XXIII

“MAY HIS BONES ROT!”

The death of Antinous did not halt the imperial tour. The journey up the Nile and the sightseeing continued. The party visited the so-called singing statue of Memnon at Thebes; this was one of two seated figures of a pharaoh. It lost its top half in an earthquake; thereafter at dawn, when the sun’s rays warmed the stone, a singing sound could be heard—“very like the twanging of a broken lyre string or harp string.” This curious phenomenon was irregular, and on the first visit it failed to sing. The next day Sabina and her friend Balbilla returned and the statue performed, as it did soon afterward for Hadrian. Balbilla carved some poems on the stone, in one of which she wrote

The emperor Hadrian then himself bid welcome to Memnon and left on stone for generations to come this inscription recounting all that he saw and all that he heard. It was clear to all that the gods love him.

Hadrian spent some months in Alexandria, coming to terms with his loss and planning the construction of Antinoopolis. Pancrates produced his poem on the lion hunt, in which he suggested that the rosy lotus should be renamed antinoeus on the fictive grounds that it sprang from the blood of the lion Hadrian killed. Pleased with the conceit, the emperor enrolled the poet as a member of the Mouseion.

He left Egypt in the spring of 131 and toured the provinces of Syria and Asia. Then, for his third visit as emperor, he returned to Athens, where he spent the winter. No doubt he attended the Eleusinian Mysteries again, this time alone. His benefactions continued; in an inscription he asserts: “Know that I take every opportunity to benefit both the city publicly and individual Athenians.”

In the spring the delegates of the Panhellenion met for the first time, probably on the occasion of the dedication of the Olympieion. The first games, the Panhellenia, did not take place until 137, but with new Panathenaic games, new Olympic games, and the Hadriania, in honor of the emperor (perhaps instituted only after his death), every year in a quadrennial cycle was to see Athens host a great international celebration, with large influxes of visitors from all over the eastern Mediterranean. Athens was to become a festival city and the acknowledged center of the Greek-speaking world.

A catastrophe now befell Hadrian for which he had only himself to blame. The Jews were infuriated by the ban on circumcision and deeply offended by the rebuilding of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, a Jewless and Hellenic city. It looked to them very much as if the Romans intended to ethnically cleanse Judaea. Also, the diversion by Titus of the half-shekel tax levied on all Jews for the upkeep of the Temple on the Mount to the upkeep of the temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest on the Capitol in Rome still rankled half a century on.

They were reminded of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of the Seleucid empire in the Near East, who flourished in the second century B.C. In a number of respects he was an anticipatory echo of Hadrian. He had tried (but failed) to complete the Olympieion in Athens and promoted the cult of Zeus Olympios. At his capital, Antioch, he behaved informally with ordinary people and was very much the civilis ruler that Hadrian sought to be. He sacked Jerusalem and introduced his own cult into the Temple, erecting a statue of himself there. His aim, like Hadrian’s, was to Hellenize Jewry.

The Jewish leadership felt it had no choice but to collaborate. According to Josephus, a renegade Jew who defected to Titus in the great Jewish war of two generations previously, they told the king

they wanted to leave the laws of their country, and the Jewish way of living as they understood it, and to follow the king’s laws, and the Greek way of living … Accordingly, they left off all the customs that belonged to their own country, and imitated the practices of other nations.

A rebellion broke out, known as the Maccabean uprising, after one of its leaders, Judah Maccabee. Antiochus’ forces were incapable of coping with the guerrilla tactics of the insurgents. The Seleucid monarch was distracted by the Parthians and then unexpectedly died. The Jews had won their independence.

Almost exactly three hundred years later, history appeared to be repeating itself. Tacitus wrote in his Histories, a book that Hadrian is very likely to have read, that Antiochus “endeavored to abolish Jewish superstition and to introduce Greek civilization; the war with the Parthians, however, prevented him from improving this basest of peoples.” That was precisely Hadrian’s program, but he was sure that, in the event of any resistance, he would not have to worry about Parthian interference, now that he had renewed his entente with Rome’s most dangerous neighbor. In fact, so far as he knew, the emperor had no grounds for fearing any real trouble.

However, Jewish activists were preparing carefully for war, in the greatest secrecy. Hadrian was still in Egypt and they did not want to alarm him. They armed themselves without attracting notice, by means of an ingenious trick. Legitimate, state-regulated armorers in Judaea produced faulty weapons ordered by Roman garrisons in the region; when these were returned as substandard they were reworked and held in readiness for later use.

