Most people are aware that during the first centuries BC and AD the Roman domination of the Mediterranean world included what had previously been the independent nation of Judea. The Romans laid siege to and conquered their fortress capital of Jerusalem in both 63 BC and in 70 AD. Roman victories were not a surprise as their military strength with its legions greatly surpassed that of the Jews in both number and experience. But few people are aware of the one battle where the Jews overwhelmed the Romans and handed them one of their worst defeats. They even captured their flag—its equivalent—the Roman aquila, their standard eagle, which the Romans guarded fiercely.
Trouble began in the year 66 AD when the Roman Province of Judaea received a new Governor, Gessius Florus. Specializing in collecting taxes, he was on a serious quest (along with other governors around the empire) to increases taxes to help Rome rebuild from its devastating fire two years earlier. Gessius Florus was a proud and ruthless man. Outright theft was certainly one of his tactics. When he demanded a large bribe in gold from Jewish religious leaders and then kept it (without delivering their request) an uproar started in Jerusalem. Florus had picked a fight as an excuse to take a battalion of soldiers there to attempt to raid the Temple treasury. The Romans knew that a very large amount of gold and silver was stored in the Temple. The soldiers, reinforced by the Romans garrison already stationed in Jerusalem at Fortress Antonia, began slaughtering Jewish citizens by the thousands to put the city into a panic. But when they attempted to breach the Temple Sanctuary, itself a fortress, the Jewish rebels were ready. They cut off the only easy entrance point to the Sanctuary and fortified their position behind its imposing walls. Only a sustained siege would overcome the defenses. Florus relented and withdrew. But the die was cast.
The province had become, after years of Roman oppression, a pot of rebellion ready to boil. News of the slaughter of two thousand civilians in Jerusalem and an attack on the Temple swelled the ranks of the fighters even further. During a feast in Jerusalem many of them came to the city hiding amongst the masses. In an orchestrated move, they suddenly attacked the garrison at Fortress Antonia, killing most of its defenders, with the remainder fleeing to the only other fortress in town—Herod’s Palace. After a brief siege there the Romans knew they were beaten, and surrendered with a guarantee of safe passage. But the Jewish rebels did not keep their word and slaughtered them all after they laid down their weapons.
News of the Jewish capture of Jerusalem and its dishonorable end reached Rome, and in no time the 12th Legion (several thousand well-trained soldiers) was sent south from Antioch to put down the revolt. Led by the Syrian governor, Cestius Gallus, the legion advanced slowly toward the city, as it had to bring along supplies and many large pieces of siege equipment. Once at Jerusalem, the task at hand was greater than they had bargained for. The Romans managed to breach the outer wall, but they realized they did not have the supplies and men to complete the task. The decision was made to withdraw and move back to the coast until a greater force could be mustered. But Gallus had not anticipated, nor made safe, a route for a potential retreat.
During the siege the Jewish rebel leader, Simon ben Giora, had gathered several thousand men and archers in the foothills. They moved into a position around the pass at Beth Horon, the place the Romans would have to retreat through on their way back to the coast. Ironically this was the same location where Judah Maccabee had led the Jews to victory against the Greeks 232 years earlier. The retreating Roman legion was unprepared. The Jews rained down torrents of arrows into the valley in an ambush. Two thirds of the legion was lost before they could make camp at sundown. The Jewish rebels moved in but waited for dawn to attack. But they discovered in the morning a Roman ruse had left only a few hundred men in the camp with the aquila standard, while the rest of the legion and escaped during the night. In the morning the Jews killed the remaining soldiers and capture the eagle.
Such a large loss as at the Battle of Beth Horon had not been known in Rome for a long time. Of course, the Romans did ultimately come back with four legions to avenge their fallen comrades and crush what became to be known as the First Jewish Revolt. I have wondered why I had not heard of this huge Jewish victory before now. I guess the battles that get most remembered are those that win wars. Those won by the side that is ultimately defeated tend to get buried in history books.
Cry For Jerusalem is a series of historical fiction books covering the seven years leading up to the burning of Herod’s Temple and the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Author Ward Sanford gives this period of history new depth in Cry For Jerusalem and showcasing the works of eyewitness historian Flavius Josephus in a new way with this fictional yet fact-based dramatization.
In the CFJ blog section Ward covers subjects to do with the vast amount of research that went into the CFJ novel series, including Ancient Jerusalem, the Roman Empire, and Biblical topics and the writings of Josephus.