This Week in History: Titus breaks through the J'lem wall

As his father sets off to claim the Roman throne, infighting among the capital's Jews gives Titus the upper hand in his siege of Jerusalem.

June 3, 2011 10:27
4 minute read.
Jerusalem by night

Jerusalem by night view_521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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In the year 66 AD, a great Jewish revolt began against the Romans in Israel. Instigated by Roman idolatry and forced taxation, the fighting began in Caesarea and spread northward into the Galilee. The revolt would last for seven years, only ending with the fall of Masada in 73. It was responsible for some of the greatest tragedies and destruction in the history of Judaism, most notably, the siege of Jerusalem and subsequent destruction of the Second Temple.

As Jewish rebels in the Galilee faced defeat in the early years of the revolt, its leaders, determined to hold off the Romans, fled to Jerusalem. It was there that many of the rebels, known as the Zealots, would make their last stand in an attempt to protect the Temple.

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The seizure of power in Jerusalem by the Galilean rebel leaders was not the only change in leadership that took place prior to the Roman conquest of the Holy City. In 69, following an ongoing power struggle taking place at the time in Rome, Roman commander in Israel Vespasian hastily departed the Holy Land to claim the throne of his empire, leaving his son Titus responsible for capturing the Holy City.

While his father had patiently laid siege on the outskirts of the walled city for nearly two years, Titus was eager to prove himself and determined to take Jerusalem. Several attempts to negotiate with the Jewish rebel leaders – through the Jewish Roman slave and historian Josephus Flavius – were carried out in vain. The Zealot rebel leaders, determined to defend the Temple and the holy city, refused to make any concessions.

This hardline position, however, also played a significant role in the fall of Jerusalem and ultimate destruction of the Temple. The Zealot position of not negotiating with the Romans created a significant and bloody rift among Jerusalem’s Jews. Many of the city’s residents, particularly the wealthier classes, perhaps sensing impending destruction, wanted to negotiate some sort of surrender. The Galilean rebel leaders, however, would have none of it. A bloody civil war broke out inside the city’s walls at the same time as its outer walls were being pounded by Roman battering rams.

In a perhaps suicidal effort to motivate fellow Jews to fight against the lengthy siege instead of surrendering to it, the Zealots at one point began burning dry food stores, adding hunger to the already long list of problems faced by the ancient Jerusalemites. Some historians have suggested that more Jews died from the infighting than were killed by the Roman conquest itself.

The city of Jerusalem and its residents were not the only victims of the Roman siege and destruction. The environment and landscape were also ravaged. In order to build the stockade towers and battering rams necessary for breaching the city’s walls, Titus ordered that every tree within ten miles of Jerusalem be cut down. Josephus Flavius wrote after the battle:

And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change.

But the wooden tools of war, despite their ultimate success, also had their weaknesses – wood burns. Historical and archaeological records suggest that the city’s defenders managed to hold off the Roman advances several times by tunneling under the city’s walls in order to set fire to the stockade towers, as well as more traditional attacks throwing firebombs over the walls. The tunneling, however, it has been suggested, backfired in the end. Although certainly aided by constant Roman pounding, the tunnels may have contributed to the walls’ collapse by undermining their otherwise solid foundation.

Titus and his Roman garrisons finally broke through Jerusalem’s walls in the early summer of 70 AD; the city was ravaged and destroyed. Although there is an historical debate as to whether Titus himself gave the order, the Roman soldiers quickly set fire to the Jewish Temple, an event that is commemorated on Tisha b’Av. Josephus Flavius described the destruction afterward, saying that Roman soldiers who had grown to hate the Jewish rebels set fire to an apartment adjacent to the Temple against Titus’ orders, the flames quickly spreading to the Temple. Other accounts suggest that Titus revised this version of history to improve his image.

While most of the Jews in the city were killed or enslaved when Jerusalem fell, some of the rebels managed to escape through tunnels and reestablished themselves at the mountaintop fortress of Masada, joining other Jews who had already moved there. In 73 AD, Masada fell, bringing the Jewish revolt to an end.

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