In the history of Jerusalem, the events surrounding the Bar Cochva revolt provide one of the saddest chapters. The grassroots, guerrilla war waged by Jews in the areas around Jerusalem and lost, precipitated a heretofore unknown situation in Jerusalem – the banning of Jews from the city. One persistent question which surrounds the revolt is the response of the Romans. Why were these decrees made at that time and not after the destruction of the Temple and the Upper City in 70 CE?
A part of the answer to this question, I believe, is in the story behind a less well-known revolt – the Kitos War.
The prelude to this story happened in the 6th century BCE. In the year 586 BCE the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and many Jews were exiled to Babylonia. A few decades passed and the Babylonians were overthrown by the Persians. Under this new Persian leadership, Cyrus the Great allowed Jews to return to Judea and build the Second Temple, dedicating it 70 years after the destruction of the First Temple. Humans are creatures of habit and so when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jews expected something similar: a change in leadership, a return from exile, followed by rebuilding the Third Temple and its subsequent dedication around the year 140 CE.
The Romans, however, showed no hint of being overthrown. One strong Roman Emperor followed another. Decades passed and the Jews wondered when the tide would change. An opportunity presented itself during the time that Trajan, the Roman emperor, went on a campaign in 113 CE against the Parthians.
A few years later, in 115 CE, the Jewish community in Cyrene, Libya saw their chance to make a big move against the Romans, who were busy with Parthia. They destroyed Roman temples in Libya and marched on Alexandria, Egypt. They took control of Cyprus and decimated Crete before turning to Palestine and mobilizing Jewish communities in Mesopotamia. A bloody battle in 117 CE outside of Lod of today, in which Roman general Lusius Quietus and a Roman Legion defeated the rebels, marked the end of the advance of the exiles.
The Jewish Kitos revolt (named after a corruption of the Roman general Lusius Quietus) was put down, but not without consequence. One decree against the Jews as a punishment for their violence and destruction against the island of Crete was documented by Dio Cassius (155-235 CE):
“For this reason, no Jew may set foot on that Island [Crete]. And even if one of them is driven upon its shores by a storm, he is put to death.” Cassius Dio 31 LXXCV
Hadrian, who was part of the household of Trajan, had gone to the Levant to be part of the Parthian War. He was appointed governor of Syria and given independent military control there and surely was influenced by the Kitos revolt. After Trajan died on August 8, 117 CE, Hadrian assumed the office of Roman Emperor.
I think it likely that Hadrian’s experience with the Kitos revolt influenced his response to the Bar Cochva revolt in Palestine in 132-135 CE. After crushing the revolt, he made decrees exiling Jews from Jerusalem and other changes designed to stamp out any possibility of Jewish revolt in the future.
Hadrian’s decrees would hold a lot of influence, directly and indirectly, for the next almost 2000 years. Jews continued to be banned from the city for hundreds of years and they shied away from armed struggle. Even when Jews did return, the Third Temple would not be built and Jewish hegemony would not return until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Ancient Jerusalem, the Old City, would not return to Jewish rule until 1967.
Thanks to my friend, Shlomo, for his insights and encouragement to learn more.