Ancient History & Civilisation


Simon bar Giora

“A man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth.”


IN THE MEANTIME, Jerusalem was facing fresh and extremely serious trouble of a new sort, in the person of Simon bar Giora. “A young man, a Gerasene by birth, perhaps not quite so cunning as John who was then in control of the city, but much fiercer and far more daring,” is how Josephus curtly describes Simon in The Jewish War.1 As always, however, one must be careful in accepting at face value his description of an enemy.

Simon’s obscure origin and the fact that he had been born at the little city of Gerasa made him an object of contempt to the snobbish Josephus, who portrays him as a bloodstained tyrant from the gutter, yet perhaps it was not all that far from the truth. He was half-Greek, his father having been a convert to the Jewish faith. Admittedly, one modern historian, Martin Goodman, has argued, unconvincingly, that he was a member of the ruling class.2 However lowly Simon’s background may have been, never for a moment did Josephus underestimate this ruthless leader, who was always resourceful and always able to arouse the deepest loyalty. The Romans saw him as their most dangerous opponent.

Josephus and his friends would have every reason to hate him. In their eyes, Simon and John of Gischala were the two evil geniuses of the war, Simon being the worst. Yet in his own terrible way, Simon was very much a Zealot. Probably, his hatred for the Judean magnates was inspired not so much by his humble origin or a leveling instinct, as by what he saw as their betrayal of the nation, their long-standing failure to resist Roman occupation and their readiness to collaborate. His extraordinarily rapid rise to power, which could only have happened in a situation where the social order had broken down, deserves a full description.

During the short period when the late lamented Ananus had run Jerusalem, the wily old high priest had recognized at once that despite his youth, Simon bar Giora was very dangerous indeed. This was apparent from the disturbingly aggressive way in which he was behaving. Before he could become any more of a threat, Ananus had him thrown out of the toparchy (administrative district) of Acrabatene after discovering that Simon was trying to build up a power base in the area by ingratiating himself with the peasants.

After his expulsion from Jerusalem, he took refuge with the Zealot sicarii at Masada by the Dead Sea. At first the knifemen were suspicious and would only let him stay in the outer courtyard of the fortress, with his womenfolk, barring him from their quarters in King Herod’s former palace, but he was an unusually congenial companion, a sympathetic listener, and his magnetic personality and unfeigned devotion to the Zealot cause impressed them. Soon they were allowing him to go on their cattle raids around Masada. Enormously ambitious, he quickly grew dissatisfied with this way of life, especially after hearing that his old enemy Ananus had been killed and that the Zealots had taken over the capital.

When his new friends, the sicarii, refused to leave Masada and help him with what must have seemed preposterously ambitious plans, he went up into the hill country, where he gathered an army of sorts by promising freedom for slaves and plunder for men who were already free. At first it was a villainous, ill-armed rabble, but it quickly acquired good weapons and discipline, learning to fight well under such an unusually gifted commander. As soon as it grew big enough, he started to attack and loot poorly defended mountain villages, and his success attracted a steady stream of recruits. In a short time he was strong enough to go down into the lowlands and raid towns. He was so effective that even men of rank began to join him, and his dynamism won him many supporters. Josephus, in The Jewish War, comments, “He no longer had a mob of slaves and robbers, but an army of soldiers who obeyed him as if he were their king.”3

Now that he possessed sufficient troops, Simon overran the toparchy of Acrabattene and the surrounding region as far south as Great Idumea. He fortified a village called Nain with a rampart, making it his headquarters, and he used the caves in the nearby valley of Pharan as storehouses for the corn he had plundered or as barracks. Here he trained and drilled his followers. Instead of concealing his intention of attacking Jerusalem, he told everybody.

As he had hoped, the Zealots in the capital grew alarmed and dispatched a force to crush him before he became too powerful. But Simon easily routed it, chasing the survivors all the way back to Jerusalem. Since he did not have the resources to storm the city, he decided to neutralize the Idumeans and prevent them from coming to aid his enemies, as they had assisted John. He marched south with 20,000 men, all properly armed. Hearing that Simon was on his way, the Idumeans hastily assembled their best troops, about 25,000 in all, and managed to intercept him at the border.

After a hard-fought but inconclusive battle, Simon withdrew to Nain, where his soldiers recuperated. Then he invaded Idumea again, pitching camp at the village of Tekoa, from where he sent an officer called Eleazar to the Idumean garrison of the nearby fortress of Herodium to demand its surrender. Eleazar was admitted, but as soon as they heard his insolent request, the garrison chased him around the ramparts with drawn swords until, seeing no hope of escape, he threw himself from the wall into the ravine below and was killed. Even so, the Idumeans were shaken by Simon’s self-confidence. They decided to find out how strong his force was before risking a battle.

