The Roman rulers are not the first to link Syria administratively with Palestine. In the late 6th century Darius makes Syria and Palestine, together with Cyprus, the fifth satrapy of his empire. During the Seleucid dynasty Syria and Palestine are under joint control in the 2nd century. Then, for some 700 years from the 1st century BC, the Roman and Byzantine empires unite the region.
The three main cities are the very ancient Damascus and the more recent Antioch in Syria, and Jerusalem in Palestine. Of these it is Jerusalem which has a turbulent history in Roman times. The Jews of Palestine prove exceptionally hard to govern.
Herod the Great: 37-4 BC
In Palestine one rich local family increasingly enjoys Roman favour – that of Herod. The family are practising Jews, though not descended from one of the tribes of Israel, and they seem able to deliver the stability which the Roman empire requires in the region.
Herod is in Rome in 40 BC, when the senate appoints him king of Judaea (the Roman name for the area round Jerusalem). He returns to the east with a Roman army, and by 37 BC is firmly in control of his new kingdom. He will rule it till his death in 4 BC, becoming known to history as Herod the Great.
Herod and his successors: 37 BC – AD 66
Herod proves a great builder. He founds new Roman cities, in particular Caesarea (now Qesari, on the coast south of Haifa), which later becomes the capital of Roman Palestine. And he creates a spectacular new Temple on the holy mount in Jerusalem (see the Temple in Jerusalem).
But many of his actions are violent. In an outburst of jealousy he kills not only a favourite wife, Mariamne, but also her grandfather, mother, brother and two sons. He could well have been capable of the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem (if so in about 4 BC, the last year of his life), but the gospel account of this incident is inherently improbable as history – and no mention is made of the atrocity until Christian documents of a century later.
In his will Herod divides his large kingdom between three of his sons. Their inability to control an increasingly turbulent Palestine prompts Rome to give more power to its provincial governors, or procurators. But they have no greater success in pacifying the Jewish people, resentful of Roman rule and horrified by any encroachment of Roman religious symbolism (which by now includes the idolatrous theme of a divine emperor).
This is the period when the Zealots emerge – a radical political group committed to the ending of Roman rule in Palestine, using terrorism as one of its main forms of argument.
The impossibility of a working relationship between the Jewish and Roman authorities is well suggested in the New Testament account of the last days of Jesus Christ. The Jews of the Sanhedrin are determined that he shall die for blasphemy, but they want the Roman governor of Judaea (Pontius Pilate) to condemn him. Jerusalem is in Pilate’s province, but he tries to shift the responsibility on to Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great who is ruling Galilee – on the grounds that Galilee is where Jesus comes from.
The lack of effective government implicit in this story is now typical of Palestine, apart from a brief period starting in AD 41. In that year Herod Agrippa is appointed king of Judaea.
Herod Agrippa is a grandson of Herod the Great and of the Hasmonaean princess Mariamne. He therefore has a direct link with a great Jewish dynasty. He also, like Herod the Great, has valuable contacts in Rome. He has been friendly since childhood with the family of Claudius, and Claudius – in his first year as emperor – appoints Agrippa to the kingdom of Judaea.
For a while, under the rule of this devout Jew who has the confidence of Rome, Palestine seems set to enjoy again the stability associated with the long reign of Herod the Great. But Agrippa dies after only three years, in AD 44. The region returns to Roman governors and revolutionary ferment.
Civil unrest: AD 44-66
The violent creed of the Zealots now acquires growing support, reinforced by their assassination of Jews who collaborate with the Romans. The Zealots have an alarming habit of wandering among the crowd on public occasions, with short daggers under their garments, and stabbing opponents before melting away unseen among a populace increasingly supportive of their aims (or else plain terrified).
Zealots are prominent in a popular uprising which in AD 66 expels the Romans from Jerusalem, and in the revolutionary government which then briefly rules Palestine. Their violent behaviour in power outrages many of their previous supporters. But they remain at the heart of resistance to the Romans.
Vespasian and Titus: AD 67-70
Nero sends a veteran general, Vespasian, to put down the rebellion in Judaea; and Vespasian involves his own son, Titus, in the campaign. Together father and son make steady progress in recovering Palestine, until the suicide of Nero in Rome prompts the crisis which has caused AD 69 to become known as the ‘year of the four emperors’.
The last of the four candidates, and the only survivor of that year, is Vespasian. Marching back to Rome, he leaves Titus in command of the campaign in Judaea.
By the year 70 Titus is besieging Jerusalem. With an impressive array of battering rams and catapults, he succeeds in demolishing parts of the city wall against strong resistance from the Jews. The siege lasts six months. Josephus, a Jewish historian who is with the Roman forces, provides vivid details of famine and cannibalism within the beleaguered city.
Those who attempt to escape, as refugees, fare little better. Appalling horrors follow the discovery that one such fugitive has swallowed his wealth in the form of gold coins.
Josephus claims that Titus, no doubt aware of the Temple’s contents, attempts to save it from harm. He says that Jewish partisans first set fire to the Temple colonnade after enticing Roman soldiers into a trap. Whatever the truth, the great building with its golden trimmings is soon destroyed by fire and by looting Romans. The best loot, taken by Titus himself, later features prominently on Titus’s triumphal arch in Rome.
