Bar Kokhba: The Rebel Against Rome Whose Legend Helped Found a Nation | History Hit

Bar Kokhba: The Rebel Against Rome Whose Legend Helped Found a Nation

Lindsay Powell

04 Nov 2021
An Israeli postage stamp from 1961 depicting Shim’on Bar Kokhba.
Image Credit: PjrStamps / Alamy Stock Photo

How did a warlord in a relative backwater of the Roman Empire manage to establish an independent nation and withstand the might of the legions sent against it for over three years? In his latest book, historian and author Lindsay Powell goes in search of Shim’on, the man known to history as ‘Bar Kokhba’, who caused a war with long-term consequences.

The Roman Empire at the Time of Hadrian 

When Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus) became emperor in 117 AD one of his first acts was to downsize the empire’s sprawling dominions by abandoning his predecessor’s latest conquests. Retrenchment replaced expansion as the central doctrine of his domestic and foreign policy. Far from inheriting a pax Romana, Hadrian perceived that many of the peoples within the borders – from Britannia to Judea – were unhappy and ready to turn to violence to settle their grievances.  

An ancient Roman sculpture of Emperor Hadrian.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

To address the issues, Hadrian embarked on extensive, multi-year tours of the provinces. Having secured his political position as emperor, in 121 AD and again in 128 AD, he left Rome to inspect the thirty legions in their camps, to grill public officials and to distribute benefactions to communities. These included rebuilding temples and theatres, and even entire cities. One of these urban reconstruction projects might even have been the cause of a war. 

In the spring of 130 AD, Hadrian arrived in Judea, then a minor proconsular territory on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean squeezed between the large and wealthy provinces of Syria, Arabia Petraea and Egypt. At its principal city of Caesarea, he met his governor Quintus Tineius Rufus. Assured by him that all was well in the province, the emperor and his entourage proceeded to Jerusalem.  

Building Aelia Capitolina 

In his day the city was a building site. It had been left a ruin since the end of the First Jewish War (66-73/74 AD). Hadrian had a plan for remaking it as a colonia, a city intended for retired soldiers. Archaeological finds show that when he visited in the summer of 130 AD the transformation of the city was already well underway. The city now had a new name: Aelia Capitolina. It was a clever rebranding, combining the emperor’s own family name (gens Aelia) with a connection to the temples of the triad of Roman gods – Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva – on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.  

Jewish texts refer to a promise by Hadrian to rebuild the Temple, the great edifice to Yahweh razed by troops under Titus in 70 AD on the 9th Ab – the same day in the Jewish calendar that the First Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. Their hopes were dashed when it transpired that there was no real intention to do so. 

Jewish frustration was exacerbated by other policies implemented heavy-handedly by Roman administrators. Jewish and Roman texts refer to a ban on circumcision, the foundational commitment to the Covenant between Jews and their god. Also alleged is a ban on reading Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew bible – and observation of the sabbath day. Whether Hadrian intended to slight the Jewish population is not clear, but the local population was understandably outraged. 

‘Son of a Star’ 

Throwing the Romans out of Judea seemed the only course of action. To lead the rebellion a man named Shim’on came forward. Letters found in caves in the Judean Desert during the 1950s and 1960 show his full name to be Shim’on Ben Kosiba, ‘Simon Son of Kosiba’. They reveal him to have been a devout Jew, a disciplinarian, and a micro-manager. The Jewish religious texts portray him as a gibbor, a strong man in the manner of Samson. Early Christian church histories, however, depict him as a cruel and brutal warlord, even as a wizard who played tricks with fire. 

Jewish texts state that Rabbi Akiba, the respected sage, saw in Shim’on the anointed warrior who would lead the Jews to redemption. He declared him the King Messiah and, referring to Numbers 24:17, named him Bar Kokhba, ‘Son of a Star’. The Christian historians also call him Chochebas or Barchochebas. The Christians following the ‘Son of God’, however, rejected the Jew as a false messiah. This period marks the breakpoint after which Judaism and Christianity permanently split apart. 

How the Jewish militia sorely tested the highly trained Roman army during the ‘Second Jewish War’.
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Second Jewish War 

Hadrian left Judea at the end of summer, 130 AD. The Jews then began their preparations for war. On an unknown day in 132 AD the rebel army began to take control of towns and villages across Judea; Samaria and the Galilee seem not to have been involved. They quickly established an independent administration. By mid-133 AD Roman control of the region had effectively ceased. Roman law was replaced by the Laws of Moses. Roman coins were over-struck with approved emblems and messages of the new Jewish administration. Shim’on referred to himself as nasi or ‘president’. He called his country Israel.  

Tineius Rufus badly underestimated the speed and extent of the Jewish revolt. He had two legions – VI Ferrata and X Fretensis – as well as several units of auxiliary soldiers under his direct command. His initial response for dealing with the crisis proved ineffective and he took casualties. Rufus appealed to his colleagues in the neighbouring provinces to come to his assistance. Vexillationes or detachments soon arrived. Yet the tried and tested combat doctrine of engaging an enemy in a set-piece battle did not work because Shim’on refused to meet the Romans in the fields of their choosing. 

