Cataclysm: The Roman Siege of Jerusalem | History Hit

Cataclysm: The Roman Siege of Jerusalem

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts (1850).
Image Credit: Public Domain

In 69 AD, the Romans were in the process of vanquishing a great revolt in Judaea. Commanded by the general Vespasian, already the Romans had gained significant success, reclaiming large parts of the region. They next turned their attention to the fortified ‘rebel’ capital of Jerusalem.

The Romans had to seize Jerusalem if they were to put down this bloody revolt, but Vespasian himself had other plans. In 69 AD, he was proclaimed emperor in the wake of Nero’s death. He departed the eastern Mediterranean for Rome, leaving his son Titus to finish off the Jewish revolt. The subsequent siege of Jerusalem would prove to be one of the most terrible in Roman history.

Divisions in Jerusalem

Vespasian had passed the task of taking Jerusalem onto his son. The general Pompey had only succeeded in capturing Jerusalem when he could call upon supporters inside the city, while Vespasian’s predecessor Cestius Gallus hadn’t even reached Jerusalem’s walls. But Jerusalem was a divided city, and not even the looming spectre of Titus’ legions was enough to reconcile its defenders.

At the same time Vespasian received news of Nero’s death, the Zealot leader John of Gischala was establishing his own base of power. Only remnants of the Judaean Free Government still survived to oppose Zealot control, but one last hope survived to topple John from power. Simon bar Giora, who had fled Titus’ advance, was now heralded by the people as the saviour against John’s oppression. With popular support behind him, Simon’s 15,000 strong army easily seized control of the upper city in the west. But crucially the Temple Mount in the east still lay in Zealot hands.

Remnants of one of several legionary camps at Masada in Israel, just outside the circumvallation wall at the bottom of the image.

Image Credit: David Shankbone, user on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Meanwhile, a Roman prison didn’t seem to be suiting Josephus, a rebel leader captured at the earlier siege of Jotapata. Josephus announced that Vespasian would rise to become emperor, and when this startling prediction came true Vespasian immediately praised Josephus as a “valiant man” and regretted the hardships Josephus had endured. Titus convinced his father to free him.

As Titus pressed upon Jerusalem, he employed Josephus as a negotiator in exchange for his freedom. Following Titus’ campaign, surely an approving account of his victory over Josephus’ own people was not too much to ask? Though self-serving, Josephus’ histories are an important source for the events of the Great Revolt. In a few short years Josephus, once a bitter enemy of Rome, became Roman himself with the most powerful man in the world as his patron.

The siege of Jerusalem

By 23 April, 70 AD, the Romans had surrounded Jerusalem. The Fretensis and Macedonica legions had approached from the east and west, but valleys encircled Jerusalem on three sides. For Titus there was only one option: a direct northern assault. The legions set up camp a kilometre away atop Mount Scopus, in sight of Jerusalem.

With a contingent of 600 cavalry, Titus began reconnoitring the rough terrain around the city. Suddenly defenders fell upon the column. Titus was separated from the bulk of the retreating Roman cavalry. At the siege of Jotapata, Titus had proven himself a brave soldier when he led a stealth mission to open the gates. But his encirclement on this scouting mission suggests his relative inexperience as a general. Exposed and outnumbered, Titus was forced to fight for his life before eventually escaping.

What happened during the siege of Jerusalem?

From the Mount of Olives, Titus brooded over the best way to break Jerusalem. The city had ample water reserves but food supplies were under constant strain. Before the Romans had even arrived, factional quarrelling, an influx of refugees, and Passover celebrations were already stretching provisions. But Titus knew that attrition warfare would not be enough.

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Instead he bided his time while the defenders made plans of their own. Emboldened by their initial sortie against Titus, the defenders launched a surprise attack on the Mount of Olives. There they caught the Fretensis legion completely off guard. The 20,000 defenders were no professional army, but the legion they faced were battle-hardened. The Romans rallied and steadily pushed the defenders back. Nevertheless, this was a muted victory for the Romans.

Breaking through

Deciding that an assault from the east across the Kidron valley would be in vain, Titus moved three legions to the north-west. Here the flat terrain offered the easiest route in. Battering rams and siege ramps were prepared along the length of the outer wall, from the Jaffa gate to the Psephinus tower. But even with the combined strength of three legions, the Romans were vulnerable.

Projectiles rained down upon them and the defenders made frequent sorties to slow construction. The resourceful Roman engineers had a solution. Three almighty siege towers were erected and rolled out. Completely fireproof and dwarfing the walls, the towers drew the defenders eyes as the rams pummelled their way through the fortifications. On the 15th day of the siege, Jerusalem’s outer wall finally gave way.

The second wall

Titus had the defenders on the ropes. Or so it seemed. Four days later, a small breach was formed in the second wall and the Romans swarmed through once again. But all was quiet. Suddenly, defenders appeared from nowhere. In the excitement, the breach was not widened. As the Roman force crumbled under arrow fire, the breach became a bottleneck as desperate legionaries scrambled to safety. In disarray, the Roman camp within the city walls was now under threat.

