How did a failed rebel against Ancient Rome become a figure of hope for a dejected people in modern times? And how did that unlikely hero become an intrinsic part of the case for the foundation of an entire country? The man at the centre of the story is known as Bar Kokhba – except that was not his actual name. The country his story contributed to is the State of Israel – the name of the nation the warlord called his own rebel nation.
As a historian I learned about the Bar Kokhba War, but the explanations for why and how it happened seemed confused. Like England’s King Arthur, fact and myth have become muddled. To establish the truth, I travelled across three continents. Bar Kokhba: The Jew Who Defied Hadrian and Challenged the Might of Rome is the result.
This amazing and unlikely story involves an epic struggle between the two strong-willed leaders over who would rule a nation. One protagonist was Hadrian, the cosmopolitan, gay ruler of the vast Roman Empire, then at its zenith, who some regarded as divine. He is best known today for the famous wall he built in northern Britain.
The other was Shim’on, a devout Jew and military leader in a district of a minor province. Some believed him to be the ‘King Messiah’ after the Jewish sage Rabbi Akiba allegedly saw him fulfilling biblical prophecy and named him ‘Bar Kokhba’, which means ‘Son of a Star’.
Tensions between Jews and Romans in the region continued to be strained sixty-two years after the catastrophic siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 and with it the destruction of the Second Temple. The two ancient cultures co-existed uneasily. The Romans were the conquerors, seeking to maintain control of their hard-won dominion, which they called Judea. The other was the subjugated Jewish people, seeking to break free and establish a new nation.
In AD 132 a new war broke out, pitting the communities dotted around the Judean Hills and the Shephelah against the Romans. Several causes for the uprising have been suggested, which I discuss and evaluate in my new book. During the ensuing conflict – called the ‘Second Jewish War’ (AD 132-136) – the highly motivated Jewish militia sorely tested the highly trained – and normally invincible – professional Roman army.
Amazingly, using the skills and agility of the guerilla fighter, often hiding in underground tunnels, the Jewish rebels withstood the Roman onslaught for three-and-a-half years. They established an independent nation with its own administration led by Shim’on as its president. The rebels even minted their own coins by overstriking Roman coins with Jewish iconography. Shim’on called his new upstart country Israel.
Found in caves in the Judaean Desert in the 1950s and 1960s, actual letters from Shim’on to his camp commandants survive revealing how deeply involved he was in day-to-day actions, and his increasing frustration with their laziness.
The Jews ultimately lost at their last stand at Betar. Hadrian expelled the Jews from Judea and barred them from entering Jerusalem. He even changed the name of the Roman province to Syria Palaestina – the origin of Palestine.
The outcome of that David and Goliath contest was of great consequence, both for the people of Judaea and for Judaism itself. Centuries of bloodshed followed, driven by violent anti-Semitism, with pogroms, mass expulsions, and finally the Holocaust.
In death Bar Kokhba became a legend. Over the ages, this flawed rebel with a cause became a hero for the increasingly persecuted Jews in the Diaspora longing to establish a new Jewish homeland. Across Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were plays and operas telling increasingly fanciful versions of his story. Athletic teams competed in sports events under the moniker ‘Bar Kochba’ as part of a movement to create the ‘Muscular Jew’. They succeeded in galvanising Jewish aspirations for a homeland, recognised in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
In the interwar years in Palestine, armed Jewish resistance groups championed Bar Kokhba as a figure of inspiration in their own military struggle against the British and Palestinian Arabs. The State of Israel finally came into being on 14 May 1948.
Bar Kokhba was the subject of kids’ poems and songs, in which a lion became intertwined in the legend. Even postage stamps commemorate the name of Bar Kokhba, despite being a failure. Today modern Israelis still celebrate Bar Kokhba with bonfires and songs on the annual Lag B’Omer holiday.
Nations have their foundation myths which encapsulate how people see themselves. When I embarked on the research for the truth of Shim’on AKA Bar Kokhba and his failed nation called Israel I had no idea I was also exploring the extraordinary story of today’s State of Israel. Unlike the ancient rebel state, its modern reincarnation survives and thrives.
Lindsay Powell is a writer and historian and author of several books on antiquity including Marcus Agrippa: Right-Hand Man of Caesar Augustus, Augustus at War: The Struggle for the Pax Augusta and his latest book, Bar Kokhba: The Jew who Defied Hadrian and Challenged the Might of Rome.
Aspects of History Issue 5 is out now.