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The first Jewish-Roman War (66–73), sometimes called The Great Revolt ( , ha-Mered Ha-Gadol), was the first of three major rebellions by the Jews of Iudaea Provincemarker against the Roman Empire (the second was the Kitos War in 115–117 AD; the third was Bar Kokhba's revolt, 132–135).

It began in the year 66 initially because of Greek and Jewish religious tensions but grew with anti-taxation protests and attacks upon Roman citizens. It ended when legions under Titus besieged and destroyed the centre of rebel resistance in Jerusalemmarker, and defeated the remaining Jewish strongholds.

Outbreak of the Rebellion

According to Josephus, the revolt, which began at Caesareamarker in 66, was provoked by Greeks sacrificing birds in front of a local synagogue. The Roman garrison did not intercede and the long-standing Greek and Jewish religious tensions took a downward spiral. In reaction, the son of Kohen Gadol (High priest) Eliezar ben Hanania ceased prayers and sacrifices for the Roman Emperor at the Temple. Protests over taxation joined the list of grievances and random attacks on Roman citizens and perceived 'traitors' occurred in Jerusalem. Fearing the worst, the pro-Roman king Agrippa II and his sister Berenice fled Jerusalem to Galilee. Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria, brought a legion, the XII Fulminata, and auxiliary troops as reinforcements to restore order. They were defeated in an ambush at the Battle of Beth Horon, a result that shocked the Roman leadership.

The Roman response

Emperor Nero appointed general Vespasian instead of Gallus to crush the rebellion. Vespasian, along with legions X Fretensis and V Macedonica, landed at Ptolemaismarker in April 67. There he was joined by his son Titus, who arrived from Alexandriamarker at the head of Legio XV Apollinaris, as well as by the armies of various local allies including that of king Agrippa II. Fielding more than 60,000 soldiers, Vespasian began operations by subjugating the Galilee. Many towns gave up without a fight, although others had to be taken by force. Of these, Josephus provides detailed accounts of the sieges of Yodfatmarker and Gamlamarker. By the year 68, Jewish resistance in the North had been crushed, and Vespasian made Caesarea Maritimamarker his headquarters and proceeded to methodically clear the coast.

The leaders of the collapsed Northern revolt, John of Giscala and Simon Bar Giora, managed to escape to Jerusalem. Brutal civil war erupted: the Zealots and the fanatical Sicarii executed anyone advocating surrender, and by 68 the entire leadership of the southern revolt was dead, killed by Jewish hands in the infighting.

New Emperor

While the war in Judea was being won, great events were occurring in Rome. In the middle of 68 AD, the emperor Nero's increasingly erratic behaviour finally lost him all support for his position. The Roman Senate, the praetorian guard and several prominent army commanders conspired for his removal. When the senate declared Nero an enemy of the people, he fled Rome and committed suicide. The newly installed emperor Galba was murdered after just a few months by a rival, triggering a civil war that came to be known as the Year of the Four Emperors. In 69 AD, though previously uninvolved, the popular Vespasian was also hailed emperor by the legions under his command. He decided, upon gaining further widespread support, to return to Rome to claim the throne from the usurper Vitellius, leaving his son Titus to finish the war in Judea.

Fall of Jerusalem

The siege of Jerusalem, the capital city, had begun early in the war, but had turned into a stalemate. Unable to breach the city's defenses, the Roman armies established a permanent camp just outside the city, digging a trench around the circumference of its walls and building a wall as high as the city walls themselves around Jerusalem. Anyone caught in the trench attempting to flee the city would be captured, crucified, and placed in lines on top of the dirt wall facing into Jerusalem. The two Zealot leaders, John of Gischala and Simon Bar Giora, only ceased hostilities and joined forces to defend the city when the Romans began to construct ramparts for the siege. Those attempting to escape the city were crucified, with as many as five hundred crucifixions occurring in a day.

Titus Flavius, Vespasian's son, led the final assault and siege of Jerusalem. During the infighting inside the city walls, a stockpiled supply of dry food was intentionally burned by Jewish leaders to induce the defenders to fight against the siege instead of negotiating peace; as a result many city dwellers and soldiers died of starvation during the siege. Zealots under Eleazar ben Simon held the Temple, Sicarii led by Simon Bar Giora held the upper city. Titus eventually wiped out the last remnants of Jewish resistance.

By the summer of 70, the Romans had breached the walls of Jerusalem, ransacking and burning nearly the entire city. The Romans began by attacking the weakest spot which was the third wall. It was built shortly before the siege so it did not have as much time invested in its protection. They succeeded towards the end of May and shortly afterwards broke through the more important second wall. The Second Temple was destroyed on Tisha B'Av (July 29 or July 30), 70. Tacitus, a historian of the time, notes that those who were besieged in Jerusalem amounted to no fewer than six hundred thousand, that men and women alike and every age engaged in armed resistance, everyone who could pick up a weapon did, both sexes showed equal determination, preferring death to a life that involved expulsion from their country. All three walls were destroyed and in turn so was the Temple, some of whose overturned stones and their place of impact can still be seen. John of Giscala surrendered at Agrippa II's fortress of Jotaphta and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The famous Arch of Titusmarker still stands in Rome: it depicts Roman legionaries carrying the Temple of Jerusalemmarker's treasuries, including the menorah, during Titus's triumphal procession in Romemarker.

Fall of Masada

During the spring of 71, Titus set sail for Rome. A new military governor was then appointed from Rome, Lucilius Bassus, whose assigned task was to undertake the "mopping-up" operations in Judaea. He used X Fretensis to oppose the few remaining fortresses that still resisted. Bassus took Herodiummarker, and then crossed the Jordan to capture the fortress of Machaerusmarker on the shore of the Dead Sea. Because of illness, Bassus did not live to complete his mission. Lucius Flavius Silva replaced him, and moved against the last Jewish stronghold, Masadamarker, in the autumn of 72. He used Legio X, auxiliary troops, and thousands of Jewish prisoners, for a total of 10,000 soldiers. After his orders for surrender were rejected, Silva established several base camps and circumvallated the fortress. According to Josephus, when the Romans finally broke through the walls of this citadel in 73, they discovered that the 967 defenders had all committed suicide, preferring death over defeat.

The outcome

The defeat of the Jewish revolt altered the Jewish diaspora, as many of the Jewish rebels were scattered or sold into slavery. Josephus claims that 1,100,000 people were killed during the siege, a sizeable portion of these to illnesses brought about by hunger. "A pestilential destruction upon them, and soon afterward such a famine, as destroyed them more suddenly." 97,000 were captured and enslaved and many others fled to areas around the Mediterraneanmarker.

The Jewish Encyclopedia article on the Hebrew Alphabet states: "Not until the revolts against Nero and against Hadrian did the Jews return to the use of the old Hebrew script on their coins, which they did from similar motives to those which had governed them two or three centuries previously; both times, it is true, only for a brief period."

Titus reportedly refused to accept a wreath of victory, as there is "no merit in vanquishing people forsaken by their own God".

Before Vespasian's departure, the Pharisaic sage and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai obtained his permission to establish a Judaic school at Yavne. Zakkai was smuggled away from Jerusalem in a coffin by his students. Later this school has become a major center of Talmudic study. (See Mishnah)


The main account of the revolt comes from Josephus, the former Jewish commander of Galilee, who after capture by the Romans, attempted to end the rebellion by negotiating with the Judean's on Titus's behalf. Josephus and Titus became quite close friends and later Josephus was granted Roman citizenship and a pension. He never returned to his homeland after the fall of Jerusalem, living in Rome as an historian under the patronage of Flavius and Titus.

He wrote two works, The Jewish War (c. 79) and Jewish Antiquities (c. 94), that are on occasion contradictory. These are the only surviving source materials containing information on specific events that occurred during the fighting. But the material has been questioned because of claims that cannot be verified by secondary sources. Only since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls has some solid confirmation been given to the events he describes.


  1. Josephus, War of the Jews II.8.11, II.13.7, II.14.4, II.14.5
  2. Josephus, War of the Jews II.14.5
  3. Rocca S. 2008. The Forts of Judea 168 BC – AD 73. Osprey, Wellingborough, pp. 37-39, 47-48.
  4. Josephus, War of the Jews VI.9.3
  5. Alphabet, the Hebrew. Coins, and Bibliography 6
  6. Philostratus, Vita Apollonii

See also

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