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Siege of Jerusalem

(70 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Catapult, Edward Poynter
Catapult, Edward Poynter

Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE) was a key clash of the Jewish war. After a long siege, the Romans captured the city. Titus Flavius ​​showed no mercy and allowed for the murders and plunder of the city.

Background of events

After Nero died by suicide, Galba became the new emperor in June 68. He reigned only half a year – until January 69, CE on January 15, 69, the praetorians made a coup d’état on the orders of the emperor’s friend – Otho and killed Emperor Galba in the Forum. Otho then succeeded the imperial throne on January 15, 69 CE; however, prior to the murder of Galba, troops in Lower Germania chose the local commander, Vitellius, as emperor. With his army in CE 69 he marched on Rome and in April of that year he defeated Otho’s troops. The loser Otho committed suicide, and Vitellius was proclaimed emperor in Rome. Officially, on April 19, 69 CE, the senate made him emperor.

On July 1, Egypt’s governor, Tiberius Alexander, and his legions proclaimed Flavius Vespasian, the legate who suppressed the Jewish uprising, emperor. Two days later, Vespasian was elected emperor by his troops in Caesarea by the seaside. Thus, Josephus’ prophecy came true. Backed by troops in the East and Danubian legions, the Vespasian decided to seize power in Rome, pushing Vitellius aside. To this end, he sent the governor of Syria, Mucianus, with his legions to the Danubian provinces, where he joined the legions of Antony Primus. An army of supporters of Vespasian marched on Rome and defeated Emperor Vitellius in the first half of December at the Battle of Bedriakum. Vespasian became the lord of the Roman Empire. In mid-70 CE, Vespasian came to Rome. He appointed his son, Titus, the commander-in-chief of the Judean army.

The chief advisers of Titus have been joined by the Prefect of Egypt, Tiberius Alexander, a Jew who abandoned his religion to become a Roman, and Josephus Flavius. The campaign began in Caesarea, where Titus’ legions were to assemble.

Jerusalem expedition

Palestine in the 1st century CE
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

The XII legion Fulminat has also joined the previous 3 legions taking part in the campaign against the insurgents. Titus arrived at Jerusalem a few days before Passover. Legions: V, XII, XV set up a camp, according to sources, at Mount Skopos, where the line of the Jerusalem wall turns from the north to the west, and the X legion set up a camp on the Mount of Olives. It was the first camp of Titus’ army. Titus placed his own camp in front of the Psefinus tower, and the rest of his troops fenced in front of the Hippikus tower in order to defend the rest of the camps against insurgent attacks.

During the Roman attack on Jerusalem, the parties of the Jewish insurgents concluded an agreement. They realized that the ununited had no chance of repelling the invader. The Romans began preparing for the siege by building ramparts in front of the city walls. Seeing this, the insurgents decided to foray the legionaries of the 10th Legion, who were erecting siege fortifications. Only the passage of Titus with selected troops saved them from destroying the entire defenceless legion occupied with work. The fault of the staff of the 10th legion and the legionaries themselves in this situation was very serious. Of the lack of protection of the builders, panic and escape from the skirmish field, the punishments were usually very severe, but this time Titus decided not to apply any punishment. After this event, it was decided to change the layout of the camps of individual legions. The 12th and 15th Legions reinforced the troops that occupied the lands opposite the Psefinus, Fazael and Hippikus towers.

Repeated preparations for the siege began with levelling the ground and resuming work on the embankments on which the throwing machines were to be placed. All possible food sources around the city were destroyed, incl. orchards and farmland, and wood were used to build war machines. The insurgents from time to time conducted raids to interfere with the preparations, but usually, their losses in people were more serious than the losses of the Romans.

Jerusalem – city, fortress. Location of the city and description of the fortifications

