The Fall of Jerusalem

As the Israel-Hamas war threatens to escalate with the intervention of Iranian-backed Hezbollah, it seems that the Jewish people are facing the greatest threat to their existence since the catastrophic Roman siege of Jerusalem nearly two millennia ago. Consequently, it is well worth recalling that epoch-defining tragedy in all its world-historical significance.

Powder Keg The Roman Governor of Judaea, Gessius Florus, had just made a huge mistake. He knew he was sitting on a powder keg; he just didn’t know how explosive it would be, sending him running for his life, and ultimately consuming the entire country. Florus owed his appointment two years earlier in AD64 AD to his wife’s friendship with Poppaea, the ill-fated wife of the Emperor Nero, rather than to any diplomatic skills. He gravitated to the pagan Greco-Roman elite of Jerusalem and soon found himself in conflict with the very pious monotheistic Jewish people.

Division However, despite their shared monotheism, the Jews were divided by political, religious, and class conflicts: Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, Hellenes, anti-Hellenes, rich and poor, pro-Rome and anti-Rome. And some of these rivalries were murderous; indeed the Zealots had led a rebellion in AD6 against a Roman census and were devotees of the dreaded ‘Fourth Philosophy’, while their militant wing, the Sicarii, practiced systematic assassination, murdering Gentiles and Hellenized Jews in the streets before melting away into the crowd, a strategy they employed after a failed uprising in c. AD54. In addition, the city population was swollen by idle peasants and unemployed and resentful workers. These added to ‘the people of the land’ – the masses of common folk looked down upon by the religious elites as the “accursed” (John 7:49). On top of that, there was the centuries-old antagonism between the Jews and the Greeks, found in every city in the Eastern Mediterranean, and that had just flared into violence in Caesarea.

Fever The mood amongst the Jews was feverish, initially fuelled two decades earlier by  the dictate of the Emperor Caligula (r.AD37-41) that a statue of himself be placed in the Temple. This evoked the spectre of ‘the Abomination of Desolation’ foretold in the Book of Daniel (and echoed later in the New Testament) that heralded the coming of the End Times. It would have been an horrific sacrilege, narrowly averted only by Caligula’s assassination. There was also outrage at the judicial murder of James the Just, stoned to death by the Pharisees on order of High Priest. James was the widely respected leader of the main faction of the nascent Jesus Movement, founded some 30 years earlier by his brother.

Eye Witness The great Jewish historian, Josephus, has left an eye-witness account of the revolutionary fervour he found upon his return to Jerusalem after a journey to Rome: “I found revolutionary movements already begun and great excitement at the prospect of revolt from Rome.” Appalled, he tried to alert the Jewish radicals of the enormous folly of what they were about to attempt, but “I did not persuade them. The great insanity of those desperate men prevailed.”

Outrage What had Florus done? Apparently seeking to improve the city water supply, Florus had confiscated funds from the Temple, the centre of the Jewish faith. The devout Jewish masses rose up in outrage and Florus mobilized a large military contingent in a show of force, demanding that the people demonstrate their loyalty to Rome by going out in procession to greet the troops. Instead, they made their hatred obvious, shouting abuse of Florus and provoking the troops into a violent reaction. The soldiers fell upon the protesters and invaded their homes, flailing about with clubs while the cavalry trampled terrified men, women, and children under hoof. Hundreds were suffocated and crushed around the city gates as they struggled to escape, their bodies mangled beyond recognition.

Polarization Jewish moderates in the city tried desperately to stem the rioting before it escalated into open revolt. They were led by King Agrippa II, a puppet ruler who had oversight of the Temple and religious affairs (and who heard the case in AD60 of a certain Paul of Tarsus who led another faction of the Jesus Movement and had recently been put to death in Rome).  Agrippa had been educated at the court of the Emperor Claudius and remained a steadfast Roman loyalist. He addressed the Jews and urged that they accept any temporary injustices and submit to Roman Imperial rule, as the alternative could be annihilation. His plea failed and the city population polarised further behind either the war party or the peace party. Quite apart from war with Rome, Jerusalem was also dealing with factional and class warfare: the pro-peace High Priest was assassinated, while the City Treasurer and two colleagues were condemned as pro-Roman “traitors to our common liberty,” and had their throats cut by the Zealots. Meanwhile, the luxurious town houses of the pro-peace city elite were sacked and set on fire, as were the Public Archives where all records of borrowings and money-lender debt were lodged.

