Nero confirmed Felix as procurator, and added some cities to the dominions of Agrippa. The province of Judea was much troubled at this time by robbers and assassins, who dealt death and destruction all over the country. Felix did his best to wipe out these evils, but was not completely successful.
In Cæsarea a great disturbance took place, which finally led to open rupture with Rome. This city was inhabited by two races, the Syrian Greeks, who were pagans, and the Jews. These two peoples hated each other, and each wished to rule the city. The Jews claimed the city because it was founded by Herod the Great. But the Greeks declared that Herod intended it to be a Grecian city, because he erected in it pagan statues and temples, which he would not have done had he intended the city to be possessed by Jews. Ere long the two races attempted to settle the dispute by an appeal to the sword. Every day parties of Jews and Syrians would meet and fight, although the older and more prudent men on both sides, as well as the magistrates of the city, used all their endeavors to preserve peace.
Felix himself came into the city, to preserve order; and one day, when a party of Jews had beaten a party of Syrians, he ordered the Jews to disperse. They would not obey the order, so Felix ordered his troops to attack them, and many Jews were killed and their houses plundered in the scrimmage which followed. But as the two parties still continued to quarrel, Felix selected prominent men from each party, and sent them to Rome to argue their respective rights before the emperor.
Festus succeeded Felix as procurator, and directed his efforts to getting rid of the band of brigands that infested the country. He was not long in office before Albinus took his place, a most cruel and wicked man, who was himself a greater thief than any that infested the country. But Albinus was a saint compared to Gessius Florus, his successor. This man committed every species of rapine and injustice. He despoiled whole cities, and ruined populous communities. Entire districts were reduced by him to desolation, and many of the Jews fled to foreign countries in order to get away from his rule.
Cestius Gallus was at this time governor in Syria, but as long as he remained in his country the Jews, through fear of Florus, were prevented from sending a deputation to him with complaints against their procurator. But when Cestius visited Jerusalem to attend the Passover, the people crowded around him and besought his interference. Florus stood beside Cestius, and turned the complaints of the people into ridicule. When the governor left, Florus accompanied him as far as Cæsarea, filling his ear with calumnies about the Jews, and laying plans all the while to drive them into open revolt. For he was afraid that if peace continued, the Jews would accuse him of his evil deeds before Cæsar, but if he drove them into open war they could not do this, and he would thus conceal all his atrocities. When Florus returned to Jerusalem, therefore, he acted with greater cruelty than ever, so as to fan the flame of war.
The flame finally broke out in Cæsarea. Nero, bribed by the Greeks, had given them government of the city. It happened that the Jews had a synagogue, the ground about which was owned by a Greek, to whom the Jews had often offered a much higher price for his lot than it was worth. He refused to sell it, and in order to insult them built some mean little workshops on the ground, and left the Jews only a very narrow approach to their place of worship. Some hot-blooded youths interrupted the builders. But, as Florus would not allow violence, some of the Jews collected eight talents and gave it to Florus as a bribe to interfere and stop the builders. Florus promised to do so, but as soon as he had got the money in his hands, he set out for Sebaste, leaving the riot to take care of itself, doubtless hoping that it might bring on a war.
On the following Sabbath, when the Jews were in their synagogue, a Greek, in order to insult them, sacrificed some birds upon an earthen pot at the entrance of the temple. The more violent of the Jews, furious at this outrage, attacked the Greeks, who were already in arms and expecting an affray. Jucundus, master of horse under Florus, attempted in vain to quell the tumult. The Jews were worsted, and retired to Narbata, about seven miles distant. From thence they sent a deputation to Florus in Sebaste, imploring his assistance, and reminding him of the eight talents they had given him. But Florus threw the deputation into prison.
The news of this outrage reached Jerusalem, and although the people were very indignant, still they restrained their feelings. But Florus, determined to drive them to revolt, seized this critical time to rob the sacred treasury of the temple of seventeen talents, pretending that Cæsar needed the money. The outraged Jews flocked about the temple with loud outcries, and openly expressed their hatred and contempt of the procurator. Some passed about a basket begging in ridicule a trifle for the poor beggar Florus.
