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William Shepard

Siege of Jotapata

Titus quickly arrived from Alexandria, bringing the Roman legions that had been stationed there with him. He joined his father in Ptolemais, where Vespasian remained for a while to get his army in order.

Vespasian was also joined by large bodies of auxiliaries furnished by the Kings Antiochus, Agrippa, and Sohemus, and the Arabian monarch, Malchus. So that his army amounted to very nearly sixty thousand men, not counting the servants and camp-followers, who were trained to fight also when occasion demanded.

While Vespasian remained in Ptolemais, Placidus continued to overrun Galilee, and to put its inhabitants to the sword. But observing that the fighting men always fled to the fortified cities, he advanced against the strongest of them, Jotapata; for he thought that by a sudden assault he could carry it without difficulty, and that, this done, the weaker towns would immediately surrender through fear. But in this he was much deceived. For the people of Jotapata, aware of his approach, lay in wait for him in front of the town; and, eager to fight for their city and their wives and children, they fell upon the Romans with great fury and quickly routed them, without, however, killing many. Placidus, finding that he was too weak to capture the town, gave up the attempt and retreated.

When Vespasian had organized his forces he marched from Ptolemais to the frontier of Galilee, where he encamped. He halted awhile, that he might, by displaying the greatness of his forces, strike terror into the hearts of the enemy, and, ere the sword was drawn, give them time for repentance and submission. Nor was the measure without effect; for a number of Josephus's army, who were encamped at a town called Garis, hearing of the host of Romans who were coming to attack them, became so frightened that they dispersed and fled, not only before a blow was struck, but even before they had seen their foes.

Josephus was left alone with a mere handful of men, and, perceiving that his forces were not sufficient to cope with the enemy, and that they were much dispirited, he deemed it prudent to remove as far as possible from danger, and so fled with his soldiers to Tiberias.

Vespasian advanced upon the city of Gadara, and carried it at the first assault. On entering the town he put to death all except the children. The city and all the villages and hamlets around it were burned to the ground. Thus was a terrible example made, and the defeat of Cestius avenged.

The retreat of Josephus to Tiberias filled its inhabitants with alarm, for they rightly judged that had he not despaired of the contest he would not have fled. Nor did they mistake his views, for the manner in which the war was conducted made him think resistance hopeless.

However, like a gallant commander, he determined not to give up the cause. So he despatched messengers to Jerusalem, with letters to the party in power, in which he informed them of the exact state of affairs, and advised them either to surrender at once or to send him an army which would be able to cope with the Romans.

When Vespasian heard that a large body of the enemy had fled to Jotapata, and also that it was their strongest place of refuge, he determined to capture it. And so he sent a force to level the road leading to it, which was rocky and mountainous, and very difficult to travel upon, even for infantry, and was entirely too steep for cavalry.

In four days the work was completed, and a spacious highway opened for the troops. Josephus now went from Tiberias to Jotapata, in order to revive the drooping spirits of the Jews in that stronghold.

This news was brought to Vespasian, who became all the more eager to capture the place when he heard that the general-in-chief was within the walls. He therefore despatched Placidus and Ebutius, a distinguished officer, with a thousand horse, to surround the town and cut off all means of escape. The next day Vespasian followed with his whole force, and in the evening encamped on a high hill about a mile from the town, in order that the defenders might see his entire army, and be struck with terror at its magnitude.

The Romans, wearied with their long march, did not make an immediate attack, but they entirely surrounded the city, and so cut off every hope of escape. This, however, infused into the Jews the valor of despair. For, as they were unable to flee, they had no course left but to fight to the very last.

The next day the attack began. The Jews sallied boldly forth to meet the enemy, and at first gallantly faced the Romans. Vespasian ordered the archers and slingers to charge, and he himself led the infantry up an acclivity which led to the least defensible part of the wall. Josephus, alarmed for the town, dashed forward with the entire garrison, and drove the Romans from the ramparts. Great feats of valor were performed by both sides until night parted the combatants.

