Roman Empire: Conquest of Judaea (Part28)

Early in this same year [A.D. 70] Titus Caesar had been entrusted by his father with the task of completing the reduction of Judaea. While he and his father were both still private citizens, Titus had distinguished himself as a soldier, and his reputation for efficiency was steadily increasing, while the provinces and armies vied with one another in their enthusiasm for him. Wishing to seem independent of his good fortune, he always showed dignity and energy in the field. His affability called forth devotion. He constantly helped in the trenches and could mingle with his soldiers on the march without compromising his dignity as general. Three legions awaited him in Judaea, the Fifth, Tenth, and Fifteenth, all veterans from his father’s army. These were reinforced by the Twelfth from Syria and by detachments of the Twenty-second and the Third, [XXII Deiotariana and III Cyrenaica] brought over from Alexandria. This force was accompanied by twenty auxiliary cohorts and eight regiments of auxiliary cavalry besides the Kings Agrippa and Sohaemus, King Antiochus’ irregulars, a strong force of Arabs, who had a neighborly hatred for the Jews, and a crowd of persons who had come from Rome and the rest of Italy, each tempted by the hope of securing the first place in the prince’s still unoccupied affections. With this force Titus entered the enemy’s country at the head of his column, sending out scouts in all directions, and holding himself ready to fight. He pitched his camp not far from Jerusalem.

Since I am coming now to describe the last days of this famous city, it may not seem out of place to recount here its early history. It is said that the Jews are refugees from Crete, [There seems little to recommend Tacitus’ theory of the identity of the Idaei and Judaei, though it has been suggested that the Cherethites of 2. Sam. viii. 18 and Ezek. xxv. 16 are Cretans, migrated into the neighbourhood of the Philistines. The Jewish Sabbath (Saturn’s day) seems also to have suggested connections with Saturn and Crete] who settled on the confines of Libya at the time when Saturn was forcibly deposed by Jupiter. The evidence for this is sought in the name. Ida is a famous mountain in Crete inhabited by the Idaei, [Elsewhere the Idaei figure as supernatural genii in attendance on either Jupiter or Saturn.] whose name became lengthened into the foreign form Judaei. Others say that in the reign of Isis the superfluous population of Egypt, under the leadership of Hierosolymus and Juda, discharged itself upon the neighbouring districts, while there are many who think the Jews an Ethiopian stock, driven to migrate by their fear and dislike of King Cepheus.[Ethiopian here means Phoenician. Tradition made Cepheus, the father of Andromeda, king of Joppa] Another tradition makes them Assyrian refugees, [From Damascus, said Justin, where Abraham was one of their kings, and Trogus Pompeius adds that the name of Abraham was honourably remembered at Damascus. These are variants of the Biblical migration of Abraham] who, lacking lands of their own, occupied a district of Egypt, and later took to building cities of their own and tilling Hebrew territory and the frontier-land of Syria. Yet another version assigns to the Jews an illustrious origin as the descendants of the Solymi–a tribe famous in Homer–who founded the city and called it Hiero”solyma” after their own name.[Another piece of fanciful philology, based on a misinterpretation of a Greek transliteration of the name Jerusalem. The Solymi are traditionally placed in Lycia. Both Juvenal and Martial use Solymus as equivalent to Judaeus]

Most authorities agree that a foul and disfiguring disease once broke out in Egypt, and that King Bocchoris, [The only known King Bocchoris belongs to the eighth century B.C.E., whereas the Exodus is traditionally placed not later than the sixteenth] on approaching the oracle of Ammon and inquiring for a remedy, was told to purge his kingdom of the plague and to transport all who suffered from it into some other country, for they had earned the disfavor of Heaven. A motley crowd was thus collected and abandoned in the desert. While all the other outcasts lay idly lamenting, one of them, named Moses, advised them not to look for help to gods or men, since both had deserted them, but to trust rather in themselves and accept as divine the guidance of the first being by whose aid they should get out of their present plight. They agreed, and set out blindly to march wherever chance might lead them. Their worst distress came from lack of water. When they were already at death’s door and lying prostrate all over the plain, it so happened that a drove of wild asses moved away from their pasture to a rock densely covered with trees. Guessing the truth from the grassy nature of the ground, Moses followed and disclosed an ample flow of water. This saved them. Continuing their march for six successive days, on the seventh they routed the natives and gained possession of the country. There they consecrated their city and their temple.

