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The (ancient) Building Boom

by September 16, 2016

We haven’t lived in the city long enough to become nostalgic for the town that it once was.

We can’t mourn for the destruction of the original Astor Hotel (demolished in the early 20th century) or lament the fate of the original Pen Station- a beautiful, classically inspired, architectural jewel that was leveled in the 60s and replaced with a dumpy concourse deep under Madison Square Garden.

pen station
Penn Station main waiting room, 1911
Source: Wikimedia Commons

That being said, we do tend to notice that the city has an uncanny ability to demolish and replace buildings seemingly overnight. After a quick survey, we notice that there are four construction sites within a one-block radius of our apartment.

Properties that were once home to ramen stands, parking lots, lamp retailers, and student housing, are now becoming condominium towers and luxury hotels.

The city has undergone several building booms over the years. Post war New York saw the destruction of buildings that had been considered first-of-their-kind technical achievements only a few years before. They were swiftly replaced with new skyscrapers boasting modern necessities like air conditioning, elevators, and open-floor office plans.

A new building boom is going on today, but rather than accommodating more office space, the skyscrapers of tomorrow are built almost exclusively to house the ultra rich, the “oligarchs” that our curious friend mentioned.

NPR reports…

“One developer called these apartments safe deposit boxes with views because they’re expected to hold their value. Apartments start around $10 million and go up from there to almost a hundred million. This is pretty much what former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had in mind when his administration changed zoning rules to make it easier to build super tall towers.

Original article here.

 

For our part, we’re indifferent to the whole ordeal. We try maintaining our Stoic demeanor at all times.

But these new revelations have gotten us curious. The ancient world, you see, also had building booms. In many respects, they were similar to the booms of our modern age- they were undertaken to accommodate the expanding economy of a city or city-state.

In other respects… they were different.

If it walks like an empire…and talks like an empire…

 

Let’s start with different.

In the 5th century BC, classical Athens had acquired herself a sizeable empire. As the de facto leader of the Delian League (the coalition of Greek city-states assembled for the purpose of defending the ancient Greeks from the invading Persian Empire) Athens was in a position of power and influence.

By force or fraud, the Athenians bullied smaller cities into joining their military coalition and paying member dues (which went straight to the treasury located on the Athenian Acropolis).

It is estimated that Athens received, in contemporary terms, hundreds of millions of dollars every year from subject states. With an adult, male population of about 45, 00, this meant unrivaled prosperity.

empire
Athenian Empire in 5th century BC
Source: Wikimedia Commons

By about 465 BC, the Delian League was a coalition only in name. It had transformed into an Athenian Empire. While Athens had evolved into a formidable, imperial power, the city itself did not look the part.

Many of the Athenian temples had been destroyed during the razing of Athens at the hands of King Xerxes of Persia during the Greco-Persian wars several decades previously. Most of the Athenian assembly meetings were still being held out in the open fields of the Athenian agora.

Such a state of affairs would not do for the most powerful city in the classical Greek world. That was the thinking of a new statesman who consolidated power over Athens in 461 BC. He was a man with bold ideas and foresight for the future- Pericles.

And here’s the part you’ve been waiting for… the Athenian building boom.

The (ancient) building boom

 

Athens, under the rule of Pericles, embarked on an aggressive series of building projects that cost, in contemporary terms, roughly three billion dollars. It is the buildings constructed during this time that are often associated with the “Golden Age” of classical Greece. That includes the Hephaisteion (Temple of Hephaestus) and, of course, the Parthenon.

The building plans were initiated in 447 and were completed within fifteen years. The building projects were popular among the demos as they supplied a steady flow of work for the citizens. Notably, one such citizen was a young Socrates, who likely helped hew and shape the stones that went into the temples.

temple

A photo from your editor’s trip to Greece.
Hephaisteion in the foreground, Parthenon in the background.

The only true opposition to the Periclean building plans came from the wealthy Athenian aristocrats who did not appreciate funds from the treasury being funneled to the working class. Even still, they could not muster enough political power to stop Pericles or his building proposals.

N.B. an interesting note from history is that the funds used in the construction of these building projects came from the Delian League treasury, a fund that was originally intended solely for the defense of the Greek lands against invaders. As a result, some historians point to the building of the Parthenon as one of the first embezzlement scandals in the Western world.

A source of everlasting fame

Perhaps the most interesting element of the ancient Athenian building boom was the motivation of Pericles. The Athenian building projects were not, unlike modern New York, undertaken to accommodate more office space or to create housing for wealthy foreigners.