The city of Jerusalem was originally built on two hills. The first of them was called the castle one; the buildings on it come from the times of King David. The hill was also called by the inhabitants the Upper Marcuset Square (the City). It was the highest hill in the city. The second hill was called Accra or the Lower Town. During the rule of the Hasmonaean dynasty, the city grew rapidly and expanded. During this period, the area between the city and the temple in Jerusalem was inhabited. From the end of the above-mentioned dynasty and the period of the Herodian dynasty, Jerusalem began to expand to the north and was simply called the New City or Bezeta. The city had its own natural water spring in the Lower Town, in the part of town called Siloe. The city was fortified with three lines of walls; except for places where there were ravines and there was no possibility of attack from those sides. The oldest wall line is from the Hasmonaean times of the 2nd century BCE. The wall contained 60 towers, some could be bastions. It started on the west side of the citadel, which consisted of three towers. It ran one way to the west wall of the temple, the other way from the citadel it ran south, passing the High City, further below the spring of Siloe, the Lower City, and ended at the eastern cloister of the temple wall. It protected an area of 165 acres, and the city was then around 35,000. residents. The second wall started at the Gennat Gate (at the Hippikus Tower) and ended at the Antoni Fortress. This wall was the shortest and had only fourteen towers. It was built during the Herodian times, it protected an area of 230 acres, and at that time the city had a population of 40,000. population. The third wall was built by Agrippa I in 41-44 CE; it is very possible that during his reign the wall was not finished. It was supposed to encircle the northern part of the city, it led from the Hippicus Tower through the Psefinus towers and ended in the Kidron Valley with the northern wall of the temple hill. It covered an area of 450 acres, the city was then inhabited by 80,000. residents. It had ninety towers.

Illustration showing Jerusalem just before the outbreak of the first anti-Roman war To the Romans, in the 1st century CE
Author: Rocío Espín Piñar

It is worth paying attention to the three towers built by Herod: Fazael, Mariamme and Hippikus. They were located in the west of the city and were part of the citadel and the first wall. The towers had a residential function. Water cisterns were placed above them. Each of the towers was built on a square plan.

The fortress of Antonia was a very important place; it was located to the northwest of the temple hill. It was rebuilt after 31 BCE, on a rectangular plan. It had 4 square towers at the corners. One of them towered above the rest. From the inside, the fortress looked like a palace. It was very similar to the palace fortress in Herodium. The only difference was that Herodium was built on a circular plan. It was destroyed in 70 CE during a siege. In the event of an enemy attack, it was to serve as the royal residence.

Temple Mount

It had the shape of a large trapezoid. It was surrounded on all sides by walls. Two-row cloisters were built below them. The northern wall was 315 m long, the southern one – 280 m, the western one – 485 m, and the eastern one – 460 m. The temple was situated in the middle of the whole hill. It was divided into two parts. In one part there was a temple, and in the other, there was the so-called courtyard of the women. All this was surrounded by walls with cloisters. Both parts were separated by walls and a gate. The temple complex, thanks to its location, formed two external open courtyards.

Siege of Jerusalem

Deployment and strength of defenders

As part of the truce, Jerusalem was divided into two spheres of influence. The commander of the Sicarians, Szymon, son of Gioras, had the most numerous units. He had 10 thousand sicarii and was assisted by 5 thousand Idumeans. They occupied the Upper and Lower Towns. The rest of the city, including the temple, belonged to the sphere of influence of Eleazar and John of Gishali. Eleazar had 2.5 thousand. warriors, and Jan – 6 thousand. insurgents. The biggest problem was the shortage of food, a large part of which was burned before the arrival of the Romans in battle with each other.

Further siege work, storming the third wall line

After many consultations with the staff, a weak point was discovered in the city’s fortifications, and more specifically in the third wall. It was an unfinished part of the wall lying in the western part of the city, from where one could attack the new district, the Upper Town, or the fortress itself, Antonia, quite a convenient point for the first city storm. In order to confuse the insurgents about where the first assault would be carried out, Titus ordered the construction of embankments around the entire city to be carried out. Machine fire was to be carried out from the ramparts. Simon and his warriors began to harass builders and legionaries with forays beyond the walls and began to use captured machines from the time of Cestius’ campaign. It caused quite severe losses on the Roman side. After the fortifications had been built, an assault was launched with the help of siege towers (helepolis) and a shed with rams. The towers were equipped with missile units and scorpions. The insurgents tried to disturb the Romans with various raids, attacked the troops from the rear, and tried to set the machines on fire. All this, however, without significant success, the raids were fought off by the Romans. After some time, the work of the rams began to bear fruit and slowly crushed the third wall. Tired of the constant fight, the defenders fought less and less effectively, which is why they decided to withdraw to the second line of the walls. The Romans, seeing the retreat, quickly took the New Town and Tytus moved his headquarters there. All of this happened on the 15th day of the siege.

Conquering the second wall line

Roman siege machine – scorpion.

