Palestine stands alone among the Roman provinces in that here only there existed a national identity strong enough effectively to challenge Roman rule. That identity depended on a body of Hebrew religious writings that constituted a concrete locus for the formation of durable political and religious institutions. This locus and these institutions provided the framework for the two great rebellions that the Romans faced in Palestine in the first and second centuries CE; the messianic promise that the writings contained and misgovernment and Romanizing policy provided the motivations for revolt. Precisely because these rebellions grew out out of the Jewish national identity, the Romans found them far more dangerous than any revolt based on generalized resistance to Romanization, Hellenization, or paganism or on any particular program for a new political and religious order--and many such programs did indeed emerge from this remarkable region. The section on People and Places offers further information on the Jewish people and their religious writings. Here I offer a survey of the history of the region with particular reference to the problem nationalism presented to the Roman rulers, at least until the Romans demolished the institutions (but not the writings and the national identity) in the 130s. Jewish resistance to Roman rule explains why the process of Romanization in Palestine had to involve not only the founding of colonies and other Greco-Roman cities and the co-optation of the local elites but also forced migration--what we now call ethnic cleansing--and the permanent stationing of an unusually large legionary force. After the 130s Palestine lost much of its unusual and problematic features with respect to its position in the imperial system, and the large legionary force moved elsewhere. Still, the religious identity now of the Samaritans continued to challenge the authority of the government until the end of Late Antiquity.
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The Roman senate awarded Herod the kingdom of Judaea in 40 BCE but left him to master it largely with his own resources. Subsequently Antony detached the coastal part of the kingdom and gave it to Cleopatra, but this arrangement lasted only until the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE. After Actium, Herod, who had backed Antony, hastened to Rhodes to meet the victorious Octavian, who confirmed him in his place and soon awarded him additional territory. The map (like the others on this page, based on the IAM map, here with additional information from King Herod's Dream) shows Herod's realm at its greatest extent. Herod's rule lasted until until his death in 4 BCE. He was responsible for the initial phases of Romanization because of his widespread patronage of Greco-Roman culture and his foundation of cities in the Greek style at Caesarea and Sebaste. In addition, ever since the Romans arrived in the 60s they had liberated Greek cities from Hasmonean rule, especially on the coast and in the Decapolis; this policy continued after the death of Herod.
In the period between Pompey's arrival and initial political settlements in the sixties and the death of Herod, Rome made its influence felt in the Eastern Mediterranean primarily through the presence of--probably--three legions in Syria. This entire force in addition to Syrian auxiliaries came to Judaea after Herod died in order to suppress a popular revolt against the Herodians. Meanwhile Herod's heir Archelaus went to Rome to seek confirmation of his succession as King of Judaea. Augustus recognized the difficulty of governing this area and he found attractive the prospect of leaving it in the hands of a client, who would bear the expense of maintaining order. On the other hand, Archelaus had a poor reputation and considerable opposition in Palestine, and Augustus did not want to permit an unknown client the kind of power over a large kingdom that Herod had had. So the emperor gave Archelaus the lesser title of ethnarch over about one half of Herod's realm--Judaea, Samaria, and Idumaea--and divided the northern regions into two tetrarchies for Archelaus's brothers Philip and Herod Antipas. The emperor further detached several cities from Herodian control and assigned them to Syria, restored them to liberty as cities of the Decapolis, or, in accordance with Herod's will, gave them to the late king's daughter Salome.
The northeastern tetrarchy remained under the control of Philip until he died in 33/34 CE, then became part of Syria until Gaius assigned it to Philip's nephew Agrippa in 37. Herod Antipas ruled the northern tetrarchy (Galilee and the parts of Peraea, which lies along the eastern side of the Jordan, not belonging to the free cities of the Decapolis) from his new capital Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee until about 39 when he fell out of favor with Gaius. The emperor exiled Antipas and awarded his tetrarchy to Agrippa. In 6 CE Augustus responded to the complaints of Archelaus's subjects against the ethnarch and deposed him. The ethnarchy became the new province of Judaea, comprising the districts of Judaea, Idumaea, and Samaria, and subordinated to Syria.
