Tension between the Jewish population of the Roman Empire and the Greek and Roman populations mounted over the course of the 1st century CE, gradually escalating with various violent events, mainly throughout Judea (Iudaea), where parts of the Judean population occasionally erupted into violent insurrections against the Roman Empire. Several incidents also occurred in other parts of the Roman Empire, most notable the Alexandria pogroms, targeting the large Jewish community of Alexandria in the province of Egypt.
The escalation of tensions finally erupted as the Great Revolt of Judea, which began in the year 66 CE. It erupted initially due to Greek and Jewish religious tensions, but later escalated due to anti-taxation protests and attacks upon Roman citizens. The Roman military garrison of Judea was quickly overrun by rebels and the pro-Roman king Herod Agrippa II fled Jerusalem, together with Roman officials to Galilee. Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria, brought the Syrian army, based on XII Fulminata, reinforced by auxiliary troops, to restore order and quell the revolt. The legion, however, was ambushed and defeated by Jewish rebels at the Battle of Beth Horon, a result that shocked the Roman leadership.
The Roman command of the revolt’s suppression was then handed to general Vespasian and his son Titus, who assembled four legions and began advancing through the country, starting with Galilee, in the year 67 CE. The revolt ended when legions under Titus besieged and destroyed the center of rebel resistance in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, and defeated the remaining Jewish strongholds later on.
Revolt and warfare
In 115, the emperor Trajan was in command of the eastern campaign against the Parthian Empire. The Roman invasion had been prompted by the imposition of a pro-Parthian king on the throne of Armenia after a Parthian invasion of that land. This encroachment on the traditional sphere of influence of the Roman Empire — the two empires had shared hegemony over Armenia since the time of Nero some 50 years earlier — could only lead to war.
As Trajan’s army advanced victoriously through Mesopotamia, Jewish rebels in its rear began attacking the small garrisons left behind. A revolt in far off Cyrenaica soon spread to Egypt and then Cyprus, inciting revolt in Judea. A widespread uprising centered at Lydda threatened grain supplies from Egypt to the front. The Jewish insurrection swiftly spread to the recently conquered provinces. Cities with substantial Jewish populations – Nisibis, Edessa, Seleucia, Arbela – joined the rebellion and slaughtered their small Roman garrisons.
In Cyrenaica, the rebels were led by one Lukuas or Andreas, who called himself “king” (according to Eusebius of Caesarea). His group destroyed many temples, including those to Hecate, Jupiter, Apollo, Artemis, and Isis, as well as the civil structures that were symbols of Rome, including the Caesareum, the basilica, and the public baths.
The 4th century Christian historian Orosius records that the violence so depopulated the province of Cyrenaica that new colonies had to be established by Hadrian:
“The Jews … waged war on the inhabitants throughout Libya in the most savage fashion, and to such an extent was the country wasted that, its cultivators having been slain, its land would have remained utterly depopulated, had not the Emperor Hadrian gathered settlers from other places and sent them thither, for the inhabitants had been wiped out.”
Dio Cassius states of Jewish insurrectionaries:
“‘Meanwhile the Jews in the region of Cyrene had put one Andreas at their head and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would cook their flesh, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood, and wear their skins for clothing. Many they sawed in two, from the head downwards. Others they would give to wild beasts and force still others to fight as gladiators. In all, consequently, two hundred and twenty thousand perished. In Egypt, also, they performed many similar deeds, and in Cyprus under the leadership of Artemio. There, likewise, two hundred and forty thousand perished. For this reason no Jew may set foot in that land, but even if one of them is driven upon the island by force of the wind, he is put to death. Various persons took part in subduing these Jews, one being Lusius, who was sent by Trajan.”
The original 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia cited this about the Cyrene massacres:
“By this outbreak Libya was depopulated to such an extent that a few years later new colonies had to be established there (Eusebius, “Chronicle” from the Armenian, fourteenth year of Hadrian). Bishop Synesius, a native of Cyrene in the beginning of the fifth century, speaks of the devastations wrought by the Jews (“Do Regno,” p. 2).”
The Jewish Encyclopedia acknowledges Dio Cassius’s importance as a source, though believes his accounts of the actions at Cyrene and on Cyprus may have been embellished:
“For an account of the Jewish war under Trajan and Hadrian Dion is the most important source (lxviii. 32, lxix. 12–14), though his descriptions of the cruelties perpetrated by the Jews at Cyrene and on the island of Cyprus are probably exaggerated.”
