Jews' Last Struggle For Freedom: Their Final Dispersion
Author: Merivale, Charles
Jews' Last Struggle For Freedom: Their Final Dispersion
The successful revolt of the Maccabees against the bloody persecutions
of the Assyrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, about B.C. 164, inaugurated a
glorious epoch in Jewish history. From that time the Jews enjoyed their
freedom under the dynasty of their priest-kings till, B.C. 63, the Romans
under Pompey took possession of Jerusalem. A period of Roman tyranny and
oppression followed. In A.D. 66-70 a great revolt of the Jews occurred. The
Romans burned Jerusalem to the ground. Josephus says the number killed in
this revolt was one million one hundred thousand, and the number of prisoners
ninety-seven thousand. Of those who survived, "all above seventeen years old
were sent to Egypt to work in the mines, or distributed amo g the provinces
to be exhibited as gladiators in the public theatres and in the combats
against wild beasts."
About fifty years later, A.D., 116, a tremendous uprising occurred among
the Jews of the eastern Mediterranean, in which many lives were lost. It was
quickly suppressed by the emperor Trajan, and the punishments were similar in
cruelty to those which followed the previous insurrection.
But this dauntless people were not yet conquered. When the emperor
Hadrian, A.D., 130, arrived at Jerusalem on his tour of the empire, he
resolved that the holy city of the Jews should be rebuilt as a Roman colony,
and its name changed to Aelia Capitolina; and the Jews were forbidden to
sojourn in the new city. By this and other measures the spark of revolt was
once more kindled among the religious and patriotic spirits of the Jewish
nation. The Jews in Palestine flew to arms, A.D., 132, encouraged by the
prayers, the vows, and the material support of their compatriots in Rome,
Byzantium, Alexandria, and Babylon. The Jewish war-cry echoed around the
A fitting leader for the insurrectionists soon appeared in the person of
Simon Barcochebas. Julius Severus, who was in Britain ordering the affairs
of that distant province, was summoned to the East to quell the disturbance,
which had swollen to the dimensions of a revolution and threatened to abolish
Roman authority in Palestine. The conflict which ensued lasted from A.D. 132
to 135, and was very bitterly contested on both sides. It was not before the
Hebrew leader fell amid thousands of his followers that the Jewish forces
were defeated. We are told that in this last revolution the Romans took
fifty fortresses, nine hundred and eighty-five villages were occupied, and
that the people killed numbered five hundred and eighty thousand. The Jews
were dispersed to every quarter of the known world and remain so to this day.
The new city of Hadrian continued to exist, but did not prosper; and the Jews
were prohibited under penalty of death from ever setting foot in Jerusalem.
The Jews' Last Struggle For Freedom: Their Final Dispersion
The thread of imperial life could hardly snap without a jar which would
be felt throughout the whole extent of the empire. Trajan, like Alexander,
had been cut off suddenly in the Far East, and, like Alexander, he had left
no avowed successor. Several of his generals abroad might advance nearly
equal claims to the sword of Trajan; some of the senators at home might deem
themselves not unworthy of the purple of Nerva.
On every side there was an army or faction ready to devote itself to the
service of its favorite or its champion.
The provinces lately annexed were at the same time in a state of ominous
agitation; along one half of the frontiers Britons, Germans, and Sarmatians
were mustering their forces for invasion; a virulent insurrection was still
glowing throughout a large portion of the empire. Nevertheless, the compact
body of the Roman Commonwealth was still held firmly together by its inherent
self-attraction. There was no tendency to split in pieces, as in the
ill-cemented masses of the Macedonian conquest; and the presence of mind of a
clever woman was well employed in effecting the peaceful transfer of power
and relieving the State from the stress of disruption.
Of the accession of Publius Aelius Hadrianus, A.D., 117, to the empire;
of the means by which it was effected; of the character and reputation he
brought with him to the throne; of the first measures of his reign, by which
he renounced the latest conquests of his predecessor, while he put forth all
his power to retain the realms bequeathed him from an earlier period - is
matter for another story.
But let us turn to a review of eastern affairs; to the great Jewish
insurrection, and the important consequences which followed from it. Trajan
was surely fortunate in the moment of his death. Vexed, as he doubtless was,
by the frustration of his grand designs for incorporating the Parthian
monarchy with the Roman, and fulfilling the idea of universal empire which
had flitted through the mind of Pompius or Julius, but had been deliberately
rejected by Augustus and Vespasian, his proud spirit would have been broken
indeed had he lived to witness the difficulties in which Rome was plunged at
his death, the spread of the Jewish revolt in Asia and Palestine, the
aggressions of the Moors, the Scythians, and the Britons at the m st distant
points of his dominions.
The momentary success of the insurgents of Cyprus and Cyrene had
prompted a general assurance that the conquering race was no longer
invincible, and the last great triumphs of its legions were followed by a
rebound of fortune still more momentous.
The first act of the new reign was the formal relinquishment of the new
provinces beyond the Euphrates. The Parthian tottered back with feeble step
to his accustomed frontiers. Arabia was left unmolested; India was no longer
menaced. Armenia found herself once more suspended between two rival
empires, of which the one was too weak to seize, the other too weak to retain
All the forces of Rome in the East were now set free to complete the
suppression of the Jewish disturbances. The flames of insurrection which had
broken out in so many remote quarters were concentrated, and burned more
fiercely than ever in the ancient centre of the Jewish nationality.
