Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIX.12-14

The Bar Kokhba Revolt.
Name of the author: 
Cassius Dio
207 CE to 229 CE
Roman and Greek
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Roman History



For a short biographical presentation of Cassius Dio and of his main work, the Roman History, see Cassius Dio, Roman History XXXVII.16-17.

The text presented here comes from the sixty ninth book of Cassius Dio’s Roman History, a book starting with Hadrian’s accession to power. It is one of the books that has not been preserved at all. As a consequence, we only know it through the Epitome made by the byzantine monk John Xiphilinus at the end of the eleventh century CE (John Xiphilinus’ Epitome includes books 36 to 80). This text is fundamental, as it is a unique testimony to the foundation of the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina ordered by Hadrian, and it is also the most consistent narrative of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. We will comment here upon some interesting elements of the narrative of the revolt itself, as we have analysed separately the first sentence of the text presented here, which mentions the foundation of the colony of Aelia Capitolina and the construction of the temple of Jupiter (see Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIX.12.1).

In an article published in 1983, Benjamin Isaac rightly underlined various elements showing that Cassius Dio’s narrative of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, as far as we know it through its byzantine epitome, is different from the other narratives of provincial revolts, but also from his depiction of the Diaspora revolt, that is the Jewish riots that occurred in Cyrene, in Egypt and in Cyprus between 115 and 117 CE. Among the differences he notices, three are particularly interesting for our purposes (Isaac, “Cassius Dio”).

First, at the very beginning of the narrative, Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus makes explicit the fact that the Jews revolted for religious/ideological reasons. The foundation of Aelia Capitolina would have been considered intolerable by them because they did not accept the fact that “foreigners” (ἀλλοφύλους/allophulous) were “settled” (οἰκισθῆναι/oikisthēnai) in their city (12.2). Second, they reacted to the erection of the Temple of Jupiter, as it is written that they considered it intolerable that “foreign religious rites” (ἱερὰ ἀλλότρια/hiera allotria) were implanted in their sacred city (12.2). Comparing Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’s narrative of the Bar Kokhba Revolt with other narratives of provincial revolts against Rome (see, for instance, the narratives of Tacitus or Cassius Dio himself of the revolt of the Iceni and of Boudicca in Britain in 60-61 CE), it appears that to present religious motivations as being the main trigger for the outburst of a revolt is quite a rare – even unique – explanation. Actually, the greed or the injustices of Roman officers vis-à-vis provincials, or the excessive needs of the imperial system in terms of money and men are usually presented as being the main causes of revolts in the provinces of the Empire (on this point see Isaac, “Cassius Dio,” p. 68-72). Thus, we can ask ourselves if the singular motivation that Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus assigns to Jews in 132 CE does not correspond simply to Greco-Roman stereotypes about Jews. For instance, it may echo the fact that in some Roman sources, Jews are presented primarily as an extremely religious and even superstitious people, or only through their religious customs (see Lucan, The Civil War II.568-595; about the Jewish people as a superstitious people see Tacitus, Histories V.13.1-2). Second, this idea that the Jews were against the fact that foreigners could be settled in their city may be interpreted as an indirect echo of the alleged Jewish exclusiveness and misanthropy which is a motif that can be found in many other Roman sources dealing, in a negative way, with the singularity of the Jewish customs (Stern, Greek and Latin II, p. 347; about the connection between the otherness of Jewish customs and the misanthropic nature of the Jews, see Tacitus, Histories V.4-5; Juvenal, Satires XIV.96-106). Nevertheless, this possible link between Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’s explanation of the Jews’ aversion to seeing a colony of strangers settled in Jerusalem and the motif of the misanthropic nature of the Jews seems farfetched. Actually, in the digression on Jews appearing in book XXXVII of the Roman History – a book which has been transmitted, nearly completely, through a direct tradition – Cassius Dio insists on the singularity of Jewish monotheism without mentioning Jewish exclusiveness, nor the alleged misanthropy of the Jews (see Cassius Dio, Roman History XXXVII.16-17). Cassius Dio seems thus to have quite a neutral appreciation of the otherness of the Jews.
Therefore, it is possible to give credit to Cassius Dio’s explanation that Jews opposed to the arrival en masse and settlement of Roman citizens in the precinct of the former Herodian Jerusalem without interpreting Cassius Dio’s perspective as anti-Jewish, or as a reflection of Greco-Roman stereotypes about Jews. Even if there was no Temple anymore, many Jews may have continued to hope for its rebuilding and for the re-establishment of Jerusalem (see Tetradrachm (Selah) of Bar Kokhba depicting the façade of the Temple and the Four Species (134-135 CE) see also the coins minted by the partisans of Bar Kokhba and bearing representations of objects associated with the Jerusalem Temple, as Coin of Bar Kokhba depicting a palm tree and a bunch of grapes (132 CE)). For them, the settlement of the colony was the achievement of a process of de-sacralisation of their holy city. Finally, Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’s explanation that Jews revolted because they could not stand seeing foreign gods being worshipped in their city when there was no Temple anymore seems logical. In the history of the Jews there are plenty of examples of foreign rulers who had wanted to impose their gods in Jerusalem (Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BCE or Caligula in 39-40 CE), but did not succeed; failures that had been interpreted by the Jews as evidence of the fact that God was on their side (these examples are quoted in Zissu and Eshel, “Religious Aspects,” p. 401). Thus, as rightly stated by Boaz Zissu and Hanan Eshel, the Jews must have decided to revolt in 132 CE “in the hope that just as God had helped the Jews during the times of Mattathias the Hasmonean and Agrippa I, they would also receive Divine assistance in their opposition to Hadrian’s plan to place idols on the site of the Temple” (Zissu and Eshel, “Religious Aspects,” p. 401).

