Ancient History & Civilisation



In the southeast corner of the Forum in Rome today stands a triumphal arch dedicated to Titus, the tenth Roman emperor. At each corner of the pedestal are Ionic columns with flowering Corinthian heads, and above the monument’s beautifully sculpted cornice is the full, weighty mass of its lintel. It is believed that the arch was once crowned with a glorious statue of Titus on a chariot pulled by elephants. Worn and majestic, the solemn stones that remain of the original arch suggest to passers-by all that is austere, noble and beautiful about the classical world. And yet on the shaded inside of the arch lies a very different story. The ancient panel reliefs that line the passageway through the arch depict in detail one of the most violent, brutal and offensive acts of atrocity in the history of the empire: the Roman sack of Jerusalem in the summer of AD 70.

The panels show Roman soldiers triumphantly carrying booty stolen from the most important site of the Jewish faith, the Temple of Jerusalem. In their hands are some of the most sacred Jewish treasures: the golden menorah (seven-branched candelabrum), silver trumpets and the table for the shewbread. These possessions were so holy that for centuries only priests were allowed to lay eyes on them. And yet depicted here, on the Arch of Titus, the hallowed objects are not only being stolen and defiled by Gentiles, but their theft is celebrated as the greatest triumph of Titus’s career. Just as the Arch of Titus has stood as a commemoration of that great Roman triumph throughout the centuries to this day, it also testifies to that cruel act of imperialism.

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem was the climax to one of the most dramatic turning points in the history of Rome. The Jewish revolt of AD 66–70 in the Roman province of Judaea involved the single greatest military campaign against a provincial people in the history of the Roman empire. In AD 66 Rome controlled a territory that stretched from the Atlantic to the Caspian Sea, and from Britain to the Sahara. Judaea had fallen under Roman control in 63 BC. And yet, as the imperial government of Rome was to find out in the rebellion of the Jews, the greatest challenge they faced was not conquering and creating their foreign provinces, but administering them. For the Romans, as for many imperial powers through the ages, winning the peace was a much more complex affair than winning the war.

The rebellion of the Jews demonstrated the greatest problems of imperialism: the place, if any, of nationalism within the empire; the coexistence of two religions – emperor worship (a key part of Roman paganism) and Judaism; and, above all, the issue of money – who paid taxes to whom, who profited from the empire and who didn’t. Indeed, it was this last question of who really benefited from the celebrated pax Romana (Roman Peace), from the protection of being a province within the Roman empire, that would ultimately spark the revolt. The rebellion of Judaea raised all these questions in the most graphic and vivid way for one simple reason: between AD 66 and 70 they led to a war that became a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of people. The hard fact of Roman imperialism was that, if challenged and if necessary, the emperor was prepared to unleash a monster. To put down the revolt, the empire released the ferocity and firepower of almost a quarter of the entire Roman army.

At the heart of the story, however, lie highly personal motivations and actions, and an extraordinary reversal of fortune. For the man appointed to command Roman forces in Judaea would seize the opportunity of the war to justify a bid for absolute power. His reward for crushing the Jewish rebels would be to rise from obscurity and disgrace to become emperor – at least that’s how he presented it. With his claim secured, he would found an entirely new dynasty and lay the foundations for Rome’s glorious golden age of peace. His name was Vespasian. However, success in the war against the Jews and the bid to win power in Rome was not achieved alone. For this Vespasian would come to depend on his son Titus, the man who would succeed him first as commander in Judaea and later as emperor. The legacy of father and son survives to this day, not only in the triumphant Arch of Titus, but also in one of the greatest symbols of Roman power – the Colosseum.


Some 120 years before the revolt of the Jews against Rome, Judaea was a small monarchical state ruled by a dynasty of high priests, populated mainly by Jews and centred on the holy city of Jerusalem. Previously, Judaea had been part of the Persian empire, and then part of the Hellenistic kingdom of the Ptolemies and, later, Seleucids. The latter took their name from one of Alexander the Great’s Greek generals, Seleucus, who founded the new monarchy, and they ruled from the capital city of Antioch in Syria. With time the Seleucids came to encompass smaller kingdoms further south, such as Judaea. Eventually, however, the authority of the Seleucids, like that of the Persians, diminished, and Judaea next fell under Rome’s sphere of influence. Between 66 and 63 BC the general Pompey extended Roman control in the east by installing, in the place of Alexander the Great’s successors, client-kings loyal to Rome. The expansion brought Rome great opportunities for exploitation. She inherited both extraordinary wealth and, through the appropriation of Greek works of art, the cultural sophistication of the old Hellenistic world. But there was an even greater prize to be won. The Roman settlement of the east created a critical buffer zone between the Roman empire and her one great rival empire lying in modern-day Iran/Iraq: Parthia.


With the passing of a decree in Rome, Pompey made Syria a Roman province to be ruled directly from the capital, but in Judaea, instead of direct rule, he installed a client-ruler loyal to Rome. The most famous of these kings was Herod the Great. Under Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, however, the system of provincial administration across the empire changed. Some provinces were still governed as they had been during the republic: consuls or praetors, after they had served a year in office in Italy, were given the command of a province for between one and three years. The great change, however, was that Augustus took the provinces that bordered the non-Roman world into his own care. These ‘imperial provinces’ each received a garrison of Roman legions and each was governed by a deputy especially appointed by the emperor. Syria thus became an imperial province, and by AD 6, after the expulsion of the client-ruler Archelaus, so did Judaea. Thus it remained, with one reversal of policy, until the troubles of AD 66.

Because Judaea was a smaller province, its administration was the responsibility not of a legate, who was usually a senior senator, but of a procurator. The procurator of Judaea came from the more junior order of knights, and both he and his staff were based in the Graeco-Roman city of Caesarea on the coast. Here, surrounded more by Gentiles than Jews, he lived in one of the luxurious palaces built by Herod the Great. Again in contrast to the larger province of Syria, there was no Roman legion in Judaea; there were just 3000 auxiliary troops made up of five infantry units and one cavalry unit, each five hundred strong and drawn mostly from the local population. But for successful administration of Judaea the Romans relied on the locals in other ways too.

Politically, Rome did not govern Judaea on a day-to-day basis. Some towns and villages were run as they traditionally had been, by a small group of elders; others, in the Greek style, elected councils and magistrates. Rome depended on them not only for the smooth management of the province, but also, more importantly, for the execution of the key contract between province and emperor. In return for relative peace, protection and the freedoms associated with being part of the great commonwealth of Rome, the people of Judaea, as in all provinces, collected and paid taxes. This was the cornerstone of the pax Romana, the fundamental basis of running an empire. There was a tax on the produce of the land, and also a poll tax. The procurator of Judaea, as both governor and financial officer, was charged with collecting both. However, because the bureaucracy of the Roman empire was so small in proportion to the vast territory it controlled, the Roman procurators needed help in tax-gathering. In Judaea, as in many parts of the empire, they turned to the local élite.

The more lucrative direct taxes were collected by the Jewish high priests and a council of rich Jerusalemite Jews; the indirect taxes were collected by wealthy local businessmen.2 In practice, only the wealthy could be tax-gatherers. The right to collect taxes was sold at auction, and the successful bidder was required to pay to the procurator a significant sum in advance, with the expectation that he would earn more money through the conscientious execution of his task. This same wealthy élite provided the magistrates in many towns and local councils. Consequently, with a small bureaucratic staff, a small garrison, and dependence on the local élites for the collection of taxes, successful rule in Judaea depended not on Roman force or power, but on the passive compliance of the provincials. Roman administration was, in reality, a delicate balancing act. However, it was an act that time and again the Romans got wrong.

One flashpoint was citizenship. Being a Roman citizen brought with it certain protections from magistrates. St Paul, a Greek-speaking Jew from Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia in southeast Turkey, was famously about to be flogged in public after his arrival in Jerusalem in AD 58 stirred up a riot. At the last minute, he was saved from punishment for the simple reason that he was a Roman citizen and as such had the right to a trial in Rome. Jesus provoked a similar reaction in Jerusalem, but because he was not a Roman citizen, he was handed over for crucifixion, even though he had done no wrong. The reality of the pax Romana was that it was often easier for Roman officials to put the preservation of order before justice and the protection of the weak against the strong. The tie of citizenship to the Roman commonwealth was then a highly desired prize from which many in Judaea were excluded.3 Yet Roman administration was far from sensitive to this fact.

When, in AD 63, Jews gathered in Caesarea to protest en masse over systematic discrimination against them, they clashed with the local Greek citizens and a riot broke out. The Roman procurator, Marcus Antonius Felix, responded with extreme repression and sent in the army. To make matters worse, Felix was a Greek as were many of the locally recruited soldiers. As a result, it was the Jews who were violently attacked. Many of them were killed and their property plundered. The fracas, which lasted for days, caused such a controversy that it was given a court hearing before the emperor Nero in Rome. Crucially, Nero, a philhellene, found in favour of the Greeks, and the procurator was deemed not guilty. The Jews were outraged by the verdict.4

An even greater source of tension was religion. To the Jews there was only one lord over Judaea, and that was God – Yahweh. Nonetheless, the Jews accommodated the divine Roman emperor by agreeing to sacrifice twice a day to both him and the Roman people.5 In the Gospels Jesus himself acknowledged that Caesar and God could coexist. But once again the Romans crossed the line of what the Jews could tolerate. In AD 26 the Roman prefect of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, ordered military standards to be displayed in Jerusalem, to which the Roman soldiers would offer sacrifices. Such a display ran contrary to the Jewish Torah, the ancient book of laws central to Judaism, which decreed that there could be no graven images of a pagan deity in the Holy City. Only after five days of protest did Pilate give in and agree to take the standards down. In his desire to promote emperor worship in Judaea, however, the next emperor was determined to go much further.

