Hadrian is the Roman emperor associated with the longest period of peace. Although the definition of peace is somewhat difficult to define in an empire with such large borders, Hadrian made serious attempts to make peace in the East with the Parthian empire and strengthened the defensive borders along Scotland, the Rhine and the Danube. In general Hadrian’s reign was marked by an absence of major conflicts and the Roman army was so peaceful that Hadrian decided to create fake alarms and drills to keep the soldiers disciplined and to signal that the army was always alert to possible invaders. Imperial policy was also benevolent towards business, including trade relations with the Arabs and the Parthians.
However, while Hadrian (see his bust on the left) is often labelled as one of the “five good emperors”, it is nevertheless true that his reign witnessed a brutal war between Romans and Jews, which resulted in over half a million victims (according to Dio Cassio, although some modern historians believe this number to be exaggerated) and the general depopulation of Judea. There were large numbers of victims caused by both sides, including internecine fights among opposing parties of Jews. After the 2nd century Hadrian became the prototype of the antisemitic Evil King in every Jewish tale and in the teachings of rabbis, which often mention “Hadrian, may his bones be crushed”. However, most modern historians believe that the idea of an antisemitic Hadrian is an anachronistic image written well after the events and that the war started due to bad planning and communication of the Roman authorities. Using a bit of an anachronistic example I would suggest Hadrian’s mistake was trying to impose a pagan Hellenistic culture (which was tolerant of naked sports, homosexual love, and all sorts of religious rituals with drugs and animals such as serpents) upon a conservative, traditional and monotheistic population. Just imagine how people would react nowadays if a powerful politician would announce the building of an arena for drugs, sex, and rock n’roll, right in front of a major church and a sanctuary of holy ground. Such was the mistake of Hadrian almost 2000 years ago. I make this remark as a metaphor and do not intend it to be either a criticism of modern culture or a precise description of the Roman-Jewish conflict.
After the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, which lasted from 132 to 136 AD, the majority of the Jewish population of Judea was killed, exiled, or sold into slavery, and Jewish religious and political authority was suppressed. Archaeological remains show that the depopulation impact of Hadrian’s Jewish War was much worse than the First Roman-Jewish War fought by Vespasian and Titus. Jerusalem was rebuilt as a purely Roman city. Hadrian forbid the Jews and Christians from entering Jerusalem, and his persecutions started the Jewish diaspora towards other Roman provinces. In order to erase any relationship between Jews and the land, Hadrian changed the name of Judea to Syria-Palestina. Several historians view the Roman actions as so brutal that these should be classified as genocide. Jews disappeared from history as a political nation until the 20th century and remained only as a religious-ethnic community.
Unfortunately, there are few reliable historical documents about how and why both sides started the war. The scanty Greco-Roman texts are either too brief (as in the case of Dio Cassius’ book) or tainted by the stain of untrustworthiness (as in the case of Historia Augusta). Cassius Dio, 69, 12, 1, relates: “At Jerusalem Hadrian founded a city in place of the one which had been razed to the ground, naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the god he raised a new temple to Jupiter. This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration, for the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religious rites planted there”. There are also several ancient Jewish and Christian documents mentioning Hadrian’s hatred of Jews, but such texts were written one century or more after the events.
There is archaeological evidence that Hadrian visited Israel in 130 AD, just 2 years before the war, therefore it is quite possible that the rebellion erupted after some measures he proposed then. However, some modern historians believe this particular passage of Cassius Dio was modified by the late Byzantine author Xiphilinus. Building a pagan temple on top of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem would have been an obvious catalyst for war, since the traditional Jews would have rebelled against it. This plan is therefore judged to be highly unlikely to be part of Hadrian and the Romans’ intentions. Hadrian had at his disposal plenty of examples of the Jewish sensitivity to the presence of idolatrous cults or simply images on the Temple site. Also, Hadrian’s was more inclined to peace rather than provoking wars.
