Skip to main content

The Bar Kokhba Revolt: The Roman Point of View*

  • Werner Eck (a1)

When in A.D. 130 Hadrian journeyed to Egypt through Judaea, the latter province seemed altogether peaceful and calm. The imperial coinage pronounced the adventus of the Emperor to be a cheerful and blessed event in much the same terms as in other parts of the Empire. Hardly anyone in the company of the Emperor could have guessed that a few years later a revolt would break out in this very province — a revolt which would cast a shadow over Hadrian's later years. The slogans on the Bar Kokhba coins proclaimed the ‘Freedom of Israel’ and ‘For the Freedom of Jerusalem’. The war which followed the uprising was cruel and heavy in losses for both sides.

The scholarly debate over ‘The Bar Kokhba revolt and its consequences’ has intensified in recent decades. The papyrological finds in the Judaean Desert, the large-scale archaeological surveys resulting in the discovery of scores of ‘hiding places’ at different sites, and the evaluation of the coinage and the coin-hoards all extended our knowledge, but failed to create more unanimity regarding different aspects of the revolt — its causes, its course, and finally its result for the history of Judaism and for that of Rome. It can hardly come as a surprise to find that the point of view of the ‘modern beholder’ has played a significant role in the interpretation of events. Above all it has been maintained that the threat to Roman power constituted by the revolt has been grossly exaggerated. But this critique pays little heed to powerful evidence which comes from Rome itself and expresses its reaction to the revolt.

Hide All

1 BMC Emp. III, 493, nos 1655–61; cf. Birley, Hadrian, 231–4. The coins were not minted in late Hadrianic times as Smallwood, Jews, 463, thinks, but during this journey, as the use of the name Judaea rather than Syria Palaestina proves (see below, at nn. 97 and 98).

2 See Mildenberg, L., The Coinage of the Bar Kokhba War (1984), 2931.

3 See the survey in Isaac, B. and Oppenheimer, A., ‘The revolt of Bar Kokhba: ideology and modern scholarship’, JJS 36 (1985), 3360 = Isaac, Near East, 220–56.

4 e.g. Bowersock, G. W., ‘A Roman perspective on the Bar Kochba war’, in Scott, W. S. (ed.), Approaches to Ancient Judaism 2 (1978), 131–41; Applebaum, S., ‘Points of view on the second Jewish revolt’, SCI 7 (1983/1984), 7787; Schäfer, P., ‘Hadrian's policy in Judaea and the Bar Kokba revolt: a reassessment’, in P. R. Davies and R. T. White (eds), A Tribute to Géza Vermes. Essays on Jewish and Christian Literature and History (1990), 281303.

5 In this context see Leo Mildenberg's observation that the Bar Kokhba coins are the only rebel coins minted in the Roman Empire: ‘Rebel coinage in the Roman Empire’, in Kasher, 2. A. et al. (eds), Greece and Rome in Eretz Israel. Collected Essays (1990), 6274.

6 See below, at n. 88.

7 See the interesting remarks of Y. Eliav on problems arising from the use of language in Dio's epitome: Hadrian's actions in the Jerusalem Temple Mount according to Cassius Dio and Xiphilini Marius’, JSQ 4 (1997), 125 ff. The passage discussed by Eliav illustrates how later tensions between Jews and Christians could influence the choice of words. This is not the case with the passage discussed here.

8 Cassius Dio 69.13–14.3.

9 Cassius Dio 69.13.1–2.

10 Cassius Dio 69.14.3.

11 cf. for example Bietenhard, H., ‘Die Freiheitskriege der Juden unter den Kaisern Trajan und Hadrian und der messianische Tempelbau’, Judaica 4 (1948), 81108, esp. 84; Schürer, History, 547, 548; Isaac and Oppenheimer in Isaac, Near East, 248.

