It is the year 66 CE. The land of Israel is occupied by Imperial Rome. They are the most powerful empire in this history of the world. Roman Legions have subdued nearly every kingdom, principality, city, and port around the Mediterranean Sea. They have conquered all of southern and central Europe and much of East Asia and the Middle East. Even the isolated island Britain is a Roman colony.
Very few foreign powers remain viable on the edge of Rome’s vast territory. Experience has taught these remaining nations that they fare poorly against Rome’s legions, their laminated steel Gladius swords, and Roman armor. During this era Rome even equipped its legions with improved siege engines. They could launch 25 kilo projectiles up to 400 meters.
The German tribes to the north still fight against the Imperial legionnaires. And so did the Parthians. Can you name one other group brazen enough to attack Roman legions?
Well yes as a matter of fact. It is us. The Jews.
Fed up with Roman occupation, impoverishing taxes that enriched the Roman capital, and Roman disrespect of our customs and traditions, the Jews briefly unite in 66 CE. A growing group of Jewish rebels manages to dislodge the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. Without protection, the local Roman puppet prince, Agrippa II, flees to the north. He rushes to make contact with the Roman legate in Syria, Gaius Cestius Gallus.
Gallus is shocked. His prestige and the reputation of Rome relies on his ability to govern the subjugated Jewish nation and its capital. In the name of the Emperor, Nero, he knows he must swiftly put down the uprising. He does not even wait to conduct consultations with the capital.
Gallus musters all available troops at Antioch. This includes the entire Roman Twelfth legion based in what is modern-day Damascus. The Twelfth was known as Fulminata, or Thunderbolt. It was created by none other than Julius Caesar. The legion has just been outfitted with lorica segmentata, Rome’s newest generation of body armor. It makes the Legionnaires’ torsos and shoulders nearly impenetrable to Jewish swords and knives.
Gallus also orders detachments of the Third Legion (Gallica), Fourth Legion (Scythica), and Sixth Legion (Ferrata) to participate. He acts as his own general. Gallus orders his force – over 6,000 strong – to march with the purpose of confronting and forcibly subduing the Jewish rebels in Jerusalem by all means necessary.
These heavily-armed, trained, and experienced Roman legionnaires have little doubt that their orders will be easy to obey. The impending conflict will be with shabby, untested, and poorly-armed amateur Jewish militia fighters. It will be a bloodbath.
After some initial success, Gallus reached Mount Scopus and penetrates the outer city. But he was unable to take The Temple Mount. The Jews knew every inch of their holy city. They successfully parried the Roman assault.
After an unsuccessful nine-day siege, the beginning of Israel’s autumn rains, and the ambush and loss of all of the siege equipment and war machines, Gallus orders his army to fall back to the Mediterranean coast. The plan is to retreat to the northwest via a new Roman road between Jerusalem and the port city and coastal stronghold, Caesarea. The road runs through the towns of Beit Heron and Antipatris.
As the legionnaires predicted it was a bloodbath. But not the version they expected. Partly directed by Jewish rebel leaders Eleazar ben Simon and Simon bar Giora, Jewish forces attacked the retreating Romans. Starting with the rearguard of the army the Jews pursue the legionnaires towards Caesarea. Realizing that their lives probably depended upon preventing the Legionnaires from reaching the coast alive and drawing in further firepower, the rebels chased them relentlessly for several days.
At last, they caught the army near the town of Beth Horon. Armed with local knowledge and ample weapons they occupied the high ground and mountain passes. They annihilated the men of Fulminata and the other legions. In what is now known as the Battle of Beth Horon the Jews defeated nearly the entire Roman fighting force. Fighting continued along the road until there were few Romans left by the time the battling factions reached Antipatris. Gallus narrowly escaped with only a small number of troops. According to the historian Josephus, the Jews cut down 5,300 infantry and 480 cavalry.
While we can be proud of our ancestors’ military accomplishment, it was bittersweet. On the one hand, it brought back the temporary return of a free Jewish State. On the other hand everyone knew the humiliated Romans would return.
Humiliated and irate, Rome planned their counterattack for nearly two years. Even a civil war in the City of Rome did not extinguish the fire of revenge shouldering in the bellies of their generals, senators, and noble class since the defeat of Gallus and Fulminata. In what would ultimately be of Rome’s greatest demonstrations of military force in its entire long history they sent six full Legions to the Land of Israel. They conquered us, sacked Jerusalem, and destroyed the holy temple. It would take Rome another seven years to subdue remaining Jewish strongholds including the fortress on Mt. Masada.
The battle of Beit Horon also teaches us a lesson about Jewish unity. After their victory over Gallus and Fulminate, our rag-tag rebel leaders could not set aside their differences. They could not unite us (or themselves). Nor did they ever manage to effectively govern. Instead of training and bracing for the inevitable Roman return, the re-established Jewish state was overwhelmed by factions, riots, even the looting of Jewish businesses. It deepened the already crushing poverty. And when the Roman legionnaires did return, we were doomed.
This episode ushered in the saddest period of Jewish history, the death of nearly 1.4 million Jews, the dislocation of most of the rest of us, the enslavement of nearly 100,000, and the capture of the treasures of the temple, as documented on Titus’ arch in Rome. It was the beginning of our nearly 2,000 year exile from our land.
The Romans even sought to erase us from their maps. They renamed Jerusalem. The new name was Aelia Capitolina, and the captive city was dedicated the Roman idol Jupiter for whom a temple was built on the temple mount. The Romans would also rename our land Palestina. The name was a nod to the Jews’ ancient rival, the Philistines, who had disappeared following hundreds of years of Jewish and later Assyrian campaigns. Once again, the Roman actions demonstrate their rage at us. Rage after the price we made them pay for subduing us. Rage and humiliation after we defeated nearly all of Fuliminata.
Tisha B’Av recounts the sadness, longing, and agony of this era. It evokes the resulting pain, oppression and exile that resulted when we next wandered from land to land. The history of our battle with Romans and our exile continues to be the living history of millions of Jews whose exile has not yet ended.
As a proud Zionist I cannot help but note that while this is one of the saddest stories of our people, it contains a kernel of pride. Pride in the loyal, stubborn, and courageous Jews who waged war against and defeated Fulminata. The men who stood up to battle-tested, Gladius-wielding troops; the best troops Rome had at the time. The Jewish men and boys who pursued the Legionnaires through wadis, ravines, mountain roads, and blind passes. How they risked everything as the Romans fled to the sea.
Hindsight would reveal that this was sheer madness. Yet who can criticize their yearning to be free in their own land?