In his article last June, Cecil Roth, the eminent Oxford historian of the Jews, described “The Jewish Revolt Against Rome.” He now reinterprets one of the heroes of that revolt.
Visitors to Rome are inevitably taken to see the Mamertine Prison, not far from the Forum, where it is said Servius Tullius, sixth king of Rome, perpetrated his deeds of bloodshed as early as the 3rd century before the Christian era. Here, below the actual building with its ancient Latin inscription, is a noisome dungeon hewn out of the rock, which is associated with some of the darkest tragedies of ancient history. Here the gallant Gaullish chieftain Vercingetorix was strangled by order of Caesar, and the accomplices of Cataline by order of Cicero, who tersely announced the execution in the single word vixerunt (“they have lived”). Here, according to Christian legend, St. Peter was imprisoned before his martyrdom. But for the Jew this spot has a special significance: for here Simon bar Giora was put to death in the year 71, as the symbol of the Jewish defeat, after the triumph of Vespasian and the overthrow of Jerusalem. In Roman eyes he was considered the principal leader of the revolt that had at last been crushed, after such stiff fighting and so many losses. It is amazing, and not wholly creditable, that among Jews he is barely remembered: and when he is, in terms almost of caricature.
What we know of Simon bar Giora derives entirely from the envenomed account of Flavius Josephus, the renegade Jewish historian, who may be described as the Benedict Arnold of the great war against the Romans of 66—73. Josephus had at the beginning sympathized with the uprising and been given the military command of Galilee, but he became nervous at the implications of the revolt, which seemed to him (a “bourgeois” belonging to the priestly element) to be taking too radical a tendency. At the same time, he realized how much the insurgents had underestimated the military might of Rome. After putting up a token resistance (though of course he pictures it as more than this) he went over to the enemy, and spent the rest of the war in the service of Vespasian. Subsequently, he compiled a history of the war, in which he simultaneously tried to exculpate himself, magnified the achievement of his patrons, and denigrated the leaders of the Jewish revolt who were more steadfast than himself.
Posterity must remain grateful to Josephus for the fact that we know a great deal about the details of the war, and about Jewish history at this period in general, for we have virtually no other sources available.1 But it is preposterous to accept his record implicitly, as historians have tended to do: we are forced to rely on him for the facts, but we must be careful of his interpretations. For him, the villains of the piece were the heads of the resistance movement; in Jewish history, they should be among the heroes. And especially Simon bar Giora, who was put to death by the Romans as the symbol of the Jewish resistance; something at least of the strength and nobility of his character emerges even from Josephus’s jaundiced picture.
The form of the name “bar Giora” derives not from Josephus but from Tacitus, who in his brief account of the war refers to him under this name, although confusing him with his rival John of Gischala (“Ioannes, quern et Bargioram vocabant”) . Josephus speaks of him always as “son of Giora” or the like. “Bar Giora” is of course the form in the Aramaic language, already at this time current in Palestine. Giora is never met with as a proper name, but in Aramaic it means “proselyte,” equivalent to the Hebrew Ger. There is thus some reason to believe that Simon was the son of a convert to Judaism, though if this were the case it is somewhat surprising that Josephus should not have mentioned the fact, and that he should have attained such a prominent position among the leaders of a national revolt at such a time. That he was of non-Jewish extraction on his father’s side is made a shade more probable by the fact that he was a native of Gerasa, or Jerash, in Trans-Jordan—a city of mixed population. According to some scholars, however, his place of origin was not the famous Gerasa but a smaller place of the same name in Judea.
Josephus refers to Simon as a “young man” at the period of the revolt, but he was old enough to have played a prominent role in it from the beginning; presumably, therefore, he was not at this time less than thirty years of age, having been born about the year 35. He was endowed with remarkable strength and physical courage, as well as the personal magnetism indispensable for a revolutionary military leader.
