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Apocalypse: the great Jewish revolt against Rome, 66-73 CE; Neil Faulkner sees the destruction of Jerusalem and fall of Masada in the 1st century as the result of a millenarian movement that sought to escape the injustices of an evil empire.

`THIS IS THE MASADA of the Palestinians', an anonymous Israeli general is supposed to have said at the height of the battle for the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank in April 2002. New recruits to the Israeli Defence Force regularly swear an oath of allegiance at the ancient fortress of Masada, which fell to the Romans in 73 or 74 CE, and conservative Jews pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for the reconstruction of the Temple destroyed in 70 CE. The conflict in the Middle East today is fought amid the echoes of another war 2,000 years ago, in which an overwhelming military force destroyed a people's aspiration to national self-determination.

Palestine--by which I mean the southern Levant, today comprising Israel, the Occupied Territories and western Jordan--is one of the bloodiest places on earth. In antiquity, it lay on one of history's great route-ways. Caravans laden with eastern exotica destined for the Mediterranean market passed through. Waves of nomadic refugees from the desert--including the ancient Hebrews around the twelfth century BCE--were periodically washed up in `the Land of Canaan'. And two great centres of early civilisation repeatedly met and clashed here: the Egypt of the Pharaohs and successive Mesopotamian empires ruled by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and others. Consequently, periods of political independence and national unity for the peoples who inhabited the region in ancient times tended to be brief. Palestine was too much a prey to periodic bouts of imperial conquest ever to remain in local hands for long.

By the first century CE, Rome was the dominant power in the Levant. The nineteenth-century view of Rome as a fount of civilisation and culture is still held in many quarters. Even though historians of latter-day monstrosities--like Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia--are not persuaded of their subjects' virtue by architectural monuments, Rome's roads, aqueducts and hypocausts are sometimes allowed to turn an equally monstrous system of exploitation and violence--the Roman Empire--into a model of human achievement and an object of admiration. But `The Grandeur That Was Rome'--the towns, villas and monumental architecture, the mosaics, frescoes and sculpture, the leisured aristocratic class that enjoyed these things--was made possible only by creaming off agricultural surpluses from thousands of villages across the empire. A Jewish peasant in Palestine in the first century--after the region had been incorporated into the Roman Empire as the province of Judaea in 6 CE--would have experienced the world of Rome not as `civilisation' but as so many parasites--the tax-gatherer, the landlord, the priest, the debt-collector, the soldier--coming to steal the fruits of his hard labour on a tiny hillside plot.

By the middle of the first century of the Common Era, society in Palestine was deeply divided. On one side stood the ordinary people, most of them Jews, living in the countryside; on the other the Romans, Greeks and the Jewish upper classes. The Romans were few in number but their authority was upheld by the power of the Imperial army. There were just a hundred or so army officers and civil servants on the staff of the procurator of Judaea and perhaps two or three thousand Roman soldiers, but there were more than ten times that number in nearby Syria, a few days' march to the north. Rome, in any case, had many friends among the population of Palestine. There were the Greeks, who occupied numerous cities on the coast and in Transjordan, forming a series of privileged urban enclaves surrounded by the mainly Jewish countryside. These cities were ruled by oligarchs who enjoyed the backing of the Roman authorities. The general population of artisans, petty traders and small farmers had a colonial mentality, jealously guarding the privileges of Greek citizenship, and capable of occasional outbursts of murderous antisemitism. The Jewish upper classes were also predominantly pro-Roman. Some were of royal blood, descendants of the old Hasmonaean kings (164-37 BCE), or of Herod the Great, the puppet king of Judea (37-4 BCE); and the latter's great-grandson, King Herod Agrippa II (50-93 CE) still ruled a string of territories on the borders of the Roman province. Others were members of the Jerusalem-based aristocracy of priests, who controlled both the Temple, supreme focus of Jewish devotion, and the Sanhedrin, a grand council which combined the roles of senate, high court and holy inquisition. The Romans looked to the high priests and the Sanhedrin for help in governing Judaea; and the Jewish elite, who were essentially big landowners living off rents, tithes and the interest on peasant debt, looked to the Romans for the protection of property and rank.

