When War Came to Galilee: The Siege of Yodfat
Updated: Apr 23
The grassy knoll in the distant center of the photo is the ancient site of Yodfat in Galilee, known in Greek from Josephus as Jotapata, or in the novels Cry for Jerusalem, Book 2, as Yotapta. The site is a national park and open to visitors.
In the First Great Jewish Revolt in 66 CE, the Romans learned the hard way that attacking Jerusalem without first securing the surrounding countryside was a big mistake. Rebel Judean soldiers by the many thousands could effectively attack the exposed flanks of the legions. Therefore, the following year the Roman General Vespasian decided it was better to first conquer Galilee and Judea before laying siege to Jerusalem.
Three of the sides of the Yodfat hill slope down steeply like this to the ravine below, making for an effective defense against attacking soldiers.
The Romans discovered that a number of the larger towns in Galilee had improved defensive walls and fortifications, thanks to the leadership of Yosef ben Matthias (Josephus). He was chosen by the Council in Jerusalem to lead the defense of Galilee not because of his military experience, but because during his visit to Rome a few years earlier he had learned much about how the Romans carried out warfare. Josephus chose the small town of Yodfat for his headquarters, as it had the best natural defenses. It was situated on a small hill surrounded on three sides by deep ravines (see above photo).
Small sections of the original wall remain from the fortified town. Note they did not have the luxury of cutting large square blocks.
When Vespasian learned that the leader of the rebels in Judea was held up in Yodfat, he led three legions up into the mountains for a face off there. You can read the entire dramatized account in Book 2 of Cry for Jerusalem. A spoiler alert here if you read the rest of this blog. Vespasian hoped to cut off the head of the rebellion in Galilee quickly, making it easier to mop up the smaller towns later. They found they greatly outnumbered the fighters inside the fortified town, but the walls were well built, and so a siege was required. The rebels held out much longer than the Romans expected—47 days. They finally entered the town at night after they found most of the guards would fall asleep during the late watch. They slew nearly all of the inhabitants, although Josephus and a band of rebel soldiers managed to hide undiscovered in a cave for many days.
The limetone bedrock at Yodfat contains many caves. You can see one in the photo above. Josephus records the rebels hid in one of these caves from the Romans at the end of the siege.
Eventually the rebels began to run low on food and water and had to sneak out at night to resupply. One night two of the women who had snuck out were followed back to their hideout, and the group was discovered. The Romans tried to convince them to surrender rather than attempt a forceful capture, which would likely have cost many soldiers’ lives. When given one night to consider the offer, the rebels agreed to a mass suicide pact. By the castings of lots, one by one the soldiers slit the next one’s throat until only Josephus and one other man remained alive. They had agreed the last two remaining would surrender. It was in this manner that Josephus was captured. After being brought before Vespasian, Josephus convinced the general not to execute him, but to take him as a prisoner. In my next blog I will go more into detail about this last series of events.