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Wars between the Jews and Romans: the revolt against Trajan (115-117 CE)

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  There have been several military engagements between the Jews and the Romans:
  • the Roman general Pompey subdued Judaea in 63 BCE (after which it became a client kingdom)
  • in 6 CE, the emperor Augustus deposed king Archelaus, and his governor of Syria, Quirinius, established the province of Judaea (which became a prefecture)
  • in 66, a serious rebellion started, which led to the destruction of the Temple (September 70); this war was described by Flavius Josephus in his Jewish War
  • a little later, the Romans took the fortress Masada (in 74)
  • in 115, the Levantine Jews revolted against emperor Trajan
  • when the emperor Hadrian forbade circumcision, Simon bar Kochba started a Messianic war, which lasted until 136. It meant the end of the multiform Judaism of the first century.
This is the sixth of seven documents.

Subjugation of Judaea (63)
Herod (41-4)
Herod Archelaus
(4 BCE-6 CE)
Establishment of the province Judaea (6)
Pontius Pilate (26-36)
Agrippa I (37-44)
Province Judaea (6-66)
Sack  of the Temple (66-70)
Fall of Masada (74)
Revolt against Trajan
Bar Kochba revolt

Bronze portrait of the emperor Trajan. Glyptothek, München (Germany). Photo Marco Prins. Trajan (Glyptothek, München)

The war against Trajan

The Roman emperor Trajan had decided to bring peace to the eastern borders of his empire for once and for all. Therefore, in 115 CE, he attacked Armenia and the kingdom of the Parthians. His operations were a brilliant success, and he was to be the only Roman emperor to sail on the Persian Gulf. However, after he had created new provinces - Armenia, Mesopotamia and Assyria - and believed he had been victorious, several Messianic revolts broke out similtaneously. The reasons are unclear to us, but the appearance of a comet, a Messianic symbol, may be the explanation; it is referred to in Chinese sources (and perhaps Juvenal, Satires, 6.407). The diasporic Jews of Egypt, Cyrenaica and Cyprus were among the rebels, but the newly conquered region of Mesopotamia was unquiet too.
Map of Cyrenaica. Design Jona Lendering.

Their revolt started in Cyrene, where one Lukuas -sometimes called Andreas- ordered the Jews to destroy the pagan temples of Apollo, Artemis, Hecate, Demeter, Isis and Pluto, and to assail the worshippers. The latter fled to Alexandria, where they captured and killed many Jews. (With a population of some 150,000 Jews, Alexandria was Judaism's largest city.) In 116, the Jews organized themselves and had their revenge. The temples of gods like Nemesis, Hecate and Apollo were destroyed; the same fate befell the tomb of Pompey, the Roman general who had captured Jerusalem almost two centuries before. 

Meanwhile, the Cyrenaican Jews plundered the Egyptian countryside, reaching Thebes, six hundred kilometers upstream. The future historian Appian of Alexandria records that he made a providential escape from a party of Jews pursuing him in the Nile marshes (more...). There was nothing the Roman governor Marcus Rutilius Lupus could do, although he sent a legion (III Cyrenaica or XXII Deiotariana) to protect the inhabitants of Memphis.

Trajan sent out two expeditionary forces. One, consisting of VII Claudia, restored order on Cyprus; the other was to attack Lukuas' rebels and was commanded by Quintus Marcius Turbo. The Roman general sailed to Alexandria, defeated the Jews in several pitched battles and killed thousands of enemies, not only those in Egypt but also those of Cyrene. It is unclear what became of Lukuas, except for the fact that according to our Greek source Eusebius he had styled himself 'king' (= Messiah?). After this war, much of northern Africa had to be repopulated. The emperor Trajan and his successor Hadrian confiscated Jewish property to pay for the reconstruction of the destroyed temples.


Relief from Esna, showing the Roman emperor Trajan smiting the enemies of Egypt, perhaps the Jews.
Trajan in a traditional Egyptian pose, killing the enemies of Egypt. Relief from Esna (©!!!)

Trajan was afraid that this revolt would spread to the Jews in the rebellious eastern provinces. Perhaps, there was some cause for his anxiousness. After the end of the revolt in Mesopotamia, someone had written the Book of Elchasai, in which the end of the world was predicted within three years. Of course, Trajan did not read this book, but he may have sensed that the Jews remained restless. 

Therefore, he ordered the commander of his Mauritanian auxiliaries, Lusius Quietus, to clean the suspects out of these regions. Quietus organized a force and killed many Cypriote, Mesopotamian and Syrian Jews - in effect wiping them out; as a reward, he was appointed governor of Judaea. (He is one of the few blacks known to have made a career in Roman service.) He was responsible for a forced policy of hellenization; in response, the rabbis ordered the Jewish fathers not to teach their sons Greek (Mishna Sota 9.14).

Meanwhile, Trajan had reached his military aims and returned home. On his way back, he fell ill, and not much later, he died (8 August 117). His successor Hadrian gave up the newly conquered countries and dismissed Lusius Quietus, who was killed in the Summer of 118.


The revolt against Trajan is the subject of a book by Marina Pucci, La rivolta Ebraica al tempo di Traiano (1981 Pisa). Another discussion of this rebellions can be found in Gedaliah Alon's The Jews in their land in the Talmudic age (1980 Harvard).

Inscription commemorating the suppression of the Jewish War. Trajanic Baths, Cyrene (Libya). Photo Marco Prins.
This inscription, in one of the bathhouses of Cyrene, commemorates how the city was rebuilt after the tumulto Iudaico, the disorders caused by the Jews.

 The Bar Kochba revolt (130-136)
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