When Nero, the Roman emperor, was told of the disasters that had befallen Cestius Gallus and of the open revolt of the Jews, he pretended to make light of the whole affair, but was really very much disturbed.
Accordingly, he sent Vespasian, the greatest of his generals, to assume command of the armies in Syria, and to subdue the rebellious Jews. As soon as he received his appointment, Vespasian dispatched his son Titus to Alexandria to bring up two legions of Roman soldiers stationed there, while he himself proceeded to Syria. There he collected the Roman forces and a large body of allies from the neighboring princes.
While these preparations were going on, the Jews, elated by their conquest over Cestius, determined to capture Ascalon, a city rather weakly garrisoned by some Roman troops, and situated about sixty-five miles from Jerusalem.
The Jews marched out in great numbers under their commanders, called Niger, Silas, and John the Essene, and made great haste to attack the city. But Antonius, the Roman commander of the city, had heard of their approach, and was prepared to meet them.
He attacked the Jews with a squadron of cavalry and threw them into complete disorder. The Jewish forces, composed entirely of foot-soldiers, were undisciplined, and could not cope with their skilled adversaries, who rode all around them and easily slaughtered them. The vast multitude could not fight with any success, and were ashamed to fly, and so were killed by the well-trained Romans like so many sheep. Night at length put a stop to the awful carnage, but not before ten thousand Jews lay dead upon the plain; among them two of their generals, Judas and Silas. Niger escaped with the remainder, the most of whom were wounded, to a little town in Idumæa called Sallis.
In spite of this terrible defeat, the Jews, even before their wounds had time to heal, collected their forces and made another assault upon Ascalon, but were again overthrown.
Antonius placed ambushes in the passes, and suddenly surrounding the Jews with his cavalry before they had time to form for battle, he slew eight thousand of them. The Jews made scarcely any resistance. Niger retreated, and, being closely pressed, took possession of a strong tower in a village called Bezedel.
Antonius, not having time to besiege the place, set fire to the fortress and retired, exulting in the thought that he had burned Niger up. But Niger leaped down from the burning fortress, and crept into a deep cavern under the tower. Here he was found three days afterwards by a party of his friends, who were searching for his dead body that they might bury it. The Jews were filled with joy upon seeing their leader, believing him to have been preserved by God in order to lead them to future battles.
Meanwhile, Vespasian led his army out of Antioch, where he had found King Agrippa with his whole force waiting to join him, and made a rapid march to Ptolemais.
Here he was met by a number of the citizens of Sepphoris in Galilee, who, seeking their own safety, came to assure him of their fidelity to Rome. Vespasian gave them a guard to attend them back to their native city, and to defend it from the Jews. For as Sepphoris was the largest city in Galilee, Vespasian was very glad to get it into his power so easily. It was strongly fortified, and might have been made by the Jews a bulwark to the entire province.
Vespasian accordingly sent a strong force to Sepphoris, consisting of a thousand horse and six thousand foot, which he put under command of Placidus the tribune. When the troops arrived at the plain before the city they divided; the infantry quartered in the town, but the cavalry remained outside in their intrenchments, so that they could scour the surrounding country and annoy the army of Josephus.
Josephus made a great effort to recapture Sepphoris, but the place was too strong for him, and he was repulsed. This action provoked more active hostilities against the country on the part of the Romans, who spread fire and sword over the whole region. They killed all the Jews they could find who were capable of bearing arms, and enslaved the feeble ones, so that the only places of security were the cities that had been fortified by Josephus.