Book Review by Lindsay Powell
The struggle between the followers of Shim'on ben Koseba and the Romans under emperor Hadrian during the years AD 132-136 continues to fascinate us. The rebel leader was recognized as the 'King Messiah' by Rabbi Akiba, who gave him the moniker Bar Kokhba meaning 'son of a star' after interpreting Book of Numbers 24:17. The revolt failed. The immediate aftermath of the war to crush the rebels was of great consequence to the Jews of Judaea, but also for Judaism in general long after the fall of the Roman empire. Even today Bar Kokhba remains an important historical figure in Israel because he was the last leader of a Jewish state before the rise of Zionism in modern times.
In The Second Jewish Revolt: The Bar Kokhba War, 132-136 C.E., Menahem Mor offers a detailed account in an attempt to better understand the uprising against the Romans. Mor is Professor of Jewish History at the University of Haifa. He has published monographs and articles on Jewish history during the Second Temple Period. In his Introduction to The Second Jewish War he explains that it is an updated version in English of his volume The Bar Kokhba Revolt: Its Extent and Effect published in Hebrew in 1991. He was compelled to write the new book because of the sheer amount of new research now available, in particular information extracted from documents found in refuge caves near the Dead Sea.
Unlike the First Jewish War (AD 66-73), the Second did not have a contemporary historian who wrote a comprehensive book recording the event. For his book Mor uses a variety of historical materials, including literary sources (Jewish, Christian, Greek and Latin) as well as archaeology (inscriptions, coins, military diplomas, finds from hideouts and refuge complexes).
In Chapter I Prof. Mor examines the causes for the outbreak of the revolt led by Bar Kokhba – the presence of the Roman Army, unrest in provincial Judaea, socio-economic as well as national and religious motives. He presents several kinds of evidence and reviews them. He had earlier believed that Hadrian's ban on circumcision and his intent to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan colonia for retired Roman soldiers were insufficient motives for a revolt. He now believes that:
documents from the Judaean Desert in combination with rabbinical sources suggest the figure of the leader of the revolt appears to have been a charismatic one who highly resembled a political messiah acting within a limited geographical area, with limited support from his followers. In view of this, I attribute the main cause of the revolt to the personality and leadership of Bar Kokhba. (page 11).
The participants and opponents of the war are the subjects of Chapter II. Mor reviews the territorial expansion of the revolt from the perspectives of areas of Jewish population. The evidence he presents points to a rebellion in a small area of Iudaea, not the entire province as was the case in the First Jewish War. He concludes that Jerusalem neither fell to the rebels, nor that Hadrian seized it from them. He also considers the supposed evidence for the disappearance of Legio XXII Deiotariana during the Bar Kokhba War and discounts it.
Readers interested in the military units which took part in the war will relish Chapter III. Mor exhaustively examines the composition of the Roman Army units, legionary and auxiliary, fighting in Judaea during the war. He weighs up evidence pro and contra for whether that this or that unit was a participant. Vexillations (detachments) rather than entire legions, augmented the two permanently stationed in Judaea. A case in point is a theory articulated by Werner Eck – who based his proposition on a papyrus and diplomas – that the men of the fleet based at Misenum were deployed to Judaea under Legio X Fretensis. Mor spends several pages dissecting Eck's detailed criticism of his own research before concluding that the evidence 'does not represent an intensive and massive recruitment in order to strengthen the units defeated in Judaea' (page 351). Much of the book is written in this style: Mor posits a theme, evaluates one or more scholar's support or rejection of it by systematically using a range of evidence, before reaching a conclusion. For a general reader this may feel like reading the transcript of a case in a courtroom before getting to the opinion of the presiding judge. However, this is how scholars work, by presenting hypotheses with supporting evidence and defending them from critiques of their peers. In this way he reviews the roles of the Roman commanders known to have taken part. He concludes that the arrival of Sex. Julius Severus from Britannia – bringing with him a new military strategy as well as fresh troops – was pivotal in changing the fortunes of the Roman counterinsurgency.
