Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies
Bar-Ilan University Ramat-Gan, Israel

Jerusalem: Life Throughout the Ages in a Holy City

Internet Educational Activities <>
March 1997
Yisrael Shalem     5/12

Aelia Capitolina, Jerusalem as a Roman Pagan City

In 70 C.E. the Roman Legions destroyed Jerusalem. The Temple and its adjacent neighborhood were looted and burned, and the forests around the city were cut down to make siege engines. Roman soldiers took so much plunder that the value of gold dropped by half (Josephus, Wars vi, 326). Titus's army celebrated with a triumphal march of prisoners and loot (including the Temple's furniture and utensils) through the streets of Rome. The Arch of Titus in Rome depicts this victory parade. The last battle for Jewish independence was lost when Massada fell 3 years later.

Jerusalem's Jewish population was replaced by soldiers of the Roman Tenth Legion, their families, and some civilians, Hellenists from Syria and elsewhere. Vespasian, who had led the triumphant army, was appointed emperor. He and his son Titus marked their victory by minting a coin bearing the inscription "Judea is captured." Until then Jews throughout the world had sent donations to the Temple in Jerusalem. Now they were compelled to pay a special tax to support Roman temples. With the Jewish "gods" now safely deposited in Rome, the Romans assumed that the Jews were vanquished.

Paradoxically, the conquest of Jerusalem might have led to the ascent of a "Jewish" Roman emperor. During his tour of duty in Judea Titus fell in love with Berenice, a great granddaughter of Herod and his wife Miriam, a Hasmonean princess. Berenice stayed with Titus in the Roman camp during the siege of Jerusalem, and later he brought her to Rome with the intention of marrying her. His father disapproved and compelled him to end the affair. Berenice left Rome, but returned after Vespasian's death. Titus became Caesar but did not resume his relationship with her.

The city was now desolate, the walls in ruins. Of all of Herod's outstanding buildings, only part of the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount (the "western wall") and three towers near the present Jaffa Gate were left "to show later generations how a proud and might city had been humbled by Rome" (Josephus, Wars 7,8,1). Before the revolt four Roman legions had been stationed in the province of Syria, more than in any other province, but no legions had been based in Judea. Following the revolt, the Tenth Legion was garrisoned permanently in Jerusalem. No longer facing any military threats, they apparently went into business making bricks, each stamped with their symbol, a boar. Jewish lands confiscated by the emperor were granted to the soldiers.

Jerusalem's original Christian community, led by Jesus' brother James, was expelled from the city before the revolt, in 66. The community was composed primarily of Jews who accepted Jesus as the messiah. Many were observant Jews who believed that Jesus's message was intended only for Jews. They understood the destruction of the Temple as a sign of divine disfavor with the Jews because they did not recognize Jesus as the messiah. Under Roman rule, no circumcised person was allowed to reside in the city; uncircumcised Christians converted from paganism asked for and received permission to take up residence in Jerusalem. They settled in the area of Mount Zion and provided civilian services to the Roman garrison.

The Temple's destruction, the tremendous loss of life and general devastation caused the Jews enormous despair. The role of the high priest, ritual leader of the Jews for centuries, was gone. The rabbis tried to find a middle ground between mourning for the Temple and adjustment to life without it. In the days of the Temple, the sacrifice was part of the process of atoning for sins. Henceforth, atonement would be achieved with prayers and good deeds.

The Jewish communities around Jerusalem quickly recovered. Many bought back their lands from the Romans and rebuilt Jewish towns and farms.

Tension between the Jews and their Hellenistic neighbors led to Jewish uprisings in Egypt and Cyprus in 115-117. The revolts were serious enough to compel the Emperor Trajan (who was at the time leading a Roman army deep in Persia) to stop his campaign and return to restore order. It is not clear what was taking place in Israel while the Jews fought in surrounding lands. Apparently the Romans sent an additional legion to Israel and their presence, or perhaps use of force, was sufficient to prevent attempts to revolt.