The following morning and for five days the Romans continued to make their assaults, while the Jews sallied bravely forth, or fought from the ramparts with equal courage.

Jotapata stood on top of a lofty hill, on three sides surrounded by impassable ravines. On the north side only could it be approached, where the end of the ridge sloped more gradually down. On this declivity was the city built; and this part Josephus had encompassed with a wall, to prevent an enemy from occupying the summit above it.

Vespasian called a council of war, and it was decided to raise an embankment against the part of the wall that was easiest of access. The whole army was sent out to procure materials, and they stripped the surrounding mountains of timber and stone, and proceeded to build the embankment. In order to protect themselves from the missiles hurled at them by the garrison, the Romans built a kind of wickerwork roof, under the protection of which they worked with safety.

Vespasian brought out his military engines, of which he had one hundred and sixty, and brought them to bear upon the men stationed upon the ramparts. The catapults vomited forth whizzing storms of lances, and the stone-projectors hurled great rocks of enormous weight, while the archers and slingers threw their weapons, so that they soon cleared the ramparts of the enemy.

But the Jews now sallied out from below in parties. And every now and then they suddenly attacked the workmen, and pulled down the breastworks. And when they could beat back the workmen, they threw down the mound and set fire to the palisades and hurdles. Vespasian perceived that the spaces between the works afforded openings for attacks, so he united all the working-parties, and thus closing his lines, prevented these destructive sallies.

The embankment was now finished, and was almost on a level with the battlements. Josephus, in order to offset this, commanded workmen to raise the height of the wall. The workmen said that it would be impossible to build whilst they were assailed with such showers of missiles. Josephus then ordered tall stakes to be driven on top of the wall, and on them stretched fresh raw hides of oxen. From this yielding curtain the stones fell back harmless, whilst the other missiles glanced off, and even the fire-darts were quenched by the moisture of the hides. The builders, thus screened, raised the wall thirty-five feet higher. They then erected a number of towers, and defended the whole by a strong breastwork.

The Romans, who already fancied themselves masters of the town, were struck with dismay at the ingenuity of Josephus and the bravery of the besieged.

Vespasian was very much put out by this cunning stratagem, as well as by the gallantry of the people of Jotapata. For, inspired with fresh confidence by their bulwark, they sallied out in small bands and continually harassed the Romans, pillaging everything that came in their way and burning the enemy's works.

At length Vespasian determined to turn the siege into a blockade, and to starve the city into a surrender. For the garrison, he reasoned, would either soon have to capitulate or perish with hunger. Or if later he should wish to continue the attack, he could more easily conquer the Jews when wasted by hunger. So he kept his troops in their quarters, and blockaded every avenue to the city.

The besieged were well supplied with corn and other provisions, except salt, and also suffered from a scarcity of water. There was no spring within the city, so the inhabitants were obliged to be content with rain-water. But in that country it rarely rains in summer-time, and as it was now that season, the inhabitants became very much dispirited, and looked forward with great anxiety to the time when their supply would fail.

As Josephus wished to protract the siege as long as possible, he measured out the water in small quantities to the people. When the Romans saw the besieged all flocking to one spot, and there receiving water by measure, they directed their missiles against that place, and slew a great many.

Vespasian now thought that the garrison would soon have to surrender, and so continued the blockade. Josephus, in order to crush this hope, ordered a number of people to steep their garments and hang them round the battlements, so that the whole wall suddenly steamed with moisture. The Roman general was dismayed when he saw so much water wasted. For he concluded that the Jews must have an abundant supply that they used it so freely. And so, despairing of reducing the city by want, he again ordered an attack. This was what the Jews desired; for they preferred to perish by the sword rather than by thirst and famine.

Josephus discovered a secret means for obtaining supplies. By the bed of a mountain-torrent which wound along the western side of the ravine, and which the Romans neglected to guard, he sent letters to the Jews outside, and received in return abundance of everything that was needed in the city. The messengers crept on all fours, covered with the skins of beasts, that they might look like dogs; but the guards at length detected the artifice, and secured the outlet.