Betrayal Elsewhere, a small Roman force that had tried to keep the peace found itself cornered and besieged by a furious mob. Promised safe passage out of the city if they surrendered their weapons, the soldiers did so, but were double-crossed and all 600 were massacred, vainly protesting as they died: “But we had an agreement!” The Jewish militants rejoiced but many more Jerusalem Jews were filled with dread as they contemplated the reaction of Rome to this outrage.

Reticence The initial response was led by Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria, who brought in the Syrian legions, reinforced by auxiliary troops, to quell the revolt. Arriving at Jerusalem after devastating the countryside, they advanced into the city suburbs and prepared to besiege the inner city and the Temple, the monumental edifice renovated and expanded at enormous cost by Herod the Great, nearly a century before. But first they offered terms to the rebels: they would be pardoned if they laid down their weapons and confirmed their allegiance to Rome. The rebels responded with ridicule and violence, even killing one of the peace emissaries. The army then set about the siege, systematically undermining the walls and gates protecting the Temple. Inside, the defenders began to panic and talk of a last-minute surrender. But then Cestius called a halt and began to retire from the city. To this day nobody knows why, but it could be that he was reluctant to storm, violate, and destroy one of the greatest buildings in the Empire.

Massacre His reward was quick in coming as he attempted to retreat to the coast; the rebels mobilized their own forces and fell upon the hapless Romans. Eventually, almost the entire Roman Army was wiped out, over 5000 men, while vast amounts of weaponry and military machinery was seized by the Jewish rebels. Once again the militants were joyous, while the few remaining moderates fled Jerusalem. Finally it was clear: Rome could not countenance such rebellion and humiliation, and the Jews would now face the full force of the mighty Roman military machine, a force that had carried all before it for centuries and conquered much of the known world.

Bravado Nero put the matter into the hands of the veteran general Titus Flavius Vespasianus, with his son Titus as his 2IC. Through 67 and into 68 AD a massive Roman force was gathered, totaling over 60,000 troops, while all the countryside around Jerusalem was remorselessly pacified, driving thousands of traumatized peasants into the Holy City. They were eager to warn of the ferocity of the force that was bearing down on all of them, but the rebels wouldn’t listen; they were full of bravado after their massacre of Cestius’s retreating army. Moreover, it seemed Rome herself was in disarray: Nero had been overthrown and driven to suicide, several subsequent Emperors had come and gone, and eventually Vespasianus ascended to the throne, as Emperor Vespasian. Inevitably there was a pause in hostilities as his son, Titus, assumed command and began to plan a monumental military campaign that would bring victory and glory to him and his father.

Year One Meanwhile, the rebels had set up a Provisional Government and proclaimed a new era, complete with their own coinage. These were stamped: ‘Year One’, ‘Year Two’, etc., and marked with slogans declaring: ‘Jerusalem is Holy’, ‘Freedom of Zion’, and ‘For the Redemption of Zion’. They believed they had seen off the Romans and were now living in an independent Jewish state centred on the Temple, whose watchwords were Freedom and Holiness.

Factions The new revolutionary Jewish state was relatively untroubled by the Romans  from AD68 into early AD70, and so the citizens of Jerusalem fell back into self-destructive factional infighting, now made all the more violent by the ready availability of the weapons taken from the Romans. Central to this fratricidal fanaticism were the Zealots: assisted by radical junior priests and supported by masses of fundamentalist Jewish peasants flooding into the city, they began to murder the moderates and the wealthier citizens of the Holy City.

