Chapter One - The Roman Policy: Elimination the Jewish National-Cultural Entity and the Jewish Majority in the Land of Israel
The Roman conquest proved a calamity for the Jewish people. The Romans
destroyed the Jewish independence and canceled its population majority in
Israel. Following the Great Revolt (66 – 70 A.D), and increasingly after the
Bar Cochva revolt (132 – 135 A.D), the Roman policy as dictated from above was
to turn the Jews into a minority in their land, and to eliminate the
rebellious Jewish nationality. For a while, the Romans also tried to force the
Jews to integrate into the Hellenistic culture through religious persecution.
The Jews never accepted the loss of their national independence, or the
settlement of foreigners on their lands, or the religious persecution. They
ignored Rome’s stronger position and rose against its rule again and again,
throughout the Roman occupation:
57 BCE: Rebellion against Gabinius, following his raiding the Temple
54 BCE: Rebellion against Crassus, following his raiding the Temple riches.
66-70 CE (fall of Massada 73CE): The Great Revolt, motivated by the desire
to throw off the bondage of Roman occupation, as well as for religious
115-117 CE: Rebellion against Trayanus, erupted in Israel and other places
in the Empire, following Lucius Quitus’ appointment as Proconsul in Judaea
(having cruelly crushed the Jewish revolt in Messopotamia) and his policies.
132-135 CE: Bar Cochva revolt against the Hellenisation of Provincia Judea.
351 CE: Rebellion against Gallus and his corrupt government.
The causes for rebelling were:
I. Economic hardship
The Roman occupation put an end to the economic prosperity of the
Hashmonaean era. Heavy taxes hurt the farming sector. The Romans also
confiscated lands and built cities for foreigners, or else handed the lands to
retiring Roman soldiers. The Roman proconsuls preferred employing foreigners
in their construction projects because the Jews required Kosher food and would
not work on the Sabbath or the holy days. Jews suffered discrimination in all
areas of life, not just in employment. Following the Great Revolt, the Romans
established a new tax, the “Jews’ tax”, in addition to their regular taxes.
During the 3rd century CE (235-284) Rome underwent a political,
economic, and social crisis which was felt throughout the Empire. The Jewish
population in Provincia Palestinia was severely affected, as farmers collapsed
under the weight of taxes and the Roman soldiers’ profiteering, the local
currency devaluation, the high cost of living, and the loss of soil
productivity due to administrative contortions. Consequently, Jewish farmers
could no longer make a living and were faced with the choice: Rebel or be
forced to leave the country.
Most of the Roman taxes were levied on land owners, and most of the Jews at
that time were farmers. Taxes included:
The Arnona, or property tax: levied on land owners requiring them to
provide the army with food. To ease the strain on the farmers, the Jewish
religious leadership relaxed the law of Shmitta (the seventh year in a
seven-year cycle where the land lies fallow and farmers are forbidden to tend
The Tyronia tax: levied on land owners requiring them to send new recruits
to the army or pay a ransom. Effectively, this became another tax levied on
Hospitality tax: accommodate soldiers, commanders, and top military
personnel, or pay a ransom.
Angria: forced labour, transportation of goods, provision of horses for the
army and other animals for the postal service.
Liturgy: services and provisions for the municipality and the public.
Crown tax: another excuse to collect money from the population.
The Roman government employed military and police units to punish those who
fell behind on their payments. Since most of the Jews in Israel were farmers
or land owners, the taxes and the economic crisis of the 3rd
century brought many to the bread line. Poverty became common.
II. Government corruption
Most of the Roman proconsuls were corrupt and avaricious persons who used
their position for personal gain at the expense of the people.
III. Religious conflict
The Roman emperors and their proconsuls did not understand the nature of
the Jewish religion as a monotheistic religion that combined faith with
national identity. Consequently they repeatedly offended the religious and
nationalistic sensibilities of the Jewish population. The Jews held fast to
their religion to the point of sacrificing their lives. The religious theme of
these rebellions attests to the important place religion played in Jewish
life. The Hashmonaean revolt against Antioch Seleucus (168 BCE), long before
the Roman occupation, was fuelled by religious and nationalistic sentiments,
similar to the rebellions against Rome.
The Roman proconsuls’ desecration of the Temple by entering the
sanctum sanctorum (“holiest of the
holy” section, forbidden to all but the High Priest), pillaging the Temple’s
gold and treasures, and attempts to erect statues of the Emperors offended the
Jewish religious sentiments.
