Hadrian’s Hard-Won Victory
Romans Suffer Severe Losses in Jewish War
The First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 A.D.), which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple, was chronicled by the great Jewish historian Josephus. Much of his Jewish War, which extends to 681 pages in the standard Loeb Classical Texts edition, is an eye-witness account: Josephus commanded the Jewish forces in Galilee until he surrendered in 67; for some time he was a prisoner of war and accompanied Vespasian to Alexandria. Later he returned to Judea with Titus, however, and was thus able to describe the destruction of Jerusalem day by day, sometimes hour by hour.
The Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132–135/6 A.D.) had no Josephus. The only account written relatively close to the events is that of the Roman historian Cassius Dio, who wrote at the beginning of the third century. His report in the abbreviation of a Byzantine monk of the 11th century covers slightly more than two pages in the Loeb Classical Texts edition.1
Most of what we know about the Second Revolt is therefore based on epigraphical, papyrological, numismatic and archaeological remains. Until recent years, it has often been assumed that the threat to Roman power posed by the revolt was relatively insignificant, perhaps something like the flea that bites the elephant: The elephant barely knows that he’s been bitten. This, despite the fact that, if Dio is to be believed, the revolt posed a serious threat to Rome, although, he also reports, the Jewish losses were enormous.2
Some recent archaeological finds are indeed consistent with a fear-struck Jewish public cowering before Roman might. Scores of hiding-places, or refuge caves, have been discovered in the Judean Desert, where Jews fled in the hope of avoiding Roman troops. Elaborate tunnels in the basements of village homes served the same purpose. These refuge caves and hiding places often reflect the desperate circumstances of those who were fleeing or hiding. In the past few years, Israeli archaeologists have identified several hundreds of such places south of Jerusalem in the Shephelah.
The discovery of letters, contracts and orders of the Jewish leader of the revolt, Bar Kokhba (the revolt is often called the Bar-Kokhba Revolt), in a cave in the Judean Desert known as the Cave of Letters (we shall hear of it again) and in the Wadi Muraba’at caves seems to depict a local chieftain holed-up in the wilderness, hardly a threat to the powerful Roman empire.3
On the other hand, the rebels were sufficiently in control of territory to be able to mint coins—overstruck Roman coins inscribed “Freedom of Israel” and “For the Freedom of Jerusalem.”4
More important, a careful examination of the short account by Cassius Dio in conjunction with old and recent inscriptional recoveries demonstrates that the Second Jewish Revolt constituted a major challenge to Roman military power and a shameful wound to Roman self-esteem and pride: A small nation in a small province dared revolt for the second time against mighty Rome. The Jews were able to keep the empire at bay for nearly four years, inflicting enormous losses on Roman forces.5
Moreover, an analysis of the evidence suggests that the revolt extended beyond Judea proper into Arabia and perhaps also in the Galilee. In the words of Hannah Cotton from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “The Second Jewish Revolt shook the foundations of the Roman empire.”
What is the evidence for this? Our discussion will be framed by Dio, who reports that “many Romans perished,” indeed so many that when Hadrian reported to the Senate concerning the war, he pointedly omitted the traditional salutation: “I and the legions are well.”6
True, the losses on the Jewish side were, if anything, even more horrendous. Dio claims that 985 Jewish villages “were razed to the ground.” In addition, “580,000 men were slain in the various raids and battles.” And “the number who perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out.” Dio’s numbers don’t seem to be a gross exaggeration, probably they are based on the census numbers in the province and the report given to the senate by Hadrian.