Pericles’ motivation was to glorify the city, construct monuments that could weather the ravages of time and emblazon the glory days of Athens on the consciousness of Western history.

And in that regard, he succeeded.

All kinds of enterprises should be created which will provide an inspiration for every art, find employment for every hand… we must devote ourselves to acquiring things that will be the source of everlasting fame.

–Pericles (Plutarch’s Life of Pericles)

 

So what conclusions to draw, dear reader?

Are we the proverbial Athenians, building monuments to commemorate and glorify our achievements as a society?

Two thousand years from now, will tourists roam the ruins Empire State Building and learn how the ancient New Yorkers used to live?

No answers for certain…but it’s fun to imagine.

The 10 Craziest Persons from the Ancient World

by September 5, 2016

1. Socrates

Socrates
While the great philosopher is often remembered for his method of questioning and devotion to the laws and justice, he is also a famous example of one who ‘hears voices’. In his trial he admits to having a ‘daemon’, a heavenly voice that occasionally speaks to him and guides him along his path of inquisition and philosophical exploration.

The daemon never explicitly tells Socrates what to do, but it whispers to him and deters him away from certain paths. It was the daemon, Socrates says, that warned him that he should not become a politician.

“You may have heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, which my accuser Melitus ridicules and sets out in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of being a politician”.

It’s at this point that Socrates remarks, humorously, that this was probably a good idea. For if the citizens of Athens want to execute him as a philosopher, how much sooner would they have executed him if he were a politician?

2. Caligula

Normally when folks think of madness in the ancient world, it is Caligula, Rome’s third emperor, that they conjure in their minds. After all, we’re talking about the man who, if ancient scholars are to be believed, was planning to name his beloved horse the highest and most coveted position on the Roman Senate, consul.

Adding to the list of excesses, Caligula elevated himself to godhood, allegedly cut open his wife’s stomach to see the sex of the baby, carried on a love-affair with his own sister, brazenly, in front of her husband, and made the battle-hardened Roman Legion pick up seashells on the coast of the English Channel after attacking the sea.

And one time, when there were no criminals to throw to the beasts at the Colosseum, he had his guard force an entire section of the crowd in instead.

Clearly, Caligula wasn’t all there.

3. Nero

While Nero may look positively levelheaded compared to Caligula, he did enough horrible things to make one question his sanity. Not only rumored to have started an immense fire in Rome in order to clear space for his new palace, he also had his mother and brother in law murdered. His first attempt at his mother’s life involved creating a special boat that could be sunk on command, but she when she survived, he was forced to resort to more standard methods.

But he gets much darker than that… An early persecutor of Christians, Nero famously burned them alive in order to light his garden. He kicked his pregnant wife to death and was so reviled that it’s thought the Book of Revelations’ Antichrist is a veiled reference to his cruel and torturous ways.

4. Oracle of Delphi

Delphi

As mentioned in the previous newsletter, the Pythia, also known as the Oracle of Delphi, was the most prestigious and authoritative oracle among the Greeks, but were thought by many, including Plutarch, to be mad.

One theory is that her oracular powers derived from vapors, hallucinogenic gases, from the Kerna spring waters that flowed under the temple. Another hypothesis is that her prophecies were the result of the poisonous plant, Oleander.

Either way, she wielded great influence through her advice and suggestions over the rich and powerful in the ancient world… even if her words were not always sensical.

5. Caracalla

Caracalla, ruler of Rome from 198 to 217 AD, was a big fan of ordering murder and violence, and the only people who didn’t hate him were the soldiers he paid off.

He also had no problem killing on scale. For instance, cities that displeased him, like Alexandria, suddenly had much smaller populations after he visited, as all the people that came to greet him were killed.

Once around 20,000 were slaughtered in days of looting and violence. Another time, Caracalla tricked an enemy nation into thinking he had accepted a treaty and marriage proposal from them, and then slaughtered the girl and all the guests.

6. Commodus

You may remember him from the Gladiator movie (played by Joaquin Phoenix), but Commodus was essentially bred by his father to be a nasty piece of something or other. He is best known for his love of the coliseum where he would fight and kill gladiators… who were armed with toy swords and usually heavily wounded before they even stepped into the ring. Commodus bragged that he killed 100 bears… all of which were immobile and tied up. And he bankrupted the people of Rome, having charged them an insane “appearance fee” for these acts.

Moreover, he kept a harem of kidnapping victims for orgies and auctioned off state positions and anyone who stood against him was murdered. Eventually he was killed… strangled by a gladiator.