As an annex of Syria Judaea had a governor of lesser rank than the senators who governed most provinces: an officer of the equestrian order titled prefect. The prefect usually resided in Caesarea, probably in Herod's palace on a promontory in the southern part of the city (seen here extending into the sea west of the theater). The prefects fulfilled military, financial, and limited judicial functions: see the page on administration for more information. An auxiliary force raised in Caesarea and Sebaste supported the governor in Caesarea and garrisoned Jerusalem. The need for a general assessment in the new province and the beginning of taxation occasioned the intervention of the legate of Syria, Quirinius, and his legions already in the first year of the new province. Popular resistance to this census fostered the growth of a small, fanatical nationalist party whose violent and messianic program ignited the First Jewish Revolt, at which time the adherents called themselves Zealots.
For the most part, Roman officials deferred to Jewish sensibilities. So, for example, Jews did not serve in the auxiliary forces normally recruited from among the native population of a province. Nor did they have to participate in the imperial cult; instead, the Jews substituted a daily sacrifice in the temple on behalf of the emperor and the Romans. The unusual insensitivity to local customs of the prefect Pontius Pilate (in office 26-36) occasioned considerable unrest, especially when he tried to introduce images of Tiberius into the city of Jerusalem. The death of Gaius (24 January 41) resolved a dangerous situation after the crazed emperor ordered his legate in Syria to install his statue in the temple in Jerusalem. Now Claudius returned Judaea and Samaria to royal rule, partly to reward Herod's grandson Agrippa (Agrippa I, also called Herod Agrippa), to whom Gaius had already assigned the tetrarchies, and partly no doubt as an attempt to rule a difficult province by indirect means more effectively than by direct.
The Jews saw Agrippa's short rule as a golden age under a pious and popular king. But at his death in 44 his realm reverted to direct Roman rule, now with a procurator as governor. Roman faith in the Herodians continued, however, and in 53 Claudius detached from Judaea its northeastern regions (Philip's one-time tetrarchy and the tetrarchy of Abilene north of Damascus) and assigned them to Agrippa II, son of Agrippa I. Nero added the district around Tiberias to Agrippa's realm; Agrippa honored his benefactor by naming his capital Neronias (the name reverted to Caesarea Philippi after Nero's death). Agrippa enjoyed considerable influence with the governors of Judaea and the Jewish elite in Jerusalem, and indeed the Romans yielded to him authority over the temple and the right to appoint the High Priest. He proved perhaps the most loyal of all Rome's Herodian clients.
The comparative good order that Judaea saw under Agrippa I began to break down under the procurators, especially from about 50 CE, partly because of provocative acts by soldiers and misgovernance by some of the governors, partly because of nationalist messianism and terrorist resistance to the restoration of direct Roman rule. In addition, the Romans faced sporadic outbreaks of violence by gentiles against Samaritans and Jews, including dangerous riots in Caesarea on the eve of the First Jewish Revolt Taken together, these threats to the Roman order plunged Judaea into anarchy in the mid 60s. The story of the apostle Paul's arrest and long imprisonment at the end of the 50s reflects the general indecisiveness of Rome's agents in this increasingly difficult period (Acts 21-27), and the fact that Agrippa appointed four High Priests in as many years attests to Agrippa's inability to maintain unity within the Jewish leadership.
In the spring of 66 CE the last of the procurators, Florus, in a foolish attempt to shore up his dwindling power in Judaea and the plummeting respect of the legate in Syria, Gallus, staged a murderous show of force in Jerusalem. As tension escalated, the supporters of Rome, led by the chief priests and Agrippa and his wife Berenice, lost control of the situation; the rebels expelled Agrippa and destroyed the royal and priestly palaces, seized the Antonia and other fortresses in Jerusalem and occupied Masada and other desert fortresses (seen here from Silva's camp on the western side), and killed the High Priest. Meanwhile riots broke out in the cities and towns of mixed population where ethnic majorities massacred minorities. For example, the entire Jewish population of Caesarea, some twenty thousand people, perished.