Dio also reports that Hadrian dispatched “his best generals” to crush the Jewish revolt.7
Apparently their joint effort was needed. And there would be no reason to exaggerate on this point. The “first of these” generals (and the only one Dio names) was Julius Severus, who was dispatched from Britain, where he was governor and commanded the Roman troops.8
This in itself is a sign of an extreme emergency; such transfers by the emperor were not made arbitrarily or capriciously. Britain was one of the two most important military commands in the empire, with only Syria to rival it. In other circumstances, transferring a man like Severus from Britain to Judea would be understood as a demotion. It must have been a desperate situation that made it necessary to send Severus to tiny Judea. (Promptly after his victory against the Jews, he was put in charge of Syria, as might be appropriate to a warrior of his standing.)9
The Roman state of emergency is also reflected in yet another striking measure: the transfer of a considerable number of soldiers from a military unit known as the Classis Misenensis
to the Legio X Fretensis
in Judea. Membership in the former did not require highly prized Roman citizenship; in the legions, however, Roman citizenship was a prerequisite. The Roman high command would never have authorized a wholesale transfer of soldiers (necessarily making them Roman citizens) from the Classis Misenensis
to a legion had the situation not seemed grave. There is now plenty of proof for this transfer, since we have 12 military diplomas for soldiers of the Misene fleet from 160 A.D. These diplomas were issued to soldiers originally recruited in 133/34. According to the survival rate of these diplomas, we can see that in 133/134 at least 2,000—probably 3,000 or more—new soldiers were recruited to the Misene fleet. That such an amount of new recruits was necessary in 133/134 could only happen when the fleet has “lost” in one moment almost all soldiers. The gaps in the fleet-units were created by the transfer of the majority of the sailors to the Legio X Fretensis
Similarly, soldiers were conscripted in Italy and the provinces for service in the Jewish war. Although Rome still had conscripted soldiers, by this time conscription in Italy was rarely used. This was one of the rare occasions. Two senators were in charge of these conscriptions: one in the Abruzzi to the east of Rome, one in the Transpadana.11
The Legio XXII Deiotariana is attested for the last time in the year 119. It may well have been lost in the Jewish war. In any case Cornelius Fronto, teacher of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, writes in his history of the Parthian war between 161 and 166 that Hadrian had suffered many losses of soldiers by the Jews. This is proven also by four diplomas found in southern Turkey. They attest to a big conscription in 135 done in the province of Lycia-Pamphylia in southern Asia Minor to fill up the auxiliary units in Syria Palaestina, which had suffered during the battles against the troops of Bar Kokhba.
Scholars differ about just how large a Roman force was required to suppress the Bar-Kokhba Revolt. But even the “minimalists” recognize that, in addition to the two legions stationed in Judea, at least seven more legions in full force or represented by vexillationes
(parts of the legions from other provinces) were deployed by the Romans in Judea to suppress the revolt.12
Those who think that more troops were involved put the number at 12 or 13.13
In either case, especially given the size of the province, this was a huge military force. The Roman high command realized that it was facing a situation fraught with danger, a situation that called for tapping all possible resources and a major redeployment of its military forces.
Another indication of the fierceness and difficulty of the fighting comes from the accolades conferred at the end of the war. In republican times victorious Roman generals were awarded triumphs. But since the time of Augustus, they were awarded the ornamenta triumphalia
, or military awards equivalent to a triumph. This was the ultimate wish of every provincial governor and the greatest reward for commanding a field army. The honor was eagerly sought, but few received these decorations. A great deal of fighting occurred during the early years of Hadrian’s reign in Britain, Mauretania, the lower Danube and Dacia, but no one, so far as we know, received the ornamenta triumphalia
in that connection.14
The situation was far different in the case of the Jewish revolt, as recent scholarship has revealed.
We know from two inscriptions from Dalmatia that at the end of the revolt the Senate awarded ornamenta triumphalia
to Julius Severus at Hadrian’s initiative.15
One of the inscriptions gives the reason for the award: ob res in [Iu]dea prospere gestas
(“because he has fought successfully in Judea”). That Severus was awarded the ornamenta triumphalia
is hardly surprising. He is the only general Dio mentions by name as having been requisitioned to suppress the revolt. But there were other generals, as well; Dio tells us that “Hadrian sent against them [the Jews] his best generals.”16
A careful look at some well-known inscriptions indicates who they were and also that they, too, received ornamenta triumphalia
An inscription from Ancyra in Galatia records that the governor of Syria, one Poblicius Marcellus, left his province because of the Jewish rebellion (therefore one of the legionary legates in Syria acted at the same time as governor).17
Another inscription found in Aquileia in Italy relates that the same Marcellus received ornamenta triumphalia
Although the inscription does not tell us directly what feat Marcellus received this award for, it is sure that it was for his service in suppressing the Jewish revolt. If Marcellus’s contribution to the ultimate Roman victory would have been a modest one, his award would have been dona militaria
(military decorations). That he received the coveted ornamenta triumphalia
indicates that his contribution to Rome’s final victory was decisive.
A fragmentary text from Fulginiae in Italy19
lists the honors awarded to one Haterius Nepos, attested in some papyri as governor of Arabia in 130–131.20
The broken-off text concludes with the word triumphalib[---]
, which has been correctly restored as triumphalibus ornamentis honoratus
(honored with triumphal decorations). This honor must have been bestowed on Nepos after 131, and other inscriptions make it clear that it could not have been bestowed after 136.21
From all of this evidence, the conclusion is inescapable that it was awarded to him after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, no doubt in honor of his contribution to its suppression.
Hadrian was extremely parsimonious in bestowing military distinctions on his generals, with the exception of those who won victory in the Jewish revolt; this alone was worthy of the honor. The same restraint he had previously exercised in bestowing military honors on others he had applied to himself: Unlike many of his predecessors, he did not accept any acclamation as imperator from his soldiers—until the conclusion of the Jewish revolt. From this time onwards he was called imperator II, victorious for the second time.
