Werner Eck: New perspectives on Hadrian and the Bar Kokhba revolt

Epigraphic Saturday, Cambridge, February 16th, 2008. 10.30.

Werner Eck began the day by extending his earlier arguments on the nature and extent of the Bar Kokhba revolt (see ‘The bar Kokhba Revolt: The Roman Point of View’, in JRS [1999] 89: 76-89). While many have contested the reliability of Dio Cassius’ account (69.12-15.1), Eck marshalled a wide variety of epigraphic sources, drawn from Italy and across the Eastern Mediterranean, to illustrate the realities behind Dio’s claim that ‘the whole earth … was being stirred up over the matter’ (Dio Cass. 69.13.2).

First, Eck examined three epigraphic sources indicating unusual recruitment into the Roman fleet and legions. Two inscriptions show that delecti were dispatched, uncharacteristically for this era, within Italy. A papyrus from Caesarea, dated to 150, attests the earlier transfer of veterans from the fleet to the legion and, as a necessity, their enfranchisement as Roman citizens. The most telling evidence, however, comes from military diplomas, a source revolutionized by the post-Cold War recovery and publication of diplomas of Eastern European provenance. Thirteen naval diplomas, dated to 160 and originating in the province of Thracia, survive. Since the survival rate of diplomas is reckoned at between 0.5-1.0%, and only 50-60% of the recruits from any given year would have survived twenty-six years of service, Eck concluded, on the basis of these diplomas, that between 2600-5300 recruits – or approximately half of the Roman fleet – were enlisted in 134.

Next, he considered epigraphic sources concerned with the recruitment and service of auxiliaries in Judaea. He began with four diplomas from auxiliary troops stationed in Judaea, each of whom was recruited from the area around Pamphylia. The close proximity of these recruits’ origins indicate a levy driven by necessity, and their subsequent enrolment – as lecti, not voluntarii – into the depleted auxiliary units of Judaea. Three diplomas, from 157-8, survive for the 7th Ala Phrygum, another indication of significant losses (and subsequent recruitment) in 133. Five diplomas, from June 159, survive for the 1st Ala Tracum Victrix, based in Pannonia Superior. Other sources attest that Pannonia was calm at this time, and that some of her seasoned auxiliaries were moved to Judaea; they were replaced by these new recruits.

Dio Cassius (69.13.2) notes that Hadrian dispatched his best generals (most notably Julius Severus, from Britain) to this theatre. Inscriptions confirm these movements, and supply additional names. Eck detailed the case of Poblicius Marcellus, governor of Syria, and discussed the monument bearing his name at Aquileia (AE 1934, 231). Since ‘Poblicius Marcellus’ here is in the nominative, rather than in the dative, this base cannot have been an honorary monument (which, besides, would have included the entire cursus), but was rather dedicated personally by the governor.

Besides these Roman materials, there survives some evidence for the rebels’ recruitment (or at least attraction) of foreigners. The most notable example is the well-known letter from the Bar Kochba papyrii, in which Soumaios (whose name denotes Nabatean origins) corresponds in Greek, and comments on his unfamiliarity with the Hebrew script.

Eck believes that the rebellion continued into 136 (cf. CIL 14.2088, from Dec. 135-Dec. 136), but was suppressed prior to Hadrian’s acceptance of imperator iterum. Hadrian accepted this honour in recognition of the concluded campaign’s magnitude, and the governors of Judaea, Syria, and Arabia – all of whom had been involved – simultaneously received ornamenta triumphalia. One honour which remains mysterious is the enormous arch raised for Hadrian in the countryside near Tel Shalem. While only fragments, re-used as coverings for Byzantine graves, survive, their 41 cm. high Latin letters indicate an arch 11 meters wide. The identity of the dedicator remains uncertain – a legion? the Senate and People of Rome? – but the scale and location of the monument indicates that it must be connected with events in the province, and perhaps it marked a turning point in this eventful campaign.

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