Escapes Around this time, the decision may have been made by the Temple authorities and Jerusalem scholars to take their precious library and hide it in the caves in the vicinity of Qumran, 45 km away. Alternatively, it may have been the sectarian library of Qumran itself that the community there decided to hide in the caves as the Romans advanced. Meanwhile, members of the new Jesus Movement decided it was best to leave the Holy City. Somewhere amongst them may have been the scholar known to history as ‘Mark’, the writer of the first Christian Gospel.

To Masada Another group to escape were the Sicarii. The terroristic cult had made a grab for power in Jerusalem in AD68 and had then fled to Masada, the impregnable palace and fortress complex atop a mesa near the Dead Sea. There they butchered the small Roman garrison, survived through banditry, and fortified themselves for the long siege they would face. It would be AD73 before the Romans stormed the hill-top fortress, only to find the bodies of 960 men, women, and children, dead by their own hand.

The Fourth Beast It was also around this time that the great Jewish sage, Yohanan ben Zakkai, escaped from Jerusalem. He had campaigned against the war with the Romans, arguing that the Empire was the mighty ‘Fourth Beast’ prophesied in the Book of Daniel, Ch.7. He invoked the Prophet to stress how Rome was “different from all the other [empires] and most terrifying; with its iron teeth and bronze claws [it] crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left”; and how its immense power would prevail “until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favour of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the Kingdom.”

To Yavne However, the apocalyptic mentality had taken hold of the Jews and Yohanan found his countrymen delirious with the conviction they could win. Despairing, he posed as a corpse inside a coffin and was carried out of the city to the Roman camp. There he was granted an audience with Vespasian, who approved his request to be allowed to travel to Yavne (Jamnia) and resume his religious teaching. Later, after the destruction of Jerusalem, his school was converted into a centre for Jewish scholars as they wrestled with the dilemma of how Judaism could survive without the Temple. Yohanan ben Zakkai played a central role in the reconstruction of Judaism as a ‘Religion of the Book’; and so it was at Yavne that the foundations of Rabbinic Judaism were forged.

Zealots Jerusalem had divided into three antagonistic zones, patrolled by their own militias led by their own commanders, and engaged in internecine fighting, treachery, betrayal, and arson. And soon it was just two factions, as the Zealots seized control of the Temple. There they were besieged by the moderates, led by a leader of the Provisional Government and former High Priest, Ananus ben Ananus. The Zealots falsely accused Ananus of collaboration with the Romans and mobilized sufficient support to have him and the moderates slaughtered. The Zealots then had effective control of the city and continued their purge of those they suspected of favouring a peaceful resolution. It was only the final onslaught of the Roman Army that forced the warring parties into some semblance of an alliance. But this was not before the city’s food supply had been destroyed in an act of fratricidal insanity.

Onslaught When it came, the scale of the Roman onslaught, in Spring AD70, was stupefying. Another legion had been added to the existing Roman Army along with contingents sent by their allies. Suddenly, Jerusalem was surrounded by one of the biggest armies ever to mount a siege in Ancient times, and it was there to stay until the city either surrendered or starved to death. Hemmed in by trenches, stone walls, and guards, nobody could enter or leave, and those caught trying to escape were crucified in full view of the city. After a time, the bored soldiers began to amuse themselves by nailing up the victims in various novel positions, in full view of the Jerusalemites.

The Full Horror After a few months the common citizens were starving, and the full horror began. The Jewish historian, Josephus, has left an eye-witness account of the destruction of Jerusalem in The Jewish Wars, an invaluable resource.  In vivid detail he recorded the appalling effects of the siege, as people sold up everything they owned for a few handfuls of grain and then wolfed them down uncooked or began to dig up and eat any grass or weeds they could find. Next they were gnawing on leather belts and sandals, and even eating dung and “objects that even the filthiest of brute beasts would reject.” Thousands of bodies were littering the streets and there were appalling reports of cannibalism, too ghastly to recount.

