Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE)

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Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE)
Part of the First Jewish–Roman War
Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE)-en.svg
Progress of the Roman army during the siege.
Date14 April – 8 September 70 CE
(4 months, 3 weeks and 4 days)
31°46′41″N35°14′9″E / 31.77806°N 35.23583°E / 31.77806; 35.23583 Coordinates: 31°46′41″N35°14′9″E / 31.77806°N 35.23583°E / 31.77806; 35.23583

Decisive Roman victory

  • Main rebel Judean forces subdued.
  • City of Jerusalem and the Temple of Jerusalem destroyed.
  • Further Roman expansion into the Levant
Roman rule of Jerusalem restored
Flag of the Roman Empire.svg  Roman Empire

Remnants of the Judean provisional government

Commanders and leaders


Simon Bar
  Skull and Crossbones.svg
John of Gischala   (POW)
Eleazar ben Simon  
70,000 15,000–20,000 10,000
Casualties and losses
Unknown 15,000–20,000 10,000
According to Josephus, 1.1 million non-combatants died in Jerusalem, mainly as a result of the violence and famine, but this number exceeds the entire pre-siege population of Jerusalem. Many of the casualties were observant Jews from across the world such as Babylon and Egypt who had travelled to Jerusalem wanting to celebrate the yearly Passover but instead got trapped in the chaotic siege. [1]
He also writes that 97,000 were enslaved. [1]
Matthew White , The Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2012) p.52, [2] estimates the combined death toll[ clarification needed ] for the First and Third Roman Jewish Wars as being approximately 350,000

The Siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE was the decisive event of the First Jewish–Roman War, in which the Roman army captured the city of Jerusalem and destroyed both the city and its Temple. The Roman army, led by the future Emperor Titus, with Tiberius Julius Alexander as his second-in-command, besieged and conquered the city of Jerusalem, which had been controlled by Judean rebel factions since 66 CE, following the Jerusalem riots of 66, when the Judean provisional government was formed in Jerusalem.


The siege of the city began on 14 April 70 CE, three days before the beginning of Passover that year. [3] [4] The siege lasted for about four months; it ended in August 70 CE on Tisha B'Av with the burning and destruction of the Second Temple. [5] The Romans then entered and sacked the Lower City. The Arch of Titus, celebrating the Roman sack of Jerusalem and the Temple, still stands in Rome. The conquest of the city was complete on approximately 8 September 70 CE.

Josephus places the siege in the second year of Vespasian, [6] which corresponds to year 70 of the Common Era.


Despite early successes in repelling the Roman sieges, the Zealots fought amongst themselves, and they lacked proper leadership, resulting in poor discipline, training, and preparation for the battles that were to follow. At one point they destroyed the food stocks in the city, a drastic measure thought to have been undertaken perhaps in order to enlist a merciful God's intervention on behalf of the besieged Jews, [7] or as a stratagem to make the defenders more desperate, supposing that was necessary in order to repel the Roman army. [8]

Titus began his siege a few days before Passover, [3] on 14 April, [4] surrounding the city with three legions (V Macedonica, XII Fulminata, XV Apollinaris) on the western side and a fourth (X Fretensis) on the Mount of Olives, to the east. [9] [10] If the reference in his Jewish War at 6:421 is to Titus' siege, though difficulties exist with its interpretation, then at the time, according to Josephus, Jerusalem was thronged with many people who had come to celebrate Passover. [11]

The thrust of the siege began in the west at the Third Wall, north of the Jaffa Gate. By May, this was breached and the Second Wall also was taken shortly afterwards, leaving the defenders in possession of the Temple and the upper and lower city. The Jewish defenders were split into factions: John of Gischala's group murdered another faction leader, Eleazar ben Simon, whose men were entrenched in the forecourts of the Temple. [3] The enmities between John of Gischala and Simon bar Giora were papered over only when the Roman siege engineers began to erect ramparts. Titus then had a wall built to girdle the city in order to starve out the population more effectively. After several failed attempts to breach or scale the walls of the Fortress of Antonia, the Romans finally launched a secret attack, overwhelming the sleeping Zealots and taking the fortress by late July. [3]

After Jewish allies killed a number of Roman soldiers, Titus sent Josephus, the Jewish historian, to negotiate with the defenders; this ended with Jews wounding the negotiator with an arrow, and another sally was launched shortly after. Titus was almost captured during this sudden attack, but escaped.

Overlooking the Temple compound, the fortress provided a perfect point from which to attack the Temple itself. Battering rams made little progress, but the fighting itself eventually set the walls on fire; a Roman soldier threw a burning stick onto one of the Temple's walls. Destroying the Temple was not among Titus' goals, possibly due in large part to the massive expansions done by Herod the Great mere decades earlier. Titus had wanted to seize it and transform it into a temple dedicated to the Roman Emperor and the Roman pantheon. However, the fire spread quickly and was soon out of control. The Temple was captured and destroyed on 9/10 Tisha B'Av, sometime in August 70 CE, and the flames spread into the residential sections of the city. [3] [10] Josephus described the scene:

As the legions charged in, neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command. Crowded together around the entrances many were trampled by their friends, many fell among the still hot and smoking ruins of the colonnades and died as miserably as the defeated. As they neared the Sanctuary they pretended not even to hear Caesar's commands and urged the men in front to throw in more firebrands. The partisans were no longer in a position to help; everywhere was slaughter and flight. Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom. [12]

Catapulta, by Edward Poynter (1868). Siege engines such as this were employed by the Roman army during the siege. Catapulta by Edward Poynter.jpg
Catapulta , by Edward Poynter (1868). Siege engines such as this were employed by the Roman army during the siege.