12 PIR 2 J 576. See the following remarks.

13 Eck, W., ‘Beförderungskriterien in der senatorischen Laufbahn, dargestellt an der Zeit von 69 bis 138 n.Chr.’, ANRW II.1 (1974), 210–14 = idem, Tra epigrafia, prosopografia e archeologia (1996), 48–50; Birley, A. R., The Fasti of Roman Britain (1981), 2732.

14 On his career most recently PIR 2 J 618; Birley, op. cit. (n. 13), 106–9; Dabrowa, E., The Governors of Roman Syria from Augustus to Septimius Severus (1998), 94–6.

15 See for example Roxan, M. M., Roman Military Diplomas 1985–1993 (1994), 173; Eck, W., Köln Jb. 26 (1993), 451 ff.; Russel, J., BJ 195 (1995), 111–32.

16 This is in any case the common interpretation of the words [l]egato pr. pr. [provi]nciae Suriae in CIL III.2850 = ILS 1056 (Burnum, Dalmatia). However, in AE 1904.9 (Aequum) — another honorary inscription from his home province of Dalmatia — Sex. Iulius Severus is described as a legate of the province of Syria Palaestina. Since this inscription mentions his ornamenta triumphalia, and the name of the province of Judaea has already been changed to Syria Palaestina, it must be inferred that AE 1904.9 was written after the conclusion of the war in Judaea, i.e. in 136. The absence of the governorship of Syria — the highest office in Iulius Severus' career — from the inscription from Aequum casts doubt on the common interpretation of the inscription from Burnum: did Iulius Severus really go to Syria after receiving the ornamenta triumphalia? Could it be that Suria in ILS 1056 stands for Syria Palaestina? Whether or not he did does not, however, affect the argument presented above, namely that his transfer from Britannia to Judaea was an emergency measure.

17 Birley, Hadrian, 273.

18 Tineius Rufus was attested until recently only in the literary sources in connection with the outbreak of the revolt. However, a new fragmentary inscription from Caesarea suggests that he was already in office at the time of Hadrian's visit (i.e. 130). The text will be published by H. M. Cotton and W. Eck in the report on the new excavations at Caesarea by J. Porath.

19 PSI 1026 = CIL XVI App. no. 13. For the difficulty of dating the papyrus see Smallwood, Jews, 437 n. 36; Birley, Hadrian, 274.

20 See for example Kienast, D., Untersuchungen zu den Kriegsflotten der römischen Kaiserzeit (1966), 928.

21 It would be sufficient to point out the numerous Aelii for example in the provinces of Asia Minor.

22 See Brunt, P. A., ‘Conscription and volunteering in the Roman imperial army’, SCI I (1974), 90115 = idem, Roman Imperial Themes (1990), 188–214.

23 cf. Birley, Hadrian, 274.

24 IGR III.763 = ILS 8828; AE 1986.686; CIL VIII.7063 = ILS 1068. Cf. W. Eck, Die staatliche Organisation Italiens in der Hohen Kaiserzeit (1979), 67. AE 1955.238 (= 1969/70.633) from Nicopolis in Egypt also refers to these recruiting measures; see Forni, G., ANRW II. 1 (1974), 383f. and Brunt, op. cit. (n. 22, 1990), 196f.

25 ILS 1341; Birley, Hadrian, 274.

26 Cassius Dio 69.14.3.

27 Fronto, De bello Parthico, p. 221 (van den Hout, 1988): ‘avo vestro obtinente quantum militum a Iudaeis, quantum ab Britannis caesum.’

28 Applebaum, Sh., Prolegomena to the Study of the Second Jewish Revolt (A.D. 132–135), BAR Suppl. Ser. 7 (1976), 36–7; Mor, M., ‘Two legions — the same fate? (the disappearance of the Legions IX Hispana and XXII Deiotariana)’, ZPE 62 (1986), 267–78; L. J. F. Keppie, ‘The history and disappearance of the Legion XXII Deiotariana’, in A. Kasher et al. (eds), Greece and Rome in Eretz Israel: Collected Essays (1989), 54–61; Birley, Hadrian, 268.

