Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian by William Horbury

Book Review by Lindsay Powell

The siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the fall of Masada to the Romans – these dramatic episodes in the First Jewish War (AD 66-70) are well known to students of the ancient world. Hardly known at all to them are the subsequent uprisings in the Diaspora of AD 115-117 and the Second Jewish War of AD 132-136. It is a surprising oversight. The failure of the second uprising in Judaea was of much greater consequence for the Jewish People than the better known conflict.

William Horbury offers a new history of these important events. He is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge whose publications include works on Jewish messianism and Judaism under Herod the Great. He knows his subject intimately. This is evident in the extensive footnotes, which in aggregate make up almost half of the 512 page book. The bibliography (divided into sources and other publications) alone runs to forty-three pages. In his main discussion Horbury explores the period of conflicts under Trajan and Hadrian not just as the end of an era. 'The history of Jewish war under Trajan and Hadrian may be the story of an ending,' he writes in his Introduction, 'but it is also part of a study of Jewish and Christian origins' (page 9).

The sources and historians which provide the evidence for the two periods are surprisingly diverse, as Horbury explains in Chapter 2. Archaeology has produced contemporary inscriptions, papyri and coins. Yet there is no Flavius Josephus accounting for these events in a single narrative. The reader familiar with the Greek and Roman classical texts will recognise Cassius Dio, who describes the uprising in summary in Books 68 and 69 of his Roman History; and the Life of Hadrian (ascribed to Aelius Spartianus) in the Historia Augusta. The early Christian writer Eusebius of Caesarea quotes Justin Martyr (a contemporary of the Second Jewish War) in Book 4 of his Church History as well as giving accounts for each year of the conflicts in his Chronicle. There are also the writings of Orosius, Jerome, Epiphanius and John Malalas who add details to the story.

Probably unfamiliar to the reader will be the Jewish sources. It is the rabbinic literature that provides 'the indispensible source material' (page 22). Principally these are the Talmud (Bablyonian and Palestinian) and Midrash (Lamentations). The modern reader who is new to these texts will be surprised by their content, of which Horbury writes it 'ranges from conditions of daily life in cities, towns and villages to political thought, messianic hope, and religion and learning more generally, with the study and application of Torah as the great central theme' (page 22). These are not conventional histories, but religious texts which mingle 'memorable stories of war, sanctity and matyrdom' (page 22).

Later reassessments of Jewish rabbinic tradition also shaped understanding – and misunderstanding – of the historical events. Mediaeval writers (such as Abraham Ibn Daud in Spain and Maimonides in Egypt) who saw parallels with their own times retold the events and emphasised the heroic, messianic and mystical aspects. Commentators of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and modern eras have also reinterpreted the history through the lens of their own times and interests in the themes of liberty, resistance and national identity.

Horbury argues that the origins of the conflicts under Trajan and Hadrian can be traced to the First Jewish War and even before. He discusses the range of Roman opinion on Jews from the Republic to the Principate, noting that violent outbreaks by Jews against Roman oppression were common occurrences during these years. The war, which saw the Temple leveled and the religious artifacts hauled off to Rome and displayed in triumph by Titus, led to subjection on several levels. These included stricter policing in Judaea and the imposition of the Jewish tax by his successor Domitian (whose agents showed no mercy in collecting it, and his informers eagerly denounced anyone trying to evade paying it). The situation improved somewhat under Nerva and Trajan, but the Jews in the homeland and Disapora still felt repressed.

Though separated by fourteen years, Horbury nevertheless views the two uprisings together. The First Jewish War had changed the distribution of the defeated population and even aspects of their religious ritual. In Caesarea Jews disappeared from the colony's streets following a series of urban massacres. Legio X Fretensis was purposely encamped within the ruined city of Jerusalem. Traditional sacrifices ceased on the Mount in Jerusalem and the power and influence of the Sanhedrin ended as it shifted to the rabbis in the prayer houses and synagogues scattered across Galilee, Samaria and Judaea. The Jews sought liberty and redemption in prayer. 'At the heart of the revolt ideology,' Horbury states, 'was the biblically derived hope for a redemption from servitude, modeled on the exodus' (page 146). Anti-Roman sentiment festered and there were Jews eager for vengeance on their foes.

That swell of hostility finally burst into the open when Trajan was in the midst of his war against the Parthians. Hardly had he entered Ctesiphon when riots broke out in the lands to his rear in Cyrene, Egypt and Cyprus. Horbury discusses several surviving papyri and ostraka that suggest the rebellion in Egypt consumed Alexandria and spread as far south as Thebes. He cites the historian Appian, who records in his Roman History how he narrowly escaped from Jewish forces aboard a ship from Pelusium. The Roman commander-in-chief sent Lusius Quietus (a Moor of consular rank) to crush the insurgents beyond the Eurphrates – a task he did with such violence that the Midrash records it (AKA 'the Kitos War') with sorrowful words. Then Trajan died unexpectedly.

His successor Hadrian immediately found himself having to deal with major internal threats to the security of the Roman provinces. Horbury helpfully compares the accounts of Cassius Dio and Eusebius. In most respects they are congruent, but in some key details they differ. For the Christian historian Eusebius, whose theme is one of Jewish doom, the rebellions amount to acts of war and require war to be quelled. Dio seems to relish recounting a list of rebel atrocities and the outrages committed by violent mobs; for him the Latin and Greek-speaking Romans are clearly 'the victims' (page 188). The Cambridge professor presents all the known evidence by each conflict zone, devoting fully thirty-two pages to the revolts in Alexandria alone. Judaea was possibly involved, but it was mainly in the Diaspora that strife occurred. The extant reports meticulously dissected by Horbury portray a world engulfed in turmoil – and a most inauspicious start to the reign of a new emperor.

