Siege of Jerusalem

The siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE marked the peak of tension between the two armies during the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE). In the middle of 69 CE, when the Roman Empire was transitioning from the Julio-Claudian to the Flavian dynasty, there was tremendous pressure to suppress the revolt in Judaea.

The Great Jewish Rebellion

Under the last Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero (r. 54-68), there was open discontent between the people of Judaea and the Roman authorities due to religious unrest and rising taxes. Gessius Florus, the Procurator (a type of Roman ruler), looted the Second Temple (in Jerusalem) when demonstrations broke out, claiming the money for the empire. This move and pre-existing tensions sparked widespread uprisings throughout Judaea, sparking the First Jewish-Roman War.

General Vespasian of the Roman Empire was sent to address the turmoil in Judaea as the revolt gained strength. With his son Titus at his side, he decisively stifled the revolt by seizing the castles that ringed the principal fortification of Jerusalem. Nero committed suicide two years into the insurrection, ushering in the year of the Four Emperors. Vespasian (reign 69-79) would return to Rome after securing the throne with the troops under his command assistance. His son Titus gained command of the troops and proceeded to fight the Jews when he departed Judaea. Titus and the Roman army marched on Jerusalem on April 14, 70. This day occurred just three days before Passover that year, contributing to Jerusalem’s high population.

Jerusalem before the Siege

Jerusalem was a highly defendable site throughout the siege. The city was high and surrounded by valleys, making it difficult to attack. A wall partitioned Jerusalem into the Upper City on the west side, where the wealthier residents dwelt, and the Temple Mount on the city’s east end. Just to the north of the Temple stood the Antonia Fortress. Beginning with the Fortress, a second wall defended their northern flank. During the conflict, the inhabitants of Jerusalem constructed the third wall’s outermost portion.

Due to the conquest of several other Jewish strongholds and the observance of Passover, many people traveled to Jerusalem. We do not know whether for political or religious reasons, but when the Roman troops created a boundary around the city, there was an inflow of individuals. With so many people there and the battle going poorly for Judaea, various factions within the resistance inflicted much infighting. Specifically in Jerusalem, this issue resulted in human resource losses and the depletion of substantial food supplies. Simon bar Giora and John of Gischallas were the city’s two most influential faction leaders. John and his men held their position on the Temple Mount, while Simon and his men controlled the Upper City and Herod’s palace in the west. As Rome approached, warfare would soon commence.

Establishing Camp and Penetrating the Third Wall

Titus and his soldiers arrived on April 14, 70 CE. On his arrival, Titus rode out with scouts to inspect the region surrounding the Temple. At this time, the rebels attacked Titus’ scouting team and came very close to killing the general. Unprepared and out of formation, the Romans suffered heavy casualties in this brief battle. After the conflict between the scouts and Jewish soldiers, the Romans formed a camp on Mount Olives to the east of the city. By observing the eternal barriers of foliage, Titus ordered that the ground be chopped down and leveled to improve siege equipment’s movement and visibility. Having erected their base camp, they were now ready to commence the siege in full.

At this point, Titus established two further camps north of the city. The Romans initially constructed ramps up the third wall. The Jews, who fired missiles at the construction team, refused to abandon the wall without a battle. The Romans concealed the building of the ramps with their cannon. Despite the rebels’ efforts, it only took Titus’ army fifteen days to break the outermost wall. Rome constructed a new camp, and Jews withdrew behind the second wall. The momentum caused the second wall to be quickly breached. It took only four days to breach that wall.

Impasse inside the Second Wall

Until this point, Rome had been steadily advancing toward the fortress’ conquest. Twenty days into the siege, Titus had already breached the second line of defense. The legionnaires streamed in as soon as a hole was cut in that wall. As they approached the final barrier through the town, the rebels ambushed them. The gap was so tiny that only two or three individuals could escape. The distance was sufficiently narrow to create a choke point, and the militants massacred the professional troops. Even though the defeat was not catastrophic, morale in the Roman camps weakened that night.

With the most recent setback still fresh in both forces’ memories, Titus ordered the construction of a circumvallation wall. His objective was to prevent his armies from concentrating on their defeats and to prevent the smuggling of supplies into Jerusalem. Titus recommenced the attack on the second wall, and this time, once the army had breached it, he ordered the wall to be entirely demolished, except for the towers. The commanders of the rebels ordered a retreat within the inner wall.