29 Mor, op. cit. (n. 28), 278, with earlier bibliography; for similar speculations see also Strobel, K., ZPE 71 (1988), 268f. There is no other example for disbanding a legion in this form in the history of the Roman legions. To make it credible, one must find some evidence in our sources.

30 See recently Birley, Hadrian, 268.

31 Cassius Dio 69.14.3, cited above at n. 10.

32 CIL XVI.86; Russel, , BJ 185 (1985), 67133.

33 CIL XVI.35; Roxan, op. cit. (n. 15), I, 4, 5; cf. Russel, , BJ 185 (1995), 111–32.

34 M. Mor (‘The Roman army in Eretz-Israel in the years A.D. 70–13’, in Freeman, P. and Kennedy, D. (eds), The Defence of the Roman and Byzantine East II, BAR Int. Ser. 297 (1986), 575) dismisses it as unnecessary. However, Tacitus' remark about the eight Batavian cohorts, ‘quartae decumae legionis auxilia, turn discordia temporum a legione digressae’ (Hist. 1.59), should be taken to imply that a certain number of auxiliary units was attached to each legion.

35 See brief summary in Cotton, H. M., ‘The Legio Sexta Ferrata between 106 and 136’, in the proceedings of the Deuxième Congrès de Lyon sur l'armée romaine. Les légions de Rome sous le Haut-Empire, Lyon, 17–19 septembre 1998 (forthcoming).

36 Summary in Isaac and Oppenheimer in Isaac, Near East, 247f. Keppie, op. cit. (n. 28), 59ff.; Cotton, op. cit. (n. 35).

37 For detailed discussion see Russel, , BJ 195 (1995), 88100.

38 On the legionary strength in Hadrian's bellum Iudaicum see most recently Mor, M., ‘The Roman legions and the Bar-Kokhba revolt (132–135 A.D.)’, in Vetter, H. and Kandler, M. (eds), Akten des 14. Internationalen Limeskongresses 1986 in Carnuntum I (1990), 163–75.

39 Birley, Hadrian, 268.

40 This is at any rate the implication of the restoration in CIL VI.3505: ‘missus a divo Hadriano in expeditione Iudaica ad vexilla[tiones ducendas …]’; the restored plural is generally accepted. A coin of Bar Kokhba was found in Brigetio, see Biro-Sey, K., ‘Coins from identified sites of Brigetio and the question of local currency’, Regeszeti Fuezeteh II. 18 (1977), 47, no. 226 (I am grateful to B. Löricz for the information). This implies that the legio II Adiutrix is likely to have taken part in the war.

41 This argument is buttressed by the evidence of the coins: hardly any Bar Kokhba coins were found north of Jerusalem — above all not in Galilee. This argument in itself is clearly fallacious since it makes no distinction between territories directly held and occupied for a long time by the rebels, where the rebels' coins were used (and likely to be lost) and those territories, inside and outside the province of Judaea, over which Bar Kokhba never exercised direct control, but where battles did, or could, take place between Jews and Romans, e.g. in parts of Arabia or at Tel Shalem near Scythopolis; see text at nn. 44; 88–9. For the coins see Barag, D., ‘A note on the geographical distribution of Bar-Kokhba coins’, Isr. Num. Jour. 4 (1980), 30–3.

42 Mor, op. cit. (n. 38), 173.

43 For an outline of opinions on the subject see Isaac and Oppenheimer in Isaac, Near East, 243f.; further Schäfer, op. cit. (n. 4), 296f.

44 See below, at n. 88.

45 cf. above at nn. 17–19.

46 Cassius Dio 69.13.2f.

47 CIL VIII.6706 = ILS 1065, if taken together with CIL VI.3505.

48 For an almost complete list of senators receiving the ornamenta triumphalia see Gordon, A. E., ‘Quintus Veranius consul A.D. 49. A study upon his recently identified sepulchral inscription’, University of California Publications in Class. Arch. 2, 5 (1952), 231ff.; App. II, 305ff. on ‘Triumphal honors and statues’; Maxfield, V., The Military Decorations of the Roman Army (1981), 101ff.