Those planning the rebellion well understood that it would be fruitless to challenge the Romans in the field. Just as the Maccabees had done, they adopted guerrilla tactics. Dio Cassius writes that, not unlike the tunneling Vietcong of our own day,

they occupied the advantageous positions in the country and strengthened them with mines and walls, in order that they might have places of refuge whenever they should be hard pressed, and might meet together unobserved under ground; and they pierced these subterranean passages from above at intervals to let in air and light.

Archaeologists have identified more than three hundred tunnel complexes, building on an infrastructure of cisterns, wine and oil presses, storehouses and burial caves. With ventilation shafts, water tanks, and storerooms for supplies, they were designed for long stays underground.

During the great rebellion put down by Titus the Jews paid a heavy price for being disunited. This time they had the considerable advantage of strong, self-confident, and intelligent leadership. Their commander was Shim’on ben Kosiba, who signed his letters as prince of Israel and usually traded under the name of Bar Kokhba, “Son of the Star.” The phrase alluded to a prediction made by the prophet Balaam:

I look into the future,
And I see the nation of Israel.
A king, like a bright star, will arise in that nation.
Like a comet he will come from Israel.

In other words, Bar Kokhba was casting himself as the Messiah, or “anointed one”—a leader who would rebuild Israel, cast out the wicked, and ultimately judge the whole world. Some rabbinic opinion supported the claim. A celebrated rabbi, Aqiba ben Joseph, chief teacher in the rabbinical school of Jaffa, was reported to have said when he met Bar Kokhba: “This is the Messiah.” It may have been he who proposed the stellar sobriquet. Another rabbi begged to differ, telling Aqiba: “Grass will grow on your cheeks and still he [namely, the Messiah] will not come.”

The revolt broke out in 132. An immediate cause, the last straw, may have been the collapse of the tomb of King Solomon in Jerusalem, probably caused by workers engaged in building Aelia Capitolina. A narrative account of the course of the fighting has not come down to us, but the general sequence of events is clear enough. The first phase was near-terminal defeat for the Romans.

The governor of Judaea, Quintus Tineius Rufus, had at his disposal two legions and a dozen auxiliary cavalry units. He underestimated the threat. What appeared at first sight to be a local crisis soon acquired a regional dimension. The Jewish diaspora was involved (although not in Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Cyprus, where Jewish communities had more or less vanished after the suppression of the uprising there in 116–17 at the beginning of Hadrian’s reign). There was probably fighting, or at least disorder, in the neighboring provinces of Syria and Arabia. Dio paints the scene.

At first the Romans took no account of [the rebels]. Soon, however, all Judaea had been stirred up, and the Jews everywhere were showing signs of disturbance, were gathering together, and giving evidence of great hostility to the Romans, partly by secret and partly by overt acts; many outside nations, too, were joining them through eagerness for gain, and the whole earth, one might almost say, was being stirred up over the matter.

Tineius Rufus was rapidly overwhelmed. The governor of Syria sent reinforcements down from the north. The legion XXII Deiotariana was rushed to Judaea from Egypt, but appears to have been annihilated. Roman casualties were exceptionally severe.

Usually when generals sent dispatches to the Senate they began with the phrase “If you and your children are in health, it is well; I and the legions are in health.” It is telling that when Hadrian reported on the military situation in Judaea, he omitted this introduction. The army was in dire straits.

The emperor learned of the revolt when still in Athens or perhaps having started on the journey back to Rome. He made a number of necessary decisions. Sailors or marines were hurriedly transferred to the legion X Fretensis, presumably to make up for losses, and for the first time in many years new troops were raised in Italy, an unpopular move.

According to Dio, Hadrian “sent against [the Jews] his best generals.” First among them was his highly competent governor of Britain, Sextus Julius Severus, a reliable troubleshooter, whom he ordered to make his way to Judaea, picking up reinforcements en route. It is a sign of the scale of the emergency that Severus was moved from the most remote of provinces and had to cross the complete length of the empire to reach the theater of operations. He must have spent some months on the road. But in Hadrian’s eyes merit outweighed distance and delay.

Dio’s account implies that Severus was not in overall command but that all the generals were placed on a level footing. This sounds like a very bad idea, for armies with a collective of commanders seldom thrive. It can only be assumed that the emperor himself took personal charge of the campaign, at least for a time. This is confirmed by a reference in inscriptions listing the service careers of officers and men to the expeditio Judaica, the Jewish expedition. Use of the wordexpeditio signifies the presence of the emperor.

It would indeed have been surprising if such a hands-on ruler stayed away from what was both the greatest military crisis of his reign and a perfect opportunity to check that his military training methods, to which he had devoted so much time and energy, were fit for the purpose.

