History Crash Course #37: Bar Kochba Revolt
The Temple was no more. Jerusalem had been conquered. Rome had asserted its might and crushed the Great Revolt of the Jews. Now there could be quiet.
Virulent anti-Semitism continued unabated in the Roman Empire, generated by the Hellenists who, not happy to leave well enough alone, seemed determined to pour salt onto Jewish wounds.
(This same need for overkill would be exhibited by later enemies of the Jews, who, having exterminated entire Jewish communities, and having no more Jews left to slaughter, would then go on to desecrate Jewish cemeteries and mutilate Jewish corpses.)
The level of hostility and mistreatment of the Jews escalated throughout the Roman Empire to the extent of becoming unbearable.
In response, the Jews revolted several times more. Each time thousands of their number were killed. As a result, the average Roman looked at every Jew as a person hostile to Rome. Jews were officially designated as having “enemy status” ― dediticci in Latin.
Of course, the Jews in the Land of Israel had been crushed in the Great Revolt, and ― at least, right after the destruction of the Temple ― did not have the strength to fight. But we must remember that at this time, a considerable number of Jews were living outside Israel. In fact, historians estimate that there were about 5-7 million Jews living in the Roman Empire and at least 60% of that number were living outside the land of Israel. Places like Alexandria, Egypt (one of the most cosmopolitan cities of that era) alone had a Jewish population of about 250,000 and boasted the largest synagogue in the world.
The War of Kittos
In 114 C.E. the emperor Trajan embarked on military a campaign to crush the Parthian (Persian Empire) in the east (today Iraq and Iran) After initial successes, Trajan’s legions suffered a series of defeats and he was forced to retreat (he died while on this campaign in 117). The Jews of the Parthian Empire fought side by side with their Persian allies and embarked on a series of behind-the-lines guerrilla actions. It is also possible that several Jewish Diaspora communities within the Roman Empire also rose up in revolt.
The Roman response, with the help of anti-Semites of the region, was to slaughter the Jews. Several major Jewish communities in the Diaspora; in Cyprus, Libya, Alexandria and Mesopotamia were decimated. This slaughter, is known as The War of Kittos after the Roman military governor of Judea, Lucious Quietus, who brutally persecuted the Jewish population of Israel. The War of Kittos is barely mentioned in Jewish sources. The most extensive reference can be found in the Talmud, Ta’anit 18b.
Now it must be noted that while the Romans could be absolutely vicious and brutal in the heat of battle, they did not embark on any kind of policy to mass exterminate the Jewish people. At the time, it wasn’t seen as in the Roman interest to attempt a total massacre of the Jews. It would not have sat well with other conquered peoples, who might think they were next and who might rebel. The Romans were very practical people and this is not something they wanted.
When Publius Aelius Hadrianus, known to us as Hadrian, took the reigns of power in 117 CE, he inaugurated ― at least at first ― an atmosphere of tolerance. He even talked of allowing the Jews to rebuilt the Temple, a proposal that was met with virulent opposition from the Hellenists. See: Midrash, Breishit Rabbah 64:10
Why Hadrian changed his attitude to one of outright hostility toward the Jews remains a puzzle, but historian Paul Johnson in his History of the Jews speculates that he fell under the influence of the Roman historian Tacitus, who was then busy disseminating Greek smears against the Jews.
Tacitus and his circle were part of a group of Roman intellectuals who viewed themselves as inheritors of Greek culture. (Some Roman nobles actually considered themselves the literal descendants of the Greeks, though there is no historical basis for this myth.) It was fashionable among this group to take on all the trappings of Greek culture. Hating the Jews as representing the anti-thesis of Hellenism went with the territory. Thus influenced, Hadrian decided to spin around 180 degrees. Instead of letting the Jews rebuild, Hadrian formulated a plan to transform Jerusalem into a pagan city-state on the Greek polis model with a shrine to Jupiter on the site of the Jewish Temple.
Nothing could be worse in Jewish eyes than to take the holiest spot in the Jewish world and to put a temple to a Roman god on it. This was the ultimate affront. As bad as this was, the real cause of the revolt seems to have been Hadrian’s attempt to follow in the footsteps of the Selucid Greek Empire 300 years earlier by trying to destroy Judaism. Specifically he targeted Sabbath observance, circumcision, the laws of family purity and the teaching of Torah. An attack against such fundamental commandments of Judaism was bound to trigger a revolt-which it did.
Jewish outrage at his actions led to one of the single greatest revolts of the Roman Era. Simon Bar Kosiba led the uprising, which began in full force in 132 CE.
For many years, historians did not write very much about Simon Bar Kosiba. But then, archeologists discovered some of his letters in Nahal Hever near the Dead Sea. If you go to the Israel Museum you can see these letters and they are absolutely fascinating. Some of them pertain to religious observance, because his army was a totally religious army. But they also contain a tremendous amount of historical facts. We learn that the Jews participating in the revolt were hiding out in caves. (These caves have also been found ― full of belongings of Bar Kosiba’s people. The belongings ― pottery, shoes, etc. ― are on display in the Israel Museum, and the caves, though bare, are open to tourists.)
From the letters and other historical data, we learn that in 132 CE, Bar Kosiba organized a large guerilla army and succeeded in actually throwing the Romans out of Jerusalem and Israel and establishing, albeit for a very brief period, an independent Jewish state. The Talmud (Sanhedrin97b) states that he established an independent kingdom that lasted for two and half years.
