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Haftarah: Machar Chodesh: Beyond By on

Kinah 16-Rome and Jerusalem

The Roman Emperor Hadrian (76 AD-138 AD), third of the so-called Five Good Emperors, seeks to annihilate radical Judaism:


“The majority of the [Roman] empire’s people, of course, were neither rich nor urban: they were peasants, mostly working small plots, barely yielding enough to pay the dues of rent, tax, tithe and interest imposed upon them. They lived, as peasants always have, in fear – fear of flood, drought, disease and disablement; and fear of debt, the bailiff, the tax collector and the soldiers. Most of the time they grumbled in their villages, but they paid. The principal exception was the Jews. Twice in recent times – between 66 and 73 and between 115 and 118 – the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora had risen against Roman tax collectors, Greek landlords and fellow Jews perceived as traitors. The rebels were sustained by the traditional faith of the common people, a religion of radical messages spread by itinerant preachers – messages about the wickedness of the ‘sons of darkness’, about the breaking of the ‘covenant’ between God and his people and about an imminent apocalyptic settling of accounts in which the ‘sons of righteousness’ would rise up against the rich, cleanse the land of oppressors and restore to the people the fruits of their labor.

“[For Hadrian to achieve his vision of Empire], radical Judaism – like radical Islam in another age – was to be liquidated. Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews, was re-founded as a Roman colony and re-named Aelia Capitolina in honor of the emperor (whose family name was Aelius) and Rome’s patron deity Jupiter. On the Temple Mount, where the Jewish Temple had been destroyed in AD 70, Hadrian inaugurated a new temple for the worship of ‘Hadrian-Jupiter’. The practice of circumcision – the single most distinctive marker of Semitic identity – was banned on pain of death. …

“Perhaps Hadrian’s expectation was that the oppressed would go meekly to their cultural extinction. Perhaps it was that they would be goaded to fight, but would easily be crushed. In fact, the revolt of Bar-Kokhba between 132 and 136 fully matched in scale, duration and ferocity that of 66 to 73. Bar-Kokhba, ‘Son of the Star’, a new Jewish messiah, proved himself a brilliant guerrilla commander. He was ably supported by the radical nationalist, Rabbi Akiva. The revolutionaries captured Jerusalem, restored the worship of God, and issued coins announcing the ‘Redemption of Israel’. The countryside around the holy city filled with peasant guerrillas and ‘foreign fighters’ from the Diaspora, rallying to the defense of Judaism and the revolutionary homeland.

“With local Roman forces overwhelmed, the empire was trawled for fresh legions. With these reinforcements Jerusalem was recaptured, but the guerrilla war raged on in the hills of Judaea and the sandy plains of Idumaea for four years. By the end, the Roman army deployed against the Jewish rebels was as large as that with which Trajan had invaded Iraq twenty years before. According to Cassius Dio, fifty fortresses and 1,000 villages had been destroyed, 500,000 people had been killed or enslaved and Palestine had been reduced to a wilderness of wolves and hyenas feeding on corpses.”

Neil Faulkner, “Hadrian and the Limits of Empire,” History Today, August 2008, pp. 20-21.

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