by Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
As we begin the Nine Days, knowing the historical background of the churban helps us mourn its destruction. Tisha B’Av is the culmination, of course, of two national tragedies: the loss of the first Beis HaMikdash as well as the Second Beis HaMikdash.
To understand the historical background that existed in the years before the destruction of the second Bais HaMikdash, it pays to note what historians write. As in all history, the viewpoints of those who record it are biased and may be unreliable. Josephus, for example, will often tweak various points of history to fit his agenda.
Nonetheless, in many places, Josephus has proven to be relatively accurate. Much of the background here makes use of what Josephus has written, as well as the Roman historians Tacitus, and Cassius Dio. This helps us understand the background to our Gemorahs that discuss the churban. The information here has been further augmented by archaeological discoveries. Before we begin, let us start with some key dates:
• Rome annexed Syria and made it a Roman province in the 64 BCE.
• Rome made Eretz Yisroel into a client state in 63 BCE – one year later.
• Rome made Eretz Yisroel into the province of Judea in 6 CE.
• The Bais HaMikdash was destroyed in the year 70 CE.
• The Revolt of Bar Kochva began in 132 CE – a full sixty two years after the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash. It ended in the year 135 CE.
• In 135 CE, after being incensed by the revolt of Bar Kochva, Emperor Hadrian combined Judaea province and Syria province and created the Syria Palaestina province.
• Rome fell in 476 CE.
The civil war within Klal Yisroel was the event that got Rome first involved in the affairs of Eretz Yisroel. The Queen Shlom-Tzion had recently died and her sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, divided against each other in a terrible civil war.
The Romans, as usual, were in the midst of fighting a war. In 64 BCE, Rome soon emerged victorious in the Third Mithridatic War. As a result, Pompey had annexed Syria as a new Roman Province. Eretz Yisroel, however, did not become a province of Rome just yet. It first began as a client state and then eventually, forty-three years later, became the province of Judea.
In 63 BCE, Aristobulus II was besieged in Yerushalayim by his brother Hyrcanus II’s armies. Aristobulus sent a messenger to Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, Pompey’s representative in the area. Scaurus was also Pompey’s brother-in-law. Aristobulus offered a massive bribe to be rescued from his brother, which Pompey accepted.
But Scaurus began extorting Aristobulus. Afterwards, Aristobulus levied accusations to Pompey. Since Scaurus was Pompey’s brother in law and protégé, the general retaliated by putting Hyrcanus in charge of the kingdom as Ethnarch and High Priest, but was not given the title of King.
Pompey the Great seized Yerushalayim in 63 BCE. He profaned the Holy Bais HaMikdash by entering the Kodesh Hakodashim. The Kodash haKodashim, the Holy of Holies, was only entered once per year and only by the Kohain Gadol.
ENTER JULIUS CAESAR
When Pompey was defeated by Julius Caesar, Hyrcanus was succeeded by his courtier Antipater the Idumaean, also known as Antipas, as the first Roman Procurator. In 57–55 BCE, Aulus Gabinius, proconsul of Syria, split the former Chashmonaic Kingdom of Israel into five districts of the Sanhedrin.
ENTER HURDUS (HEROD)
Both Caesar and Antipater were killed in 44 BCE, and Hurdus the Great, Antipater’s son, was designated “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 BCE.
Hurdus did not gain military control, however, until 3 years later in 37 BCE. During his reign the last representatives of the Maccabees were eliminated, and the great port of Caesarea Maritima was built.
Roman rule was harsh. When 23 years later, the Parthians invaded Eretz Yisroel (40 BCE), they were greeted enthusiastically by the Jews. The Parthians appointed a king from Bais Chashmonai.
Rome was livid. The famous Roman legions were dispatched. There was a second bloody siege of Yerushalayim. And now Hurdus, that evil blood-thirsty puppet-king, was installed over Klal Yisroel in the year 37 BCE. He was hated deeply by the people.
Hurdus ruled for 33 years. He died in 4 BCE. Emperor Augustus then divided up Eretz Yisroel among Hurdus’s three sons, who became tetrarchs. One of these tetrarchies was Judea corresponding to the territory of the tribe of Judah, plus Samaria and Idumea.
Herod’s son Herod Archelaus, ruled Judea so badly that he was dismissed in 6 CE by the Roman emperor Augustus, after an appeal from his own population.
Augustus then imposed direct Roman rule. This was the beginning of the end, r”l.
Another son of Hurdus, Herod Antipas, however, ruled as tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 BCE to 39 CE, being then dismissed by Emperor Caligula. The third tetrarch, Herod’s son Philip, ruled over the northwestern part of his father’s kingdom.
THE LOSS OF THE BIGDEI KEHUNA
The Bigdei Kehuna that the Kohain Gadol wore on Yom Kippur were taken away and were held by the Romans from the year 6 to the year 36. It signified a loss of autonomy over matters of the Bais HaMikdash.
