The Jews
Book Five (1-13) of The Histories by Tacitus

1. At the beginning of the same year (1) Titus Caesar, who had been selected by his father to complete the conquest of Judaea and already enjoyed a reputation as a general when Vespasian and he began to be talked of, received added support and recognition, as provinces and armies vied in displaying their enthusiasm. He was anxious to live up to his new position by cutting a fine figure and showing enterprise in arms. His polite and affable manners gained him devoted followers. In military duties and on the march he often mixed with the ordinary soldiers without sacrificing the respect due to a commanding officer.

Awaiting him in Judaea were three legions that had long served under Vespasian — the Fifth, Tenth and Fifteenth. The emperor also allotted him the Twelfth from Syria and the drafts from the Twenty-Second and the Third brought up from Alexandria. He was attended by twenty cohorts of allied infantry and eight regiments of cavalry, as well as by the two kings Agrippa and Sohaemus and the supporting forces offered by King Antiochus. (2) Then there were strong levies of Arabs, who felt for the Jews the hatred common between neighbours, and many individual adventurers from Rome and Italy who for various reasons hoped to ingratiate themselves with an emperor whose ear might still be gained. This then was the army with which Titus entered enemy territory. (3) He advanced in an orderly fashion, maintaining good reconnaissance and a state of readiness for battle, and encamped at no great distance from Jerusalem.

2. As I am now to record the death-agony of a famous city, it seems appropriate to inform the reader of its origins. The Jews are said to have been refugees from the island of Crete who settled in the remotest corner of Libya in the days when, according to the story, Saturn was driven from his throne by the aggression of Jupiter. This is a deduction from the name 'Judaei' by which they became known: the word is to be regarded as a barbarous lengthening of 'Idaei', the name of the people dwelling around the famous Mount Ida in Crete. A few authorities hold that in the reign of Isis the surplus population of Egypt was evacuated to neighbouring lands under the leadership of Hierosolymus and Judas. Many assure us that the Jews are descended from those Ethiopians who were driven by fear and hatred to emigrate from their home country when Cepheus was king. There are some who say that a motley collection of landless Assyrians occupied a part of Egypt, and then built cities of their own, inhabiting the lands of the Hebrews and the nearer parts of Syria. Others again find a famous ancestry for the Jews in the Solymi who are mentioned with respect in the epics of Homer: this tribe is supposed to have founded Jerusalem (4) and named it after themselves.

3. Most authorities, however, agree on the following account. The whole of Egypt was once plagued by a wasting disease which caused bodily disfigurement. So Pharaoh Bocchoris (5) went to the oracle of Hammon to ask for a cure, and was told to purify his kingdom by expelling the victims to other lands, as they lay under a divine curse. Thus a multitude of sufferers was rounded up, herded together, and abandoned in the wilderness. Here the exiles tearfully resigned themselves to their fate. But one of them, who was called Moses, urged his companions not to wait passively for help from god or man, for both had deserted them: they should trust to their own initiative and to whatever guidance first helped them to extricate themselves from their present plight. They agreed, and started off at random into the unknown. But exhaustion set in, chiefly through lack of water, and the level plain was already strewn with the bodies of those who had collapsed and were at their last gasp when a herd of wild asses left their pasture and made for the shade of a wooded crag. Moses followed them and was able to bring to light a number of abundant channels of water whose presence he had deduced from a grassy patch of ground. This relieved their thirst. They travelled on for six days without a break, and on the seventh they expelled the previous inhabitants of Canaan, took over their lands and in them built a holy city and temple.

4. In order to secure the allegiance of his people in the future, Moses prescribed for them a novel religion quite different from those of the rest of mankind. Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred; on the other hand they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral. In the innermost part of the Temple, they consecrated an image of the animal which had delivered them from their wandering and thirst, choosing a ram as beast of sacrifice to demonstrate, so it seems, their contempt for Hammon. (6) The bull is also offered up, because the Egyptians worship it as Apis. They avoid eating pork in memory of their tribulations, as they themselves were once infected with the disease to which this creature is subject. (7) They still fast frequently as an admission of the hunger they once endured so long, and to symbolize their hurried meal the bread eaten by the Jews is unleavened. We are told that the seventh day was set aside for rest because this marked the end of their toils. In course of time the seductions of idleness made them devote every seventh year to indolence as well. Others say that this is a mark of respect to Saturn, either because they owe the basic principles of their religion to the Idaei, who, we are told, were expelled in the company of Saturn and became the founders of the Jewish race, or because, among the seven stars that rule mankind, the one that describes the highest orbit and exerts the greatest influence is Saturn. A further argument is that most of the heavenly bodies complete their path and revolutions in multiples of seven.