The reduced perimeter made it considerably more straightforward for the Jews to defend this line. The Fortress of Antonia’s more significant, taller walls gave it a more defensible position, and the result of the siege would hinge here. As with the other walls, Titus ordered the construction of ramps, battering rams, and siege towers that approached the walls. Rome was poised to invade the castle 17 days after the preparations were completed. Unbeknownst to the Romans, the Jews had buried a mine just beneath the newly constructed ramp. The mine was then filled with gasoline and set ablaze. The mine caused the engineering project to collapse, and when the fires surfaced, they ignited the besieging equipment. Here, the ingenuity of the defenders cannot be understated. Using their available resources, they could thwart a well-oiled military machine.

The success in the mine was very temporary. Titus authorized an attack on the castle when the fires were doused. Despite the mine’s ingenuity, it was fatally flawed. It compromised the fort’s foundation, and the wall fell one day after the attack. The Romans had breached the Temple Mount’s first fortification and established a footing there.

Four Conflicts inside the Temple

This siege exemplifies the tenacity of the two armies, with the Jews battling for their existence and the Romans demonstrating their training discipline. When the walls of the fortifications crumbled, the Romans faced fresh obstacles from their adversaries.

With the barricade breached, a small contingent of troops launched a nighttime assault. It is noteworthy that they did this without being instructed. When the defenders discovered that it was only a portion of the Roman force, they rallied to prevent the Romans from attaining a stronger position. As soon as Roman troops arrived, full-scale combat broke out. The Jews were victorious after the First Battle of the Temple, gaining a modest positional advantage by arriving first.

At this time, Titus ordered the destruction of the fortification. A fresh attack was launched during the night. Although the legionnaires were well trained, the space was too restricted, and there was too much confusion for them to act efficiently. The struggle continued throughout the afternoon, but neither side could get the upper hand. Ultimately, they fought to a draw in the Second Battle of the Temple. After this battle, the rebels led the Romans to the Temple’s outside walls after this battle. The Jews fled, hoping to trap as many enemies as possible on the walls before the defenders set fire to the arcade from which they had just retreated. Both sides of the conflict observed soldiers engulfed in a fire above the walls. This triumph once again boosted Jewish morale while impacting the Romans negatively.

Titus demolished the whole northern colonnade during the Third Battle of the Temple to provide a more prominent entrance for his forces. The wide region enabled the attackers to advance in formation and provided them a tremendous advantage. With the defenders confined to the inner Temple, the Jews appeared doomed to lose. Instead of the Romans going on the offensive, the Jews stormed enemy lines and sallied out. However, shocked, Titus’s troops maintained their positions. They struggled for several hours without gaining any ground. In the end, it was a tie.

Increasingly desperate, the Jews launched another assault. This time, however, the Romans not only maintained their lines but also pushed back. By trapping the rebels against the Temple, they battled once more in limited confines. Again, without orders, a handful of legionnaires took the initiative and set fire to the Temple. The ensuing turmoil favored the attacker, and the Romans won the battle. Invading the Temple, the Romans pillaged its wealth. Thus, the Fourth Battle of the Temple concludes.

Rome Acquires the Remainder of Jerusalem

The Romans completed the remainder of the siege with relative ease. After Titus took the Temple and performed his sacrifices inside its confines, the two Jewish leaders, Simon and John, made a request. They sought to bargain their way out of the city, but Titus refused to grant them any advantage. Instead, Titus ordered the destruction of a part of the city. Rome forced the rebels back to the upper city and the palace of Herod, where they would make their last stand.

Significantly weakened, the Jews could not defend themselves as they had previously. Titus encircled the rebels by stationing siege forces within the city and flanking units outside the wall. Jerusalem had fallen because it lacked the personnel to defend itself.

Consequences of the siege of Jerusalem

Rome meted out its sanctions with the fight over and the victors in control. The ancient historians Tacitus (c. 56 – c. 118 CE) and Flavius Josephus (c. 36 – 100 CE) estimate that between 600,000 and 1,100,000 persons were murdered during the siege. Males aged 17 and above were either incarcerated in forced labor camps or forced to fight as gladiators—the sale of women and children into slavery. Titus had different intentions for the two leaders, Simon bar Gioras and John of Gischallas. The two were returned to Rome, displayed as prisoners through the streets, and publicly judged. John was jailed, while Simon was tried, flogged, and killed.

After the siege, the First Jewish-Roman War continued for three years. There would be other significant sieges, such as the mass suicide at Masada. In the end, though, the Romans would prevail. In the end, the Siege of Jerusalem was not typical, and its permanent impact on the Roman Empire is valuable but unquestionably altered the nation’s path. The victory established Vespasian and Titus as competent rulers who might establish the Flavian Dynasty.

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