Why did a transnational revolt, with the Jews at its centre, erupt in 116, capable of seriously challenging the Roman empire, which at that very moment had reached the phase of its greatest expansion? . . . What events, in 115 and then 116 CE, first led to Greek-Jewish clashes in Mediterranean cities, and then caused the Jews to take up arms to destroy every element of pagan culture and religion they encountered in their path?
— Livia Capponi: Il Mistero Del Tempio p.18 — translation
Capponi points to many studies of the sources by Miriam Pucci Ben Zeev (2005). They are varied: inscriptions and archaeological finds, literary and documentary papyri, Greek and Latin authors, Christian and pagan, and rabbinic sources. Translations of them are collated in Zeev’s Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insights.
The heterogeneous character of these sources complicates the work of historians as it requires the input of different disciplines, and a multiplicity of viewpoints. (p. 14 — all quotes are translations from the Italian)
Any search for the causes of the revolt surely has to begin with the defeat of the Judeans at the hands of Vespasian and Titus in 70 CE and their subsequent treatment.
Following that war, Judeans in all provinces were subject to “heavy confiscations of lands and properties” and a new tax on all who could be recognized as “Jewish”, whether Palestinian or not. From these extractions the great monuments of Flavian Rome were constructed — the Amphitheatre (Colosseum), the Circus Maximus, the arches of Titus.
According to a recent examination by the Belgian papyrologist Willy Clarisse of the tax receipts and arrears imposed on the Jews preserved in Egyptian papyri in the years 74-115 AD, the amount of confiscations and punitive impositions on the Jews between 73 and 115 AD was undoubtedly greater than scholars have long ascertained. The Jewish communities in the Mediterranean were also taxed retroactively according to burdensome and vexatious logic, which undoubtedly contributed to souring the already irreparably deteriorated relations between the imperial power and the communities themselves. (p. 16
Cassius Dio wrote his histories around 200 CE but they have come to us only in an eleventh century summary of them. That precis reads:
Trajan therefore departed thence, and a little later began to fail in health.
Meanwhile the Jews in the region of Cyrene had put a certain Andreas at their head, and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing; many they sawed in two, from the head downwards; 2 others they gave to wild beasts, and still others they forced to fight as gladiators. In all two hundred and twenty thousand persons perished. In Egypt, too, they perpetrated many similar outrages, and in Cyprus, under the leadership of a certain Artemion. There, also, two hundred and forty thousand perished, 3 and for this reason no Jew may set foot on that island, but even if one of them is driven upon its shores by a storm he is put to death. Among others who subdued the Jews was Lusius, who was sent by Trajan. (Book 68, 32:1-3)
Eusebius‘s references have come to us piecemeal through various other sources, but the most detailed account of his that we have is in his Ecclesiastical History:
While the teaching of our Saviour and the church were flourishing daily and moving on to further progress the tragedy of the Jews was reaching the climax of successive woes. In the course of the eighteenth year of the reign of the Emperor a rebellion of the Jews again broke out and destroyed a great multitude of them. For both in Alexandria and in the rest of Egypt and especially in Cyrene, as though they had been seized by some terrible spirit of rebellion, they rushed into sedition against their Greek fellow citizens, and increasing the scope of the rebellion in the following year started a great war while Lupus was governor of all Egypt. In the first engagement they happened to overcome the Greeks who fled to Alexandria and captured and killed the Jews in the city, but though thus losing the help of the townsmen, the Jews of Cyrene continued to plunder the country of Egypt and to ravage the districts in it under their leader Lucuas. The Emperor sent against them Marcius Turbo with land and sea forces including cavalry. He waged war vigorously against them in many battles for a considerable time and killed many thousands of Jews, not only those of Cyrene but also those of Egypt who had rallied to Lucuas, their king. The Emperor suspected that the Jews in Mesopotamia would also attack the inhabitants and ordered Lusius Quietus to clean them out of the province. He organized a force and murdered a great multitude of Jews there, and for this accomplishment* was appointed governor of Judaea by the Emperor. The Greek authors who chronicle the same period have related this narrative in these very words. (Book 4, 2:1-5)
In assessing the above one must also take into account the sources these authors used, as well, and that forms a part of Capponi’s discussion. But I’ll keep to bare outlines here.
Here are the events that preceded the revolt according to Cassius Dio:
The emperor Trajan embarked on a conquest of the east, in particular the Parthians. Special tribute was given to Alexander the Great’s memory in the process. The Roman Senate bestowed on Trajan the highest honours for these “conquests”, granting him as many “triumphs” as he wished — even though he met little or even no resistance at all. Northern Mesopotamian peoples quickly submitted to him, sometimes by sending him envoys promising surrender long before he reached them. (Recall the post on Witulski’s interpretation of the white horse of Revelation.)
But after Trajan had journeyed south down as far as the ruins of Babylon the regions he had “conquered” broke out in rebellion. Garrisons Trajan had left in those places were either slaughtered or forced to flee.
Cassius Dio wrote of how Trajan was forced to turn back and violently suppress these uprisings.