Bar Kosiba’s success caused many to believe ― among them Rabbi Akiva, one of the wisest and holiest of Israel’s rabbis ― that he could be the Messiah. He was nicknamed “Bar Kochba” or “Son of Star,” an allusion to a verse in the Book of Numbers (24:17): “there shall come a star out of Jacob.” This star is understood to refer to the Messiah.
Bar Kochba did not turn out to be the Messiah, and later the rabbis wrote that his real name was Bar Kosiva meaning “Son of a Lie” ― highlighting the fact that he was a false Messiah.
At the time, however, Bar Kochba ― who was a man of tremendous leadership abilities ― managed to unite the entire Jewish people around him. Jewish accounts describe him as a man of tremendous physical strength, who could uproot a tree while riding on a horse. This is probably an exaggeration, but he was a very special leader and undoubtedly had messianic potential, which is what Rabbi Akiva recognized in him.
Jewish sources list Bar Kochba’s army at 100,000 men, but even if that is an overestimate and he had half that number, it was still a huge force.
United, the Jews were a force to be reckoned with. They overran the Romans, threw them out of the land of Israel, declared independence and even minted coins. That is a pretty unique event in the history of the Roman Empire.
Rome could not let this be. Such boldness had to be crushed and those responsible punished ― brutally and totally.
But the Jews were not easily overcome. Hadrian poured more and more troops into Israel to fight the Bar Kochba forces until the Romans had enlisted almost half of their entire army, as many as twelve of the twenty four legions of the empire may have been brought into Israel (three times as many as they had sent in to crush the Great Revolt 65 years earlier) to crush the revolt.
Heading this mammoth force was Rome’s best general, Julius Severus. But even with all this might behind him, Julius Severus was afraid to meet the Jews in open battle. This fact alone is very telling, because the Romans were the masters of open battle. But they feared the Jews because they saw them as being willing to die for their faith ― a mentality the Romans thought suicidal. So what happened?
The Roman historian Dio Cassius tells us:
“Severus did not venture to attack his opponents in the open at any one point in view of their numbers and their desperation, but by intercepting small groups. Thanks to the numbers of soldiers and his officers, and by depriving them of food and shutting them up, he was able ― rather slowly to be sure, but with comparatively little danger ― to crush, exhaust and exterminate them. Very few of them in fact survived. Fifty of their most important outposts and 985 of their most famous villages were razed to the ground, and 580,000 men were slain in various raids and battles, and the number of those who perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out.”Thus nearly the whole of Judea was made desolate, a result of which the people had had forewarning before the war. For the tomb of Solomon, which the Jews regarded as an object of veneration, fell to pieces of itself and collapsed. And many wolves and hyenas rushed howling into the cities. Many Romans, however, perished in this war. Therefore, Hadrian, in writing to the Senate, did not employ the opening phrase commonly affected by emperors: ‘If you and your children are in health it is well and I and my legions are in health.'”
This account of Deo Cassius ― even if he is exaggerating the numbers ― is very interesting. He tells us that the revolt was very bloody and very costly.
Indeed, the Romans lost an entire legion in battle. The 22nd Roman legion walked into an ambush and was slaughtered and never reconstituted. By the end of the revolt the Romans had to bring virtually half the army of the entire Roman Empire into Israel to crush the Jews.
Why Did the Jews Lose?
Apparently the Jews came very close to winning the war. Indeed, they did win for a time. Why did they lose in the end? The sages say they lost because they were too arrogant. Having tasted victory they adopted the attitude of , “by my strength and my valor I did this.” (Deut. 8:17)
Bar Kochba too became arrogant. He saw himself winning. He heard people calling him the Messiah. Certainly, if Rabbi Akiva thought so, then he had the potential to be Israel’s Ultimate Leader. He also became corrupted by his power and even beat his uncle, the great Rabbi Elazar HaModai, to death, having accepted false accusations that he was a Roman spy See: Talmud – Tanit 4:5. Because of these faults he began to lose battles and was forced into retreat and guerrilla warfare.
In Judaism we are taught that while people must make the effort, it is God that wins the wars. It is not human strength nor human might that’s doing it.
The Fall of Betar
Bar Kochba made his final stand in the city of Betar, which is to the southwest of Jerusalem. You can go visit it today, thought ancient Betar has not been excavated. The Talmud (in Gittin 57a) relates what happened in Betar:
They had the custom in Betar that when a baby boy was born they planted a cedar tree and for a baby girl they planted a pine tree, and when they would marry they would cut them down and make a marriage canopy of the branches. One day the daughter of Caesar was passing and the shaft of her litter broke. They cut down a cedar and brought it to her. The Jews of Betar fell upon them and beat them. They reported to Caesar that the Jews were rebelling and marched against them… they killed [Jewish] men, women and children until their blood flowed into the Mediterranean Sea… It was taught that for seven years the gentiles cultivated their vineyards with the blood of Israel without requiring manure for fertilization.
The city fell on the saddest day in the Jewish calendar ― the 9th of Av of the year 135, the same date as both the First and the Second Temple fell.
The Romans, in their fury, did not want to allow the Jewish bodies to be buried; they wanted to leave them out in the open to rot. According to tradition, the bodies lay in the open for months but did not rot. Today, when Jews say the Grace after Meals, Birkat HaMazon, they add a special blessing (ha tov u’mativ) as a way of thanking God for this act of mercy in Betar.
Exhausted, the Romans have had enough of the Jews who had caused them more manpower and material losses than any other people in the history of Empire. At the end of the Bar Kochba revolt, Hadrian decided that the way not to have another one is to cut off the Jews from connection to their beloved land.