At the beginning of the fall Gallus assaulted Jerusalem with a large force of one legion, detachments from other legions, auxiliaries, and allies. But when he abandoned the attempt the Jewish army followed the retreating Roman army and destroyed it. Gallus and the survivors returned to Antioch and the Jews established a short-lived independent state that had its own era and coinage. At first the government remained in the hands of the members of the Jewish elite whom a popular assembly elected to positions of military leadership.
In the spring of 67 Vespasian invaded Palestine from Syria with two legions and his son Titus from Egypt with one. With the addition of auxiliaries, cavalry, and contingents from client kings, Vespasian's army numbered about 60,000. The conquest of northern Palestine, completed by the end of 67, involved no pitched battles and only a few, albeit difficult sieges. The most famous of these occurred at Jotapata, where, after losing all of Galilee but a few fortresses, Josephus narrowly escaped with his life and became a protégé of the future emperor.
Meanwhile Jerusalem descended into a Reign of Terror as the Zealots purged the city of supposed Romanizers and religious and class animosities freed its inhabitants of any restraint. In 68 Vespasian permitted the capital to self-destruct while he secured the rest of Palestine. The death of Nero (9 June 68) introduced a hiatus into this work and preparations for the siege of Jerusalem except for limited operations in the spring of 69. The Egyptian legions declared Vespasian emperor 1 July 69, and only after his armies had secured his throne did Vespasian have Titus resume the Jewish war. The capture of Jerusalem took all of the summer of 70 and ended in the utter destruction of the city, including its fortified places, and the temple. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem so thoroughly, Josephus reports, that visitors could scarcely believe anyone had ever lived there (Jewish War 7.1.1). It became little more than a garrison town. Titus left for Rome where he and Vespasian celebrated a triumph (in which booty from the temple appeared, shown here in a detail from Titus's triumphal arch, courtesy of AICT). He left the governor of Palestine, Lucilius Bassus and his successor Flavius Silva, to capture the last outposts of the rebels, the great fortresses of Herodium, Machaerus, and Masada. Masada fell last, after a short siege, in 73 or 74.
The failure of the revolt devastated Judaism. It entailed the destruction of the temple, the end of the sacrificial cult, the abolition of the priesthood, the disappearance of the Sadducean elite, and the dissolution of the Sanhedrin. Leadership within Judaism passed to the rabbis of Jamnia near the coast west of Jerusalem, who initiated the great transformation of Judaism into rabbinic Judaism that came to fruition in Galilee in the second, third, and fourth centuries.
The province now had a senatorial governor of proconsular standing with the title legatus Augusti pro praetore. The first three legates, Cerialis, Bassus, and Silva, commanded legions in the last years of the war. Thereafter the governor commanded the single legion (and some auxiliaries) left to garrison Judaea after the fall of Masada, the X Fretensis. Normally he resided at Caesarea, which in recognition of its role as a military base during the Jewish War received colonial status. The Flavians also settled veterans at Emmaeus at the edge of the coastal plain west of Jerusalem, and they founded the new city of Flavia Neapolis in Samaria. The province acquired the northern Palestinian lands of Agrippa II when he died in 92 or 93.
In the period 115-17 Trajan faced a series of revolts by Jews in Egypt and Cyrene. Palestine showed little sign of unrest, perhaps because of effective Roman preventive action such as the addition of a second legion--the II Traiana--to the provincial garrison. The arrival of a second legion required an enhancement of the status of the governor, now a proconsular legate. The annexation of Nabataea in 106 as Arabia involved the assignment of southern Palestine to Arabia. Bostra hosted the new legion garrisoning Arabia, within striking distance of Palestine. The photograph shows a segment of the western aqueduct north of Caesarea; the inscription commemorates its construction by Roman legionaries in the time of Hadrian.