At the same time the Jewish diaspora witnessed uprisings, from northern Africa through to the “recently conquered” Mesopotamia itself. Cassius Dio seems to depict the scenes of revolt as encompassing one large theatre of war from Africa to Mesopotamia.
Eusebius agrees with the above in broad outline but has a different perspective insofar as he identifies the cause of the outbreak to have been hostilities between Greeks and Judeans in Alexandria, Egypt. This violence spread to engulf all of Egypt and eventually fanned into an all-out rebellion against Rome. A related source even suggests that the massacre of Judeans in Egypt was almost total. An Armenian version of a Eusebian text contains suggestions of a Jewish source that renamed Trajan’s general Lusias as Lysias, the general of Antiochus Epiphanes of the Maccebaean era fame. Capponi interprets this piece of evidence as an indicator of how the rebels saw themselves, as re-enacting the Maccabean revolt.
Late Rabbinic sources cannot be used to reconstruct events but they can arguably be used to understand “the psychological and cultural attitudes at the time of the revolt”. These sources do not tell us about a Jewish revolt against Rome but they do testify of “unjustified repression by the Romans and of their total incomprehension of Jewish religious traditions.” (p. 35) In the Jerusalem Talmud we read the following (Sukka V 1 55a-b) where, as Capponi notes, Trajan is presented as “almost aware of being an instrument in the hands of God”:
And once in the time of Trogianus, the evil one [Capponi sees here a reversal of Trajan’s name and title, Optimus Princeps, the “best citizen”]. A son was born to him on the ninth of Ab, and [the Israelites] were fasting. His daughter died on Hanukkah, and [the Israelites] lit candles. His wife sent a message to him, saying. Instead of going to conquer the barbarians, come and conquer the Jews, who have rebelled against you.’ He thought that the trip would take ten days, but he arrived in five. He came and found the Israelites occupied in the study of the Light [Torah], with the following verse: The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth…’ (Deut. 28:49). He said to them, ‘With what are you occupied?’ They said to him, ‘With thus-and-so.’ He said to them, That man (i.e., I) thought that it would take ten days to make the trip, and I arrived in five days.’ His legions surrounded them and killed them. He said to their wives, ‘Obey my legions, and I shall not kill you.’ They said to him, ‘What you did to the ones who have fallen do also to us who are yet standing.’ He mingled their blood with the blood of their men, until the blood flowed into the ocean as far as Cyprus. At that moment the horn of Israel was cut off, and it is not destined to return to its place until the son of David will come. [translation based on Jacob Neusner’s in The Talmud of the Land of Israel: A Preliminary Translation and Explanation, vol. 17 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 118-119]
The rabbis interpreted the massacres as punishment for “returning to Egypt”, contrary to biblical commands.
Other details Capponi notes of potential significance:
- Jewish rebels (sicarii) who had escaped from Judea in the war of 66-70/73 CE found refuge in Egypt and Cyrene (so Josinsephus informs us) and it is reasonable to infer they carried the rebellious tradition;
- Trajan earned fame or infamy from 112 CE when he “inaugurated a new dynastic policy based on the deification of his family”;
- the Messianic character of the uprisings is “confirmed” in:
¶ the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (39:5-7; 40:1-2)
5 And after these things a fourth kingdom will arise, whose power will be harsh and evil far beyond those which were before it, and it will rule many times as the forests on the plain, and it will hold fast for times, and will exalt itself more than the cedars of Lebanon. 6 And by it the truth will be hidden, and all those who are polluted with iniquity will flee to it, as evil beasts flee and creep into the forest. 7 And it will come to pass when the time of its consummation that it should fall has approached, then the principate of My Messiah will be revealed, which is like the fountain and the vine, and when it is revealed it will root out the multitude of its host. 8 And as touching that which you have seen, the lofty cedar, which was left of that forest, and the fact, that the vine spoke those words with it which you did hear, this is the word.
40 1 The last leader of that time will be left alive, when the multitude of his hosts will be put to the sword, and he will be bound, and they will take him up to Mount Zion, and My Messiah will convict him of all his impieties, and will gather and set before him all the works of his hosts. 2 And afterwards he will put him to death, and protect the rest of My people which shall be found in the place which I have chosen.
¶ and 4 Ezra (the Apocalypse of Ezra) 11:37-46
 Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Look before you and consider what you see.”
 And I looked, and behold, a creature like a lion was aroused out of the forest, roaring; and I heard how he uttered a man’s voice to the eagle, and spoke, saying,
 “Listen and I will speak to you. The Most High says to you,
 `Are you not the one that remains of the four beasts which I had made to reign in my world, so that the end of my times might come through them?
 You, the fourth that has come, have conquered all the beasts that have gone before; and you have held sway over the world with much terror, and over all the earth with grievous oppression; and for so long you have dwelt on the earth with deceit.
 And you have judged the earth, but not with truth;
 for you have afflicted the meek and injured the peaceable; you have hated those who tell the truth, and have loved liars; you have destroyed the dwellings of those who brought forth fruit, and have laid low the walls of those who did you no harm.
 And so your insolence has come up before the Most High, and your pride to the Mighty One.
