Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Siege of Jerusalem

Christ had not long passed away from the earth when the reign of peace and brotherly love which He had so warmly inculcated ceased to exist on the soil of Judæa. Forty years after He foretold the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem that noble edifice had ceased to exist, Jerusalem itself was burned to the ground, and a million of people perished by sword and flames. It is this lamentable tale which we have now to tell.

Caligula, the mad emperor, first roused the indignation of the Jews, by demanding that his statue should be placed in that holy shrine in which no image of man had ever been permitted. War would have followed, for the Jews were resolute against such an impious desecration of their Temple, had not the sword of the assassin removed the tyrant.

Wailing Wall


But the discontent of the Jews was not ended. They were resolved that no image of the Cæsars should be brought into their land, and carried this so far that when the governor of Syria wished to march through a part of their territory to attack the Arabs, they objected that the standards of the legions were crowded with profane images, which their sacred laws did not permit to be seen in their country. The governor yielded to their remonstrance, and marched around the land of Judæa.

This concession did not allay the discontent. Felix, a governor under Claudius, by oppression and cruelty aroused a general spirit of revolt. Gessius Florus, appointed by Nero governor of Judæa, found his province in a state of irritation and tumult. His avarice and robbery of the people ripened this to war. The province broke into open rebellion. It was quickly invaded by Gallus, the governor of Syria, who marched through the country to the walls of Jerusalem. But he was not a soldier, and was quickly forced to abandon the siege and retreat in haste, losing six thousand men in his flight.

Nero now, finding that Rome had an obstinate struggle on its hands, chose Vespasian, a soldier of renown, to conduct the war. This he did with the true Roman energy and thoroughness, subduing the whole country, and capturing every stronghold except Jerusalem, within two years. He was called from this work to the struggle for the empire of Rome, leaving his able son Titus to complete the task.

The taking of Jerusalem was not to be easily performed. The city was of immense strength. It stood upon two hills, Mount Sion to the south, Mount Acra to the north. The former, being the loftiest, was called the upper, and Acra the lower, city. Each of these hills was surrounded by a wall of great strength and elevation, their bases washed by a rapid stream that ran through the valleys of Hinnom and Cedron, to the foot of the Mount of Olives. A third hill, Mount Moriah, was the seat of the famous Temple, an immense group of courts and edifices which looked more like a citadel than a sanctuary of religious faith. The true temple stood separate, in the midst of these buildings, its interior being divided by a curtain into two parts, of which the inmost was the Holy of Holies. The total group of edifices was nearly a mile in circumference.

Jerusalem, unfortunately for its defence, had, during the conquest of the country, become filled with fugitives. To these the celebration of the Passover, now at hand, added other great numbers, so that when the army of Titus invested it, it was crowded with a vast multitude of human beings. Filled with religious enthusiasm, accustomed to war, and believing that the Lord of Hosts would come to their aid, the garrison displayed a desperate resolution that the Romans were to find very difficult to overcome.

Yet it was as much due to themselves as to the Roman arms that the city at length fell. Resolute as the Jews were in defence against the foreign foe, they were divided among themselves, the city being held by three factions bitterly hostile to each other. One of these, known as the Zealots, under Eleazer, held the Temple. Another, under John of Gisela, an artful orator but a man of infamous character, occupied another portion of the city. A third, whose leader was named Simon, a man known for crime and courage, held still another section. These three parties kept Jerusalem in tumult. There were ferocious battles in the streets; houses were plundered, families slain, and when Titus encamped before the walls, he had before him a city distracted by civil war and its streets filled with blood and carnage.

The story of the siege of Jerusalem is far too long a one to be told in detail. Several times during the siege Titus offered terms of pardon and amnesty to the besieged, but all in vain. Divided as they were among themselves, they were united in hostility to Rome. The siege began and proceeded with the usual energy shown by a Roman army. Mounds were erected, forts built, warlike engines constructed. Darts and other weapons were rained into the city, great stones were flung from engines, every resource known to ancient war was practised. A breach was at length made in the walls, the soldiers rushed in, sword in hand, and the section of the city known as Salem was captured. Five days afterwards Bezetha, a hill to the north of the Temple, was taken by Titus, but he was here so furiously assailed by the garrison that he was forced to retreat to his camp.

Some days of quiet now followed, while the Romans prepared for a second attack. The factions in the city, fancying that their foes had withdrawn in despair, at once resumed their feuds, and the streets again ran with blood. John invaded the Temple precincts, overcame the party of Eleazer, and a general massacre followed which desecrated with slaughter every part of the holy place.

