Roman influence in the near eastern provinces of Judaea and
Syria Palaestina first came to major fruition with the conquests
of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great). In 64 BC, the Jews
had maintained nearly 2 centuries of independent rule from various
eastern nations, but internal struggles and succession issues
after the death of King Alexander Jannaeus threatened the stability.
His sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, as well as other political and
religious factions, all vied for the Judean crown, and they eventually
sought mediation from the great Roman conqueror Pompey.
Pompey endorsed Hyrcanus, but Aristobulus and his followers bided
their time to resist the decision. While Pompey was busy in a minor
campaign against the Arabic Nabataeans, Aristobulus seized Jerusalem
and Rome was forced to do more than mediate. Pompey besieged the
ancient city and within 3 months, officially made Hyrcanus the high
priest and established Judaea as a client state. Despite this,
Judaea remained independent of Roman authority provided they stayed
within the rules of their status, and some degree of instability
beleaguered the state for some time.
Some 2 decades later, Julius Caesar arrived in Judaea while on
campaign in the east in 47 BC. The Jews were granted various benefits
owing to the uniqueness of their monotheistic religion and Hyrcanus
was officially made the King or Ethnarch. Antipater Idumean was
granted the first Roman title of the area, being appointed as procurator.
It was his responsibility to see to the day to day management of
Roman interests and provincial oversight. However, Antipater was
assassinated soon after, and his son, the soon to be famous Herod,
took his place. Shortly thereafter, Parthian invasions from Syria
set up Aristobolus II on the throne, but Herod shrewdly garnered the
intervention of the Roman Senate was confirmed as Ethnarch in 37 BC.
Later, Marcus Antonius who was given command of the entire eastern
empire in an agreement with Octavian (the future Augustus), bequeathed
the province along with other Roman possessions to Cleopatra in Egypt.
While Herod remained in a position of authority in this period, he
supported Antonius and Cleopatra, understandably so, but with Octavian's
victory in the civil war at Actium in 31 BC, the situation changed
irrevocably for the entire Roman world.
Herod went to Rhodes to meet the victorious Octavian, and
through his political skill, and likely proven ability to stabilize
the province, continued in his confirmation as ruler of Judaea.
Herod was a brutal king, but this brutality helped keep an often
instable political and religious environment on peaceful terms.
Despite his brutality and apparent disinterest in traditional
Jewish customs, Herod was careful not to infringe on these traditions
for the people. He found it vital to his own survival to seek the
approval of the masses, but the overwhelming reason for his success
was the administration of force to suppress open opposition. The
Jews, however, were limited self-rule as it related to their
religious practices. The Sanhedrin was established under Herod
as a sort of religious council to oversee the affairs of faith
and religious law.
Herod's reign ended with his death in 4 BC and the now Roman
emperor, Augustus, was faced with a difficult challenge. At first
he appointed Herod's sons as rulers of smaller districts within
the larger kingdom, but misrule forced him to change tactics.
Unfortunately, Judaea offered little in the way of benefits to
Rome, as it was poor in both agriculture and mineral wealth.
However, its position on the eastern Mediterranean placed between
the Roman provinces of Aegyptus and Syria, bordering the Nabataean
territory of Arabia, and its unstable political history necessitated
firm Roman control in order to facilitate security in the region.
Augustus was forced to place Judaea under the direct control of
Roman Prefects, who were in turn responsible to the Governor of
Syria. Though no legions were directly assigned to the Praefect
in Judaea's early formation, there were typically 3 nearby legions
in Syria ready to respond to the numerous revolts of the small
Of the most famous of these Roman Prefects, was Pontius
Pilate. His position in religious history is secured through
the word of the Christian faith that saw its start in Judaea.
The life of Pilate, and of Jesus Christ are both highly disputed
by scholars, but its certain that Pilate was the Prefect
between the years 26 and 36 AD. He was considered responsible for
the death and crucifixion of Jesus though many have argued, including
ancient contemporaries, that Pilate was innocent of the whole affair,
and that blame rested on Caiphas the high priest and his
conservative Jewish followers. Regardless, the rule of Pilate
was one of difficult circumstances with several revolts put down
by extreme force. Some of his actions regarding religious
tradition alienated him from the Jewish population, and even
the Emperor Tiberius was forced to intervene. Threatening Pilate
if peaceful administration wasn't restored, Pilate's actions in
the biblical stories may have been less out of tolerance toward
Jesus, than fear of retribution from Rome if new revolts occurred.
By the end of Pilate's term in 36 AD, however, violence and
resistance to Roman rule was at dangerous levels. Attempts by
Pilate to introduce statues of Tiberius and of Caligula to do
the same with his own images, within Jewish temples had the people
close to open revolt. Only the wise intervention of Claudius
suppressed this and restored a sense of stability.