Josephus now began to think of his own safety, and so resolved to fly with the leading men. But the people, hearing of his intention, surrounded him and begged him to remain, saying,—

"While you remain with us, Josephus, there is still some hope for the town, and we will fight under you bravely; but if you go away no one will dare to oppose the enemy, and the city will immediately fall."

"I cannot," said Josephus, "see what good I can do by remaining; whereas, if I escape, I can assemble the Galileans and draw the Romans from your walls. Indeed, my remaining will only stimulate the Romans to press the siege, for their chief object is to capture me; whereas, if they know that I have fled, they will naturally relax their efforts to take the town."

But the people, unmoved by these arguments, only clung to him the closer. Old men and women and children fell down in tears before him, and besought him not to leave them.

Moved with compassion at their distress, Josephus made up his mind to remain; and thinking this a good time to make an attack, he called the garrison around him, and said,—

"Now is the time to rush to an attack, when there is no hope of safety. It is honorable to exchange life for glory in doing some great deed, which will be handed down to the memory of posterity."

He then sallied out with the bravest of his troops, beat back the sentries, and, forcing his way to the Roman camp, tore away the skins which sheltered the men on the embankments and set the works on fire. For many days and nights he led these furious attacks, and kept the Romans in a constant state of alarm.

Vespasian directed his men to avoid these attacks, and not to engage with men bent on death.

"For nothing," he said, "imparts greater energy than despair, and their furious valor will die out if deprived of its proper object, as fire without fuel. It becomes even the Romans to conquer with safety, since they war not from necessity, but to extend their dominions."

He ordered the auxiliaries alone to repel these attacks, and finding himself, as it were, besieged in his turn, and as the embankment had now reached close to the wall, he ordered the battering-ram to be advanced.

The ram was a machine used by the ancients for battering down walls. It was composed of a large beam resembling the mast of a ship, on one end of which was forged a dense mass of iron in the shape of a ram's head, whence it derived its name. It was suspended by ropes tied around the middle, so that it hung balanced from a beam above, which was supported by two strong upright posts. It was drawn back by a great number of men, and then driven forward with such tremendous force that no wall could long withstand its blows.

The Romans now swept the battlements with a continual discharge from their engines, as well as from their archers and slingers, so that the Jews could not get upon the wall and obstruct the putting up of the ram. At the first stroke of this terrible instrument the wall was shaken, and the besieged sent up a fearful shriek, as if the city were already taken.

Josephus, seeing the Romans constantly battering upon the same spot, and that the wall was all but a ruin, ordered sacks filled with chaff to be let down over the place where the ram battered, so that they caused the head to swerve, and weakened the blow. But the Romans then used long poles with edged hooks at the ends, with which they cut down the sacks, so that the ram continued its destructive work, and soon the wall began to give way.

The Jews now hastened to defend themselves with fire as a last resource; and, snatching up whatever combustible matter was at hand, they sallied out from three different points, and set fire to the machines, hurdles, and mounds of the besiegers. The Romans, confounded by this act of daring, made scarcely any defence; and, as the timbers of the embankment were all dry, the fire spread rapidly, and consumed in one hour the labor of many days.

At this time a Jew called Eleazar performed a feat of valor which is worthy of record. Lifting up an enormous stone, he threw it with such force at the ram that he broke off the head of the machine. He then leaped down from the wall, secured his prize, and was bearing it back to the city, when he was transfixed with fire-darts. Nothing daunted, however, he climbed the battlements, displayed his trophy to all, then, writhing under his wounds, fell headlong with the ram. Two brothers, named Netiras and Philip, also distinguished themselves. Dashing out, they broke through a legion of Romans, and drove back all who opposed them. Josephus and the rest followed this heroic example, and, snatching up combustible matter, they set fire to the machines of the enemy and consumed a number of their works.

