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The Fall of Jerusalem (AD 70)

Phil Leage

During Paul's two years in prison in Caesarea, he must have heard of the trouble between Jews and Gentiles in Jerusalem. This tension led to riots, and the Roman Governor Felix intervened, to the disadvantage of the Jews. In the end, Felix sent representatives of both communities to Rome to have the dispute settled by Nero. Felix was relieved of his office, and when the final decision was made, the Jews came out worse. As a result, Jews became second class citizens, and the Greeks began to annoy and insult them.

Josephus considered these troubles to be among the causes of the war against Rome, which broke out in September, A.D. 66. Claudius had favoured to the Jews, but after Nero's decision on Caesarea, a change in imperial policy was detected, which strengthened the popular support of the Zealots, who had been resisting Rome for sixty years.

The actual outbreak of the war started in Jerusalem. Florus had been appointed the Roman governor of Judea, who had a lust for wealth. He raided the temple treasury and seized seventeen talents, with the excuse that they were needed for the imperial services. This led to a riot. His response was to take leading citizens indiscriminately and crucify them, and hand over part of the city to plunder.

In response, the people destroyed the access between the Antonia Fortress and the Temple, to prevent soldiers from making a sudden occupation of the temple area. Syria sent armies in an attempt to bring the trouble to an end. Agrippa exhorted the people to pay their tax arrears, and restore the connecting link between the Temple and Antonia Fortress. But when he said that doing this would be submission to Florus, they changed their minds, until Rome decided to replace him. Eleazer, the captain of the temple, persuaded the priests to stop offering the daily sacrifices for the emperor's welfare. This was an open declaration of rebellion against Rome. The implications of this were serious, but the point of no return was passed when the insurgents seized the Antonia Fortress and wiped out the Roman garrison.

Zealots, who had just taken Masada from the Romans, heard of the revolt in Jerusalem and decided this was their hour. With weapons from the arsenal of Masada, they marched on Jerusalem, led by Menahem and occupied the western part of the city.

Eleazer did not want a rival, so the two groups came to blows. After much violence, Menahem was caught and killed, together with his chief leaders. Those who escaped made their way back to Masada and held out until Spring A.D. 73 (see account of Masada below).

In November of A.D. 66, Cestius Gallus marched south from Syria to deal with the revolt, which the procurator of Judea could no longer control. He occupied Bezetha, the northern suburb of Jerusalem. Then suddenly withdrew, probably because he did not have enough troops to take the rest of Jerusalem. As he marched north, his army was ambushed by Jewish Zealots in the Pass of Beth-horon. This was the same place that Judas Maccabeus had some great victories.

Vespasian arrived the following spring to take charge of the situation, and steadily worked his way through Galilee, Peraea, western Judea and Idumaea. When he was ready to besiege Jerusalem itself, news came of Nero's death (June 9, A.D. 68) and of the civil war that followed in Rome. With this news, Vespasian suspended operations to see what would happen next. During Vespasian's inactivity, three leaders established themselves in Jerusalem:

  • Simon bar Giora in the upper city, with 10,000 Zealots, and 5,000 Idmeans
  • John of Gischala in the temple, with 6,000 men
  • Eleazer, son of Simon, the Zealot leader, in the inner courts of the temple, with 2,400 men

Vespasian then left for Rome to become Emperor, and Titus, his son, finished the task of putting down the revolt. Titus began the siege in April of A.D. 70.

The fall of Jerusalem is a very dark time in Jewish history. Titus, the Roman general, laid siege to the city during the Feast of Passover, so the city was crowded with people. According to Josephus, about million died, and 97,000 captives were taken (this probably rather an exaggeration). It was a time of terrible suffering for the Jews.

As Titus and part of his army approached Jerusalem, he ordered the men to level the land before him, pulling down groves of trees, including fruit trees, and to fill up hollow places, and demolish "rocky areas with iron. While this was being done, he had a line of horsemen between them and the city to stop the Jews attacking the "workers". The clearing of the area took four days. The Romans then pitched their camp and Titus brought in the rest of the troops. He positioned his men seven to eight deep, right around the wall, horsemen, footmen and archers. The Romans attacked from the north side of Jerusalem. There were a total of three walls to get through. The outermost wall had just been built by Herod Agrippa I.

The three groups of Jews in the city would join together to fight the Romans, but otherwise spent their time fighting each other. The area between the upper and lower city was burned and became the battle ground. Josephus says, "They fought it out and did everything that the besiegers could want them to do, for they never suffered anything from the Romans that they did not inflict on each other. The sedition destroyed the city and the Romans destroyed the sedition, which was harder to destroy than just pulling down the walls".

Titus said of the Jews: "These Jews who are only conducted by their madness, do everything with care and circumspection. They continue stratagems and lay ambushes and fortune gives success to the stratagems because they are obedient and preserve their good will and fidelity to one another".

