Israelis could be excused for not wanting anything to do with the Roman Legion X Fretensis, which occupied Judea for a long period and suppressed the Maccabee and Bar-Kochba Revolts in counterinsurgency campaigns of the type common in classical antiquity: brutal and sanguinary.
But Israeli archaeologists were thrilled to announce the rediscovery of a long-lost inscription dedicated to the Roman Emperor Hadrian by the Legion in 129 or 130 AD. The tag end of the inscription had long been known, but the upper part turned up in reused stones that had been the lintel of an arch of triumph.
To the Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, son of the deified Traianus Parthicus, grandson of the deified Nerva, high priest, invested with tribunician power for the 14th time, consul for the third time, father of the country (dedicated by) the 10th legion Fretensis (2nd hand) Antoniniana.
Hadrian was a remarkable emperor, known for Hadrian’s Wall in Britain and for his famous villa/palace. But his rule of the inhabitants of Judea was marked by cruel conquest. Jerusalem was destroyed, and a city named “Aelia Capitolina” built on its ruins. The arch celebrated Hadrians’ troops’ eradication of Jewish resistance; the statue of Hadrian (on the right) was also erected to celebrate this victory. It’s unknown who pulled down and broke up this statue of Hadrian; it could have been Jews getting some cultural revenge, or it could have been iconoclastic Ottomans, although iconoclasts usually destroyed the noses or faces of statues, in addition to pulling them down and breaking them up. (Will archaeologists be unearthing Lenins in 2000 years? One hopes not).
Outside of Judea, Hadrian was often viewed (including by European historians) as a model of the benevolent despot. In Judea, that was not his image, as a review of the history of the Bar-Kochba revolt indicates. After the initial, AD 70, revolt led to a Jewish defeat, Rome imposed a harsh peace, and on taking the reins of power, Hadrian cranked up the pressure on his Judean subjects, demanding they convert to Roman religion and abjure their ancient faith. Titus had already razed the Temple; Hadrian planned his city, Aelia Capitolina, with a temple to his god, Jupiter, and the Jews grudgingly accepted that — until he banned two Jewish religious practices that had long struck Romans as barbarous: castration and circumcision. (Jews do not practice castration; Hadrian may have been misinformed). That and other offenses against Jewish belief were enough to bring the Jews to the brink of revolt. In 132 AD, Roman engineers constructing the new Roman city collapsed the Tomb of Solomon, venerated by Jews as a holy place. Fuel-air mixture, meet spark. The rebellious Jews, led by Simon bar-Kochba, seized the countryside and knew better than to engage the Roman legions directly.
The rebels did not dare try to risk open confrontation against the Romans, but occupied the advantageous positions in the country and strengthened them with mines and walls, so that they would have places of refuge when hard pressed and could communicate with one another unobserved underground; and they pierced these subterranean passages from above at intervals to let in air and light.[Cassius Dio, Roman history 69.12.3]
(Now you see where Hamas got the tunnel idea). Even sending a top general, Julius Severus, didn’t win the war; Hadrian actually had to come himself. (We have a vision of him saying, “Severus, you had one job.“) Somewhere between four and seven Legions were deployed; one, XXII Deiotariana, vanishes from history after this war. One source suggests it was annihilated; it might also have been disgraced, or lost its eagle.
The X Legion had been through that disgrace in Parthia, after Crassus led them to defeat at Cannae (another emperor later ransomed the eagles back after an interval). So it was going to celebrate any victory it got.
Going back to Cassius Dio again (courtesy of that same source), we see that Hadrian won by a counterinsurgent campaign that resembles more closely German campaigns against Russian partisans or America’s crushing of the Indians than the kinder, gentler COIN of today.
Severus did not venture to attack his opponents in the open at any one point, in view of their numbers and their fanaticism, but -by intercepting small groups, thanks to the number of his soldiers and under-officers, and by depriving them of food and shutting them up- he was able, rather slowly, to be sure, but with comparative little danger, to crush, exhaust and exterminate them. Very few Jews in fact survived. Fifty of their most important outposts and 985 better known villages were razed to the ground. 580,000 were killed in the various engagements or battles. As for the numbers who perished from starvation, disease or fire, that was impossible to establish.[Cassius Dio, Roman history 69.13.2-3]
The last stand of the rebels was in Betar, in the desert southwest of Judea; rather than an Alamo storm, the Romans simply starved the last of the Jewish resisters out. Tradition holds that the head of Bar-Kochba was brought to Hadrian, who said over the grisly sight, “If his God had not slain him, who could have overcome him?”
There were still mopping up operations, but the war was over. Along with the new name for Jerusalem, Judea itself got a new name — Palestine. The survivors of the Jewish armies were sold into slavery or put to the sword — in this fanciful carving, by Hadrian himself.
Victorious, but weakened by Roman losses during the long campaign of no quarter, Hadrian returned to Rome.
After he was gone, and after the Romans were gone, someone knocked down the plaque and broke it up. A part was found the century before last by French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau, and the remainder turned up on a dig this year — it had been used to pave a well. The arch-shaped lower part, the original discovery from the 1800s, is on outdoor display at the Studium Biblicum Franciscan Museum in Jerusalem.
Latin inscriptions did not fare well in Judea in the millennia that followed the retreat of Rome. Very few have survived, and to have one that is both complete and readily dated is rare indeed. Over a century passed between the discovery of the two parts of the inscription.
And enough time has passed that even the Israelis are excited about it, maybe more excited than today’s Romans.
As we used to say in 10th Group, Ave Caesar! Morituri te Salutamus.