To ensure his future hold over the people, Moses introduced a new cult, which was the opposite of all other religions. All that we hold sacred they held profane, and allowed practices which we abominate. They dedicated in a shrine an image of the animal [i.e. an ass. The idea that this animal was sacred to the Jews was so prevalent among ‘the Gentiles’ that Josephus takes the trouble to refute it] whose guidance had put an end to their wandering and thirst. They killed a ram, apparently as an insult to Ammon, and also sacrificed a bull, because the Egyptians worship the bull Apis. [Lev. xvi. 3, ‘a young bullock for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering.’ Tacitus’ reasons are of course errors due to the prevalent confusion of Jewish and Egyptian history.] Pigs are subject to leprosy; so they abstain from pork in memory of their misfortune and the foul plague with which they were once infected. Their frequent fasts bear witness to the long famine they once endured, and, in token of the corn they carried off, Jewish bread is to this day made without leaven. They are said to have devoted the seventh day to rest, because that day brought an end to their troubles. Later, finding idleness alluring, they gave up the seventh year as well to sloth.[Lev. xxv. 4, ‘… in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.’] Others maintain that they do this in honour of Saturn; [The seventh day being named after Cronos or Saturn] either because their religious principles are derived from the Idea, who are supposed to have been driven out with Saturn and become the ancestors of the Jewish people; or else because, of the seven constellations which govern the lives of men, the star of Saturn moves in the topmost orbit and exercises peculiar influence, and also because most of the heavenly bodies move round their courses in multiples of seven.

Whatever their origin, these rites are sanctioned by their antiquity. Their other customs are impious and abominable, and owe their prevalence to their depravity. For all the most worthless rascals, renouncing their national cults, were always sending money to swell the sum of offerings and tribute. [This refers to proselytes, who, like Jews resident abroad, contributed annually to the Temple treasury. They numbered at this time about four millions. Romans naturally regarded this diversion of funds with disfavour] This is one cause of Jewish prosperity. Another is that they are obstinately loyal to each other, and always ready to show compassion, whereas they feel nothing but hatred and enmity for the rest of the world. [Jewish exclusiveness always roused Roman indignation, and ‘hatred of the human race’ was the usual charge against Christians (see “Ann.” xv. 44).] They eat and sleep separately. Though immoderate in sexual indulgence, they refrain from all intercourse with foreign women: among themselves anything is allowed. [The strict regulations of Deut. xxii. etc. give a strange irony to this slander. Most of these libels originated in Alexandria] They have introduced circumcision to distinguish themselves from other people. Those who are converted to their customs adopt the same practice, and the first lessons they learn are to despise the gods, [A people,’ says the elder Pliny, ‘distinguished by their contemptuous atheism] to renounce their country, and to think nothing of their parents, children, and brethren. However, they take steps to increase their numbers. They count it a crime to kill any of their later-born children, [“Agnati”, as used here and in “Germ.” 19 means a child born after the father has made his will and therein specified the number of his children. The mere birth of such a child invalidated any earlier will that the father had made, but the fact of its birth might be concealed by making away with the baby. This crime seems to have been not uncommon, but there is no evidence that ‘exposure of infants’ was permitted.] and they believe that the souls of those who die in battle or under persecution are immortal. [Josephus also alludes to this belief that the corruption of disease chained the soul to the buried body, while violent death freed it to live forever in the air and protect posterity] Thus they think much of having children and nothing of facing death. They prefer to bury and not burn their dead. [Under the kings cremation was an honourable form of burial, but in Babylon the Jews came to regard fire as a sacred element which should not be thus defiled] In this, as in their burial rites, and in their belief in an underworld, they conform to Egyptian custom. Their ideas of heaven are quite different. The Egyptians worship most of their gods as animals, or in shapes half animal and half human. The Jews acknowledge one god only, of whom they have a purely spiritual conception. They think it impious to make images of gods in human shape out of perishable materials. Their god is almighty and inimitable, without beginning and without end. They therefore set up no statues in their temples, or even in their cities, refusing this homage both to their own kings and to the Roman emperors. However, the fact that their priests intoned to the flute and cymbals and wore wreaths of ivy, and that a golden vine was found in their temple [This was over the door of the Temple. Aristobulus gave it as a present to Pompey.] has led some people to think that they worship Bacchus, [Plutarch shared this error, which seems somehow to have been based on a misinterpretation of the Feast of Tabernacles, at which they were to ‘take … the fruit of goodly trees, …and willows of the brook; and … rejoice before the Lord your God seven days’ (Lev. xxiii. 40).] who has so enthralled the East. But their cult would be most inappropriate. Bacchus instituted gay and cheerful rites, but the Jewish ritual is preposterous and morbid.