Directing the rebellion from Herodium, located south of Aelia Capitolina, Shim’on had all the advantages of the insurgent. His highly motivated Jewish militia sorely tested the highly trained professional Roman army. They were lightly armed with slings or composite bows and arrows, supplemented with swords and spears. Their strategy was to ambush Roman troops on the march by emerging from hiding places and disappearing just as quickly. Hundreds of these underground caves and tunnels cut into the living rock of the Judean Shephelah have been identified at ancient villages such as Horbat Burgin and Horbat ‘Etri, which can still be visited today. 

The ruins of Horbat ‘Etri, Israel.

Image Credit: udi Steinwell / CC BY 2.5

Frustrated by the lack of progress, Hadrian ordered his best commander to lead the counterinsurgency operations. That man was Sextus Julius Severus, governor of Britannia. He had already proved his strategic and tactical capabilities when he recently put down a rebellion on the island. He arrived in AD 134 with handpicked officers and troops from Deva (Chester), Eboracum (York), Maryport and Wallsend, and immediately set to work. His army was now supplemented with detachments of legions from camps as far away as the Danube and Tigris rivers. He divided up the task force, made of up men from some nine legions, into smaller combat units and began to systematically attack the fortified settlements. Severus took the war to Shim’on. 

Slowly but surely, Severus’s new strategy proved effective. One by one the towns and villages fell to the gladius. Bones and coins found at Horbat ‘Etri attest to the brutality of the Romans’ policy of vastatio, that terrifying vengeance by steel and fire visited upon enemies of the Roman People. As the war progressed the fortunes of rebel-held Israel deteriorated. Now their casualties mounted. 

The deepening political divide in the U.S. and an apparent realignment of the world order through President Trump’s foreign policy have prompted many comparisons to the fall of the Roman Empire. But can we really look back at ancient civilisations and draw parallels with those that exist today? And can the lessons of the past really help us to tackle the challenges of the present?
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Last Stand at Betar 

Letters from Shim’on reveal his growing frustration with his own camp commanders, who seemed lazy or inattentive to the growing threat. Fleeing Jewish militia and civilians, meanwhile, began to gather in a hilltop town called Betar lying to the southwest of Aelia Capitolina. There, in 135 AD, Shim’on Ben Kosiba made his last stand. Archaeologists believe that modern Battir in Palestine is the most likely candidate for this place. Remains of a hastily built defensive circuit wall have been found there. 

An inscription found at Battir reveals that two legions – V Macedonica and XI Claudia – were encamped there. They surrounded and besieged the town with a wall. Unlike the siege at Masada (73/74 AD), there was no ramp. Sealed in by the circumvallation, the legions staged a direct assault. Shim’on is reported to have died in the attack. Jewish texts record that the streets, fields, and streams were red with blood from the ensuing massacre. By a quirk of history, Betar fell on 9th Ab. 

A map depicting Israel under Bar Kokhba, 132 AD.

Image Credit: Rh0809 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Vanquished and Victors 

The last of the refugees fled to caves above Ein Gedi on the Dead Sea. The Romans pursued them there too. They faced a horrible end. Remains of an army camp on the clifftop of the Nahal Hever canyon show that the Romans simply waited for the people trapped in the so-called Cave of Horrors and Cave of Letters below to starve to death. By 136 AD it was all over. Their remains, and the belongings they took with them, such as baskets, clothing, house keys, and documents, were found by archaeologists. 

Jews taken captive were sold at the slave market in Hebron or shipped off from Gaza to other Roman provinces where they became part of the Diaspora. By edict of Hadrian, Jews were banned from entering his new city.  

Despite the hiatus caused by the war, work on Aelia Capitolina was completed. A massive victory arch was raised in the city: part of it still stands as the Ecce Homo Arch over the Via Dolorosa. Hadrian’s generals received triumphal honours. Many of the soldiers were given decorations for acts of bravery. Judea itself was absorbed into its neighbour and the combined province was renamed Syria Palaestina.  

A Hero for Modern Times 

In the years following the war, the rabbis sought to understand what had gone wrong. Shim’on was seen as a failed messiah. They coined a new name for him: Ben Koziba, ‘Son of a Lie’.  

Over the next 1,800-plus years, Bar Kokhba transformed into a legend. Increasingly persecuted, Jews in the Diaspora from Spain to Ukraine were inspired by the story of this feisty warlord, transforming him into a Zionist hero to sustain their hope of establishing a new homeland with Jerusalem as its capital. Long caricatured as weak, teams of Jewish men and women competed in sports and gymnastic events across Europe under the moniker ‘Bar Kochba’ as part of a movement to create the ‘Muscular Jew’. 

In the 20th century, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement adopted the name Betar, the place of Ben Kosiba’s last stand. Armed Jewish resistance groups championed him as an inspirational figure in their own military struggle against the British and Palestinian Arabs during the period of the Colonial Mandate. The modern State of Israel finally came into being on 14 May 1948

A modern depiction of Bar Kokhba.

Image Credit: Arthur Szyk / CC BY-SA 4.0

An image of Bar Kokhba appears among notable Jewish figures of history on the menorah outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building. He is still the subject of children’s books used in schools in Israel and celebrated on the annual Lag B’Omer holy day with bonfires and songs. Remarkable is that the historical Shim’on Ben Kosiba – or his mythical avatar Bar Kokhba – helped inspire not just one, but two nations called Israel. 

Lindsay Powell is a historian and writer and the news editor of Ancient History and Ancient Warfare magazines. He is the author of Bar Kokhba: The Jew Who Defied Hadrian and Challenged the Might of Rome (Pen and Sword Books, 2021).

Lindsay Powell