Guy MacLean Rogers. For the Freedom of Zion: The Great Revolt of Jews against Romans, 66–74 CE. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022.
The Jewish War of 67-74 CE was a seminal moment for the ancient world and for the world we currently inhabit. The war culminated in the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish Temple. This event marks the definitive split between the nascent religious movement centered around Jesus of Nazareth and its parent religion, Judaism, with the sack of Temple supposedly confirming prophecies of the Galilean who remarked, “There shall not be left here one stone upon another.” For Judaism, the war radically transformed the religion—no longer would Judaism be centered around Jerusalem and the cultic sacrifice at the Temple as it had been since the Josian reforms; now it would be centered around the rabbis, the teachers of the Torah and the Pentateuch in the synagogues. The war also brought an end to the Jewish dream of an independent Zion, a dream that wouldn’t be revived until the nineteenth century and realized in 1948 with consequences lasting to this day. The Jewish War also revealed for a religion yet to emerge in the Arabian desert the need for a new prophet of God because the apostasy and idolatry of the Jews (and later the Christians) led to the destruction of the Temple.
In 67, with an army led by Vespasian, a Jewish aristocrat and general named Josephus surrendered himself to the Romans after his army was defeated in a brutal siege. He joined Vespasian and then Titus Flavius and provided the Romans with extensive insider information about Jewish war plans. Josephus then gave an apologetic account of his actions and detailed the war in Flavius Josephus’s Books of the History of the Jewish War against the Romans, more commonly known as The Jewish Wars. It begins, perhaps oddly for unsuspecting readers, with the war between the Maccabees and the Seleucids before reaching Titus’s conquest of the city. The point is clear: Jerusalem is a city that matters, and Jews have been willing to fight and die for its independence against foreign kinds and would-be conquerors.
To understand the significance of Jerusalem we need to leave behind, for a moment, the archeology and history that reveal the horrors of this war. We need to turn to the Bible, the sacred text of the Jews and Christians, before proceeding further. According to the synthetic narrative of the biblical redactors compiled during the reign of King Josiah, the revelation of God from the patriarchs through the prophets centered upon God’s will to be housed in a temple of worship in the city of Jerusalem. This is why Abraham was called to leave Ur of the Chaldees and venture into Canaan. This is why God liberated the Israelites from Egypt and commanded them to take what was originally meant to be theirs. This is why God called upon David to take the city and bring the Ark of the Covenant into it. Solomon finally built the Temple of God so long desired by Yahweh.
The Temple in Jerusalem was now the cultic center for Yahwism and the idolatrous anti-Temple Israelites were punished by being wiped out by the Assyrians for their failure to keep the cultic worship centered in Jerusalem. Despite the sins of Judah, the promise of God was that he would not abandon the Judahites. After the Temple was ruined by the Babylonians, God used Cyrus and the Persians to permit the Jews to rebuild the Temple. The rebuilt Temple, which would undergo various renovations over the centuries after the return from the Babylonian Exile, stood until destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. No Temple has since been rebuilt though some Jews, and even some Christians, believe a third Temple will be built before the end times.
Though “[m]any scholars have downplayed the scale and significance of the revolt of the Jews against the Romans,” the Jewish War really was a war that mattered. “The war of the Jews against Romans was not small, short, or insignificant,” Rogers reminds us. The theologies of three of the world’s most impactful and influential religions are all formed—in part—by their understanding of the event. The destruction of the Jewish Temple and the scattering of many Jews abroad into the machinery of the Roman Empire would have subsequent consequences for Jews for the next two millennia. The lack of a cultic Jewish Temple also meant that when the Arab Muslim armies of Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb captured the city from the Byzantines in 637 that the city would become a holy place for Islam; the eventual creation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock cemented Muslim claim to the city and the battered temple mount that is still the scene of periodic inter-religious conflict within the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
What Guy Maclean Rogers has accomplished with his book, For the Freedom of Zion, is provide a history of a war that has largely only been the interest to religious individuals for inter-religious and theological dispute, debate, and identity, and bring it to the public at large. We shouldn’t forget when reading Josephus, for instance, he imbues his history with theological significance—the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was punishment for the sins of his fellow Jews and Herod most especially. Rogers does provide some cursory commentary on these matters but focuses instead on the events leading up to the war, the spectacle of the war itself going into substantive detail with the Siege of Jerusalem and the last stand of the Jewish zealots at Masada, and an analysis of the sources—principally Josephus—that historians draw upon in the historiographic, rather than theological, debates over the events that have had a substantial impact on our world even if many do not realize it.
