Two Jewish/Roman conflicts are indelibly inscribed in the Jewish psyche: first, the Jews’ unwise revolt that led to the Churban in 3830/70 CE, and second, Bar Kochva’s three year rebellion that ended so catastrophically in 3895/135 CE. Sandwiched between these two milestones are two forgotten episodes. One was the efforts of a false Moshiach to lead the Jews back to Yerushalayim just three years after the Churban, and the other was the deadly Kitos War, named after the Roman general Lusius Quietus who helped “quieten” it down.
This second war lasted for two years until 3777/117 CE, as it says at the end of Seder Olam Rabba – sixteen years elapsed between the pulmus (war) of Quietus and the rebellion of Bar Kochva. These forgotten episodes testify to the gigantic Jewish communities that existed all over the Roman Empire during those years, many of them established since the time of the Bayis Rishon. Some historians estimate the number of these Jews as up to a million and a half.
The first “sandwich” incident barely raised a ripple on the current of history; Josephus describes it in his book Jewish War (7:437-441):
“The madness of the Sicarii (Jewish rebels responsible for the Churban) spread like a disease, reaching as far as the cities of Cyrenaica (part of Libya) because one Yonatan, a vile person, and by trade a weaver, came there and persuaded no small number of the poorer sort to listen to him. He led them into the desert, upon promising them that he would show them signs and apparitions … Jewish dignitaries in Cyrene informed Catullus, governor of the Libyan Pentapolis, of Yonatan’s march into the desert and of the preparations he had made for it. Catullus sent horsemen and footmen after him, and easily overcame them because they were unarmed. Many were slain in the fight but some were taken alive and brought to Catullus. As for Yonatan, the head of this plot, he fled away at that time; but after a great and very diligent search made all over the country for him, he was at last captured.”
The second “sandwich” incident sparked off during the eighteenth year of Emperor Trajan (Traianus) in 3775/115 CE when the Romans were launching their largest eastward expansion in history. Their goal was nothing less than to conquer the Parthian kingdom of Mesopotamia, home of the ancient Jewish communities of Bavel. This war was so succesful that the Romans broke through to the Persian Gulf the only time in history, representing the high tide of Roman dominion. For unclear reasons, as masses of Roman soldiers were battling the Parthians in the East, a violent fight broke out between Jew and gentile in other parts of the empire. Christian and Roman sources, not known for their partiality to Jews, claim that the Jews were rising in revolt.
For example, the Christian historian Eusebius claims, a century and a half later, in his “History of the Church:”
“In the course of the eighteenth year of the reign of the emperor Trajan, a rebellion of the Jews broke out and destroyed a great multitude of them. For both in Alexandria and in the rest of Egypt and especially in Cyrenaica, as though they had been seized by some terrible spirit of rebellion, they rushed into sedition against their Greek fellow citizens, and -increasing the scope of the rebellion- in the following year started a great war while Lupus was governor of all Egypt.”
Similarly, Rav Chaim Dov Rabinowitz theorizes in his “History of the Jewish People,” that the insurrection was inspired by Parthian Jews who were fighting to stave off the Roman invaders; the Jews of the Roman Empire revolted as an act of solidarity.
However, there is no historical record of the Parthian Jews revolting at all, and furthermore, the gentile records are probably slanted by anti-Semitism. Also, it is difficult to imagine why Jews would have risen up against entire nations backed by Roman might. Perhaps the opposite scenario suggested by Rav Avigdor Miller is more likely – that the Jews were fighting for their lives against anti-Semites who had taken advantage of the absence of half the Roman army to attack their Jewish neighbors. After all, many gentiles resented the Roman tendency to give Jews equal rights. This possiblity is hinted at in Eusibius’s next paragragh, which describes a pogrom in Alexandria: “In the first engagement they (the Jews) happened to overcome the Greeks, who fled to Alexandria and captured and killed the Jews in the city.”
The gentile rioters also destroyed Alexandria’s famous shul and it took centuries for the Jewish community in Alexandria to recover. As the Yerushalmi (sukkah 55a) concludes after describing the famous shul’s magnificence: “And who destroyed it? The wicked Trugainus (Emperor Trajan) … At that time the horn (strength) of Yisroel was cut off, and it will not return to its place until ben Dovid comes.”
