1. The Defence of the Provinces.—The story of the siege of Jotapata repeated itself throughout the country. One fortified place, and then another, fell after heroic resistance. Tarichea and Gamala and Gischala are names as honourable to the Jews of the first century as are Lucknow and Sebastopol to Englishmen of the nineteenth. To students of history the ancient and the modern names alike recall memories of patience and pluck undaunted by overpowering numbers. But with the Jews the heroism was all in vain. Gamala, like Jotapata, fell, and Gischala was abandoned, and Tarichea was betrayed, and the end was always the same though the means varied. Vespasian and his son Titus, accompanied too by the time-serving Agrippa, pushed northwards through the country in a miserable sort of triumphal progress. The beautiful Lake of Tiberias flushed red as they passed, not in the sunset, but in blood; and gates were opened, not in welcome, but in response to battering-rams. There was a brief lull whilst Vespasian was taking possession of his imperial dignities in Rome, but in 69, when crowned emperor, he thought it quite time, for his own credit’s sake, that the furious little dependency should be completely crushed. Titus was ordered to advance against Jerusalem, the Emperor judging that when the capital should be in the hands of the enemy, the sullen, dogged resistance of the provinces would cease.
2. Affairs in Jerusalem.—The capital was not ready for the foe. It was showing itself stronger in defiance than in defence, and wasting time and energy and supplies in miserable internal strife. There was a war party and a peace party in Jerusalem, and each split up into various factions, and each finding some separate form of expression. The war party were the most numerous and the most noisy. Every one was eager to fight, but every one had his own opinions as to the best manner of fighting; and if each one did not exactly expect to have a post of command himself, he at least held strong views as to the merits and claims of his immediate neighbours. The zealots who had fought under Judas the Galilean in the year 4 had grown fiercer since his time, and worse men had joined, and lowered, the standard of revolt which he had raised. Those who had cried that they would obey only the Law of God, protested now that they would not obey the law of Rome, which was a different position to take up. In effect, it pretty nearly came to mean being a law unto themselves and rejecting all recognised authority. In many cases these men had put themselves into the power of the law, and so had personal reasons for hating and defying it. The other extreme section of the people, the most timid, would have had peace at any price. They cowered at the very name of Rome, and losing their trust in the ‘strong Hand and outstretched Arm,’ grew fearful and superstitious. Strange stories were tremblingly repeated from mouth to mouth of ‘a light that never was on earth or sea,’ which came and went in the starry heavens, and disclosed by fitful gleams an awful conflict raging between awful combatants. Bands of the most lawless of the zealots, under the well-earned name of Sicarii, or assassins, patrolled the streets, whilst the poor souls who saw visions slunk in the shadows. The ‘terror by night’ had come upon the doomed city, the ‘arrow that flieth by day’ was nearing its walls.
3. The War Party and the Peace Party: their Leaders.—In the beginning of his career Josephus had had a rival in a certain John, who was subsequently appointed to the command of Gischala. John conducted the defence of that place ably enough, but was at last compelled to capitulate. He accepted the Roman terms, and then, by flight, evaded them. A delay in admitting the enemy into Gischala had been asked and granted, and John had taken advantage of this delay to make off with all his armed followers. When the Romans marched into the city, there were only women and children there to be led away captive. John reached Jerusalem safely, and, a fugitive in reality, was received as a warrior and a patriot, come to lay his arms at the service of the distracted city. Circumstances, rather than his merits, ensured him a welcome. The true story of the fall of Jotapata had only just reached the capital. News travelled slowly in those days, and the people had supposed Josephus to have died fighting at Jotapata at the head of his men, and had mourned him sincerely as a hero and a martyr. When the secret of the dark cavern became known to them, and they found that the commander whom they had trusted had betrayed his trust, and was a comfortable traitor in the Roman camp, their indignation knew no bounds, and in their rage John of Gischala found his chance. He joined in the outcry against the unpatriotic Josephus, who had once been preferred to him. ‘These be thy gods, O Israel!’ he cried, and the impulsive populace, remembering only that the man had been a rival of the hated Josephus, and had been passed over for him, were eager now to make amends. They took John of Gischala for a leader on his own evidence, and they were not calm enough to hear the false ring under his brave words, and were too blind with rage to see how ambitious and useless were his fair-seeming designs. It was a terrible time. The Zealots had called on the Idumeans to help in the defence, and their presence in the city added another element of discord. Party was pitted against party, house was divided against house; even members of the same family took different sides, and hands and weapons that were sorely needed against Rome were turned with fierce anger and suspicion against fellow-Jews. The more moderate of the people had come by this time to sadly see that no possible heroism could avert the Roman conquest, that the defence of Jerusalem was at best the most desperate of chances, and that under such men as led the war party the struggle must be hopeless. This minority believed that a timely yielding might soften the severity of the foe, and preserve to them their religion even at the cost of their country. The truer patriots counselled conciliation, and at the head of these was the good old high priest Ananias. But his gentle advice was shouted down, and his supporters were accused of sympathy with Rome and hooted at as traitors, and the poor old man himself, before the end of the war, met with a violent death at the hands of the Zealots.