5. Whatever their origin, these observances are sanctioned by their antiquity. The other practices of the Jews are sinister and revolting, and have entrenched themselves by their very wickedness. Wretches of the most abandoned kind who had no use for the religion of their fathers took to contributing dues and free-will offerings to swell the Jewish exchequer; and other reasons for their increasing wealth may be found in their stubborn loyalty and ready benevolence towards brother Jews. But the rest of the world they confront with the hatred reserved for enemies. They will not feed or inter-marry with gentiles. Though a most lascivious people, the Jews avoid sexual intercourse with women of alien race. Among themselves nothing is barred. They have introduced the practice of circumcision to show that they are different from others. Proselytes to Jewry adopt the same practices, and the very first lesson they learn is to despite the gods, shed all feelings of patriotism, and consider parents, children and brothers as readily expendable. However, the Jews see to it that their numbers increase. It is a deadly sin to kill a born or unborn child, and they think that eternal life is granted to those who die in battle or execution—hence their eagerness to have children, and their contempt for death. Rather than cremate their dead, they prefer to bury them in imitation of the Egyptian fashion, and they have the same concern and beliefs about the world below. But their conception of heavenly things is quite different. The Egyptians worship a variety of animals and half-human, half-bestial forms, whereas the Jewish religion is a purely spiritual monotheism. They hold it to be impious to make idols of perishable materials in the likeness of man: for them, the Most High and Eternal cannot be portrayed by human hands and will never pass away. For this reason they erect no images in their cities, still less in their temple. Their kings are not so flattered, the Roman emperors not so honoured. However, their priests used to perform their chants to the flute and drums, crowned with ivy, and a golden vine was discovered in the Temple; and this has led some to imagine that the god thus worshipped was Prince Liber, (8) the conqueror of the East. But the two cults are diametrically opposed. Liber founded a festive and happy cult: the Jewish belief is paradoxical and degraded.

6. Their country and its limits are bounded on the east by Arabia, on the south by Egypt, and on the west by Phoenicia and the sea; of the north they have a distant view on the side towards Syria. The health of the Jews is good, and their physique sturdy. A dry climate and a fertile soil enable them to grow all the crops familiar to us, and in addition, balsam and palm. While palm-groves are notable for height and beauty, the balsam is a small tree. From time to time its branches swell, and if a steel knife is applied to them, the tubes which convey the sap receive a shock; so an incision is made with a fragment of stone or a potsherd, the sap being put to medicinal uses. The highest mountain to which Palestine rises is Lebanon, which, surprisingly enough in this semi-tropical climate, is thickly wooded and keeps unfalteringly its covering of snow. Its slopes feed the tumbling waters of the Jordan. This river does not empty itself into the Mediterranean, but flows through two lakes without losing its identity until it is finally absorbed in a third. This third lake resembles a sea in the vast extent of its circumference, but its water is even nastier to the taste, and unhealthy exhalations cause disease among those who live on its banks. Never ruffled by the wind, it admits the presence of neither fish nor water-fowl. The water if water it be—sustains objects thrown upon it as if it were solid, and swimmers and non-swimmers find it equally buoyant. At a fixed season of the year the lake discharges bitumen. Experience teaches every skill, and has shown men how to gather this substance too. In its natural state a black liquid, it solidifies when sprinkled with vinegar, and floats on the surface of the water. Those who have the job of gathering the bitumen take hold of it with their hands ant haul it on deck. Thereupon it follows automatically in a continuous stream which fills the boat until it is severed. But to sever it is quite impossible with any tool of bronze or iron, though it shuns blood or a cloth contaminated with a woman's menses. This is the story told by ancient writers; but those who know the locality personally say that the floating masses of bitumen are propelled by hand over the water and dragged on land. Then, after it has dried out on the hot soil or in the blazing sun, it can be cut up with axes and wedges as if it were timber or stone.

