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Jews in Ancient Rome

Pompey conquers Judea in 63 BCE, and Romans rule the Jews there from then on, through 135 CE, when,Roman Empirefollowing the Bar Kochba revolt almost all Jews leave or are forcibly removed from Judea. The Jewish revolt which lasted from 66-70 CE results in the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Second Temple. The last holdout rebels die at Masada in 73 CE.




Unit Understandings

1) Students will understand that an initially tolerant, beneficent relationship between Jews in Judea and Romans goes bad, and results in revolt and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

2) Students will understand that the destruction of the Temple forces Jews to once again reexamine how they identify and how they live as Jews.

3) Students will understand that the destruction of the Temple leads to the rise of Messianic movements, and, alternatively quietism. It also leads to the creation of a program for living as Jews without the Temple — meaning the keeping of traditions without a focus and reliance on the Temple while living outside the land. Hope is kept alive for return and the rebuilding of the Temple.

Essential Questions

1) How do Jews react to a second destruction of their centralizing, unifying symbol (the Temple)? Why do they think the Temple has been destroyed for a second time?

2) What is the result of the Bar Kochba revolt? How do Jews now adapt to the realization that the Temple will not be rebuilt any time soon (as it had been after 586 BCE and the Babylonian Exile).

3) How does the destruction of the second Temple affect the Jews’ relationship to God? (How does this relate to the way they thought of God following the Babylonian Exile 650 years earlier?)

Key Terms/People/Events
  • Herod
  • Hasmoneon Dynasty
  • Ptolemies
  • Seleucids
  • Pompey
  • Herodium
  • Caesarea
  • Bet Shean
  • Edict of Augustus
  • Josephus Flavius
  • Pharisees
  • Vespasian
  • The Jewish War
  • Bar Kochba
  • Rabbi Akiva
  • Babylonian Exile
  • Trajan
  • Jerusalem
  • Aelia Capitolina
  • Diaspora
Lesson Plan

Part I: Herod’s Expansion
Prior to the Roman takeover of Judea, there was a brief period (about 100 years)  of autonomous Jewish rule. The Hasmonean dynasty, after taking power during a period of imperial weakness (battles between the Ptolemies in the south (Egypt) and the Seleucids in the north (Syria) in Judea, eventually fell to the Romans, as Pompey conquered Judea in 63 BCE. About 20 years later, Herod, the greatest Roman/Jewish leader took power. He ruled harshly, shutting down all opposition brutally.

He built a fortress in the Judean hills, known as Herodium. (Show HERODIUM pictures here.) to do so, he had to raise the hill, which was too low. His grave was recently discovered (Spring, 2007) there, after years of archaeological mystery.

Herod built Caesarea as well, which was once the site of a Phoenician port, over the course of 12 years. Caesarea became the grandest city other than Jerusalem in Palestine, with a deep sea harbor (called Sebastos, i.e., Augustus in Greek), aqueduct, hippodrome and magnificent amphitheater that remain standing today. Herod renamed the city Caesarea in honor of the emperor. The population of Caesarea was half gentile and half Jewish, often causing disputes among the people. In 6 CE, Caesarea became the home of the Roman governors (Procurators) of Judea. The city remained the capital of Roman and Byzantine Palestine. (Show CAESAREA pictures here.)

Bet Shean is another example of a Roman city within Judea; in fact it had many different inhabitants over time, including the Greeks under Alexander the Great, who called it “Scythopolis.” Pompey made it the capital of the 10 Greek cities (Decapolis). (Show BET SHEAN ARCHAEOLOGY pictures here.)

Herod also rebuilt the Jerusalem temple, enlarging it and making it more impressive than ever. He also built a temple to Roman gods at Caesarea. (Show Jerusalem Temple model pictures here.)

Part II: Chaos and Revolt
After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, Judea was ruled poorly, though Judaism became an officially tolerated religion within the Roman Empire.