The country of the Jews is bounded by Arabia on the east, by Egypt on the south, and on the west by Phoenicia and the sea. On the Syrian frontier they have a distant view towards the north.[Over Coele-Syria, from the range of Lebanon] Physically they are healthy and hardy. Rain is rare; the soil infertile; its products are of the same kind as ours with the addition of balsam and palms. The palm is a tall and beautiful tree, the balsam a mere shrub. When its branches are swollen with sap they open them with a sharp piece of stone or crockery, for the sap-vessels shrink up at the touch of iron. The sap is used in medicine. Lebanon, their chief mountain, stands always deep in its eternal snow, a strange phenomenon in such a burning climate. Here, too, the river Jordan has its source [i.e. from Mount Hermon, nearly 9,000 feet high] and comes pouring down, to find a home in the sea. It flows undiminished through first one lake, then another, and loses itself in a third.[Merom; Gennesareth; the Dead Sea] This last is a lake of immense size, like a sea, though its water has a foul taste and a most unhealthy smell, which poisons the surrounding inhabitants. No wind can stir waves in it: no fish or sea-birds can live there. The sluggish water supports whatever is thrown on to it, as if its surface were solid, while those who cannot swim float on it as easily as those who can. Every year at the same time the lake yields asphalt. As with other arts, it is experience which shows how to collect it. It is a black liquid which, when congealed with a sprinkling of vinegar, floats on the surface of the water. The men who collect it take it in this state into their hands and haul it on deck. Then without further aid it trickles in and loads the boat until you cut off the stream. But this you cannot do with iron or brass: the current is turned by applying blood or a garment stained with a woman’s menstrual discharge. That is what the old authorities say, but those who know the district aver that floating blocks of asphalt are driven landwards by the wind and dragged to shore by hand. The steam out of the earth and the heat of the sun dries them, and they are then split up with axes and wedges, like logs or blocks of stone.

Not far from this lake are the Plains, which they say were once fertile and covered with large and populous cities which were destroyed by lightning. [‘Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain’ (Gen. xix. 24] Traces of the cities are said to remain, and the ground, which looks scorched, has lost all power of production. The plants, whether wild or artificially cultivated, are blighted and sterile and wither into dust and ashes, either when in leaf or flower, or when they have attained their full growth. Without denying that at some date famous cities were there burnt up by lightning, I am yet inclined to think that it is the exhalation from the lake which infects the soil and poisons the surrounding atmosphere. Soil and climate being equally deleterious, the crops and fruits all rot away.

The river Belus also falls into this Jewish sea. Round its mouth is found a peculiar kind of sand which is mixed with native soda and smelted into glass. Small though the beach is, its product is inexhaustible.

The greater part of the population lives in scattered villages, but they also have towns. Jerusalem is the Jewish capital, and contained the temple, which was enormously wealthy. A first line of fortifications guarded the city, another the palace, and an innermost line enclosed the temple.[These were not concentric, but an enemy approaching from the north-west would have to carry all three before reaching the temple, which stood on Mount Moriah at the eastern extremity of the city.] None but a Jew was allowed as far as the doors: none but the priests might cross the threshold.[ Luke i. 8-10, where Zacharias entered the temple to burn incense, ‘and the whole multitude of the people were praying without.’] When the East was in the hands of the Assyrians, Medes and Persians, they regarded the Jews as the meanest of their slaves. During the Macedonian ascendancy [The Seleucids] King Antiochus [Antiochus Epiphanes (176-164 B.C.E.).] endeavored to abolish their superstitions and to introduce Greek manners and customs. But Arsaces at that moment rebelled, [This was really in the reign of Antiochus II (260-245 B.C.E.)] and the Parthian war prevented him from effecting any improvement in the character of this grim people. Then, when Macedon waned, as the Parthian power was not yet ripe and Rome was still far away, they took kings of their own.[Of the Hasmonean or Maccabean family] The mob were fickle and drove them out. However, they recovered their throne by force; banished their countrymen, sacked cities, slew their brothers, wives, and parents, and committed all the usual kingly crimes. But this only fostered the hold of the Jewish religion, since the kings had strengthened their authority by assuming the priesthood.