In the period 129-131, while Hadrian was touring the eastern provinces, he sponsored a great number of architectural foundations, including many in the cities of Palestine, and very likely including the aqueduct pictured above. He also greatly advance the program of road-building that had begun during the first revolt. Hadrian seemed to have planned a great temple to Zeus in a newly founded city, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruined site of Jerusalem. Such a pagan intrusion could not have pleased the Jews. Moreover, some ancient evidence indicates that Hadrian had recently outlawed circumcision. Josephus now fails us, and we can no longer understand clearly internal developments in Palestine, nor can we follow the military developments. Nevertheless, it does seem that these Romanizing acts of the government, easily construed as hostile to the Jews and added to latent nationalism and Messianism, ignited the second great revolt of the Jews against Rome, the Bar Cochba Revolt of 132 to 135, led by Simon ben Kosiba. Once again the Romans raised an enormous army to put down an internal revolt. Hadrian personally led the Roman attack on the rebels and brought to fruition the foundation of Aelia Capitolina, but at tremendous loss of life and property.
In the aftermath of the Bar Cochba Revolt, the Romans excluded Jews from a large area around Aelia Capitolina, which Gentiles only inhabited. The province now hosted two legions and many auxiliary units, two colonies, and--to complete the disassociation with Judaea--a new name, Syria Palaestina. The center of Jewish settlement moved northward to Galilee and Gaulanitis The number of Jewish communities elsewhere declined, and many once-Jewish towns became Gentile or received large numbers of Gentile inhabitants. They lost their old Jewish names to new Roman names; eg, Sepphoris became Diocaesarea, Lydda Diospolis, and Beth Guvrin Eleutheropolis. Sebaste became a colony, like Caesarea and Aelia Capitolina. The ban on circumcision remained in effect until Antoninus Pius--probably recognizing its dangerously provocative effect--revoked it.
After 135 the Jews no longer had political, urban, or territorial institutions that could support another revolt, but they managed to maintain national identity as a result of the growth of rabbinical institutions and the patriarchate in the Galilee (see People and Places). Nor did the radical Messianism of earlier periods revive until the third century, when empire-wide economic crisis left the Jews too weak to mount any organized resistance. The rabbinic sources vividly reflect the poverty of the people in the troubled third century because of rampant inflation and the collapse of the money economy, famine and plague, and crime.
Syria Palaestina thus became a good deal less problematic for the imperial government than Judaea had been. The government continued to permit the Jews certain religious freedoms, such as exemption from the imperial cult, and gradually the Roman governors permitted the Jews to recover certain of their communal rights, such as local courts and internal government, under the overall authority of the patriarch in Tiberias. The Samaritans fared less well, as the Romans took steps to prevent a resurgence of Samaritan nationalism by founding a pagan temple on Mt Gerizim, just south of Neapolis, and refused to make concessions to Samaritan religious practices.
An extensive program of road-building, probably begun in the context of Hadrianic patronage and accelerated during the revolt and in its aftermath, represents a major investment by the Romans in the security and development of the province (the map, using information from the Tabula Imperii Romani, shows the road system in Palestine). The two principle nodes of the network, at Legio and Aelia Capitolina, identify the location of the two provincial legions. The system reached its greatest extent in the Severan period, when additional nodes identify other major cities of Syria Palaestina: Sepphoris (Diocaesarea), Caesarea, Scythopolis (Beth Shean), Neapolis, Eleutheropolis, and Aila (see People and Places).
Civil wars and campaigning in the northeastern frontier beginning in the Severan period (from 193) occasioned major changes in the eastern part of the empire. Syria became two provinces, and conquest at Parthian expense led to the creation of the new province of Mesopotamia. The emperors needed the VI Ferrata for their eastern wars more than to garrison a peaceful province, so in the middle of the third century they moved it from Jerusalem to Damascus. The Severan period saw the development of the Roman limes in Arabia, a network of roads and forts securing communication on the southeastern frontier of the empire, marked by the great Via Nova Traiana, from Bostra to Aila.
Proclaimed emperor in 284, Diocletian quickly brought the civil wars of the third century to a close. In 293 he founded the tetrarchy, a kind of imperial college made up of senior and junior emperors called Augusti and Caesars. Then he overhauled the organization and political, military, and financial administration of the empire. He assigned Palestine to the diocese of Oriens and placed it under the civil governorship of a consular praeses; military command lay with the dux of Palestine. The old system of taxation received a certain rationalization. The Augusti and Caesars campaigned often in the east; therefore they maintained a permanent residence in Antioch and appeared frequently in Palestine. But Palestine itself remained a peaceful, secure province, no longer in need of an army, so Diocletian had the X Fretensis transferred to Aila (probably in the 290s) and assigned the vast regions of Arabia south of the Dead Sea to Palestine.
