THE RETREAT BEGAN in November. The year was AD 66.1 A Roman army more than thirty thousand strong had marched south from Syria into the province of Judaea to suppress an incipient uprising. The soldiers slaughtered Jews and burned towns as they advanced. Finally the legionnaires arrived at Jerusalem. From their camp on Mount Scopus, the imperial authorities sent emissaries to tell the rebels that they would be forgiven if they would throw away their arms and surrender. The Jews delivered their answer by killing one emissary and wounding the other. The legions then mounted five days of attacks on the capital. They captured the suburbs and were about to assault the inner city when, for reasons that remain mysterious, their commander, Cestius Gallus, the governor of Syria, decided to call off the offensive.
The Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who was himself a rebel before being captured and is the primary source for these events, was convinced that had Cestius “but continued the siege a little longer [he] certainly would have taken the city.” But perhaps in the heat of battle Cestius was not sure of success and was worried about being cut off from his supply lines with winter approaching. Or perhaps he thought that he had already made his point and that the Jewish rebels, having gotten a taste of Roman fury, would now come to their senses. If so, he was mistaken. Fatally mistaken. Far from being cowed, the Jews were emboldened by “this unexpected retreat” and fell with a vengeance upon the retreating ranks.
With its superior training, discipline, and cohesion, the Roman army was the most formidable military force in the ancient world—but only if it met its enemies in open battle. Roman infantrymen advanced into battle silently and slowly in a checkerboard formation, their polished armor and helmets gleaming in the sun. When they got to within less than thirty yards of the enemy, they would toss their pilum, a seven-foot javelin. Then the legionnaires would let out a terrifying scream and charge the enemy lines, already thrown off balance by the heavy javelins, to punch their foes in the face with their scutum, a rectangular shield weighing approximately sixteen pounds, and to stab them in the belly with their gladius, a short double-edged sword that gave its name to gladiators. This initial wave of legionnaires would be supported in the rear by two reserve lines of infantry and on the flanks by cavalry and foreign auxiliaries armed with missile weapons such as bows and slings. Also available would be specialists in such fields as mechanical artillery, fortifications, road building, surveying, bridging, and logistics. Roman soldiers were sworn to follow their eagle standards to the gates of Hades if necessary, and if they failed they knew they could be subject to “decimation” by their own officers: every tenth man in a unit that disgraced itself could be flogged to death. There was no more formidable a military force in the ancient world.2
But all of this military might could be negated if the legions were caught in treacherous terrain and harassed by skillful, determined guerrillas. That is precisely what happened to Cestius Gallus’s army as it marched along narrow, winding mountain paths from Jerusalem heading for the Roman-held cities of the Mediterranean coast. The legionnaires and their local allies were beset by lightly armed Jewish fighters who would fire their slingshots or javelins from above and dash down to pick off stragglers with swords and knives. With their heavy armor and equipment, weighing up to a hundred pounds per man, the legionnaires were too slow to catch these nimble harassers. Among those killed early on was the commander of the Sixth Legion, a unit roughly five thousand strong, equivalent to a modern U.S. Army brigade. Much of the baggage train had to be abandoned and the pack animals killed.
Three days after setting out, the Romans had to march through a narrow pass next to the village of Beth-horon, adjacent to the modern Israeli town of Beit Horon in the West Bank. Already Beth-horon had been the site of a notable victory by Jewish guerrillas against an occupying force—it had been where the Maccabees had defeated the Greco-Syrian Seleucid army in 166 BC, exactly two hundred years before. Now history was about to repeat itself. The Jewish rebels had gathered here, noted Josephus, “and covered the Roman army with their darts.” There was no escape for the beleaguered, exhausted soldiery. Above them on the hillsides their enemies were as thick as olive groves. Below were steep precipices down which the cavalrymen on their frightened horses “frequently fell.” “[T[here was neither place for their flight,” Josephus wrote, “nor any contrivance . . . for their defense.” All they could do was cower under their shields and pray to their deities. Josephus believed that the Jews would have “taken Cestius’s entire army prisoners, had not the night come on.”
Under cover of darkness, Cestius managed to escape with the remainder of his command. He left behind four hundred of his “most courageous” men with orders to fly their colors and pretend that the whole of the army was still at Beth-horon. When morning came, the Jews discovered the ruse and immediately killed the four hundred soldiers before setting off in pursuit of Cestius. Even though they did not catch up with the retreating legions, Cestius had suffered a humiliating defeat. More than 5,700 of his soldiers had perished, and he had been forced to leave behind not only his baggage and his siege engines but also—even more galling to a legionnaire—an eagle standard.3