Cnaeus Pompeius was the first Roman to subdue the Jews and set foot in their temple by right of conquest.[63 B.C.E. when he was called in to decide between Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus] It was then first realized that the temple contained no image of any god: their sanctuary was empty, their mysteries meaningless. The walls of Jerusalem were destroyed, but the temple was left standing. Later, during the Roman civil wars, when the eastern provinces had come under the control of Mark Antony, the Parthian Prince Pacorus seized Judaea, [At the invitation of the Maccabean Antigonus, who thus recovered the throne] and was killed by Publius Ventidius. The Parthians were driven back over the Euphrates, and Caius Sosius [Ventidius and Sosius were Antony’s officers. The former was famous as having begun life as a mule-driver and risen to be a consul and to hold the first triumph over the Parthians] subdued the Jews. Antony gave the kingdom to Herod, [Herod the Great, who on the return of Antigonus had fled to Rome and chosen the winning side] and Augustus, after his victory, enlarged it.

After Herod’s death, somebody called Simon, [One of Herod’s slaves] without awaiting the emperor’s decision, forcibly assumed the title of king. He was executed by Quintilius Varus, who was Governor of Syria; the Jews were repressed and the kingdom divided between three of Herod’s sons.[Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Philip] Under Tiberius all was quiet. Caligula ordered them to put up his statue in the temple. They preferred war to that. But Caligula’s death put an end to the rising.[ A.D. 40] In Claudius’ reign the kings had all either died or lost most of their territory. The emperor therefore made Judaea a province to be governed by Roman knights or freedmen. One of these, Antonius Felix, [A freedman, Procurator of Judaea, A.D. 52-60 (Acts xxiv).] indulged in every kind of cruelty and immorality, wielding a king’s authority with all the instincts of a slave. He had married Drusilla, a granddaughter of Antony and Cleopatra, so that he was Antony’s grandson-in-law, while Claudius was Antony’s grandson. [Claudius’ mother, Antonia, was the daughter of Antony’s first marriage]

The Jews endured such oppression patiently until the time of Gessius Florus, [A.D. 64-66] under whom war broke out. Cestius Gallus, the Governor of Syria, tried to crush it, but met with more reverses than victories. He died, either in the natural course or perhaps of disgust, and Nero sent out Vespasian, who, in a couple of campaigns, [A.D. 67 and 68] thanks to his reputation, good fortune, and able subordinates, had the whole of the country districts and all the towns except Jerusalem under the heel of his victorious army. The next year [A.D. 69] was taken up with civil war, and passed quietly enough as far as the Jews were concerned. But peace once restored in Italy, foreign troubles began again with feelings embittered on our side by the thought that the Jews were the only people who had not given in. At the same time it seemed best to leave Titus at the head of the army to meet the eventualities of the new reign, whether good or bad.

