History Crash Course #34: War For Jerusalem

The Jewish nation fights to save its spiritual center.

The might of Rome could not be challenged.

In response to the revolt of the Jews, in 67 CE Rome sends out the empire’s most experienced commander, Vespasian, at the head of four legions. This is a massive force. Each legion had 6,000 fighting men plus an equal number of auxiliaries for a total of nearly 50,000 Roman soldiers.

(One of these four legions, the 10th is the most famous. It is commanded by Vespasian’s own son, Titus, and has a boar as its symbol.)

The Roman goal: the annihilation of those Jews who dared to rise against Rome and who have heretofore (unbelievably) succeeded.

Shrewdly, Vespasian begins his campaign in the north. Any city or town that resists his advance is utterly destroyed, its population slaughtered or taken into slavery, the women raped, property pillaged. Then, the surrounding area is denuded of trees and the fields strewn with salt to ensure that nothing would grow there again.

While always brutal in warfare, the Romans surpass themselves when it comes to suppressing the revolt in Judea. Their aim is to send a message throughout the Empire: any resistance against Rome will end in total and complete devastation.

Vespasian hopes that by the time he turns to Jerusalem, the Jews will have seen that resistance is futile and have surrendered.

But, even with four legions, Vespasian has a tough fight on his hands.


One of the first to resist is the fortress of Jotapata, built on the slopes of Mount Atzmon. Here the commander of the Jewish forces in the Galilee, Yosef ben Mattityahu — better known to us as Josephus Flavius — makes a heroic stand, but cannot withstand the Roman onslaught.

When defeat seems certain, the Zealots of the group decide that it is better to die at their own hands than to be sold into slavery or to watch their families be mercilessly butchered by the Romans.

Thus, they make a pact to kill their own wives and children and then themselves. Josephus is one of the few survivors; rather than kill himself, he surrenders to the Romans.

Vespasian realizes immediately that Josephus could be useful to the Romans and employs him as guide/translator and later as a chronicler of the war.

Josephus’ works have survived to this day. Among the foremost are Antiquities and The Jewish War, the story of all of the events taking place before, during, and after the Great Revolt, from 66 CE to 70 CE.

His account is unique as far as historical accounts go, because he is an eyewitness to many things he writes about. (He differs in this regard from other Roman historians, like Deo Cassius, who lived later and merely repeated what they’ve read in official records.)

Of course, Josephus has his own slant on things. For example, he is writing for the Romans, (which is probably why his works have survived intact), yet he is born and raised a Jew. So he seems to be trying to please everyone at the same time, and you have to read him very cautiously and very critically. (Ultimately he lays the blame for the revolt at the feet of a few cruel Romans such as Florus and the Zeolots)

Despite the extreme subjectivity of much of his writing and his tendency to exaggerate and be melodramatic (which is typical of historians of this period), he is nonetheless an invaluable source of information about the entire Second Temple period and the Great Revolt. However, one thing that even his critics agree upon is that he is very accurate concerning the physical descriptions of places and structures in the Land of Israel. Archeology has verified many of his descriptions and accounts.


All during the summer and autumn of 67 CE Vespasian marches through northern Israel suppressing Jewish resistance. Some surrender without a fight – like Tiberias, for example. Some fight to the end.

One of the most heroic stories concerns the city of Gamla in the Golan Heights.

Partially excavated and the center of a beautiful nature reserve, Gamla is a must-see spot in Israel today. This site is unusual, because unlike most cities in Israel that were destroyed, Gamla was never re-built by anyone and is therefore considered to be one of the best-preserved Roman battle sites in the world. The excavations show the city exactly like it looked on the day of its destruction in 67 CE.

(Gamla stood covered by the sands of time for exactly 1900 years until Israel won back the Golan Heights in 1967.)

Anticipating the Roman advance, the citizens of Gamla minted coins with the imprint “To the Redemption of Jerusalem, the Holy.” They believed that on the outcome of their resistance rested the future of Jerusalem. Sadly, they were right.

The Romans totally annihilated Gamla killing some 4,000 Jews. The remaining 5,000 inhabitants, rather than waiting to be brutally slaughtered by the Romans, jumped to their deaths off the cliffs surrounding the city. (This is why Gamla is called the Masada of the north.)


In the summer of 70 CE, having liquidated virtually all the other pockets of resistance the Romans finally work their way to Jerusalem. They surround the city and lay siege to it.

