scholars doubt the tale of mass suicide. That is not the end of the story, however, as Rogers shows. He examines one by one the various cases that have been made against Josephus’s narrative, and he finds them wanting. He writes that

None of these criticisms or theories . . . decisively disproves the essential story Josephus tells about the mass murder/suicide on Masada.

Later, he concludes:

Until we find evidence that irrefutably disproves Josephus’s account of the siege of Masada and the story of the mass suicide atop Masada in the spring of 74, Josephus’s story is the one for which we possess the most convincing evidence.

Rogers thus offers an alternative to the skeptics.

Nor does Rogers mince words about Roman behavior towards captives. He notes that after Vespasian promised amnesty to Jewish prisoners of war from a town on the Sea of Galilee—the hometown of Mary Magdalene, in fact—he reneged and had as many as 1,200 of the old and “useless” killed, although they were now unarmed. At Gamala, Vespasian’s men slaughtered infants among other civilians. Although he admits that the legal concept of a war crime did not exist at the time, Rogers doesn’t hesitate to call Vespasian a war criminal.

As a term like “war criminal” demonstrates, the history of the Great Revolt resonates with present-day concerns. It is a testament to Rogers’s achievement that the reader can sift through the ancient evidence, so lucidly presented, and decide what it means for both the past and today.

Rogers takes pains to demonstrate that the Great Revolt was a major war and not merely a local conflict: a war that shook the foundations of history. No reader of this excellent book will have any doubt about the matter.

  1.   For the Freedom of Zion: The Great Revolt of Jews against Romans, 66–74 C.E., by Guy MacLean Rogers; Yale University Press, 744 pages, $37.50.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 7, on page 63
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