Martius Turbo, appointed to command in Palestine, was equally amazed at
the fanaticism and the numbers of people whose faith had been mocked, whose
hopes frustrated, whose young men had been decimated, whose old men, women,
and children had been enslaved and exiled. Under the teaching of the doctors
of Tiberia faith had been cherished and hope had revived. Despised and
unmolested for fifty years, a new generation had risen from the soil of their
ancestors, recruited by the multitudes who flocked homeward, year by year,
with an unextinguishable love of country, and reenforced by the fugitives
from many scenes of persecution, all animated with a growing conviction that
the last struggle of their race was at hand, to be contested on the site of
their old historic triumphs.
It is not perhaps wholly fanciful to imagine that the Jewish leaders,
after the fall of their city and Temple and the great dispersion of their
people, deliberately invented new means for maintaining their cherished
nationality. Their conquerors, as they might observe, were scattered like
themselves over the face of the globe and abode wherever they conquered; but
the laws, the manners, and the traditions of Rome were preserved almost
intact amid alien races by the consciousness that there existed a visible
centre of their nation, the source, as it were, to which they might repair to
draw the waters of political life. But the dispersions of the Jews seemed
the more irremediable as the destruction of their central home was complete.
To preserve the existence of their nation one other way presented
itself. In their sacred books they retained a common bond of law and
doctrine, such as no other people could boast. In these venerated records
they possessed, whether on the Tiber or the Euphrates, an elixir of
unrivalled virtue. With a sudden revulsion of feeling the popular orators
and captains betook themselves to the study of law, its history and
antiquities, its actual text and its inner meaning. The schools of Tiberias
resounded with debate on the rival principles of interpretation, the ancient
and the modern, the stricter and the laxer, known respectively by the names
of their teachers, Schammai and Hillel.
The doctors decided in favor of the more accommodating system, by which
the stern exclusiveness of the original letter was extenuated, and the law of
the rude tribes of Palestine moulded to the varied taste and temper of a
cosmopolitan society, while the text itself was embalmed in the Masora, an
elaborate system of punctuation and notation, to every particle of which, to
insure its uncorrupted preservation, a mystical significance was attached.
By this curious contrivance the letter of the Law, the charter of Judaism,
was sanctified forever, while its spirit was remodelled to the exigencies of
the present or the future, till it would have been no longer recognized by
its authors, or even by very recent disciples. To this new learning of
traditions and glosses the ardent youth of the nation devoted itself with a
fanaticism not less vehement than that which had fought and bled half a
century before. The name of the rabbi Akiba is preserved as a type of the
hierophant of restored Judaism.
The stories depicting him are best expounded as myths and figures. He
reached, it was said, the age of a hundred and twenty years, the period
assigned in the sacred records to his prototype, the law-giver Moses.
Like David, in his youth he kept sheep on the mountains; like Jacob, he
served a master, a rich citizen of Jerusalem, for Jerusalem in his youth was
still standing. His master's daughter cast the eyes of affection upon him
and offered him a secret marriage; but this damsel was no other than
Jerusalem itself, so often imaged to the mind of the Jewish people by the
figure of a maiden, a wife, or a widow.
This mystic bride required him to repair to the schools, acquire
knowledge and wisdom, surround himself with disciples; and such, as we have
seen, was the actual policy of the new defenders of Judaism.
The damsel was rebuked by her indignant father; but when, after the
lapse of twelve years, Akiba returned to claim his bride, with twelve
thousand scholars at his heels, he heard her replying that, long as he had
been absent, she only wished him to prolong his stay twice over, so as to
double his knowledge; whereupon he returned patiently to his studies, and
frequented the schools twelve years longer. Twice twelve years thus passed,
he returned once more with twice twelve thousand disciples, and then his wife
received him joyfully, and, covered as she was with rags, an outcast and a
beggar, he presented her to his astonished followers as the being to whom he
owed his wisdom, his fame, and his fortune.
Such were the legends with which the new learning was consecrated to the
defence of Jewish nationality.
The concentration of the Roman forces on the soil of Palestine seems to
have repressed for a season all overt attempts at insurrection.
The Jewish leaders restrained their followers from action as long as it
was possible to feed their spirit with hopes only. It was not till about the
fourteenth year of Hadrian's reign that the final revolt broke out.
When the Jews of Palestine launched forth upon the war, the doctor Akiba
gave place to the warrior Barcochebas. This gallant warrior, the last of the
national heroes, received or assumed his title, "the Son of the Star," given
successively to several leaders of the Jewish people, in token of the fanatic
expectations of divine deliverance by which his countrymen did not yet cease
to be animated. Many were the legends which declared this champion's claims
to the leadership of the national cause. His size and strength were vaunted
as more than human. "It was the arm of God, not of man," said Hadrian when
he saw at last the corpse encircled by a serpent, "that could alone strike
down the giant." Flame and smoke were seen to issue from his lips in
speaking, a portent which was rationalized centuries later into a mere
conjurer's artifice. The concourse of the Jewish nation at his summons was
symbolized, with a curious reference to the prevalent idea of Israel as a
school and the Law as a master, by the story that at Bethar, the appointed
rendezvous and last stronghold of the national defence, were four hundred
academies, each ruled by four hundred teachers, each teacher boasting a class
of four hundred pupils.
