Battle of Beth-Horon

Battle of Beth-Horon

The Hebrew victory over Roman forces in the Battle of Beth-Horon prompted a general Jewish uprising against Rome, with fatal consequences for the Hebrew nation. Modern Israel occupies a small land area, slightly less than the U.S. state of New Jersey. In ancient times the region was poor, bereft of natural resources, and barely able to provide for itself. It could hardly resist Roman power. The area was important because it formed a highway between the larger empires of the Assyri ans, Babylonians, and the Persians to the east and the Egyptians and finally the Greeks and Romans to the west.

The unique contribution of the Jews to the West was their development of an exclusive monotheism, the belief in a single all-powerful god, Jehovah, who watched over his chosen people but also demanded a high standard of ethical conduct on pain of severe punishment. No people in history were to fight more tenaciously for their liberty against greater odds. The belief of Jews in their uniqueness along with their intolerance of other religions created in the ancient world a sense of separation and widespread animosity against them.

In 63 BCE Roman consul Pompey Magnus (Pompey the Great), fresh from defeating Mithridates VI of Pontus and Tigranes I of Armenia, moved to annex Syria, making it a Roman province. Pompey next laid siege to Jerusalem and took it. Roman soldiers secured the Temple there, cutting down its priests with the sword. Although he preserved the Temple treasury, Pompey dared to visit the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest was allowed. This typified Roman rule thereafter.

Jews constituted only a small proportion (about 6–9 percent) of the Roman Empire’s population, but this did not keep them from being a constant problem. Roman insensitivity, sacrilege, and plain stupidity produced riots and uprisings that brought savage reprisals. Consequently, this part of the empire attracted only the dregs of the Roman civil service. A string of maladroit decrees and a succession of inept Roman administrators fed Jewish extremism and convinced many Jews that a day of reckoning was inevitable. These determined Jews came to be known as Zealots.

Matters came to a head in May 66 CE under Roman procurator Gessius Florus. His tactless decisions led to rioting, and the Zealots seized control of Jerusalem. Promised amnesty, the Roman forces holding the Antonia Fortress that overlooked the Temple precinct were nonetheless slaughtered. Gessius soon lost control of Judea and appealed to the Roman governor of Syria, legate Cestius Gallus at Antioch, who had available a much larger force of four legions.

Cestius took three months to assemble an expeditionary force, however. Centered on the XII Fulminata (Thunderbolt) legion of 4,800 men, it included another 6,000 legionnaires (2,000 from each of the other three legions). Cestius also had some 2,000 cavalry and 5,000 auxiliary infantry in six cohorts. Rome’s allies, King Antiochus IV of Commagene and King Sohamemus of Emesa, furnished slingers and javelin throwers, perhaps another 32,000 men. Some 2,000 Greek militias of Syria also joined, eager to participate in any action against Jews.

In October 66 Cestius easily subdued Galilee. His men unleashed a terror campaign of widespread destruction in the expectation that this would both remove any threat to his rear area and intimidate the Jewish population along the route to Jerusalem. Leaving moderate forces to hold Galilee, Cestius also detached units to secure the seaport of Joppa. The Romans razed Joppa and slew perhaps 8,000 people there. Additional Roman columns secured other potential rebel strongholds.

These coastal columns rejoined the main force at Caesarea, and Cestius moved against Jerusalem. He expected to conclude the campaign in a few weeks, before the heavy autumnal rains could make quagmires of the roads. To this point, Jewish resistance was sporadic and apparently disorganized.

Cestius believed that his terror campaign had worked. On his approach to Jerusalem through the Beth-Horon gorge (named for two villages 10 and 12 miles northwest of Jerusalem), he therefore failed to follow standard procedure and make an adequate reconnaissance. As a result, the Jews were able to lay an ambush and attack the head of his column before the Romans could deploy from march formation. According to Jewish sources the Romans sustained some 500 dead, while the Jews sustained only 22 dead.

Cestius recovered and resumed the advance. He set up camp on Mount Scopus, less than a mile from the city. The Zealots refused, however, to treat with any emissaries and even put one to death. After several days of waiting, on October 15 Cestius sent his men into Jerusalem. The Jews fell back to the inner city wall. The Romans burned the suburb of Betheza, expecting that this would bring submission. It did not. The Romans then launched full-scale attacks but failed to penetrate the Jewish defenses. Following a week of this, Cestius suddenly withdrew. Stiffer than expected Jewish resistance, the approach of winter, and the shortages of supplies and mules for transport were the factors in his decision.

Cestius decided to move back to the coast through the Beth-Horon gorge. Again he failed to post pickets on the hills, allowing the Jews to attack his forces in the narrow defile. Other Jewish forces moved to block the Roman escape. This running engagement, known as the Battle of Beth-Horon, turned into a rout. Cestius and the bulk of his force escaped but at the cost of all of their baggage and nearly 6,000 men killed. The XII Legion also lost its eagle standard. The equipment that the Jews captured would serve them effectively in combating Roman siege operations four years later.

The battle had serious consequences. One immediate effect was the massacre of Jews in Damascus; the Greek rulers there were now confident that this action would have Cestius’s support. The Battle of Beth-Horon meant that the Jewish revolt would not immediately be put down, however. Jews hitherto reluctant to commit themselves now joined the Zealots. Many were convinced that the victory was a sign that God favored their cause. By November the Jews had set up an independent secessionist government in Jerusalem.

The Romans could not allow this. Emperor Nero appointed Vespasian (Titus Flavius Vespasianus) as commander of an expeditionary force to bring Judea to heel. Vespasian moved south from Antioch with two legions, while his son Titus came up with another legion drawn from the garrison of Egypt. The invasion began in 69 CE, and following some delays, in 70 the Romans took Jerusalem without difficulty, thanks to internal divisions among the Jews. The sack of the city was terrible (the Jewish historian Josephus gives a figure of 1.1 million for the number of dead in the siege), and the Romans burned the Temple. Some isolated Jewish fortresses managed to hold out for another several years, but the Jewish state was no more. The Romans renamed it Syria Palestina. It was not until 1948 that there would again be a Jewish nation-state.


Grant, Michael. The Jews in the Roman World. New York: Scribner, 1973.

Jones, A. H. M. The Herods of Judea. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1967.

Lendon, J. E. “Roman Siege of Jerusalem.” MHQ: Quarterly Journal of Military History 17(4) (Summer 2005): 6–15. ———.

Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.