The second peculiarity of Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’s narrative of the Bar Kokhba Revolt noticed by Benjamin Isaac, is related to the fact that the name of Bar Kokhba is never mentioned. The Second Jewish War appears thus as quite a unique example of a revolt without a leader. Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’s way of dealing with the revolt is thus clearly different from the way he depicts the revolt of the Iceni in Britain in 60-61 CE, a revolt which is dominated by the character of Boudicca (see Cassius-Dio, Roman History LXII.1-12, including a long speech of the queen in LXII.3-6; on this point see Isaac, “Cassius Dio,” p. 72-74).
How can we explain the absence of a reference to Bar Kokhba in the text presented here? We could suggest that the epitomizer Xiphilinus may have proposed a shortened version of the narrative of the revolt and thus suppressed the name of Bar Kokhba. However, this hypothesis is unlikely if we consider the narrative of the Diaspora Revolt that we also know through the Epitome made by Xiphilinus, a narrative in which the names of two of the leaders, Andreas and Artemion, are quoted (see Cassius Dio, Roman History LXVIII.32.1-3). We could thus explain the absence of a reference to Bar Kokhba by the fact that Cassius Dio must have wanted to create the impression that it was a mass movement that involved all the Jews. The general character of the revolt is stressed in the passage: “Soon, however, all Judaea had been stirred up, and the Jews everywhere were showing signs of disturbance, were gathering together, and giving evidence of great hostility to the Romans…” (13.1). As rightly recalled by Werner Eck, Cassius Dio must refer here to the province and not to the region of Judea. For him, various elements prove that the revolt spread outside the strict limits of the Judean region. In this perspective, Werner Eck quotes the erection of the arch for Hadrian at Tel Shalem (Eck, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 87-88), but also the fact that the governors of Syria (C. Quinctius Certus Publicius Marcellus mentioned in the inscription IGRR III.174, see Iulius Severus, Hellenistic descendant, and Roman Governor in the Bar Kokhba Revolt) and Arabia (T. Haterius Nepos, see Haterius Nepos, Arabia, and the Bar Kokhba revolt) were involved in the conflict and fought the rebels in Judea, and perhaps also in their own provinces (Eck, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 81, 83-87). Werner Eck’s demonstration that the Bar Kokhba Revolt affected the whole province of Judea and the nearby provinces is however contested by Menahem Mor. The latter does not deny the magnitude and violence of the war but considers that the geographical extent of the revolt has been largely overestimated. For him, the revolt stayed concentrated in the Judean mountains (Mor, “The Geographical Scope”). Some of the arguments brought by Menahem Mor are convincing, but his reasoning and his conclusion leave aside Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’s testimony about the spread of the revolt among Jews from everywhere, including other nations.

If, as Werner Eck suggests, the Bar Kokhba Revolt had actually affected an area that went beyond the strict borders of the province of Judea, it must have revived for Hadrian the quite recent memory of the Diaspora Revolt, and must have motivated him to take emergency measures. These measures must have consisted first of increasing the number of troops sent into the troubled areas. Werner Eck thus considers that no less than twelve or thirteen legions or vexillationes (detachments of Roman legions) were involved in the conflict (Eck, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 81). Second, the changes made by Hadrian at positions of high command must have been part of these emergency measures. This point is mentioned by Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus when he writes that “Hadrian sent against them his best generals,” and quotes the example of Sextus Iulius Severus (PIR2 S 576), the newly appointed governor of Judea who had a superior rank than all the young consularis usually nominated at the head of this province (on this point see Eck, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 78-79). Among the other “best generals” that Hadrian nominated to fight the Jewish rebels, there were also the governors of Syria, C. Quinctius Certus Publicius Marcellus, and of Arabia, T. Haterius Nepos, previously quoted. All three generals had in common that they had received, after the end of the war, the ornamenta triumphalia, a distinction which was rarely granted, and which thus shows the importance of their victory over a Jewish revolt that for a time, had challenged durably and importantly the authority of Rome (Eck, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 86-87).
Finally, Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’s reference to the fact that “many outside nations (πολλοί τε ἄλλοι καὶ τῶν ἀλλοφύλων/polloi te alloi kai tōn allophulōn), too, were joining them through eagerness for gain, and the whole earth, one might almost say, was being stirred up over the matter” (13.2) has been variously interpreted. The reference to the oikoumenē is obviously a rhetorical exaggeration, but the reference to the other nations is probably not an invention. For Hadrian Birley, the reference to the “other nations” may refer to non-Jews present in Judea or in Arabia (Birley, Hadrian, p. 269). Hannah Cotton has connected these lines with one of the Bar Kokhba papyri in Greek (P. Yadin 52) to suggest that Nabataeans, perhaps mercenaries, could have joined the Jewish revolt (see Cotton, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 146-152).