In the late antique period (sometimes called the Byzantine Period by scholars working in the Near East) Palestine enjoyed its greatest prosperity and most extensive urbanization until the twentieth century. Cultivated land reached even into the Negev desert, and monasteries proliferated in the Judaean desert. The population of Palestine west of the Jordan might have reached one million. Churches sprang up everywhere, and the Jews disregarded anti-Jewish legislation by renovating old synagogues or building anew. Ammianus Marcelinus, who surveyed the eastern provinces at the middle of the fourth century, noted the vast extent and agricultural richness of Palestine, with its five great cities: Caesarea, Eleutheropolis, Neapolis, Ascalon, and Gaza (14.8).
The conversion of Constantine set in motion events that restored Palestine as a major theater in the development of the Christian church, as it had not been since 70 CE. Before the fifth century very few Christians lived in Palestine. The non-Jewish regions of the coast, the south, and Aelia Capitolina had several Gentile Christian communities, and a few Minim (Jewish Christians) lived in such Galilean towns as Sepphoris and Capernaum. But beginning in the fourth century the government responded to Christian interest in the Holy Land by embarking on a massive program of patronage, especially church-building, that encouraged Christians to move to Palestine, Less successfully, imperial policy tried to encourage Jews to convert to Christianity by offering protection and rewards. As a result of Christian settlement in the vicinities of Nazareth and Capernaum (where a synagogue and a church lie almost across the street from each other) and Tabgha, Galilee lost its Jewish majority. Avi-Yonah counted eighteen Christian communities in the third century, thirty-six in the fourth, and ninety-six in the fifth. The sack of Rome in 410 caused a significant episode of migration to Palestine as a group of aristocratic ladies responded to the holy man Jerome's invitation to settle in Aelia Capitolina and Bethlehem. Numerous Christians came to Palestine not to settle but to visit holy sites on pilgrimage and to scour the land for relics to take home. On the other hand, the Jewish population saw a constant and precipitous drop that lasted for centuries. In the second century, after the Bar Cochba Revolt, some two hundred Jewish communities flourished in Palestine, but by the time of the Arab conquest in the late 630s we know of fewer than fifty. Except in the towns of Tiberias and Sepphoris and in the regions east of the Sea of Galilee, the Jews had become a minority.
The Christian and Jewish leadership had encouraged their followers to have nothing to do with each other, and practice seems to have corresponded with this policy. Most Christian-Jewish exchange took the form of a vigorous polemic. Now, after the conversion of Constantine, Christians found themselves in a position not merely to keep themselves separate from contamination by Judaism but actively to suppress it. The emperors codified the de facto separation of the two religions by forbidding intermarriage and conversion from Christianity to Judaism; Jewish converts to Christianity received protection from Jewish retribution. Increasingly the Jews lost civil status. Imperial legislation took a tone offensive to Judaism, labeling it a wild and nefarious sect. Until the sixth century the emperors regularly reaffirmed for the Jews the principle of free exercise of their religion but found it increasingly difficult to control violence against the persons and property of the Jews.
Despite the Hadrianic prohibition, Jews had in the third century acquired some access to Aelia Capitolina. Constantine confirmed Hadrian's decree, but now amended it so that the Jews could visit once a year, on the anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to Titus, when they mourned at the western wall of the temple mount. The Christians welcomed this spectacle as confirmation of the victory of their religion. The picture shows the Old City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives; the medieval Dome of the Rock (with the golden dome) lies on the site of the temple. The Western Wall lies within the inner angle of the city wall to the left.
By the middle of the fourth century, Jewish despair at rising persecution reached the point of revolt. While the leadership in Tiberias cautioned against resistance, the attacks on the eastern frontier by the Persians and the incompetence of the emperor in the east convinced many Jews in Galilee to respond to the call of the zealots. The revolt began in Sepphoris in 351 and spread to Tiberias and Lydda. Gallus's general Ursicinus responded quickly and destroyed these cities. The Jewish situation had not changed except that a permanent garrison occupied Galilee.