Initially, the Romans on the march wanted to get another line of fortifications. The zealot party occupied the Antonia fortress and the temple walls. Simon and his fighters and Idumeans took up positions on the line of the second wall. After daily heavy fights and attacks with battering rams, on the fifth day of the assault, a breach was made and the defenders had to withdraw. After such a great success and the Romans wanted to follow the blow and immediately storm the last line of the walls. During the fighting in the narrow streets, the Romans suffered heavy losses, but the situation was brought under control. Tytus ordered the systematic destruction of the buildings inside the walls, thus the New Town ceased to exist. Famine, not the Romans, was becoming an increasing enemy to the defenders of Jerusalem.

Wanting to give the insurgents a chance to surrender and thus end the siege faster, without additional losses, Titus sent Joseph Flavius to negotiations with the Jewish leaders. He was supposed to convince them to surrender. Szymon and Jan of Gischala had no intention of talking to the traitor at all. They used the trick that they allegedly wanted to talk about the surrender and persuaded him and the Romans to approach the walls, and from them flew missiles that caused losses among the Romans.

The next attempt was similar: Józef and his companion went back to the insurgents, but they responded with a shot from the bow that wounded comrade Józef. Thus ended the attempts to “talk” peace, and whether he wanted it or not, Titus ordered preparations for the final assault on the positions of the Jews.

Plan of the siege and the capture of Jerusalem.
Author: Goran tek-en | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Final assault. Famine in Jerusalem

To begin with, Titus divided the army into two groups. One was to capture the Antonia fortress, and the other – was to crush and occupy the last line of the city walls. It was ordered to build embankments to protect against the insurgents ‘raids on the legionaries’ positions. On the west side, the builders were disturbed by the builders of Simon, and on the side of the fortress – by Jan’s people. They also used throwing machines: scorpions and ballistae. The Romans finished the work after 17 days. The insurgents had a plan to destroy these fortifications. John and his men undermined the fortress from Antonia’s fortress, burned the supporting piles with tar smeared with wood, and part of the ramparts at the fortress collapsed. Then Szymon and his men began a subversive mission to destroy the ramparts and siege towers. He made a big trip to the Romans, who, surprised by this turn of events, allowed the defenders to set fire to rams and towers. For now, the assault has been stopped. It was decided on the so-called circulatory lines (Latin circumvallo – encircle around with an embankment, embank). The wall was intended to stop the expeditions of residents for food and forays into Roman positions. It surrounded the positions still defended by the insurgents, it was 7 km long and equipped with 13 watchtowers. It was a palisade wall. It can be compared to the wall built by Julius Caesar at Aleja.

After the wall was built to stop food raids outside, the number of people starving to death increased. There were many bodies in the streets and houses. The corpses were thrown into ravines so that no diseases would spread, people ate the bark of trees and rodents, and there were also cases of cannibalism. The longer and longer siege worsened the tragic situation of the insurgents.

Fall of Jerusalem

The attack on the Antonia fortress and the battles for the temple hill

The Romans did not break down with the defeat and destruction of the embankments. After a dozen or so days, they built the embankments again. Unfortunately for them, the walls of the Antonia fortress were very solid and the rams could not break through and make a breach. However, after some time, it was possible to destroy the lower parts of the wall, it was caused by the actions of the rams, as well as the earlier insurgent tunnel that disturbed the foundations of the wall. After breaking Antonia’s wall, the insurgents quickly built a second wall behind the fortress wall at night. Two days later, a group of legionaries climbed the wall at night and killed the sentries. The trumpeter, who was among the brave ones, signalled the troops with his trumpet that the battlements of the wall had been captured. The fighting that took place all night resulted in heavy losses on both sides. Antonia Fortress has been captured. The Romans decided to demolish the fortresses, in addition to the highest tower, which was to be an observation point on the temple hill. Few of the insurgents escaped from the fighting in the fortress through tunnels to the temple.

Initially, the Romans began working on ramps for siege and throwing machines before the attack on the hill. The ramps were erected at the northern, and western portico of the wall of the temple hill. The insurgents decided to set fire to the corner part between the north and west portico, which connected the hill with the Antonia fortress. Their next move to hinder the attack of the Romans was to leave the western wall. When the Roman commanders noticed this, they were ordered to take up these positions as soon as possible. The insurgents, seeing that their plan was going in the right direction, set fire to this part of the fortification (less than), as a result of which many Romans were killed. The work of the rams on the west side of the cloister of the outer courtyard of the temple could not break through the solid and thick walls. The Romans also tried to undermine the foundations of the wall on the north side, but this did not bring the desired result. The next move and attempt to take over the walls was to build long ladders and climb them onto the battlements. However, this clash of the Romans, despite causing large losses on the opponent’s side, was not successful.