In AD 38 Caligula ordered Publius Petronius, the legate of Syria, to march on Jerusalem and erect cult statues of himself not just in the city; the emperor wanted one to be put in the Temple enclosure itself. In the face of protest, came the order from Rome, objectors were to be executed and the rest enslaved. In Jerusalem, Galilee and Tiberias diehard protesters gathered in their thousands to confront the soldiers and the carts carrying the imperial marbles. Week after week they told the commander that the whole Jewish race would have to be killed before a statue of the emperor would be allowed to stand in Jerusalem. Petronius was faced with a dilemma: either to put the obstructing Jews to death, or to put his own life on the line by disobeying Caligula’s orders. He chose the latter and returned to Antioch, expecting an early demise. Fortunately for Petronius, by the time the imperial order for his execution arrived from Rome Caligula had already been murdered, and the more conciliatory Claudius proclaimed emperor in his place. For the time being, the fire was subdued, but it was far from extinguished.

Similarly, the economic reality of Roman occupation continued to smoulder. Perhaps the greatest source of tension between Romans and Jews was money. In the republic, Roman administration of a province was synonymous with the extortion, fleecing and exploitation of provincials. ‘Words cannot describe how bitterly we are hated among foreign nations owing to the wanton and outrageous conduct of the men whom we have sent to govern,’ wrote the senator Cicero in 66 BC.6 Laws passed by Julius Caesar and Augustus to curb the excesses of Roman governors and grasping soldiers had tackled the problem of corruption, although many cases now went unreported. In Judaea, according to the Gospels, a consensus was reached and advocated by Jesus. When he told the Pharisees in Jerusalem to ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,’ Jesus was acknowledging the acceptable coexistence of taxes paid to Rome and taxes paid to the Jewish Temple. Similarly, when Roman soldiers approached John the Baptist for guidance, his reply did not challenge their presence in Judaea, but recognized it on the following terms: ‘Do not extort money and do not accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’7 Nonetheless, his answer assumes that the occupying forces, more often than not, did find ways to extort.

In fact, for most ordinary Jews throughout the province, the burden of Roman taxes and other financial exactions chafed from the start. As the years of foreign rule passed, the notion promoted by Jesus of an acceptable Roman administration in Judaea only became harder to stomach. For many peasants, good agricultural land was in short supply. Its possession, or lack of it, sharply divided regional groups in Palestine and Judaea then as today. While the coastal plain had rich soil and rivers to water it, the upland massif of Judaea was rocky and dry, its soil thin. As a result, it was hard enough to make a living, find the land rent, feed a family and pay one’s dues to the Temple and tithes to the priests without having to dig even deeper for Caesar when the tax collectors came calling.8

But the money-gatherers were unwelcome for another reason. The men who toured the villages of Judaea and relieved the poor of their money were not even Romans. Jewish peasants paid up to a Jewish élite thriving under Roman patronage and tax-collecting contracts. Consequently, the issue of taxes cut a sharp divide in Jewish society. Pax Romana enriched some and slowly killed others.

The seeds of these political and economic tensions were sown when Rome took control of Judaea in 63 BC. From that time on they only grew and grew. By AD 66 Judaea was a time bomb. To set it off, all that was needed was someone to press the button. In May of that year Gessius Florus, the Roman procurator, duly obliged.


In its last years, the rapacious regime of the emperor Nero needed money, and lots of it. The burden of heavier taxes and forced levies hit the provinces hard. Gaul and Britain suffered; in Africa six landlords who owned half the land of the province were put to death; now Judaea too was about to feel the pinch.9 One way or another Judaea was going to help make up the shortfall between revenue and Nero’s profligate expenditure. Florus announced that the emperor required the massive sum of 400,000 sesterces. He was even prepared to take it from the funds of the Temple treasury, and declared that units of Roman soldiers were going to come to Jerusalem to get it. Since those funds were made up of the sacred dues paid by ordinary Jews for sacrifices to God, Florus’s threat amounted to stealing of the most outrageous kind. The Jews in the Holy City were furious.

Gessius Florus was the archetypal greedy Roman governor. He delighted in impoverishing the Jews, boasted about his crimes, and lost no opportunity of turning a profit through extortion and robbery. Indeed, he saw it as a sport.10 At least this was the view of Joseph ben Mattathias who witnessed the events. Josephus (his Roman name) was a twenty-nine-year-old priest and scholar, scion of an aristocratic Jewish family that could trace its origins in part to an influential dynasty of priests, known as the Hasmoneans, who had ruled Judaea when the Romans first arrived. He had studied the teachings of the three most prominent Jewish sects, and when he could not decide which one to join, he later claimed to have spent three years living with an ascetic hermit meditating in the desert. After some years carrying out his priestly duties in Jerusalem, he then travelled on a diplomatic mission to Rome, where he remained for two years. By May AD 66, perhaps laden with Roman sympathies, he had returned to Jerusalem, only to find it in the crisis provoked by Florus. It was a crisis that would engulf him and change his life for ever. From this point on he became the eyewitness historian of the revolt of the Jews against Rome.

True to his word, Florus in Caesarea ordered his soldiers to take seventeen talents (435 kilograms or nearly 1000 pounds) of silver from the Temple treasury. From this one action all the tensions between the Romans and Jews erupted. Stealing from the very place where King David had founded the Holy City, where King Solomon had built the first Temple, and where the Jews returning from captivity in Babylon had built the second Temple was the greatest violation of their race and history. The Temple was the ultimate symbol of Jewish identity. But Florus couldn’t have cared less. In a spirit of reasserting Roman power, he gladly gave the order for the Gentile soldiers to force their way into the most holy of places, upturn the sacred objects, push aside the swarms of priests and protesters who stood in the way, and seize the money.

Stirred up by Jewish nationalists and radicals, there was uproar throughout Jerusalem. When news reached Caesarea that the city was up in arms, Florus dashed off to Jerusalem himself with both an infantry and a cavalry unit to restore order and make sure that he received the money. As he entered the city, some jokers went around mimicking beggars and acting as though they were collecting for the impoverished Roman procurator. Now it was Florus’s turn to be angry. He set up a dais in a public space and began an open-air tribunal to bring to justice those who had insulted him. Local leaders formed a line between the Roman leadership and the crowds of angry protesters. Among the moderate priests were Josephus and the high priest Hanan. Apologizing to Florus on behalf of the people of Jerusalem, they desperately tried to calm the crowd and restore order. However, their pleas made no impact. The reality was that the pro-Roman priestly élite was hopelessly exposed. On the one hand, to have tried to bring the culprits before Florus would have resulted in further riots; yet on the other hand, to have sided with the nationalists risked bringing Roman disfavour and an end to their privileges. So at the open-air meeting they compromised and simply begged Florus to forgive the few agitators and extremists for the sake of the many innocent and loyal subjects of Rome. His response, however, only fanned the flames: he sent in the cavalry.

The Roman suppression of protesters in the Upper Market quickly escalated into something much worse. Houses were plundered, over 3000 innocent people were killed, and the instigators of the riot were crucified as a lesson to others. When the Jews plucked up the courage to protest – this time at the massacre – a second bloodbath took place. Once again, the moderates in the Jewish élite were caught in the middle, so they made the traditional signs of supplication: they threw themselves on the ground, covered their heads with dust, tore their clothes and begged the insurgents to stop. They were, they said, only giving the Romans the excuse to plunder further. Once again, the procurator resorted to force. Two more cohorts were drafted in from Caesarea and the soldiers clubbed the protesters to death. When the cavalry pursued those trying to escape, they chased them to the gates of the Antonia Fortress. Here, in the desperate congestion, many were crushed to death and others were beaten to an unrecognizable pulp.11 With each day full of disasters, the authority of the local leaders and priests collapsed, and popular opinion swung dramatically in favour of the nationalists and armed resistance.