Soon the Romans advanced again, and the two remaining factions united in defence. Now the Romans penetrated the city, now they were driven out in a fierce charge, and their camp nearly taken. And now famine came to add to the horrors of the siege, and made frightful havoc in the dense multiude with which every part of the city was thronged. The dead and dying filled the streets, the wounded soldiers perished of starvation, groans and lamentations resounded in every quarter; to rid themselves of the hosts of dead John and Simon had them thrown from the walls, to fester in heaps before the Roman works. Among the scenes of horror related, a woman was seen to kill and devour her own infant child.

At length the Romans made such progress that all the city was theirs except the Temple enclosure, into which the remainder of the garrison had gathered. Titus wished to save this famous structure, and made a last effort to end the siege by peaceful measures. Josephus, the Jewish historian, who had been taken prisoner during the war, and was now in his camp, was sent into the city, with an offer of amnesty if they would even now yield. The offer was refused, and Titus saw that but one thing remained.

On the next day the assault on Mount Moriah began. The Jews fought with fierce courage, but the close lines and steady discipline of the legions prevailed. The defenders, after a bitter resistance, were forced back; the assailants furiously pursued; the inner court of the Temple was entered; in the uproar of the furious strife the orders of Titus and his officers to save the Temple were unheard; all was tumult, the roar of battle, the shedding of blood. The Jews fought with frantic obstinacy, but their undisciplined valor failed to affect the steady discipline or break the close array of the legions. Many fled in despair to the sanctuary. Here were gathered priests and prophets, who still declared the Lord of Hosts was on their side, and that He would protect His holy seat.

Even while these assurances were being given the assailants forced the gates. The eyes of the avaricious Romans rested on the golden and glittering ornaments of the Temple, and they sought more fiercely than ever to hew their way through flesh and blood to these alluring treasures. One soldier, frantic with the fury of the fight, snatched a flaming ember from some burning materials, and, lifted by a comrade, set fire to a gilded window of the Temple. Almost in an instant the flames flared upward, and the despairing Jews saw that their holy house was doomed. A great groan of agony burst from their lips. Many occupied themselves in vain efforts to quench the flames; others flung themselves in despairing rage on the Romans, heedless of life now that all they lived for was perishing.

Titus, on learning what had been done, ran in all haste to the scene, and loudly ordered the soldiers to extinguish the flames, signaling to the same effect with his hand. But his voice was drowned in the uproar and his signals were not understood, while the thirst for plunder carried the soldiers beyond all restraint. The holy place of the Temple was still intact. This Titus entered, and was so impressed with its beauty and splendor that he made a strenuous effort to save it from destruction. In vain he begged and threatened. While some of the soldiery tore with wolfish fury at its gold, others fired its gates, and soon the Holy of Holies itself was in a blaze, and the whole Temple wrapped in devouring flames.

The rapacious soldiers raged through the buildings, rending from them everything of value which the fire had left untouched. The defenders fell by thousands. Great numbers perished in the flames. A multitude of fugitives, including women and children, sought refuge in the outer cloisters. These were set on fire by the furious soldiers, and thousands were swept away by the pitiless hand of death. Word was brought to Titus that a number of priests stood on the outside wall, begging for their lives. "It is too late," he replied; "the priests ought not to survive their temple." Retiring to an outer fort, he gazed with deep regret on the devouring conflagration, saying, "The God of the Jews has fought against them: to him we owe our victory."

Arch of Titus


Thus perished the Temple of Jerusalem, a magnificent structure, for ages the pride and glory of the Jews. First erected by Solomon, eleven centuries before, it was burnt by the Babylonians five hundred years afterwards. It was rebuilt by Haggai, in the reign of King Cyrus of Persia, and had now stood more than six hundred years, enlarged and adorned from time to time. But Christ had said, "There shall not be left ono stone upon another that shall not be thrown down." This prophetic utterance was now fulfilled. Thenceforward there was no Temple of the Jews.

But more fighting remained. The defenders made their way into the upper city on Mount Sion, and here held out bitterly still, rejecting the terms offered them by Titus of unconditional surrender. The place was strong, and defended by towers that were almost impregnable. Better terms might have been extorted from Titus had John and Simon, the leaders of the party of defence, been as brave as they were blatant. But after refusing surrender they lost heart, and hid themselves in subterranean vaults, leaving their deluded followers to their own devices. The end came soon. A breach was made in the walls. The legions entered, sword in hand, and with the rage of slaughter in heart. A dreadful carnage followed. Neither sex nor age was spared. According to Josephus, not less than one million one hundred thousand persons perished during this terrible siege. Of those that remained alive the most flagrant were put to death, some were reserved to grace the victor's triumph, and the others were sent to Egypt to be sold as slaves. As for the city, it had been in great part consumed by flames. Thus ended the rebellion of the Jews. To rule or ruin was the terrible motto of Rome.