Document: “Edict of Augustus on Jewish Rights,” (1 BCE);

Document: “Edict of Claudius on Jewish Rights,” (41 CE).

Still, the relationship between Judea and the Romans began to deteriorate with the poor leadership in the first half of the 1st century CE. Our lone Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius (37 – ca.100 CE), tells us the bulk of what went on during this period, a period in which he lived. He wrote two major histories of the Jews: Bellum Judaicum and Antiquities of the Jews.

As an elite member of likely the Pharisee sect, Josephus was wealthy and privileged. He first took up leadership of a legion of Judean soldiers (he says 100,000, but that number is highly exaggerated) and fought the Romans in the Galilee (at Jotapata). Josephus fights a losing battle, loses all his men whom he describes as fighting valiantly. He is given a choice, either join the Roman side or die. He becomes a Roman general; many therefore discount his account of the Jewish War given that he is a “traitor,” but the account is widely accepted as offering a decent picture of what transpired during the 4-year revolt.

Document: Tacitus, “Roman Misrule in Palestine,” (Histories, 5, IX: 2-3-X)

Document: Josephus, “Riots & Disturbances,” (The Jewish War II) (about 44 CE)

Document: Josephus, “Statue of Caligula in Jerusalem Temple”

Document: Dio Cassius (160-230 CE), “Roman View of Judaism,”

Document: Josephus: “Josephus Explains the Origins of the Revolt,”

­-After Herod’s death, how do the Romans think of and relate to the Jews after in the 1st century CE?

-Why do the Jews ultimately rebel against the Romans?


Part III: Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple
What we know of the Roman siege of Jerusalem comes largely from the writings of Josephus in his The Jewish War (Bellum Judaicum). He tells us first of the wars in the Galilee, in which the Jewish rebels are soundly defeated by Vespasian and his armies. Vespasian then moves down to Jerusalem and puts the city under siege. Josephus tells us in detail how the Romans gradually wear down the rebels, and how the rebels unite inside the Temple and withstand the Roman assault for as long as they can.

At one point, Josephus tells us that he himself is asked by the Romans to talk some sense into the rebels on the other side of the temple wall. He goes and tries to persuade them to surrender. They insult him and throw rocks at him in response.

It takes the Romans several days to destroy the Temple. When they do so, they round up the rebels and kill them. The burning of the Temple takes place under Titus’ watch. There are several conflicting reports on why and how this take place.

Document: Josephus: “The Battle for Jerusalem,” (Jewish War V)

Three views of the Destruction of the Temple: Tacitus, Josephus, Severus: Comparison Worksheet of three accounts & Questions:

Documents: Tacitus: “A Roman Reports on the War,” (Histories, 5:9); Josephus: “The Temple Burns,” (Jewish War VI);” Severus: “Titus Destroys the Temple,” (Chronica).

-What does Josephus emphasizes in his descriptions of the siege of Jerusalem? Why?

[OPTIONAL] Part IV: Can We Trust Josephus?

Document: Josephus: “Criticizes the Revolt,” (Jewish War II)

Document: Josephus: “After the Fall,” (The Life)

Part V: Understanding the Revolt: Jewish Reaction
a) Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 CE)
Dio Cassius was a Roman author who lived from approximately 160-230 C.E. He is the author of a history, written in Greek, that relates a number of events concerning the Jewish population of the Roman Empire, including the Jewish War of 66-70 CE, the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132 CE. For the most part, he portrays the Jews favorably, respecting their passion for their practices and way of life. However, like many authors of antiquity, he has little understanding for their occasionally segregational practices, although he respects their concept of a monotheistic, image-less God.

