Today on June 5, 70 CE, after two months of besieging Jerusalem, the Roman army under general Titus finally breached the city's mighty walls.
The siege of Jerusalem was a defining moment in the First Jewish-Roman War (sometimes referred to as the First Jewish Revolt). The conflict took place in the province of Judea (primarily in present-day Israel) during the first century. At the time, a Jewish political group known as the Zealots had occupied Jerusalem. Over a century earlier, Pompey the Great had conquered the ancient city for the republic. The Romans governed the province through a puppet king and had been tolerant of other religions.
But Jerusalem was now firmly in the hands of the rebellious Zealots. The Roman-historian Josephus first used the term Zealotry to describe the fourth sect or fourth Jewish philosophy. The Zealots were responsible for sparking the revolt against their Roman overlords four years earlier in 66 CE. During the siege of Jerusalem, other Jewish factions emerged that were opposed to the strong militant stance of the Zealots.
While the Zealots achieved a few initial victories, their forces ultimately lacked leadership, organization, and training — they simply were no match for the highly-disciplined Roman legions. Emperor Nero dispatched general Vespasian to lead the suppression of the Jews at the beginning of the revolt. Vespasian did a masterful job of stamping out the rebels and had forced their leaders to take refuge in Jerusalem. In 69 CE, Vespasian abruptly left Judea to become the new emperor of Rome. He left his son Titus in command to finish off the Zealots.
On April 14, 70 CE, Titius began the siege of Jerusalem only a few days before the start of Passover. Therefore, it's likely that the city had been overrun by locals flocking to the Second Temple. According to Josephus, there were over a million people in Jerusalem before the siege, whereas Tacitus suggests it was closer to 600,000. This was a clever move by the Romans to ensure supplies would quickly dwindle in the event of a prolonged siege.
Titus initiated the siege by surrounding the western walls with three of his legions: V Macedonia, XII Fulminata, and XV Apollinaris. He held a fourth legion, X Fretensis, in reserve at the Mount of Olives (the place where Jesus ascended to Heaven according to the Apostles). Roman siege engineers built battering rams and catapults to bombard the walls. They first focused on battering the Third Wall — the main section of the outer wall located north of Jaffa Gate. They eventually breached the Third Wall sometime in May and then moved onto the Second Wall, which fell on June 5.
The remaining Zealots were left defending the Temple and the Fortress of Antonia. The fort fell to Titus in mid-July after a successful night-attack under cover of darkness. The fortress stood above the Temple, giving the Romans a perfect vantage point into the complex. After the battering rams failed to break the walls, the Romans resorted to using fire. In August, they finally took the Temple but at a high cost. One of the soldiers defied orders and threw a burning stick into the building. Titus had wanted to use and covert the Temple into a Roman Pantheon.
The legionnaires continued to destroy the city and massacre its Jewish population. Some of the rebels managed to escape the city through secret tunnels, while others made a final stand in the Upper City. On September 7, the siege of Jerusalem ended after the fall of Herod's Palace. Titus eventually returned to Rome and succeeded his father as the next emperor in 79 CE. The Romans erected the triumphal Arch of Titus to commemorate his victory following the siege of Jerusalem — a monument that still stands today.