Jewish fortunes changed remarkably under the pagan emperor Julian (361-63), who fought the church by proclaiming religious liberty and restoring the ancient cults of the Roman empire. His program included the restoration of Jerusalem to the Jews and the rebuilding of the temple. Construction began in the spring of 363, but some sort of natural disaster interrupted the work. The assassination of Julian while on a campaign against Persia soon afterward ended this brief upswing in Jewish fortunes. Early in the fifth century the emperors degraded the patriarch's status and then permitted the office to lapse. The reorganization by which three new provinces replaced the former Palestine saw the imperial recognition of two Jewish synedria in Palaestina Prima and Secunda, at Caesarea and Tiberias, respectively (very few Jews lived in Tertia). Nevertheless, the authority of the rabbis of Tiberias ensured their continued leadership of Jews throughout Palestine and the Diaspora.
The religious controversies within the church and court between the Council of Chalcedon and the accession of Justinian (451-527) introduced a quiet period with respect to Jewish-Christian relations. But the accession of Justinian initiated the last great phase of imperial persecution of the Jews. The new emperor redefined heresy to include the Jews and excluded them from military and civilian offices. They had never served in the army, and by this time no longer appear in the imperial service, but now they could not serve even in local municipal government. The leadership of the last Jewish cities, Tiberias and Sepphoris, passed into Gentile hands. Justinian dealt a further blow to the Jews when the great compilation of Roman law, the Codex Iustinianus, omitted the ancient law declaring Judaism a religio licita and began to attack Jewish religious practices and to force baptism. The Jews increasingly put their hopes in the apocalypse, for the evils of the age self-evidently presaged the coming of the Messiah.
Meanwhile there appeared renewed resistance from the Samaritans, who had never received any of the privileges that the Romans afforded the Jews. Forbidden to circumcise their children since the second century, forced to sacrifice to the pagan gods during the Tetrarchy, suffering under the Christian empire even greater oppression than the Jews, the Samaritans revolted against Emperor Zeno in 484. The government put them down ruthlessly and built a church on their holy mountain, Mt Gerizim near Neapolis. Again in 529 they revolted after Justinian ordered the destruction of their synagogues. After they restored control, the Romans deported or forcibly baptized Samaritans and installed a garrison. In both great revolts the Samaritans set up--briefly--their own royal state in the Davidic and Roman style. After 529 Samaria remained quiet, although another revolt broke out briefly in Caesarea's Samaritan community in 556.
In addition to the religious unrest, the middle years of the sixth century saw considerable brigandage and raiding from nomads. An important edict of Justinian from about 539, Novel 139, mentions widespread difficulties facing the governor of Palestine. It goes on to order an upgrade of the governorship to proconsular rank and promotes the incumbent, Stephanus, to that rank The edict also increases Stephanus's authority over Second and Third Palestine and grants him limited military powers with which the dux may not interfere. Justinian also authorized the expenditure of an enormous sum to restore the churches damaged during the Samaritan uprising.
In 603 the last war between Rome and Persia began. The Persians gradually occupied the eastern parts of the empire and in 613 took Damascus. Then, with Jewish assistance, they occupied all Palestine. They took Aelia Capitolina in 614 and returned it to the Jews. But within a few years they restored it to the Christians, probably because the Persians preferred to deal with the majority Christian population. In 622 Emperor Heraclius turned the tide against Persia and in 629 recovered Palestine. But within a few years the Muslims, attacking from the south a population that had little love for the Roman Empire, easily conquered Palestine. After initial raids ordered by Muhammad and a delay following his death in 32, the invasion began in 634; Gaza fell first, and the attack continued northward until, after the Battle of the Yarmuk southeast of the Sea of Galilee (August 636), the Roman army withdrew from Palestine and Syria. Jerusalem held out until the spring of 638. Caesarea fell last, in 641 or 642, and with its conquest the Muslims ended seven centuries of Roman control in Palestine.
The picture looks south from Mount Scopas toward the Old City of Jerusalem. The hills of Judaea lie in the distance Many besiegers of Jerusalem beheld the city in this aspect.
copyright Last update 22 February 2007.