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IAI Uncovers Roman Remnants from the Destruction of Jerusalem

Israel Antiquities Authority

The Russian Compound excavation site – Photograph Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Research by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAI) revealed new insights into the power of the Roman army and the locations of their attack on Jerusalem during the battle that led to the destruction of the city and Second Temple in 70 A.D.

Archaeological evidence was uncovered revealing the location of the Roman ballista firing machines and the intensity of the assault in the battles that led to the destruction of the Second Temple. Specifically, remnants of Roman weapons and such were found in what is now known as the Russian Compound – an area where a Russian Orthodox Church from the 19th Century stands – and a popular nightspot in downtown Jerusalem known as Cats Square.

The results of the new research were released on For the Tisha B’av memorial day observed Sunday, which commemorates Jerusalem’s destruction and is a fast day for Orthodox Jews.

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The Jews of Roman occupied Judea rebelled against the Empire in 66 A.D. They had early success only because of internal strife in Rome during that period and the time needed for the Romans to send an army down from Syria to put down the rebellion. By the year 70, the rebellion had been quashed and its remnants took refuge behind the walls of Jerusalem. After an extended siege the Romans breached the city walls, slaughtered countless people and destroyed all of Jerusalem.

Today all that remains of the City from that era is a retaining wall below the Temple Mount at the spot where the altar once stood. It is known today as the Kotel – the Western Wall. The Romans also left the eastern wall of the city standing which is today part of the modern walls built 500 years ago by the Turks.

IAI researcher Kfir Arbiv systematically recorded Roman military equipment retrieved in excavations in Jerusalem, many of which were found in the excavations that he directed, together with Dr. Rina Avner, in the Russian Compound, adjacent to the Jerusalem Municipality building. The Roman Arsenal exposed to date includes hundreds of different-sized ballista stones that were launched from sophisticated bolt-throwing machines to a distance of 100–400 m, small sling stones used by trained infantry, and catapult machines that launched spearheads for a distance of 150–200 m. Spears, swords and arrowheads, including heavy arrowheads that could penetrate armor.

“The Fast of the 9th Av commemorates the day of the destruction of the Second Temple,” says Kfir Arbiv. “The Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, after a four-month siege and an intensive battle led by the Roman general Titus in order to conquer the city and suppress the revolt initiated by the Jews four years earlier. The Romans had a well-trained massive army, equipped with the best military innovations of their day. It was a ruthless war machine.”

From historical records it was already known that the Roman army employed massive siege rams to batter the massive walls of Jerusalem, and siege towers that reached the height of the walls. Unfortunately, to date, no remnants of these things have yet been found.

Arbiv’s research focused on the hundreds of ballista stones, and his analysis defined different sizes and weights. Some, directed against people, were launched against the walls to prevent the Jewish rebels from emerging above the walls, and other heavier ones were launched fiercely against the walls to penetrate them.

According to Arbiv, “With the help of the computer, I located all the ballista exactly where they were found. I took into account the local topography and the location of the Second Temple-period city fortification walls, and I made ballistic calculations, including the launching angle, and the throwing distance of the stones. All the data was compared to the renown Jewish historian Josephus’ contemporary detailed descriptions of the battle, and the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem, in his book, ‘The History of the Jewish War against the Romans’.”

According to the research, some of the Roman army artillery machines were located in the center of the modern city of Jerusalem, in the Nahalat Hashiva area, nicknamed ‘Cats’ Square’. The research also shows for the first time, the probable pots where the Roman army penetrated the city.

The Russian Compound excavations exposed part of the Third Wall, the third line of defense that surrounded the city. An exceptionally large concentration of ballista stones was found at one point, some broken after use. It was evident that the Roman army concentrated their efforts here, and hundreds, if not thousands of ballista stones, were directed to this spot. “This is not surprising,” says Arbiv, “as whoever controls this spot, dominates the whole area and the fate of the city. This aligns with Josephus’ account that Titus commanded to penetrate the city from the northwestern side of the city wall.”



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