Spoiling for a fight, the nationalists organized retaliation. They barricaded the streets, isolated and hemmed in pockets of outnumbered Roman soldiers, and then, using spears, slingshots and loose bricks and tiles, they attacked, driving Florus and most of his Roman cohorts out of the city. While Florus limped back to Caesarea, the solitary Roman cohort left behind was soon slaughtered. Action was needed, but none of the Roman measures taken had any effect. King Agrippa, the clientruler of territories partly in Galilee and partly to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee, was called upon. Perhaps he would have more influence over the outraged Jews in Jerusalem. Supervision of the management of the Temple, including the appointment of the High Priest, had been delegated to him by the emperor for over a decade. But when Agrippa entered the Holy City and addressed the hostile crowds, he too was stoned and driven out.12

News of the successful resistance in Jerusalem spread across the entire province. In fortress after fortress across Judaea, Roman guards were murdered and Jewish rebels took control. To restore order, the emperor of Rome and his senatorial advisers turned to Gaius Cestius Gallus, the newly appointed legate of Syria. Perhaps the full might of a Roman legion and numerous other troops would succeed where the meagre auxiliary forces of Judaea had failed. In mid-October AD 66, with 30,000 troops at his side, Gallus marched from Antioch to Jerusalem with the aim of quashing these rebels in a quick, decisive confrontation. But he was the wrong man for the job. A politician more accustomed to the pleasures of provincial peace than the realities of war, Gallus not only failed to take the city, but on his retreat was caught in a desperate trap. This was to prove the moment when a rebellion in a small province of the empire was transformed into war with the superpower of Rome.

As the men of the twelfth legion beat their grinding, demoralized retreat to Caesarea, Gallus failed to take account of one thing: control of the hilltops enclosing the rocky passes through which the Romans marched. When the pass narrowed near Beth-Horon, a huge army of Jewish rebels cut off the road, brought the serpentine column of soldiers to a complete standstill and surrounded them on all sides. Then, from the rocky slopes, they attacked the forces of the occupying power with a barrage of arrows, spears and stones. Unable to defend themselves or keep their formations in a tight defile, the panic-stricken Roman soldiers ducked beneath their shields and suffered hours of painful pounding. Only nightfall provided a temporary respite, and when the next day came, Gallus opted for the ignominy of fleeing. The Romans had been utterly routed, and approximately 6000 of their number had been killed. It was the greatest defeat of regular Roman forces by the people of an established province in all Roman history.13

Jews the length and breadth of the province were overjoyed. Many believed their extraordinary victory was a miracle. Prophets, perhaps cooperating with the revolutionary leaders, played their part too in pointing to the hand of God. With His aid, perhaps it was possible for the underdog to defeat the almighty power of Rome. What else could possibly explain such an historic, unprecedented victory? According to Josephus, however, there were many too who viewed their success with dismay. For while the Jews debated the significance of their brilliant, landmark triumph, one thing was certain. The door to negotiations was firmly closed. The Jews, whether they liked it or not, were now committed to war.

In Jerusalem the moderates had regained control of the city. Some ringleaders of the insurrection had been killed, and with their deaths, popular opinion among the majority swung back in favour of the priestly élite. The high priest Hanan and other moderates now pressed home their advantage. If Judaea must fight Rome, they told the people of Jerusalem with renewed authority, at least let us take charge of it.14 The people agreed and accordingly appointed the priests to lead the war strategy. However, in deciding that, it is reasonable to imagine that Hanan and the élite kept their real intentions secret.

For while the hopes of many people in the city were inflated by the defeat of Gallus and his soldiers, Hanan and his fellow moderates took a more realistic view of the future. To them the more likely outcome of a war was not victory for the Jews, but winning key concessions from Rome. After all, the priestly élite could point out to each other, just six years earlier in Britain the Romans had, with difficulty, put down the revolt led by Boudicca, queen of the Iceni. To avoid another conflict – let alone one that would be long and protracted, and in which many Roman lives would be lost – perhaps the Romans might be prepared to come to new terms?15 Of one thing, however, Hanan and his fellow priests were sure: they too had to throw in their lot with the rebellion. Their only consolation was that it was they and not the hothead nationalists who were in charge of it.

There was much work to be done. Before the Romans mustered the appropriate military response to Gallus’s catastrophic defeat, the Jews needed to organize – and quickly. Hanan urgently required people he could trust to command the rebels in the country at large and prepare the towns for resistance. For the post of commander in Galilee he knew just the right man.


When the news of Gallus’s defeat reached Rome, the emperor Nero and his advisers saw danger. The rebellion in the little province of Judaea spelt the potential for much worse: the revolt could spread and destabilize the whole of the Roman empire’s eastern frontier. One possible fear was that Jews living in Alexandria and Antioch (the second and third greatest cities of the empire) could be persuaded to join their compatriots’ fight: the Jewish communities of the eastern Mediterranean represented a ‘fifth column’ at the centre of the empire. However, there was one area of danger that the imperial advisers may have feared even more: Parthia. The greatest population of Jews outside Judaea resided in Rome’s rival empire. Might the Parthians take advantage of the insurrection? Might they see in it an invitation to meddle in the Mediterranean? For help in the crisis, the emperor turned to an unlikely source.

The senator Titus Flavius Vespasianus was a disgraced general living in exile in Greece. The son of a tax-gatherer and the first of his family to reach the Senate, Vespasian had been included in the entourage that accompanied Nero on his tour of Greek festivals in the belief that he would compliantly applaud the emperor whenever he graced the stage. Vespasian repaid the compliment by falling asleep in the theatre and failing to muster even the weariest of claps. Vulgar jokes and ball games were more to his taste. He was simply not cut out to be a patron of the arts. He was a soldier. Burly in physique and bearing a strained expression in his face, he had risen to the ranks of the Senate because of an accomplished military record. He had fought in Germany as a military tribune, but it was in the Roman invasion and conquest of Britain that his reputation soared. Serving under the emperor Claudius, he fought no fewer than thirty battles and was rewarded with triumphal honours and a consulship.16 In addition to an impeccable military record, Vespasian’s location in Greece may have weighed in his favour too: from there he could reach the trouble zone in double-quick time.

But there was one key factor that sealed his appointment. Since Nero was paranoid about rivals among the aristocracy gaining glory and outshining his own, the fact that Vespasian’s family could boast no distinguished antecedents was a distinct advantage. This was the ultimate reason why Nero forgave him for his inattentive, ungrateful behaviour on the Greek tour and offered the seasoned general the greatest break of his career: the command of forces in Judaea.17 However, when the news came, Vespasian could never have imagined quite how radically the appointment would transform his life and that of his wife and two sons.

Needing people he could rely on, Vespasian called upon his eldest son, Titus, to join him in Greece, where together they drew up plans for the Roman campaign. The young man was charming, good-natured and popular. Like his father, he was a strong soldier skilled in horsemanship and the use of weapons, but he was also gifted in other ways. He excelled at singing and playing music, and could compose a speech or a poem in Greek or Latin at the drop of a hat.18 Now that father and son were together, it was agreed that, although only a quaestor, Titus be given the command of the fifteenth legion based in Alexandria, while Vespasian took charge of the tenth legion and the fifth legion based in Syria. The general decided against making use of the disgraced twelfth legion, defeated by the Jews at Beth-Horon. The three legions would rendezvous at the coastal city of Ptolemais in Galilee before launching their attack on the rebels.

Although these legions might have seemed a massive force, every single soldier in them would be needed. The job confronting father and son was huge. There were many towns and villages to bring into line throughout the province of Judaea, and, according to Josephus’s exaggerated figures, each had a population of at least 15,000. Furthermore, the Jews’ military tactics of guerrilla warfare were not ones that the Roman legions were best equipped and trained for. Finally, should the Jews retreat to hill-top forts, the Roman forces would face long, demoralising sieges. In taking on these challenges, the relationship between Vespasian and Titus was less that of father and son than a partnership. The two men agreed that the command of forces in Judaea was something in which they could not afford to fail. Through plunder and the selling of prisoners into slavery, there was much money to be made. Success in bringing an end to the rebellion would also bring great glory and acclaim to their name.

While Vespasian organized his army in Syria during the winter of AD 66–7, the commander in charge of the Jewish resistance in Galilee was also making preparations. Josephus took charge of building defences in the towns of Galilee, north of Judaea; he also got to grips with the task of equipping and training the Jewish army. He claimed later to have followed the model of the Roman army, aiming to instil discipline and obedience in his troops, drilling them in the practice of arms, and establishing a clearly organized chain of command. However, the task was proving a miserable, uphill struggle. The aristocratic young scholar found himself in charge of the homeless, of angry peasants and of villagers who had never been to the Holy City. And yet here they were, being asked by an aristocrat, an outsider, to unite behind him and fight a war that was Jerusalem’s. Staking his authority over his army would prove a challenge in its own right. Despite these significant difficulties, Josephus’s job in Galilee was about to get a lot more complicated.

A local radical called John ben Levi, also known as John of Gischala, his Galilean home town, came and found Josephus. He offered his and his followers’ services, which Josephus gratefully accepted. When John energetically organized the rebuilding of Gischala’s walls, Josephus was impressed by the man’s energy. However, that good impression was not to last. In his account of the war preparations in Galilee, written with hindsight, Josephus’s praise quickly turns to venom. John was a ‘liar’, ‘the most unprincipled trickster that ever won ill fame by such vicious habits’ and a would-be power-monger who had surrounded himself with a four-hundred-strong private army of thuggish bandits who were prepared to murder for money.19 Reading between the lines of Josephus’s subjective view, John was simply an opportunist with popular instincts, who in the war against foreign oppression was prepared to go to far greater extremes than the well-to-do priest. There was nothing John would not do, no money he would not take, to win power and take the fight to Rome. His presence in Galilee was about to make life hellish for the sensible, moderate commander. More than this, the quarrels between extremist and moderate would give the Romans an unexpected advantage even before they had set foot in Judaea.