7. Not far from the Dead Sea is a plain which tradition says was consumed by lightning, though it was once fruitful and supported great and populous cities. (9) It seems that the ruins of these cities can still be traced, and that the very earth looks scorched and has lost its fertility. All natural vegetation and all crops sown by the hand of man, no matter whether in the blade, in the flower, or apparently fully developed, are blackened and insubstantial growths that crumble into a species of powder. Personally I am quite prepared to grant that once-famous cities may have been burnt up by fire from heaven, but I also think that the exhalation from the lake infects the ground and poisons the atmosphere above it, and that this is the reason why the young corn and the harvests of autumn rot: both soil and air are unfavourable. I should add that one of the rivers flowing into the Jewish Sea is the Belius, at whose mouth are sands which are collected and fused with natron to form glass. The beach concerned is small and yet inexhaustible whatever the quantities removed.

8. Much of Judea is thickly studded with villages, and the Jews have towns as well. Their capital is Jerusalem. Here stood their Temple with its boundless riches. Outer defences covered the city; then came the royal palace; and the Temple was enclosed by an inner bulwark. The Jew, and the Jew alone, was allowed to approach the gate of the Temple, and all but priests were denied access within its threshold.

While the Assyrian, Median and Persian Empires dominated the East, the Jews were slaves regarded as the lowest of the low. In the Hellenistic period, King Antiochus (10) made an effort to get rid of their primitive cult and hellenize them, but his would-be reform of this degraded nation was foiled by the outbreak of war with Parthia, for this was the moment of Arsaces' insurrection. (11) Then, since the Hellenistic rulers were weak and the Parthians had not yet developed into a great power (Rome, too, was still far away), the Jews established a dynasty of their own. These kings were expelled by the fickle mob, but regained control by force, setting up a reign of terror which embraced, among other typical acts of despotism, the banishment of fellow-citizens, the destruction of cities, and the murder of brothers, wives and parents. The kings encouraged the superstitious Jewish religion, for they assumed the office of High Priest in order to buttress their regime.

9. Roman control of Judaea was first established by Gnaeus Pompey. As victor (12) he claimed the right to enter the Temple, and this incident gave rise to the common impression that it contained no representation of the deity—the sanctuary was empty and the Holy of Holies untenanted. Though the walls of Jerusalem were dismantled, the shrine remained intact. During the civil war which then afflicted the Roman world, the eastern provinces passed under the control of Mark Antony and Judaea was conquered by the Parthian king Pacorus. But the invader was killed by Publius Ventidius, and the Parthians driven back across the Euphrates, while Gaius Sosius brought the Jews to heel. (13) Antony gave the kingdom to Herod, and it was enlarged by the now victorious Augustus. At Herod's death, without waiting for the imperial decision, a certain Simon usurped the title of king. He was dealt with by the governor of Syria, Quintilius Varus, (14) while the Jews were disciplined and divided up into three kingdoms ruled by Herod's sons. (15) In Tiberius' reign all was quiet. Then, rather than put up a statue of Gaius Caesar in the Temple as they had been ordered, the Jews flew to arms, though the rebellion came to nothing owing to the assassination of the emperor. (16) As for Claudius, he took advantage of the death or declining fortunes of the Jewish kings to commit the government of the province to Roman knights or freedmen. One of these, Antonius Felix, played the tyrant with the spirit of a slave, plunging into all manner of cruelty and lust, and marrying Drusilla, grand-daughter of Cleopatra and Antony. This meant that while Claudius was Antony's grandson, Felix was his grandson by marriage.

10. However, the Jews patiently endured their fate until Gessius Florus became governor. (17) During his term of office war broke out. An attempt by Cestius Gallus, governor of Syria, to repress the movement led to indecisive battles and more often to defeats. When Gallus died a natural death—or else committed suicide in mortification—Nero sent out Vespasian. Good luck, a distinguished record and excellent subordinates enabled him within the space of two summers (18) to plant his victorious flag throughout the whole of the flat country and in all the cities except Jerusalem. The next year was preoccupied by the civil war and passed without activity so far as the Jews were concerned, but when peace reigned in Italy foreign affairs once more claimed attention. Rising anger was felt at the fact that by this time only the Jews had failed to submit. It also seemed advisable that Titus should remain at the head of the armies to cope with all the eventualities or mishaps which might confront a new dynasty.