Demolition But then Titus changed strategy; the war had been going on too long and a quick victory now suited him and his new imperial father, Vespasian. Outer suburbs were quickly razed, while Titus mobilized his vast battery of siege engines – machines specifically designed to destroy a city and terrorize its inhabitants. Soon, huge stones were thumping against the city walls or flying over them to demolish the buildings inside. Giant crossbows were firing massive arrows, and these plunged over the wall to impale the inhabitants, their animals, and wreck their homes. Vast siege towers were moved into place and the troops inside began their demolition work. Sappers undermined the walls, while battering rams smashed into the wooden gates. Soon these were splintered and ablaze, and the city defences were reduced to rubble. Clearly the end was near.

No Quarter Even at this late stage, Titus offered the rebels an opportunity to surrender on terms. His paramount objective was “to preserve the city for himself and the Temple for the city.” Mistakenly taking this for weakness, the rebels counter-attacked and the battle resumed, entering its final horrific phase; it was clear now to both sides that no quarter would be given. After further days of intense street fighting, the Romans hacked their way into the outer precincts of the Temple. This was possibly the greatest religious structure in the world, and Titus gave strict orders to preserve it. However, by this time, fire raged all around and soon the outer court of the Temple was afire, and then the inner court was ablaze. The remaining rebels ran for their lives, while the last priests flung themselves into the flames rather than surrender to the Roman pagans.

Defilement & Triumph For centuries, the sanctity of the Temple had been carefully preserved, and any non-Jew who entered was instantly put to death. But now the Roman troops charged into its very heart, rampaging through the Sanctuary, defiling the Holy of Holies, plundering everything they could find, and slaughtering everyone they came across. The Romans looted the treasury, seized the priceless gold furniture, the golden trumpets, and the massive, seven-branched gold Menorah. The design of this had been revealed by God to Moses (Exodus 25:31–40), but now this magnificent object was simply war booty, taken to Rome and exhibited during the triumph of Vespasian and Titus (and it later disappeared forever during the Sack of Rome in AD455).

Violation Titus and his retinue also violated the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, and infamously taunted the Jewish God. It seemed to the victors that the pagan gods of Rome had won a great victory over the One God of the Jews.

Merciless As Herod’s glorious Temple burned, the sack of Jerusalem began in earnest. In compensation for the vicious hand-to-hand street fighting they’d had to endure, the enraged troops were given free rein to kill, loot and pillage the Holy City: “No pity was shown for age, no reverence for rank; children and greybeards, laity and priests alike were massacred; every class was hunted down and swallowed up by the jaws of war,” as Josephus records. Everywhere there was deafening noise as the flames consumed the buildings, the Roman soldiers yelled out in victory, their victims screamed in agony, and the common folk wailed and howled in disbelief at the horror that was engulfing them.

The End of Temple Judaism In the end the city capitulated totally and was then razed to the ground, leaving smoking ruins and the stench of death on a massive scale. Later visitors had trouble even believing that anyone had ever lived there. And so died the Temple, the one great sacred holy place where the God of the Jews could be worshipped and propitiated with solemn sacrifices and strictly regulated rituals; and with its loss was excised the very heart of Judaism as it had been practiced from time immemorial. Shockwaves reverberated violently through every aspect of Jewish life and culture. The Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Sicarii virtually disappeared from history, with only the Pharisees left of all the factions.

Phoenix But out of the ashes new religious movements emerged phoenix-like, as the Jewish people and others struggled to make sense of what had just happened. A radically new Judaism was laboriously constructed; while a heretical new monotheism continued its complex development, centred on the tale of Jesus, an obscure Galilean teacher, and the meaning of his death by crucifixion decades before. History was about to depart on a radical new path that would shape Western Civilization. And so, as the current terrible war continues on its bloody path, perhaps we should be contemplating its meaning in world-historical terms, as the Jewish people continue to live out their apparently never-ending battle for survival.

5 thoughts on “The Fall of Jerusalem

  • Podargus says:

    A useful brief account of the fall of Israel and the dispersion of the Jews.
    Delusions of grandeur plus greed fuels the imperialist engine. Empires have come and gone throughout history yet at present we have several powers bent on the same purpose. Nothing has been learned apparently. And so the suffering of innocents goes on and on.
    Why can’t we just all stay home and mind our own business ?