The Emperor Adrian believed that one culture and one religion (the pagan
one) would unify and consolidate the Empire. He wanted to turn Jerusalem into
a pagan city and destroy its Jewish character; circumcision was forbidden as
well as study of the Torah, and the name of Judaea was changed into
Syria-Palastina in an effort to erase its Jewish identity.
Although Christian anti-Jewish legislation took effect as early as 315 CE,
following the Emperor’s embracing of Christianity in 313CE and cessation of
Christians persecution in the Empire, the Jews’ situation worsened when
Constantine made Christianity the Imperial religion in 324 CE.
IV. Favouring of foreigners’ interests (Greek Hellenists, Syrian
Hellenists, and others) over those of the Jews: Government-supported foreign
(non-Jewish) immigration into the Land of Israel took place since the time of
Alexander the Great. But under Roman rule, encouraging foreign settlement on
lands taken from their Jewish owners, thereby reducing the Jews’ means of
living and pushing them off their land became a policy. As part of its
Hellenisation policy Rome encouraged foreigners to settle in the Land of
Israel, including retired army personnel who were given lands that belonged to
Jews. Encouraged by the Roman government, many cities in Israel, including the
coastal cities of Caesaria, Ashkelon, and Gaza, and the cities of Bet Shean,
Tiberias, and Tzipori became Polis cities, i.e., Hellenistic cities governed
by foreigners. There was interminable friction between the foreign and the
Jewish residents of these mixed cities, with the Roman government usually
siding with the foreigners. The foreign residents wanted to get rid of the
Jewish residents and harassment of the Jewish population became common. The
first blood libels against Jews, made up by foreigners, originated in this
V. Jewish vs. Hellenistic cultural struggle: The Hellenistic culture,
prevalent throughout the Roman Empire, aspired to be a universal culture. The
Jewish culture, by contrast, was a fusion of religion and nationalism. The
Jews’ refusal to integrate into the Hellenistic culture generated resentment
towards Judaism throughout the Roman Empire, and among the growing foreign
population in Israel. Up to the time of Adrian, the Roman government
encouraged the establishment of Hellenistic cities for foreigners in Israel.
From the time of Adrian on, the Hellenisation of the Roman Empire, and
Provincia Judaica in particular, became an imperial policy. This policy was
the main cause for the Bar Cochva revolt.
The country’s Hellenisation proceeded by means of transforming Jewish
cities such as Tiberias, Beth Shean, and Tzipori into Hellenistic cities,
which meant eliminating their Jewish character, building Hellenistic temples
and other establishments, and transferring their government to foreigners. The
“straw that broke the camel’s back” was the decision to turn Jerusalem into
Following his suppression of the Bar Cochva revolt, Emperor Adrian changed
the province’s name from Judaea to Syria-Palastina, after the coastal strip
Pleshet, named for the Phillistines who migrated from Crete in the 12th
century BCE and established the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gat, and
Gaza. This name change was meant to erase all trace of the Jewish state and
nation in the Hellenistic world.
The Romans indeed developed the country, but most of the construction work
was not in view of Jewish needs, but to provide for the foreign population,
for whom the Romans built cities replete with temples, baths, amphitheatres
and more. For its garrisons the Roman Government laid roads, such as the road
from Kfar Otnai to Tzipori (whose name was changed to Deo-Caesaria). This road
connected the Roman garrison camp in Otnai (whose name was changed to Leggio,
and later became the Arabic A-Lajoun) at the origin of the Keynee stream
(south of today’s Kibbutz Megiddo in the Yizrael Valley), to Tzipori and
Tiberias. Along this road the Romans built a series of forts.
The Decrease in Jewish
To refute what they call the “Diaspora Myth” of the Zionist movement,
post-Zionists claim that the Romans never exiled the populations of the
countries they conquered. The true significance of the Diaspora Myth is much
broader as it includes the nearly two millennia from the destruction of the
Second Temple to the return to Zion in our modern era. In the context of the
Roman period the Myth relates to the exile of some quarter of a million war
prisoners and their selling in the Roman slave markets, and a determined
policy to erase the Jewish character of the land through religious persecution
and economic edicts that forced Jews off their lands and out of their country.