49 For all that cf. Birley, Hadrian, 75, 79, 80, 90, 101.

50 ILS 1056 (Burnum); AE 1904.9 (Aequum).

51 Cassius Dio 69.13.2.

52 Schürer, History, 549.

53 IGR III 174, 175 ( = Bosch, E., Quellen zur Geschichte der Stadt Ankara im Altertum (1967), nos 156–7); Publicius Marcellus was not ex-governor of Syria as Mor, op. cit. (n. 38), 166, makes him. He took part in the fighting as governor of Syria.

54 Schürer, History, 547–9.

55 And so did for example Smallwood, Jews, 457, and Appelbaum, op. cit. (n. 28), 45.

56 G. Brusin, Gli scavi di Aquileia (1929–1932) (1934), 76 = AE 1934.231 = G. Alföldy, Römische Statuen in Venetia et Histria (1984), 99f. = J. B. Brusin, Inscriptiones Aquileiae (1991), I, 236, no. 499.

57 So for example Gordon, op. cit. (n. 48), 324 (who adds: ‘posthumously?’ — for which there is no reason at all).

58 Eck, W., Die Statthalter dergermanischen Provinzen vom I.–3.Jh (1985), 52.

59 The formulation in the inscription: ‘he left Syria because of the Jewish kinesis’, does not mean that Publicius Marcellus entered the province of Judaea; he could have taken part in the fighting in Arabia.

60 For the first time the correct context was given in three works published in 1997 and 1998, all of which are prosopographically orientated: Birley, Hadrian 275; Dąbrowa, op. cit. (n. 14), 93; PIR 2 P 1042.

61 Cassius Dio 69.13.2; Schürer, History, 547.

62 cf. Smallwood, Jews, 442; Bowersock, G. W., Roman Arabia (1983), 108; Mor, op. cit. (n. 38), 168; Birley, Hadrian, 272.

63 H. M. Cottton in Cotton, H. M. and Yardeni, A., Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek Documentary Texts from Nahal Hever and Other Sites. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XXVII (1997), 166ff.

64 Birley, Hadrian, 280.

65 CIL XIV.3610 = ILS 1071.

66 CIL XI.3733 = ILS 2083. It is possible that he received the decorations as primuspilus of the legio II Traiana; cf. Mor, op. cit. (n. 38), 168.

67 Sartre, M., Trois études sur l'Arabie romaine et byzantine (1982), 54 and 82, suggested that Haterius Nepos' name was erased in three inscriptions from Gerasa (Kraehling, Gerasa (1938), nos 58 and 143f.). Bowersock, op. cit. (n. 62), 108 and Mor, op. cit. (n. 38), 168f. concur. Sartre's hypothesis is untenable; see Addendum, p. 89.

68 Attested on 2 April, see Degrassi, A., I fasti consolari dell' impero Romano (1952), 39.

69 See Syme, R., ‘Consulates in absence’, JRS 48 (1958), 19, reprinted in his Roman Papers I (1979), 378–92. See Addendum, p. 89.

70 Halfmann, H., Die Senatoren aus dem östlichen Teil des Imperium Romanum bis zum Ende des 2.Jh.n. Chr (1979), 135f.

71 Polotsky, H. J., IEJ 12 (1962), 259; idem, JVEG 17 (1963), 240f. See now, N. Lewis, The Documents from the Bar-Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters. Greek Papyri (1989).

72 To this very day there is no evidence for Haterius Nepos' governorship of Arabia outside the papyri. For his alleged appearance on inscriptions from Gerasa, see above, n. 67. But see now Addendum, p. 89.

73 PIR 2 H 30; Scheid, J., Le collège des frères Arvales (1990), 54; Dobó, A., Die Verwaltung der römischen Provinz Pannonien von Augustus bis Diocletianus (1968), 107f.; Fitz, J., Die Verwaltung Pannoniens in der Römerzeit (1993) II, 478f.