In the year 35 CE, Lucius Vitellis was appointed Governor of Syria. When he visited Yerushalayim the Jews gave him much honor, and he wished to repay their kindness. He was approached by a delegate of Jews to grant a request. Could the Jews once again have autonomy over the Bigdei Kehuna? Vitellis sought permission from the Emperor. They received the emperor’s permission and for a period of time, the clothing was once again in Jewish hands.
Herod’s grandson, Herod Agrippas I, ruled briefly over a reunited Eretz Yisroel from the year 41- 44 CE. His son Agrippas II ruled over various sections of Eretz Yisroel in the 50’s, but by and large, the period of Roman procurators began.
THE PREFECTS AND PROCURATORS
The Roman procurators administrated the land in what was called the Province of Judea. This was the period of the early Tannaim – those who lived during the time of the Bais haMikdash. Before Judea became a province of Rome, Eretz Yisroel was administered as an annex of Syria. It was thus headed by Romans of a lower rank – prefects, not procurators.
1. The first procurator was Fadus Cuspius (44-46). He tried getting the Bigdei Kehuna back into Roman hands. The Jews, however, succeeded in getting a delegation to Rome where they convinced Emperor Claudius to overturn Fadus’ request. Fadus may have lived during the time where there was a Navi Sheker by the name of Theudas. He told the people that he would split the Yarden. He led a type of revolt of sorts, but before he and his four hundred people could reach the Jordan River, Fadus captured them and killed some. Theudas was beheaded. Fadus’ tenure as procurator caused some unrest, however, and he was soon replaced.
2. The next procurator (46-48 CE) was Tiberius Julius Alexander, who stemmed from a Jewish family in Alexandria. It was thought that Judea would be calmer if the new procurator was of Jewish origin.
Tiberius Julius Alexander’s father was a citizen of Rome, something rather rare for a Jew, and he passed on that citizenship to his sons. Tiberius abandoned his Judaism and rose to high prominence in Rome joining in the Roman military. He was appointed by Emperor Claudius as procurator of Judea. Under his tenure things were calmer, however there was a severe famine during his time.
Tiberius Julius Alexander appears in Philo’s philosophical discourses as someone who argues against Hashgacha pratius.
3. The next procurator was Ventidius Cumanus (48 to 52 CE). During his time there was much discord between Jews and Roman troops. There was a Samaritan murder of Jews which Cumanus ignored, which caused further violence between Jews and Samaritans. Ventidius was partial to the Samaritans and the situation was eventually brought before the governor in Syria. The governor Quadratus eventually replaced Cumanus with Marcus Antonius Felix and banished him. The Jewish side was supported by Aggripas II, who was a friend of Emperor Claudius.
4. Marcus Antonius Felix was the next procurator (52-58 CE). His second wife Drusilla of Judea was a married Jewish woman (an aishes ish) who left her husband and married Felix, abandoning her religion. Eventually, she and her son died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. She is mentioned in the Christian bible (Acts 24:24). There is a wealthy woman whose body was preserved in ash that perhaps may be her.
5. The next procurator was Porceus Festus. His rule lasted roughly from 58 to 62 CE. Prutah coins were minted under his rule in 59 CE. He died in office in 62 CE.
6. Lucceius Albinus was the Roman Procurator of Judea from 62 until 64 CE. Albinus was appointed procurator by the Emperor Nero following the death of his predecessor. Albinus faced his first challenge while traveling from Alexandria to his new position in Judea. The Jewish High Priest Ananus ben Ananus used the opportunity created by Festus’ death to convene the Sanhedrin and have James the brother of Yeshu sentenced to death by stoning for violation of religious law.
A delegation sent by citizens upset over the perceived breach of justice met Albinus before he reached Judea, and Albinus responded with a letter informing Ananus that it was illegal to convene the Sanhedrin without Albinus’ permission and threatening to punish the priest. Ananus was deposed by Agrippa II before Albinus’ arrival.
Immediately upon his arrival in Yerushalayim, Albinus began an effort to remove the sicarii from the region. Josephus also records that Albinus became the friend of a High Priest named Ananus due to the priest’s gift-giving. The sicarii responded to Albinus’s efforts by capturing an assistant to the priest Eleazar, son of Ananus, and demanding the release of ten imprisoned sicarii in exchange for the assistant. The release was arranged by Ananus.
When Albinus learned that he was to be succeeded by Gessius Florus, he emptied the prisons by executing prisoners charged with more serious offenses and allowing the remaining prison population to pay for their release.
7. The procurator whose impact was most devastating was from the Greek city of Klazomenai, located in what is now Turkey. His name was Gessius Florus (64-66CE). Why was he appointed? His wife and the wife of Emperor Nero were close friends. Upon his appointment, Florus began favoring Greek residents over the Jews.
8. Marcus Antonius Julianus, was the eighth and final procurator (66-70 CE). He had taken over the role from Gessius Florus, who had done a poor job in avoiding conflict. He was unable to stop the revolt.
The revolt eventually ended with the Churban Beis HaMikdash, and our additional Galus. May the Beis HaMikdash be restored speedily in our days!
The author can be reached at [email protected]