 And the Most High has looked upon his times, and behold, they are ended, and his ages are completed!
 Therefore you will surely disappear, you eagle, and your terrifying wings, and your most evil little wings, and your malicious heads, and your most evil talons, and your whole worthless body,
 so that the whole earth, freed from your violence, may be refreshed and relieved, and may hope for the judgment and mercy of him who made it.'”
¶ and the fifth book of the Sibylline Oracles. Rather than quote an unwieldy amount of text from the Oracles I will instead cite the words of John Collins, a prominent scholar in this field:
The oracles of Sib. V were written in Egypt after the destruction of the temple but probably before the Bar Kochba revolt. The main question which inevitably arises about its Sitz im Leben is its relationship to the revolt of Diaspora Jewry in 115. We cannot link the oracles directly to the revolt. However, they certainly reflect the atmosphere of nationalism and messianism which produced the revolt, and are our only documents from any strand of Egyptian Judaism at that time.
The suggestion was made by Lagrange and accepted by Fuks that the revolt had no more specific cause than the general messianic expectation of the Jews. The strong expectation of a saviour figure in Sib. V reflects this expectation and may have helped arouse it. True, the saviour expected was a heavenly being but this does not exclude the possibility of his appearing and acting on earth, as we see from the case of Bar Kochba and others. The deep pessimism of the book does not preclude recourse to action. It might in fact have been typical of the desperate attitude of the Jewish revolt.
The bitterness of complaint about the temple and the deeply pessimistic character of the book suggest that at least the central oracles, vv 52-110, 111-178, 179-285 and 286-434 [these lines can be read online at the Sacred Texts site] , were written not long after the destruction of the temples both of Jerusalem and of Leontopolis. Expectation of Nero’s return is also most likely to have flourished at this time.
However, there is reason to believe that there was some direct continuity between the ideology of the sibyl and that of the revolt. In a number of places the sibyl speaks of the destruction of pagan temples. In fact this was a notable characteristic of the revolt . . . . (Collins, p. 94)
¶ massive earthquake in Antioch (several days of severe tremors) – Trajan reputed to have “miraculously survived”:
- according to the legend that circulated later, the emperor was brought out of danger by a creature of superhuman dimensions, celebrated on the coinage of 115 as “Jupiter saviour of the fatherland” (p. 23);
- a passage in Baruch speaks of “a leader who escaped a war, then an earthquake and then a fire, who would be killed by the messiah” (p. 38)
Diaspora Jews and the Jerusalem Temple
It has been suggested that the Jews in the Diaspora had little interest in the temple since there is no indication that they were interested in coming to its rescue in the war of 66-70 CE. But Capponi points out with reference to Martin Goodman’s historical account that the reason they did not come to the aid of the motherland was “only because they did not suspect that the Temple might be destroyed.” (p. 42)
The Scale of Destruction
We will see in future posts that the scale of the violence was such that it posed a serious threat to the Roman Empire. Archaeological remains testify to the widespread extent of the violence. The figures we read in the literary sources are surely (hopefully) exaggerated but even so, when we read of hundreds of thousands being massacred by Jews, and of the annihilation of all the Jews in Egypt, and the evidence of surviving lists that tell us that no less than a third of the legionnaires sent to quell the uprisings were killed, we know we are dealing with a major war.
Eighty years later Greeks in Egypt continued to celebrate their eventual victory over the Jews.
So from the above information we appear to find some confusion in exactly what was happening and how the events transpired.
|115 CE: guerilla war by the Jews in Alexandria, the rest of Egypt, and Cyrene
116 CE: erupted in full scale open revolt when Greeks massacred the Jews of Alexandria.
Jews of Cyrene, under Lucuas (Luke) marched to Egypt and ravaged countryside [why? — unclear]
Trajan sent Turbo to restore order: many battles . . . .
|Trajan’s successful campaign undone when he went to Persian Gulf and areas in northern Mesopotamia that had recently submitted to him broke out in revolt.
Lusius Quietus involved in the suppression and restoring Roman rule.
|Trajan ordered preemptive massacre of Jews in Mesopotamia, led by Lusius Quietus, who was rewarded for his massacres by being appointed governor of Judea.
|Trajan fell ill.
|The Jews of Cyrene, led by Andreas (Andrew) were in rebellion;
Romans slaughter rebels in their hundreds of thousands in Egypt.
Artemion led Jews in Cyprus in revolt — Lusius sent to crush it.
The two accounts can be harmonized if we read Eusebius as providing more detail about the origin of the outbreak. But there remains the contradiction over the order in which the Mesopotamian massacres took place. The significance of that question will become clear when we dive deeper into Livia Capponi’s investigations in further posts.
Capponi, Livia. Il mistero del tempio. La rivolta ebraica sotto Traiano. Rome: Salerno, 2018.
Collins, John J. (John Joseph). The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism. Missoula, Mont. : Published by Society of Biblical Literature for the Pseudepigrapha Group, 1974. http://archive.org/details/sibyllineoracles0000coll.
Zeev, Miriam Pucci Ben. Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insights. First Edition. Leuven ; Dudley, MA: Peeters Publishers, 2005.