But the Romans again set up the ram, and went on battering the wall at the same place. While Vespasian was directing the assault he was slightly wounded by a javelin near the sole of his foot. This caused the greatest confusion among the Romans. Many gave up the attack and crowded around their general; foremost of all was Titus, who was greatly alarmed for his father. But Vespasian speedily relieved their fears, and showing himself to all, roused them to greater exertions against the Jews. With loud shouts the whole army rushed to the walls, and all night the awful conflict lasted. But though the Jews fell in numbers, and though the missiles poured around them like hail, they would not abandon the walls, but continued to heave down stones and fiery combustibles upon the besiegers. Towards morning the wall, assailed without intermission, fell before the ram. The defenders, however, threw up defences opposite the breach before the Romans could apply their scaling-planks. At daybreak Vespasian allowed his troops a short repose, and then assembled them for the assault. To repel the besieged from the breach he ordered the bravest of the cavalry to dismount, and stationed them by the breach, in order that they might mount it the moment the planks were laid. In the rear of these he marshalled the flower of his infantry. The rest of the cavalry he dispersed all over the mountains which encircled the town, that they might cut off all escape; behind them he stationed an encircling line of archers, and others he directed to apply scaling-ladders to the uninjured parts of the wall in order to call off the attention of the defenders from the breach.

Josephus, seeing his design, placed the old and infirm to guard these parts of the wall, but stationed his bravest to defend the breach, while he himself took his position at their head. He commanded his men to stop their ears at the shouts of the Roman legions that they might not be terrified, and to receive the showers of missiles on bended knee under cover of their shields, and then retreat a little until the archers had emptied their quivers, but when the Romans should fix their scaling-planks they should leap upon them and fight to revenge their city. "Place before your eyes," said he, "your fathers and children and wives about to be butchered, and, anticipating the rage you will feel at these coming calamities, let it loose on those who are to inflict them."

When the helpless women and children within the town saw the awful preparations for the final conflict, and the enemy sword in hand at the breach, and the mountains above them glittering with armed men, they raised a great shriek as if the enemy were already within the town. Josephus shut the women up in their houses lest they should dispirit the men, and with threats commanded them to be silent. He then took his post at the breach and awaited the attack.

At once the trumpets of the invading army sounded, and the Romans, with a terrific war-cry, rushed to the attack. The Jews closed their ears to the noise, and guarded themselves against the flying arrows, which fell upon them in a perfect storm.

The moment the scaling-planks were laid the Jews rushed along them before the Romans could cross, and fell upon their enemies with the greatest fury; but at length the Romans, who, on account of their numbers, were able to continually pour fresh troops upon the Jews, drove them back, and began to mount the ramparts.

Still, Josephus had a last expedient. He had prepared a vast quantity of boiling oil, and at a signal this was poured upon the enemy, and the vessels, glowing with heat, were hurled at them. The ranks were broken, and the men rolled down in the greatest agony, for the burning oil trickled through their armour, and penetrated to the skin. Writhing with anguish, they tumbled from the scaling-planks, and fell upon those of their own party who were pressing forward.

But the Romans, nothing daunted by sight of the tortures which befell their companions in front of them, continued to advance upon the battlements. The Jews, however, by another stratagem checked their ascent. They poured boiled fenugreek, a slippery concoction, upon the planks, so that those retreating as well as those advancing were unable to stand up. Some were thrown upon their backs upon the scaling-planks, and were trodden to death; while many fell down upon the embankment and were despatched by the Jews.

In the evening Vespasian drew off his troops, who had suffered severely in the assault, and determined to proceed in a more slow and cautious manner. He accordingly set his men to work at raising the embankment. When this was done, he built upon it three towers, fifty feet high, and covered on all sides with plates of iron, so that they might be firm and at the same time fire-proof. In these he placed his slingers and archers and the lighter engines for hurling missiles.