On the eve of the Roman occupation of Israel (63 BCE) the Hashmonaean
kingdom had an estimated population of 3 million, 90% of whom Jews. At the
break-out of the Bar Cochva (132 CE) the Jewish population of Israel numbered
1.3 million, and was less than 50% of the country’s total population. By the
time the revolt was suppressed, between 700,000 and 800,000 Jews were left.
What happened to the Jewish majority in Israel during these less than 200
I. Exiled war prisoners
The Roman economy was based on slave labour, supplied by war prisoners sold
in slave markets throughout the Roman Empire. Between 63 BCE and 135 CE, the
Romans sold into slavery about 250,000 Jews from Israel: The number of slaves
sold by Pompeius after his conquest in 63 BCE is not clear, although it is
known that Jewish war prisoners were paraded in his march of victory. In 54
BCE, Marcus Liquinius Crassus transferred 30,000 Jewish prisoners to Rome
after suppressing a revolt that erupted because of his attempt to rob the
Temple’s riches. According to Josephus Flavius the number of prisoners of war
from the Great Revolt was 97,000, five thousand of whom were given to Emperor
Nero as slaves after the conquest of the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee.
No formal data exists for the number of slaves Adrian transferred to the Roman
markets, but it is known that the price of slaves dropped markedly due to the
large number of Jews sold into slavery. A reasonable estimate places the
number at 100,000. This estimate is based on the following data: Before the
revolt, there were 1.3 Jews in Israel. Between 400,000 (according to a Jewish
source) and 580,000 (according to Dio Cassius, a Roman historian) were killed
and murdered during the revolt, leaving about 700,000-800,000 alive after it
was suppressed. The 100,000-200,000 difference may be the number of Jews who
fled the fightings and those who were sold into slavery.
According to Josephus Flavius, prior to the Great Revolt there were 204
Jewish villages and cities in the Galilee. Prior to the Bar Cochva revolt
there were 63 Jewish villages and cities in the Galilee. What happened to 141
Jewish settlements in 60 years (between 70CE and 130CE)?
After the Bar Cochva revolt, in 135CE 56 Jewish settlements were left
standing. What happened to 7 settlements in 3 years?
Dio Cassius tells us that during the Bar Cochva Revolt, 985 Jewish
settlements in the Land of Israel were demolished by the Roman army. The
Judaea district was emptied of Jews as a result of the killings, murders,
demolitions, and the policy of turning Judaea and its capital Aelia Capitolina
(formerly Jerusalem) into a Jewish-free zone.
The number of casualties – killed, murdered, or committed suicide – as part
of suppressing the revolts was one of the causes of the decrease in Jewish
The proconsul Florrus killed 3,600 Jews in Jerusalem in 66CE, even before
the outbreak of the Great Revolt. When Castius Gallus conquered Jaffa, his
legionnaires killed 8,400 of the city’s Jews. In Gamla, 5000 jumped off the
cliff to avoid being taken prisoners, while 4,000 were slaughtered by the
Romans. Josephus Flavius tells how the Sea of Galilee turned red from blood
following the Roman conquest of the area. We know that the Romans killed 1,200
of the elderly and the sick. A quarter of the population was killed, i.e.,
During the Bar Cochva revolt casualties numbered between 400,000 (Jewish
source) and 580,000 (Dio Cassius). Beitar was the site of a cruel massacre,
and Jewish sources, in a literary attempt to describe the extent of the
horrors, speak of blood reaching to the knees of the Roman horses.
III. Economic and religious Reasons
In addition to those who were killed or sold into slavery, there were many
Jews who were forced to leave the country because of the religious and
economic policies carried out by the Romans.
Israel’s economic state influenced its status as leader of the Jewish
world. After Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi died, the Presidency began to lose its
influence and the Rabbis (the Wise Men) gained greater status, while the
Jewish centre in Babylon began to grow in strength.
In summary, the Diaspora and the dwindling of Jewish population in the Land
of Israel during the Roman period were a direct result of Roman policies,
which aimed not only to destroy the national independence of the Jews, but to
turn them into a minority in their own land by means of land confiscations,
heavy taxes, foreign settlement, cruel suppression of revolts, and breaking
their national and cultural spirit. Hundreds of thousands were killed,
murdered, and died of hunger and disease, hundreds of thousands of prisoners
of war were sold into slavery, and many fled the religious and economic