Simon first came into prominence at the time of the rout of Cestius Gallus, the Governor of Syria, in the late summer of 66, when he executed a brilliant action at the head of a fairly considerable force. He must have been active therefore for some while previous. Most probably, he was one of the many patriot leaders (Josephus calls them “brigands” and the like) who had emerged all over the country as a result of the Roman misrule of the past few years, gathering other malcontents around themselves in the mountain fastnesses and carrying out raids on the Romans and Roman sympathizers. When the Revolt began in Jerusalem in 66, many of these local rebel leaders probably converged on the capital and took their share in the fighting there, like Menahem ben Judah, head of the hyperpatriotic sicarii entrenched in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea; and Simon bar Giora was doubtless another of these. It seems certain that these Jewish patriots fighting against Rome were motivated by profound religious as well as patriotic feelings, and it is likely that more than one of them had his own religious, or social-religious (the two are hardly to be distinguished in Judaism) teachings. That Simon bar Giora considered himself as being to some extent a religious teacher is nowhere indicated in our sources, but it is by no means improbable: we will revert to this later. However that may be, he and his followers took a prominent share, as has been mentioned, in the rout of Cestius Gallus, who had led an army to restore order in Jerusalem. As the Romans were mounting toward the historic pass of Beth Horon, Simon and his followers fell on them, cutting off part of the rear-guard, and seizing the baggage train, which they brought back in triumph to Jerusalem.
What happened to Simon in the course of the next few months is obscure. There is some slight evidence that he took some part in the disturbances when Menahem, the leader of the sicarii, attempted to establish his control in Jerusalem—an episode which may be dimly reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Menahem’s defeat at the hands of the priestly faction implied a check to the extremer revolutionary tendencies and a victory for the moderates. For a time Jerusalem, and the central government as a whole, were in the hands of the bourgeois and priestly elements, to which Josephus also belonged.
Simon bar Giora was obviously a radical, with extreme tendencies. Leaving the capital with his followers, he tried to make himself master of the district of Acrabatene, southeast of Samaria, and a well-known center of fierce patriotic sentiment. Here apparently others who shared his views rallied to him. He attacked the wealthy, sacking their houses and molesting their persons, until the provisional government in Jerusalem, headed by the ex-High Priest Hanan ben Hanan (“Ananus” in Josephus), sent an armed force against him. This Spartacist revolt (as we might call it) was put down without much difficulty, but bar Giora was able to escape, with some of his more devoted followers and their womenfolk.
Meanwhile, the survivors of Menahem ben Judah’s sicarii faction had returned after his assassination to the Herodian fortress of Masada, on a cliff overhanging the Dead Sea, where they continued to hold out under Eleazar ben Jair. There were apparently profound differences of outlook between them and the followers of Simon. But they were united by a common antipathy to the Jerusalem government, and were prepared to join hands at least temporarily. To Masada, therefore, Simon led his followers. The two factions did not however coalesce, the newcomers and their womenfolk being allowed only to establish themselves in the lower part of the stronghold and not allowed access to the actual fortress where Eleazar and his sicarii were established.
The two factions did collaborate in a series of raids in which apparently they tried to extend their hold over the territory to the southwest, towards Idumea, where the representatives of the central government found themselves for a time seriously pressed. However, Simon’s plans were more ambitious than those of Eleazar. The sicarii apparently were content to wait until the central government fell—either from internal dissension or before the Romans—and imagined that then, with the help of God, they would come into their own. Simon, on the other hand, followed an activist policy throughout his known career and hoped to establish his own ascendancy, and that of his ideas, by force of arms.
In the winter of 67—68, the news of events in the capital persuaded him that his hour had come. The disaster in Galilee, where their priest-colleague Josephus had gone over to the Romans after a shameful military debacle, had completely discredited the priestly junta in Jerusalem who had hitherto been at the head of the provisional government. Their position was further undermined by the influx of war refugees from Galilee bearing detailed reports of what had happened there. As the result of a coalition between them and the Zealots, assisted by wild Idumean tribesmen whom they summoned to their assistance, the provisional government was overthrown, and many of its leading members (including the ex-High Priest Hanan) were killed in the reign of terror which now followed.2
Simon now considered that his hour had struck. Leaving Masada (probably not wholly amicably: there is some evidence of a violent breach), he advanced westward, operating at first in the hill country. Hitherto, his social program had not been too prominently enunciated. Now it was, clearly and publicly. We have already seen that from the beginning he had attacked the rich; now, he proclaimed liberty for the slaves. We know of this only from a casual sentence of Josephus, but perhaps there is a wider significance in it: for Isaiah had spoken of the function of the Lord’s anointed who was to bring good tidings to the humble, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to announce the Day of Vengeance for the Lord. (Jesus too had applied this passage to himself [Luke IV. 18]; possibly it was at the time one of the accepted “Messianic” passages.) Hence, the divine vengeance over the Roman enemy had to be accompanied by the freeing of the captives; and he who freed the captives was the one designated by God to achieve victory. Obviously, bar Giora considered himself as more than a partisan leader.