However, the quiet did not last. In 129-30 the Emperor Hadrian toured the eastern provinces and probably visited Jerusalem. The Jews thought he planned to rebuild Jerusalem for the Jews. They were abruptly disabused of their hopes when it became known that Jerusalem would be rebuilt as Aelia (in honor of his family, Aelias) Capitolina (after the three Capitoline gods -- Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, the designated patrons of the new city). A temple to the gods of the city would be erected on the Temple Mount. Hadrian also renamed the country Palestine after the Biblical Philistines, though the Philistines had long since disappeared. His aim was to erase all memory of the connection between the Jews, Judea and Jerusalem.

Hadrian went a step further and outlawed circumcision. Like Antiochus IV during the Maccabean revolt 200 years earlier, he made the study or practice of Judaism a capital crime. The pagan world was usually pluralistic (the Romans simply added the gods of the peoples they conquered to their pantheon), and religious decrees were rare. It is unclear whether Hadrian's religious decrees provoked the revolt or were imposed in response to it. Perhaps the rebellious nature of the Jews, the one nation that refused to accept Roman sovereignty, provoked the Romans to destroy the Jews' holy city, erase the name of their country, and eliminate their religion.

According to the Talmud (Megila 6a) "if someone tells you that Jerusalem and Caesarea are both flourishing or that both cities are destroyed, do not believe it. But if he says that one is flourishing and the other is destroyed, believe it." Caesarea was the Roman capital of Palestine, and this quote expresses the idea that coexistence of the Jewish and Roman ways of life was impossible. A similar idea appears in Roman sources. (Today President Ezer Weizmann maintains homes in Caesarea and in Jerusalem.)

Hadrian's decrees provoked the Jews living near Jerusalem to revolt. (The Galilean Jews did not take part.) Unlike previous uprisings, this time the Jews united, under the leadership of Shimon Bar Kochba, who enjoyed the support of many rabbis. The most prominent of his supporters was Rabbi Akiva, who considered him to be the messiah. Bar Kochba's base was at Herodion, 10 km. south of Jerusalem. The revolt's goals were the liberation Jerusalem and reconstruction of the Temple. Coins minted by Bar Kochba, two of which were found near the Temple, were stamped with an image of the Temple's entrance. Half the coins struck during the revolt bore the word "Jerusalem" or "for the freedom of Jerusalem." Did the coins reflect reality or aspiration? Many scholars believe that Bar Kochba succeeded in liberating Jerusalem shortly after the beginning of the revolt.

The Bar Kochba revolt lasted three years, from 132 to 135. At first the Jews had the upper hand. Rome responded by sending ten legions, a third of the empire's army! Four legions had been sufficient to put down the previous revolt. The Romans suffered heavy losses and one legion was nearly wiped out. When celebrating his triumph in Rome at the conclusion of the war, the commander did not use the usual formula, "I and my troops are well."

The Roman historian Dio Cassius reported that 580,000 Jews died in battle fighting the Romans; it was impossible to determine the number that died of starvation. Hundreds of Jewish towns around Jerusalem were destroyed. The destruction of Jewish settlement following the Bar Kochba revolt was far greater than the loss of life and property suffered after the previous revolt. So many thousands of Jews were sold as slaves that the price of a slave was the same as the price of one day's supply of hay for a horse.

Jews were now forbidden to reside within a ten mile radius of Jerusalem. Construction of Aelia Capitolina resumed. The inscription "the colony of Aelia Capitolina has been founded" appeared on coins together with a portrayal of the emperor plowing a furrow along the walls, the symbol of the establishment of a new Roman city.

Aelia Capitolina was the only city in the Roman Empire created and settled by the army. Other cities were settled by army veterans, but here the citizens were on active duty; the city was, for practical purposes, an army base. Despite the destruction of most of the Jewish villages around Jerusalem the Romans still feared another Jewish revolt.

Aelia Capitolina was built according to the classic Roman pattern, in the shape of a square. This Roman design is visible to this day in Jerusalem's Old City. The city had four gates, one of each side of town (now called Damascus, Jaffa, Zion and Lions' Gates). The main entrance was Damascus Gate, and a new road connected it to Caesarea. Damascus Gate was originally built as a triumphal arch. The Romans frequently adorned their cities with victory arches, which were sometimes located outside the city walls, to impress visitors with the architectural skill and power of Rome. Part of the Roman gate can be seen today below the present Damascus Gate. Behind the gate was a pillar which was probably adorned with a bust of the emperor. Two main streets originating at Damascus Gate crossed the city. Part of one of these streets, the cardo, is in the Old City's Jewish Quarter.