7. Elagabalus

Emperor from 218 to 222, Elagabalus was obviously deeply mentally disturbed. Having ascended the throne at a young age, he replaced the pantheon with a new Sun god… and then proclaimed himself its avatar.

He scandalized even the sexual libertines, due to his multiple marriages and affairs, especially when he married and deflowered a vestal virgin, causing her to break her sacred vow and be buried alive.

He also supposedly dressed as woman and prostituted himself out on palace grounds. Desperately wanting female genitalia, Elagabalus suggested giving himself a vagina by slicing open his stomach. He had a favorite slave who he called husband and who called him wife. Rumours include having his men hunt for well-hung men around the country, and forcing them to be castrated, and encouraging his “husband” to beat him for straying.

His was assassinated after only four years as emperor.

8. King Herod

Herod

King of Judea from 37 BC to 4 BC, Herod was famous for wanting to kill Jesus and for the “Massacre of the Innocents”, where he ordered every boy at the age of 2 or younger in Bethlehem to be killed. Responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, Herod killed the high priest, his rivals, grandfather-in law, mother-in law, brother-in law, uncle, wife, 3 sons (one of which was murdered only a few days before Herod’s death)… and just about anyone else who he distrusted and thought was a threat to him.

9. Pythagoras

A more loveable ‘crazy’, Pythagoras is best known for his mathematical genius and eponymous theorem we all learned in school. However, he had a few strange quirks, including a strange religion he created.

The main tenets of his cult were that souls are reincarnated… and beans are evil. No, not figuratively… actual beans.

Commandments include oddities such as: Do not eat beans (obviously), do not step over a crossbar, sit on a quart or walk on highways. Do not leave the pot’s impression in the ashes after removing it from the fire, or stir a fire without iron, or let swallows nest under the roof.

His sect had a few more ‘sane’ rules like vegetarianism and pacifism, but he broke those when he slaughtered an ox. He ironically died in a fight.

10. Empedocles

A Greek Scientist & Philosopher, 490-430 B.C., Empedocles is equal measures genius and insane. While he discovered that light travels at a speed, the Earth is a sphere, centrifugal force, and an very crude theory of evolution…. He also thought he was a God, with a capital G.

To prove his immortality, Empedocles announced that he would jump into a volcano–Mt Etna–and come back out unscathed. He didn’t.

We’re building a wall…and Sparta’s going to pay for it!

by August 26, 2016

We’ve discussed The Donald in these pages before. Almost every time we’ve come back from the ordeal beaten and bloodied after perusing our reader responses.

Is Trump the “democratic tyrant” that Plato warns us about in his The Republic?

We pondered that question some months ago. Seemed plausible at the time, but maybe we had the guy wrong. Perhaps Big Don isn’t a fear monger at all. He might just be a classical reader!

Sure, he’s the kinda guy that wants to build a wall because those damn foreigners are coming to kill us.

But he’s not the first…

A great, big, beautiful wall

 

That brings us to our bit of history for today.

Building walls was not an unusual occurrence in the ancient world. Off the top of your head, you could probably name the Great Wall of China, the Walls of Benin, or perhaps even Hadrian’s Wall.

Defensive walls were an integral part of the ancient world. During the infancy of human civilization, marauding pirates, encroaching foreign armies, and addled emperors with a penchant for putting entire cities to the flame were vey real concerns.

Today we look at one particular set of walls. They are the Long Walls of ancient Athens described by Thucydides in his The History of the Peloponnesian War.

The walls of the ancient Athenian city began construction during the lead up to the Peloponnesian War in the mid 5th century BC.

N.B. The Persian armies of King Xerxes had previously destroyed the Athenian walls during the Greco-Persian wars several decades earlier.

An interesting piece of engineering, defensive walls were erected around the city proper, but construction also began on a series of 6km “Long Walls” that would connect the city of Athens to its ports at Piraeus.

Wall
The Athenian Long Walls

The Long Walls created a protected corridor that could provide a valuable link to the sea, even during times of siege.

More interesting than the walls themselves was the story behind how they were built.

The Missing Envoys

 

The historian Thucydides tells us that after the successful expulsion of the Persian armies, the Spartan Greeks looked upon Athens with fear and mistrust. In the course of “defending” smaller cities from the Persians, Athens had acquired herself a sizeable empire. The Athenians coerced or otherwise intimidated smaller cities to join their military coalition or otherwise face destruction.