Dio Cassius also relates an account of the Bar Kochba Revolt in his Historia Romana. Here, he claims that the cause of the revolt was the building of the Temple of Jupiter, while other ancient authors, including Eusebius, describe the Temple of Jupiter as a result of the revolt. Dio Cassius writes that the Jews found it "intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city, and foreign religious rites planted there" which is informative about the close relationship between race and Jewish practice. He also attributes one cause of the revolt to Hadrian moving farther away from Jerusalem, and mentions that as long as he was close by in Egypt and Syria they remained peaceful. However, he mentions that the Jews were stock-piling weapons that the Romans refused to take because of their flawed manufacturing, which implies that the Bar Kochba revolt was planned in advance.  In addition, Dio Cassius furthers this point when he mentions that the Jews had begun to fortify their position.

Dio Cassius remarks that the revolt quickly spread through all of Judea through both secret and overt acts of rebellion, and goes on to mention that "outside nations" joined the Jews with the hope that the revolt might prove advantageous for them. Dio Cassius emphasizes the importance of the revolt by mentioning that Hadrian sent his "best generals" to crush it. Severus, one of these generals, used siege techniques to starve the population, and remarks that "nearly the whole of Judea was made desolate, a result of which the people had forewarning before the war." Furthermore, Dio Cassius notes that the Romans suffered great losses as well.

Many Jews saw Bar Kochba (originally Bar Kosiba “Son of the Star”) as a Messianic figure, though apparently, he did not purport to be the Messiah. The famous scholar Rabbi Akiva did feel that Bar Kochba was the Messiah, and advertised as such. Either way, these Jews felt that in their time of need, the Messiah had come to defeat their enemies and rebuild the Temple, the very event they had so desperately wished for.

Document: Dio Cassius on Bar Kochba Revolt (Roman History)

Document: Akiva’s View of Bar Kochba (Talmud Yerushalmi, Masechet Ta’anit 4:6)

-What are the results of the Bar Kochba revolt? What happens to Jerusalem?

-How do the Rabbis feel about the Bar Kochba revolt? Why might they take this view? (leads to Rabbinic reaction in part B)

b) Rabbinic explanations for 70 and 135 (2nd through 6th centuries CE)
After the Second Temple had been destroyed, the survivors of the war ask themselves why the unthinkable has happened again, and ask what they did in order to incur God’s wrath a second time. Between 70 and 135, there are rumblings about the rebuilding of a 3rd temple; many believed that, just as it had happened in the 6th century BCE with the Babylonian exile, so, too, a weak or benevolent leader would take charge and allow the Jews to return and rebuild the Temple. After the final culminating revolt (there were revolts against Trajan in Egypt and Mesopotamia), Jews are exiled from Jerusalem (now called Aelia Capitolina to erase any Jewish connection to the city.)

Clearly, rebelling against the Romans and blaming their corruptive nature for the destruction of Jerusalem only invites more violence. The new policy then becomes a “quietism,” which means putting the brakes on any overt anti-Roman movements. Since Bar Kochba was killed, it was made clear that he was not the Messiah, and that active agitation for freeing Israel from the Romans and the rebuilding of the Temple was akin to suicide.

Therefore, a shift in attitude took place. Jews began to think that the redemption (geulah) was to be in the hands of God alone, and not something a human being could bring about. This idea was inserted straight into the prayers Jews said every day.

The answer to the question: How do we return to the land? Is: By repenting and doing teshuvah.

Document: Talmud Bavli: Shabbat 119b (Why was Jerusalem destroyed?)
(and other Talmudic examples?)

-What reasons do the Rabbis give for the destruction and exile from Jerusalem?

-What will Jews do now that the Temple has been destroyed?

-How does this destruction differ from the Babylonian destruction and exile in 586 BCE?

c) Diaspora Judaism post-135 CE
While the Jewish “diaspora” existed long before the destruction of the second Temple, Jews would now spend the next 1900 years in lands that belonged to and were ruled by non-Jews, and would have to adhere to the Law of the Land. (This was what Rav Shmuel termed: “dina d’malchuta dina.”)

For this final section of Part V, students will be asked to chart their own family history and origins, to see which part of the world (diaspora) their ancestors came from.