A few months ago, I was honoured to receive a request from historian and writer Lindsay Powell to write a short blurb to appear on the back cover of his latest book on Bar Kokhba, the leader under whom the Jews united in their war against the Romans between AD 132 and 136. I sent him back the following endorsement, which also appears on the publisher’s website here.
In this very engaging book, we follow Lindsay Powell’s remarkable journey through archaeological sites and museums searching for the enigmatic character of Bar Kokhba, the leader of the Jewish rebellion that overshadowed the end of Hadrian’s reign. In the light of new evidence and recent research, Powell’s insightful study sheds light on one of the most dramatic and bloodiest episodes in Jewish history.
I was also asked to take part in an exciting blog tour, and it is my turn today to talk about Powell’s fascinating account on Bar Kokhba.
“This book tells the story of the Second Jewish War in both words and pictures” says Powell in the “Acknowledgements” section. Indeed, the book is richly illustrated, and I am honoured that the author selected several of my photos to accompany the written text. Powell had already used one of my images in his previous work on the Bar Kokhba War for Osprey Publishing (2017), which shows the underground tunnel network from Bar Kokhba’s time at Herodium, a site I visited in June 2016 (see images here).
I really enjoyed Bar Kokhba because Powell combines a personal journey with scholarly research, something I can easily identify with. To bring to life the ancient Jewish hero, Powell journeyed across three continents to visit ancient sites, museums and exhibitions, interview experts and ask questions. “For me as a historian, research is the most fun part of my work,” Powell says.
The author began his quest in London at the British Museum, where he met Dr Thorsten Opper, senior curator and head of the museum’s Roman section, who curated the spectacular ‘Hadrian: Empire and Conflict’ exhibition in 2008. His investigations then took him to Israel. In Jerusalem, Powell visited the ‘Hadrian: An Emperor Cast in Bronze‘ exhibition and met Dr David Mevorah, Senior Curator of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Archaeology at the Israel Museum, who shared his insights about the Bar Kokhba Revolt and its protagonists. In Tel Aviv, he visited the Bar Kokhba exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum, which presented archaeological exhibits from the refuge caves used during the war and focused on Bar Kokhba’s revival of the archetype of Jewish heroism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Powell also explored the ancient sites of Betar, Ein Gedi, Beit Guvrin and Caesarea.
The Bar Kochba Revolt was the third and last Jewish rebellion against Roman rule. After the long period of hostilities that marked the First Jewish–Roman War of AD 66-73 and the traumatic destruction of the Temple, Jews arose against Rome in the last years of Trajan (the Kitos War in AD 115–17), and again in the later years of Hadrian’s principate. United under the command of a single charismatic leader nicknamed Bar Kokhba (‘son of the star’), Jewish rebels waged war in an attempt to oust the Romans from their holy land. As the uprising spread, Bar Kokhba appointed himself ‘prince of Israel’, seized large amounts of territory, and began minting coins, some stamped with the triumphant slogan ‘For the freedom of Jerusalem’.
After more than three years of fighting, the Romans put down the Jewish revolt with particular ruthlessness for which Hadrian earned the curse “May his bones rot”. Judaea was heavily devastated, Jerusalem was converted into a pagan city, and the Jews were no longer allowed to inhabit the city and its region. Bar Kokhba, on the other end, became one of the most controversial figures in Jewish history.
I took great pleasure in joining the author in this fascinating historical quest, and I felt like I was walking in his footsteps. It also brought back wonderful memories as I myself explored the ancient sites in Israel in 2014 and travelled back to Jerusalem in June 2016 to see both exhibitions about Hadrian and Bar Kokhba.
As Powell searches for the defeated Jewish rebel, we learn how, with the rise of Zionism, his generally negative image was reevaluated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to become a national hero and how his new image was propagated for nationalistic purposes. Bar Kokhba even became a superhero who fights and overcome a lion in school textbooks and children’s literature.
We also read with the author the letters written by Bar Kokhba himself and his commanders and administrators. The letters were found in caves in the Judaean Desert (known as the ‘Cave of Letters’), where some Jewish rebels and civilians had found shelter. Among the other objects found in the caves in the early 1960s were common objects of daily life and a number of human skulls and bones in the ‘Cave of Skulls’. The letters, written on papyrus, also reveal the real name of Bar Kokhba who introduces himself as ‘Shim’on Bar Kosiba, the nasi of Israel’.
Powell also tackles the complex historical debate over the reasons for the Bar Kokhba Revolt. The author draws on the latest research and archaeological evidence to present a new narrative and support the foundation of the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina on the site of Jerusalem as the immediate cause. Indeed, recent excavations of the Eastern Cardo at Jerusalem suggest that the foundation of the Aelia Capitolina predated the uprising by about a decade. Numismatic evidence, especially the Aelia Capitolina provincial coinage, also support the foundation of the Roman city as the cause. Powell therefore concludes that “Hadrian’s stop at the city was actually intended to inspect the progress being made on his grand design.”
The result of ‘Bar Kokhba: The Jew Who Defied Hadrian and Challenged the Might of Rome’ is an engaging narrative that gives readers a unique perspective on the last struggle between the Jews and Rome and sheds light on a lesser-known aspect of Hadrian’s principate.
- Bar Kokhba: The Rebel Against Rome Whose Legend Helped Found a Nation, for History Hit
- On the trail of an emperor, a rebel, and a lion, for Historia Magazine
Listen to Lindsay Powell chatting with Dan Snow about Bar Kokhba here.
Lindsay Powell is a historian and writer who has a passion for the history of the Roman Empire. He is the author of ‘Augustus at War’, ‘Germanicus’ and ‘Marcus Agrippa’ from Pen and Sword Books. A graduate of the University of Aston in Birmingham, he is a veteran of The Ermine Street Guard re-enactment society. He divides his time between Austin, Texas and Wokingham, England.
Lindsay is also the news editor of Ancient Warfare and Ancient History magazines. He has written for Military Heritage, Strategy & Tactics and the Spanish language Desperta Ferro. He also contributes to The History Network and UNRV.com. His appearances include BBC Radio, Dan Snow’s HistoryHit, BFBS Radio, and History Channel.