Titus: Harbinger of Destruction

07 Jun 2016
Titus: Harbinger of Destruction

Titus2(Modern Borders shown)

It was the Jewish Passover festival at the start of spring in the year AD 70, the thirty-seventh since the death and resurrection of Jesus*, and Rome’s dashing young general, Titus, stood before the walls of Jerusalem preparing to lay siege to it. It was an honourable military enterprise in the minds of his fellow Romans, but among the Jews it was the beginning of the end to their beloved capital.

Titus3Emperor Titus. This marble bust of Titus, emperor from AD70–80 was discovered in Utica, near Carthage. It is now on display in the British Museum. 

Titus had at his disposal four legions, as well as many allied contingents. One of the legions had been garrisoned in Jericho in the Jordan Valley to the east, and another that had been stationed at nearby Emmaus to the west. In a classic pincer movement, Titus had ordered all of his legions to converge on Jerusalem from all points of the compass, completely surrounding it, cutting off all outside contact and communication. Then he ordered them to pitch camp, one to the north of the city and another to its east on the Mount of Olives. 

While Titus might have had eyes only for the conquest of the great city, he was not in supreme command. That lay in the hands of his father, Vespasian, the battle-hardened soldier and general appointed by Emperor Nero.

Up to this point in Levantine history, for more than a century the Jews had been Roman subjects. But by AD 66 they couldn’t take it anymore. According to Jewish historian Josephus, the Jews had tired of unpredictable emperors like Caligula and Nero; they had tired of being ruled by pagan rulers and paying taxes to them. So when a group of pagans of questionable character placed an upside-down chamber-pot at the entrance of the synagogue in Caesarea, then the Roman capital of Palestine, and ceremonially sacrificed several birds on it; and when the Roman governor of Judea, Florus, removed 17 talents from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem soon thereafter, the Jews outright rebelled, throwing off the rule of Rome (Josephus, The Jewish War, 2. 279–300).

As Vespasian and Titus marched south down through Galilee, on through Samaria and into Judea to quash this rebellion, word arrived from Rome that Nero was dead, having suicided. The empire was without an emperor. Immediately rival generals fought for the prize of the imperial throne, among them Vespasian, who left Titus behind in Judea to carry on the war while he returned to Rome in an attempt to take control of the empire, and in which he was ultimately successful. By the spring of AD 70, Vespasian was sole ruler of the Roman world. All that stood in the way of total power was the subjugation of the Jews and the revolt centred in Jerusalem. And thus it was that Titus stood gazing at its walls, ready to throw his troops against them.

Jerusalem eventually fell to Titus. Vespasian and Titus, now masters of the Jewish nation, declared themselves messiah, God’s chosen kings of the Jews (Josephus, The Jewish War, 6. 310–315). As for the Jewish nation, which was expected to worship Rome’s new emperor and his son, it was destroyed. Jerusalem, along with its magnificent Temple, was razed. The buildings of the Temple were looted, then dismantled and destroyed. All that was left was the Temple Mount and its Western, or “Wailing Wall” as it is sometimes called, where Jews pray today. According to Josephus, since it was the time of the Passover when Titus’ laid siege, the number of those inside Jerusalem had swelled by the tens of thousands. And when the siege ended, Titus took around 97,000 Jews captive, selling so many into slavery that prices for slaves plummeted right around the empire (The Jewish War, 6. 384, 420–423). 

Titus4Detail of the Arch of Titus. Close up of relief on the arch shows Titus’ army carrying off the symbol of Jewish culture and religion, a large menorah from the Temple, just part of the looted treasures, which were used to pay off the Colosseum.

Soon after this, Vespasian ordered the construction of his famous Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Colosseum. For many years, historians were uncertain as to how Vespasian could afford to build this ancient wonder. Then in June 2001, archaeologists discovered an ancient altar-like stone on the site. It contained a chiselled Latin inscription commemorating the senator Campaudius who made restorations on it in AD 443. But what really interested archaeologists was a much more ancient inscription still visible beneath that of Campaudius’. Restored by experts, this older inscription reads: “IMP. T. CAES. VESPANIUS AUG. AMPHITHEATRUM NOVUM EX MANIBUS FIERI IUSSIT.” And translated into English: “The Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus had this new amphitheatre erected with the spoils of war [i.e. with the Jews].” The evidence was clear; Vespasian had financed the Colosseum with plunder from Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple. With the destruction of that one iconic building that so symbolised Jewish nationalism, another iconic building symbolising Roman nationalism was built.

In Roman eyes, Titus had brought about a wonderful victory for his people. A magnificent triumphal procession paraded through the streets of Rome for Titus’ homecoming, which featured the spoils captured from the Temple, including a giant Jewish Menorah lampstand. A commemorative triumphal arch—the Arch of Titus—was also erected in his honour. On it is depicted the processional parade, and clearly visible even today are the chiselled Roman victors carrying the Menorah. The popularity of Titus was in this way established in Roman minds, with his biographer, Suetonius, later describing him as “the delight and darling of the human race” (Suetonius, Titus, 1). 

Titus5Close up Arch of Titus relief showing a helmeted Amazonian, Valour, leading the quadriga or four-horsed chariot, which carries Titus. Winged Victory crowns him with a laurel wreath.