The Romans know that if they can destroy Jerusalem, they will destroy the soul of rebellion, because Jerusalem is the center of their spiritual life.

Before the Great Revolt began, Jerusalem had somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 inhabitants (prior to its destruction the walled city of Jerusalem was considerably larger then the Old City of today), but now, with refugees from other places flocking in, the population is two to three times its normal size. It is concentrated in two enclaves:

  1. the Lower City, south of the Temple Mount (this section of Jerusalem is today outside the current city walls; today it is called the City of David or Silwan in Arabic)
  2. the Upper City, west of the Temple Mount, inhabited by the wealthier folks and the priestly class (excavations of this part of the city can be seen in the underground Wohl Archaeology Museum under Yeshivat HaKotel in the Jewish Quarter)

The city is massively fortified. It also has huge storehouses of food. It has a good water supply. Jerusalem can hold back the Romans for a long time.

So it seems like the Romans are in a very bad situation. They are trying to besiege one of the largest cities in the ancient world which is remarkably well fortified, which has a huge amount of food and water and a lot of determined people who are not afraid to die. [1]See: Talmud-Gittin 56a

Jerusalem could have gone done down in history as the only city that the Romans couldn’t take by laying siege. But it didn’t.

The reason that it did not was sinat chinam, “senseless hatred among the Jews.”


While the Romans are besieging the city on the outside, the Jews are waging a civil war inside.

Forces of the various factions are occupying various parts of the city. Most importantly, the Sicarii and the Zealots, led by Yochanan of Gush Chalav, have control of the Temple Mount. An unlikely alliance of Sadducees and Pharisees makes up the bulk of the moderate forces which rule the rest of the city.

When the moderates attempt to remove the extremists from the Temple Mount, Yochanan of Gush Chalav brings in non-Jewish mercenaries, the Idumeans, who slaughter the moderate Jews.

As if that is not enough, the Zealots destroy the great storehouses of food so that the people would have no choice but to fight or starve.

With the food storehouses destroyed, famine breaks out in the city and desperate people try and sneak outside the walls to forage for food. Anyone that is caught by the Romans is immediately put to death via the standard Roman form of execution – crucifixion. So many die that the city is surrounded by thousands of crucified Jews.

So the soldiers out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest; when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies. Josephus, Wars 5.11.1)

Meanwhile, the Romans continue their systematic destructions of the city’s defenses, layer by layer.

What happens next?


The leader of the Pharisees and the head of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, sees that Jerusalem cannot hold out. It’s too late. But the Zealots are bent on continuing their suicidal fight. So he formulates a plan.

At this time the Zealots are not allowing anyone to leave the city (as if anyone wanted to flee to be crucified), except for burials. In a desperate bid to try and salvage something from the impending disaster, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai has himself put in a casket and taken to Vespasian.

He greets Vespasian as if he were the emperor, to which Vespasian replies that he ought to be executed for his remark. Not exactly a friendly welcome. But Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai persists, telling Vespasian that God would allow only a great ruler to take Jerusalem.

Just then, a messenger arrives from Rome with a message for Vespasian: “Rise, because Caesar has died and the prominent men of Rome have decided to seek you as their head. They have made you Caesar.”

Impressed with Rabbi Yochanan’s ability to predict the future, Vespasian asks him to name a wish. He asks Vespasian for three things, but the most important request is: “Give me the city of Yavne and it’s sages.

What Rabbi Yochanan really asks for is to save the Torah.

Vespasian gives Rabbi Yochanan a safe escort for the Torah sages of the day to leave Jerusalem and to convene a Sanhedrin at Yavneh.

Could Rabbi Yochanan have asked Vespesian to spare Jerusalem?

Not likely. By then, the Romans had to prove a point. They would not have spared Jerusalem. But Rabbi Yochanan’s quick thinking spared Judaism.[2]See Talmud-Gittin 56a for the exact account of this story

The Jewish people can always survive physical destruction. The much bigger danger is spiritual destruction. Had the Sanhedrin been wiped out, the transmission process of the Oral Law would have been cut. Without the Oral law there is no Judaism.

Because the Romans granted Rabbi Yochanan’s wish, the sages survived, the chain of transmission survived, and the Jewish people survived.

Meanwhile, now that Vespasian is emperor, he must return to Rome. He turns the siege over to his son Titus and tells him to finish the job.


1 See: Talmud-Gittin 56a
2 See Talmud-Gittin 56a for the exact account of this story
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