According to historical sources, the Jewish “rebellion” started in Cyrenaica, part of present day Libya, when Jews led by Lukuas (some sources call him Andreus) overpowered their enemies and proceeded to destroy gentile temples devoted to Greek and Egyptian gods, and demolish Roman buildings. While exaggeratedly listing the number of the Roman and Greek death toll as 200,000, the Roman historian Cassius cynically forgets to report any Jewish fatalities. Lukuas then moved on to Alexandria where he took revenge on the people who had murdered vast numbers of its 150,000 Jews. He also took a belated revenge on Pompey, the first Roman general who had captured Yerushalayim 200 years earlier, by destroying his Alexandrian tomb.
During their advance on Alexandria, the Jews almost captured the infamous Appian of Alexandria who wrote such an anti-Semitic version of Jewish history that Josephus felt it necessary to demolish his claims in his book Anti Appian. In his twenty-fourth volume, the superstitious Appian describes how he fled in panic and was saved by the “prophecy” of a bird:
“Once, during a night, when I was trying to make an escape from the Jews during the war in Egypt and tried to reach Arabia Petria (south Jordan) across a branch of the river, where a vessel was ready to bring me to Pelusium (near Port Said). I had an Arab as guide. I thought I was not far from my ship, but when he heard a crow screech at dawn, he was utterly confused and (superstitiously) said, ‘We have lost the way.’ And when the crow screeched again he said, ‘We have completely lost the way.’ Now, I was confused too and started to look if I could see someone on the road, but I did not see someone, as is likely early in the morning, especially in a country where a war is being fought. But when the Arab heard the bird for the third time, he was very glad and said, ‘We have favorably lost the way and have found a shortcut.’ “I smiled, although I thought we were still lost and feared for my life. Everything was hostile and I could not return to my enemies, from which I was trying to escape. But because there was no alternative, I followed him and believed his prophecy. Right then, we unexpectedly saw another branch of the river, the part that is closest to Pelusium, and saw a galley passing, going in the direction of Pelusium. I went aboard, and this turned out to save my life. The vessel on the other branch had been captured by the Jews. Fortune had been kind to me by giving me this prophecy.”
At the same time, the Jews in Cyprus were also engaged in heavy fighting, under their leader Artemion and this fighting also caused great destruction. Greek and Roman fatalities reportedly reached 240,000 – probably an exaggeration. An inscription in an ancient bathhouse records how it was rebuilt after the tumulto Judaico – the Jewish tumult.
TRAJAN TAKES ACTION
In reaction, Trajan sent out two forces to restore order, one to Cyprus under Claudia VII, and another another under Quintus Turbo to attack Lukuas.
As Eusebius records: “The emperor sent against them Marcius Turbo with land and sea forces including cavalry. He waged war vigorously against them in many battles for a considerable time and killed many thousands of Jews, not only those of Cyrene but also those of Egypt who had rallied to Lukuas, their king.”
The retaliation against the Jews lasted two years, destroying many kehillos, and by the time the dust settled, so many Jews and gentiles had perished that vast tracts of North Africa had to be repopulated. At the same time, Trajan took preemptive action against the Jews of Mesopotamia, even though it is debatable whether they had yet lifted a finger against the Romans. As Eusebius writes: “The emperor suspected that the Jews in Mesopotamia would also attack the inhabitants and ordered Lusius Quietus to clean them out of the province. He organized a force and murdered a great multitude of the Jews there, and for this reform was appointed governor of Judea by the emperor.”
According to one girsa, Quietus’s mission is recorded in the Mishna (Sotah 9:14) that says: “At the (time of) the army of Vespasian they decreed against the crowns of bridegrooms and against the eiros. And concerning the army of Quietus they decreed against the crowns of brides and that a person should not teach his son Greek. At the last battle they decreed that a bride should not go out in a canopy into the town.” However, the text in our seforim reads “Titus” and not “Quietus.” It is not clear whether the fighting spread to Eretz Yisroel.
In the end, the Romans despaired of displacing the Parthians, and Emperor Trajan’s expansionist dreams crumbled when he died from illness in 3777/117 CE. Quietus was executed the following year. Although the next Emperor, Hadrian, inherited the largest Roman Empire that ever existed, he realized that it would be better to retreat in order to consolidate what remained, and he gave up a large part of what Trajan had conquered.
As the Western powers have learnt from their campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, conquering territory is one thing; keeping it conquered is a different ball-game.