Roman Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was the final blow in the famous war that resulted from a combination of Roman political ineptness in Judaea and the upsurge of a radical Jewish nationalism.

Summary of Event

After Judaea was made a Roman province in 6 c.e., a band of revolutionaries, better known later as Zealots, arose to challenge Roman domination. Roman misunderstanding and misgovernment added fuel to the inflammatory situation, especially between 26 and 66 c.e. Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judaea from 26 to 36, managed to outrage Jewish religious sensibilities on only a few occasions, but a series of poor governors and bad decisions led to the outbreak of actual civil war under emperor Nero. Florus, Gessius Herod Agrippa II Josephus, Flavius Vespasian John of Gischala Titus Simon ben Giora

The procuratorship of Antonius Felix, 52-60, was a turning point. A left-wing section of the Zealots, the sicarii, or dagger men, began a series of political assassinations. Albinus, who was procurator between 62 and 64, managed to restore some order after a previous two-year anarchy in which the old high priest Annas, or Ananus, had played a part. However, the sicarii ran rampant and the anti-Roman party grew while the procurator did little but fatten his pocket. The last Roman ruler, Gessius Florus, was an utterly base man who managed in May, 66, to steal seventeen talents from the treasury of the Temple of Jeruslem. Taunting of him as a rapacious ruler by the Jews led to bloodshed; the Jews retaliated by seizing the temple, bottling up Florus in the fortress Antonia, and subsequently driving him into exile to Caesarea.

When Herod Agrippa II urged submission to Florus, the Zealots answered by seizing Masada, a strong fortress on the west shore of the Dead Sea. Cessation of the traditional sacrifices for the Roman emperor at the suggestion of Eleazar ben Ananus signified open revolt and was, as historian Flavius Josephus remarked, “the true beginning of our war with Rome.”

When the Palace of Herod, which had given sanctuary to the peace party, fell in September, the Roman garrison was slaughtered and a general Jewish oppression of Gentiles arose throughout Palestine. An abortive attempt by Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria, to put down the revolt made war inevitable. Men were drafted into the defense, and Josephus was given command of the Jewish forces in Galilee. Nero appointed Vespasian as commander of the Roman forces. As John of Gischala, a leading Zealot leader, suspected he might, Josephus defected to the Romans when Galilee was conquered in 67 c.e. by Vespasian.

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The years 68-69 c.e. were ones of inactivity on the Roman side. After Vespasian subdued most of Judaea, he settled into a waiting game because of uncertainty following the suicide of Nero on June 9, 68. He could afford to wait because intra-Jewish struggles were ruining the defense of Jerusalem as rival Zealot leaders instituted a reign of terror. After troops in the east acclaimed Vespasian emperor on July 1, 69, the capture of Jerusalem was turned over to his son Titus in the summer of 70 when Vespasian left for Rome. Internal Zealot strife between John of Gischala and Simon ben Giora helped to prepare the enervated Jerusalem for a fall; John even called on Idumaeans for help, and on one occasion in the civil strife, the valuable grain stores had been fired. Eventually a third faction entered the fray.

Two days before the Passover in April, 70, Titus came before the city to begin his attack on the third or outermost wall to the north. It was breached on May 25. A tightened blockade around the entire city soon brought famine; finally, after earlier attempts had failed, the great fortress Antonia fell on July 24. Twelve days later, the last morning and evening sacrifices were made, and all available men were marshaled to the defense of the temple and the upper city.

By August, four ramparts had been built against the great sanctuary of the temple, but its walls withstood the ram. The cloisters were then fired and burnt out on August 12; the gates succumbed on August 15. Later a soldier in the heat of the battle, but against the express orders of Titus, flung a torch into the temple so that a fatal fire ravaged the edifice for two days from August 29 to 30. The temple and its religion of sacrifice were ended forever. Slaughter followed, and when the last section of the city fell on September 8, the city itself was all but completely destroyed.

Significance

Titus celebrated a triumph in Rome marked by the arch at one end of the Roman Forum emblazoned with a sculpture of the captured seven-branched candlestick. The Roman army wiped out remaining pockets of resistance during 71-73 c.e., the heroic defense of Masada fortress being the chief glory of the resistance. The Jewish rebellion was over. A brief, unsuccessful rally in 132-135 at last marked the end of Jewish nationalistic hopes in the ancient world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aberbach, Moses, and David Aberbach. The Roman-Jewish Wars and Hebrew Cultural Nationalism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. This work on Jewish nationalism covers the Roman-Jewish war. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bohrmann, Monette. Flavius Josephus, the Zealots, and Yavne: Towards a Rereading of the War of the Jews. New York: Peter Lang, 1994. An examination of Josephus’s history of the war between the Romans and the Jews. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hadas-Lebel, Mireille. Flavius Josephus: Eyewitness to Rome’s First Century Conquest of Judea. New York: Macmillan, 1993. A look at the Jewish historian and an analysis of his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Josephus, Flavius. The Jewish War. 3 vols. 1927-1928. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. In Greek with an English translation by H. St. J. Thackeray. A classic work on the Roman-Jewish war by a participant.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parente, Fausto, and Joseph Sievers, eds. Josephus and the History of the Greco-Roman Period: Essays in Memory of Morton Smith. A collection of essays on Flavius Josephus presented at the Josephus Colloquium, held in Italy in 1992. Bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Price, Jonathan J. Jerusalem Under Siege: The Collapse of the Jewish State, 66-70 c.e. New York: Brill, 1992. An analysis of the Roman-Jewish war, including the destruction of the temple.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Flavius Josephus; Vespasian. Jerusalem, Temple of;destruction of (70 c.e.)

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