A considerable force of former slaves and other proletarian sympathizers now flocked to join Simon. At one point they were recruited by some 2,000 persons—in the main probably political malcontents arrested by the Zealots—who were released from the prisons when the main body of Idumeans left Jerusalem. Before long he felt strong enough to descend into the plains, and was able to secure again the province of Acrabatene, from which he had been ejected previously, and a considerable district extending hence to the south towards Idumea. He established his capital in a small place in this district called Nain, which he heavily fortified. His troops and stores were concentrated in a valley known as Pheretai (perhaps the present Khurbet Farah, a gorge about six miles north of Jerusalem), where the hillside was honeycombed with caves which could serve as repositories for grain and other supplies. Here he made ready to attack the capital, now controlled by the Zealot faction.
Bar Giora no doubt imagined that the acceptance of his social-religious doctrine by the Jewish people as a whole was the key to victory, and that it was therefore his duty and his destiny to establish his ascendancy in the capital. The Zealots, too, had the same conviction, and an armed clash became inevitable. To forestall attack, they marched out to attack him, but were repulsed with considerable loss.
Had he followed at their heels, Simon might now have occupied the city without great opposition, but he did not yet feel himself strong enough and determined to isolate it first. The Idumeans, now strongly Jewish in sentiment notwithstanding their relatively recent conversion to Judaism, had already once exerted a preponderant force in central affairs, and Simon attempted to neutralize them first of all: Idumea seems, moreover, to have exercised a powerful attraction on him strategically. His first attempt to establish his control here failed after an indecisive battle. A little later he tried again, with stronger forces. The garrison of the fortress of Herodium refused to adhere to him, and his emissary was killed. But he secured the enthusiastic collaboration of one of the high Idumean officers, named Jacob, who not only surrendered his own command but induced his associates to follow his example, partly by persuasion and partly by treachery. Simon was now in command of the entire south of the country, including Hebron, where he found vast stores of wheat. His forces were now reckoned to amount to some 40,000 men, who for some time lived off the country, according to Josephus ravaging it like a plague of locusts.
While this had been happening, the Jerusalem Zealots had captured Simon’s wife and her attendants in an ambush. His deep devotion to her was a matter of common knowledge, and she was treated as a hostage, in the expectation that this would make him come to terms. But instead he began to behave like a man distraught, wreaking his passion on any adherents, active or passive, of the Zealots and the Jerusalem administration who fell into his hands, and (according to Josephus) mutilating innocent persons who ventured outside the valley to gather fuel or herbs. He was even reported to have said that when he captured the city he would butcher the inhabitants indiscriminately unless his wife were restored to him.
After a short while, she was in fact sent back, and for a time Simon’s attention was diverted elsewhere: for the Romans, having completed the subjection of Galilee and Trans-Jordan, had by now begun to invade the south of the country. Simon was unable to prevent the reconquest of Acrabatene by Vespasian or the overrunning of the greater part of Idumea by one of his officers, Cerealius, who captured Hebron and slaughtered the inhabitants. Gathering the remnants of his forces round him, Simon retired toward Jerusalem.
Here it seems (though Josephus presents the story in a somewhat different light), the Idumean element in his forces came to an understanding with their compatriots in the city, who were by now out of sympathy with the Zealots. They were encouraged, moreover, by the rump of the moderate party led by the former High Priest, Matthias, who had been deposed in favor of a Zealot nominee chosen by lot; for Matthias obviously hoped that Simon, sobered perhaps by responsibility, might prove less extreme. Supported and even summoned by powerful elements within the walls, belonging to almost all factions, Simon became master of Jerusalem and (it is to be presumed) titular head of what was left of the Jewish State. This happened in the month of Xanthicus in the third year of the War against the Romans: that is to say, in April or May, 69 C.E.
There was, however, still some opposition. John of Gischala, the leader of the Galilean war refugees in the capital, who for some time had acted in conjunction with the Zealots, entrenched himself with his followers on the Temple Mount and in the outer court of the Temple itself, and refused to come to terms: while the old-time doctrinaire Zealots, under Eleazar ben Simon, commanded the actual Sanctuary, or Inner Court.
