First century Judaea has often been described in modern scholarship as the only nation that almost successfully challenged Roman military power. A people whose national identity was so strong that on more than one occasion, between 66AD and 135AD, they revolted against Rome in Judaea (and once in North Africa) and caused it major losses. These scholars have often described the revolts in Judaea as very different in nature to those in other provinces. The literary evidence is problematic and the archaeological evidence very slim.
Tacitus’ narrative of the war is mainly missing and both Suetonius and Dio focus on the role of Vespasian and Titus, rather than on the causes of this revolt and their implications. There are other sources for this period and especially for this region. Both the Talmudic texts and the Gospels were written in or near this period and although, since they are mainly theological discussions, they teach us little about the historical detail of their time, they do offer a great deal of cultural detail, which in turn allows us to understand the way in which Judaea was administered.
The most complete, yet also the most problematic source, is the work of Josephus: a commander in the Jewish revolt of 66AD, who then, when captured by the Romans, became a Roman citizen and client of the Flavian emperors, under whom he wrote a narrative of the Jewish war. Josephus’ work therefore is often taken less seriously because of the obvious bias and the apologetic tone of his writing. He also admits to being influenced by Thucydides and perhaps this is why he often speaks of stasis.
Perhaps his literary influences caused his historical writing to deviate a little from the truth in order to follow more oratorical rules. Yet he is the only extant provincial historian to have described his own society in such detail. And in this wealth of detail he does allow us to confirm that Judaea was ran by a procurator who rendered accounts both to the governor of Syria and to the emperor. And that because Judaea was a small province, which was not of strategic importance, there were no legions present on its territory, a sign that Rome did not consider this nation a threat.
This changed after the revolt of 66AD, when first one legion was installed permanently in Jerusalem and later another in Galilee. Josephus examines the causes of the war and the clearest picture one can acquire is the following: the Jewish revolt in 66AD was caused by the incompetence of Roman administrators, stasis within the Jewish state and to a certain extent Jewish religious sensitivities. All of these are then suitably illustrated with anecdotes throughout his work.
Tensions against Rome ran high since the creation of the province in 6AD. When Pontius Pilate allowed his soldiers to bring their military standards into Jerusalem, the Jews of Caesarea rioted for five days, because they considered the presence of these standards (which carried depictions of the emperor) sacrilegious. News of a census always caused trouble (it is believed some ancient Jewish law forbade the census and considered it sinful), as any attempt to heighten taxation would have done.
And Florus, the procurator of Judaea in 66AD, caused the initial beginning of the war through replenishing tribute money with money from the Temple, which caused anger among Jews. The situation soon escalated into riots and Florus sent two cohorts to sack the city. He was unsuccessful in this and had to escape to Caesarea and leave a cohort behind. It did not last long before the legions of the Syrian governor walked down the Antioch road and engaged the Jewish rebels. And after the defeat of Cestius, the governor of Syria, the war was truly under way.
As for class struggle, Josephus claims he left Jerusalem in order to disarm the rebels, not fight with them. He describes these rebels as sicarii, brigands, men who envied their betters and took the opportunity of the war to raid their estates. Most of the upper classes in Judaea no doubt had benefited from the Roman patronage available to them, in a variety of ways. The argument of class tensions is often thought to be purely apologetic. Josephus was a member of the upper class.
It would have been well within his interests to make the upper classes out to be less inclined to fight than they perhaps were. Native revolts are rarely mentioned in literary sources as they were considered to be much less glamorous than foreign conquest. They were rather a matter of policing. When they are mentioned it is often unclear whether the incident was a peasant village that raised some pitchforks at the raise in taxes, a violent rampage by some brigands seeking some material gain, or a genuine full-scale war in order to achieve independence from Rome.
Unrest could also be caused by outside forces, the Parthians often tried to stir things up on the Roman side of the border (famously backing the ‘fake’ Neros) and deviant Roman commanders could attempt to seek power for themselves through civil war. The archaeological evidence does not help us much here either as it attests destruction or rebuilding, both of which do not rule out any of the above possibilities. Our sources appear to tell us that revolts tended to be sudden and that Roman dignitaries in the region often did not appear to be aware of any discontent.
Even Hadrian, when he toured Judaea in 130AD never noticed anything amiss, let alone anything that would spark a huge revolt a mere two years later. After a revolt the official line tended to be that the provincials had rebelled against having to pay taxes to the Romans. Revolts were much more frequent in the first century and become rarer after that. This coincides with the fact that conquest was more frequent in the first 100 years of the empire. Many new provinces flared-up into rebellion soon after their conquest and often seemed to be more an emotional reaction than a well thought-out military action.