Jacob, one of the Idumean commanders, volunteered to reconnoiter. Setting out from Olurus, the village where the Idumean army was encamped, he went to Simon and offered not only to betray his comrades but to help with the conquest of all Idumea in return for a position of influence. Expert at exploiting treachery, Simon readily agreed to his terms, promising even better rewards, and gave a splendid feast for him. Jacob returned to Olurus, demoralizing his brother officers with inflated reports of the size of Simon’s army, spreading gloom and despondency, and suggesting that the only hope of saving their lives lay in surrender. He then sent secret messengers to Simon, telling him to attack without delay. As soon as he advanced, Jacob and his friends leaped on their horses and fled, screaming that all was lost. The entire Idumean army bolted in panic.

Having won a bloodless victory, Simon advanced south into Idumea, plundering Hebron—not yet destroyed by the Romans—where he found the grain he needed to feed his large army. Now over 40,000 strong, his forces were more formidable than ever and included heavily armed infantry. Next he ravaged all Idumea, looting towns and villages, turning the countryside into a wasteland. “As the passage of locusts through the woods is marked by trees without leaves, so nothing save desert remained in the wake of Simon’s army,” comments Josephus.4 “Some places they torched, others they razed to the ground.”

The Zealots in Jerusalem grew more worried than ever, but they lacked the confidence to risk a full-scale battle. Instead, they ambushed Simon’s troops in the mountain passes. After capturing Simon’s wife in one of these ambushes, they expected him to surrender and beg for her release. However, far from being demoralized and surrendering, he was enraged. “Advancing on Jerusalem like a wounded wild beast unable to avenge himself on the hunters who have wounded him, he vented his fury on everybody he met,” The Jewish War informs us. “Any human beings that were found wandering outside the walls, usually harmless old people in search of herbs or firewood, he had seized and tortured to death, barely able in his rage to stop himself from gnawing at their corpses.”5

He sent some of them back into the city alive, but with their hands cut off. They were told to inform the authorities that, by the God who reigns over all, Simon bar Giora had sworn that unless his wife was given back to him without delay, he was going to smash his way through the walls and would kill everyone inside, whether old or young, guilty or innocent. Not just the population but even the toughest Zealots became so terrified by his ferocity that they released his wife at once. After recovering her, Simon returned to making what was left of Idumea into a desert. Many of the starving Idumeans tried to take refuge in Jerusalem, and those of them who were caught en route, generally simple peasants, were put to death on his express orders. By now, as he had intended, the Jews were more frightened of him than of the Zealots or the Romans. Having finished his work of devastation, he came back to Jerusalem and surrounded its walls.

Meanwhile, inside Jerusalem, John of Gischala had rewarded the Zealot army for their support by letting them do what they liked, and as a result, discipline had broken down. Looting the houses of the rich, murdering men, and raping women had become widespread. According to Josephus, out of sheer boredom Zealot troops had turned to homosexuality, dressing in women’s clothes, using cosmetics and scent, and putting kohl under their eyes. “They rolled around the city as if it were a brothel,” The Jewish Wartells us, “defiling it with their impure lust. Even so, while they may have tried to look like women, they still had murderers’ hands. Tripping along with mincing steps, they would suddenly revert to being warriors, drawing their swords from beneath their gaily colored cloaks and running through any passer-by whom they happened to meet.”6

One suspects, however, that this picture of a Jerusalem terrorized by murderous homosexuals stems entirely from Josephus’s imagination and is another example of his determination to slander the Zealots. Many of them were devoutly religious, well aware their faith taught that homosexuality was sinful. It is possible that something of the sort described took place, but, if so, it was probably an isolated incident that later was blown up out of all proportion. It is also conceivable that from sheer poverty, many of the more humble Zealots were unable to distinguish between the clothing of rich men and rich women—for them a silk robe was a silk robe.

Nevertheless, it is clear that life in Jerusalem under the rule of John of Gischala could be very unpleasant for anyone who did not belong to the Zealot garrison. Yet the leader outside the walls was even more bloodthirsty than the one within, killing everyone who tried to leave. For the time being, Simon had put an end to any hope of escaping to the Romans.