Thus, as we have already seen, Titus pitched his camp before the walls of Jerusalem and proceeded to display his legions in battle order. The Jews formed up at the foot of their own walls, ready, if successful, to venture further, but assured of their retreat in case of reverse. A body of cavalry and some light-armed foot were sent forward, and fought an indecisive engagement, from which the enemy eventually retired. During the next few days a series of skirmishes took place in front of the gates, and at last continual losses drove the Jews behind their walls. The Romans then determined to take it by storm. It seemed undignified to sit and wait for the enemy to starve, and the men all clamoured for the risks, some being really brave, while many others were wild and greedy for plunder. Titus himself had the vision of Rome with all her wealth and pleasures before his eyes, and felt that their enjoyment was postponed unless Jerusalem fell at once. The city, however, stands high and is fortified with works strong enough to protect a city standing on the plain. Two enormous hills [Jerusalem stands on a rock which rises into three main hills, Zion (south), Acra (north), and Moriah (east). It is not clear to which two of these Tacitus alludes; probably Zion and Moriah.] were surrounded by walls ingeniously built so as to project or slope inwards and thus leave the flanks of an attacking party exposed to fire. The rocks were jagged at the top. The towers, where the rising ground helped, were sixty feet high, and in the hollows as much as a hundred and twenty. They are a wonderful sight and seem from a distance to be all of equal height. Within this runs another line of fortification surrounding the palace, and on a conspicuous height stands the Antonia, a castle named by Herod in honour of Mark Antony.

The temple was built like a citadel with walls of its own, on which more care and labour had been spent than on any of the others. Even the cloisters surrounding the temple formed a splendid rampart. There was a never-failing spring of water,[ Of this no traces remain, and the tradition may have been based on the metaphorical prophecy that a fount of living water would issue from the Sanctuary] catacombs hollowed out of the hills, and pools or cisterns for holding the rain-water. Its original builders had foreseen that the peculiarities of Jewish life would lead to frequent wars, consequently everything was ready for the longest of sieges. Besides this, when Pompey took the city, bitter experience taught them several lessons, and in the days of Claudius they had taken advantage of his avarice to buy rights of fortification, and built walls in peace-time as though war were imminent. Their numbers were now swelled by floods of human refuse and unfortunate refugees from other towns. [i.e. the Galilean towns captured by Vespasian in A.D. 67 and 68.] All the most desperate characters in the country had taken refuge there, which did not conduce to unity. They had three armies, each with its own general. The outermost and largest line of wall was held by Simon; the central city by John, and the temple by Eleazar. [Simon was a bandit from the east of Jordan; John of Gischala headed a party of refugees from Galilee; Eleazar was the leader of the Jewish war-party, and related to the high priests] John and Simon were stronger than Eleazar in numbers and equipment, but he had the advantage of a strong position. Their relations mainly consisted of fighting, treachery, and arson: a large quantity of corn was burnt. Eventually, under pretext of offering a sacrifice, John sent a party of men to massacre Eleazar and his troops, and by this means gained possession of the temple.[They submitted to John’s authority and were not killed] Thus Jerusalem was divided into two hostile parties, but on the approach of the Romans the necessities of foreign warfare reconciled their differences.

Various portents had occurred at this time, but so sunk in superstition are the Jews and so opposed to all religious practices that they think it wicked to avert the threatened evil by sacrifices [‘Ye shall not … use enchantments, nor practise augury’ (Lev. xix. 26)] or vows. Embattled armies were seen to meet in the sky with flashing arms, and the temple shone with sudden fire from heaven. The doors of the shrine suddenly opened, a supernatural voice was heard calling the gods out, and at once there began a mighty movement of departure. Few took alarm at all this. Most people held the belief that, according to the ancient priestly writings, this was the moment at which the East was fated to prevail: they would now start forth from Judaea and conquer the world. [e.g. ‘And in the days of those kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed, nor shall the sovereignty thereof be left to another people; but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms’ (Dan. ii. 44). The Jews were looking for Messiah: the Romans thought of Vespasian] This enigmatic prophecy really applied to Vespasian and Titus. But men are blinded by their hopes. The Jews took to themselves the promised destiny, and even defeat could not convince them of the truth. The number of the besieged, men and women of every age is stated to have reached six hundred thousand. There were arms for all who could carry them, and far more were ready to fight than would be expected from their total numbers. The women were as determined as the men: if they were forced to leave their homes they had more to fear in life than in death.

Such was the city and such the people with which Titus was faced. As the nature of the ground forbade a sudden assault, he determined to employ siege-works and penthouse shelters. The work was accordingly divided among the legions, and there was a truce to fighting until they had got ready every means of storming a town that had ever been devised by experience or inventive ingenuity.


REFERENCE: The Histories (Book 5) of Publius Cornelius Tacitus: Translated w/Notation: By W. HAMILTON FYFE (1912)
CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick