Judaea’s Leaderless Revolt Against Rome
The failure of the rebellion that took place in Judaea from 66–73 C.E. had long-lasting repercussions. The destruction of the Temple in the course of the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. is still commemorated by the holiday of Tisha B’Av today. The discontinuation of animal sacrifice at the Temple led to the origins of rabbinic Judaism which laid the foundations for modern Judaism.
The rebellion also led to a more decisive split between normative Judaeans and the nascent movement of Jesus-followers, who were concerned to distance themselves from the seditious behavior demonstrated by the other Judaeans.
The Judaean Revolt and Other Revolts
The Judaean Revolt against Rome was neither the first nor the last against Roman authority. Several other revolts loom equally large in the historical record, and some of these had a greater impact on Rome than the revolt in far off Judaea, a relatively minor province. These include:
- The revolt of Vercingetorix in Gaul/modern France that Julius Caesar crushed (late 50’s B.C.E.),
- The revolt led by Bato the Daesitiate in Pannonia and Dalmatia (6–9 C.E.);
- Arminius’s revolt in the area of modern Germany, whose destruction of three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 C.E. is one of the signal defeats of a Roman army;
- Boudica’s revolt in Britain (60–61 C.E.);
- Julius Civilis’s revolt in Batavia, simultaneous with the revolt in Judaea. Vespasian devoted far greater resources to an immediate suppression of this, consequently, short-lived revolt, because of the danger Batavia posed on Rome’s immediate frontier.
With the exception of Boudica’s revolt, all of these insurrections occurred closer to the Italian homeland than the Judaean Revolt, and therefore presented a more grave dangers to the Roman state. Although the Judaean Revolt did not present as serious a threat, the suppression of the revolt nevertheless loomed large in imperial propaganda, since Emperor Vespasian used the triumph over the Jews to promote his new Flavian dynasty politically.
The causes of these revolts are varied, but several patterns do recur that are worth exploring. We will see that in most significant ways, there was little that was exceptional about the Judaean Revolt, but also that the ways in which this revolt departed from the norm may be instructive for the ways in which it has been remembered.
Most revolts occurred not immediately after the initial Roman conquest but at a time when direct Roman control over the conquered territory was increasing. Such control might be a decision to use a Roman administrative structure instead of, or in addition to, the local structure.
The Romans preferred to rely upon local elites as a means of controlling their empire. They provided these elites with legal and economic privileges and integrated them into the Roman hierarchy; in exchange the local elites ensured compliance of the subject population with Roman authorities.
More direct Roman intervention threatened the position of these elites, and the disruption of the local social structure left them unable to maintain control of a populace. The Roman choice to integrate only the local elite and not the broader population left a region vulnerable to disorder when the increasing Roman administrative presence weakened those elites.
The situation in Judaea closely mirrors this pattern. Judaea had been conquered by Pompey the Great in 63 B.C.E. as part of his broader campaigns in the Roman East. At first, the Romans allowed the Hasmonean dynasty to remain in power, but soon began to support Antipater, the founder of the Herodian dynasty.
Herod the Great succeeded his father and became a client king of the Romans for forty years (37–4 B.C.E), and on his death his sons were appointed as tetrarchs after the Romans divided the territory into four parts. When some of Herod’s sons failed as leaders, parts of the territory reverted to the control of Roman prefects or procurators. The kingship was briefly restored under Herod’s grandson Agrippa I (41–44 C.E.), after which leadership was again transferred to Roman procurators.
Throughout this period, the Herodian dynasty and the local elite, both Sadducees and Pharisees, tried to maintain power through good relations with the Romans. By the time of the revolt, the years of instability along with more direct Roman governance had combined to weaken the local social structure, creating the conditions where a rebellion could take root.
While the social conditions often laid the foundations, the actual outbreak of a rebellion was often sparked by more regular and direct taxation by the Romans. The taxes levied by Rome on the local population may have placed financial strains on some segments of society, but more often the impact of the economic complaints was to provide fuel for a nationalistic agenda.