Akiba, now at the extreme point of his protracted existence, like Samuel
of old, nominated the new David to the chiefship of the people. He girded
Barcochebas with the sword of Jehovah, placed the staff of command in his
hand, and held himself the stirrup by which he vaulted into the saddle.
The last revolt of the Jewish people was precipitated apparently by the
increased severity of the measures which the rebellion under Trajan had drawn
down. They complained that Hadrian had enrolled himself as a proselyte of
the Law, and were doubly incensed against him as a persecutor and a renegade.
This assertion, indeed, may have no foundation. On the other hand, it
is not unlikely that this prince, a curious explorer of religions of
opinions, had sought initiation into some of the mysteries of the Jewish
faith and ritual.
But however this may be, he gave them mortal offence by perceiving the
clear distinction between Judaism and Christianity, and by forbidding the
Jews to sojourn in the town which he was again raising on the ruins of
Jerusalem, while he allowed free access to their rivals. He is said to have
even prohibited the rite of circumcision by which they jealously maintained
their separation from the nations of the West.
At last, when they rose in arms, he sent his best generals against them.
Tinnius Rufus was long baffled and often defeated; but Julius Severus,
following the tactics of Vespasian, constantly refused the battle they
offered him, and reduced their strongholds in succession by superior
discipline and resources. Barcochebas struggled with the obstinacy of
despair. Every excess of cruelty was committed on both sides, and it is
well, perhaps, that the details of this mortal spasm are almost wholly lost
The later Christian writers, while they allude with unseemly exultation
to the overthrow of one inveterate enemy by another who proved himself in the
end not less inveterate, affirmed that the barbarities of the Jewish leader
were mainly directed against themselves.
On such interested assertions we shall place little reliance. In the
counter-narration of the Jews even the name of Christian is contemptuously
disregarded. It relates, however, how at the storming of Bethar, when
Barcochebas perished in the field, ten of the most learned of the rabbis were
taken and put cruelly to death, while Akiba, reserved to expire last, and
torn in pieces with hot pincers, continued to attest the great principle of
the Jewish doctrine, still exclaiming in his death throes, Jehovah Erhad!
"God is one").
The Jews who fell in these their latest combats are counted by hundreds
of thousands, and we may conclude that the suppression of the revolt was
followed by sanguinary proscriptions, by wholesale captivity and general
banishment. The dispersion of the unhappy race, particularly in the West,
was now complete and final. The sacred soil of Jerusalem was occupied by a
Roman colony, which received the name of Aelia Capitolina, with reference to
the Emperor who founded it, and to the supreme God of the pagan mythology,
installed on the desecrated summits of Zion and Moriah.
The fane of Jupiter was erected on the site of the holy Temple, and a
shrine of Venus planted, we are assured, on the very spot hallowed to
Christians by our Lord's crucifixion. But Hadrian had no purpose of
insulting the disciples of Jesus, and this desecration, if the tradition be
true, was probably accidental. A Jewish legend affirms that the figure of a
swine was sculptured, in bitter mockery, over a gate of the new city. The
Jews have retorted with equal scorn that the effigy of the unclean animal,
which represented to their minds every low and bestial appetite, was a
fitting emblem of the colony and its founder, of the lewd worship of its
gods, and the vile propensities of its Emperor.
The fancy of later Christian writers that Hadrian regarded their
coreligionists with special consideration seems founded on misconception. We
hear, indeed, of the graciousness with which he allowed them, among other
sectarians, to defend their usages and expound their doctrines in his
presence; and doubtless his curiosity, if no worthier feeling, was moved by
the fact, which he fully appreciated, of the interest they excited in certain
quarters of the empire. But there is no evidence that his favor extended
further than to the recognition of their independence of the Jews, from whom
they now formally separated themselves, and the discouragement of the local
persecutions to which they were occasionally subjected.
So far the bigoted hostility of their enemies was overruled at last in
In another way they learned to profit by the example of their rivals.
From the recent policy of the Jews they might understand the advantage to a
scattered community, without a local centre or a political status, of
erecting in a volume of sacred records their acknowledged standard of faith
The scriptures of the New Testament, like the Nuschua of the Jewish
rabbis, took the place of the holy of holies as the tabernacle of their God
and the pledge of their union with him.
The cannon of their sacred books, however casual its apparent formation,
was indeed a providential development. The habitual references of bishops
and doctors to the words of their Founder, and the writings of the first
disciples, guided them to the proper sources of their faith and taught them
justly to discriminate the genuine from the spurious.
Meagre as are the remains of Christian literature of the second century,
they tend to confirm our assurance that the scriptures of the new
dispensation were known and recognized as divine at that early period, and
that the Church of Christ, the future mistress of the world, was already
become a great social fact, an empire within the empire.