The other Palestine was the world of farms, villages and the eternal routines of life on the land. Usually we know next to nothing of such worlds. How much can we say, for example, about the peasants of eastern Britain in 61 CE, at the time of the Boudiccan Revolt? Palestine is a special case because we have several sources for the life of the people and we can therefore attempt a `history from below' which puts the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 CE into context.

Our principal sources for the period are the works of Josephus (b. c. 37 CE), a Jewish priest and aristocrat who, as governor of Galilee, became one of the moderate leaders of the revolt in late 66. Defeated and captured some six months later by the Roman general Flavius Vespasian, Josephus was spared execution and eventually freed, becoming an interpreter and go-between in the service of his country's enemies. After the war he was well received in Rome, where his conqueror, now the emperor Vespasian, rewarded him richly for his treachery with citizenship, a grant of property and the continuing patronage of the Flavian family. Taking the name Flavius Josephus in honour of his patron, Josephus became, in effect, a court historian and propagandist for the new Flavian dynasty.

His first work, The Jewish War, provides a narrative outline of the political background to 66 CE and a detailed military history of the war itself. Further detail is provided in the much longer Jewish Antiquities, a complete history of the Jews from Adam up to the outbreak of the revolt, and My Life, a tendentious autobiographical essay, which deals with aspects of the author's controversial governorship of Galilee in 67. In these works Josephus describes a society in turmoil. His pages are filled with descriptions of rural bandits, sectarian radicals, urban terrorists and would-be messiahs; of riots, pogroms and communal violence; and of clashes between troops and demonstrators. He charts the mounting popular resistance, which, by the early 60s CE, had led to a breakdown in government authority.

Josephus, however, was an aristocrat and a traitor, a man blinded by class prejudice and with a new political allegiance by the time he came to write about the Jewish revolutionary movement. To him the popular leaders were simply deceivers, brigands and tyrants, their followers the victims of self-serving malice and moral depravity. He offers little sociological insight into what was, in fact, one of the most powerful anti-imperialist movements in antiquity.

Fortunately, there are other sources, and in these we seem to hear the authentic voice of revolution some 2,000 years ago. The Dead Sea Scrolls are one such source. Some 400 separate documents--complete or in fragments--have survived, mainly in the form of leather scrolls which were wrapped in linen bindings, stuffed into ceramic jars and hidden in caves around the Essene monastery at Qumran near the Dead Sea, probably to keep them safe from the Romans. They reveal the Essenes to have been a radical Jewish sect committed to the revolutionary overthrow of the Romans and their upper-class Jewish allies. The Essene vision of liberation revolved around the ancient biblical idea of the Apocalypse, imagined to be a cataclysmic period of disaster and conflict at `the End of Days', and culminating in the intervention of heavenly armies to reinforce `the Sons of Righteousness' in their struggle against `the Sons of Darkness' and `the Hordes of Belial'. The anticipated outcome was victory for God's holy forces, a cleansing of the world of its corruption, and the beginning of `the Rule of the Saints' and `the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth'.

Political movements with similar objectives are known from later historical periods. In his study of medieval Europe The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), Norman Cohn defined a millenarian group as one which viewed salvation as something collective not personal, earth-bound not heavenly, imminent not distant in time, all-embracing not limited in scope, and involving supernatural intervention not just human action. Christopher Hill showed in The World Turned Upside Down (1972) that similar ideas (derived from the New Testament Apocalypse of St John) guided the actions of some of the most radical participants in the English Revolution; and more recently, millenarianism of one form or another has sometimes been a feature of resistance to European imperialism by traditional societies. It is in the context of both the Dead Sea Scrolls and a rich body of comparative historiography, therefore, that we must interpret the turbulent society described so unsympathetically by Josephus.