But to the Jews, the destruction of the beloved Temple would prove a sore point for many decades. They would even claim that the eruption of Vesuvius a few years later in AD 79, which destroyed a number of rich cities occupied by the Roman ruling class, and which took place during Titus’ reign following Vespasian’s death, was divine retribution for Titus having destroyed the Temple. As one Jewish work written soon after the eruption stated: 

“But when, some day, fire escapes from an underground fissure in the land of Italy and reaches the expanse of the heavens, it will destroy many towns and men with its flames, and much dense ash will fill the great sky, and drops will fall from heaven like red ochre, then know the wrath of the heavenly God, on those who destroyed the blameless race of the pious [i.e. the Jews]” (Sibylline Oracle, 4. 130–136). 

This spite-fuelled animosity would remain in Jewish hearts for centuries. Composers of the Babylonian Talmud would later write about the “wicked Titus who blasphemed and insulted heaven” by destroying their dear Temple (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 56b).

There’s an interesting aside to this story. Almost 40 years before Titus’ siege and conquest, Christ had warned His followers of this very event. He had even told them of the means of escape, which apparently many accepted and escaped the carnage and captivity. Heeding His advice that there would be a window of opportunity to flee the city when the invaders temporarily withdrew, they did so. According to Eusebius, they repaired to the Hellenist town of Pella, east of the Jordan River in present day Jordan, where they sat out the war, returning to Jerusalem only when the war was over (Eusebius, Church History, 3. 5; 4. 5).

In the context of describing the destruction of the Temple, the Gospel of Luke records the words of Jesus: 

The time will come when not one stone [of the Temple] will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down. . . . When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out. . . . I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all of these things have happened . . .” (21:5–33).

Titus7Temple of Apollo, Pompeii. Mount Vesuvius lies in the background. The brief two-year reign of Titus was consumed by natural disasters, one of which was Pompeii’s destruction. 

Titus became emperor upon the death of Vespasian, who died on June 23, AD 79. It was to be a short reign, lasting but two years, two months and 20 days. And in that brief rule, he saw much: Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum, a three-day fire consumed much of Rome, and its population was subjected to a terrible plague. His reign was consumed by natural disasters. And while other emperors might not have seen that as so bad—Caligula is said to have prayed for a famine, a plague, a fire or an earthquake, according to Suetonius (Caligula, 31)—Titus viewed them differently. He got involved in disaster relief, even to personally funding relief efforts. But they took a toll on him. When he first heard about the fire of Rome, he cried in despair, “This has ruined me!” (Suetonius, Titus, 8).

Titus8Sestertius of Titus minted in AD 80 celebrating the inauguration of the Colosseum.

He eventually died of an illness, exhibiting an acute fever on September 1, AD 81, aged just 41. During his reign, the boundaries of the Roman Empire were extended, pushing into present-day Scotland, and construction of the Coliseum was finished. But his lasting legacy and for which he is remembered is the sacking of Jerusalem, the total destruction of Herod’s Temple, and the dismantling of the Jewish state that followed, from which the nation did not recover until 1948 with the declaration of the modern state of Israel.

Romans might have loved him, but Jews loathed him. Christians saw him as merely another in the long line of Caesars, a powerful ruler deserving of their respect but inconsequential to them. According to their theology, the only kingdom whose rule they sought was a “heavenly” one.

Later Roman historians would sympathise with this Christian view in the sense that they tended to be more philosophical about Titus’ brief reign rather than simply praising or condemning him, as had their forebears. In the early third century, for example, the pagan Cassius Dio wrote that Titus had indeed “ruled with mildness and died at the height of his glory.” On the other hand, he reflected that “if he had lived a long time, it might have been shown that he owes his present fame more to good fortune than to merit” (Cassius Dio, 66. 18). During his lifetime, as now, opinion is divided as to his rule, and he still captures the attention of archaeologist and historian alike seeking to better understand this most destructive yet famous of the emperors. 




A Second Arch of Triumph

Archaeologists working at one end of the Circus Maximus in Rome recently came across the foundations of a second massive arch in honour of the Emperor Titus. It appears that construction of the arch began immediately after the emperor’s death in AD81, and would have formed the entrance to the Circus.

The remains of the imposing, 17-metre-wide (56 ft), 15-metre-long (49 ft) marble arch were found at a depth of around 3 metres (10 ft) below street level.

Although the arch’s existence was known from historical records from the medieval period, it seems to have disappeared around 800 years ago, when its stone was pilfered for other works. Some 300 marble fragments of the monument have been unearthed, some of them the size of a small car.

The remnants consist of the bases of four giant columns that formed the front of the arch, as well as the plinths on which they rested and traces of the original travertine pavement.

Until the estimated €1 million to reconstruct the arch can be raised, its foundations will be reburied in order to protect them from the elements, which includes flooding, as the remains lay below the water table.

The arch is one of the two built in honour of the emperor, the other, which stands largely intact at the entrance to the Forum, at the very heart of the empire, commemorates Titus’s victory over the Jews, who revolted against Roman rule in AD 66, precipitating the war that led to the razing of Jerusalem and which finally ended with the fall of Masada in AD 73.


* Because scholarly opinion varies as to the year of the crucifixion, this number varies depending on the crucifixion year being used.

Photo Credit: Gary Webster


Daryn Graham