The city itself—both the Upper and most of the Lower City, with its bazaars and shops and palaces and fortresses, and all the uncommitted civilians, their number increased by vast numbers of refugees—was in the hands of Simon. At the beginning, he was estimated to have some 10,000 men organized in fifty divisions fighting under him, in addition to the Idumean contingent of about 5,000 under its own leaders. He had at his disposal, too, the artillery seized at the beginning of the insurrection from the Roman garrison in the Antonia fortress and that which had been captured from Cestius at the time of his disastrous retreat from Jerusalem.
Simon established his headquarters in the mighty tower built by Herod near the east gate of the city and named after his brother Phasael—the northeast tower of the present citadel, popularly known today as David’s Tower. Simon had to establish his control over the other intramural areas before the Romans invested the city. He therefore launched an attack on John of Gischala and his followers in the Temple Mount. But it proved unsuccessful—he had the advantage of numbers, but John of Gischala had that of position: and in due course the latter was able to extend his control also over the Inner Court of the Temple, the diehard Zealots in occupation there now coming to terms and fighting thenceforth under his command.
At the beginning of the Roman siege, the factions combined for a short while in the brilliant attack in which the Tenth Legion of evil memory was routed, but thereafter there was no effectual collaboration until the days when resistance was nearly at an end. There is no need to attempt to recapitulate here the gallant sorties, the destruction of the Roman siege-works, the construction of new bastions and strong-points which confronted the enemy when they had overthrown weak sections of the wall, the fierce hand-to-hand fighting, the surprise attack in which Titus himself was so nearly overwhelmed, the magnificently organized attempt—all but successful—to destroy the Roman camp on the Mount of Olives, the ruthless action against all who favored compromise or even breathed the word “surrender.” So far as we can tell, Simon bar Giora’s was the master mind behind it all; it was he who directed the defense, and his powerful frame was foremost in all the desperate actions, leading and encouraging his forces. It was from his headquarters in the Tower of Antonia that the city was governed, strategy was planned, policy decided. But—more important than all this—his personality inspired the defense and the defenders. As Josephus, who hated him, was forced to admit, he “was regarded with reverence and awe, and such was the esteem in which he was held by all under his command, that each man was prepared even to take his own life had he given the order.”
After the Romans brought their battering rams to bear on the city walls, internal hostilities ceased, and although even now the factions did not combine under a single command, all efforts were concentrated on the common enemy. Simon henceforth permitted John of Gischala’s followers to pass through his lines to man the ramparts, and Simon was henceforth reckoned the unquestioned leader of all the Jewish forces. He administered the city with a heavy hand, giving scant shrift to any person whom he suspected of treasonable intentions, or even of the desire to smuggle himself out of the city—especially if he belonged to the upper classes: John of Gischala was in complete agreement with him at least on this point. A proclamation was issued, almost modern in flavor, forbidding under pain of death any unlawful assembly of groups who might be plotting against the government, as well as any expression of defeatism by taking part in public lamentation. Simon issued instructions for any traitor to be executed on the ramparts, in full view of the enemy, so that all might see whether those to whom he intended to desert would assist him in his extremity.
These were harsh measures, for it was a desperate hour. The story of the atrocities of course loses no element of horror in Josephus’s somber account, yet the historian unguardedly betrays the fact that vengeance against the traitors was tempered with justice. For, notwithstanding Josephus’s betrayal of the forces in Galilee and his treacherous work in the Roman camp, his own father and mother, although put under arrest, were otherwise unmolested, and even allowed to have their personal attendants with them in prison—hardly the action of a party of bloodthirsty assassins.
Titus, in command of the besieging forces, showed on the other hand a studied ferocity against the besieged. On one occasion, he cut off the hands of several prisoners he had taken and sent them in to the Jewish commanders to exhort them to surrender. Their reply was noble—that they preferred honorable death to slavery, and that they would yet be saved by God, their invincible ally, in whose hands lay even now the final issue of the struggle.
Nevertheless, conditions in the city became worse and worse. One of Simon’s principal lieutenants, Judas ben Judas, who was in command of one of the strategic bastions in the city wall, prevailed on some of his subordinates to surrender their position, which would have resulted in the immediate collapse of the defense. Fortunately, the Roman detachment whom they approached failed to react promptly, and during the delay Simon was able to occupy the threatened position with trustworthy troops and executed the traitors in full view of the enemy.
Yet it was a hopeless prospect: a starving city, its population swollen by tens of thousands of refugees, beset by the superbly trained and magnificently equipped legionaries of the most powerful army of the ancient world. Slowly, the defenders were pressed back, and shortly after mid-summer the Temple itself, the kernel of the defense, went up in flames.