Josephus may have begun his Jewish Wars with the Maccabean Revolt, but Rogers begins his with the most famous of the Judaean kings on the eve of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth: Herod. Herod was a king unlike any other king, and he certainly rivaled the biblical hagiography that surrounds David, Solomon, and Josiah when you look at his accomplishments during his reign.
Herod, although a descendant of the Edomites, sought to improve and secure the nominal independence of Judaea. We sometimes forget that even as Rome became an empire, it didn’t rule by autocratic direct control but through proxies. Many of the eastern territories, in particular, retained nominal monarchs and princes who were loyal to Augustus and had Roman oversight but were generally granted flexible decision-making in their governance. Herod played nice with Augustus when it became clear he would emerge the victor after Actium, and the two men had a mutual respect for each other (as evidenced by Herod’s will which granted so much to Augustus as a token of gratitude and friendship).
The final decades of Herod’s life saw an explosion of political and economic activity within Judaea. We also forget that the Levant, Judaea and Egypt, as well as Anatolia, was the real breadbasket and wealthy center of the Roman Empire and not the poor and often destitute lands of western Europe. Judaea was a land where merchants, pilgrims, and scholars flocked and worked. Rogers importantly reminds us that the Herodian Temple that Herod (re)built and embellished was “more beautiful than the pyramid at Giza.” So monumental was the Herodian rebuilding of the Temple that “[t]he footprint of the completed Herodian platform encompassed more than 144,000 square meters, or almost 35 acres. It was almost three times as large as the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. It was also more than five times as large as the enclosure of the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens and twice the size of the plot of land on which the White House in Washington, DC, sits.” In short, when Josephus claimed the Temple as the most beautiful building in the ancient world, he wasn’t lying—it was. The Temple in Jerusalem was the first wonder of the ancient world prior to its destruction by the Romans; the Temple surpassed the Pyramids, the Temple of Artemis, the Great Library, and all the other great monuments of antiquity. Those who mock Judaea and ancient Jerusalem as some uncultured and undeveloped backwater reveal their utter ignorance and implicit anti-Semitism. When Pliny the Elder wrote that Jerusalem was “the most celebrated city in the East,” he was very much telling the truth of the time. Herod’s Jerusalem was the glittering prize of all the east, surpassing even the majesty of Alexandria.
Nevertheless, Herod’s reign was also brutal. Internal divisions and the politics of zealotry led to Herod’s iron-fisted reputation. He silenced his political opponents by having them arrested and killed. He banished family members he considered a threat to his rule, even murdering some. He played loyal Roman and pious Jew. This double game earned him the scorn of his critics, Josephus included, but Herod was also in a precarious position. His kingdom was at the frontier of two great powers: Rome and Parthia. He even had to flee Jerusalem earlier in his life and reign to escape Parthian invaders. It makes sense, politically speaking, for why Herod ruled the way he did.
Rogers provides the contextual environment for how it wouldn’t be long after Herod’s death that the tensions of Jewish zealotry and Roman imperial authoritarianism inevitably clashed. Herod, cruel and great though he was, was the only man who was able to maintain the fragile peace and tensions boiling to rupture. Once Herod died the slow drift to conflict began.