The Romans built engines and battering rams to attack the city, but the Jews would leap over the walls onto the roofs of the battering rams and fight the Romans. The Jews ran in and out of the city to fight, and hinder the Roman activity. After a while, the outer north wall gave way and the Jews retreated to the inner wall. The Romans opened the gates, destroyed the wall and moved their camp into that part of the city.

Titus took the second wall five days after the first. He did not permit his men to kill or plunder, because he wanted to preserve the city and temple. He even promised to restore people's effects to them. He made the mistake of not destroying the second wall, because it was not his intention to destroy Jerusalem. The Jews turned the war into guerilla warfare. They knew that section of the city very well, with its narrow lanes and streets, so they would spring out, kill, and make a quick escape. The fighting got so bad that the Romans had to retreat. Because the wall was not destroyed, the retreat was hampered and more Romans lost their lives. The Jews built up the breach in the wall with bodies, but three days later Titus broke through and destroyed the second wall completely. By this time, many had died of starvation inside the city.

Titus then relaxed the siege, in an attempt to make terms of peace, but the Jews were suspicious, thinking it was a trap, and would not believe that the Romans would forgive. Titus used the lull in fighting to pay his men. Josephus was the go between, but no peace could be arranged.

Some Jews deserted to the Romans, and were released into the country to start new lives. Some of these swallowed gold, so they could retrieve it later, after nature had taken its course! If any of the Zealots found anyone they thought was deserting, they cut their throats. Often rich people were killed with this excuse and their wealth taken. With the refusal of peace, the siege carried on and the misery grew worse. Families sold all they had and fought each other for food. Robbers broke into private houses and stole food from the people. If they found some, they tortured people to make them disclose where they had hidden any food they had. Some people would creep over the walls at night to gather herbs and plants to eat. These were taken as they returned into the city.

Josephus said, "The robbers would stop up the privy parts of the miserable wretches, and drive sharp stakes up their fundamentals". also, "Neither did any other city ever suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this from the beginning of time until now..... the Zealots were - scum, spurious, and abortive offspring of our nation".

Some of the Jews who went over the wall to get food were caught by the Romans. Because they were not deserters, Titus had them whipped, tormented and crucified, hoping that the sight of them would cause the Jews to surrender. The Romans rounded up about 500 a day, and because Titus was not willing to take men from the front line to guard them, he allowed the hatred of the soldiers to be vented on them, and they were nailed up on the crosses. Inside the city, the Zealots told the people that the Jews on the crosses were those who deserted to the Romans, not those taken by force.

According to Josephus: "So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way and another after another, to the crosses by way of jest. Their multitude was so great that room was wanting for crosses and crosses (ie. wood) wanting for bodies".

The Romans built banks against the wall and the Jews made a counter attack. They rushed out of the city and fearlessly fought with the Romans. They destroyed the wooden ramps with fire, engaging in hand to hand fighting. The Jews fought wildly, as they felt they had nothing to lose. The destruction of the ramps was a major setback for the Romans, as wood was very scarce and had to be brought from miles away. They despaired of taking the city.

Josephus wrote "The armies also were mixed one among another and the dust that was raised so far hindered them from seeing one another, and the noise so great it hindered them from hearing one another, that neither side could discern an enemy from a friend".

Titus had a council with the commanders and decided to build a wall all around the city to stop the food getting in and the people getting out. The famine inside got much worse. Whole families died together. Upper rooms were full of women and children who were dying from famine. The lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged, there was death all over the city. As the suffering grew worse, so did the robbers. They would break open the houses of the dead and plunder the coverings of their bodies.

The dead bodies were thrown over the walls. Titus saw this and groaned. Wanting to relieve some of the miseries, he renewed his attacks and made new banks, bringing wood from eleven miles away. These were made stronger and more powerful than before. The miseries grew worse. When deserters fled from the city, they were caught by Syrian and Arabian troops, and were cut open to see if they had any gold in them! In one night 2,000 such persons were killed. Titus tried to stop it, but was unable to do so. At this time, thousands of dead bodies were thrown out of the city and people were searching the common sewers and cattle dung hills to eat any dung they could find.

Eventually the Romans captured the tower of Antonia, the Fortress at the N.W. corner of the temple, and demolished it. Josephus gave another speech and a number of Jews deserted to the Romans. Because the Romans had a high regard for holy places, they did not want to destroy the temple, and offered to fight the battle elsewhere, if John would move out. Titus was disgusted at the way the Jews treated their holy place. The Jews thought that this offer came out of fear, and grew insolent, so the war was renewed. As the place between the tower of Antonia and the temple was narrow, Titus could not get the whole army in. He chose the most valiant 30 soldiers from every hundred to form a special squad and attacked the guard of the temple. Other parts were demolished to enlarge the entrance and make a ramp. Then they set the temple on fire. The Jews made a trap by getting the Romans to retreat into the court of the Gentiles, and then they set it on fire.

