When the Romans conquered Judea (as Judah came to be known under Roman rule) in 63 bce, they installed a new ruler, Antipater, whose son Herod the Great later became king of all Judea. The Jews were allowed to practice their faith, but after Herod’s rule, a number of Roman policies and the introduction of Hellenistic practices led to several Jewish revolts, all of which were brutally crushed by the Roman army. Many Jews were deported as a form of punishment. This was the start of what is known in Jewish history as the Diaspora (dispersion), and was to affect the nature of Judaism.
THE ROMANS IN JUDEA
Herod the Great was given the title “king of all the Jews” in 40 BCE. Although Judea prospered under his rule, the Jewish way of life was greatly threatened. Herod had members of the Hasmonean family put to death because they were seen as rivals. He encouraged foreign influences, and placed a golden eagle (a Roman symbol) on the front of the Temple.
From CE 6-66 (Common Era), Rome was ruled by a number of officers, called procurators. This was a time of considerable unrest, and Jewish rebels, known as zealots, become active. Pontius Pilate (ruled CE 26–36) was the worst of the procurators. He had images of Caesar carried by Roman legions, used the Temple’s money for erecting buildings, and issued coins with a pagan symbol a curved staff, which was the mark of a Roman official who predicted the future. This was especially offensive to Jewish people.
THE FIRST JEWISH REVOLT
In CE 66, when Jews were celebrating the festival of Passover, Roman soldiers marched into Jerusalem and stripped the Temple of its treasure. The Jews rebelled and succeeded in controlling Jerusalem. But under the direction of Roman general Titus, the rebellion was finally crushed in CE 70. Jerusalem was no longer the focus of Jewish life and faith. The great Roman victory was commemorated in a triumphal arch, which stands in Rome, Italy.
Although Jerusalem was destroyed, the faith was given a new direction. Rabbinical schools developed, and the word “rabbi” (master) was used for the Torah scholars. With the Temple destroyed, the synagogue became the focus of the faith.
THE BATTLE FOR MASADA
The fall of Jerusalem in ce 70 did not stop the rebels from fighting to the bitter end. Herodium, Machaerus, and Masada were still in the hands of the zealots. Herodium and Machaerus were the first to fall. But Masada was recaptured after a year-long battle. Nearly 960 men, women, and children committed suicide when faced with defeat.
“Masada shall not fall again.”
THE OATH TAKEN TODAY BY ISRAELI SOLDIERS
Excavations at the fortress of Masada have unearthed a number of objects that would have belonged to the rebels. Among the findings have been prayer shawls, leather sandals, and these arrows, providing evidence of the fighting that took place.
Tensions arose once more during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117–138 BCE). He introduced many changes that angered the Jewish people. Hadrian banned the Jewish practice of circumcision, and embarked upon turning Jerusalem into a Roman city, changing its name to Aelia Capitolina.
THE SECOND JEWISH REVOLT
Emperor Hadrian’s policies led to the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 BCE. The revolt was led by Simeon bar Kokhba, and was supported by some of the important rabbis of the time, such as Rabbi Akiva. The revolt lasted three years. Thousands of Jewish rebels died, while others were sold into slavery. Jerusalem was now devoid of any Jewish inhabitants, who were forbidden to even enter the city. Just as Jerusalem’s name was changed, Hadrian embarked upon changing the name of Judea to Palaestina.