IT was August 10, the day already darkened in the Jewish calendar by the destruction of the former Temple by the king of Babylon: that day was almost past. Titus withdrew again into the Antonia, intending the next morning to make a general assault. The quiet summer evening came on; the setting sun shone for the last time on the snow-white walls and glistening pinnacles of the Temple roof. Titus had retired to rest; when suddenly a wild and terrible cry was heard, and a man came rushing in, announcing that the Temple was on fire. Some of the besieged, notwithstanding their repulse in the morning, had sallied out to attack the men who were busily employed in extinguishing the fires about the cloisters. The Romans not merely drove them back, but, entering the sacred space with them, forced their way to the door of the Temple. A soldier, without orders, mounting on the shoulders of one of his comrades, threw a blazing brand into a small gilded door on the north side of the chambers, in the outer building or porch. The flames sprang up at once. The Jews uttered one simultaneous shriek, and grasped their swords with a furious determination of revenging and perishing in the ruins of the Temple. Titus rushed down with the utmost speed: he shouted, he made signs to his soldiers to quench the fire: his voice was drowned, and his signs unnoticed, in the blind confusion. The legionaries either could not or would not hear: they rushed on, trampling each other down in their furious haste, or, stumbling over the crumbling ruins; perished with the enemy. Each exhorted the other, and each hurled his blazing brand into the inner part of the edifice, and then hurried to his work of carnage. The unarmed and defenceless people were slain in thousands; they lay heaped like sacrifices, round the altar; the steps of the Temple ran with streams of blood, which washed down the bodies that lay about.
Titus found it impossible to check the rage of the soldiery; he entered with his officers, and surveyed the interior of the sacred edifice. The splendour filled them with wonder; and as the flames had not yet penetrated to the Holy Place, he made a last effort to save it, and springing forth, again exhorted the soldiers to stay the progress of the conflagration. The centurion Liberalis endeavoured to force obedience with his staff of office,; but even respect for the emperor gave way to the furious animosity against the Jews, to the fierce excitement of battle, and to the insatiable hope of plunder. The soldiers saw everything around them radiant with gold, which shone dazzlingly in the wild light of the flames; they supposed that incalculable treasures were laid up in the sanctuary. A soldier, unperceived, thrust a lighted torch between the hinges of the door: the whole building was in flames in an instant. The blinding smoke and fire forced the officers to retreat, and the noble edifice was left to its fate.
It was an appalling spectacle to the Roman—what was it to the Jew? The whole summit of the hill which commanded the city blazed like a volcano. One after another the buildings fell in, with a tremendous crash, and were swallowed up in the fiery abyss. The roofs of cedar were like sheets of flame: the gilded pinnacles shone like spikes of red light: the gate towers sent up tall columns of flame and smoke. The neighbouring hills were lighted up; and dark groups of people were seen watching in horrible anxiety the progress of the destruction: the walls and heights of the upper city were crowded with faces, some pale with the agony of despair, others scowling unavailing vengeance. The shouts of the Roman soldiery as they ran to and fro, and the howlings of the insurgents who were perishing in the flames, mingled with the roaring of the conflagration and the thundering sound of falling timbers. The echoes of the mountains replied or brought back the shrieks of the people on the heights: all along the walls resounded screams and wailings: men who were expiring with famine, rallied their remaining strength to utter a cry of anguish and desolation.
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. John, at the head of some of his troops, cut his way through, first into the outer court of the Temple, afterwards into the upper city. Some of the priests upon the roof wrenched off the gilded spikes, with their sockets of lead, and used them as missiles against the Romans below. Afterwards they fled to a part of the wall, about fourteen feet wide; they were summoned to surrender; but two of them, Mair, son of Belga, and Joseph, son of Dalai, plunged headlong into the flames.
No part escaped the fury of the Romans. The treasuries with all their wealth of money, jewels, and costly robes—the plunder which the Zealots had laid up—were totally destroyed. Nothing remained but a small part of the outer cloister, in which about 6000 unarmed and defenceless people, with women and children, had taken refuge. These poor wretches, like multitudes of others, had been led up to the Temple by a false prophet, who had proclaimed that God commanded all the Jews to go up to the Temple, where he would display his Almighty power to save his people. The soldiers set fire to the building: every soul perished.
For during all this time false prophets, suborned by the Zealots, had kept the people in a state of feverish excitement, as though the appointed Deliverer would still appear. They could not, indeed, but remember the awful, the visible signs which had preceded the siege—the fiery sword, the armies fighting in the air; the opening of the great gate, the fearful voice within the sanctuary, 'Let us depart;' the wild cry of Jesus, son of Ananus —'Woe, woe to the city!' which he had continued from the government of Albinus to the time of the siege, when he suddenly stopped, shrieked out — Woe to myself! and was struck dead by a stone. Yet the undying hopes of fierce fanaticism were kept alive by the still renewed prediction of that Great One, who would at this time arise out of Judaea, and assume the dominion of the world. This prophecy the flattering Josephus declared to be accomplished in the Roman, Vespasian; but more patriotic interpreters still, to the last, expected to see it fulfilled in the person of the conquering Messiah, who would reveal himself in the darkest hour, wither the Roman legions with one word, and then transfer the seat of empire from the Capitol to Sion.
The whole Roman army entered the sacred precincts and pitched their standards among the smoking ruins; they offered sacrifice for the victory, and with loud acclamations saluted Titus as emperor. Their joy was not a little enhanced by the value of the plunder they had obtained, which was so great that gold fell in Syria to half its former value.