The Limits of Control: The Jews under Roman Rule


For anyone who shows even a passing interest in Middle Eastern politics, they should be familiar with the seeming repetition in contemporary history of the Jews in the Middle East; from the foundation of the Israeli state and the never-ending political turmoil that has made headlines ever since. Perhaps if we are to understand the modern dilemmas that exist surrounding the Jewish experience in the region; one should undertake, even if only glancing, a look at the historical context.

The complexities that face the region today can be better served by understanding in the clear light of ancient history, the Jewish exile from Judea and the creation of the ‘Diaspora’, the term used when defining the Jews who live away from the Jewish homeland.

The Roman Rule Begins:

The Kingdom of Judea had previously been an ally of the Roman Republic since the second century B.C. and had retained its independence in the face of two centuries of eastern states pursuing control of the region. However in 64 B.C. internal power struggles forced the Jewish Kingdom to seek mediation from the Romans, which did temporarily maintain stability, therefore allowing a continuation of existing Jewish religious practice[i].

This arrangement continued until Rome went from a Republic to an Empire, and with the role of Emperor created (and serious mismanagement locally) Judea was absorbed into the Empire as a new province which was directly controlled[ii]. Initially Jewish religious customs were respected and it was only later in imperial rule that processes of attempted Romanisation (imposing imperial traditions) led to a more traditional and radical interpretations of Judaism locally, resulting in the Jewish-Roman Wars[iii]. It would seem that the notion of external intervention in the administration did not lead to resistance, but restrictions on native religious practices that led to revolt.

The Jewish-Roman Wars Begin:

During this time under the direct governance of the Romans, the Jews would be economically exploited and experienced many religious impositions toward their own beliefs, and be subjected to Pagan views of the Emperor Caligula. These events resulted in what would become known as the first Jewish Revolt, often referred to as the first of the Jewish-Roman Wars. These are the very wars which would go on to prove the demise of the Jewish self-right to political rule in the province of Judea, until the creation of Israel in the 20th Century. The first Jewish-Roman War, 66-70 A.D. was indeed a war caused by Roman policy, and compared to the level of population in this period, against the number of lives lost in this conflict, its proportions are equal to any modern 20th Century war. After the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. signalling the end of the conflict, they began to enact the usual systematic repressions so synonymous with Rome and her reputation for dealing with rebellions against the Empire. It is estimated that around 1 million Jews lost their lives as a result of the first Jewish-Roman War, a figure only eclipsed in Jewish history by the Holocaust[iv].

Rome’s Intrusions continue:

Despite the purges that the Jews experienced, they were allowed to return to Judea, yet in line with the theme of Roman rule, this way of life was not a permanent state of affairs. The rule of Emperor Hadrian was to be the resumption of conflict between Rome and the Jews: during his rule the Jewish population’s right to live and preside in Judea would be lost. After Hadrian came to power in 118 A.D. he carried out a series of anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish population. These actions ranged from the suppression of household customs of the Jewish population, to larger political ramifications, for example; the deportation of Jews to North Africa which was soon followed by the forbidding of circumcisions, the building of a new city in Jerusalem by the name of Aelia Capitolina and the construction of a temple to Jupiter on the very spot of the Jewish Holy Temple. These events culminated with a Jewish rebellion in 132 A.D. and marked the beginning of the Bar-Kokhbar Revolt (a rebellion named after its Essene traditionalistleader), which decided the fate of the Jews, influencing events for the next 1900 years. This rebellion, three years later, brought the presence of 12 Roman Legions (each Legion equalled 4,000-6,000 troops) from all the reaches of the Empire, as far afield as Britain. Such a demonstration of force by the empire showed the severity of the crisis, and how far Rome was willing to go in order to crush the rebellion[v].

The Last Resistance to Rome:

This tale of oppression and resistance eventually led to the final chapter of the Jewish-Roman Wars and it is to be found in the Valley of Rephaim with a fortified town by the name of Bethar. The town with a population estimated by archaeologists to have been somewhere between 1000-2000 was the final stronghold of Bar-Kokhbar: its habitants had swelled with many Jews fleeing to it, given that this was the last stronghold still in Jewish hands. The final place of a free Jewish presence, besieged by two Roman Legions had only one fate: a calculated annihilation. With the defenders and inhabitants massacred, Bethar was raised to the ground, wiped from the map, the same as all 50 fortresses and 985 villages that had been captured during the rebellion and retaken by the Roman’s before it[vi]. Yet whilst death was the repercussion for the inhabitants of the Jewish settlements, those who survived the rebellion faired little better. The idea of Judean independence was lost; the remaining Jews were sold into slavery and banished from entering Jerusalem. Jerusalem, unlike every other Jewish settlement which was erased from the map, was rebuilt, but remained only under the new name of Aelia Capitolina and was transformed into a staunch Pagan settlement. Finally, the name Judea was also erased from the map. From the revolt onwards, Hadrian renamed the province Syria Palestina, now two states which would go on to have their own fair share of shaping the modern Middle East[vii].

The Region Now:

Of course, the history of the Jewish nation in the 20th Century is far better documented than the Roman era of domination, and those who express an interest in the region are far more aware of the current issues that face the Middle East over territorial disputes, since the establishment of Israel and the states that border her. Yet after spending some time recounting the history of the Jews under Roman rule, one cannot help but feel that there is a sense of shared experience with the Palestinians who were displaced in 1948, who also lived and identified with the same land as their own for almost 2000 years. Their challenges to external influences from the Roman Empire through to the Ottomans Empire and then the Europeans colonial powers, tie together these two different communities in a story of self-determination.

Whilst empires may conquer in the name of many different ideas, from civilisation to enslavement, in doing so they often cause an earthquake to different cultures. This process of harm, causes division amongst the minority inhabitants of the given empire, leaving them violated and angry; perhaps this is the primary cause of the contemporary disputes that still trouble the region today.

It is fair to say that since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, it has been affected by war[viii]. What is intriguing is that the Jewish people in the 20th Century are not that dissimilar from the Jewish communities that were under the occupation of Rome in the 1st Century. Both were persecuted and driven from their homes and livelihoods. Their fierce attitude has its roots deep in Jewish history, the Jewish-Roman Wars, an example of the Jews rising against their oppressors, and their determination not to allow a repeat of history; and this culturally enshrined tale of resistance is a core factor in tensions surrounding the state of Israel today.


[i] UNRV History, Judea-Palaestina. Available from Judaea – Palaestina – Province of the Roman Empire [Accessed 18 September 2014]

[ii] PBS, Josephus and Judea. Available from The Roman Empire: in the First Century. The Roman Empire. Enemies & Rebels. Josephus & Judea | PBS [Accessed 18 September 2014]

[iii] BBC History, Romanisation: The Process of Becoming Roman – By Dr. Neil Faulkner. Available from BBC – History – Ancient History in depth: Romanisation: The Process of Becoming Roman [Accessed 18 September 2014]

[iv] Jewish Virtual Library, Ancient Jewish History: The Great Revolt. Available from: [Accessed 18 September 2014]

[v] Jewish Virtual Library, Ancient Jewish History: The Bar-Kokhbar Revolt. Available from: [Accessed 18 September 2014]

[vi] Ibid, [Accessed 18 September 2014]

[vii] Jewish Virtual Library, Bethar. Available from: [Accessed 18 September 2014]

[viii] BBC News, Establishment of Israel. Available from BBC NEWS [Accessed 18 September]

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