Cestius' Military Errors
Roman Historians on the Defeat of Cestius Gallus
Map of Cestius Gallus' Advance
"Fear we had in no small measure, when we saw the populace in arms, and we were at an impasse as to what to do, having no power to stop the revolutionaries.
Being in clear and present danger, we claimed to share their convictions. We did so hoping it would not be long before Cestius would come up with a great force to stop the revolution.
But, coming and engaging in battle, he was defeated, and a great many of those that were with him fell.
This failure of Cestius was a calamity for our whole nation; for those who loved war were so excited by it that they had hopes in the end of conquering the Romans."
Josephus, Life 5-6 22-24
During the revolt in Jerusalem, the rebels had defeated the pro-Roman civic leaders, the local Roman garrison, and the forces of King Agrippa. Now the report of the loss went up the chain of command to the Governor of the Roman province of Syria, Cestius Gallus, upon whom fell the responsibility to smother the rebellion.
Cestius Gallus had visited Jerusalem at Passover the previous year and heard the people's denunciation of the Judean procurator Florus. (War 2.14.3 280) Cestius had promised to curtail Florus' misdeeds, and Florus was appropriately contrite while in the presence of his superior. But Cestius spent most of his time far away in Antioch -- a 300 miles (500 km) distance, a journey of some two weeks. In July of 66 CE, after violent clashes between the people and Florus' troops, Cestius received another complaint from the Jerusalem leaders and a simultaneous counter-complaint by Florus against the Judaeans. Although Cestius' advisers recommended he lead an army to Jerusalem to settle the dispute one way or the other, Cestius himself decided to gather more information by sending an emissary (War 2.16.1 333-335) -- thus showing the personality traits of reasonableness and slowness to take action that would prove disastrous in his subsequent campaign.
Cestius' emissary, Neapolitanus, was treated with great respect by the Jerusalem leaders and given a full account of the recent actions, including a tour of the significant sites. While waiting for Neapolitanus to make his report to Cestius and for the Governor to respond, however, King Agrippa made a disastrous attempt to persuade the people to abstain from complaining to the Emperor and to continue to submit to Florus, which resulted in the outbreak of open revolt. (Described in War Chronology 1). In late September Agrippa personally journeyed to Antioch to discuss his defeat with Cestius. (War 2. 481)
Cestius' Military Errors
Thus Cestius became forced to lead an army against Judaea. But he was a civil administrator, with no battlefield experience historians are aware of; apparently Nero had only recently appointed him commander of the legions in Syria, succeeding the general Corbulo. His inexperience showed in a number of mistakes he made in the attack on Judaea that led to the destruction of the Twelfth Legion.
An important analysis of Cestius' campaign was made by Mordechai Gichon. Although Cestius began his campaign in classic Roman style, observes Gichon, including the terrorizing of the populace and wholesale destruction of crops and buildings to undermine the enemy's ability to wage war, he erred several times:
- He delayed in camp indecisively rather than acting, thus giving his opponents time to enact plans of their own.
- Cestius did not place his baggage train in the center of his marching troops, but instead placed it at the end of the column, where it became subjected to ambush. This loss, which included important siege equipment, severely weakened any possibility of assault on Jerusalem, which must be completed quickly in the face of the oncoming winter rains.
- Most disastrous of all, and contrary to standard procedure, he failed to secure the heights of the hilltops beneath which the army had to pass, allowing instead the rebel forces to seize these strategic positions. As a result, the Romans suffered heavily as they negotiated the pass at Beth-Horon, not once but twice -- when advancing on Jerusalem and again on the retreat.
To the Jews, the defeat of an entire Roman Legion, augmented with auxiliary troops, seemed like a miracle. There can be hardly any doubt that the false prophets that cooperated with the revolutionaries saw the hand of Heaven in the sudden and inexplicable retreat of Cestius, who had seemed on the verge of taking the city. Biblical precedents must have been cited, such as the sudden withdrawal of Sennacherib in the time of Hezekiah:
Thus says the Lord...He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege-ramp against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return; he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. (2 Kings 19:32-33)
The withdrawal must also have recalled the miraculous success of the Maccabees against a previous "ruler" of Syria, because the pass at Beth-Horon was the very site of Judah Maccabee's defeat of the army of Syria:
When [Seron, leading the Syrian army] approached the ascent of Beth-Horon, Judah went out to meet him with a small company. But seeing the army coming to meet them, they said to Judah, "How can we, few as we are, fight against so great and so strong a multitude? And we are faint, for we have eaten nothing today."The choice of Beth-Horon as the place to confront Cestius was surely guided by the knowledge of that earlier Heaven-sent victory. Cestius would have been seen as Seron, and doubtless many different Judaean commanders saw themselves as the next Judah Maccabee.
Judah replied, "It is easy for many to be hemmed in by few, for in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between saving by many or by few. It is not on the size of the army that victory depends, but strength comes from Heaven. They come against us in great insolence and lawlessness to destroy us and our wives and our children, and to rob us; but we fight for our lives and our laws. He Himself will crush them before us; as for you, do not be afraid of them."
When he finished speaking, he rushed suddenly against Seron and his army, and they were crushed before him. They pursued them down the descent of Beth-Horon to the plain.
(1 Maccabees 3:16-23).