The attitude of the non-Jewish population in Palestine to the Second Revolt is the subject of Chapter IV. Mor examines the sources for what they reveal about the Samaritans, gentiles, Christians and Jewish Christians at the time of the rebellion. The populations of the Hellenized/Romanized communities stayed out of the war. Despite differing motives, the only other people supporting the revolt with Bar Kokhba's rebels came from the gentiles because they 'shared a common cause in eliminating Roman rule from the country' (page 395).
In Chapter V Mor discusses what is known about the Jewish leadership of the revolt. The letters found in the Nahal Hever caves have shed light on the man known as Bar Kokhba, self-styled nasi (prince or premier) of Israel. Mor dissects the basis for his messianic authority. He also discusses Eleazar the Priest (Bar Kohkba's second-in-command), Rabbi Akiba (the spiritual leader of the rebellion) and local camp commanders (as they are known from surviving letters and archaeology). These men emerge as brave and strong, but flawed personalities. Mor concludes that there was no practical opposition to the revolt until the very end when fighters deserted their camps for the presumed safety of caves of the Judaean Desert or hideouts of the Judaean Shephelah.
The results of the revolt are discussed in Chapter VI. The widely held view is that after the war Judaea and its people were destroyed. Mor argues that while there were specific locations, like Betar and Herodium, that bore the brunt of Roman military ire, much of the region was spared. It quickly recovered. The Romans did not punish all Jews, but only the ones who had participated in the rebellion. This conclusion will likely surprise many who believe the Bar Kokhba War to have been 'one of the direst catastrophes that had ever fallen upon the Jewish population in ancient times' (page 485). The Jews were still economically and militarily useful to the Romans in the region.
In the short Epilogue Mor reflects upon 35 years of study of the war. Some historians have exaggerated the importance of the rebellion, he says, seeing it as a planned military action for the liberation of Judaea by a messianic leader in which the emperor was personally involved along with a vast Roman army. Mor concludes that this was not the case. Bar Kokhba was a local, not a national, rebel leader. Most Jews – notably in Galilee and Samaria – saw no reason to join him. The Roman army sent against him was a relatively small expeditionary force largely made up of vexillations. After the Bar Kokhba War the Jews themselves changed. From that time on they rejected military action as a means for redemption and instead sought an accommodation with the Romans. Indeed, the war of AD 132-136 was the last Jewish revolt against Imperial Rome.
The General Selected Bibliography extends to 34 pages. There is a separate appendix of 38 pages comprising a Bibliography to the Bar Kokhba Revolt arranged by chapter, which lists research published between 1990 and 2015. As well as an index of modern sources there is one of ancient sources covering every Roman and Jewish document in existence. Together these make the book an invaluable resource for further research.
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The book is not without shortcomings. Campaign maps would have greatly aided understanding of the war to reduce the rebels. Remarkably there is just one map in the entire book, and a very basic one at that. There are several photographs, the majority in black and white. Since the colour photographs are not gathered in a central plates section, but scattered throughout the text, one wonders why there are not more of them. The price of the book is is very high. At €150.00 (£115.00) Brill has richly priced Mor's volume – probably to the level that will prevent this important book receiving a wide readership. To the frustration of general readers, this seems to be the business model of academic publishers.
There are few well-written, reasonably-priced books on the Bar Kokhba War. In a separate review for UNRV I discussed William Horbury's Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian published by Cambridge University Press (2014). By definition, the scope of Horbury's study is much broader than Mor's, but on the matter of the Bar Kokhba War his survey runs to just 150 pages (including footnotes) in a book of 512. Mor's book represents the most complete and comprehensive study of the Second Jewish (AKA Bar Kokhba) War in print today and, for that reason, it is highly recommended.
Lindsay Powell is the author of several acclaimed books on warfare and generalship of the ancient world. His latest works, Bar Kokhba War AD 132-136 (Osprey Publishing), and Augustus at War (Pen and Sword Books), will be published in 2017.
Book Review of The Second Jewish Revolt - Related Topic: Judaea - Palaestina