In 41 AD, Claudius appointed Herod Agrippa as king, restoring
some sense of self rule to the Jewish state. Agrippa, though the
grandson of Herod, was extremely popular among the people and his
administration was able to alleviate tension. A devout traditionalist
regarding religion, Agrippa upheld the all important Jewish customs
and maintained some degree of independence from the authorities in
Rome. Unfortunately, his death in 44 AD put Judaea back under direct
governing by Roman Procurators for another 20 years, and dissatisfaction
grew at an alarming rate.
By 66 AD, all out revolt finally broke out when the Procurator Gessius
Florus apparently seized seventeen talents from the Jewish temple treasury.
This act, paling in comparison to the religious strife that existed between
Pagan Rome and the Jewish faith, was simply the final straw that broke the
people's tolerance and armies were raised throughout the province. The Syrian
governor Gallus attempted to invest Jerusalem but was soundly defeated,
even losing the standard of XII Legion in the process. Religious zealots
took hold of forts throughout the region, and ethnic purging took place all
over. By 67 AD, however, the Roman general Vespasian arrived and things
began to go well for the Romans. He invaded Palestine from Syria and stamped
out resistance in the north with great speed. By the summer of 68 AD, only
Jerusalem and the stronghold of Masada remained in opposition.
69 AD saw the year of the 4 emperors after the death of Nero, and
Vespasian was one of the civil war candidates who took to the field to
claim the throne. Successful in his goal, he sent his son Titus to finish
the subjugation of Judaea. In 71 AD, Jerusalem was finally captured and its
great temple destroyed, ending the resistance of the main body of the population.
The great Jewish historian Josephus was also captured during the campaign
and eventually became a confidant of the emperor. Vespasian and Titus returned
to Rome to celebrate a triumph, but the fortress of Mesada and its militant
occupants remained. By 74 AD, Lucius Flavius Silva, then the governor of Judaea
ordered the legion X Fretensis to besiege the mountain fortress to put an end
to the resistance. Building an incredible ramp to allow easy movement for
siege engines and infantry, the Romans discovered that their efforts would not
require a fight. They found the place abandoned, save for a woman and her
children, who informed the Romans that the inhabitants had killed themselves
rather than become slaves to the Romans.
Under the reign of Trajan, a large Jewish revolt broke out on Cyprus and
in Cyrenaica on the African coast. Roman pagan temples were destroyed, and the
conflict spread to the largest Jewish city in the empire, Alexandria Egypt.
There, more Roman temples were destroyed along with the tomb of Pompey the
Great. However, Trajan managed to prevent widespread revolt in the home
province of Judaea and put down the trouble where it originated. His successor,
Hadrian, found matters much more difficult, however, and had to deal with
the last and most dangerous Jewish revolt of them all.
Hadrian was responsible for stopping Roman expansion and attempting to
bring cultural uniformity throughout the empire. While it brought great
success in most places, the religious differences in Judaea were too great.
He rebuilt Jerusalem, first razed by Titus, as the Roman city of Aelia
Capitolina and erected a great temple to Jupiter, rather than the Jewish
God. Hadrian also forbade circumcision which the Jews viewed as a direct
attack on their customs, and by 132 AD, revolt broke out once again. Under
the leadership of Simon ben Kosiba, or Bar Kochba, this 3 year struggle
would be the most brutal in the history of Roman rule and would turn into
a clash involving ethnicity, faith and culture. Three full legions were
needed to suppress this clash and extreme measures were taken to end
resistance. By 135 AD, the Romans cornered Kosiba and his followers at
Bethar where they starved to death and the war was over.
The Jewish people were severely punished by Hadrian. Prisoners were sold
into slavery in massive numbers, and Judaism as a religion was under attack.
He forbade the people to teach Mosaic Law or to own scrolls of any sort. Pagan
temples and symbols were erected all over the province and even directly over
old Jewish religious sites. The province itself was renamed Palestine; and of
course, Jerusalem was already called Aelia Capitolina to stamp out any
reference even to the Jewish names. The people were even forbidden from
entering the temple complex to pray at their own sacred grounds, and the outer wall
of the complex eventually came to be known as the 'wailing wall'.
Despite the severity of Hadrian's response, his tactics worked and the Jews
fell into a long period of peaceful subjugation. Hadrian's successor,
Antoninus Pius, restored many of the religious rites of the people, and
that seemingly went a long way towards healing the wounds. Over the next
2 centuries Roman occupation of Palaestina-Judaea was a relatively uneventful
period. The territory received some additional notoriety with the acceptance
of Christianity by Constantine and that religion's continued growth throughout
the 4th century. The province remained a relatively peaceful backwater of the
empire even through the fall of the west in the 5th century. It remained a
part of the Byzantine Empire until 638 AD, when the region was overrun by
the Arab conquest.
to the map of Judaea