The provincials also attempted to utilise Roman weaknesses and rebelled at times of crisis elsewhere. The confusion of 69 for example allowed the tribes in Anatolia to rebel. Frontier zones also seemed to rebel more frequently, probably under the idea that Rome might decide they were too far removed to truly bother with. Indeed a few times this happened – in 9AD with the revolt of Arminius and later in 28AD when the Frisii revolted. Perhaps more self-rule in alliance with Rome was sought through these revolts.
After all Rome was happy to control large parts of her empire through friendly kings. However this was Judaea’s only hope, if the situation they faced was one of military prowess, then the Romans would eventually win, even facing the guerrilla warfare in Galilee. The mass suicide of the rebels at Massada perhaps shows that more than anything. The main thing that separates the Jewish revolts from those elsewhere in the eyes of many modern scholars is that it appears to have been a religious zeal that drove the Jews to revolt.
When Caligula decided his statue must be placed in the Temple at Jerusalem, riots broke out immediately and the governor of Syria had to write to the emperor begging him to reconsider. Only Caligula’s timely death and the abandoning of his plan defused this situation somewhat. Later the Jewish wars were led by priests, or even briefly Zealots. However there is evidence that local religion was used and sometimes manipulated by others who attempted revolt. Julius Civilis used the services of Veleda in 69AD and appeared to his men in a sacred grove with his hair uncut.
Arminius is even said to have performed human sacrifices in the Tuetoborgian forest. In the Egyptian revolt of 172AD a priest was even said to have been leading the troops. The druids in Britain and Gaul too significantly accompanied the soldiers. The reason we know more about the religious aspect of the Jewish revolts is purely due to the literary works that exist about it. Josephus himself does not give the religious aspect any major place at all in his causes for the war. There is no real proof that the Jewish war was any more or any less motivated by religion than the revolt of Boudicca or Tacfarinas.
Of course these events were much more widespread through time and place than the three major rebellions involving the Jews, but that does not mean that these regions were perfectly quiet throughout the ages except for the rebellions we have evidence for. It is possible that there was trouble in Britain or Germania that simply was not recorded or at least did not survive for us to read about. It is possible that some provincials were happy with their circumstances, but it is even more likely that they were afraid of the repercussions. This would hardly be surprising.
Vespasian and Titus knew how to truly humiliate the Jewish nation after its defeat. Firstly by the destruction of the Temple, then by taking some of the most sacred artefacts of the Jewish faith to Rome and parading them there. By razing Jerusalem to the ground and killing hundreds of thousands of Jewish captives slowly in public shows in Caesarea, not even that far from their home. The Jewish race was very close to destruction by numbers after 70AD. The coins of the period, showing a Jewess weeping, with the caption “Judaea Capta” no doubt owe their wide circulation to this message.
Later different penalties were exacted; the Jews were banned from Cyprus for more than two hundred years after the revolt in 117AD. And after the final Jewish revolt, in 135AD, they were banned from the place that was held as most sacred in their faith, Jerusalem itself and were robbed of their nation, now no longer containing any mention of their identity in its name. This very point is also what sets the Jewish revolts, and especially the Bar Kochba revolt aside. No other provinces were re-named after revolts.
The whole reaction to the revolt in 132AD was very extreme, up to 13 legions might have been involved (there is even some evidence of conscription – which had been very much out of fashion for some time by this point) and it still took the Romans at least three years to subdue the revolt. It is unclear whether the force of the reaction was equivalent with the problem the Romans faced, or whether the amount of legions sent corresponded with the fear of the Romans, who knew about the previous revolts. The starting point of this second revolt does suggest a reaction to a specific threat to the Jewish identity.
Hadrian’s plans to abolish circumcision, and refound Jerusalem as a Colonia called Aelia Capitolina proved too much for the Jewish people. However when Cartimandua proved too friendly with the Romans this too was enough cause for revolt in Britain. However very little is known about the Bar Kochba revolt, we possess no narrative and the only information comes from a few fragments of Dio. But it is easy to see that Vespasian and Titus were able to come back from Jerusalem in triumph, having had nothing to do with the causes and gained so much power through it.
Hadrian however will have bitten his lip at the thought that the original insult was his, just when he was touring his empire in peace. Perhaps the strength of his reaction was in some way linked to a feeling of betrayal. It is unclear whether the Jewish revolts were motivated by anything different from other rebels throughout the history of the empire. The lack of literary evidence in other cases of revolt do this case a lot more harm than the extensive evidence for the Jewish revolts. The argument that their strength of nationalistic religious intensity has lasted into our day and age cannot be used here, as it is anachronistic.
The main reason why we know so much about the Jewish revolt of 66AD is that it “made” Vespasian. If Vespasian had just been another Roman general, it seems unlikely that Josephus would have bothered translating his work into Greek and therefore that it would have stood the test of time. His work must be used with great care. Although the lack of literary evidence concerning the Bar Kochba revolt itself shows us how little would have been known about the first Jewish war had it not been for Josephus.