Part of the problem with Herod in historiography is his opponents have a monopoly over the written record. Despite the building programs and reformations unleashed by Herod, he was never considered a pious and faithful Jew. This was partly due to Jewish ethnocentrism; Herod was part Edomite and therefore never considered part of the covenant elect. This was also partly due to Herod’s alliance with Augustus and the memory of Gentile profanation of the Temple, first with the Greeks then with the Romans (Pompey). The fact that the king of Judaea would play nice with the defilers of God’s Temple left a bad taste in the mouths of certain pious and faithful Jews who prided themselves in their religious and ritualistic purity. To the Jewish zealots who opposed Herod, it was all-or-nothing. Compromise with Caesar and the profaning Gentiles was unacceptable, “The only real king of Israel was God, as Moses, the people of Israel, Gideon, Samuel, Asaph and his brethren, the singers of the Psalms, and the prophet Isaiah repeatedly remind the Jews.” With Herod dead, the opportunity for a faithful and purified Davidic restoration beckoned. It was time to rededicate the Temple and Jerusalem just as David and Solomon had done a millennium earlier. Messianic fulfillment was palpable, near at hand.
Rogers’s book is a work of incredible scholarship that is also eminently readable, a testament to his research and writing. For those of us who rely on Josephus for the account of the struggle, Rogers’s book portends to be the twenty-first century replacement of Josephus’s classic. From Herod to the smaller revolts and zealot uprisings that periodically erupted between the birth of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple by Titus, Rogers takes us on a historical pilgrimage through the most important region of the world, the birthplace of civilization, the lands that are claimed to be the holiest on the earth.
Power politics and political rivalry, not just religious sentiment, influenced the backsliding to full-blown revolution. Again, Herod was the only man who was able to keep the region under stability. His death unleashed a wave of political scheming; his various sons claimed inheritance, his sister backed usurpers, the Roman political overseers grew nervous during the Jewish holy festivals when tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to the city and swelled Jerusalem’s size to a city of up to one hundred thousand inhabitants or more. In the aftermath of Herod’s death Jerusalem was a city always on the verge of rupture.
It is in this city on the verge of rupture that the movement of new emperors, Jewish pretensions, and religious zealotry began to converge. Men far beneath Herod’s political talents led to the whittling away of Judaea’s nominal independence as it became an imperial province. Likewise, the relatively hands-off policy of Augustus vanished and the subsequent procurators and provincial administrators, even emperors, sought to extract the wealth of Judaea for their own political and economic gain.
At the same time, Roman generals in the region had a give-and-take relationship with Jews in the region. Some generals went out of their way to respect Jewish customs. Others ignored Jewish pleas and violated Jewish religious sensibilities. As the decades went on, more and more Roman generals—incensed by some degree of Jewish stubbornness over various imperial manners and edicts—became increasingly hostile to the Jewish population, “With the considerable assistance of some incompetent, greedy, corrupt, and at times malevolent Roman administrators,” Rogers writes, “those Jews who wanted the Romans out of Judaea eventually convinced enough of their fellow Jews of their point of view to incite a full-scale rebellion.” So, by 66 CE, the boiling pot finally erupted with a supposed act of sacrilege by a Caesarian sacrificing birds in front of a synagogue which gave Jewish zealots and political dissidents the casus belli they had long been seeking as much as it also gave Roman leaders in Judaea the pretext to try and seize the treasures of the Jewish Temple to deal with political and economic problems back in Rome.
In detailing the Jewish War, Rogers restores the scale and prominence of the conflict to readers. The Roman army that was assembled to crush the Jewish revolt was monumental, massive. The legions and the allies of Rome that were gathered and marched into Judaea was larger than the Greek army assembled by Alexander to conquer Persia and larger than the Roman army that invaded the British Isles. This was no small matter. The Romans put a lot of men and material, blood and treasure, into crushing the Jewish Revolt. To reiterate Rogers’s reason for writing this book, “The war of the Jews against Romans was not small, short, or insignificant.” Once the reader realizes the scale of the war and the Roman operation to crush the Jews, the reader realizes just how important and significant this war was.