Jewish tradition held that a `messiah', or prophet-king for the end of time, would herald the coming Apocalypse and give leadership to God's people in the final battles. Josephus reported several would-be messiahs in the course of the first century, each associated with an abortive millenarian flare-up, usually involving a procession through the Wilderness, a fevered searching for signs, and an eventual bloody clash with the forces of authority. Millenarian movements require a charismatic leader to bind together disparate, unconnected people, and, by convincing them of the imminence of the Apocalypse, turn them into a revolutionary force. But the result is something highly unstable: the movement must either go forward in line with expectation, or it collapses in disappointment. So, for example, when his movement reached critical mass, Jesus--one of the several putative messiahs of his day--went to Jerusalem as prophecy required that he should, and his followers began their apocalyptic purge of the wicked, provoking the inevitable--and in this case effective--state repression.

The revolutionary message of sectarian radicals and messiahs was addressed, above all, to the poor. Josephus was explicit about the class basis of the conflict: it was, for him, a struggle between dunatoi--men of rank and power, the property-owning upper classes--and stasiastai--subversives, revolutionaries, popular leaders whose appeal was to `the scum of the districts'. The Dead Sea Scrolls were equally explicit, though from the other side of the barricades: whereas `the princes of Judah ... wallowed in the ways of whoredom and wicked wealth' and `acted arrogantly for the sake of riches and gain', the Lord would in due time deliver them `into the hands of the poor', so as to `humble the mighty of the peoples by the hand of those bent to the dust', and bring them `the reward of the wicked'. Jesus, too, for whom the poor were `the salt of the earth', had little patience with the rich:
   Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes; and to be
   greeted with respect in the market places, and to have the best seats in
   the synagogues and places of honour at banquets.

Many men had already taken the message to heart and were in revolt by the early 60s CE. Bandits were operating in much of the countryside--`social bandits' in the sense defined by Eric Hobsbawm: men whom poverty and oppression had driven to live outside the law, but who retained links with their villages, preyed only on the better-off, and were regarded by the peasants as champions of the poor. Others had become revolutionary activists--Zealots--and some of these, the sicarii or daggermen, were organised in underground cells to carry out selective assassinations of leading public figures. But those in the active resistance--whether millenarian radicals, social bandits or urban terrorists--were a minority, and they could not hope to defeat the Roman occupation forces without a full-scale peasant revolt. In the villages, though, they found a ready audience.

Peasant plots were commonly half or a third the size needed to support a family, and were burdened with rent, debt, tax and tithe. Many peasants must have handed over half or more of their harvest. Those who took it were from the city, rich absentee lords, people who built mansions and monuments there, who aped the manners of pagans, fawned on foreign masters, and scorned God, the Law and the Prophets. Or so it must have seemed in the villages, where men would gather in the synagogue on the Sabbath to hear itinerant preachers and debate the meaning of scripture. There was a dark mood here in the early 60s CE. Scripture, after all, gave no sanction to great estates which made a few men rich and left many with nothing. On the contrary, the peasant found enshrined in scripture ancient tribal practice designed to keep things equal. Had not the land originally been a gift of God to the Israelites--not Greeks or Romans--to be distributed in small plots for the subsistence of all? Were not debts to be cancelled and bondsmen set free every seventh year? Was not every fiftieth year intended as a Year of Jubilee, when land would be redistributed and freed of burdens? Jesus had certainly thought so. He once said, quoting from Isaiah:
   The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good
   news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and
   recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim
   the year of the Lord's favour.

The popular movement of 66 CE amounted to a fusion of Apocalypse and Jubilee, the radical minority's vision of a revolutionary war to destroy corruption having become inextricably linked with the peasant majority's traditional aspiration for land redistribution and the removal of burdens. This was the potent mixture which exploded in an urban insurrection in Jerusalem in May 66.

The catalyst was the Roman procurator's demand for 100,000 denarii from the Temple treasury, probably to make up a shortfall in revenues caused by a tax strike. To enforce this demand, troops were sent into Jerusalem to disperse demonstrators, resulting in a massacre. The whole city then erupted in a fierce street battle and drove the Romans out. Jewish conservatives spent the summer attempting to restore order, first by persuasion and political manoeuvre, subsequently in an armed counter-revolution spearheaded by King Herod Agrippa's troops. With their failure, the stage was set for a full-scale invasion by the Roman army from Syria.

