A short history of the Bar Kochba Revolt of Jewish people against Roman rule in Judaea which began in 132 CE, written by Richard Marrison.
When the Roman Empire decided to change the architect of the Roman province of Judea, a historic rebellion was fought by the Jewish residing in that area. Three wars were fought between the Jewish and the Romans; Bar Kochba was the third and the least among them. Hence, we also know it as the Third Jewish-Roman War or the Third Jewish Revolt.
The Kitos War that preceded was only marginally fought in Judea, which led the historians to omit it sometimes. Thus, Bar Kochba is also referred to as the Second Jewish Revolt. The Revolt that spanned six years (132-136CE) was led by Simon bar Kochba, their messiah.
Why was the Jewish-Roman War held?
The Jews were primarily affected by the decision of the Romans to establish a Roman military base at Judea. They intended to completely change the political, economic, and administrative architecture of the Judean lands. When the Libyans and Mesopotamians tried to suppress the First Revolt (66-73 CE), it snowballed into a revolt.
The most immediate reason for the war was the reconstruction of Jerusalem into a new city called Aelia Capitolina and the erection of the temple of Jupiter over their most holy site, Temple Mount.
The entire Jews of their independent state asserted that Romans could only get what they wanted by force. It implied that they were not willing to surrender without fighting a battle against the Romans.
The then Roman emperor Hadrian was sympathetic towards the Jews at the beginning of his ruling term. However, he soon rescinded his vows to support the Jews and began deporting them to North Africa. He wanted to build the city named Aelia Capitolina, a combination of his name and their God Jupiter, in place of their Holy Temple.
Similarly, Hadrian despised the practice of foreign religions and the circumcision performed by the Jews. Moreover, he bought them by showing high hopes of a promised homeland and the Holy Temple, but they were persecuted and sold for slavery. The Jews were horrified and wanted to strike while plotting for a rebellion from under the caves.
Who was Simon bar Kochba?
As the Jewish tradition goes, the messiah was believed to have descended from the Davidic line, and his initial name, Simon Bar Koseva, was later altered to Simon Bar Kochba. Rabbi Akiva changed it to Bar Kochba, where Kochba means 'star.' His name was reconfigured as 'son of a star' per their prophecy. The Star Prophecy in Numbers 24:17 asserted that a star would step forth from Jacob, and a scepter would rise out of Israel and smite through the corners of Moab.
The eponymous Simon was a charismatic and robust Jew who remained the executor and warrior of the three consecutive wars against the Roman Empire. He had both the physical and the mental readiness and capability of a leader. Kochba swiftly rode on horses and uprooted a tree while on his riding bouts. He was a devout Jew and an intelligent, observant person. His personality was quickly loved by the Jewish people and heralded him as the Nasi, or prince of the independent Jewish province.
Dio Cassius further wrote that he had collected an army of 200,000, each equally capable of uprooting a tree. Simon had created a large and terrifying army of Jews. Cassius's writings also reveal that Simon didn't ask God for his assistance but demanded not to be embarrassed.
His devotion and faith in his religion are reflected by his letters on the extant remains of the war. He catered to his campers during the war and observed many Jewish holidays, Shabbat, and tithes. Yigael Yadin, the archaeologist, also asserted that he had attempted to revive Hebrew or Aramaic (the then spoken language) of the realm.
What are the sources of the war?
The tensions escalated, and relations strained after the First Revolt that birthed the Jewish-Roman war. During the Revolt, the Jews and their leader tried not to be plagued by the previous drawbacks.
Not many accounts of the bloody and devastating war are extant save for the writings of Dio Cassius, Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, and Jerome, Church father. Also, the Judean desert hosted no remains or scrapes of any evidence for the chronicles of the war.
Therefore, little or no historical evidence has surfaced to testify the sources of the war. Neither the non-Jewish nor the rabbinical literature provides any ample information on the historical sources. Hence, it is fair to say that it is not a historical source per se and often legendary and unreliable.
A series of archaeological evidence, such as the minted coins, suggests that Judea was an independent state for a certain period. Besides, the lines etched on the coin, such as, 'The freedom of Israel' in the Hebrew language was found.
What happened in the war?