In the flush of victory Bar Kokhba established a disciplined state, and Judaea was totally free of foreign influence or control. A good deal is known about how he governed, thanks in part to coins but most of all to astonishing discoveries in caves in the desert wadis west of the Dead Sea—legible papers and artifacts in perfect condition thanks to the arid weather conditions.

A new calendar was decreed and appeared on coins and in letters. The year 132 became “the First Year of the Redemption of Israel.” Religious ceremonies were restored and a new high priest appointed. A highly placed officer wrote to colleagues requesting ritual necessaries for a festival; subordinates of Bar Kokhba, they were commanders (apparently) at En-gedi, an oasis on the shore of the Dead Sea.

Soumaios to Ionathes, son of Baianos, and to Masabala, greetings. Since I have sent Agrippa to you, hurry up and send me stems of palms and citrons and they will be set up for the Festival of the Tabernacle of the Jews. Don’t do anything else. This was written in Greek because [a name is lost] could not be found to write it in Hebrew. Let him [i.e., Agrippa] return quickly because of the festival. Don’t do anything else. Soumaios. Farewell.

The letter, with its needless repetition of the phrase “Don’t do anything else,” speaks eloquently of the excitement, the urgency, and, implicitly, the optimism of a revolutionary moment.

A note from the prince of Israel himself reveals a ruthless touch. Its subject is a certain landowner, wealthy but uncooperative. The produce from his orchards and his livestock would be of material benefit to the rebel cause.

Shim’on Bar Kosiba to Yehonatan son of Ba’ ay an, and to Masabala, son of Shim’ on, that you will send to me Eleazar’ son of Hitta immediately, before the Sabbath.

If Eleazar was found and delivered, he would have had a distinctly uncomfortable interview. One rather hopes that he smelled trouble and made himself scarce.

Another letter suggests Yehonatan and Masabala were not altogether dependable officers. Bar Kokhba ordered them to send him reinforcements. “And if you shall not send them, let it be known to you, that you will be punished.”

Bar Kokhba’s approach to religion was rigorously exclusive and he had no time for Christians. The church fathers returned the compliment. Justin, writing contemporaneously, claimed: “In the present war it is only the Christians whom Barchochebas [i.e., Bar Kokhba], the leader of the rebellion of the Jews, commanded to be punished severely if they did not deny Jesus as the Messiah and blaspheme him.”

Jerome goes further: “Barcocheba, leader of a party of the Jews, because the Christians are not willing to help him against the Roman army, murders them with every sort of torture.” Christians regarded Bar Kokhba as a butcher, a bandit, and a con man. In order to meet a prophecy that the Messiah breathed fire, Jerome accused him of “fanning a lighted blade of straw in his mouth with puffs of breath so as to give the impression that he was spewing forth flames.”

If we can generalize from names in the discovered papyri and the location of coin finds, the new Jewish state was of limited extent. It controlled at least a territory running south of Jerusalem and along the Dead Sea and extending to within eighteen miles of the Mediterranean. There may have been pockets of insurgent activity farther north and on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. However, Bar Kokhba failed to capture the abomination of desolation that was Aelia Capitolina. Rebel coins have been found in many other places in Judaea but none there.

Eventually the regrouped and reinforced Romans returned to the fight. Tineius Rufus wreaked vengeance for his early defeat, if we can trust hysterical Talmudic sources. Eusebius records:

When military aid had been sent him by the emperor, [Tineius Rufus] moved out against the Jews, treating their madness without mercy. He destroyed in heaps thousands of men, women, and children, and under the law of war, enslaved their land.

The hapless rabbi Aqiba fell into Roman hands. Apparently he was flayed alive. He is said to have endured the punishment with composure, but his messiah was unable to save him.

Hadrian hired the services of the architect and engineer Apollodorus of Damascus, builder of the stone bridge across the Danube and designer of many of Trajan’s buildings in Rome, despite their being reputed to be on bad terms. Apollodorus was an expert on siegecraft, and in an epistolary preface to his classic text on the subject, Poliorcetica, he addressed an emperor who needed his advice: “I am honored that you think me worthy of sharing your concern in this matter.” He writes that although he is not familiar with the terrain in question he has been invited to supply designs for siege works to be used against elevated fortified positions—heights rather than cities.

Apollodorus lists devices suitable for employing against a hill fort; these included defenses against heavy objects, such as wagons and barrels that could be rolled down a hill onto attackers; screens to protect an assault force against missiles as it made for the top; and techniques for undermining a wall, ramming a gate, or using assault ladders.

The emperor in question is most likely to have been Hadrian, for the task Apollodorus describes exactly fits the challenge facing the Romans in Judaea. When Julius Severus eventually arrived, he adopted the only rational tactic to subdue a lawless countryside speckled with guerrilla groups. As Vespasian had done before him, he proceeded slowly and methodically, taking and securing every hill and strongpoint and destroying everything he encountered before he advanced farther.

