The Great Revolt took place from 66 to 70 C.E. and was the first of three major Jewish rebellions against the Romans. It eventually resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple.
Why the Revolt Happened
It isn’t hard to see why the Jews revolted against Rome. When the Romans occupied Israel in 63 B.C.E. life for the Jews became increasingly difficult for three major reasons: taxes, Roman control over the High Priest and the general treatment of Jews by the Romans. Ideological differences between the pagan Greco-Roman world and the Jewish belief in one God were also at the heart of political tensions that eventually led to the revolt.
No one likes being taxed, but under Roman rule, taxation became an even more vexing issue. Roman governors were responsible for collecting tax revenue in Israel, but they wouldn’t merely collect the amount of money due to the Empire. Instead, they would hike up the amount and pocket the surplus money. This behavior was allowed by Roman law, so there was no one for the Jews to go to when tax dues were exorbitantly high.
Another upsetting aspect of the Roman occupation was the way it affected the High Priest, who served in the Temple and represented the Jewish people on their holiest of days. Although Jews had always selected their High Priest, under Roman rule the Romans decided who would hold the position. As a result, it was often people who conspired with Rome that was appointed the High Priest role, thereby giving those trusted least by the Jewish people the highest position in the community.
Then the Roman Emperor Caligula came to power and in the year 39 C.E. he declared himself a god and ordered that statues in his image be placed in every house of worship within his realm–including the Temple. Since idolatry is not aligned with Jewish beliefs, the Jews refused to place the statue of a pagan god in the Temple. In response, Caligula threatened to destroy the Temple altogether, but before the Emperor could carry out his threat members of the Praetorian Guard assassinated him.
By this time a faction of Jews known as the Zealots had become active. They believed that any action was justified if it made it possible for the Jews to gain their political and religious freedom. Caligula’s threats convinced more people to join the Zealots and when the Emperor was assassinated many took it as a sign that God would defend the Jews if they decided to revolt.
In addition to all these things—taxation, Roman control of the High Priest and Caligula’s idolatrous demands—there was the general treatment of Jews. Roman soldiers openly discriminated against them, even exposing themselves in the Temple and burning a Torah scroll at one point. In another incident, Greeks in Caesarea sacrificed birds in front of a synagogue while on looking Roman soldiers did nothing to stop them.
Eventually, when Nero became the emperor, a governor named Florus convinced him to revoke Jews’ status as citizens of the Empire. This change in their status left them unprotected should any non-Jewish citizens choose to harass them.
The Revolt Begins
The Great Revolt began in the year 66. It started when the Jews discovered that the Roman governor, Florus, had stolen huge amounts of silver from the Temple. The Jews rioted and defeated the Roman soldiers stationed in Jerusalem. They also defeated a backup contingent of soldiers, sent in by the Roman ruler of neighboring Syria.
These initial victories convinced the Zealots that they actually had a chance at defeating the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, that was not the case. When Rome sent a large force of heavily armed and highly trained professional soldiers against the insurgents in Galilee over 100,000 Jews were either killed or sold into slavery. Anyone who escaped fled back to Jerusalem, but once they got there the Zealot rebels promptly killed any Jewish leader who didn’t fully support their revolt. Later, insurgents burned the city’s food supply, hoping that by doing so they could force everyone in the city to rise up against the Romans. Sadly, this internal strife only made it easier for the Romans to ultimately put down the revolt.
The Destruction of the Second Temple
The siege of Jerusalem turned into a stalemate when the Romans were unable to scale the city’s defenses. In this situation they did what any ancient army would do: they camped outside the city. They also dug a massive trench bordered by high walls along the perimeter of Jerusalem, thereby capturing anyone who tried to escape. Captives were executed via crucifixion, with their crosses lining the tops of the trench wall.
Then in the summer of the year 70 C.E. the Romans succeeded in breaching the walls of Jerusalem and began ransacking the city. On the ninth of Av, a day that is commemorated every year as the fast day of Tisha B’av, soldiers threw torches at the Temple and started an enormous fire. When the flames finally died out all that was left of the Second Temple was one outer wall, from the western side of the Temple’s courtyard. This wall still stands in Jerusalem today and is known as the Western Wall (Kotel HaMa’aravi).
More than anything else, the destruction of the Second Temple made everyone realize that the revolt had failed. It is estimated that one million Jews died in the Great Revolt.
Leaders Against the Great Revolt
Many Jewish leaders didn’t support the revolt because they realized that the Jews couldn’t defeat the mighty Roman Empire. Though most of these leaders were killed by Zealots, some did escape. The most famous one is Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who was smuggled out of Jerusalem disguised as a corpse. Once outside the city walls, he was able to negotiate with the Roman general Vespasian. The general allowed him to establish a Jewish seminary in the town of Yavneh, thereby preserving Jewish knowledge and customs. When the Second Temple was destroyed it was learning centers such as this that helped Judaism to survive.