The third peculiarity of Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’s narrative of the Bar Kokhba Revolt which Benjamin Isaac highlights is related to the fact that from the beginning of the narrative, Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus does not characterise the rebellion of the Jews in 132 CE as being a simple riot. From the very first lines, the author defines it as a “war” (polemos, 12.1), a word that he does not use to characterise the revolt of the Diaspora (see Cassius-Dio, Roman History LXVIII.32.1-3). The second main difference to the narrative of the revolt of the Diaspora is that he does not charge the Jews for having committed acts of excessive cruelty, such as cannibalism, cutting up of the enemies’ bodies, reuse of their skin or entrails, or condemnation to the beasts. In the narrative of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus insists rather on the fact that the rebels adopted tactics of guerrilla warfare, a strategy that had been successful for a while (12.3). This difference of approach may be explained by the fact that the author considered that this confrontation between the rebels and the Roman armies was a regular war, a point that may lead us to trust the reliability of Cassius Dio’s narrative (Isaac, “Cassius Dio,” p. 76).

The last important point which must be commented upon is related to the way Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus deals with the end of the conflict. We can see that he insists much more on the losses experienced by the Jewish rebels than those experienced by the Roman troops. After having said that very few Jewish rebels survived, and having estimated the number of the material destructions and of the Jews killed in the fights, he concludes in a general statement that “nearly the whole of Judea was made desolate” (14.1-2). Nevertheless, he deals very quickly with the Roman losses by describing that “many of them” (polloi, 14.2) died in the fights. Many elements prove, however, that the Roman legions and auxiliary units paid a heavy price during the war. For instance, Fronto, when he tried in one of his letters of 162 CE to console Marcus Aurelius for the recent defeats inflicted upon the Roman armies, recalls some famous past defeats of the Romans, and writes: “Again, under the reign of your grandfather Hadrian, how many soldiers were killed by the Jews, how many by the Britons?” (Fronto, De Bello Parthico 2: Avo vestro Hadriano imperium obtinente quantum militum a Iudaeis, quantum ab Britannis caesum?; passage quoted in Isaac, “Cassius Dio,” p. 76; Eck, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 80). Thirty years after the end of the Bar Kokbha Revolt, the memory of the importance of the Roman losses was still present. Even if we do not know much about the successive movements of the various Roman legions that were present in Judea during the whole war, it has been suggested that the legio XXII Deiotariana, attested for the last time in Egypt in 119 CE, may have been annihilated precisely during the Second Jewish War (see Birley, Hadrian, p. 268-269; hypothesis adopted in Eck, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 80, but contested in Mor, “The Geographical Scope,” p. 118). Moreover, Werner Eck has suggested that the losses must have also been important among the auxiliary forces even if we ignore much about the actions of these auxiliary units during the war (see Eck, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 80-81; this hypothesis is contested in Mor, “The Geographical Scope,” p. 118-119). By then, the fact that the Roman troops had been particularly challenged by the Jewish guerrilla warfare and resistance is confirmed by the last sentence of Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’s narrative, when he writes that during the period of the war, Hadrian did not dare to use the traditional formula when he addressed the Senate, a formula containing the assessment that the legions were in good health (14.3). Instead of enumerating the number of the Roman soldiers killed in the fights, which would have been too humiliating a depiction for the Romans, Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus chose to propose quick and euphemistic allusions to the losses experienced by them. Nevertheless, the severity of the measures taken after the war, such as the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem and the fact that the province of Judea had been renamed as Syria-Palaestina in order to erase any mention of the Jewish people’s name – a process which had never been used for any other people defeated by Rome (Eck, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 88-89) –, show how challenging and costly this Jewish revolt had been for the imperial power.

Bibliographical references: 

The Geographical Scope of the Bar Kokhba Revolt

Mor, Menahemarticle-in-a-bookThe Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome (Texts and Studies in Ancient JudaismP. Schäfer107-131The Geographical Scope of the Bar Kokhba RevoltTübingenMohr Siebeck2003
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