The Upper and Lower Cities, however, each a self-contained fortress, were still in patriot hands and continued to resist tenaciously. Escape being impossible, the two resistance leaders audaciously offered to evacuate their position without further fighting in return for a safe conduct through the Roman lines, presumably in the hope of establishing themselves under conditions of freedom elsewhere. Josephus has preserved a dramatic picture of the scene that ensued. Titus in person addressed Simon and John as they stood facing him on the city wall, overwhelmed them with vituperation, and demanded that they should surrender unconditionally, on the understanding that their lives only would be spared.
His conditions were rejected, and fighting was resumed with renewed ferocity, the public buildings now being deliberately set in flames. At one point Simon momentarily stemmed the debacle by reoccupying the royal palace in the Upper City, and even taking prisoners. When some of the Idumean leaders contemplated surrender, he put down the attempted treachery with a stern hand, putting the peace emissaries to death, placing the chieftains under arrest, and having the rank and file watched.
But the end could not now be long delayed. In September, a month after the destruction of the Temple, the Romans delivered the final assault on the Upper City, supported by all the might of their military equipment. Before long it was in their hands. The siege of Jerusalem had ended.
John of Gischala took refuge in an underground passage beneath the city. Ultimately, he was forced by hunger to surrender and in due course was sent to Italy, where he was committed to lifelong imprisonment. Simon, however, again showed himself to be made of sterner stuff. While the Romans were sacking the Upper City, he took refuge with some of his followers in the passages which honeycombed the rock under the buildings. They brought a supply of provisions sufficient to last them for some days, as well as several experienced stonecutters with the tools of their trade. They followed the existing passages so far as possible; when those ended, they began to excavate, in the hope of passing through the Roman lines and making good their escape.
Progress, however, was slow, for it was necessary to pierce through the solid rock. When all the provisions were exhausted, and he and his companions faced with starvation, Simon resorted to a ruse. Putting white robes over his military accouterments, he climbed to the surface and made a sudden appearance in the Temple Court, apparently in the hope of scaring the Roman sentries. He was hemmed in and overpowered, and his identity discovered. He was dispatched in chains to Caesarea, where Titus was now resting; and the latter ordered him to be sent to Rome, to grace the triumph which was to celebrate the great victory over the Jewish people. (Josephus, who was present, gives us the exact details of what happened on this occasion with nauseating minuteness.)
In the triumphant procession, there were a number of stages representing the captured cities, on each of which was stationed the Jewish general who had commanded it, dressed as he was at the time of his surrender. The stage representing Jerusalem was no doubt the most elaborate, and attracted most attention; in this one, presumably, Simon bar Giora figured. When the procession reached the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, it came to a standstill. Then followed the ghastly ceremonial so characteristic of Imperial Rome: Simon received the treatment reserved for the general of a defeated enemy. A halter was thrown around his neck and he was dragged to the Mamertine Prison, where he was strangled in the subterranean chamber which the visitor may still inspect today. His end was announced by a shout of elation, on hearing which Vespasian and his son completed their triumph by offering sacrifice.
There is a village named Bar Giora, today in Israel, on the Jordan border—a dour village on a rock-bound hill, proudly but confidently facing an unfriendly frontier. Perhaps it symbolizes fittingly this last fighter for Jewish independence during the siege of Jerusalem. But it is in the heart and in the historical recollection of the Jewish people that the name should live, more vividly and more intimately than it does.
1 Except where otherwise stated, all the data on which this sketch is based are derived from Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, our only source: bar Giora is just mentioned by Tacitus, who however adds virtually nothing to our knowledge, while the theory that he is identical with Abba Sicara, leader of the “biryonim” and nephew of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, or some other resistance leader sketchily remembered in Talmudic legend, is more than questionable. In some modern records the name occasionally figures as “Joras” (or is sometimes reversed as “Joras son of Simon”); this derives from the commemorative tablet in the Mamertine Prison, the GI– having been read as J in accordance with Italian usage.
2 The Zealots were a politico-religious faction associated in some way with the sicarii: the name does not imply merely “extremist,” and it is wrong to consider all leaders of the resistance movement at this time (including Simon bar Giora) to have been of the faction, as is sometimes done: he was in fact bitterly opposed to and opposed by the actual Zealots.