Meanwhile, hunger in the city was unbearable. Men ate anything, even the leather of shoes and shields, or wisps of hay. Josephus described a case of a mother cooking her son and eating half of him. With a ramp set up, Titus attacked the temple. He wanted to save it, but because his own men were in danger, he gave orders to stop at nothing and the gates were set on fire. Finally, the whole temple was set on fire and there was great bloodshed. The soldiers just went mad. All the hatred that had grown in their hearts was let loose and they killed everyone in sight - children, old men, priest - and plundered the gold and silver. They took so much gold that the price of gold dropped in the Syrian gold market to half its former value.

The whole temple area was full of blood and bodies. At this stage, Titus wanted the remainder of the Jews to surrender, but they refused, so he gave orders to burn and plunder the rest of the city. The lower city had already been plundered and burned by the civil war, so the Romans began to take the upper city. The upper city was full of dead bodies, killed either by famine or by the Zealots, who murdered anyone they thought was planning to desert. Deserters were now sold as slaves, but no one wanted them, so little or no money was paid for them.

As the Romans entered the upper city, the Jews fled in fear. The Romans killed everyone in sight. They burst into houses, but left them because of the foul stench of the dead in them. Then they set the city on fire. Josephus says there was so much blood that in places the fires were quenched. Some Jews, including Simon and John, fled into underground caverns.

The Romans grew tired of killing, so they killed only those in arms, the aged and the infirm. They shut others up in the court of women. Those "in flowering years" were sent to Egyptian mines or sent to Rome to the theatres to be killed by the sword or beast, and those under seventeen were sent for slavery. (Deut 28:68, Hos 8:13, 9:6).

97,000 captives, 1,100,000 killed - most of them were not citizens of Jerusalem, but were there for the Feast of the Passover. There may have been up to three million people in the city at the start of the war. The Romans searched the caverns and killed those they found. John was taken for perpetual imprisonment and Simon was taken to Rome to be slain. They broke down the walls of the city so that it was totally level with the ground, apart from a few towers.


Masada was the last stronghold of the Jewish war AD 66-70. All the other rebellion had been crushed. Flavus Silva was Roman procurator, and he lead the Roman armies.

Eleazar was the captain of the Zealots in Masada, called Sicarii. Anyone who submitted to taxation by Caesar, they treated with plundering, driving away their cattle, or setting their property on fire. Josephus makes his view of these men clear, saying they used Jewish fervour as an excuse for evil deeds.

To take this city, the Romans followed their normal procedure, building a camp, and a wall all around the city. This all was not high, just a token of their claiming power over the city. Because of the desert location, the Romans had water brought there by Jewish slaves. Masada was a very high rock sticking out of the ground with "no place for an animal to ascend, apart from 2 places - with great difficulty, on the east and one on the west" - Josephus.

Jonathan, the high-priest, first built the fortress and called it Masada. Herod the Great rebuilt it, making it a strong fortress, as well as a palace. The soil on top of the rock was very fertile, so it was used for agriculture to provide for the people inside the fortress. Places were built to collect rain water, so it was as if there was a fountain there. On the eastern side, it was too dangerous to take an army, and on the western side Herod built a tower 1000 cubits from the top. In the fortress there were large quantities of corn, oil, dates and wine. There were weapons for 10,000 in the fortress too. Herod had prepared the fortress for two dangers:
a. Fear of Jews rebelling against him.
b. Cleopatra of Egypt, who wanted to rule Judea.

Eleazer took Masada by treachery and made it his stronghold. The Romans, despite the height of the fortress, moved earth to make a ramp against it. When the Jews started killing the Romans working on the ramps, the Romans used Jewish slaves - the Jews would not kill their own people. When the ramp was 300 cubits from the top, the Romans raised up towers and battering rams to knock down the fortress wall. They eventually broke through the wall, but the Zealots had made a wall of wood behind it and packed it with earth, so that the blows of the battering rams would be deadened. The Romans then tried to set the wall on fire. At this point, a north wind was blowing which threatened to spread the fire to the machines of the Romans. However, all of a sudden, the wind direction changed and the Zealot's wall was burnt down.

That night, the Romans increased the watch, thinking the Zealots might try to escape, but his was far from the mind of Eleazer. Eleazer gave a very moving speech saying it was better to die than to be slaves in the Roman battery ships.. Some resisted this, so he gave another speech, so moving that, before he had finished it, the people were saying: "Let us get on with it!" Each man took his wife and family, gave them a long embrace and killed them - each man killed his nearest relations.

They brought all they had into a heap and set it on fire. They displayed the food, so the Romans would know it was not through lack of food they did what they did. They chose ten men by lot, these killed the men, then one was chosen who killed the nine, he then killed himself after checking all were dead and setting the palace on fire. Two women and five children escaped by hiding in the water-ground caverns.

960 died in all including women and children. The next day the Romans were ready to fight, but found no resistance, just silence. They called out and the two women came out and told them what had happened. At first the Romans did not believe it, but then they found it to be true. Josephus says "they had no pleasure in it!"