The Roman-Jewish Wars, Part Two: The Kito War and Bar Kokhba Revolt, 115 AD – 136 AD

By the time the Second Temple was destroyed and surviving Jews enslaved or exiled, the great decoupling between the early Church and orthodox Jews had begun, as chronicled by the pro-Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Although there was the tragic mass suicide of the Jews who had retreated to Masada three years later, what had transpired since the fall of the Second Temple was more or less ‘mop up’ duty. Nero Caesar did not live to enjoy the victories of his general, for driven to despair by the uprising in Gallia, where the army had proclaimed Galba emperor, and forsaken by his Pretorian guard, he ended his life by suicide, with many scholars claiming he tasked a servant to run his blade through his throat.

THE KITO WAR (115-117 AD)

Forty-five years after the Second Temple’s destruction in 115 AD, the emperor Trajan commanded another eastern campaign against the Parthian Empire, the successor to the Achaeminid line of Cyrus the Great which had returned the Jews to the Holy Land from the Babylonian captivity. The Roman invasion had been prompted by the imposition of a pro-Parthian king on the throne of Armenia after a Parthian invasion of that land. This encroachment on the traditional sphere of influence of the Roman Empire — given the two empires had shared hegemony over Armenia since the time of Nero some 50 years earlier — could only lead to war. 

Inscription Commeorating Kito War
An inscription in Cyrene marking the rebuilding of the city following the disorders caused by the Jews. (119 AD)

As Trajan’s army advanced victoriously through Mesopotamia, Jewish rebels in its rear attacked the small garrisons left behind. A revolt in far off Cyrenaica soon spread to Egypt, then to Cyprus, inciting revolt in Judea. A widespread uprising centered at Lydda threatened grain supplies from Egypt to the front. The Jewish insurrection swiftly spread to the recently conquered provinces. Cities with substantial Jewish populations – Nisibis, Edessa, Seleucia, and Arbela (now Erbil, Iraq) – joined the rebellion and slaughtered their small Roman garrisons. In Cyrenaica, the rebels were led by one Lukuas, who called himself “king” (according to Eusebius of Caesarea). His group destroyed many temples, including those to Hecate, Jupiter, Apollo, Artemis, and Isis, as well as the civil structures that were symbols of Rome, including the Caesareum, the basilica, and the public baths. The 4th century Christian historian Orosius and The Jewish Encyclopedia from 1906 records that the violence so depopulated the province of Cyrenaica that new colonies had to be established by Hadrian. Later, Lukuas entered the city of Alexandria with his rebel forces, which had been abandoned by the Roman governor, Marcus Rutilius Lupus, by that time, and set fire to it, destroying the Egyptian temples and the tomb of Pompey. Jewish rebels reportedly also prevailed in a battle at Hermopolis in 116, as indicated in a papyrus. In response, Trajan sent new troops under the praefectus praetorio Marcius Turbo, but neither Egypt or Cyrenaica were pacified under the autumn of 117.

“The Jews … waged war on the inhabitants throughout Libya in the most savage fashion, and to such an extent was the country wasted that, its cultivators having been slain, its land would have remained utterly depopulated, had not the Emperor Hadrian gathered settlers from other places and sent them thither, for the inhabitants had been wiped out.”

Paulus Orosius 4th century

Meanwhile in Cyprus, a Jewish band under a leader named Artemion took control of the island, killing tens of thousands of Cypriot Greek civilians. The Cypriot Jews participated in the great uprising against the Romans under Trajan (117 AD), massacring roughly 240,000 Greeks, prompting the emperor to deploy a Roman army to the island, soon reconquering the capital. After the revolt had been fully defeated, laws were created forbidding any Jews to live on the island.

As his fortunes of reconquering the Holy Land took a turn for the worst, Lukuas fled to Judea, with Marcius Turbo in hot pursuit. The Romans pursued him and sentenced to death the brothers Julian and Pappus, who had also been key leaders in the rebellion. Meanwhile Lusius Quietus, the conqueror of the Jews of Mesopotamia, was now in command of the Roman army in Judea, and laid siege to Lydda, where the rebel Jews had gathered under the leadership of Julian and Pappus. The distress became so great that the patriarch Rabban Gamaliel II, who was shut up there and died soon afterwards, permitted fasting even on Ḥanukkah. Lydda was next taken and many of the rebellious Jews were executed; the “slain of Lydda” are often mentioned in words of reverential praise in the Talmud. Finally, Lusius Quietus, whom the Emperor Trajan had held in high regard and who had served Rome so well, was quietly stripped of his command once Hadrian had secured the Imperial title. He was murdered in unknown circumstances in the summer of 118 AD, possibly by the orders of Hadrian. Hadrian took the unpopular decision to end the war, abandoning much of Trajan’s eastern conquests and stabilizing the eastern borders. 