74 CIL XI.5212 = ILS 1058. The fragment probably belonged to the base of an equestrian statue. This would be an appropriate acknowledgement by his fellow-citizens of a senator's achievements in the Jewish war, see below.

75 See n. 73; further Gordon, op. cit. (n. 48), 324; Dobó, op. cit. (n. 73), 107f.; Mócsy, A., Pannonia and Upper Moesia (1974), 102f.; Fitz, op. cit. (n. 73), 479.

76 So for example Dobó, op. cit. (n. 73), 52; Fitz, op. cit. (n. 73), 477, 479. See also Addendum, p. 89.

77 For both men see Birley, op. cit. (n. 13), 95ff., 100ff.; PIR 2 P 449, 602.

78 See Eck, W., ‘Kaiserliche Imperatorenakklamation und ornamenta triumphalia’, ZPE 124 (1998), 223ff.

79 See n. 75, above.

80 Kienast, D., Römische Kaisertabelle. Grundzüge einer römischen Kaiserchronologie (1996 2), 135.

81 There were a few exceptions during Claudius' British wars in 43 and in connection with the Pisonian conspiracy under Nero in 65, when praetorians too received the ornamenta triumphalia; see Maxfield, op. cit. (n. 48), 106f.; Eck, W., ‘Nero's Freigelassener Epaphroditus und die Aufdeckung der pisonischen Verschwörung’, Historia 25 (1976), 381ff.

82 See introduction in DJD XXVII, op. cit. (n. 63), 1–4.

83 Two of these may well have been Alma son of Judah and Taḥana son of Shim'on attested in the asyet unpublished P. Yadin 44 from November 134 to have come ‘from the Luḥit in Maḥoz 'Aglatain, both residing in Ein Gedi’. Both are found subleasing land from Bar Kokhba, probably part of the imperial estate in Ein Gedi, now taken over by the rebels; see Yadin, Y., ‘Expedition D’, IEJ II (1961), 4050, and Cotton, H. M., ‘Ein Gedi between the two revolts’, in Katzoff, R. (ed.), Proceedings of the Judaean Documents Workshop held in Bar Ilan University, 3–5 June 1998 (forthcoming).

84 See Schürer, History, 547–9; Schäfer, Aufstand, 103ff.; Isaac and Oppenheimer in Isaac, Near East, 243ff.

85 One could fit in here the legio XXII Deiotariana, see above, at n. 28.

86 For the so-called dona militaria, which Hadrian conferred after the Bar Kokhba revolt — far more than after the war in Britain — see Stehlik, G., Die epigraphischen Zeugnisse für die Kriege Roms von Augustus (27 v.) bis Commodus (192 n.) (unpub. diss., Vienna, 1969), no. 134ff.; cf. also Rosenberger, V., Bella et expeditiones. Die antike Terminologie der Kriege Roms (1992), 97–9; Birley, Hadrian, 275.

87 Gordon, op. cit. (n. 48), 322f.

88 First mentioned in Foerster, G., ‘A cuirassed bronze statue of Hadrian’, Atiqot (English series) 17 (1985), 139–57.

89 See Eck, W. and Foerster, G., ‘A triumphal arch for Hadrian near Tel Shalem in the Beth Shean Valley’, JRA (forthcoming).

90 CIL VI.40339; p. 4303 ad no. 896; Pfanner, M., Der Titusbogen (1983), 16.

91 I am grateful to Gideon Foerster for allowing me to refer to our joint study here (above, n. 89).

92 Schäfer, Aufstand, 14f. n. 25, collected the evidence; cf. Russell, , BJ 195 (1995), 75f. with n. 20. CIL II.478 cannot be adduced as proof; the text is an erroneous joining together of fragments which belonged to disparate inscriptions, see L. Garcia Iglesias, La hipotetica inscripión del teatro de Mérida reconstruida por Hübner (1975), 5ff. (I am grateful to Armin Stylow for this information). The only secure terminus post quem until now was a military diploma from 14 April 135, in which Hadrian does not have yet the imp. II. Nor is imp. II displayed in a new (unpublished) diploma dated to 18 May 135 (I am grateful to M. Roxan for this information).

