Dedication of Aelia Capitolina

Hadrian’s plan to build a Roman city on the site of Jerusalem caused the Jews to rise in a rebellion that was put down by the Romans.

Summary of Event

The history of the Palestinian Jews in the Roman Empire is a tragic story. Pompey the Great captured Jerusalem in 63 b.c.e., sacked the temple, and led away the Jewish leaders in chains to grace his triumph in Rome. The puppet Herodian Dynasty from 37 b.c.e. to 44 c.e. did Rome’s will. Judaea, disrupted by partisan disagreements of the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Zealots, was controlled by the Roman provincial administration. Despite some autonomy under the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish council and court in Jerusalem, open rebellion broke out in 66 c.e. It was put down by Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian, in 70 c.e. with the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Hadrian
Akiba ben Joseph
Bar Kokhba
Rufus, Tineius
Julius Severus, Sextus

The Jewish population in the area of Jerusalem was decimated and scattered. Vespasian ordered all Jews in the empire to pay a special tax of two drachmae, fiscus Judaicus, for the rebuilding of the temple of Jupiter Capitolina in Rome, a tax that had formerly gone toward the maintenance of the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish communities outside Palestine did not, however, submit quietly to Roman authority, especially when they were forced to pay what they regarded as an idolatrous tax. In 115-117 c.e., rebellions erupted in Cyrene, Cyprus, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, a result of the contemporary Jewish Messianism. In Cyrene, the Jewish leader, “King” Lukuas, proclaimed the renewal of the Jewish state. The emperor Trajan was forced to use his most experienced generals, Quintus Marcius Turbo and Lusius Quietus; loss of life in the rebellions of 115-117 was even greater than that of 66-70, and Lusius Quietus ruled over Palestine with an iron hand.

Hadrian at first seemed a deliverer, for in the early years of his reign, his governor Tineius Rufus pursued a moderate policy toward the Jews, but after 125 c.e., matters deteriorated. When Hadrian forbade any form of mutilation of the human body, a reflection of his Hellenic notion that the body was a divine creation, the Jews were understandably disturbed because circumcision could be interpreted as mutilation of the natural body. Overt opposition to Rome, however, was retarded by Rufus, who kept Jewish leadership scattered in various centers around Jerusalem such as Jabna and Ludd. Rufus also encouraged partisan division among the Jews, and he was apparently well acquainted with the then moderate rabbinical leader Akiba ben Joseph.

The cosmopolitan emperor Hadrian arrived in Palestine in 130 c.e. amid wild rumors and expectations that he would restore Jerusalem and its temple. It was soon clear, however, that he was proposing a new city, dedicated by his familial name, Aelia, to the Jupiter Capitolina. Within two years, a resurgent nationalistic movement arose under Simeon ben Kosiba (later Bar Kokhba).

The story of this last Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in Palestine has been pieced together from scant mention in the works of historian Dio Cassius and from references in the Talmud and the Midrash, Jewish holy books. Bar Kokhba apparently led a successful offensive in the early stages of the rebellion, as evidenced in Rufus’s inability to control the situation and his call for help from the Syrian legate, Publius Marcellus. The Jewish resistance seized nearly all the undefended towns and villages, as well as some fifty fortified positions. The learned and highly respected Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph, infected with the Messianism of the age, proclaimed Simeon ben Kosiba to be Bar Kokhba, the Star, the Promised One, and the latter apparently assumed the role willingly. He issued coins commemorating the liberation of Jerusalem, and dispatches disclose that he considered himself absolute ruler of the recovered land, the prince of Israel. He had a well-organized military administration that he controlled with strict discipline. Rebuilding of the temple was to have been among his programs, and the high priest Eleazar was appointed to resume the sacrificial system.

The resources for resistance were, however, too meager. Roman forces of nearly four legions, consisting of 20,000-25,000 troops, were commanded by Hadrian’s greatest general, Sextus Julius Severus, who had been recalled from Britain to quell the uprising. During 134-135 c.e., he systematically reduced the rebel strongholds, including Jerusalem. Bar Kokhba was captured at Bethar and executed. The Jews who survived the fighting and famine were either sold into slavery or forced to migrate. The Roman victory was complete. Dio Cassius relates that in the three-and-one-half-year war about a thousand villages and nearly 600,000 people were destroyed.


Hadrian apparently never understood the importance of Jerusalem to the Jews. Because of his passion for building and his program for revitalizing the empire, he saw in Aelia Capitolina only another city to be reestablished. The Jews, however, having become ossified in the exclusiveness of their religion, would accept only full autonomy, an autonomy inappropriate to Hadrian’s synthetic system. Hadrian was too Greek in his social ideas and in his religion to sympathize with the Jewish aspirations.

Aelia Capitolina was built and a temple therein was dedicated to Jupiter. The city did not prosper, however, because the major cities of Antioch and Alexandria were more cosmopolitan and pivotal to Roman affairs in the southeastern Mediterranean. Eusebius of Caesarea states that the entire Jewish race was forbidden even to set foot in the neighborhood of Jerusalem. Gentile Christians, not so restricted, in time caused Jerusalem to take on a larger significance as one of the major early sees in the Church.

Further Reading

  • Aberbach, Moses, and David Aberbach. The Roman-Jewish Wars and Hebrew Cultural Nationalism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. An examination of the Bar Kokhba rebellion and the Roman and Jewish interactions of the time. Bibliography and index.
  • Marks, Richard Gordon. The Image of Bar Kokhba in Traditional Jewish Literature: False Messiah and National Hero. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. An analysis of the major figure in the Bar Kokhba rebellion, particularly his heroic status. Bibliography and index.
  • Nadich, Judah. Rabbi Akiba and His Contemporaries. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1998. A discussion of Akiba ben Joseph and his life. Bibliography and index.
  • Reznick, Leibel. The Mystery of Bar Kokhba: An Historical and Theological Investigation of the Last King of the Jews. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1996. Reznick examines Bar Kokhba and the rebellion from the historic and religious perspectives. Bibligraphy and index.
  • Yadin, Yigael, et al., eds. The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2002. These volumes are the second and third in the series on the discoveries made by Yadin’s expedition. The first volume was published in 1963 under a slightly different title.
  • Yadin, Yigael, et al., eds. The Finds from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1963. The first volume of three on the documents and artifacts discovered in the Cave of Letters in Nahal Hever.

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Akiba ben Joseph; Hadrian. Aelia Capitolina, dedication of