66 AD: Was the Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome a Preventable Tragedy?

The Great Revolt was the first major rebellion of the Jewish people against the Roman occupation of Judea. It lasted from 66 – 70 AD and resulted in probably hundreds of thousands of lost lives.

Most of the knowledge we have of the conflict comes from Roman-Jewish scholar Titus Flavius Josephus, who first fought in the revolt against the Romans, but was then kept by future Emperor Vespasian as a slave and interpreter. Josephus was later freed and granted Roman citizenship, writing several important histories on the Jews.

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Bust of Josephus

Why Did the Revolt Happen?

The Romans had been occupying Judea since 63 BC. Tensions within the occupied Jewish community fomented due to the Roman collection of punitive taxes and religious persecution. This included the Emperor Caligula’s demand in 39 AD that his own statue be placed in every temple of the Empire. Furthermore, the Empire assumed the role of appointing the High Priest of the Jewish religion.

Though there had been rebellious groups among the Jews (Zealots) for many years, Jewish tensions under increasing subjugation by the Empire came to a head when Nero plundered the Jewish Temple of its treasury in 66 AD. Jews rioted when Nero’s appointed governor, Florus, seized large amounts of silver from the Temple.

According to Josephus, the two main causes of the revolt were the cruelty and corruption of the Roman leaders, and Jewish religious nationalism with the aim of freeing the Holy Land from earthly powers. However, other key causes were the impoverishment of the Jewish peasantry, who were just as angry with the corrupt priesthood class as they were with the Romans, and religious tensions between the Jews and the more favoured Greek residents of Judea.

Victories and Defeats

After Florus plundered the temple, Jewish forces defeated the Roman garrison station in Jerusalem and then defeated a larger force sent in from Syria.

Yet the Romans returned under the leadership of General Vespasian and with a 60,000-strong army. They killed or enslaved as many as 100,000 Jews in Galilee, then set their sights on the stronghold of Jerusalem.

Infighting among the Jews facilitated the Roman’s siege of Jerusalem, which resulted in a drawn-out stalemate, with the Jews stuck inside and the Romans unable to scale the city walls.

By 70 AD, Vespasian had returned to Rome to become Emperor (as predicted by Josephus), leaving his son Titus in command of the army in Jerusalem. Under Titus, the Roman’s, with the help of other regional armies, broke through the Jerusalem’s defences, ransacked the city and burned the Second Temple. All that remained of the Temple was one outer wall, the so-called Western Wall, which still stands today.

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The Triumph of Titus and Vespasian, painting by Giulio Romano, c. 1537

Tragedy, Religious Extremism and Reflection

Estimates of Jewish deaths in the 3 years of the Great Revolt are generally in the hundreds of thousands and even as high as 1 million, though there are no reliable numbers.

The Great Revolt and the Bar Kokbha Revolt, which took place some 60 years later, are considered the greatest tragedies to befall the Jewish people before the Holocaust. They also ended the Jewish state until the establishment of Israel.

Many Jewish leaders at the time were opposed to the revolt, and though a rebellion was justified, success was not realistic when faced with the might of the Roman Empire. Part of the blame for the 3-year tragedy of the Great Revolt is placed with the Zealots, whose fanatical idealism made their name synonymous with ideological extremism of any kind.

Graham is an editor and contributor at Made From History. A London-based writer originally from Washington, DC, he holds a master's degree in Cultural History from Malmö University in Sweden. Graham also contributes environmental news articles to asiancorrespondent.com and latincorrespondent.com.