When, for example, Josephus gave John permission to provide the Jews in Syria with kosher oil so that they would not have to break their religious code and use foreign-produced olive oil, John seized the opportunity to corner the market in Galilee oil and created a racket. Reselling the produce at eight times the price, he made a fortune for the war effort and, according to Josephus, for himself. Using the profits, he paid for his band of followers to carry out raiding parties on the rich in Galilee. As the havoc increased, so too did the hostility between Josephus and John. Relations soon became so poisonous that the commander believed that John secretly intended to kill him. A scenario ran round and round in Josephus’s mind: John wanted to draw Josephus into policing his raids so that, in the fracas, Josephus could be ambushed and killed, and John could seize power. Indeed, Josephus was right to be paranoid. It was not long before John began plotting against his life.

On the pretence of being ill, John gained leave from Josephus to go to the baths in the Galilean town of Tiberias to rest and recover. His actual intention, however, was to stir up a revolt against Josephus through deceptions, lies and bribes. Alerted to the danger by his delegate in Tiberias, Josephus showed the courage for which Hanan had perhaps appointed him commander. Without hesitation, he rushed to the town, gathered the people together and spoke to them forcefully, thus reasserting his authority. John, however, did not give up. Some of his private army made their way through the crowds and, drawing their swords, approached Josephus from behind. People in the crowd shouted to Josephus to watch out, and, with a sharp blade just inches from his throat, he made a narrow escape. He jumped down from the platform on which he had been speaking, and, with the aid of his bodyguard, got away in a boat moored near by.20

The episode was enough to swing popular opinion back in Josephus’s favour and away from John. The conspirators were rounded up, but John was too quick. He had fled the town and set his sights on rallying followers elsewhere in Galilee. However, it would not be the last time the lives of the two men would cross. Their clash was symbolic of a conflict simmering away throughout the province. Up and down Judaea and Galilee the tensions between the priests’ moderate leadership in Jerusalem and the bands of revolutionaries in the country grew steadily worse. In the build-up to war with Rome, others more ideological than John were taking advantage of the chaos and confusion. In the town of Acrabata a peasant leader called Simon ben Gioras had raised his own gang of revolutionaries and was operating independently of the war effort organized in Jerusalem by Hanan and the Temple authorities. The worse the tensions between the Jewish factions, and the more divided the war effort, the easier the anticipated task of Rome would become. However, both revolutionary and moderate alike knew that by the spring of AD 67, the time to pursue their struggles for power had elapsed. The Romans were coming.

Vespasian’s three legions amassed at Ptolemais. They were reinforced by a mixture of auxiliary and regular cohorts from Caesarea and Syria, and also with allied forces contributed by the pro-Roman kings in the region – Agrippa, Antiochus and Soaemus. With an army at least 60,000 strong thus deployed, Vespasian and Titus decided on the strategy for war. Some of the commander’s officers advised that the cleanest and simplest way to end the rebellion was to go for the jugular and crush resistance in Jerusalem. Vespasian disagreed. He knew that there was one pivotal reason why Cestius Gallus had not been able to take the Holy City: Jerusalem was virtually impregnable.

Built on a rocky plateau with steep and deep ravines on the south, east and west sides, the city was a natural fortress. Adding to its strength were three mighty concentric walls. Even if the city had been built on flat land, Jerusalem would still be impenetrable.21To attempt to take the city, went Vespasian’s line of reasoning, was a huge gamble and would result not just in a collapse of soldier morale, but also in a massive loss of Roman life. The only safe way to crush the rebellion centred on Jerusalem was first to take control of the territories around it. The rebels in the towns, villages and guerrilla strongholds of Judaea and Galilee must all be brought into line. However, Vespasian also knew that the manner in which Rome won back the outlying territories was critical.

To win a psychological advantage over the Jewish rebels, Vespasian and Titus decided on a war of terror, a standard Roman tactic. The key principle was to show no mercy: to kill everyone fit to bear arms, and enslave those who could not resist; to plunder and ravage all that came into the Roman army’s path. In short, the plan was to terrorize Jerusalem into submission.22 The sight of the column alone was daunting. Light-armed auxiliaries and bowmen were followed by heavy-armed infantry, some with the responsibility of marking out camps. Then came the road-makers, laden with their tools for levelling surfaces and straightening bends obstructing the path. A cavalry force and body of spearmen protected the personal baggage of the high command. After them could be seen the train of mules carrying the mass of artillery, the battering rams and missile engines. Then came the group comprising Vespasian, Titus and the senior officers with their bodyguard. Appropriately, the military standards, surrounding the symbol of the eagle – ‘the king of birds and most fearless of all’ – divided the generals from the main body of soldiers, while servants and camp followers brought up the rear.

Invading Galilee from the west, Vespasian first took Gabara, where John of Gischala had taken charge of the rebellion. While John again escaped to regroup elsewhere, the town was less fortunate: it was taken at the first assault. Marching into it, Vespasian executed his plan. He showed no clemency, put to the sword everyone except small children, and then burnt down the town itself and all the surrounding villages. However, when he learnt that the commander of Galilee had rallied the largest stronghold of Jewish resistance in Jotapata, he made that town his next port of call. It too was to become a scene of stark conflict. Vespasian had every intention of going on just as he had begun.

Built on a precipice, Jotapata was a natural hilltop stronghold, protected on all sides but the north by deep ravines. Inside the town, awaiting the Roman approach, was Josephus. Although by his mere presence the commander of Galilee had raised the morale of the rebels, deep down he had two conflicting feelings. Rationally he knew that it was futile to attempt to defy Roman power. He even claimed to have made a prophecy to that effect: the town would fall on the forty-seventh day. The only real hope of safety was to give in immediately. Josephus even consoled himself that if he went over to the Romans, he would be pardoned, so what was the point in fighting? However, the second emotion was the greater. He would rather die than betray his motherland and flout the trust that his makeshift, peasant army had placed in him.23 This at least is the picture described by Josephus in his account. It shows signs of the fact that his history was written after the event in an attempt (in part) to present himself to a Roman readership in a good light. One fact was certainly true. Josephus, a Roman sympathizer and unlikely commander, was about to come face to face with the same brute force that had created the Roman empire and was now bloodily stamping out all opposition to it.

It took just five days to clear a road wide enough for the Roman forces to approach Jotapata from the north side. Once in position, Vespasian began the assault. For the first five days the Jews showed an utter disrespect for their vastly superior enemy. Covered by firepower from the town walls, Josephus and his men made daring sallies against the Roman attack, while Vespasian tried to push up the slope and reach the town. After five days of courageous defence, the spirit of the Jews soared with confidence, but then Vespasian changed tack. In order to protect his assault force, he ordered siege towers to be erected against the north wall. Time and again, however, the Roman siege operations were beaten by Jewish resourcefulness.

When the Romans tried to protect the building of the siege towers with hurdles, the Jews made the work difficult by launching rocks from the walls and smashing the Roman defensive works. When the Romans built the siege towers higher, Josephus simply ordered the north wall to be built higher too, his workers protecting themselves with screens made from stretched ox hides. Next, under the combined cover of screens and firepower from a semicircle of 160 artillery engines, Vespasian deployed the unit of soldiers in charge of the battering ram (so called because the iron weight at one end was shaped like a ram’s head). When it eventually drew up against the city wall and began pounding, the Jews dropped huge sacks filled with cloth to soften the blows.

However, the Romans raised their game too. When, in one encounter, Vespasian received an arrow in the foot, he used the occasion to inspire his men. He rose above the pain and urged his soldiers on to ever more intense fighting. Josephus saw how a man was decapitated by an artillery stone, ‘his head flung like a pebble from a sling more than 600 yards [away]’.24 Similarly, a pregnant woman was carried 100 metres (135 yards) under the force of another missile. All around the extraordinary Jewish resistance was the rushing sound of approaching missiles, the noise of their final crash and the constant thudding of dead Jewish bodies as they fell from the walls.

Eventually, the Roman attack yielded a prize: a break in the wall. But as the Romans attacked the breach and forced their way into the town, the Jews had one last surprise in store for them. To protect themselves from the barrage of missiles, the Roman infantry approached in the formation known as the testudo (tortoise). This required twenty-seven men to form up in four ranks and to deploy their shields in a set pattern: some shields protected the sides of the unit, while others were held overhead, each row overlapping with the next. With their protective ‘shell’ in place, the unit moved slowly towards the north wall. Josephus, however, found a way to neutralize even this. Just as the Romans approached, the Jews poured boiling oil over them. The blistering liquid seeped through every little crack in the testudo and threw the Roman units into agony and panic. Some soldiers nonetheless managed to escape and laid a plank in the breach of the wall. The Jews had a plan for this too. They covered it with an oily slick made from boiled fenugreek and thus forced the Romans to slip. Despite these feats of Jewish cunning, nothing could keep the Romans out for ever.