Maps of the Armenian Empire of Tigranes
Map includes Osroene as a tributary kingdom of the Armenian Empire under Tigranes the Great.

Lost in all this was the matter of the war in Mesopotamia. Although he abandoned the erstwhile province of Mesopotamia, Trajan did install Parthamaspates – ejected from Ctesiphon by the returning Osroes – as king of a restored Osroene. For a century, Osroene would retain a precarious independence as a buffer state, sandwiched between the two empires. Furthermore, the situation in Judea intensified for the Romans, who were obliged under Hadrian to permanently move the Legio VI Ferrata into Caesarea Maritima in Judea.


Further developments occurred in Judea Province in the year 130 AD, when Emperor Hadrian visited the Eastern Mediterranean and, according to Cassius Dio, made the decision to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem as the Roman colonia of Aelia Capitolina, derived from his own name. The decision, together with Hadrian’s other sanctions against the Jews, was allegedly one of the reasons for the eruption of the 132 AD Bar Kokhba revolt — an extremely violent uprising, which stretched the Roman military and its resources to the limit. 

After the First Jewish–Roman War (66-73 AD), the Roman authorities took measures to suppress the rebellious province of Judea. Instead of a procurator as was traditionally the protocol for imperial oversight, they installed a praetor as a governor and stationed an entire legion, the X Fretensis, in the area, effectively ruling Judea under martial law as a garrison state. Furthermore, tensions continued escalating in the wake of the Kito War, which had been the second large-scale Jewish insurrection in the Eastern Mediterranean, during which the final stages saw fighting in Judea. Speculations of political and administrative mismanagement of the province during the early 2nd century leading to the proximate causes of the revolt are accompanied by the fact that Rome largely appointed antisemitic governors to run the province. For example, the Roman senator Gargilius Antiques may have ruled over Judea on the eve of Rufus during the 120s, and it is well-recorded and heavily emphasized by the Church Fathers and rabbinic literature the antagonistic role of Rufus in provoking the revolt.

Historians have suggested multiple reasons for the sparking of the Bar Kokhba revolt: one may be the changes in administrative law; the second, a diffuse presence of Romans; a third, alterations in agricultural practice with a shift from landowning to sharecropping; a fourth emerging from the impact of a possible period of economic decline; and finally, an upsurge in Jewish ethno-nationalism which built on the hostilities demonstrated to the Hellenistic Jews since the second century AD, including the influences remaining by the Kito revolts among the Jewish communities in Egypt, Cyrenaica and Mesopotamia during the reign of Trajan. 

What is clear is that the immediate catalyst centered around the construction of a new city, Aelia Capitolina, over the ruins of Jerusalem and the erection of a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. One interpretation involves the visit in 130 CE of Hadrian to the ruins of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. At first sympathetic towards the Jews, Hadrian promised to rebuild the Temple. But the Jews felt justifiably betrayed when to their horror, they learned he intended to build a temple dedicated to Jupiter upon the ruins of the Second Temple. For instance, one rabbinic account claims that Hadrian planned on rebuilding the Temple, but that a malevolent Samaritan ― in what perhaps was another xenophobic attempt at scapegoating an age-old rivalry with a local people as was customary of Jewish literature ― convinced him not to. In all, Hadrian quickly went back on his word, however, requesting that not only the site of the Temple be moved from its original location, but enacted a policy to deport Jews to North Africa.