The cardo, which was enhanced and extended during the Byzantine period, extended 950 meters from Damascus Gate to Mount Zion. The Roman engineers who strove to pave straight, level streets had to contend with Jerusalem's hilly topography. On the southern side of the cardo they had to lower the ground level by cutting through the rock, while on the northern side they raised the level. The cardo, which was 22.5 meters wide, served as the town's shopping center. It was lined with two parallel sets of columns five meters high adorned with capitals. The cardo is depicted on the Medeba map, a mosaic map of the world dating from the second half of the sixth century on the floor of a church in Jordan. During the restoration of the Jewish Quarter after the Six Day War, part of the cardo was discovered and restored. All of the paving stones were dug up and replaced. Today, it is the only cardo in Israel which is again functioning as a shopping area.

There were three more monumental victory arches in the city. The most famous is called Ecce Homo ("Behold the man"). Based on the style of the arch, which has three entrances, most archaeologists assume it was built during Hadrian's reign. However, many contend that the arch existed in the days of Jesus. Medieval Christian sources relate that Jesus was tried by the Romans nearby and claim that this is the spot where the Roman procurator Pilate presented Jesus to the people (John 19:5). Today the arch and the pavement (lithostrotos) which has games from Roman times incised in the stones, are part of the Via Dolorosa.

Just as David built his altar on the site of the Jebusite altar some thousand years earlier, the Romans built two temples to displace Jewish and Christian worship at Jerusalem's holy sites. On the Temple Mount Hadrian built a temple to Jupiter. Literary sources refers to two statutes on the Temple Mount, one of them of Hadrian. An inscription which was found in secondary use on the Mount refers to Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161). On the traditional site of the crucifixion Hadrian built a temple to Aphrodite. This temple was torn down about 200 hundred years later by the Byzantines, who reclaimed the site for Christianity by building the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Under the church archaeologists found retaining walls built to artificially elevate the base of the pagan temple, just as Herod did when he leveled and expanded the Temple Mount.

A Roman relief found near the Sheep's Pool (on the northwest side of Jerusalem) was probably connected with the worship of Asclepias, the Greco-Roman god of healing. Christian tradition identifies this site as Bethesda Pool, where Jesus healed the sick (John 5:1-15).

Jerusalem's new status as a Roman colony entitled the residents to many tax benefits not awarded to citizens of a regular polis. From written sources and coins we learn that many gods were worshipped in Jerusalem at this time: Jupiter, Aphrodite, Asclepias, Dionysus, Tiche (the goddess of fortune) and Nemesis (the goddess of revenge, one of the symbols of Rome). However, neither tax breaks, the patronage of the gods, the baths, hippodrome, nor the elegant cardos and forums built at this time were enough to motivate people to make their homes at Aelia Capitolina. For the Romans Aelia Capitolina was just another town. Only as the religious center of the Jews during the days of the Temple, or under the Byzantine Christians, did the city flourish and draw pilgrims.

Over the years the city lost its military character. As soldiers married local women Aelia Capitolina became less Roman and more eastern in its character. After more than 200 years of service in Jerusalem, in 289 the Tenth Legion was transferred to Eilat. The emperors in the late second and early third century shared good relations with the Jews. A small Jewish community was established in Jerusalem and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was resumed on a small scale.

At the beginning of the fourth century the emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, and in the course of the next two centuries the Roman Empire became Christian. The 250-year attempt to make Jerusalem over as a pagan city did not succeed. The main impact of Roman rule in Jerusalem was in its urban design, the division of the city into four quarters. Perhaps the pagan designers of Aelia Capitolina also influenced the course of the city walls. It is also possible, though the not clear, if the walls or Jerusalem were rebuilt at the end of the third century or later in the Byzantine period. The present walls of the Old City were built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, but they basically follow the course of the Roman walls.

We will see in the next class how Jerusalem developed from a small pagan city under Roman rule to a large Christian city in the Byzantine Empire.

The first six lectures were written by Yisrael Shalem. The next six were prepared by David Eisenstadt.

[prev.] [index] [next]

This page last modified Thursday, March 27,1997