Just before dawn on the forty-seventh day of the siege, Titus led a killing squad noiselessly through the breach. So exhausted with fatigue were the Jews that Titus’s men were able to get within reach of the dozing sentry guards, cut their throats and infiltrate Jotapata. Soon the alarm was raised, but it was too late for the Jews to obstruct the legions now charging like ants into the town. Panic-stricken, the rebels dispersed through the narrow streets. Some surrendered, some put up a meagre fight, while others made a desperate bid to take refuge in pits and caves. Most of the rebels were quickly and easily wheedled out and overpowered. However, as the Roman soldiers took control of the town, it was difficult for them to distinguish the insurgents from the surrendering civilians. When one Jew asked a Roman centurion to help him out of a cave, the Roman willingly gave his hand. He was immediately repaid with a quick upward thrust of a sword that killed him instantly. The Romans continued to search high and low for the insurgents, and one man in particular had yet to show his face.

The man who had correctly prophesied that the city would fall on the forty-seventh day (so he said) had also found a hideaway in a pit. Here he joined forty other rebels. For two days they successfully held out, but on the third day one of their party who sneaked out at night to gather provisions was caught and gave away Josephus’s whereabouts. Vespasian immediately sent two military tribunes to entice the commander out with the promise of safe conduct. Josephus and his men refused. The rank and file of Roman soldiers gathered at the pit entrance were baying for his blood. However, a third Roman officer, by the name of Nicanor, arrived on the scene and was able to keep them back.

Nicanor was a friend of Josephus whom the priest most likely met in Jerusalem. He now swore on that friendship that Vespasian wanted to save the life of the commander who had put up such an extraordinary defence of the town. Down below in the pit, however, the offer sparked a fierce debate. Josephus wanted to surrender. Interpreting his recent dreams, he believed that God was angry with the Jews and that it was His will that the Romans prosper. The others, however, furious that surrender was even being considered, called Josephus a coward and a traitor. They insisted that suicide was the only honourable way out for all of them. If Josephus refused to join them, they said, they would kill him anyway.

Caught in a dilemma, Josephus at first argued that suicide was an offence against God. The argument only provoked his audience of rebels to violence. They rushed at him with their swords raised, shouting and threatening him. Again Josephus, ‘turning like an animal at bay to face each assailant’, tried all manner of persuasion: ‘. . .he called one by name, glared like a general at another, shook hands with a third, pleaded with a fourth until he was ashamed.’25 It was no use. Eventually Josephus agreed to the mass-suicide pact. However, he suggested a particular method.

To avoid offending God, lots were to be drawn. Then, beginning with the person who drew the short straw, every third man was to be killed by the man next to him. So began the horrific sight of Jew cutting the throat of fellow Jew. As the lifeless bodies of rebels dropped to the ground, one man was consistently passed over and remained standing. Being a scholar and perhaps well versed in mathematics, Josephus, it seems, had devised the count in such a way that he would always be one of the two survivors. Although the story later inspired a maths problem known as the ‘Josephan count’, we will never know whether Josephus had used luck or judgement. What is clear is that he now seized his opportunity. He turned to his fellow survivor and desperately tried to convince him to abandon the suicide pact. It must have taken all his powers of persuasion not to be killed for going back on his word after so many had just been murdered, but both men surrendered.

Josephus later put his survival down to the will of God. However, this escape was far from the end of his troubles. The commander of Galilee, the young appointee of Hanan and the Temple authorities in Jerusalem, had failed in his task to resist Rome. He was now a prisoner of Vespasian. Galilee was as good as lost, and Josephus himself faced imprisonment, a long, pathetic journey to Rome and possible execution. Yet the fortunes of Vespasian, Titus and even Josephus were now about to be transformed. With that change of circumstance, the stakes of the war in Judaea were about to be raised.


To raucous jeers from the crowds of Jewish prisoners in the streets of Jotapata, and to a barrage of insults, jabbing elbows and calls for his death from the Roman soldiers, Josephus was dragged out of his hiding place and frogmarched to Vespasian’s camp. According to Josephus, it was his noble bearing that now made the general’s son, Titus, take pity on him. Indeed, he claimed that it inspired the Roman to reflect on the captive’s extraordinary reversal of fortune and ask his father to spare Josephus’s life. The reality was perhaps more prosaic. Josephus was not to receive special treatment because of his noble demeanour. The fate awaiting him was that of hundreds of leaders of Rome’s vanquished foreign enemies before him: Josephus would be taken to the metropolis, paraded in chains at a triumphal procession, then perhaps ritually executed in the Forum. Before all this could happen, though, he took one of the greatest single gambles of his entire life.

Josephus asked if he could have a private audience with Vespasian and Titus. Having been granted his request, he held his nerve and delivered the words that would make or break him. He told them he came as a messenger of God. There was no point in sending him to Nero, he said, because that man would soon no longer be emperor. The future emperors of Rome, he prophesied, were standing before him. Vespasian must have guffawed at such a preposterous suggestion; emperors of Rome had, after all, always come from a single dynasty of the aristocracy. Perhaps he even grew angry in the belief that Josephus was mocking both Rome and him, an ordinary Roman who had risen through the ranks. He certainly suspected that the scholar and priest was saying anything to save his skin.26

In truth, Josephus had taken the messianic prophecy in the Book of Numbers that a saviour would arise from Israel and applied it not to a Jew, but to a Roman. When an officer present asked why, if Josephus was so adept at prophecy, he had not predicted that the town would fall and that he would be captured, Josephus replied that he had. Vespasian’s interest was sufficiently pricked by this extraordinary conversation to check on Josephus’s prophecy. A messenger soon came back confirming it: Jotapata had fallen on the forty-seventh day, just as Josephus had predicted. It is reasonable to imagine that Titus and his father spied an opportunity. Perhaps this man could somehow be useful to them after all. As far as Josephus was concerned, the gamble had paid off. He was not just safe, but his fortunes had once again taken a rapid u-turn. He was given gifts, clothing and shown every kindness. Although he was still a prisoner, he was now a prized, talismanic one.

As for Vespasian and Titus, their minds soon returned to the more practical matters of war. The campaign of terror in Judaea and Galilee had only just begun. At Tarichaeae, in the kingdom of the Roman client-king Agrippa, 6000 Jews were massacred as Titus made a dramatic amphibious assault on the unfortified part of the city from a lake. After it was taken, Vespasian discriminated between civilian and insurgent, in order to avoid outraging the local population with mass executions and thus make peace-keeping operations easier for Agrippa in the future. However, he broke his promise on the advice of his staff, who feared further insurgency. ‘Expediency must be preferred to conventional morality,’ was their message.27 The Jews he had set free were later rounded up in a theatre and 1200 of the old and infirm were slaughtered. The 6000 strongest were sent to Greece to work as slaves on Nero’s planned canal in the Isthmus of Corinth. Some 8500 of Agrippa’s subjects were returned to him, and the remaining 30,400 were sold into slavery. Similarly, at Gamala the Romans repaid Jewish resistance by putting 4000 Jews to the sword; the remaining 5000 insurgents had already jumped to their deaths in a deep ravine.

While Vespasian surged south, ‘liberating’ the coastal cities on his march to Judaea, Titus focused on mopping up remaining pockets of resistance in Galilee. In the last conflict of the campaign in AD 67 a surprise lay in store for the Roman general. John of Gischala had been busy rallying and training peasant armies in the Golan Heights and in his home town. Most of these Titus easily crushed. However, when Titus prepared to storm Gischala, John pleaded with him not to attack the town on the Sabbath, but to wait a day. After agreeing to the brief respite, Titus took the town, only to discover that John had vanished. Once again, the rebel leader had made a theatrical, last-minute escape. This time, however, his destination was more predictable: Jerusalem.

In fact, the Holy City was the refuge of every resistance fighter who escaped death or enslavement at the hands of the Roman legions. The result of their arrival in Jerusalem threw the direction of the war into crisis. Many brought with them only bad news. Galilee was lost, they said, and now the Romans were making a slow but unstoppable sweep south. Others, however, violently disagreed. When John and his band of followers rode into Jerusalem they spread their belief that the defeat of the Romans was utterly achievable, that the Jews could still beat them.28 While the clash of opinions intensified and entrenched the Jewish factions, there was one group caught in the eye of the storm.

The leadership of the war under Hanan and the Temple authorities, cried the nationalist leaders in accusation, had brought only failure after failure. Had the Jewish resistance proved so weak, so ineffectual because the moderate priests wanted all along to surrender the city and Judaea to Rome? With time the argument of the extremist factions only gained momentum; by the end of the year their patience had run out. John’s followers first imprisoned and then massacred the moderates. Then they turned their firepower on Hanan and the religious élite. John’s faction denounced them as traitors, expelled them from the Temple, then took control of both it and its funds. Soon the Temple complex had become a battleground, and by December Hanan and three other leaders from the priestly élite were dead. With their deaths, wrote Josephus, the fall of Jerusalem began.29

In the power vacuum left by the moderate leadership, the city fell into the hands of rival factions of nationalists all struggling for supremacy. Over the next year their numbers increased. When, in AD 68, Vespasian’s army swept through Judaea, Peraea and Idumaea, the peasant leader Simon ben Gioras and his army also eventually fled to Jerusalem. His arrival provoked further conflict. Informed of the Jews’ infighting by deserters, Vespasian’s war council urged their commander on. They said that now was the time to attack Jerusalem. Once again, Vespasian disagreed, choosing to avoid a direct assault on the Holy City. Let the Jews destroy themselves, was his view; with the rebels killing each other and deserting to Rome, the Jews of Jerusalem were doing the Romans’ work for them. However, it was not for this reason that in July of AD 68 the Roman operations in Judaea suddenly came to a complete halt.