The revolt might have got no further. Cestius Gallus marched his army of 30,000 men all the way from Antioch to the borders of Judaea, and then inland to Jerusalem, leaving the land behind him laid waste by fire and the sword. But the Jews had mainly kept away, retreating into the hills, allowing the enemy to pass by, and watching in anger as their farms were burned. Now they came back in their thousands, closing in on the Roman communications between Jerusalem and the coast, lightly equipped irregulars armed with slings and javelins, preparing to fight not in the Roman way, in the head-on collision of pitched battle, but in the Eastern way, in the manner of skirmishers and guerrillas. Gallus found that the peasants of Judaea had risen en masse to his rear, and he had no choice but to call off his attack on Jerusalem and beat a retreat to the coast. Thus was the scene set for the battle of Beth-Horon.

From November 4th to 8th, 66, as the Roman column trudged back through the hills north-west of Jerusalem, it was engulfed in a hail of shot from the slopes above. Every time the Romans counter-attacked, the Jewish light infantry scurried away to safety, easily out-distancing their enemies on such broken ground. And every time, as the Romans fell back on the column, the Jews returned to resume the barrage of javelins and slingshot. Gallus eventually got his army away in the night, but he left behind 6,000 dead and all of his artillery and baggage. It was the greatest Jewish victory for 200 years, and it sounded through the villages of Palestine like a clarion call to holy war. This, surely, was God's work, the beginning of the long-awaited End of Days, the inaugural event of the Rule of the Saints.

Beth-Horon transformed an urban insurrection into a national revolution. A provisional government of high-priestly aristocrats was set up in Jerusalem; military governors were appointed to different parts of the country; coins were issued with the inscriptions `Shekel of Israel', `Holy Jerusalem' and `Year One' (of the liberation, that is); and there were attempts to raise an army to defend the territory of the new Jewish proto-state. But the real strength of the revolutionary movement lay elsewhere, in the plethora of independent armed militias which now sprang up across the country. Some were established groups of bandits or terrorists, which now swelled into large guerrilla units. Others were newly formed, perhaps on the initiative of local radicals, a charismatic leader, or a would-be messiah. They varied greatly in size and readiness for war, their membership tended to fluctuate over time, and they formed unstable and shifting alliances with other groups. The government was keen either to incorporate the militias into the regular army or, where they proved unruly, to suppress them. The militias--despite the offer of government pay--generally remained aloof, reluctant to surrender their independence, and the relationship between the two parties quickly soured. The roots of this conflict were deep, and it would culminate in the revolutionary overthrow of the aristocratic regime and its replacement by a government of militia leaders in the winter of 67-68.

This revolution within a revolution has been much misunderstood, thanks largely to the almost complete absence of sociological insight in Josephus' account. The aristocratic regime had been looking in two directions. It wanted to win a strong bargaining position on the battlefield and then to negotiate peace with the Romans, perhaps involving the re-establishment of a Jewish-ruled puppet kingdom of the kind that had existed before 6 CE and briefly again in 41-44 (when the Emperor Claudius had experimented with Herodian restoration). In this way, order and the security of property could be quickly restored. For the government was also embroiled in a conflict with the militias, many of whose members were actively working for the Apocalypse and the Jubilee. Yet it was precisely the radical enthusiasm of the militias --men who believed that they were engaged in a holy war to build heaven on earth--that gave the revolution its strength. The peasant-soldiers were fighting not for kings and high priests, but for God, the overthrow of the corrupt, and for the right to land. To crush these hopes would be to kill the spirit of revolt. At root, the struggle between aristocratic dunatoi and popular stasiastai--which Josephus describes--was a struggle between those who would halt the revolution to defend property and those who favoured a `Jacobin' policy of `public safety', one prepared to sacrifice the interests of the rich to advance the common cause.

