The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3

Author: Charles Merivale  | Date: A.D. 132

The Jews’ Last Struggle for Freedom;
Their Final Dispersion

A.D. 132


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 among 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 civilized world.

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 inthislast 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 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 withthe 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 most 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 front tiers. 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 her.

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 remodel led 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 nameof 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 heallowed 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 to us.

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. ButHadrian 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 their favor.

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 and practice.

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 canon 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.


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Chicago: Charles Merivale, "The Jews’ Last Struggle for Freedom; Their Final Dispersion," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3 in The Great Events by Famous Historians, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 223–231. Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022,

MLA: Merivale, Charles. "The Jews’ Last Struggle for Freedom; Their Final Dispersion." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3, in The Great Events by Famous Historians, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Vol. 3, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 223–231. Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Merivale, C, 'The Jews’ Last Struggle for Freedom; Their Final Dispersion' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.223–231. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from