The Romans and the Jews
Judea in the first century was ruled by the Romans though the Jews were never forced to accept the Roman religion. There were puppet kings like Herod and Agrippa, but Roman supervision was never unmindful of the conquered province. But the Jewish inhabitants were often inflamed by political injustices, especially by the burden of unfair taxation.
The great sage Hillel inspired the Jewish population of Judea to resist aspects of King Herod’s administration yet in order to be a stronger force they should try to achieve unity despite religious conflicts, of which there were many. The Sadducees and the Pharisees, for example, were in fierce disagreement on interpretation of the Torah, the Sadducees being very fundamentalist – an eye for an eye – and ignoring the oral law. The Pharisees regarded their rivals as heretics and opposed their literalism. Their oral teachings gave rise to rabbinic Judaism.
Herod’s death in 5 resulted in a general uprising against the Romans. This was crushed mercilessly, and unreasonably heavy taxation forced on the inhabitants as a punishment. Naturally, further rebellion against the Romans was the result. One of the important rebel leaders was a man called Judah whose father had been put to death for treason. After Judah was caught and executed his followers carried on violent resistance against the Roman-directed authorities – they were known as the Zealots. As a result of these fierce rebellions the Emperor Augustus took over complete control and removed the capital to Caesarea as Jerusalem was clearly a hotbed of discontent.
When Herod’s grandson Herod Agrippa came to power in 41 BCE things settled down and the country was granted self-government by the next emperor Claudius, who decreed that all the Jews in the empire were to be allowed to observe the customs of their ancestors and not suppressed. But this was the last time such toleration was allowed to the Jews. Agrippa was a sympathetic leader but died suddenly and mysteriously 3 years later and Claudius, to general horror, suddenly and completely withdrew Judean independence. The old harsh conditions were imposed, and the Zealots became active again.
A great flare-up was caused when Florus, the arrogant Roman governor and hostile to the Jews, demanded extra tax and then stole a large quantity of old from the Temple. The Jews, outraged, rioted. The Romans retaliated with great force and hundreds of citizens were murdered.
Now there was general rebellion spreading throughout all Jewish lands and areas. By 66 all Judea and Galilee were in revolt. Not just attacking Roman troops, but also hostile gentiles in all areas in and around Judea. The Roman authority in Jerusalem was actually overturned and a Jewish army trapped the army of the Roman general Gallus, killing 6000 Roman troops. Immediately the Romans wanted extreme revenge, intending to crush the whole Jewish population into submission.
Former bitter enemies in the Middle East like the Samaritans, joined up to support the Jews, ready to oppose the new Commander Vespasian, who was soon joined by his son Titus, a fierce commander of huge legions. Great Roman armies advanced on Judea. The Jewish commander in Galilee was Joseph ben Mattathias, a descendant of the Maccabees who had defeated the Syrian Greeks hundreds of years earlier. He was the son of a priest and widely respected and also a military leader. But his troops were defeated and some committed suicide in the cave where they were hiding. But not Josephus. To save his life he surrendered to Vespasian and changed his name to Josephus, throwing in his lot with the Romans. He is seen as a traitor to the Jews, but he gave credit to those who would not surrender and without his graphically detailed written testimonies we would not have a detailed account of the campaign or understand the true horror of the destruction of Jerusalem and the holy Temple.
Vespasian became Emperor and his son Titus besieged Jerusalem taking advantage of weakness in the population due to ongoing religious and political conflict in the city. There was much bloodshed and many atrocities caused by the Roman troops, and by July 70 the great Temple itself was destroyed. The city fell soon after.
In Rome a huge celebration pageant flaunted the spoils of the Temple, and all its treasures went to pay for the construction of the Colosseum and the ironically named Temple of Peace. The Diaspora began as surviving Jews fled from Judea especially Jerusalem and had to accept Roman or Persian rule in other lands. Generally, however, their religious practices were not suppressed.
In the fortress of Masada brave Jewish martyrs who were determined to continue resistance to Roman oppression held out for 3 years. Rather than submit to the Romans when they were about to overrun it, virtually all died by suicide. Of course, the Romans were convinced now that the Jews were demented fanatics. But the turncoat Josephus wrote of his admiration for Jewish courage – which he had lacked – and seemed not ashamed of his ambition to rise in Roman society.
The defeat of the Jews, who now had no Temple and no focus of unity, encouraged the rise of sects of Jewish Christians. They knew they were pariahs of the Empire. But groups of Jews remained in the Holy Land, especially Galilee. There were periodic revolts against Roman control in many areas where they had settled. But all viewed Jerusalem as their spiritual focus. Eventually Hadrian, like Haman and Hitler in later history, wishing to rid the world of Jews whom he saw as political irritants and troublemakers, abolished the town of Jerusalem in 130 and called its replacement Aelia Capitolina. He made it a Roman city with a temple to Jupiter and a great statue of himself on what had been the Temple Mount. A new war of resistance began, led by Simon bar Kochba, but that is another story in the rise and fall and perseverance of the Jewish people. And we are still here but where are the Romans?