The fate of the aristocratic government was sealed by its defeats in 67, above all in Galilee, when Vespasian's massive army of invasion, perhaps 60,000 strong, captured a string of Jewish strongholds, including the lynchpin fortress of Jotapata, which had held out for a month under the leadership of Josephus himself. Many of the defeated were killed or enslaved, and many more slunk away; but some thousands headed for Jerusalem, determined both to settle accounts with treacherous leaders and to continue the fight in defence of the holy city. The Roman siege of Jerusalem was delayed for another two years after the radical seizure of power, however, since Rome was at war with itself over the Imperial succession in 68-69. The victor was Vespasian, so when the Romans finally came for Jerusalem, they were led by his son Titus, to whom fell the task of defeating 25,000 veteran fighters defending some of the strongest fortifications in the world.

The attackers built ramps, employed battering rams to knock down walls, and mounted massed armoured assaults through the breaches. The defenders hurled missiles from the battlements, sallied forth to burn ramps and engines, and rushed to fill the breaches and throw back the enemy's assaults. The struggle descended into an abyss of horror: men fought each other with bitter savagery; hundreds of prisoners were crucified on the hills around the city; the bodies of famine victims were tossed over the walls to rot in the sun; and as the Romans broke into the city there was mayhem and massacre. The siege was a collision of two worlds: on one side, the military imperialism of Rome guarding the power and property of the rich; on the other, the rage of land-starved peasants from whom the wealth to build `civilisation' was stolen. There was no middle way, no possibility of compromise, and the collision of these worlds was fought with primal ferocity. The siege culminated in a three-month struggle for control of the Temple Mount, ending when, in mid-August 70, as fighting raged on the great concourse all around it, the Temple itself caught fire. In the confusion, Roman troops burst through the gates, and once inside the complex they cut down everyone they caught and looted the vast treasures stored there. Even then, resistance continued for another month in the Upper City, the remaining militiamen opting to fight on rather than surrender themselves and face a life of slavery.

The liquidation of the `Jewish Commune' was followed by a relentless campaign to exterminate the Zealot bacillus in the province. The network of cisterns and sewers beneath Jerusalem were combed for fugitives. Some who escaped were eventually run down and destroyed as far away as Egypt and Libya. Several years of counter-insurgency drives destroyed the remaining guerrilla bases in the deserts of southern Palestine, culminating in the siege and capture of Masada in 73. Perched on a rock surrounded by cliffs in the depths of the desert, a community of 960 men, women and children had maintained their `alternative lifestyle' for six or seven years, while the young warriors formed a guerrilla band that continued to fight for national and social liberation after all others had been defeated. Finally, though, the Romans came for them, 15,000 strong, building an impenetrable siege wall to cage the Zealots in, and then a huge siege ramp from which to bring their engines and assault troops into action. Once the walls were breached, neither victory nor flight was possible for the defenders. But when the Romans stormed the fortress, they faced no resistance and were confronted by an eerie emptiness. In a final, chilling act of revolutionary defiance, the Zealots had cheated their conquerors of the fruits of victory by destroying their possessions and committing mass suicide.

So Masada has become some sort of symbol. For some, a symbol of Israel, a nationalist icon in the predatory wars of the present; but for others--and the anonymous Israeli general at Jenin had a sense of this--it is a symbol of the oppressed fighting back, whether they be Jewish, or Arab, or anyone else, against the evils of a world dominated by greed and war.


Josephus, The Jewish War (trans. G.A. Williamson, Penguin, 1959); G. Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin, 1998); J. Campbell, Deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls (Fontana, 1996); H. Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance (Ocean, 1973); I. Wilson, Jesus: the evidence (Pan, 1985); M. Grant, The Jews in the Roman World (Phoenix, 1999); P. Richardson, Herod, King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans (T & T Clark, 1999); Y. Yadin, Masada, Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966).

Neil Faulkner's new book Apocalypse, The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome, AD 66-73 is published this month by Tempus, priced 25 [pounds sterling].
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Author:Faulker, Neil
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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