4. The Siege of Jerusalem.—It was a strong and beautiful city on which Titus looked as he slowly rode round the walls to reconnoitre. Jerusalem was built in a bowl of mountains. Even in its ruins, and eighteen centuries later, it is written of the city which its poets called the ‘joy of the whole earth,’ ‘I never saw anything more essentially striking, no city except Athens whose site is so pre-eminently impressive.’4 In those days it was fortified by three enormous walls, and the Temple, in all its glory, stood within the innermost. To the Jews it seemed impossible that even the first and outermost of these protecting walls should be taken. Begun by Herod Agrippa, and formed of great blocks of unhewn stone, the wall stood now 45 feet high and 17 broad, and 150 battlemented towers were built up in it at intervals. But battering-rams thundered night and day, and the first wall fell after a desperate defence, and then the second, and at last only the third and innermost was left to guard the Temple.
5. A Mediator sent: Terms proposed.—Titus, throughout the war, was consistently disinclined for unnecessary slaughter. When the first wall was taken he had hinted at capitulation, and had offered to distinguish between the people and the garrison in his punishments. He had reviewed his splendid troops in full view of the famine-threatened city, in the hope of inducing them to surrender, and he had sent back mutilated prisoners of war to arouse a wholesome dread of his severity. It was all in vain; all idea of compromise was scouted, and when a breach was made in the second wall the defenders lined it with their living bodies, and for three dreadful days actually barred the conqueror’s progress. But this wall, too, was taken, and then Titus, at his wits’ end, sent Josephus as an envoy to see if it were possible to come to any terms, short of slaughter, with his countrymen. The case was desperate; Romans were without the city, and rioters within. ‘In hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, in want of all things,’ they were enduring ‘the siege and straitness of their enemy.’ And now came a messenger to them with proposals of peace. Josephus—he is the historian of it all—gives us an account of this interview with curious frankness. He retails his own eloquence at full length, and expresses his astonishment at the indignant refusal of any party of the people to even listen to it. Perhaps there was some mutual astonishment on the occasion. If Titus was sincere in wanting to come to terms, Josephus was certainly an oddly chosen ambassador. The sight of that fluent traitor, who had fallen so comfortably on his feet, must have been enough, in truth, to make the most peaceable citizen clutch at his sword. His mission, of course, failed. Josephus went back to his Roman patron, and his people went back to their impossible defence. A forlorn hope is sometimes better than an accomplished desire. Not one of that heroic garrison, for all their misery, would have changed places with Josephus.
6. The Destruction of the Temple.—As befitted a kingdom of priests, their Temple had become to the Jews, in literal truth, their stronghold and their tower of defence. If only they had worshipped within those ‘borders of precious stones’ with half the fervour that they fought there, the end might have been very different. On the 7th of Ab, 3830 of the Jewish era (corresponding to the year 70 C.E.), fire was set to the cloisters of the Temple. All that day and all the next the flames smouldered, and the people, faint with hunger and sick with misery, looked on with dull eyes, unregarding. Then again their mood changed, and on the morning of the 9th, with desperate, despairing effort, they rushed forth on the Roman swords. They were driven back, and Titus, seeing the crisis had come, summoned a hasty council of war to decide upon the fate of the Temple. His generals, smarting under their repulses, voted for its complete destruction. Titus had some touch of human feeling, some sympathy with that passion of defence. He would have spared the Jews their Temple, and have been content to plant the Roman eagle on its walls. It was saved that last degradation. On that same evening a detachment of Roman soldiers was told off to put out the smouldering cinders of the blackened cloisters. The pent-up people, faint with famine and restless with misery, burst out once more in ineffectual fury. Once more they were driven back to the very door of the Temple, and a Roman soldier, in careless wrath, took up a burning brand and tossed it after the retreating crowd. It fell on some inflammable stuff in a porchway, and quickly the Temple itself was on fire. Titus rushed to the spot, and tried with hand and voice to stay the work of destruction. It was too late. The shadow of the sword was lifted in the light of the flames. Then that too faded and died out, and darkness closed in upon the Jews, a thick darkness that could be felt.