Joshua himself pursued the five kings of the Amorites through the pass at Beth-Horon, where the Israelites received Heavenly assistance:
As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-Horon, the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died...Thus Beth-Horon was the sight of some of the most famous and miraculous victories in Jewish history. So it is not surprising when Josephus tells us how elated the rebels were at this, proof that Heaven was indeed with them -- proof so compelling that the pro-Roman faction was completely silenced: "Distinguished Jews abandoned the city like swimmers from a sinking ship", says Josephus (War 2.20.1 556). And moderates throughout Judaea were swayed to the cause -- including, it appears, Josephus himself.
On the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Lord; and he said in the sight of Israel,
"Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon."
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
The dismaying Roman defeat was recorded by the two major Roman historians of the era, Tacitus and Suetonius, who wrote in the generation after Josephus, at least 30 years after the war:…the rebellious Jews…murdered their Governor, routed the Governor of Syria when he came down to restore order, and captured an Eagle.
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Vespasian 4 (Penguin, trans. Robert Graves)…the endurance of the Jews lasted till Gessius Florus was procurator. In his time the war broke out. Cestius Gallus, legate of Syria, who attempted to crush it, had to fight several battles, generally with ill-success. Cestius dying, either in the course of nature, or from vexation…Further reading:
Tacitus, The Histories V
Mordechai Gichon, "Cestius Gallus' Campaign in Judaea", Palestine Exploration Quarterly 113 (1981) 56.
Martin Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judaea, Chapter 7: "The Outbreak of Revolt"
Sept. 25, 66 C.E.
|The troops sent by King Agrippa are forced out of Jerusalem by the rebels. The Roman garrison begins its last defense and in a few days is slain.|
| [26-27 Elul;
October 15-16, 66 C.E.]
|Cestius Gallus, Governor of Syria, removes the Twelfth Legion stationed in Antioch, and together with additional infantry, cavalry, and non-Jewish native auxiliaries, marches to Ptolemais with King Agrippa. The total force numbers between 35,000 and 40,000 men. [War 2.18.9]|
|The army attacks the city of Chabulon in Galilee, burning it, then plunders the villages in the countryside before returning to Ptolemais. [2.18.9]|
| [2-8 Tishri;
|Cestius marches to Caesarea; the army takes Joppa, killing 8400 citizens. The cavalry take the toparchy of Narbatene, plundering and burning the villages and killing many inhabitants. [W. 2.18.10]|
| [9-16 Tishri;
|Cestius sends the Twelfth Legion under Gallus Caesenius into Galilee. The strongest city of Galilee, Sepphoris, greets them willingly; the other cities remain peaceful. Rebels flee Sepphoris to nearby mountains, are soon flushed out by Roman forces, who kill over 2000 of them. [2.18.11]|
|The Twelfth Legion returns to Caesarea, joins the rest of Cestius' army in marching on Antipatris, dispersing Jewish forces in the tower of Aphek.|
|Sukkot: Tishri 15-22
[At Gabaon: Tishri 20;
|Marching on to Lydda, the city is found deserted, almost everyone having left for Jerusalem for the festival of Sukkot. The Romans march on towards Jerusalem, through the pass at Beth-Horon, pitching camp at Gabaon (Biblical Gibeon). [2.19.1]|
|Rebellious of Jerusalem leave the city during the festival and on the Sabbath, and fall upon the Roman camp, killing 515 infantry and cavalrymen, while losing only 22. The Romans retreat to Beth-Horon while Simon, son of Gioras, leads his men in attacks on their rear, capturing many Roman weapons and supplies. The Jews occupy the mountains to cut off Beth-Horon [2.19.2].|
|Cestius remains at Gabaon for three more days while Agrippa attempts to negotiate with the rebels, to no effect: his ambassadors are killed. (2.19.3)|
| Tishri 27-29;
|Cestius attacks and pursues the rebels to Jerusalem. He pitches camp on Mount Scopus for three days to collect food from local villages. (2.19.4 527-528)|
|Cestius advances on Jerusalem. He sets fire to to suburban districts, then moves to the wall of the upper city and pitches camp in the vicinity of the royal palace. (2.19.4 528-530)|
|The principal pro-Roman men of Jerusalem invite Cestius into the city, but he delays. The rebels attack the pro-peace faction and murder their leaders, then bombard the Romans from the wall. After five days, the Romans, heavily shielded, are on the verge of undermining the wall and setting fire to the gate of the Temple. (2.19.5)|
|Cestius suddenly gives up
and retreats from the city "without any reason in the world." [2.19.7
Josephus: "It was, I suppose, owing to the aversion God had already toward the city and the sanctuary that He delayed from putting an end to the war that very day." [2.19.6 539]
|As Cestius retreats to Scopus and then to Gabaon he is pursued by the rebels, who devastate his army's flanks and rear and force the Romans to abandon most of their baggage train. Cestius halts at Gabao for two days to plan.|
|Cestius leads the army to Beth-Horon. Trapped in the mountain passes of Beth-Horon the Romans are easily cut down. Nightfall prevents their capture; under cover of darkness Cestius and the army slip away, leaving 400 men behind as a deception; when the trick is discovered at dawn, these are quickly slain by the rebels. Of the Romans, a total of 5300 infantry and 480 cavalry have been killed at Beth-Horon.|
|The remnant is chased to the Roman camp at Antipatris. The rebels carry off weapons, war engines, and supplies, and sing on their way back to Jerusalem. [2.19.7-9]|
|"After this catastrophe had befallen Cestius,
many of the distinguished Jews abandoned the city like swimmers from a
sinking ship." (Josephus, 2.20.1 556)
"This reverse of Cestius proved disastrous to our whole nation; for
those who were bent on war were thereby still more elated and, having once
defeated the Romans, hoped to continue victorious to the end."
Flavius Josephus Home Page