Some modern historians speculate that Hadrian's real plan may have been to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman colony. Perhaps Hadrian expected that a new Roman colony would have been well received by the Jewish population, since these colonies had honorific and tax privileges. Several wealthy Jews and business men may have seen benefits in a better Roman administration. However, the local Jewish population in these Roman colonies could be recruited as soldiers and even be used to fight against their countrymen. Epigraphic texts show that Jewish citizens from Caesarea Maritima (see images above) fought in favor of the Roman army during the Roman-Jewish wars of 66 and 132. Another aspect of a Roman colony in Jerusalem which could have offended the traditional Israelites is the introduction of pagan and imperial cults in the future city, even if standard Roman policy exempted Jews from participating in Roman religious rituals.
Also, perhaps some of the younger generations and the more liberal minded may actually have enjoyed the Roman and Hellenistic culture, with its temples and baths where men would exercise mostly naked. Archeological and numismatic evidence shows that Hadrian’s policy gained some approval because of its privileges and benefits, which is particularly clear in the ruins of cities such as Tiberias (see image on the left) and Sepphoris (see images below) in Galilee where a majority of the population was Jewish. In these cities elegies were dedicated to the cult of the emperor Hadrian. This evidence demonstrates the rationality of Hadrian’s project which was not a mere provocative act against Israel, but could have met some approval.
Another sign of local Roman support is that the Jewish rebel leader, Simon Bar Kokhba, punished severely any Jew and Christian who refused to join his ranks, applying mutilation of fingers and hands to the disobedient. The images below are of the Cave of Letters which was found in the Judean desert in 1960. In this cave they found a tied bundle letters from Bar-Kokhba, next to a woman's belongings: wool, cosmetic tools, beads, a perfume flask and a mirror. Most of the Bar-Kokhba letters are orders to punish and steal the crops of wealthy Jewish landowners who refused to cooperate with him. Therefore not all Jews were against Rome.
Some historians also speculate that Hadrian may have been driven by a religious syncretism policy in an attempt to unify the imperial religions as a support for his autocracy. Roman-Greco culture rejected circumcision as a violence exercised on a perfect human body and also because circumcision was seen as a political symbol of hostility towards the Roman-Hellenic world. Hadrian may have therefore implemented harsher measures against circumcision in an attempt to impulse Israelite assimilation. Historian Giovanni Bazzana compares Hadrian’s policies to Saint Paul’s suggestion of abandoning circumcision in order for Christianity to be accepted in the wider world. Saint Paul's ideals were successful because they were only about social and religious precepts and not about a new political order.
Hadrian had already tried to unite the traditional Greek cults by creating a coherent belief system that could be spread across the whole empire, a project that had already been devised earlier by Hellenized Jewish intellectuals such as Philo. In Judaea there was already a Hellenized Jewish population, the Samaritans, which integrated their religious rites with Hellenistic ones such as the worship of Zeus. Although nowadays the Samaritans are only a few thousands of people, there were around one million Samaritans in Roman times, which can be easily confirmed by the large number of times a Samaritan appears in the New Testament or in the ancient Jewish literature. This attempt at conciliation between Judaism and Hellenism foundered when faced with strict Jewish traditions and monotheism, which caused the uprising against Rome.
Perhaps the biggest historical surprise is that Christianity became the Roman Empire’s dominant religion less than 200 years after Hadrian’s visit to Israel. Undoubtedly, Hadrian saw Jews and Christians as backward fanatics, which were destined to disappear in the middle of an enlightened Hellenistic-Roman era. My bet is that almost all Romans and pagan scholars shared Hadrian’s opinion that Jewish-Christianity was a backward and dwindling faith. Who would have guessed then that almost two thousand years later both Christianity and the Jewish religion represent the most vibrant communities of the western world? Even more surprising is that such different and opposing sources merged so well that our entire law systems are now jointly supported by these three pillars: Jewish-Christian faith and love, Hellenistic philosophy and knowledge, and Roman legislation. And as Saint Paul would say in his Epistle to the Corinthians, from all of these pillars the greatest and most important one is Love.