The suicide of the emperor Nero launched the government of the Roman empire into the greatest crisis of its history. Vespasian knew that according to the constitution he needed to be reinstated by the new emperor before pursuing the war. Therefore, while a successor was chosen, he temporarily suspended his campaign.30 However, the change that was afoot was far greater than a simple switch of personnel. A revolution was under way that would take the Roman empire into a savage civil war. At stake were two questions: which emperor was to run the empire, and on what grounds should he be appointed? Under the empire’s first dynasty, the Julio-Claudians, succession was in practice hereditary although in principle it could only be confirmed by the Senate and the Roman people in Rome. That system was now challenged by an extraordinary revelation: the power to appoint new emperors lay not only in Rome, but with armies in the provinces, championing their own generals. ‘A well-hidden secret of the empire had been revealed: it was possible, it seemed, for an emperor to be chosen outside Rome.’31

From the sidelines of the Roman east, Vespasian and Titus witnessed a series of amazing reversals in fortune. When Nero’s first successor, Servius Sulpicius Galba, refused to give traditional cash donations to the military on his accession, the armies that had brought him to power withdrew their support, and his brief administration came to an end. Galba’s head was cut off and the Praetorian Guard in Rome declared his successor to be Marcus Salvius Otho. The new emperor’s power base, however, did not stretch beyond the metropolis, and soon the army of the Rhine in Germany declared support for their commander Aulus Vitellius. When his armies defeated Otho’s at the battle of Cremona, Otho committed suicide and Vitellius became emperor. However, the rule of this aristocrat, like that of the two men who preceded him, was to be short-lived. Now a man not of high birth, but of practical military experience, a man who could command widespread support among the armies of the eastern provinces, was about to step into the running for the most powerful job in the ancient world.

On 9 July AD 69 the armies of Judaea declared Vespasian emperor of Rome. They were quickly joined in their chorus by the armies of the Danube. While Vespasian took control of the critically important province of Egypt, two armies made their way to Italy in his support. One was made up of eastern legions and led by the governor of Syria, Gaius Licinius Mucianus; the Danubian legions, led by Marcus Antonius Primus, formed the other. The legions based on the Danube beat the eastern legions to Italy and prepared to take on the forces of Vitellius. Once again, two Roman armies met at Cremona. In a horrendously bloody conflict, the supporters of Vespasian won. The vicious slaughter of Romans, however, was far from over.

In the capital Vespasian’s brother Flavius Sabinus spearheaded an insurrection against Vitellius’s forces before the armies of Antonius and Mucianus could join him. The coup failed, so Sabinus and his faction took refuge on the Capitol. In the attack that followed, the ancient Temple of Jupiter went up in flames. Smoked out, Sabinus and his faction were hauled in front of Vitellius and promptly executed. Revenge was not long in coming. Outside Rome, the legions supporting Vespasian brutally forced their way into the city and defeated Vitellius’s army. Search parties hunted high and low for the emperor himself. They discovered him hiding in a doorkeeper’s lodge beside the palace, the door blocked pathetically by a bed and a mattress. He was then dragged half-naked into the Forum, publicly tortured, beheaded and thrown into the Tiber.32

Vespasian received the news of his victory while still in Egypt in December AD 69. But the celebrations could not have been entirely jubilant. His accession had been a vicious bloodbath in which thousands of Romans had lost their lives. It was hardly the glorious start to the principate that Vespasian wanted. In order to justify seizing power by force and to unify the citizens of the empire in support of his regime, the new emperor Vespasian needed a grand military victory, and he needed it fast. He looked to Judaea. He appointed Titus to be commander of the war, and advised him that with the appointment came a new war aim: immediate victory over the Jews at all costs. The future of the new Flavian dynasty now depended entirely on success in Judaea.33

The news capped an extraordinary change in circumstances for Titus. The young general had suddenly risen from legionary legate to the dizzying heights of son and heir of the emperor of Rome. Now he was given the go-ahead for a mission to match the transformation of his status: an assault on the one city that Vespasian and he had avoided for the best part of three years – Jerusalem. But Titus was not the only man who could now reflect on his dramatic change in position. Since Josephus’s prophecy had come true, Vespasian summoned his prisoner, cut his chains and set him free.

And yet, although his rights had been restored, Josephus soon found out that he had not quite left the firing line. To the young scholar’s mind, Vespasian’s rise may well have been proof that God was on the side of the Romans and that victory over the Jews was a foregone conclusion, but not to the mind of Titus. The new commander of Roman forces in Judaea needed Josephus’s help in facing the greatest challenge of his life.


In March AD 70 Titus drew up his army in front of the great walls of the Holy City. To his auxiliary forces and the fifth, tenth and fifteenth legions, Titus had now added another – the twelfth. This was the same legion that had been so disgracefully defeated by the Jews under the command of Cestius Gallus. Now the soldiers of that legion were out for revenge. Yet despite the show of massive Roman force assembling outside the city, inside it the rebel groups of John of Gischala, Simon ben Gioras and Eleazar ben Simon (leader of the Zealots) were in fighting spirits, their hopes riding high. This moment, after all, was the first time that the city had seen Roman soldiers in nearly four years. Gallus, they could tell themselves, had failed to take the city in AD 66, and since that time the Jews of Jerusalem had seen only a reluctance on the part of the Romans even to try to take it.

In fact, many inside its walls believed that Jerusalem was impossible to besiege. The Jews had food and water to last them years, while in the hills of the deserts and woods outside it the Romans would be short of supplies. The great rock of the Temple in Jerusalem was also a natural fortress surrounded by a significant additional defensive structure: three giant walls. While the Romans delayed their attack on Jerusalem, the rebels had even improved these. Despite squandering much of their time before Titus’s arrival on factional warfare, the Jews had completed parts of the unfinished north wall, increasing it to 10 metres (35 feet) in height.

Their final hope of victory, however, resided in the Romans’ commitment of troops. With nearly a quarter of the entire Roman army dedicated to the war in Judaea, had not Rome overextended itself? Surely enemies around its empire might take advantage of the war in Judaea? Rather than pursue a long-drawn-out conflict and expose other parts of the empire, surely the Romans would prefer to come to terms? Surely they would be forced to grant Judaea her independence? The Jews were well aware of their advantages. Now, when Titus sent Josephus to approach the walls and negotiate proposals for peace, they announced their confidence with a pithy statement of intent.

Some of the sentry guards manning the walls knew Josephus well. When he drew too close, they addressed the hated traitor not with words, but actions. A single arrow shot through the air narrowly missed him and hit instead his old friend Nicanor in the left shoulder. To the flight of that one arrow Titus responded by pitching the Roman camps 400 metres (450 yards) from the first wall. Then, after reconnoitring the perimeter of the city, he located the weakest points in the wall that would give access to the upper city, the Antonia Fortress and the Temple complex. Next he gave orders for timber to be collected and for three siege engines to be built. Drawn up in front of the north wall, the mobile wooden towers, 21 metres (65 feet) high, were going to provide essential cover for the soldiers manning the battering rams below. So began in earnest the great siege of Jerusalem. Josephus’s detailed, eyewitness account would describe its anatomy.34

Although the army of Simon ben Gioras had at its disposal the Roman artillery captured from Gallus’s attack, the men still did not know how to use it efficiently. As a result, the Romans were able to approach the walls in units and pound away with battering rams. Despite surprise guerrilla attacks by the Jews, the greatest of the rams, nicknamed Victor, eventually smashed a hole in the wall. The detachment of Romans poured in, fought their way through to the gates, opened them and forced the Jews to abandon the first wall. Four days later the Roman war machine had taken the second wall too. That time, however, Titus made a fatal error.

The Roman soldiers had advanced so quickly that they had forgotten to raze a wide section of the wall they had just breached. When the Jews fought back, they trapped the charging Romans against the second wall. Seizing the advantage, the Jews began slaughtering the Roman assault force as they tried to retreat and squeeze their way back through the narrow gap in the wall. The leaders of the rebel armies, John and Simon, were elated, buoyed up by their first success and scenting a Roman massacre. But the joy soon fell from their faces. Titus quickly deployed his bowmen at either end of the street where the fighting was at its thickest. In this way he pinned the enemy back while the Romans reached safety. Simon and John cared so little for the dead Jewish civilians that they temporarily blocked up the breach in the second wall with their dead bodies. Despite this gruesome obstruction, the second wall too eventually fell to the Romans, and the armies of Simon and John retreated once more.

Titus now paused. He knew that in order to bring siege engines against the third wall and attack the Antonia Fortress and the Temple, he needed to build huge platforms on which to stabilize them. Perhaps too, he thought, the breathing space would give the insurgents time to reflect on the Roman offer of peace and the attractions of surrender. While the soldiers gathered more timber from further and further afield and set about the vast construction work, a psychological battle between Romans and Jews now replaced the physical campaign of previous weeks. It would prove just as intense.