Hearing of this, Florus immediately marched upon Jerusalem, though he should have gone to Cæsarea, in order to quell the tumult there. But the Roman thought this a good chance to pillage the rich capital. The inhabitants of Jerusalem, in order to shame him from his purpose, came out to meet his army with acclamations. Florus sent forward a centurion with a body of horse, to order the people to return, and not to mock with pretended courtesy one whose name they had reviled, and to say that if they were brave men they would reproach him to his face, and prove their love of liberty by taking up arms against him. The multitude, frightened at the message, returned to their homes, and spent the night in alarm and dejection, fearing the vengeance of their ruler.
Florus fixed his quarters in the palace, and in the morning summoned the high-priests and chief men before him. He commanded them to deliver up those who had insulted him, declaring that they themselves should feel his vengeance if they did not produce the guilty ones. In reply, they represented the peaceable disposition of the people, and entreated his pardon for those who had insulted him; throwing the blame upon a few indiscreet youths, whom it was impossible to detect, as all had repented, and from fear of the consequences would not confess their guilt. It behooved him, however, they argued, to preserve the city and the peace of the nation, by forgiving the few who had offended, rather than revenge himself upon a multitude of innocent men.
Florus became all the more incensed at their words, and loudly ordered his soldiers to plunder the upper market, and to kill all they met with. The ready soldiers not only sacked the market, but broke into the houses and massacred the inmates. The city ran with blood. Neither age nor sex was spared, and men, women, and children to the number of nearly four thousand were cruelly slaughtered upon that awful day.
King Agrippa was absent in Egypt, but Berenice, his sister, was in Jerusalem fulfilling a religious vow. Horrified at the awful sights she saw around her, she many times sent messages to Florus, and at last herself besought him to stay the fury of the soldiers. But Florus was deaf to her prayers, and the queen was obliged to retreat quickly into the palace, in order to save her own life.
The following day the multitude gathered around the upper market-place and with loud cries lamented their dead, and gave way to fierce invectives against Florus. Alarmed at this, the chief priests and leaders went among them and implored them to keep quiet, and not again, after all they had suffered, to provoke the vengeance of Florus. Out of respect for those that exhorted them, the people complied and dispersed.
Florus was disappointed at the cessation of the disturbance. He wanted another excuse to murder and rob the people. He sent for the chief priests and leaders, and told them that as a proof of the submission of the people he desired them to go out and welcome two cohorts of troops who were advancing from Cæsarea. While the priests and leaders were exhorting the people to obey this command, Florus sent word to the advancing soldiers not to return the salute of the Jews, and if they should break out in murmurs to attack them.
The priests and leaders found it very difficult to make the outraged people obey this command. But they told them that, unless they obeyed, their country would be laid waste and their temple profaned and pillaged. At last the multitude consented, and were led out in peaceable array to meet the troops, whom they welcomed with apparent gladness. As no response was made by the cohorts, some of the Jews broke out in open murmurs against Florus. Upon this the soldiers surrounded the Jews and beat them with their clubs, while the cavalry pursued and trampled down those that fled. Many fell under the blows of the Romans, but a great many more were crushed to death by their own party. At the gates the crush was terrible, as all strove to get into the city. Many fell and had the life trampled out of them. The soldiers rushed in with the people, striving to get ahead of them and obtain possession of the temple and the fortress called Antonia. Anxious to get possession of the temple, Florus with his soldiers sallied from the palace and tried to reach the fortress, but was foiled by the people in the attempt. For some so blocked up the narrow streets that he could not cut his way through, while others assailed the soldiers from the roofs. Florus retreated to his quarters, and the people, fearing lest he might return and push forward through the Antonia, and so gain possession of the temple, cut off the porticoes and galleries which connected the two buildings. This made Florus despair of obtaining his main object, the plunder of the temple's treasures. He therefore gave up the attack, and, sending for the chief priests and leaders, proposed to go away from the city, but said he would leave a sufficient force to guard the palace. On their promising that they would do their best to preserve the peace, he left one cohort behind him and retired with the rest of his soldiers to Cæsarea.