So ends the central shrine of Judaism. In the words of Josephus, ‘neither its long history, nor its vast wealth, nor its people dispersed through the whole world, nor the unparalleled renown of its worship could avert its ruin’. The destruction of the Temple is another turning point in Jewish history (see the Temple in Jerusalem).
Masada: AD 73
For three years groups of Zealots hold out against Roman domination in a few rocky fortresses in Palestine. The last to fall, Masada, is the most dramatic site of all.
Standing high and sheer on the western shore of the Dead Sea, Masada is a natural stronghold. Its top forms a large flat area of some 20 acres. Herod the Great has recently added to the defences of the summit, providing powerful walls, an administrative building, storehouses for grain and massive reservoirs for natural water. A Roman garrison here is massacred in the Jewish rebellion of AD 66. The Zealots, occupying the fortress, build a synagogue, ritual baths and family houses.
After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Jews of Masada – under an inspirational leader, Eleazar ben Jair – prepare for a siege by the Romans. In 72 the tenth legion arrives in the plain below, armed with elaborate siege engines. For several months they make little impact on the stone defences. But eventually flaming torches, catapulted against a temporary wall, succeed in starting a fire.
Eleazar decides that the time has come to make a dramatic end. In the words of Josephus, ‘he had a clear picture of what the Romans would do to men, women and children if they won the day; and death seemed to him the right choice for them all’.
Without any sense of irony, Josephus – who has himself escaped deceitfully from a suicide pact urged upon his followers – describes with admiration the oratory by which Eleazar persuades the Jews of Masada to die, and the courageous discipline with which the deed is carried out.
Each man, after final caresses and tears, kills his wife and children. He then lies down beside them, for his own throat to be cut by one of the ten men selected by lot for this task. Then the ten draw lots as to who among them shall die first. The final survivor kills himself – the only case of suicide in the death of 960 men, women and children. Two women, who escape by hiding, live to tell the tale.
The last Jewish rebellion: AD 132-135
For two generations an uneasy truce prevails between the Jews and their Roman conquerors. Although there is no Temple in Jerusalem and the city has been largely destroyed, the Jews continue to worship freely in their synagogues.
But any suggestion of calm is shattered after the emperor Hadrian, visiting Jerusalem in AD 130, decides to rebuild it as a Roman city. It is to be called Aelia Capitolina, echoing the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Most offensive of all is the emperor’s plan for Jerusalem’s most prominent hill, the Temple mount.
On the ruined Temple mount there is to be a shrine to Jupiter, in which Hadrian himself will be honoured. Jewish opposition to this sacrilege is led by Simon Bar-Cochba, calling himself the prince of Israel. Simon’s prestige increases dramatically when a leading rabbi recognizes him as the Messiah. In 132 his Jewish forces defeat a Roman legion and capture Jerusalem.
Not till 135, after a large army has been sent to regain control, is Jerusalem recovered by the Romans. In a bitter campaign, fought village by village throughout the region, half a million lives are lost. The whole area of Palestine is devastated. Aelia Capitolina becomes, for the moment, an unimportant provincial town.
In the reprisals after Simon Bar-Cochba’s revolt, the Jews are forbidden to set foot in Jerusalem. They even seem to have been expelled from the surrounding region of Judaea. Only further north, in Galilee, do they retain a presence within their ancient kingdom of Israel.
There is by now another significant community in Jerusalem – the Christians, who have played no part in the recent rebellion. They survive within the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina. Two centuries later these Christians in Jerusalem, and the city, benefit from a change of religious policy in the Roman empire.
Christian Palestine: 4th – 7th century AD
The adoption of Christianity as the state religion, by the emperor Constantine, gives Jerusalem a new status. Pilgrims begin to arrive, among them even the mother of the emperor, Helena, whose significant achievement – so the story goes – is to discover the actual or true cross on which Christ died.
Pilgrims bring wealth, and the interest of the imperial family results in important new buildings. Constantine establishes the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, commemorating the departure of Christ from this earth; Helena builds a church in Bethlehem to do the same for his arrival. This region has a significance in the world again. The bishop of Jerusalem becomes a great dignitary, as the Patriarch of Palestine.
During these Christian centuries the might of neighbouring Persia remains a threat to the security of Palestine and Syria, though local unrest is more often the result of passionate disagreement over Christian doctrine.
However, the capture of Antioch by the Persian emperor Khosrau I in 540 is an unpleasant shock. It is also a foretaste of disastrous experiences at the hands of the Persians a few decades later. The Christian cities of the Middle East are caught up in the last great Persian onslaught against Byzantium, launched in the early 7th century by Khosrau II.
The first Christian city to fall to Khosrau’s armies is Antioch, in 611. Damascus follows in 613. In the spring of 614 a Persian army enters Palestine and moves through the countryside, burning churches. Only the church built by St Helena in Bethlehem is spared; the Persians recognize themselves in the costumes of the Magi, seen bringing their gifts to the infant Jesus in a mosaic above the entrance.
The army reaches Jerusalem in April. The Patriarch urges the inhabitants to surrender, so as to avoid bloodshed, but they resist for a month. When the city falls, it is said that some 60,000 Christians are massacred and another 35,000 sold into slavery.
From the point of view of the Christian hierarchy, far away in Constantinople, the Persians commit one even greater affront. After sacking Jerusalem, they carry off to Ctesiphon the most holy relic of Christendom, the True Cross of Christ.
Its restoration to Jerusalem becomes an urgent matter of state.