11. So after encamping, as I have said, before the walls of Jerusalem, he paraded his legions in formation before the eyes of the enemy. The Jews, marshalled close under their walls, were in a position to venture further out if they were successful and had a place of refuge ready at hand in case of defeat. Titus sent against them cavalry and some cohorts in battle order, but the encounter was indecisive. Then the enemy gave ground, and for some days thereafter fought a succession of engagements just in front of the gates. Finally, repeated losses drove them behind the walls. The Romans then concentrated on an assault. After all, it seemed beneath them to wait for hunger to do its work on the enemy, and the troops actually asked to be allowed to risk their lives. Some did so because they had real courage, many from mere bravado and a desire for rewards. As for Titus, his imagination dwelt on Rome, wealth and pleasure: it would be long before these dreams were realized if Jerusalem were destined not to fall in the immediate future.

But the city occupied a commanding position, and it had been reinforced by engineering works so massive that they might have rendered even a flat site impregnable. Two lofty hills were enclosed by walls skilfully staggered and forming re-entrant angles designed to expose the flank of an attacker. At the edge of the crags was a sharp drop, and a series of towers dominated the scene, 105 feet high where the rising ground helped, and 135 or 120 feet high on the lower contours. (19) These presented an impressive appearance, and to the distant observer seemed to be on a level. There were further walls inside around the palace, and a conspicuous landmark was the lofty castle of Antonia, so named by Herod in honour of Mark Antony.

12. The Temple was like a citadel and had its own walls, which had been even more laboriously and skilfully constructed than the rest. The porticoes around it constituted in themselves an excellent defensive position. To these advantages must be added a spring of never-failing water, chambers cut in the living rock, and tanks and cisterns for the storage of rainwater. Its builders had foreseen only too well that the strange practices of the Jews would lead to continual fighting. Hence everything was available for a siege, however long. Moreover, after Pompey's capture of Jerusalem, fear and experience taught them many lessons. So taking advantage of the money-grubbing instincts of the Claudian period, they purchased permission to fortify the city, and in the days of peace built walls meant for war. Already the home of a motley concourse, its population had been swollen by the fall of the other Jewish cities, for the most determined partisan leaders escaped to the capital, and thereby added to the turmoil. There were three different leaders and three armies. The long outer perimeter of the walls was held by Simon, the central part of the city by John, and the Temple by Eleazar. John and Simon could rely on numbers and equipment, Eleazar on his strategic position. But it was upon each other that they turned the weapons of battle, ambush and fire, and great stocks of corn went up in flames. Then John sent off a party of men, ostensibly to offer sacrifice but in reality to cut Eleazar and his followers to pieces, thus gaining possession of the Temple. Hence-forward, therefore, Jerusalem was divided between two factions, until, on the approach of the Romans, fighting the foreigner healed the breach between them.

13. Prodigies had occurred, but their expiation by the offering of victims or solemn vows is held to be unlawful by a nation which is the slave of superstition and the enemy of true beliefs. In the sky appeared a vision of armies in conflict, of glittering armour. A sudden lightning flash from the clouds lit up the Temple. The doors of the holy place abruptly opened, a superhuman voice was heard to declare that the gods were leaving it, and in the same instant came the rushing tumult of their departure. Few people placed a sinister interpretation upon this. The majority were convinced that the ancient scriptures of their priests alluded to the present as the very time when the Orient would triumph and from Judaea would go forth men destined to rule the world. This mysterious prophecy really referred to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, true to the selfish ambitions of mankind, thought that this mighty destiny was reserved for them, and not even their calamities opened their eyes to the truth.

We are told that the number of the besieged, old and young, men and women, amounted to 600,000. All who could bear arms did so, and more than their numbers warranted had the courage necessary. They displayed an inflexible determination, women no less than men, and the thought that they might be compelled to leave their home made them more afraid of living than of dying.

This, then, was the city and nation which Titus faced. Since a headlong assault and the element of surprise were ruled out by the lie of the ground, he proposed to employ earthworks and mantlets. Each legion had its allotted task, and there was a lull in the fighting while they pushed on with the construction of every conceivable device for storming Cities, whether invented long ago or due to the ingenuity of modern times.

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