Despite the way in which John was indulging them—or perhaps because of it—a substantial number of the Jerusalem garrison eventually turned against him. He was already opposed by Eleazar ben Simon and his group, and the more levelheaded troops must have realized that such a chaotic army had little prospect of saving the city when the Romans finally decided to attack. The first to rebel against John’s regime were a group of Idumean refugees in the spring of 69 CE. Besides disliking the way in which he was running Jerusalem, they were revolted by his cruelty. During the ensuing battle, they killed several Zealots, driving the remainder into the royal palace that had become John’s personal residence. Built by Gapte, a kinswoman of the King of Adiabene, it was also where John stored his loot. After chasing the Zealots out of the palace and into the Temple, the Idumeans set about plundering John’s treasure.

While the Idumeans were dividing the spoils, Zealots throughout the city rushed to join those who had taken refuge in the outer Temple where John was trying to organize a counterattack. Although the Idumeans felt confident that they could always defeat the Zealots in straightforward, hand-to-hand combat, what they dreaded was a treacherous assault by night, of the sort that had overthrown Ananus. They were afraid that the Zealots might cut their throats while they slept.

The Idumeans were so discouraged that they assembled the remaining chief priests and asked for advice on how to guard against such an attack. “However, God made them find the worst possible solution to the problem, and they decided on a cure deadlier than the disease.”7 After what must have been an agonizing debate, the chief priests reached the conclusion that the only possible way of getting rid of John was to ask Simon bar Giora to take over, despite his reputation. No doubt, too, they also hoped secretly that he could handle the Idumeans after having so often defeated them. The decision was warmly supported by the surviving notables, who feared for their lives, houses, and property. They seem to have hoped that Simon would turn into a second Ananus. Matthias ben Boethus—a former high priest of impeccable lineage—was sent to Simon’s camp outside the walls, where he invited him to come and rule Jerusalem.

Graciously accepting the citizens’ invitation, Simon rode in as a man who had come to rescue the city from the Zealots, cheered as a savior. But as soon as he got inside, it quickly became apparent that he too was very much a Zealot. He treated the men who had invited him in as if they were no less his enemies than John’s men. At the same time he seized as much treasure as he could from John, who retreated into the outer court of the Temple; Eleazar and his faction continued to occupy the inner court. “Thus did Simon become ruler of Jerusalem in the third year of the war, Xanthicus (Nisan),” records The Jewish War, which means that it was some date in March or April 69.8

The term Zealot is derived from Phineas, who in the Book of Numbers was zealous for God in slaying Zimri and his foreign whore.9 The Jewish War uses the term only for those followers of Eleazar ben Simon, but it is likely that all three leaders (John of Gischala, Simon bar Giora, as well as Eleazar ben Simon) and their supporters took the name, because they shared the same ideals. It is certainly the best term for describing the defenders of Jerusalem, which is how it will be used from now on in this book.10

Josephus, who tended to see human beings as either wholly bad or wholly good, refuses to credit Simon with a single good quality, apart from brutal courage, ruthless fighting skills, and a deceptive magnetism. Yet the people who invited Simon into Jerusalem cannot have been complete fools; indeed, many of them continued to support him until the end. However murderous he may have been, it is clear that in some ways he was preferable to John of Gischala. He was joined by many Idumeans, led by an ambitious officer, James ben Sosias, and even by a number of patrician Jews such as Ananus ben Bagdatus, who became one of his leading henchmen.

Yet John was far from finished. He, too, had devoted followers. They and Eleazar’s men held out stubbornly in the Temple—in the outer and inner courts, respectively—despite being besieged by vastly superior numbers. Aided by the citizens, Simon mounted assault after assault. However, both groups of Zealots in the Temple had the artillery captured from the Romans and had learned how to use it at point-blank range, if not yet at long range. Mounting the ballista and scorpions on four newly built towers, they shot a murderous hail of stones and arrows at the besiegers. At the same time, slingers and bowmen fired steadily down on them from snipers’ nests on the colonnades and battlements. Although Simon had slingers and archers, he lacked artillery to counter this sustained bombardment, and many of his men were killed or wounded every day. Their attacks on the Temple gradually petered out, as they grew disheartened by superior firepower. Even so, they went on blockading the Zealots in the Temple until almost the end.

Simon bar Giora’s arrival on the scene deprived Jerusalem of any hope of a united command. From the Roman point of view, there could have been no more promising development. Just as Vespasian had foreseen, Jerusalem’s defenders were split into hostile Zealot armies, each intent on exterminating the other. For the time being, however, he was forced to postpone the siege that he had been planning. Too much of vital importance was happening in Europe.

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