Only because Hadrian accepted the title imperator could he then bestow on his senatorial generals the ornamenta triumphalia. By accepting the title imperator, he made it clear that the victory over the Jews was worthy of a triumph, and his generals could then participate in his glory.
The Roman province of Judea was considerably larger than Judea proper, which comprised only the area from Jerusalem to Hebron in the south and to Emmaus in the west. Dio notes that “all Judea,” in other words the entire province, not just Judea proper, “had been stirred up.” He goes on to tell us that “the Jews everywhere were showing signs of disturbance, were gathering together and giving evidence of great hostility to the Romans.” The Roman high command must also have worried that the revolt might spread beyond the province of Judea; indeed, it probably did. Dio reports that “many outside nations, too, were joining them [the Jews] through eagerness for gain, and the whole earth, one might almost say, was being stirred up over the matter.”22
We know that Poblicius Marcellus, governor of Syria, took part in the war against the Jews, but this does not mean that parts of the rebellious Jews came to the province of Syria or that Jews living in this country participated in the fight against Rome. But we know that at least parts of the province of Arabia were involved.23
This is not only proven by the ornamenta triumphalia
bestowed on Haterius Nepos, the governor of Arabia, but more by documents that originated in Arabia but were found outside the province.
I have already mentioned the refuge caves in the Judean desert to which the Jews fled. One of these is known as the Cave of Letters, excavated by Israel’s best-known archaeologist, the late Yigael Yadin. Among the most startling finds in the cave was a cache of letters known as the Babatha archive, consisting of 37 personal documents belonging to Babatha,24
a twice-married widow of some substance who—and this is the important part for our purposes here—came from the Provincia Arabia
on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. Some people thought she and others willingly joined the revolt, but since we now know that Haterius Nepos fought in the war against the rebels of Bar Kokhba, it is more likely that Babatha and others left their villages to escape the fighting in Provincia Arabia
. Finally, with others she fled to the caves in Nahal Hever, taking with her the family documents. Like her, another Jewish woman, Salome Komaise, escaped to the caves, where her documents were also found.25
At the center of the revolt in Judea proper, the initial Roman response was no doubt led by the Roman governor at the time, one Tineius Rufus. He was probably displaced by Julius Severus, if he did not die during the beginning of the war. With the addition of Poblicius Marcellus, the governor of Syria and, even more important, Haterius Nepos, the governor of Arabia, the revolt took on far greater dimensions. It had swept the entire region around Judea. The Romans, alarmed by the spread of the revolt, had to invest much more energy and manpower than they expected. The armies of neighboring provinces were mobilized. The final victory, when it did come, was not an easy one.
In the 1970s marble fragments of an inscription from what must have been a very large monumental arch were discovered at Tell Shalem in the Jordan Valley, about 10 miles south of Scythopolis/Beth Shean.26
What immediately strikes one about this inscription is that the letters in the first line are nearly a foot-and-a-half high; those in the second line are almost 10 inches high; and in the third line they are 7 inches high. With only some exceptions, the letters in this inscription are larger than those in any inscription found even in Rome (the exceptions are, for example, the Arch of Titus, the Pantheon built by Hadrian, and the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Forum Romanum). The monumentality of the inscription is also reflected in its length: about 35 feet. And it is in Latin, although Greek was the dominant language here in the second century; indeed, almost all the inscriptions from the city of Scythopolis are in Greek.
Although the inscription is fragmentary (only about a quarter of it has survived), its reconstruction is quite certain. It is a dedication to Hadrian on what was surely a monumental triumphal arch similar to the Arch of Titus in Rome. The end of the third line is missing, but given the context and the amount of missing space, the reconstruction seems very probable: SPQR
(Senatus Populusque Romanus
, “the Senate and the People of Rome”); or it may be the name of a Roman legion, but this reconstruction is less likely.27
The dedication of this arch to Hadrian in Judea was the recognition of the senate and people in far away Rome of the seriousness of the challenge that the empire had just faced, and it reflects the monumental efforts required to suppress an enemy so small and yet so fierce. The arch can be taken as a sign and symbol of the relief felt in Rome, at the center of the Roman empire, no less than by Hadrian and his generals, when the danger was over. The final triumph over the rebels was thus advertised and documented in the rebellious province now that it was once again fully under Roman control.
One final measure was taken: At the end of the war, a decision was made by Hadrian himself to change the name of the province from Judea to Syria Palestina; but probably the non-Jewish inhabitants of the province initiated his decision. They did not want to be continuously associated with this rebellious people because of the name of the province they were living in. Revolts from time to time were common in the provinces of the empire. But never before and never after was such a drastic measure taken. Judea, derived from the name of its people (Iudaei) simply ceased to exist for the Roman government. a
Jewish Revolts, First/Second