The Jews revolted from Roman rule in 66 AD due to excessive taxation and brutality, prompting the first Jewish-Roman War in 67 AD. Jewish independence was short-lived when the Roman army under Titus invaded Judea and conquered its fortified cities. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was employed by the Romans at the time, vividly recorded the events of the war that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The Roman army surrounded the city that spring, but the Jews continued to gather supplies from the countryside before safely returning behind Jerusalem’s thick walls. To prevent this, a ditch and a barricade were built around the entire city and anyone caught trying to escape the city was crucified, with the corpse displayed as a warning to others. Thousands were executed this way. Other escapees were torn open while still alive by Roman soldiers looking for swallowed coins, although few produced any. The lengthy siege led to famine within Jerusalem, and hard-fought battles led to bitter frustration on both sides.
The Roman commander Titus, who would later become the Roman emperor, pitied the Jews as he fought against them. However, despite Titus’ numerous attempts at negotiations, even to the point of barely escaping with his life from one of them, the Jews refused to yield. The Romans constructed ramps, battering rams, siege towers, and catapults to attack the city, stripping the countryside of trees to build their weapons of war. Jerusalem’s walls were eventually broken in the early summer of 70 AD, but street fighting continued as the remaining rebels fortified themselves within the Temple. Towards the end, with Jerusalem’s walls breached, the Romans ruthlessly slaughtered Jews indiscriminately: male and female, soldier and civilian, young and old. Similarly, the Jews’ last stand in the Temple saw anyone able to hold a weapon fighting to the bitter end. Titus had planned to spare the Temple for Roman use later on, but a fire destroyed it and much of the city during the invasion. With the last Jewish stronghold burned, the Romans finally crushed the Jewish resistance, while refugees tried to escape the city through underground tunnels. The vast Temple treasury was melted down to mint coins commemorating Rome’s success against the Jewish rebels.
After its fall, Jerusalem was leveled – walls, towers, Temple – by the embittered Roman soldiers who had endured such a hard-fought war. Small sections of the wall and towers were spared to house the Roman garrisons and demonstrate how great the city had previously been. The destruction was so extensive that afterwards the land was unrecognizable as the site of a great city. The fertile, beautiful landscape was replaced with desolate wasteland.
Over a million Jews died during the siege, from starvation, execution, or active combat. Piles of rotting corpses filled the streets, adding the stench of death to the smoke. As well, nearly 100,000 Jews were enslaved, while those few who managed to escape the Romans fled throughout the Mediterranean.