Fighting raged long into the night until the Romans eventually fended off the defenders. Titus had learned his lesson: the entire northern section of the second wall demolished and the siege engines moved in.


It had taken the might of four legions to break through the first two walls. Now Titus had no choice but to divide his forces. In the west, the XV and X Fretensis legions besieged the last of the city’s walls. Meanwhile the Thunderbolt and Macedonica legions began constructing colossal siege ramps to overcome the fearsome Antonia citadel which guarded the Temple Mount. But Titus continued to underestimate his enemy.

The defenders had been preoccupied with engineering works of their own. By late May, the Romans had completed their siege ramps. But one evening, Simon bar Giora launched a surprise attack to the west, setting Roman siege equipment ablaze. Only when Titus and his cavalry rode to the rescue were Simon’s forces pushed back. Meanwhile to the east, defenders set the pit props of a massive tunnel leading beneath Antonia Fortress and the Roman siege ramps alight. The ground gave way, along with two weeks of tireless construction.

The legions regroup

With summer, Titus sought to capitalise on Jerusalem’s low water supplies. An 8-kilometre wall of circumvallation and thirteen forts was erected to surround the Jewish defenders. Starvation now ravaged Jerusalem: Josephus reports that a woman named Mary murdered her infant son in her ravenous hunger. Those caught at night trying to salvage supplies were crucified. Still, after two and a half months of siege, Jerusalem had not fallen.

The Antonia Fortress

The Romans themselves were also running out of supplies for the construction of siege equipment. One big push was needed. All four legions descended upon the Antonia Fortress. The mine had weakened the fortress and the Romans were able to punch through to the Temple complex itself. In close combat, the Temple’s northern colonnades interrupted Roman formations and, under a hail of missiles, the Romans were repelled.

La distruzione del tempio di Gerusalemme, Francesco Hayez.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Towards the end of July, Titus was desperate for results. He launched several costly attacks against the north-western wall of the Temple complex. The Romans who scaled the western wall with ladders were caught in a trap when the Zealots set the breach ablaze, engulfing the Romans in a firestorm.

The Temple falls

By August, Titus’s victory was as elusive as ever. But on 5 August, the last of the daily sacrificial lambs are supposed to have run out, providing an opportunity for Titus to capitalise on the defenders’ low morale. Less than a week later the defenders launched an attack, determined to repel the Romans. When a Roman legionary hurled a torch into the midst of the Jewish ranks, the defenders scattered as the flames rose. The fire raged until much of the Temple was engulfed.

For weeks the Romans had encountered fierce resistance as they attempted to overcome the bottleneck of the Antonia Fortress. But now the defenders only looked on in horror as the enemy broke through. Swarming into the central courtyard, the Romans trampled over all in their path, slaughtering all in their way. The worst was yet to come.

Amidst the death and destruction, Titus strode through the Temple and gazed upon the inner sanctuary. But nowhere was safe from the flames. Soon even the Holiest of Holies itself, the Temple’s innermost sanctuary, was ablaze. Titus wrestled with his blood-crazed troops to quench the blaze.

Accident or atrocity?

The destruction of the Temple is still mourned to this day. But who was responsible? Josephus tells us that the day before the Temple fell Titus convened his war cabinet. Vetoing his staff who advised its destruction, Titus declared that it should be spared at all costs. Through his chief negotiator, Josephus himself, he stated that:

No Roman shall either come near your sanctuary, or offer any affront to it; nay, I will endeavour to preserve you your holy house, whether you will or not.


Titus was benevolent – at least in Josephus’ telling. A 4th century Christian, Sulpicius Severus, has it another way: Sulpicius says that Titus overruled his staff in his determination to destroy the Temple and prevent a rebellious resurgence. Even as the Temple burned, Titus ordered the holy treasures to be salvaged. It was 666 years to the day since the Babylonians had destroyed the First Temple. The Second had fallen to the Romans and Titus was to blame.

Arch of Titus

Image Credit: ansharphoto /

Why is the siege of Jerusalem important?

With the destruction of the Temple all hope for Jerusalem was lost. The symbol and stronghold of Jewish resistance had been overrun. It took another month for the Romans to crush the remaining defenders, many hiding in the sewers to escape capture. But they could not hide forever. By 8 September John and Simon had surrendered, signalling the end of the Great Revolt. Jerusalem lay in ruins at the mercy of the Romans. According to Josephus, over one million people may have perished during the siege and a hundred thousand more were enslaved.

Titus returned to Rome, exalted by crowds and brandishing the holy treasures that only the High Priest was supposed to see. Coins were minted commemorating Rome’s victory in Judaea and arches were erected glorifying Titus. But Rome’s humiliation of Jerusalem was not complete. Vespasian introduced a crippling tax, the fiscus Judaicus, upon all Jews, men and women, children and slaves to fund the rebuilding of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline hill.

Even after this temple was rebuilt, the fiscus Judaicus remained a terrible reminder of Rome’s subjugation of Jerusalem. Long after the cries of battle had subsided and the rubble had been cleared, Jerusalem was still a city under siege.

Tristan Hughes