Josephus's account absolves Titus of any culpability for the destruction of the Temple, but this may merely reflect his desire to procure favor with the Flavian dynasty. [12] [13]

The Roman legions quickly crushed the remaining Jewish resistance. Some of the remaining Jews escaped through hidden tunnels and sewers, while others made a final stand in the Upper City. [14] This defense halted the Roman advance as they had to construct siege towers to assail the remaining Jews. Herod's Palace fell on 7 September, and the city was completely under Roman control by 8 September. [15] [16] The Romans continued to pursue those who had fled the city.

Destruction of Jerusalem

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts (1850). Ercole de Roberti Destruction of Jerusalem Fighting Fleeing Marching Slaying Burning Chemical reactions b.jpg
The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts (1850).
Stones from the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (Jerusalem) thrown onto the street by Roman soldiers on the Ninth of Av, 70 NinthAvStonesWesternWall.JPG
Stones from the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (Jerusalem) thrown onto the street by Roman soldiers on the Ninth of Av, 70

The account of Josephus described Titus as moderate in his approach and, after conferring with others, ordering that the 500-year-old Temple be spared. According to Josephus, it was the Jews who first used fire in the Northwest approach to the Temple to try and stop Roman advances. Only then did Roman soldiers set fire to an apartment adjacent to the Temple, starting a conflagration which the Jews subsequently made worse. [17]

Josephus had acted as a mediator for the Romans and, when negotiations failed, witnessed the siege and aftermath. He wrote:

Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other work to be done), [Titus] Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as they were of the greatest eminence; that is, Phasaelus, and Hippicus, and Mariamne; and so much of the wall enclosed the city on the west side. This wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison [in the Upper City], as were the towers [the three forts] also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but for all the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind. [18]
And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it. [19]

Josephus claims that 1.1 million people were killed during the siege, of which a majority were Jewish. Josephus attributes this to the celebration of Passover which he uses as rationale for the vast number of people present among the death toll. [20] Armed rebels, as well as the frail citizens, were put to death. All of Jerusalem's remaining citizens became Roman prisoners. After the Romans killed the armed and elder people, 97,000 were still enslaved, including Simon bar Giora and John of Giscala. [21] Simon bar Giora was executed, and John of Giscala was sentenced to life imprisonment. Of the 97,000, thousands were forced to become gladiators and eventually expired in the arena. Many others were forced to assist in the building of the Forum of Peace and the Colosseum. Those under 17 years of age were sold into servitude. [22] Josephus' death toll assumptions were rejected as impossible by Seth Schwartz (1984), as according to his estimates at that time about a million people lived in Palestine, about half of whom were Jews, and sizable Jewish populations remained in the area after the war was over, even in the hard-hit region of Judea. [23] Titus and his soldiers celebrated victory upon their return to Rome by parading the Menorah and Table of the Bread of God's Presence through the streets. Up until this parading, these items had only ever been seen by the high priest of the Temple. This event was memorialized in the Arch of Titus. [22] [20]

Many fled to areas around the Mediterranean. According to Philostratus, writing in the early years of the 3rd century, Titus reportedly refused to accept a wreath of victory, saying that the victory did not come through his own efforts but that he had merely served as an instrument of divine wrath. [24]


After the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the city and its Temple, there were still a few Judean strongholds in which the rebels continued holding out, at Herodium, Machaerus, and Masada. [25] Both Herodium and Machaerus fell to the Roman army within the next two years, with Masada remaining as the final stronghold of the Judean rebels. In 73 CE, the Romans breached the walls of Masada and captured the fortress, with Josephus claiming that nearly all of the Jewish defenders had committed mass suicide prior to the entry of the Romans. [26] With the fall of Masada, the First Jewish–Roman War came to an end.




Perceptions and historical legacy

The Jewish Amoraim attributed the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem as punishment from God for the "baseless hatred" that pervaded Jewish society at the time. [31] Many Jews in despair are thought to have abandoned Judaism for some version of paganism, many others sided with the growing Christian sect within Judaism. [23] :196–198

The destruction was an important point in the separation of Christianity from its Jewish roots: many Christians responded by distancing themselves from the rest of Judaism, as reflected in the Gospels which some believe portray Jesus as anti-Temple and view the destruction of the temple as punishment for rejection of Jesus. [23] :30–31

In later art

'Siege and destruction of Jerusalem', La Passion de Nostre Seigneur c.1504 Siege and destruction of Jerusalem (f. 155v) Cropped.jpg
'Siege and destruction of Jerusalem', La Passion de Nostre Seigneur c.1504

The war in Judaea, particularly the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, have inspired writers and artists through the centuries. The bas-relief in the Arch of Titus has been influential in establishing the Menorah as the most dramatic symbol of the looting of the Second Temple.[ citation needed ]

See also

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