Rogers’s second reason for writing this magnificent book is to counter the influence of Josephus. Not that Josephus is an utterly unreliable historian. Josephus is like many an ancient historian. But Josephus’s account of the war is theological in nature, he blames Herod for the woes of the Jews and asserts that faithfulness to God was to recognize the will of God moving away from Jerusalem and to the Romans. Rogers has, therefore, written a “secular” history of the Jewish War meant to free the conflict from the theological signification ascribed to it by Josephus, our primary historian of the war, as well as the subsequent centuries of Christian and even Islamic understandings of the war which push a supersessionist theological narrative. While the religious undercurrent for the war cannot be ignored, Rogers doesn’t want us to read the war in light of Divine Judgement as we find in Josephus and Christian interpreters of the event three, four, and five centuries later. To those readers to whom that matters, read Josephus, but for those readers wanting a detailed account of events, troops, and logistics, read Rogers.
When the war erupted, the terror and horror of the slaughter commenced. The Jews not only revolted against their Roman overlords, seizing the city of Jerusalem and butchering the surrendered Roman garrison after they laid down their arms according to a surrender agreement which was promptly disregarded by the Jewish rebels, they also turned against their fellow Jews who were perceived to be on friendly terms with the Romans. The wealthy Jerusalemites who had not already joined the rebels were targeted, the pro-Roman elite in the city also came under the knives, clubs, and swords of the revolutionaries. As Rogers writes, “The next day some of the rebels, undoubtedly followers of Menachem, caught up with the wealthy, former high priest Ananias near the canal on the palace grounds. They killed him there, along with his brother Ezekias.”
With the news of the slaughter in Jerusalem spreading, Roman officials in the surrounding provinces retaliated. This had disastrous consequences for the diaspora Jewish populations who were soon cleansed from prominent cities like Caesarea. In Alexandria, the city where Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, bequeathing to the world the Septuagint, and the place where Philo of Alexandria embarked on his ambitious program of synthesizing Jewish theology with Greek Platonism, as many as 50,000 Jews inside the city were killed after the Jewish population in the city rioted in solidarity with the Jerusalemite brethren. “More Jews were killed in Alexandria than in either Caesarea or Jerusalem in the summer of 66.”
What followed from the outbreak of war in 66 was a struggle “for which we have no other comparable testimony in the history for the early Roman empire.” Consider Rogers’s honest reflection in light of what people generally remember about the early Roman empire. The war between Octavian and Antony and Cleopatra. The Battle of Actium. The wars between Rome and Parthia. None compared to the “ferocity” and “suffering, death, and destruction” unleashed in the Jewish War.
Josephus, one of the few Jews with any military experience, was appointed commander of the army. He faced rivalry within the ranks of the revolutionaries. John of Gischala, in particular, tried to oust him before the war came Jerusalem’s doorsteps. When it did, Josephus wisely realized the reality of impending Jewish defeat. Although he held out during Siege of Iotapata, or Yodfat, his capture eventually led to his defection. Josephus was scorned and hated by the Jerusalemites even though he did act courageously when in command of the army besieged by the Romans.
In a brilliant account of the Roman counteroffensive, the siege of Jerusalem, destruction of the Temple, and the last stand at Masada, Rogers brings to life the sublime horror and gruesome reality of the Jewish War for modern readers.
Readers might ask why the Romans didn’t win right away? We often forget that ancient logistics are not like the logistics of expediency we have today where ordering food comes with the click of a button and is delivered within 30 minutes. In 66, the first Roman army assembled by the governor Cestius, which numbered over 30,000 Romans and non-Roman allies, would have required an enormous amount of food and water to supply it. The average Roman soldier ate nearly 3 pounds of food and drank 2 liters of water daily. Hundreds and thousands of pack animals, mules and oxen, were also required to transport material with the army not to mention all the fodder and water to feed the animals.