The Romans had assembled overwhelming force. It is impossible to gauge how many troops took part in the campaign, but a best estimate indicates that the number of legions, either with a complete complement or represented by sizablevexillationes, or detachments, was twelve or thirteen (albeit not necessarily present at the same time). This was a disproportionately huge deployment for tiny Judaea, but nothing was to be left to chance.

Bar Kokhba responded vigorously, if we can trust Talmudic tales. It was said that “he would catch missiles from the enemy’s catapults on one of his knees and hurl them back, killing many of the foe.” This can be interpreted as meaning that the rebels acquired some Roman artillery and put it to good use.

However, letters have been found which suggest that loyalty to the prince of Israel was beginning to wear thin. In one of them, the unsatisfactory duo Yehonatan and Masabala continued to disappoint. “In comfort you sit, eat, and drink from the property of the House of Israel,” he wrote angrily, “and care nothing for your brothers.”

The endgame approached. The civilian Jewish population, not only in Judaea but also in Arabia, grew desperate. Whether sympathetic to the rebel cause or not, everyone was caught up in the approaching catastrophe. Well-to-do families, together with their gold and silver, hid in the insurgents’ network of tunnels and in caves. That some failed to survive their ordeal is confirmed by the discovery of cooking utensils, correspondence, and human remains in caves at Wadi Murabba’ and Nahal Hever.

Bar Kokhba’s final redoubt was the fortress of Betar, six miles south-West of Jerusalem. We do not have the details, but Apollodorus’ advice on siegecraft was good. A fragmentary letter evokes the despair of total defeat: “… till the end … they have no hope … my brothers in the south … of these were lost by the sword.”

In November or December 135 Betar fell. According to Eusebius, the siege lasted a long time, but eventually “the rebels were driven to final destruction by famine and thirst and the instigator of their madness paid the penalty he deserved.” Bar Kokhba’s head was taken to Hadrian (or perhaps to Severus). Dio reports that 50 of the most important strongholds of the Jews had been captured, 985 villages razed, and 580,000 Jews killed. A hyperbolic rabbinical tradition had it that gentiles fertilized their vineyards for seven years with the blood of Israel without using manure.

The Jewish state lasted three years, before the dream of liberty was extinguished. The man whose nom de guerre was Shim’on bar Kokhba, Son of the Star, was renamed by embittered survivors as they contemplated the ruins of Judaea; he was now Shim’on bar Kozeba, Son of the Lie.

The emperor determined to root out Judaism. So many prisoners were put up for auction at Hebron and Gaza that each fetched no more than the value of a horse. Judaea was, in effect, depopulated of Jews either by death or enslavement, and any few who remained were forbidden to enter the district around Jerusalem. This was to prevent them from even seeing, let alone visiting, their ancestral capital. The teaching of Mosaic law was banned, as was the ownership of scrolls (the essential medium on which the scriptures and rabbinical commentaries were written).

The building of Aelia Capitolina proceeded apace and an equestrian statue of Hadrian, still in place more than a century later, was erected on the site of the Holy of Holy. Pagan shrines were built over Jewish places of worship. By the city gate for the Bethlehem road, a marble sow was erected, insultingly offensive to Jews and denoting their subjection to Roman power. Judaea was abolished as a territorial entity. It was added to Galilee and the enlarged and purified province was known as Syria Palaestina, the first time the term Palestine was ever employed. It was to be as if the chosen people had never existed.

Hadrian was acclaimed imperator for the first time in his reign, a title adopted by an emperor only after a signal victory, and his three chief generals, Severus and the governors of Syria and Arabia, were granted triumphal honors,ornamenta triumphalia, the highest military honor to which they could aspire. The emperor was unusually parsimonious with such titles, and his generosity on this occasion signals the shock that had rocked the empire. It had taken a huge effort to put down the revolt.

For Hadrian, his victory was in part a defeat. His policy was to attract the fullest possible consent to Roman rule, to entice provincial elites to join him in government, to recast the empire as a commonwealth of equals. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of this approach, but, for all that, the revolt had exposed its falsity. The final guarantee of the pax Romana was the brute force of the legions. This, in turn, was a reminder of the implicit fragility of the imperial system. If the army were ever to fail, what would then preserve Rome’s dominion?

When the rabbinical authors mention the name of Hadrian they often add the phrase “May his bones rot!” No wonder, for it was now clear that, after recurrent revolts at the end of Nero’s reign and then at the end of Trajan’s, the Jews would never again give Rome any trouble.

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