The Jewish revolt broke out in AD 66. It was a hugely destructive revolt that lasted four years. It was eventually suppressed by the destruction of Jerusalem and the capture of Masada.
Was the revolt exceptional?
Historians have sometime been struck by the relative absence of revolts against Rome, referring to the Pax romana, the Roman peace. Some central areas of Roman imperial rule, Italy, Spain, Greece, parts of Asia Minor, were generally peaceful after the Augustan period, though many of those areas had resisted Roman rule for centuries. In other areas, there were repeated regional revolts. The Judaean region was one area which saw problems throughout the first and into the early second century. We know about these problems because they were recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus.
Josephus was more than a local historian, but we must imagine that there were many other local writers of the Roman period whose works have not been preserved. For Josephus, we have his Jewish Antiquities and Jewish War, together with his Life and a polemic text, Against Apion. Such extensive writings from a writer whose works would seemingly be mostly regional interests is exceptional. We should remember that many of the most popular and influential of Roman historians do not survive in their entirety. Josephus wrote in Greek, though the Antiquities was also written in Aramaic, but was translated into Latin in the Christian period. A Latin version survives in multiple manuscripts. The Greek manuscript tradition is also rich. These traditions attest to the importance of the text as an independent source of information for the time of Christ in the Levant.
The revolt is hardly reported elsewhere and has significance in part because of the involvement of Vespasian and Titus.
As monotheists, the Jews were exceptional in the Roman Empire, and this may have caused problems from time to time, as we see with Gaius. But the Romans were not antisemitic in any way moderns would recognize and various emperors had very good personal relations with leading figures in the Herodian dynasty. Augustus and Agrippa in particular (Josephus, Antiquities 16.2). The grandson of Herod the Great was even named M. Julius Agrippa (of Herod Agrippa) in honour of M. Agrippa.
There were religious tensions, and these contributed significantly to the outbreak of the war. Roman understanding and management of Jewish sensibilities were often poor. The revolt when it did break out was connected to demands for taxation and a fiscal raid on the enormous wealth that was gathered in the Temple. The Jews regarded the Temple’s financial resources as sacred offerings; the procurator, Gessius Florus, chose not to. Issues of taxation were an inevitable point of conflict between Roman authorities and provincials, especially in times of hardship and corruption.
Judaean society appears to have been fragmented and violent. The mismanagement of Florus achieved near unity among the Jewish population, at least temporarily, and that may be related to the religious elements of the revolt, but many of the causes of the revolt (friction over incompetent governors, corruption, taxation issues) were not exceptional.
Divisions in Jewish Society
Jewish community politics was remarkably complex. There were Jews in many communities across the Mediterranean region. These communities owed loyalty and sent money to the Temple. These diaspora communities appear to have taken no active part in the war, but in various places the gentile communities rose up against the Jews, thereby demonstrating their loyalty to the Romans.
Judaea-Palestine was also a divided group. There were various regional communities. Jerusalem and Judaea had been traditionally dominated by a priestly elite closely connected to the previous royal family. The Herodian dynasty, however, were relative outsiders to this group.
In addition, the region was home to many Greek communities (such as Caesarea or
Scythopolis), creating a mix of religious and political attitudes and potential tensions.
The incorporation of Judaea into the Roman sphere appears to have given rise to problems. It encouraged Greek elements and also cultural changes that saw more aspects of Greek culture enter Jewish life. But it also appears to have encouraged economic changes, particularly in the villages of the Galilee. Not only is the Galilee seemingly the origin of Christianity, but also was a centre of new forms of rabbinic Judaism.
There is considerable evidence of friction between elements of Jewish society. Bandit groups or sicarii (knife-men) conducted political and violent campaigns. There were millenarianist groups, convinced that the Messiah was on His way.
All these movements point to a profoundly disturbed social order, struggling in the imperial system.
With the outbreak of the revolt, Roman forces were summoned from Syria, which was the main military concentration in the region. He brought one legion with him, together with auxiliary forces and several thousand other legionaries. This army made its way through Galilee and into Judaea to attack Jerusalem. He broke into the lower city, but was unable to get into the Upper city. After an unsuccessful assault, he decided he retreat. The irregular Jewish forces harried his lines with increasing ferocity. Nearly 6000 men were lost in the retreat (Josephus, Jewish War 2.18-19).
The defeat of Cestius was a considerable victory. The Jews had successful resisted a Roman army. The rebels drew together a larger force and pro-Roman elements of the aristocracy fled. But in the longer term, the revolt was unlikely to succeed. The Roman military machine simply began the process of collecting forces.
Nero was in Greece and he appointed Vespasian to the command. He was an experienced general of long-service. When Vespasian invaded, he came with a massive force, perhaps 37,000 troops [though in an arithmetical disaster, Josephus, Jewish War 3.4 counts 60,000]. Vespasian and his son Titus led the troops into Galilee where they defeated Josephus.
Soon after his defeat, and beset by Jewish enemies, Josephus made his peace with Vespasian. Unsurprisingly, this is a controversial act and there would be those who regarded him as a traitor. Josephus himself presents the Roman victory in the war as inevitable. Roman resources far out-weighed those available to the Jews. The only option was to make peace and to prevent the terrible destruction that Rome would bring down upon the Jews. For Josephus, the rebellion was against current corruption and the Neronian regime. It was a very convenient argument and one that may have saved his life.
Vespasian was poised to march on Jerusalem of the crisis in the West reached him. He paused his campaign and was soon enough readying himself to bid for the throne.