Later,  an additional legion, the VI Ferrata, arrived in the province to maintain order. Works on Aelia Capitolina, as Jerusalem was to be called, commenced in 131 CE. The governor of Judea, Tineius Rufus, performed the foundation ceremony, which involved ploughing over the designated city limits. “Ploughing up the Temple,” seen as a religious offence within Judaism, turned many Jews against the Roman authorities. The Romans issued a coin inscribed Aelia Capitolina. Another disputed tradition from a single source of the Historia Augusta suggests that tensions rose after Hadrian banned circumcision, referred to as mutilare genitalia. Should the claim be true, it is highly likely that Hadrian, as a Hellenist, would have viewed circumcision as an undesirable form of mutilation.

Nevertheless, Jewish leaders carefully planned the second revolt to avoid the numerous mistakes that had plagued the first Great Jewish Revolt sixty years earlier. The result early on was positive for the Jews: in 132 for instance, the revolt, led by Simon bar Kokhba and Elasar, quickly spread from Modi’in across the country, cutting off the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. Although Rufus was in charge during the early phase of the uprising, he disappears from the record after 132 for unknown reasons. Shortly after the eruption of the revolt, Bar Kokhba’s rebels inflicted heavy casualties to Legio X Fretensis that was based in Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem).

Given the continuing impotence of Legio X and Legio VI to subdue the rebels, additional reinforcements from neighboring provinces under Gaius Publicus Marcellus, the Legate of Roman Syria, were deployed; while Titus Haterius Nepos, the governor of Roman Arabia, arrived shortly thereafter. By that time, the number of Roman troops in Judea stood at nearly 80,000 – a number still inferior to rebel forces, who were also better familiar with the terrain and occupied strong fortifications. Furthermore, many Jews from the diaspora made their way to Judea to join Bar Kokhba’s forces, on whom, according to the Talmud, is recorded that hard tests were imposed on recruits due to the inflated number of volunteers. According to some documents, there is evidence that non-Jews enlisted in Bar Kokhba’s forces, and in total, Jewish sources report that as many as 400,000 men were at the disposal of Bar Kokhba at the peak of the rebellion. All these points at the outbreak of the revolt resulted in the initial success of the rebellion, which took the Romans by surprise, given according to Cassius Dio, the Bar Kokhba’s army mostly practiced guerrilla warfare, inflicting heavy casualties, through covert attacks in line with preparation of hideout systems, though after taking over the fortresses Bar Kokhba turned to direct engagement due to his superiority in numbers. Only after several painful defeats did the Romans decide to avoid open conflict and instead methodically besiege individual Judean cities.

In yet another irony tied to the Lord’s rebuke of Lucifer (‘morning star, son of the dawn’) in Isaiah 14:12-20, Bar Kokhba took the title Nasi Israel and ruled over an entity virtually independent for two and a half years. The Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva even identified Simon Bar Kokhba as the Jewish messiah, giving him the surname Bar Kokhba meaning ‘Son of a Star’ in the Aramaic language, in a gross misrepresentation of the ‘Star Prophecy’ verse from Numbers 24:17: “There shall come a star out of Jacob.” Furthermore, the era of Israel’s redemption was announced, with contracts signed and a large quantity of Bar Kokhba Revolt coinage struck over foreign coins.

Following a series of setbacks, Hadrian called his general Sextus Julius Severus from Britain, and troops were brought from as far as the Danube. In 133/4, Severus landed in Judea with a massive army, bringing 3 Legions from Europe, cohorts of additional legions, and between 30 and 50 auxiliary units. He took the title of provincial governor and initiated a massive campaign to systematically subdue Judean rebel forces. Severus’ arrival almost doubled the number of Roman troops facing the rebels. Bar Kokhba declared Herodium as his secondary headquarters. 

The last phase of the revolt is characterized by Bar Kokhba’s loss of territorial control, with the exception of the surroundings of the Betar fortress, where he made his last stand against the Romans. The Roman Army, meanwhile, had turned to eradicating smaller fortresses and hideout systems of captured villages, turning the conquest into a campaign of annihilation. After losing many of their strongholds, Bar Kokhba and the remnants of his army withdrew to the fortress of Betar, which subsequently came under siege in the summer of 135 by Legio V Macedonica and Legio XI Claudia. According to Jewish tradition, the fortress was breached and destroyed on the fast of Tisha B’av, the ninth day of the lunar month Av, a day of mourning for the destruction of the First and the Second Jewish Temple. Rabbinical literature ascribes the defeat to Bar Kokhba killing his maternal uncle, Rabbi Elazar Hamudaʻi, after suspecting him of collaborating with the enemy, thereby forfeiting Divine protection. The horrendous scene of the massacre after the city’s capture is depicted graphically by the Jerusalem Talmud: that the number of dead in Betar was so enormous, that the Romans “went on killing until their horses were submerged in blood to their nostrils.”