93 A milestone from Spain, AE 1976.282a; further, boundary stones from Moesia, AE 1985.729, 730, 733. A dedication to Iuno Sospita in Lanuvium, initiated by Hadrian himself in 136 does not show the imp. II in his titulature: CIL XIV.2088 = ILS 316. Those in charge of making the dedication would have been acquainted with his titulature at the time. This evidence cannot be simply set aside.

94 Cassius Dio 56.17.1; CIL V.7817; Plin., , NH 3.136ff.

95 Tac., , Ann. 2.83; Tabula Siarensis frg. A, ll. 9–34 = Crawford, M., Roman Statutes (1996) I, 515.

96 Cassius Dio 60.22.1.

97 The point of time at which the change took place is not explicitly stated anywhere. The first evidence for it would be the fragmentary inscription for Sex. Iulius Severus from Aequum in Dalmatia: AE 1904.9. Sartre, M. (L' Orient romain (1991), 388 and idem in C. Leppeley, Rome et l'integration de l'empire, 44 av. J.-C.–260 ap. J.-C., vol. 2 (1998), 430) infers from this that the year was 134. There is no reason to accept this. The first city coins displaying Syria Palaestina come from Neapolis Sebaste, and were minted under Antoninus Pius; see Kindler, A., ‘Die palästinensischen Städtemünzen im 2. Jh. n. Chr. und der Bar Kochba-Krieg’, in H.-C. Noeske and H. Schubert (eds), Die Münze. Bild — Botschaft — Bedeutung. Festschrift für Maria R. Alföldi (1991), 283–312, esp. 290f.

98 The choice of this specific name, Syria Palaestina, may not have been Hadrian's, but rather a suggestion of the non-Jewish population of the province who must have resented the association with Judaea. The inhabitants of Scythopolis, for example, advertised on coins minted under Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius (Spijkerman, A., The Coins of the Decapolis (1978), 187; Stein, A., Studies in Greek and Latin Inscriptions on the Palestinian Coinage under the Principate (unpub. PhD diss., Tel Aviv University, 1990), 286) as well as on an inscription which probably belonged to a statue of Marcus Aurelius (SEG XXXVII.1531), their allegiance to the amorphous entity known as Syria Coele. Hadrian's desire to punish the Jews harmonized with the wishes of the non-Jewish element in the province.

99 In Rome too a monument celebrating Hadrian's victory in the remote province was erected: CIL VI.974 = 40524. For a reconstruction of Hadrian's titulature in this inscription see Eck and Foerster, op. cit. (n. 89). In contrast to Vespasian in 70, Hadrian chose not to advertise the victory on the imperial coinage. Conditions, however, were hardly the same in 136. Thus no cause for surprise: cf. Mildenberg, L., The Coinage of the Bar Kokhba War (1984), 96f.

* This article is based on a lecture delivered at the Universities of Tel Aviv and Haifa and the Finnish Institute in Rome. I am grateful to Hannah Cotton for translating from the German and for critical comments on earlier versions.

The following works will be cited in abbreviated form:

A. R. Birley, Hadrian. The Restless Emperor (1997) = Birley, Hadrian;

B. Isaac, The Near East under Roman Rule. Selected Papers (1997) = Isaac, Near East;

P. Schäfer, Der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand (1981) = Schäfer, Aufstand;

E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ I (ed. G. Vermes, F. Millar and M. Black) (1973) = Schürer, History;

E. M. Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule (1976) = Smallwood, Jews.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Journal of Roman Studies
  • ISSN: 0075-4358
  • EISSN: 1753-528X
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-roman-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 32 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 505 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd May 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.