From these towers a constant shower of missiles was poured upon the Jews, who were unable to harm their assailants, because the towers were too high. So they were obliged to abandon the wall. But still they sallied out in parties upon the troops who assaulted the breach, and constantly repelled them from the wall. Thus was the combat carried on by the besieged, many falling from day to day, unable to retaliate upon their foes, whose approach they could only check at the risk of their lives.

At this period Vespasian despatched Trajan, the commander of one of his legions, with a thousand horse and two thousand foot, against a town in the vicinity of Jotapata, called Japha, which was in revolt.

When Trajan drew near Japha the inhabitants advanced against him, but he soon put them to flight and chased them to the walls. The pursuers and pursued entered pell-mell within the outer gates, but when they reached the inner wall those who guarded it closed the gates, and thus shut out both their friends and enemies.

Shut up between the two walls, the miserable fugitives were slaughtered within sight of their friends, calling loudly all the while upon them to open the gates. But the people inside were afraid of letting in the enemy should they open the gates to their friends, who, discouraged by such cruelty, made no effort at resistance, and were all killed, to the number of twelve thousand.

Trajan sent a message to Vespasian requesting that his son Titus might be despatched to complete the victory. Accordingly, Titus advanced upon the city with an additional force, and, joining forces with Trajan, led the assault.

The Jews almost immediately abandoned the walls, and Titus and his soldiers leaped into the city. Then a fierce struggle took place, in which even the women joined, and hurled from the windows whatever missile came to hand. At length the fighting-men among the defenders were all killed; the rest were massacred, and none except the infants and the women were spared. They were carried off into slavery.

Misfortunes also befell the Samaritans. These people had not openly joined in the revolt, but still, made no wiser by the misfortunes of their neighbors, they looked forward for an occasion to rebel, and had collected in great force in the sacred mountain of Gerizzim. For most of their cities were garrisoned by the Romans.

Vespasian, in order to nip the insurrection in the bud, sent Cerealis, one of his prefects, with an armed force against the Samaritans. Cerealis surrounded the base of the mountain, and kept watch during the whole day. It was midsummer, and the Samaritans, who had laid in no provisions, suffered terribly for want of water, so that some died of thirst, and others deserted to the Romans.

Cerealis, learning from the deserters that the Samaritans were greatly enfeebled by their sufferings, ascended the mountain, and completely encircling the enemy, offered them pardon should they surrender. Unable to prevail with them, however, he attacked and massacred them to a man, to the number of eleven thousand six hundred.

And now the fall of Jotapata drew near. For forty-seven days the brave garrison had held out and resisted the attacks of the powerful Roman army. They were worn out with fatigue and wounds, when one of their number deserted to Vespasian and informed him that those left in the town were so few and enfeebled that they could not now repel a vigorous assault. In the early morning, he said, the sentinels were apt from sheer exhaustion to fall asleep at their posts, and at that hour the town should be attacked.

Vespasian hardly believed the man, so faithful had all the other Jews been to their cause; but still what he said appeared to be probable, and at all events no harm could come from making the attack. So the general marshalled his army for the assault, and at the hour named the Romans approached the ramparts in silence, under cover of a dense fog.

Titus was the first to mount them, followed by a tribune and a few soldiers. They killed the sentries and stole quietly into the city, followed by Placidus and Cerealis with the troops under their orders. The citadel was surprised and taken. Though the day had begun, the inhabitants were still unconscious of the capture, for the greater number of them were asleep, and those who were awake saw nothing through the heavy mist. By this time the whole army was within the gates, and the Jews were aroused only to receive in death the first evidence of their capture.

The Romans, remembering what they had suffered during the siege, showed no mercy to the unhappy defenders. Pressed together in the streets, they were ruthlessly slaughtered, a great many falling by their own hands. All who showed themselves were slain, and during the ensuing days the Romans searched the hiding-places, slaughtering all the men, and sparing none but the women and children. Of these twelve hundred prisoners were taken. During the capture and siege forty thousand men perished. Vespasian ordered the town to be razed, and reduced all its forts to ashes. Thus fell Jotapata.