The Bar Kokhba revolt marked a time of high hopes followed
by violent despair. The Jews were handed expectations of a homeland and a Holy
Temple, but in the end were persecuted and sold into slavery. During the
revolt itself, the Jews gained enormous amounts of land, only to be pushed
back and crushed in the final battle of Bethar.
When Hadrian first became the Roman emperor in 118 C.E., he
was sympathetic to the Jews. He allowed them to return to Jerusalem and granted permission for the rebuilding of their Holy
Temple. The Jews expectations rose as they made organizational and
financial preparations to rebuild the temple. Hadrian quickly went back on his
word, however, and requested that the site of the Temple be moved from its
original location. He also began deporting Jews to North Africa.
The Jews prepared to rebel until Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah
calmed them. The Jews then satisfied themselves with preparing secretly in
case a rebellion would later become necessary. They built hideouts in caves
and did shoddy work building weapons so that the Romans would reject the
weapons and return them to the Jews.
The Jews organized guerilla forces and, in 123 C.E., began
launching surprise attacks against the Romans. From that point on, life only
got worse for the Jews. Hadrian brought an extra army legion, the “Sixth
Ferrata,” into Judea to deal with the terrorism. Hadrian hated
“foreign” religions and forbade the Jews to perform circumcisions.
He appointed Tinneius Rufus governor of Judea. Rufus was a harsh ruler who
took advantage of Jewish women. In approximately 132 C.E., Hadrian began to
establish a city in Jerusalem called Aelia Capitolina, the name being a
combination of his own name and that of the Roman god Jupiter Capitolinus. He
started to build a temple to Jupiter in place of the Jewish Holy Temple.
As long as Hadrian remained near
Judea, the Jews stayed relatively quiet. When he
left in 132, the Jews began their rebellion on
a large scale. They seized towns and fortified
them with walls and subterranean passages. Under
the strong leadership of Shimon
Bar-Kokhba, the Jews captured approximately 50
strongholds in Judea and 985 undefended towns and
villages, including Jerusalem. Jews from other countries,
and even some gentiles, volunteered to join their
crusade. The Jews minted coins with slogans such
freedom of Israel” written in
Hebrew. Hadrian dispatched General Publus Marcellus,
governor of Syria, to help Rufus, but the Jews defeated
both Roman leaders. The Jews then invaded the coastal
region and the Romans began sea battles against them.
The turning point of the war came
when Hadrian sent into Judea one of his best generals
from Britain, Julius Severus, along with former
governor of Germania, Hadrianus Quintus Lollius Urbicus.
By that time, there were 12 army legions from Egypt,
Britain, Syria and other areas in Judea. Due to
the large number of Jewish rebels, instead of waging
open war, Severus besieged Jewish fortresses and
held back food until the Jews grew weak. Only then
did his attack escalate into outright war. The
Romans demolished all 50 Jewish fortresses and
985 villages. The main conflicts took place in
Judea, the Shephela, the mountains and the Judean
desert, though fighting also spread to Northern
Israel. The Romans suffered heavy casualties as
well and Hadrian did not send his usual message
to the Senate that “I and my army are
The final battle of the war took place in Bethar, Bar-Kokhba’s
headquarters, which housed both the Sanhedrin (Jewish High Court) and the home
of the Nasi (leader). Bethar was a vital military stronghold because of its
strategic location on a mountain ridge overlooking both the Valley of Sorek
and the important Jerusalem-Bet Guvrin Road. Thousands of Jewish refugees fled
to Bethar during the war. In 135 C.E., Hadrian’s army besieged Bethar and on
the 9th of Av, the Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the first
and second Holy Temples, the walls of Bethar fell. After a fierce battle,
every Jew in Bethar was killed. Six days passed before the Romans allowed the
Jews to bury their dead.
Following the battle of Bethar, there were a few small
skirmishes in the Judean Desert Caves, but the war was essentially over and
Judean independence was lost. The Romans plowed Jerusalem with a yoke of oxen.
Jews were sold into slavery and many were transported to Egypt. Judean
settlements were not rebuilt. Jerusalem was turned into a pagan city called
Aelia Capitolina and the Jews were forbidden to live there. They were
permitted to enter only on the 9th of Av to mourn their losses in the revolt.
Hadrian changed the country’s name from Judea to Syria Palestina.
In the years following the revolt, Hadrian discriminated
against all Judeo-Christian sects, but the worst persecution was directed
against religious Jews. He made anti-religious decrees forbidding Torah study, Sabbath observance, circumcision, Jewish courts, meeting in synagogues and
other ritual practices. Many Jews assimilated and many sages and prominent men
were martyred including Rabbi
Akiva and the rest of the Asara Harugei Malchut (ten martyrs). This
age of persecution lasted throughout the remainder of Hadrian’s reign, until
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The Jewish Encyclopedia. “Bar
Kokba and Bar Kokba War.” Funk and Wagnalls
Co. London, 1902.
Kantor, Morris. The
Jewish Time Line Encyclopedia. Jason
Aronson Inc., New Jersey, 1989.