Fearing the strength of a fortified Athenian city, the Spartans pleaded with Athens to not reconstruct the defensive walls.

They would have themselves preferred to see neither her nor any other city in possession of a wall; though here they acted principally at the instigation of their allies, who were alarmed at the strength of her newly acquired navy and the valour which she had displayed in the war with the Medes.

-Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I, Chapter IV)

 

Themistocles, the man largely credited with orchestrating the Greek victory over the Persians, informed the Spartans that he would sit with them and discuss the proposition.

You know-hash it out.

Themistocles proceeded at once to Sparta but informed his countrymen to delay the departure of themistoclesthe other emissaries. Upon his arrival, the general stalled for time and made excuses. His colleagues had yet to arrive, you see, so he couldn’t possibly go before the Spartan assembly to discuss the prospect of an Athenian wall.

The Spartans trusted Themistocles, a man who was for years their ally. However, unbeknownst to them, the construction of the Athenian wall had already begun.

The Spartans heard rumors of the wall and deployed emissaries to confirm the reports. Themistocles secretly sent word to the Athenians to capture the emissaries and detain them indefinitely.

By this time, construction of the Athenian walls was far enough along that Themistocles felt it safe to drop his ruse. He announced openly that the Athenian wall, to the great consternation of the Spartans, had already been constructed.

In essence, saying: Whaddya gonna do about it?

Taking a page from Thucydides

 

By this time our mind drifts back to the modern age.

Is it fair to The Donald to compare him to ancient demagogues? While we’re at it, is it fair to the demagogues to compare them to Trump?

No answers for certain…but we sure would love to hear what you have to say, dear reader.

For now though, let’s be content with our examination of this unique bit of history. We don’t know precisely how Themistocles made his case to the Athenian people, what stirring rhetoric he must have employed.

But we like to imagine…

Hey guys, I got great news. We’re going to build a big, beautiful wall…

And Sparta’s going to pay for it!

The Dual Monarchy of Sparta

by August 9, 2016

By Julia Huse

When it comes to Ancient Greece I am particularly

spartaSpartan Warrior

fond of Athens. As the birthplace of democracy, the epicenter of Greek tragedy, and the intellectual hub of the classical age, Athens had a lot going for it.

Today, however, we look elsewhere. Classical Athens, after all, wasn’t the only place where new and dramatic changes were taking place.

You might be familiar with Sparta, the intensely militaristic city-state of the Ancient world made famous by the movie 300.

Imagine if the United States Marine Corp founded and governed their own country.

That would be Sparta…

Key players in the Greco-Persian War, we often admire Sparta for its toughness and courage. With a focus on its military, however, we hardly ever hear about its government. This is a real shame because Sparta had its own unique political system with two, count them, two kings sitting on the throne at once.

In his Histories, Herodotus explains to us how this dual kingship came about. A Spartan king named Aristodemus had twin sons. Almost immediately after the two boys were born Aristodemus croaked. The Spartans were then faced with a dilemma; who was going to be Aristodemus’ successor? The Spartans wanted to make the older of the twins the new king, as was custom, but the two boys were so “alike and equal” that they could not determine which of the two was the older twin. The Spartans then turned to the mother of the twins, Argeia, who told the Spartans that she couldn’t even tell them apart. This was a lie. She knew which of the two was older but she wanted both her sons to become king.

Better Ask the Oracle

So the Spartans, not sure what to do, did what any good city-state would do at the time: ask the oracle at Delphi.

When they asked the Pythia (for those who don’t know the Pythia was the priestess at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi who gave the oracle), she told the Spartans to make both the boys king. From that point on the Spartans had two kings, one from the lineage of each twin. As the twins grew up they were in constant competition with each other, which then became an important part of the dual kingship.

Power with Limits

These kings were equal in every sense. Both kings dealt equally in the matters of religion, laws and military. Over the years, however, the say that the two kings had in these matters dwindled. By the 5th century BC most of their judicial duties had been handed over to the ephors, a democratically elected group of law makers, and the gerousia, a group of 28 elders elected for life normally part of royal households. Even though their judicial power had been reduced, the kings still held a decent amount of military power.

Either king could lead armies in to war with the approval of certain councils, but it was not permitted for both the kings to lead an army at the same time. One king always had to remain in Sparta in order to prevent anarchy, or the ever-frequent helot (slave) uprising.

A Modern Revival?