The persistence of 'national hope for return and redemption' continued through the first fifteen years of Hadrian's, 'this despite the repression of Jewish insurgence with which he began' (page 277). The epicentre of the next uprising would be Judaea itself. Horbury discusses the sources (again helpfully comparing Dio and Eusebius) and carefully examines them for the causes of the war. Hadrian visited Judaea in AD 130, leaving a subject people angry and frustrated. His prohibition on temple-building, intent to found Aelia Capitolina on the site of Jerusalem and a ban on circumcision, each to varying degrees motivated the aggrieved Jews to resort to violent action in their search for redemption.

They found their war leader in a man now known from surviving papyri to be Shim'on ben Kosiba. His recognition as the mashiah is credited to the venerable Rabbi Akiba, who called him Bar Kokhba ('son of a star'), recalling Num. 24:17. Though described as 'bandit-like' by Eusebius, the rough but physically strong rebel leader unashamedly styled himself 'Prince over Israel', a title with a clear messianic aspiration and associations with Israelite kingship. He evidently had a clear military strategy.

In the two years following Hadrian's visit, Dio records how Bar Kokhba's army (made up of 'the distressed, the debtors and discontented', page 326) amassed arms and equipment by deception for the coming war of independence, and dug tunnels into the ground throughout Judaea, from which the soldiers later launched ambushes upon unsuspecting Roman troops. For four years his army succeeded in repulsing attempts by the Romans to regain control, first the local garrison of the provincial governor (Tineius Rufus) and later of vexillations deployed from neighbouring Syria and Arabia. Only when Hadrian dispatched Julius Severus from remote Britannia did the Roman war effort finally turn in the emperor's favour. The combined forces of the expeditionary army stormed fortified farms and villages, and finally besieged the rebel stronghold at Betar where the Bar Kokhba staged his last stand. By war's end hundreds of thousands lay dead, including the rebel leader. The survivors were sold into slavery and exported out of the region.

Despite the fervent hope for its liberation (professed on Roman coins overstruck by the rebels), the weight of evidence suggests the insurgents never succeeded in taking Jerusalem. For the Jews the failure of the uprising was a catastrophe. After AD 136, 'an area around Jerusalem was forbidden to the Jews,' notes Horbury (page 402). Hadrian built his Roman city named after his nomen gentile and he erected his Temple of Jupiter. Province Judaea was expunged from Roman officialdom: it would henceforth be known as Syria Palaestina. Surviving Jews now talked of Bar Kokhba as the 'son of a liar', the failed messiah. The rabbinical literature virtually drips with tears of regret and despair. In contrast, for the Christian writers, like Eusebius, he was 'a charlatan imposing himself as the celestial spirit of a star' (page 384); or like Jerome, for whom he was a figure of ridicule who 'pretended to breathe fire by a trick with a lighted straw in his mouth'. Notably, Christians had generally refused to join Bar Kokhba in his struggle against Rome: it was not their fight. The Christians already had a Messiah.

It was to be the last Jewish revolt against the Romans. In recounting the events of AD 132-136 Horbury expertly mines the extant sources for information, comparing and contrasting them for what they reveal about the rebel administration, its constitution and ethos, piety and zeal, of the rebel leader himself; as well as the Roman military reinforcements comprising several legions, their joint campaign of counterinsurgency, and behaviour in the aftermath of the war.

This book is a standard, high quality production of Cambridge University Press. Yet a book of this high price – it is listed at £84.99 ($135) – really should include colour plates. Jewish War does not. Remarkably there are neither black and white plates, nor figures, nor line drawings, any of which would have enhanced enjoyment and deeper understanding of the text. There are just four maps. The fourth of these, 'Judaea (Palaestina)', is so densely packed with place names it might have been better spread over two pages rather than crammed on to a single one. Moreover the absence of a key limits the value of the information contained in the map over which its maker clearly poured much care and attention.

Horbury's book will appeal to readers interested in the history of Judaism and early Christianity, ancient messianism and of Jewish revolts in the ancient world. One caveat: it is an academic treatment and the general reader may struggle with the depth of scholarship. Non-specialist readers interested in this subject might consider starting their study with Emil Schürer's 'The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ: Volume 1' (reprinted by Bloomsbury, 2015), which covers the period 175 BC-AD 135. Having read Horbury's tome, worthy of consideration is Peter Schäfer's 'The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome (Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism, 100)' (Mohr Siebeck, 2003); it is a collection of fifteen papers by specialists among whose subjects are the origins of the war, the ban on circumcision, the geographical scope of the rebellion, rebel coinage, documents from the Judaean Desert and the underground hideouts. The most recent treatment is Menahem Mor's 'The Second Jewish Revolt: The Bar Kokhba War, 132-136 CE' (Brill, 2016), which was unseen by this reviewer.

The tumultuous events of AD 115-117 and 132-136 remind us that the benefits of the so-called Pax Romana were not enjoyed equally by all subject peoples of the Romans. There were always winners and losers, of course, but the Jews (especially those living in Judaea) were often on the wrong side. They were particularly unwilling to yield their national identity, ancient law and long-held traditions to the pagan invader, who in turn seemed unsympathetic to a people they regarded as different, duplicitous and dangerous. In times of extreme duress many Jews – wherever they lived – showed they were willing to risk everything to strike back at their oppressors. The failure of the Bar Kokhba uprising in Judaea, however, had a devastating impact upon the community with its banishment from the Promised Land and the Holy City. The situation was – arguably – not fully reconciled until the foundation of the modern State of Israel in 1948.

Lindsay Powell is a historian and the author of several books including Marcus Agrippa and Germanicus. His latest work, Augustus at War: The Struggle for the Pax Augusta will be published in late 2016 by Pen and Sword Books.

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