by Evropa Soberana
Third Jewish-Roman War:
The Palestinian Revolt or
Rebellion of Bar Kokhba (132-135)
Hadrian at first had been minimally conciliatory with the province of Judea. He allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, began rebuilding the city as a gift from Rome and even gave them permission to rebuild the Temple. However, after a visit to the ‘Holy Land’, he had a sudden change of mind and began again to make Roman authority felt in the troubled province.
While the Jewish quarter was preparing the construction of the Temple, Hadrian ordered it to be built in a different place from the original, and then began deporting Jews to North Africa. Planning the complete transfiguration of Judea, its de-Judaization, its repopulation with Roman legionaries and its impregnation of Greco-Roman culture, he ordered the foundation, on Jerusalem, of a new Roman city, called Aelia Capitolina.
This implied the massive irruption of the classic art, extremely hated by the Jews, besides the construction of numerous Roman buildings—and the construction of a Roman building necessarily went through a ceremony of consecration of religious character that, according to the Talmudic mentality, polluted the Holy Land for being a pagan ritual. Jerusalem, before the nervous eyes of Jewry, was going to become the scene of a highly ‘profane’, ‘impure’ and ‘pagan’ place for their mentality, such as streets decorated with naked statues with a prepuce!
The Jews, again indignant, prepared for a rebellion, but Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah calmed them down, so they were content to prepare themselves clandestinely in case they had to rebel in the future, which seemed every time most likely. They built caches in caves and began to accumulate weapons and supplies. Although they did not carry out an open rebellion, in 123 terrorist actions began to take place against the Roman forces of occupation.
The Hellenistic education of Hadrian is evident in his beard. The Romans, a people of soldiers, like the Macedonians, had the deep-rooted habit of facial shaving. Although Nero brought partial beard at some moments of his life, it was Hadrian the first emperor to leave it permanently. Such a man would naturally be more inclined to take a stand for the ethnically Greek populations of the Eastern Mediterranean against his main rivals: the Jews, especially Alexandrians.
Hadrian, who was increasingly regretting his previous indulgence for the Jewish quarter, brought the Legio VI Ferrata to act as a police force. To make matters worse, the emperor was a man of Hellenistic education. In addition to the anti-Judaism traditionally associated with it, the Greek formation considered circumcision as a barbaric act of mutilation.
Although they admired the nakedness of a beautiful human body, the Greeks, who in Judea formed the most influential social sector after the Romans, considered it an act of extreme bad education to show the glans in public (for which those who had too short a foreskin from birth, had to cover the glans with some accessory). Instead, according to Jewish tradition, Adam and Moses were born without foreskin, and the Messiah will also be born circumcised. The Jews were not the only people to practice circumcision: it was also practiced by other Semitic peoples such as the Syrians and the Arabs. But in the case of the Jews it was a religious matter: a sign of covenant between them and Jehovah. To make matters worse, Hadrian also decided to prohibit the observance of the Sabbath, which forced the Jews not to work and practically do nothing on Saturdays.
The year 131, after an inauguration ceremony by the governor Quintus Tineius Rufus, began the works of Aelia Capitolina, and the following year coinage was minted with the new name of the city and works were begun on a Temple dedicated to Jupiter in the location of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef convinced the Sanhedrin to proclaim as Messiah and commander of the coming rebellion Simon Bar Kokhba (‘Son of a star’): a cunning, bloodthirsty and shrewd leader. Bar Kokhba must have planned carefully, noting the issues where previous rebellions had failed.
Instantly, as soon as Hadrian left Judea, that same year of 132, the Jewish quarter rose, attacked the Roman detachments and annihilated the Legio X (Legio VI was encamped watching the passage of Megiddo). The Jews from all the provinces of the Empire and beyond began to attend, and also obtained the support of many Syrian and Arab tribes.
With their fundamentalist Semitic hordes—supposedly 400,000 men, of whom it was said to have been started by cutting off a finger or plucking a cedar from the roots—they stormed 50 fortified plazas and 985 defenceless towns (including Jerusalem), exterminating the Greek communities, the Roman detachments and all the opponents they encountered; atrocities being common. Later, they dedicated themselves to the construction of walls and underground passages; in short, to entrench themselves in each square.
After these fleeting victories, the Jewish state in the area was reorganized. In Betar, a mighty fortress in the mountains, Bar Kokhba was crowned Messiah in a solemn ceremony. During the years of the revolt, Ben Yosef and Bar Kokhba reigned together, one as a dictator and the other as a religious ‘pontiff’ who proclaimed the ‘era of the redemption of Israel’ and even minted their own coins.
General Publicius Marcellus, governor of Syria, was sent to support Quintus Tineius Rufus; but both Romans were defeated by forces vastly superior in number, which also invaded the coastal areas, forcing the Romans to fight with them in naval battles. At this moment so worrying for Rome, Hadrian called Sextus Julius Severus, who at that time was governor of the province of Britain. He also required a former governor of Germania, Quintus Lollius Urbicus. With them, he gathered an army even greater than the one that Titus had gathered last century, a total of perhaps twelve legions: from one third to half of all the military troops of the Empire.
In view of the vast number of enemies and the desperation with which they acted, the Romans avoided open battles; limited themselves to attacking scattered groups and destroying the populations where they could find sustenance: the tactics of anti-partisan warfare. The Jews had fairly well entrenched themselves in some 50 fortified cities, many of them truly impregnable complexes in the mountains, so the Romans advanced slowly by besieging the squares, cutting off supplies and entering when the defenders were weak.
This painful tactic, which also required long journeys through hostile areas, cost the Romans innumerable deaths—in fact, it seems that the Jews annihilated, or at least caused very heavy losses, to the Legio XXII Deiotariana which had come from Egypt. To confirm the hardships passed by the legions, Hadrian eliminated from his military reports to the Senate and the people of Rome the traditional opening formula ‘I and the legions are fine’ for the simple reason that the legions… were not fine.
After enormous sacrifices and waste of discipline and feeling of duty, the Romans were triumphing little by little. In the year 134 the Betar fortress remained, where Bar Kokhba had become strong with the Sanhedrin; his most loyal followers, and thousands of Jews who had come as refugees. The same day of the anniversary of the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem, the fortress fell into the hands of the Roman soldiers, who put the entire population to the sword and did not allow the dead to be buried for six days.
‘Even if they swear to become good Roman citizens and worship Jupiter and our other gods, kill them, if you do not want them to destroy Rome or conquer it by the secret and cowardly means that they usually do’.
—Emperor Hadrian to his legions