The Bar Kokhba rebellion ended with an unprecedented onslaught of the Judean population and a ban upon the Jewish practices, which was lifted only in 138, upon Hadrian’s death. Following the Fall of Betar, the Roman forces went on a rampage of systematic killing, eliminating all remaining Jewish villages in the region and seeking out the refugees. Legio III Cyrenaica was the main force to execute this last phase of the campaign. Historians disagree on the duration of the Roman campaign following the fall of Betar, though by early 136, it is clear that the revolt was defeated. According to a Rabbinic midrash, the Romans executed eight leading members of the Sanhedrin. Yet Bar Kokhba’s fate is not certain, though there exist two alternative traditions in the Babylonian Talmud ascribing the death of Bar Kokhba either to a snake bite or other natural causes during the Roman siege; or, the possibility he was killed on the orders of the Sanhedrin for being the false messiah. According to Lamentations Rabbah, the head of Bar Kokhba was presented to Emperor Hadrian after the Siege of Betar. 

In an attempt to erase any memory of Judea or Ancient Israel, Emperor Hadrian wiped the name off the map and replaced it with ‘Syria Palaestina’ ― the namesake on which the origin of the name ‘Palestine’ is in fact, traced, in connection to the Philistines. Meanwhile, Judea would not be a center of Jewish religious, cultural, or political life again until the rise of the modern Jewish state of Israel in 1948, although Jews continued to sporadically populate it. Still, important religious developments took place there: Galilee became an important center of Rabbinic Judaism, where the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled in the 4th-5th centuries AD. Perhaps the most important consequence of the Bar Kokhba revolt was that it served as the final key event leading to the division of mainstream Christianity as a religion distinct from that of rabbinic Judaism. Although Jewish Christians regarded Jesus as the Messiah and did not support Bar Kokhba, they were barred from Jerusalem along with the other Jews.

The Roman Empire of Trajan in 117 AD
The Roman Empire at the height of its territorial expanse  in 117 AD, under Trajan Caesar.


For the Roman Empire, however, one thing became clear: the Bar Kokhba revolt, like the first two wars with the Jews, exposed the eastern portion of the empire as its soft underbelly for crises to follow in the second century ― only this time, it revealed the overextention of Roman imperial administrative power in the years following Trajan’s reign in 117 AD and the Kito War. In the time since the Bar Kokhba revolt, many scholars continue to debate whether it constituted as a genocide against the Jews. Recall that Trajan annexed Dacia in 101 AD and Mesopotamia a decade later, and in the process, proved to be the furthest east the empire had ever been or would ever be. His successor Hadrian (117 – 138 CE) understood the need for ‘borders’, and chose instead to relinquish the lands conquered by Trajan, including constructing a wall in northern England as a boundary between Britain and Scotland. To him and future emperors in both the western empire and Constantinople, the Roman Empire needed borders: its policies, after centuries of expansion, became one of pacification and Romanization, not conquest. The sheer size of the empire eventually became problematic – it was too large to manage, and ultimately became more susceptible to barbaric invasions.

The Crisis of the Third Century (also known as the Imperial Crisis, 235-284 AD) emerged a century following the bloody Bar Kokhba revolt. It was the period in the empire’s history during which it splintered into three separate political entities: the Gallic Empire, the legitimately intact Roman Empire, and lastly, the Palmyrene Empire ― which, not coincidentally, was a splinter state centered at Palmyra encompassing the Roman provinces of Syria Palaestina (the new name for Judea post-Bar Kokhba revolt), Arabia Petraea, Egypt, and large parts of Asia Minor. These breakaway empires, as well as the social turmoil and chaos which characterized the period, can be attributed to a number of factors: a shift in the paradigm of leadership which had begun with Trajan’s decision to halt expansion of the empire and to undertake ‘Romanization’ of these territories which did not embrace Roman traditions (witness Hadrian’s construction of the temple to Jupiter inside Jerusalem) that led to the violence of the Bar Kokhba revolt.

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