The idea of monarchy in Sparta was clearly very complicated. Not only does the “mono” part of monarchy not really apply to their dual kingship, but also the power of these kings were closely regulated and controlled by other councils in their government. This rather odd form of monarchy was somewhat genius in its own way though. Not only did these kings have two councils to check their power, the competition between the two kings kept them in line as well.

The kings held opposing opinions on issues, thus providing a voice for citizens on either side of the issue. Also, making one king always remain in the city ensured order and calm for the Spartans even in times of war. The nature of the two councils also had added benefits. The relative permanence of the gerousia provided stability in their government while the annually elected ephors allowed the Spartans to have a voice in their government.

This whole system seems very similar to the perfect government described by Cicero in his De Re Publica with its mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Have we been so distracted by democratic Athens that we’ve missed the odd genius of the Spartan political system?

Now, I’m not calling for a modern revival. I’m not saying that the United States, just as an example, should elect two presidents. Put Hillary AND The Donald in office; let them sort it out amongst themselves.

Yeah…that would work.

But for the ancient Spartans, it DID work, for a while at least.

The next time you think of Sparta, put out of your mind the image of behemoth warriors in leather speedos. Instead, perhaps remember the ancient Spartans as innovative, dare we even say revolutionary, political thinkers.

The Good Kind of Strife

by August 8, 2016

We recently made the claim that societies need a bit of strife. After all, without strife, there can be no greatness.

You may or may not subscribe to this sentiment, the idea that the hottest forge creates the strongest steel, but it was nothing short of a cultural cornerstone in the earliest days of ancient Greece.

hesiod
The poet, Hesiod

Take Hesiod for example.

Historians today remember the ancient poet Hesiod as a true giant of ancient Greek literature. As an epic poet, Hesiod is credited with penning The Theogony, which details the ancient Hellenic ideas of the creation of the world and establishes much of our understanding of the pantheon of Olympic gods and goddesses.

As an ancient writer, Hesiod is second only to Homer. And there are still a few things he can teach us.

Almost three thousand years ago, Hesiod wrote that there were two kinds of strife. The first strife would “foster evil war and battle.” But the other strife would spur men, and societies, to greatness.

…and she (strife) is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with is neighbour as he hurries after wealth.

 

Potter against potter

It’s possible that this sort of work ethic might have saved the ancient Greeks from a dire fate.

Several hundred years before Hesiod, sometime in the 14th or 13th century BC, the great and glorious Bronze Age of Greece came to an end.

The civilizations of the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, the civilizations that inspired The Iliad, were destroyed either by internal conflict or foreign armies.

Knosos
The ancient remains of the palace at Knossos, a Bronze Age Minoan castle.

Ancient Greece enters a dark age. The people encounter plights that we in the modern world are unacquainted with- famine, mass migration, and an economic collapse of the known world.

A lot of strife to be sure, but with strife comes opportunity. With the collapse of traditional kings and rulers, the commoners, maybe for the first time in history, had the opportunity to toil for their own self-advancement and not just for the benefit of the ruling elite.

Here we come to Hesiod’s idea of competing craftsmen- potter against potter, minstrel against minstrel. Each is competing to get his little slice of the pie.

 

This Strife is wholesome for men. And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel.

 

From this strife comes a revolutionary idea, it’s an idea that is still with us in the modern age. Here we find the first glowing embers of what would become known as “the cult of the individual”, the idea that a person can strive and toil to create their own fortunes, their own futures. A commoner could, for the first time, be the author of his own story.

Times might have been tough, but it was this idea, that strife can lead to greatness, that set the stage for the so-called “glory days” of ancient Greece several hundred years later.

Perhaps we don’t need less strife in our modern age. We just need the right type.

The Fall of Jerusalem (Part 2)

by July 28, 2016

It was not often said of the Romans that they were an empire tolerant of seditious behaviour.

Though arguments can be made that they often bestowed certain benefits on the peoples they subjugated (a certain well-known scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian springs to mind), once a nation lost its statehood and became a Roman territory, acts of physical dissent were not taken, in any sense, as constructive criticism.

Thus, when the people of Judea rose up to initiate the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73AD), the Latin overlords neither ‘umm-ed’ nor ‘ahh-ed’ about the course to take next. The responsibility for putting the Jews back in their place, and reinforcing that said place now belonged not to them, but to Rome, fell to the legate of Syria, Cestius Gallus.

A Surprising Defeat

 

Jerusalem

Whether through incompetence or an underestimation of the foe, and despite some initial gains, Gallus was soon humbled at the Battle of Beth Horon—at which he not only lost 6000 men, but the very symbol of Roman imperium, the legion’s eagle!