Titus played his gambit. He wanted to present John and Simon with an unnerving picture of the sheer strength of the Roman war machine. In a parade that lasted four days, Titus’s army marched around the city and, in full battle dress, received their pay. Inside the city the Jews grew demoralized. The parade only reminded them of their weakness. The fact was that food rations had been badly squandered over the years. Supplies were now running out, and thousands of men, women and children were starving to death. John and Simon had an answer to Titus’s display of power: terror. The houses of the rich were ransacked for meagre supplies of corn or a loaf of bread, and Jews they suspected of wanting to leave were threatened and killed.

In desperate search of food, some Jews secretly fled the city at night. When they were successfully captured by the Romans, Titus made an example of them: they were tortured and crucified in full view of those remaining in the city. The brutalized, battle-hardened soldiers made a cruel joke by crucifying the bodies in crude, unnatural poses.35 When the resolve of some Jews wavered at such a sight, again John and Simon responded by raising the psychological pressure. They forced the waverers to look at the crucified bodies and pretended that the grossly mutilated victims of the Romans were not prisoners but suppliants who had gone to them seeking peace. Thus did the war to win over the minds of those caught in the city intensify. Next Titus deployed his secret weapon.

Josephus was sent in once again to circle the walls of the city, shout peace proposals to the sentry guards and appeal for their surrender. Spare your lives and those of your people; spare your country and your temple, he cried out. Was it still not clear to them that God now resided not in Judaea but in Italy? The Romans were invincible, he argued. They were masters of the whole world, and the submission of great nations to them was an ordinary experience. Now that Judaea was an established province of Rome, it was far too late to put up a fight: ‘. . .to try to shake off the yoke was to show not a love of freedom, but a morbid desire for death.’36 His appeals, however, elicited only one response: a volley of jeers, insults and stones.

Seventeen days after the suspension of the siege, the platforms were complete. The full force of the Roman war machine was about to descend on the third wall. Surely a brilliant Roman victory was imminent? John of Gischala, however, had other ideas. During the pause in the fighting, he devised a plan and put it into action. Working day and night, he and his followers dug a tunnel beneath the ground on which the massive platforms had been raised. As they dug their way through, they supported the tunnel with wooden props. In the fierce belief that Jewish ingenuity could beat Roman power, John tirelessly drove his workforce on until the area beneath one of the platforms had been fully excavated. He then daubed piles of kindling wood with pitch and bitumen, brought them into the tunnel, set the whole place alight and fled.

As the fire burnt the wood props, the ground suddenly gave way. The enormous Roman platform, as well as the men and the engines stationed on it, came thunderously crashing down, and with it weeks of Roman exertion. Inspired by John’s example, Simon now led a fanatical assault on the other platforms. Seizing firebrands, the vanguard of Jews ‘dashed out as if towards friends, not massed enemies’ and tried to set fire to the other engines and the battering rams. When the Romans rushed to rescue their precious platforms and put out the fire, more and more Jews ignored any thoughts of their own safety, threw themselves into the fight and sacrificed their lives to keep the flames burning.37

When the damage had been assessed, the Romans were plunged into despondency. Titus knew that the slower his progress in the war, the less glorious the victory. Reputations were won by speed as well as success. Under pressure, he held a war council. When some called for an all-out assault and deployment of the full might of the Roman troops, he refused. However, rebuilding the platforms was not an option either. The scarcity of timber in the region required a round trip of 16 kilometres (10 miles) and it was impossible to prevent Jewish guerrilla attacks. It was time to adopt a different tactic – one that combined the safety of his men with speed: to starve the Jews into surrendering their city.

With an ambition that epitomizes the Romans’ command of the ancient world, Titus instructed his officers to organize the building of a wall around Jerusalem. It was to be an airtight seal that would prevent anyone from leaving the city and foraging for supplies. The statistics of it are staggering: in three days the Roman legions built a wall 7 kilometres (4¼ miles) in circumference and punctuated it with thirteen forts. Little tasks, said Titus, were beneath the dignity of Rome. For excellence and speed in executing this gargantuan task, legion competed with legion, cohort with cohort. As Titus inspected the work on horseback, he observed how ‘the private was eager to please his decurion, the decurion his centurion, the centurion his tribune; the tribunes were ambitious for the praise of the generals; and of the rivalry between the generals, Titus himself was judge.’38 The plan was that when the siege had sufficiently weakened Jewish resistance, only then would the platforms be rebuilt and the assault reignited. According to Josephus’s gruesome account, it was not long before the Roman general reaped his grim rewards.

Starvation was said to have driven a woman to eat her baby, the streets of Jerusalem filled with the dead, and the roofs of houses in view of the Romans were covered with the bodies of men and women too weak even to stand. When the Romans taunted the Jews with displays of food, Simon’s and John’s determination to fight on became so entrenched that they alienated some of their closest subordinates. When a tower commander named Judas gathered ten people and shouted out to the Romans that they wanted to desert en masse, Simon broke into the tower before they could make their move and executed them. Other Jews, pretending to advance for battle, successfully escaped in their hundreds and handed themselves over to the Romans, only to discover that food was more lethal than the hunger they had left behind. Instead of eating little by little and allowing their bodies to grow accustomed to food again, they ate non-stop and thus killed themselves.

Among the people caught up in the horror of the siege were two whom Josephus was most anxious about: his mother and father. He had learnt that they were alive but imprisoned. Perhaps it was out of fear for their lives that Josephus approached the walls and made another plea for the Jews to surrender. This time the rebels hit their target. Josephus was struck on the head by a missile and knocked unconscious. A race to collect the body of the Jews’ most wanted man ensued. The Romans reached it first and rescued their negotiator.

It took twenty-one days for timber to be gathered again and the platforms to be rebuilt. The surrounding countryside reflected the bleak, grinding work: all about were dusty tracts, grassy desert and the sad stumps of dead trees. While the Romans were sapped of all energy by their toils, the armies of John and Simon drew on inhuman reserves of determination. They seemed to rise like ghosts, thriving on famine, fatigue and infighting, only to launch yet another assault and disrupt the Roman preparations. Although these guerrilla sorties often failed, the fact that they persisted gave the Jews a moral victory.

Soon the Romans were once again pounding at the last wall. Protected from the deluge of missiles, stones and arrows by their shields, the workers ground away with rams, hands and crowbars to lever loose the foundation stones of the wall and cut a breach through it. Eventually, it was not Roman grit that provided the breakthrough, but the tunnel dug by John. While it had once allowed the Jews to destroy the platforms, now it yielded an advantage to Romans: the tunnel fell in and the wall suddenly collapsed in a heap of giant stones. Titus ordered his strongest legionaries to take immediate advantage of this. At two o’clock in the morning an advance unit of Romans charged into the disused tunnel and collided with the armies of John and Simon waiting for them. In the close quarters the Romans jabbed mechanically with their short swords, hardly able to tell Roman from Jew and the direction of advance from retreat. Bodies were crushed underfoot and the noise of groaning and screaming filled the confined, fetid space. Eventually, however, the Roman infantry bloodily pummelled their way through, forcing the Jews to retreat to the holiest part of the city, the Temple complex.

Titus had already taken control of the Antonia Fortress that buttressed the colonnade of the Temple complex. He now ordered it to be razed to the ground: a wide, level access would make the driving ascent of four Roman legions much easier. Before he gave the signal, however, Titus had a final offer to make to the rebels. He turned once again to Josephus, who took his stand in full view of the Jews protected by the Temple enclosure and, speaking in Aramaic, addressed John. Surrender, spare the people and the city, he said, and Rome would still pardon him. This was his last chance. If he persisted in fighting and desecrating the Temple, God would punish him. John launched a torrent of abuse at the turncoat Josephus. Stung, the young priest and scholar gave up. Choking with emotion, he shouted, ‘It is God then, God Himself who is bringing with the Romans fire to purge the Temple and is blotting out the city brimful of corruption as if it had never been.’39 With those words, a monster was unleashed.

The Temple complex was the most well-built part of the city. After six days of battering the walls of its outer court, not a dent had been made. Eventually, the silver gates were set on fire, and as the metal melted, the Romans set fire to the colonnade bit by bit and broke in. As the massive assault drew closer to the inner court and the sanctuary, a heated debate took place between Titus and his officers: what should be done about the Temple itself? Some said that it should be destroyed. If it remained standing, there would never be peace in the Roman province of Judaea. The Temple would remain a symbol around which Jews throughout the world would rally. Others disagreed. It should be spared, they said, but only so long as the Jews did not try to defend themselves in it. If that happened, it would cease to be a holy place and become a military fortress. Titus heard all their opinions, but it was perhaps Josephus who influenced his eventual decision. The commander declared the Temple a precious work of art. In saving it, said Titus, he would bequeath a glorious ornament to the emperor and the Roman people.40

In mid-July AD 70, over three months since the start of Titus’s campaign, the battle for the outer court of the Temple raged on. The heavy infantry lines of both Roman and Jewish armies were drawn up and warred with each other under a barrage of spears, arrows and missiles of every kind. Gradually the Roman lines, eight ranks deep, advanced and drove the Jews into the inner court. When, after some days, the Jewish army formations broke down and dispersed, the Romans broke through to the inner court. At that moment the battle boiled over and the legionaries cut loose. After the best part of four long, gruelling years of campaign, the Roman soldiers vented their wild hatred on the enemy. Piling through all the entrances, they no longer distinguished between Jewish soldier and civilian. All were indiscriminately slaughtered. The steps of the Temple were awash with blood. In front of them and near the Holy Altar corpses were piled high, those on the top sometimes slithering to the bottom. The din of butchery, however, was about to get a lot worse.