Eventually, Titus ordered the silver gates leading into the temple hill to be set on fire. The fire spread to the rest of the cloisters of the wall, which were destroyed. Titus and his advisers chose not to destroy the Temple of Jerusalem itself. The next step was to prepare the way for the legions to enter the outer courtyard of the temple, remove the ruins, and level the terrain. After repelling the last foray of the insurgents, the legionaries entered the outer courtyard of the Temple. Contrary to Titus’ order, a legionary threw torches into the Tabernacle and the temple burned down at the end of August 70. Titus wanted to save the Tabernacle, so he ordered the officers to put out the fire. However, the soldiers were busy murdering their opponents and looting the temple hill. The Romans had no mercy for anyone. A small group of insurgents broke into the Upper Town. Everything was burned and looted.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, John Roberts

Capture the Upper Town

With the capture of temple hill, the insurgents sent emissaries and asked for peace and sparing their lives. Titus showed no mercy and allowed further murder and plunder of the rest of the city. In the beginning, everyone, regardless of gender, was killed. After some time, the unarmed inhabitants were taken prisoner, and those who did not come from Jerusalem were set free – this is how nearly 40,000 survived the pogrom. people. The insurgents took refuge in underground tunnels and various passages. After some time, Titus ordered the slaughter of inhabitants who were surrendering to be stopped. The captured were sorted, some were sent to the gladiator arenas, others were to take part in the triumph in Rome, still others were sent to heavy labour or sold at the slave market. In the meantime, Szymon bar Giora (he was murdered in Rome) and John of Gischala (died in prison) were found in the sewers. According to Josephus Flavius, 100 thousand of inhabitants of Jerusalem were taken prisoner, and 1.1 million people died during the siege. The losses on the Roman side are unknown. In summary, the siege ended on August 30, 70 CE

From all over the city, only the towers of Phazael, Hippicus and Mariamme and the wall on the west side were left for the garrison left in Jerusalem. For Emperor Vespasian, the capture of Jerusalem meant to crush the rebellion and conquer all of Judea. There were still a few points of resistance in the hands of the insurgents.

Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez

Final end of hostilities against the Jewish insurgents

The first goal of operations in CE 71 for the commander of Roman troops in Judea, Lucius Bassus, was to seize the fortresses still in the hands of the rebels. Together with the 10th Legion, joined by a few units from other garrisons, he moved to the fortress in Herodium, built by Herod the Great. It was situated 11 km south of Jerusalem. However, it was abandoned. The next move was to be the fortress of Macheront, occupied by the zealots. It was built by Herod the Great. It was on the other side of the Dead Sea. The ravine hindering access to the fortress was covered up by the Romans. In these activities, the insurgents led by a certain Eleazar made the work of the Romans very difficult with their forays. Finally, when Eleazar was accidentally captured, the Romans demanded surrender for Eleazar’s life. The defenders agreed and surrendered the city, the men were set free on the basis of an agreement, the zealots with Eleazar headed for Masada, and the Romans sold the women with their children into slavery. Residents who did not give up and stayed in the city met death. The last impregnable bastion and fortress were Masada.

Author: Patryk Ochociński (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • B. Levick, Vespasian, Florence 1999
  • B. Nowaczyk, Masada 66-73, Warszawa 2009
  • H. Graetz, Historia Żydów, przeł. St. Szenhak, Warszawa 1929
  • J. Flavius, Jewish War
  • Cassius Dio, Roman history, 65.7.1
  • M. Hadas-Lebel, Józef Flawiusz. Żyd rzymski, Warszawa 1997
  • S. Rocco, The Forts of Judea 168 BC- AD 73: From the Maccabees to the Fall of Masada, Oxford 2008
  • A. Krawczuk, Rzym i Jerozolima, Warszawa 1974
  • Cassius Dio, Roman history, LXV.2
  • P. Schafer, The History of the Jews in the Greco- Roman World: The Jews of Palestine from Alexander the Great to the Arab conquest, London 2003

The article is an excerpt from the work of Mr. Patryk Ochociński entitled “Masada w świetle badań archeologicznych i historycznych”.

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