For the Jews, this great victory was a recruiting tool no amount of Roman repression could equal; there was now belief that the interlopers in their land could not merely be resisted, but defeated.

“It’s difficult to overstate how important the eagle was to a legion. For example, the ones lost at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9AD) were passionately sought after, the last taking 32 years to recover!”

The Romans soon realized that this conflict was not going to be won simply because the enemy were overawed by their shiny breastplates and neat formations, this was a fight that needed to be taken seriously. In true Hollywood style, the floundering Emperor Nero turned to a legendary commander, one currently in the political wilderness (having previously been booted off the ‘force’ (possibly for falling asleep during one of Nero’s theatrical recitals)), but who was now called back for one last job because, damn it, he was the best.

This was how Vespasian, together with his son Titus and 60,000 troops, began systematically breaking the Jewish resistance in town after town across Judea. The wily old soldier knew that, as long as he was making headway, as long as cities were falling and Jews were dying, there was no need to engage the bastion of Jerusalem itself, but leave the rebels to stew and hear daily news of their comrades’ deaths or enslavements.

A Nation Divided

Another, unforeseen, advantage for the Romans was that the radicals they failed to kill in the outlying towns fled to, and took refuge in, Jerusalem. And, as is so often the case when schisms abound, vicious infighting broke out. There resulted, therefore, a bizarre situation wherein the hardliner Jewish forces (the Zealots) were besieged inside the Temple by the more moderate faction, themselves inside the city walls. A separate, but equally radical group (the Edomites) came to relieve their fellow extremists who managed to sneak out of the Temple and unbar the gates during a thunderstorm, thus admitting their remorseless comrades.

Jerusalem

The result would undoubtedly have brought a smile to Vespasian’s lips; at least 6000 Jewish soldiers and countless civilians lost their lives. The cruel irony is that this occurred in 68AD, a year in which Rome was at her weakest. The assisted suicide of Nero had ushered in the Empire’s own era of civil infighting in what was to become known as the Year of the Four Emperors; the fourth and final of which was a popular soldier who had shown great skill, tact and loyalty to his country, Vespasian.

A Bloodthirsty New Threat

The new Emperor left Judea in the charge of his son, Titus (who would one day also inherit the throne from his father). Titus, finally unbound from the steady and prudent influence of his sire, unleashed his youthful impetuosity by marching on and besieging Jerusalem – though not without decimating any unfortunate towns that lay in his wake.

The siege was, in engineering terms, a colossal one. Titus’ forces dug a trench around the entire city’s circumference and, outside of that, built their own walls to completely isolate Jerusalem from the wider world – as well as ensuring anyone exiting it was promptly caught and crucified.

In spite of the enemy being at the gates, infighting was still prevalent in the city itself; a masochistic bickering epitomised by the decision of the Zealots to burn the city’s food reserves in order to force the undecided into an ultimatum: fight or starve. Though many suffered the latter fate, the city finally began to cohesively defend itself as the threat of a full-on Roman assault became evermore imminent.

Some accounts estimate those besieged inside the three vast city walls at close to half a million, whilst contemporary

“Titus’ forces dug a trench around the entire city’s circumference and, outside of that, built their own walls to completely isolate Jerusalem from the wider world – as well as ensuring anyone exiting it was promptly caught and crucified.”

Jewish historian, Josephus, claimed it was about double that. Either way, such numbers would have meant that this once proud beacon of Jewish civilisation could only have been a picture of squalor, starvation, disease and death during the seven long months that Titus’ troops took to breach the three, seemingly impenetrable, walls; they finally managed to break through in the summer of 70AD.

Titus
The Fall of Jerusalem, depicted on the Arch of Titus

Once inside, the Romans were merciless. The city was ransacked and burned. The surviving population was enslaved. The Second Temple was looted and destroyed.

Though it took another three years to seek out and destroy the last of the Judean resistance, the fall of Jerusalem was the de facto point at which Roman victory was assured.

Josephus tells us that over a million civilians died during the great siege with another hundred-odd thousand sold into slavery. Though such contemporary accounts are usually considered to be inflated, if the reality was only a fraction of this, then it must still have been one of the most horrific and bloody episodes in antiquity.

The importance of the event in the history of their respective civilizations was lost on neither the Romans nor the Jews. The former celebrated the campaign both on official coins and on the—still standing—Arch of Titus, whilst Jews today still recall the destruction of the Second temple on their annual day of mournful reflection, Tisha B’Av.