In the chaos a Roman soldier seized a firebrand and threw it through a small opening into the Temple. Soon the building was on fire. A messenger reported the news to Titus. The general leapt up and, with his guard panting after him, dashed towards the sanctuary. Once inside, he saw that the fire could be stopped. He screamed at the soldiers to put it out, but no one paid him any attention. They were too consumed with greed, with getting their just deserts. The slaughter of Jews had given way to mass looting. Darting through the blazing fires, soldiers raided the treasures of the Temple and carried off whatever they could get their hands on. Ancient cups and basins of pure gold, curtains and bejewelled garments, and, most precious of all, the holy seven-branched candelabrum, the shewbread table and the ritual trumpets all fell into the polluted hands of the Roman soldiers. The most sanctified part of the Temple, the iconic epicentre of the Jewish faith, was cleaned out and left to burn.

Plundering was not confined to the Temple alone. In part of the outer court colonnade stood the treasury where the Jews had brought all their gold and precious possessions for safekeeping during the siege. The Romans now stripped that too before setting it on fire. Coincidentally, a huge crowd of 6000 civilian men, women and children had gathered there in the belief that they would find signs of deliverance from God. According to Josephus, the false prophets who had spread the word were the hired hands of John and Simon; the rebel leaders had told them to issue this prophecy because they wanted to prevent further desertions and thus shore up morale during the battle for the Temple. All the civilians were now helplessly caught up in the flames and met their deaths.

The rebellion of the Jews had been crushed. The insurgents who had fought on in the inner court now burst through the ring of assault surrounding them, and fled into the upper city. The killing squads of Roman soldiers clambered awkwardly over the layer of dead bodies covering the floor of the outer court and gave chase in a blind bid to hunt them down. John and Simon, however, managed to escape. As a mark of Roman supremacy, pagan standards were brought into the Temple complex and erected opposite the east gate. Sacrifices were offered to the emperor and a single cry hailed the victor, Titus. As the city blazed, raucous shouts of ‘Commander! Commander!’ rose up. Each soldier was so laden with loot that when they later sold their gold for cash, they flooded the market and the value of gold in Syria was halved.41

Inside the upper city John, Simon and the Jewish survivors were themselves trapped by the Roman circumvallation. Unable to escape from Jerusalem, they had no option but to ask Titus to talks. Many of their followers, their spirits at last broken, hoped for a pardon. The hardline leaders, however, wanted to leave the city to the Romans and live peacefully in the desert with their fellow survivors. The Roman general was furious. The enemy had been defeated, yet here they were brazenly asking for terms as if they were victors. Taking his stand on a wall that linked the Temple with the upper city, Titus kept his composure as he spoke to John and Simon. He berated the Jews for their ingratitude to Rome, to the power that ruled Judaea.

You were incited against the Romans by Roman kindness. First we gave you the land to occupy and set over you kings of your own race; then we upheld the laws of your fathers, and allowed you complete control of your internal and external affairs; above all, we permitted you to raise taxes for God and to collect offerings, and we neither discouraged nor interfered with those who brought them – so that you could grow richer to our detriment and prepare at our expense to make war on us! Then, enjoying such advantages, you flung your abundance at the heads of those who furnished it, and like beasts you bit the hand that fed you! . . .[When my father came into the country] he ravaged Galilee and the outlying districts, giving you time to come to your senses. But you took generosity for weakness, and our gentleness only served to increase your audacity. . . Most unwillingly I brought engines to bear on your walls. My soldiers, ever thirsting for your blood, I held in leash. After every victory, as if it was a defeat, I appealed to you for an armistice. . . After all that, you disgusting people, do you now invite me to a conference?42

The Jews had broken the pax Romana. Nonetheless, Titus made a final offer: if the surviving rebels now surrendered, they would at least be spared their lives. When John and Simon defiantly reasserted their wishes, Titus gave the rest of the city over to his soldiers. The command was to sack, burn and raze.


Over the next few days, the principal buildings of Jerusalem, including the Council Chamber, were all destroyed, the remaining treasures were handed over, and the survivors of the Roman terror were rounded up in a part of the Temple complex known as the Court of the Women. The old and sick were killed, and thousands of insurgents were executed, taking the total of those killed in the siege to 1,100,000, according to Josephus. The rest, numbering 97,000, were sold into slavery. The young were sent to hard labour in Egypt, or to become fodder for the gladiators and beasts of Roman arenas throughout the empire. The tallest and most handsome of the rebels, however, were saved for the triumph back in Rome. After hiding in the sewers for weeks, John and Simon eventually surrendered and joined them.

Back in the capital city, the emperor Vespasian was reunited with Titus to the rapturous joy of the Roman crowds. They streamed into the streets to get a view of the victorious general. In the imperial entourage entering the city was Josephus. He would soon be rewarded with Roman citizenship, a handsome pension and lodging in the house in which Vespasian had lived before he became emperor. Here he would sit down to write his history of the Jewish Revolt. A few days after Titus’s return, father and son enjoyed their reward too: a magnificent triumph.

Wreathed in crowns of bay leaves and dressed in the traditional purple robes flecked with silver stars of the triumphal general, they rode at the centre of a spectacular procession. They stopped first at the portico of Augustus’s sister Octavia, where the senators and knights awaited them and a stage had been set up. Vespasian mounted it and brought the booming shouts of the soldiers and crowds all dressed in their best clothes to a complete hush. With his toga covering his head in the manner of priests, he offered up prayers to the gods.

Then the procession continued. In addition to the thousands of captive slaves, there were also grand floats wrought with gold and ivory, some of them three or four storeys high. On them were borne aloft large tableaux dramatizing scenes from the war in Judaea so that all Rome bore witness to them, as if the people had been there themselves and could rightly share in the celebration of the Roman victory. The crowds gasped too at the spoils. It was as if an exquisite river of gold and silver flowed through Rome. Most prominently displayed were the treasures from the Temple and a scroll of Jewish law known as the Torah.

The parade now approached the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. It was still presumably in a state of ruin following the violence before Vespasian’s forces had entered Rome and concluded the civil war a year earlier. The procession halted and waited for news from the Forum. Here, according to Roman custom, Simon ben Gioras was dragged out of the Mamertine prison in the northwest corner, beaten up and executed. The sentence on John of Gischala had been more lenient. He faced a regime of hard labour and captivity for the rest of his life. The news of Simon’s death was now brought to Vespasian on the Capitol, sacrifices were offered and a rich public feast was devoured.

The imperial public relations machine did not stop there, however. The new dynasty of the Flavians was being founded and legitimized in stone too. Profits from the war in Judaea were ploughed into building the Colosseum. Constructed in part from money raised by the sale of Jewish slaves, it was completed after Vespasian’s death by Titus in AD 80, and remains one of the most enduring symbols of Roman power. Vespasian also reconstructed the area around the Capitoline Hill with a glorious temple complex and forum. The message to the Jews – indeed, to any rebels throughout the length and breadth of the empire – could not have been clearer: we destroyed your most holy places, it said, now you can pay for the rebuilding of ours. The emperor dedicated his new temple to peace. Finally, when Titus too passed away after a brief and popular reign of two years, his brother, the emperor Domitian, built the Arch of Titus in his honour. The memory of Rome’s insult to Jewish independence was thus kept alive to this day.

In Judaea, Roman mopping-up operations continued until perhaps as late as AD 74. None of the remaining strongholds of rebellion posed any real threat to Rome, but still Vespasian ordered them to be stamped out. The most dramatic conflict was at Masada. Here a Jewish group known as the Sicarii, led by Eleazar ben Yair, took refuge in the fortress perched upon a spectacular outcrop of rock. They held out for years until the Romans built a massive siege ramp that gave access up the steep slope to the top of the rock. But by the time the soldiers reached the fortress, they discovered that all 966 rebels had committed mass suicide rather than become slaves to Rome. Only a woman and her five children survived to report what had happened. The determination of Vespasian in bringing about a total annihilation of Jewish resistance is brought vividly to life today by the extraordinary archaeological remains of the Roman operations at Masada.

When the war was finally over, Roman administration of Judaea was upgraded. A permanent garrison was established and the desolate province became the responsibility of a legate of the emperor. Jerusalem itself was not rebuilt as a civilian settlement for sixty years. In due course, rabbis established new ways to worship without the Temple. Indeed, the situation deteriorated under the emperor Hadrian. When he planned to found a Roman colony, Aelia Capitolina, on the site of Jerusalem, a second rebellion had to be suppressed in AD 135 and, according to Christian sources, the Jews were permanently excluded from the Holy City.

By that time, however, the Roman empire was thriving in a glorious golden age of peace.

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