Then Lukuas, leader of rebel Jews, moved towards Alexandria, entered the city, which had been abandoned by the Roman troops in Egypt under the leadership of governor Marcus Rutilius Lupus, and set fire to the city. The Egyptian temples and the tomb of Pompey were destroyed. Jewish rebels reportedly also prevailed in a battle at Hermopolis in 116, as indicated in a papyrus.
Trajan sent new troops under the praefectus praetorio Marcius Turbo, but Egypt and Cyrenaica were pacified only in autumn 117.
In Cyprus a Jewish band under a leader named Artemion took control of the island, killing tens of thousands of Cypriot Greek civilians. The Cypriot Jews participated in the great uprising against the Romans under Trajan (117), and massacred 240,000 Greeks. A Roman army was dispatched to the island, soon reconquering the capital. After the revolt had been fully defeated, laws were created forbidding any Jews to live on the island.
A new revolt sprang up in Mesopotamia, while Trajan was in the Persian Gulf. Trajan reconquered Nisibis (Nusaybin in Turkey), the capital of Osroene Edessa, and Seleucia (Iraq), each of which housed large Jewish communities.
A pro-Roman son of the Parthian king Osroes I, named Parthamaspatas, had been brought on the expedition as part of the emperor’s entourage. Trajan had him crowned in Ctesiphon as king of the Parthians. “Trajan, fearing that the Parthians, too, might begin a revolt, desired to give them a king of their own. Accordingly, when he came to Ctesiphon, he called together in a great plain all the Romans and likewise all the Parthians that were there at the time; then he mounted a lofty platform, and after describing in grandiloquent language what he had accomplished, he appointed Parthamaspates king over the Parthians and set the diadem upon his head.” (Dio Cassius). With this done, Trajan moved north to take personal command of the ongoing siege of Hatra.
The siege continued throughout the summer of 117, but the years of constant campaigning in the baking eastern heat had taken their toll on Trajan, who suffered a heatstroke. He decided to begin the long journey back to Rome in order to recover. Sailing from Seleucia, the emperor’s health deteriorated rapidly. He was taken ashore at Selinus in Cilicia, where he died, and his successor, Hadrian, assumed the reins of government in 118.
Jewish leader Lukuas fled to Judea. Marcius Turbo pursued him and sentenced to death the brothers Julian and Pappus, who had been key leaders in the rebellion. Lusius Quietus, the conqueror of the Jews of Mesopotamia, was now in command of the Roman army in Judea, and laid siege to Lydda, where the rebel Jews had gathered under the leadership of Julian and Pappus. The distress became so great that the patriarch Rabban Gamaliel II, who was shut up there and died soon afterwards, permitted fasting even on Ḥanukkah. Other rabbis condemned this measure. Lydda was next taken and many of the rebellious Jews were executed; the “slain of Lydda” are often mentioned in words of reverential praise in the Talmud. Rebel leaders Pappus and Julian were among those executed by the Romans in the same year.
Lusius Quietus, whom the Emperor Trajan had held in high regard and who had served Rome so well, was quietly stripped of his command once Hadrian had secured the Imperial title. He was murdered in unknown circumstances in the summer of 118, possibly by the orders of Hadrian.
Hadrian took the unpopular, but far-sighted, decision to end the war, abandoning much of Trajan’s eastern conquests and stabilising the eastern borders. Although he abandoned the erstwhile province of Mesopotamia, he installed Parthamaspates – who had been ejected from Ctesiphon by the returning Osroes – as king of a restored Osroene. For a century Osroene would retain a precarious independence as a buffer state, sandwiched between the two empires.
Further developments occurred in Judea Province in the year 130, when Emperor Hadrian visited the Eastern Mediterranean and, according to Cassius Dio, made the decision to rebuild the city of Jerusalem as the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina, derived from his own name. The decision, together with Hadrian’s other sanctions against the Jews, was allegedly one of the reasons for the eruption of the 132 Bar Kokhba revolt — an extremely violent uprising. The rebellion ended with a ban upon the Jewish faith across the Roman Empire, which was lifted in 138, upon Hadrian’s death.