The imposition of taxes by the foreign Romans was often equated with enslavement and so felt to be intolerable. For instance, Tacitus (Hist. 4.73-74) reports that Quintus Cerealis tried to undermine support for the Batavian revolt contemporary with the Judaean Revolt by pointing out:
[L]iberty and other specious names are just a pretext … [the rebels] should not hope for a more moderate rule under Tutor and Classicus (rebel leaders) or that less tax than now will be demanded.
His arguments make clear the connection between taxation and liberty often drawn by rebels in the ancient world (and indeed in the modern world as well).
We have good reason to believe that these economic issues played a role in contributing to the unrest in Judaea. Josephus (Ant 18.1) reports that a group known as the Zealots saw Roman taxation as marking the end to Judaean autonomy or even mounting a challenge to God’s authority:
…[A] certain Judas, a Gaulanite, from a city named Gamala, who had enlisted the aid of Saddok, a Pharisee, threw himself into the cause of rebellion. They said that the assessment carried with it a status amounting to downright slavery, no less, and appealed to the nation to make a bid for independence…. [They further said] that Heaven would be their zealous helper to no lesser end than the furthering of their enterprise until it succeeded… (LCL trans.)
While this view does not seem to have been sufficiently widespread to cause revolt on its own, it contributed to undermining the position of both Roman authority and local elites. When one of the recurring conflicts between Greeks and Jews in the provincial capital of Caesarea broke out in 66 C.E., neither the Roman officials nor the Judaean elite were able to defuse the situation as effectively as in the past, and the Judaean Revolt took off from there.
A Religious Element
In addition to these economic and social issues, a religious element to the armed action is often but not always present in ancient revolts. As best we can tell, this religious element did not usually take a millenarian form: the revolts generally did not aim for a cataclysm that would fundamentally transform society. Rather, the tension and instability implied by a rebellion against a governing authority often gave rise to prophetic figures.
The figure of Veleda, the female prophetess involved with the revolt of Civilis, is the clearest example, but there are hints that other leaders may have utilized religious practices as a means of consolidating support for the revolt. The exact role of Druidic practice in the revolts of both Vercingetorix and Boudica is open to question, but they appear enough in the ancient sources to suspect that they played at least a supporting role in the events of these revolts.
In Judaea there was obviously a religious component at work among those favoring the revolt, just as we saw with other revolts in the Roman empire. The degree to which the Judaean Revolt may have been inspired by an eschatological worldview has been a matter of some debate. But the turmoil that both laid the groundwork for the revolt and was then exacerbated by the revolt created a fertile field for messianic figures.
This includes not only the figures of John the Baptist and Jesus but several other, now largely forgotten, individuals mentioned by Josephus who appeared in Judaea in the first century C.E. claiming this mantle. None of these charismatic figures, however, are closely connected with the revolt of 66–73. As with the other revolts in the Roman empire, while a religious element was present in the revolt, messianism was likely not a primary motivator for armed insurrection.
Judaea’s Revolt in Context
The broad picture of the Judaean rebellion thus conforms to the general pattern: Rebellion was fostered by religious objections, economic issues revolving around taxation, and most importantly the imposition of direct Roman rule.
As they did elsewhere, the Romans and the local elites failed to recognize that conquest did not automatically lead to integration, and as the Romans pushed harder, broader segments of Judaean society felt this keenly and pushed back. In one significant way, however, the Judaean Revolt of 66–73 does not conform to the pattern seen elsewhere in the Empire.
The Unique Element of the Judaean Revolt
A characteristic of rebellions against Rome is the appearance of a single leader with the ability to crystallize the increasing resentment against the ruling power and provide a focal point for resistance. Ancient sources tend to employ the Big Man or Great Man theory of history: They prefer to explain key historical events by focusing attention on a single major figure. While some modern scholars have undermined this claim, we should not dismiss it entirely.
Even if charismatic leaders are not the only—or even the main—explanation of many important social movements, it remains true that one person can be identified in most ancient and many modern revolts. This is why many of the revolts listed above were named after their leaders.
It is here that the Judaean Revolt of 66–73 departs from the norm. Curiously, the Second Judaean Revolt was organized around a single figure, and it is worth noting the details before returning to our consideration of the First Revolt.