The war began as some Jewish guerilla forces surprisingly attacking the Roman legions. The uprising left heavy casualties upon Legio X Fretensis. In counteraction, Hadrian reinforced Leio Vi Ferrata to his 20, 000 Roman soldiers to contain the Jewish rebels but was not successful.
First Phase of the War
In addition, Hadrian employed reinforcements from several neighboring provinces, such as General Marcellus commanding Legio III Gallica, Titus Haterius Nepos from Roman Arabia commanded over Legio III Cyrenaica, among others. The stationed troops of Legio II Traiana Fortis also arrived in Judea.
The Jews under the united front of Bar Kochba fought back and triumphed over the Roman legions. They also seized Jerusalem, where the Romans had not fortified well. They captured 60 other strongholds and approximately 985 towns and villages and forced them out.
Bar Kochba's reputation spread far and wide for his courage and undaunting disposition. He was assisted by many other people, some Jews from neighboring states and even non-Jews, who helped him in his grand quest.
Together they defended the Roman leaders, General Marcellus of Syria and governor Rufus of Judea itself. He then shifted to the coastal regions by conquering Galilee and cutting off the Romans from the sea, instigating sea warfare.
Second Phase of the War
The Romans were taken aback by the initial conquest of the Jews. In the extant writings of Cassius, we find that the Jews combined tactics to maneuver the war in their favor. They dug up holes as hideouts and took refuge underneath.
It was a haven for their families and the cave from where they revolted with covert attacks. The Judean towns and villages were perforated with these cave hideouts that altogether became the Judean defense system. Through these hideouts, the Jewish rebels could resist the Roman attack and ambush their enemies from underground.
Third Phase of the War
As the Romans were losing, General Sextus Julius Severus was summoned from Britannia with a massive army. He brought along legions from Europe and doubled the number of Roman armies against their enemies.
The Battle of Tel Shalem was the showdown between the two parties: It took place in Bar Kochba's headquarters in Bethar. The headquarter housed both the Jewish High Court or Sanhedrin and Kochba's home.
Bethar was on a focal location from military view as it was atop a mountain, overlooking both sides below. As many as thousands of Jewish took refuge in Bethar during that war. Hadrian lay siege of Bethar on the Jewish auspicious day of fasting on the 9th of Av.
Legio V Macedonia and XI Claudia were very much a part of the siege occurring on Tisha B'av.
In 135 CE, a fierce war struck between the enemies, and the walls of the Bethar collapsed-killing every single Jew within.
Fourth Phase of the War
The final phase is characterized by the loss of territories by Kochba, save for the Bethar fortress vicinity. The Romans then went on to hunt down every hideout and smaller towers but, most importantly, all the Jews.
This destruction of the Jews led to the killings of the rabbis and several others who became martyrs. The rampage lasted for spring of 136 as opined by historians and also when the Revolt was squashed.
What was the aftermath?
Both the parties endured heavy casualties in terms of properties and soldiers. Bar Kochba succumbed to the legions and powers of Hadrian. About 580,000 Jews were killed in the battle, and an equally staggering number of Romans died.
Eventually winning over the Jewish rebels, Hadrian grew even crueler. He ordered the execution of all Jews and prohibited teaching Torah. Hadrian also abolished the Hebrew calendar. He built the temple of Jupiter over the Mount and burned all the scholarly writings of the Jews therein.
Jewish rebels were sold on Hadrian's Market at a meager cost. Those slaves who were not sold were deported elsewhere. They were treated very poorly and suppressed even more than before.
The Bar Kochba revolt marked an important day in the history of Jews and the Romans and the Jewish diaspora. It changed the fate of many Jews and their messiah, including the Jewish thought and religion.
As his name was changed to Bar Kochba at the beginning of the war, Bar Kosiba was later established as Bar Kosiba, meaning 'son of disappointment' when the war reduced to a failure. The Talmud also referred to Bar Kochba as Ben-Kosiba, the false messiah.
However, in the post-rabbinical era, he is regarded as a national hero and the Revolt symbol of national resistance. All in all, Bar Kochba is synonymous with valor.
Richard Marrison blogs about ancient history at https://www.historyten.com/.