Intelligence problems also restrict ancient warfare. While intelligence problems still exist today, the proliferation of high-tech intelligence makes the intelligence side to modern warfare far superior than in the ancient past when spies and bribes were unreliable. When the Roman army led by Cestius failed to seize Jerusalem in 66, Rogers informs us that Josephus’s account of the incompetence of Cestius is overblown. Rather, Cestius had miscalculated the resilience of the Jewish defenders, had not expected a full-blown siege of Jerusalem was necessary, and rightly called off the attack to restore some sense of order and imperial control in the outlying regions to prepare for a renewed offensive. Nevertheless, Cestius’s failed campaign of 66 was “one of the most inglorious in the early Roman imperial history.” The failed campaign of 66 would lead to the massive Roman counteroffensive that led Vespasian and Titus to Jerusalem and the destruction of the ancient world’s most glorious temple that should be considered the greatest of the monuments and “wonders” of the ancient world.
At the same time as Rome was fighting to regain control of Judaea, the Year of the Four Emperors brought instability to the Roman imperial regime. This further hampered Roman efforts in Judaea until Vespasian ascended to the purple. He left his son, a shrewd and skilled strategist and general, Titus, as command-in-chief of the army.
The rise of the Flavians in Rome with Vespasian as emperor and Titus as general in Judaea finally brought Roman resolve and stability to the war. Now was the time to strike. And strike Titus did, having learned of the mistakes of the past and he was determined not to repeat them again.
What followed in the year 70 was an unmitigated disaster for the Jews and the city of Jerusalem. The city was surrounded, cut off by the Romans and their allies. Prepared for siege of the city, unlike in 66, Titus was ready for a final, all-out, confrontation with the revolutionaries. The siege towers and battering rams and ballistae and catapults were an intimidating sight from inside the city walls, notwithstanding the giant army besieging the city.
Though the Jews fought valiantly, scoring several impressive victories during the siege including destroying the Roman earthworks built for the offensive, Titus’s plan of subjugation was working. Famine and starvation hit the city. Residents and revolutionaries trapped inside resorted to cannibalism. Others tried to flee the city in secret. “As the fight over the stoas raged on, the starving population of the city was driven to desperate acts. People began to eat belts, shoes, and even the leather from their shields.”
As the Romans pressed further and further inward, the fighting around the Temple resulted in a catastrophic fire that consumed and destroyed the Temple. While Titus raced to try and prevent the Temple’s destruction, his soldiers wanted revenge. “Some of the soldiers who did hear him pretended not to have and shouted to their comrades up ahead to throw their burning brands into the fire too. The rebels were no longer capable of defending themselves, and there was butchery and flight all around. Most of those slain at the time were unarmed civilians. Bodies began to pile up around the Temple building itself.” The Temple that had been built by Solomon, rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile, and restored and rebuilt to greater prominence under Herod, was no more. Jerusalem, the glittering prize of the east, was a heap of ash and ruin. It was with Jerusalem’s burning that Alexandria became the glittering prize of the Roman east.
The war didn’t end with the destruction of the Temple and sack of Jerusalem. Jewish patriots reassembled and the famous last stand at Masada before a mass suicide of defenders ended the famous defense of the Masada fortress. Smaller battles sill raged, but the war was now coming to an end. The destruction of the Temple and the burning of Jerusalem, “woe unto the Jerusalemites,” was the defining moment of the war. Titus received his triumph. The Roman victory achieved by Titus under the watchful rule of his father as emperor secured the future reign of the Flavian dynasty and the continuation of the Roman Empire after its period of instability at the end of Nero’s reign. Furthermore, the destruction of Jerusalem turned the once great and glittering city into a pile of rubble that wouldn’t regain its prominence until the twentieth century. The Temple, priesthood, and sacrifice so essential to Jewish identity and religiosity was no more. It hasn’t returned. Judaism would reinvent itself around the synagogues, rabbis, Torah, and Talmud in the aftermath of the war. Yet things also remained the same. Even today, Israeli soldiers, like those revolutionaries two millennia ago, swear an oath to defend Jerusalem beside the ruins of the Temple Mount.
Guy Maclean Rogers has written the definitive English-language history of the Jewish War. In doing so, he goes beyond Josephus to bring this significant and monumental, epochal and history changing, war to a twenty-first century audience. The next time you read Josephus you should have For the Freedom of Zion beside it as a companion.
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