The Bar Kokhba Rebellion
Judaea’s second rebellion against Rome (132–135 C.E.) revolved around the figure of Simon ben/bar Kosiva, known more widely as Bar Kokhba (“son of a star”). The latter name was apparently derived from Numbers 24:17, דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב, “a star shall step forth from Jacob,” indicating that at least some of his followers viewed him as the Messiah.
It is difficult to determine whether messianic belief contributed to the outbreak of the revolt, was a result of the revolt’s initial success, or served as a way to rally support for the Judaean forces. In any case, the Bar Kokhba rebellion had a clear religious nationalist element, centered upon a charismatic leader, similar to what we find in other revolts against Rome.
The First Judaean Revolt
The first Judaean Revolt, however, had no one central figure and thus appears exceptional in this regard. Several competing figures appear in the narrative of Josephus:
Eliezar ben Hanania, who convinced the Temple priests to cease the customary sacrifices on behalf of the Roman emperor, an act recognized as tantamount to a declaration of war.
John of Gischala from the Galilee, who vied with Josephus for leadership in the north and fled to Jerusalem ahead of the Roman forces.
Simon bar Giora, who was a peasant leader and led a successful military expedition against the Romans in the early stages of the war.
The lack of a clear leader suggests a lack of unity among forces of the rebels, and indeed the behavior of the various factions contains many elements of a civil war. For example, the decision of Eliezar ben Hanania to reject sacrifices on behalf of the Roman emperor, and so to declare war on Rome, ran contrary to the policies of the tetrarch Agrippa II, who still ruled over nearby territories and possessed responsibility for the Temple in Jerusalem. The revolt may have been a rejection of Agrippa as much as a rejection of the Romans.
Even after the fighting had begun, the Judaean factions in Jerusalem itself found themselves divided with regard to multiple issues, sometimes over policies that Zealots supported and sometimes merely over questions of leadership. These squabbles offer some grounds for the Talmudic tradition (b. Yoma 9b) that explains the destruction of the Temple as the result of sin’at chinam (שנאת חנם, “baseless hatred”) and not as a struggle for freedom against an external oppressor.
There is no doubt that the internal conflicts made it easier for the Roman general (and later emperor) Vespasian and then his son Titus to defeat the rebels and capture Jerusalem, destroying the Temple in the process, and, after a long siege at the former Herodian palace at Masada, to stamp out in 73 C.E. the last remnants of opposition.
Ancient Revolts and Modern Nationalism: A Closing Similarity
Memories of the First Judaean Revolt in fact revolve around Masada rather than a single charismatic leader, a point that highlights one further similarity between the Judaean Revolt and other rebellions against Rome: their use in modern nationalist agendas.
In France, a 6-meter tall statue of Vercingetorix was erected atop a pedestal in 1865, at the site of his final resistance to Julius Caesar. On the base are inscribed words from Caesar’s own history: “Gaul united, forming a single nation and animated by a common spirit, can defy the Universe.”
Similar statues of Boudica and Arminius were erected respectively in London and at the site where Arminius was believed to have defeated the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest in the same period. These monuments were erected precisely in the period that saw the rise of nationalism throughout Europe; they offered claims to a national identity that stretched back to the ancient world, fighting valiantly if unsuccessfully against an imperial occupier.
Israel too has utilized the memory of a failed revolt against the Romans to generate unity for the national project. The revolt from 66–73 left the strongest memory because of the destruction of the Temple in the course of the war, and in the absence of a single leader the monument to the Judaean Revolt centered not on an individual but a place.
Until recently, recruits into the Israeli army climbed the snake path to the top of Masada before taking their oath of service. The slogan “Masada shall not fall again” became popular enough to appear on coins and elsewhere.
Perhaps this outcome is merely a function of the absence of a charismatic leader, but perhaps it also speaks to how the post-Biblical Jewish story has connected itself more to the land than to individuals. Like the Judaean Revolt itself, the commemoration of that event is both like and unlike the other revolts against the Roman Empire.
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Prof. Eric Orlin is Professor of Classics at the University of Puget Sound. He earned his Ph.D. from the Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Temples, Religion and Politics in the Roman Republic(1997) and Foreign Cults in Rome: Creating a Roman Empire (2010), and served as general editor for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (2014). He is also the co-founder of the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religions.
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