By tradition it was on this date in 70 CE that Roman Legions under the command of Titus Flavius Vespasianus, the future Emperor Titus, set fire to the Second Temple in Jerusalem destroying it and much of the city. The date is commemorated by Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Hebrew Calendar.
In 66 The Zealots had risen up and expelled the Romans from the Judean capital. They had held sway there for four years. But they were divided by factionalism and were actively opposed by the Pharisees and the Sadducees who were bitter about the Zealot’s lack of obedience to traditional Jewish law and the authority of the priests of the Temple. They also felt that the Zealots uncompromising anti-Roman militancy put the whole the Jewish people at risk.
Of course the Romans were not used to losing territory that they considered their own. Titus arrived with his Legions earlier in the year and began to lay siege to the city. They choked off most commerce to the city and encouraged starvation in the city by allowing pilgrims from the countryside to enter the city swelling the population and then not allowing them to return. Want in the city was reportedly made worse by the Zealots burning years of accumulated food and firewood reserves supposedly in order to make the people desperate to break the siege according by hostile Rabbinic scholars writing a century later.
Much of what we know about the siege and the destruction of the Temple, in fact, comes from hostile sources as the Zealots in the city were largely massacred and survivors died later in the siege of Masada. In addition to the Rabbinic accounts we have the writings of Josephus, a former leader of the uprising in the north who was captured by the Romans in 67 CE. Eventually he was freed by the Emperor Vespasian and became a Roman citizen. He accompanied the Emperor’s son Titus as a translator on the expiation and took the Roman name Titus Flavius Josephus. He is the same historian who made the only near contemporary notice of the life of Jesus.
Josephus was dispatched by Titus to enter the city and attempt to negotiate a settlement. Not only was the overture repulsed, but Josephus was wounded by an arrow. Titus then stepped up the siege, breaching the third and second city walls by battering ram in May.
Turning their attention to the Fortress of Antonia just north of the Temple Mount, the Legions became engaged in vicious street fighting, slowly pushing the Zealots back to a last stand in the Temple itself while taking heavy casualties. The casualties, along with others sustained in various break-outs to secure food and hector the Roman rear, enraged the troops who were clamping at the bit against Titus’s supposed policy of moderation and eventual conciliation with the Jews. At least as Josephus told it later.
The Fortress of Antonia finally fell giving the Romans a commanding presence over the Temple. While the Temple walls were too thick to be breached by battering ram, Legionnaires could pepper the Temple compound with arrows, stones and other missiles. Despite Titus’s orders that the Temple not be destroyed, it was set ablaze by burning fagots which ignited the roofs of adjacent building. It was engulfed in flames, as was much of the city. The walls were breached and troops threw the stones from them onto adjacent streets where some of them can still be seen. When the fire went out, only the Western Wall was left standing of the second Temple, which had been built by Herod the Great only 90 earlier on the site of the Temple of Solomon which itself was destroyed 700 years earlier.
Some of the Zealots escaped the city. Most of the survivors retreated to the north of the city for a last stand. The Romans constructed siege towers and breached the final wall to the north, eradicating resistance by early September.
Titus ordered the complete destruction of the city, its suburbs and the temple, and the slaughter of the inhabitants. According to Josephus over a million were killed, an impossible number, but surely tens of the thousands. Here is a bit of his account:
Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other work to be done), [Titus] Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as they were of the greatest eminence; that is, Phasaelus, and Hippicus, and Mariamne; and so much of the wall enclosed the city on the west side. This wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison [in the Upper City], as were the towers [the three forts] also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but for all the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind…
And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it…
The slaughter within was even more dreadful than the spectacle from without. Men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage. The number of the slain exceeded that of the slayers. The legionaries had to clamber over heaps of dead to carry on the work of extermination.
For his part, Titus was lionized as a hero in Rome, although he modestly—or perhaps politically shrewdly—declined the Laurel wreath claiming that he was only acting on the will of the gods. Still he allowed a triumphant arch to be erected, which still stands to this day. On it can be seen the looting of the Temple including carrying away as treasure the holy Menorah from the Holy of Holies.
The Siege of Masada in 73 or 74 CE effectively ended Jewish resistance to Roman rule. Although some remained, even in the destroyed city of Jerusalem itself, many survivors fled to the east, the north and around the Mediterranean, where there were already well established Jewish communities. Within centuries the Diaspora had spread as far east as China and India, into Abyssinia and points south in Africa, through the lands occupied by the spread of Islam and deep into Europe.
Judea was repopulated mostly by waves of neighboring Semitic peoples of various origins, including after the Muslim conquest, Arabs. Together these disparate people would eventually forge an identity as Palestinians.
So much even modern history is thus tied up with the foggy events of antiquity.