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Well put together piece Mervyn, as only a knowledgeable, well crafted historian and teacher can.
    As I read it Josephus was not just an historian, he was also the Jews best General, and had been put in charge of the Gallilean defences in the North, the direction Vespasian and Titus came in from, and so he was the one best qualified to judge the strength of what the Jews had to face, as he was the first to face it.
    Although very good at defence he realised early that they had no chance against the mighty Roman Army, particularly commandered by very competent Generals like Vaspasian and his son Titus and they were completely overwhelmed.
    His hiding out with friends and his eventual decision to survive and join the Romans makes fascinating reading in his book “The Jewish War”, and of course he has been condemned by various writers down through the ages for how he did it….. but he could see that it was pointless to try and reason with the zealots etc. who could never be trusted.
    His account really is the only one we have, from someone who not only fought in it, but saw it from both sides, and for mine he comes over very well, as does Vespasian and Titus, which is perhaps not surprising as he was now with them, and under their protection.
    They say he was not always historically reliable, but I often wonder what this criticism can be based on as he was the only one who was there and actually wrote about it, and it must be easy to attack an account…..hundreds of years after the event, with no one left to counter it….surely.

  • Jack Brown says:

    One can go further back to 161BC when Judas Maccabeus entreated with Rome in the civil / religious conflict between Jewish and Hellenized Jews. Although no action eventuated from this it did establish Roman involvement resulted from Jewish interests looking to a great and powerful friend.

    Over the following century Rome conquered the Greek city states and then the Seleucids (Hellenized Syria) and by 63BC Pompey was besieging Jerusalem after Rome was invited in to help one group of Jewish elites struggling with another group.

    It’s always the same. Petty warlords invite in an outside party to help their side in an internal power struggle

    Like the petty squabble between Visigoth elites in Spain led to Count Julien inviting the recently Islamified Moors to cross the Straits of Gibraltar to help his cause.

    Like the Norman warlord Strongbow was invited by Dermott Macmurroigh, King of Leinster, in 1170 to come from Wales to Ireland to help him in his struggle against other chieftains.

    And it continues today.


    As further punishment the Romans added the insult of renaming Judea ‘Palestine’ after the Jews enemies the Philistines. Interestingly, the ancient Philistines inhabited the area around Gaza. Later on in history, with the advent of The Enlightenment, the Jews had a brief respite from being kicked around and persecuted. But before that, as shown in an article by Andrea Widburg:
    “Jews were tortured, burned alive, hanged, drawn, quartered, drowned, and anything else the primitive mind could devise in service to such things as keeping up the spirits of the Crusaders, punishing Jews for plagues or crop failures, canceling debts, stealing Jewish goods and land, obscuring the identity of an actual murderer, or just making a point. That’s when the Jewish blood libels came into being, libels that are daily kept alive in the Muslim world. Those Jews allowed to remain in Europe were quartered in ghettos, which were essentially concentration camps. And then came the Enlightenment, which offered a rational, individual-centric view of the world. The Enlightenment valued the Old Testament (i.e., the Torah or the Jewish Bible) because Enlightenment thinkers recognized that it contained within it the most profound concept in the entire Bible: Individuals have value, and that value comes because God created them in his image. Using reason, they concluded that you cannot embrace the Jewish God while at the same time hating the Jews”.
    As a result of this shift in sentiment the world seemed to become a better place. But that did not last. We’ve gone back to the old tribalism and warped rationalisms. Ironically, as history shows, civilisation regresses as a result of persecuting the Jews. That’s where we are now. Sadly Australia is no exception.
    Andrea Widberg’s illuminating article: “Europe’s Jews are seeing that the Enlightenment, not Hitler, was the aberration:

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    ‘pointless to argue with Zealots’

    I think the IDF have this in mind today as they advance to get rid of Hamas.

    Zealotry has gone down in history as unarguable rabid thought and behaviour.
    Aka Hamas today.

    We have much to learn from history. Thanks Mervyn for your helpful summary re The Temple.

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