Archaeological Find Sheds Light on the Cause of the Bar Kochba Revolt

Latin inscription recently unearthed in Jerusalem completes a century-old puzzle that may put to rest a historical dispute that began in Roman times.

A fragment of an ancient tablet welcoming Emperor Hadrian to Jerusalem, October 2014.
Olivier Fitoussi

A Roman-era inscription commemorating a visit by Emperor Hadrian has been found in Jerusalem in what archaeologists call one of the most important finds of its kind in the city.

The tablet, uncovered during an archaeological dig on land earmarked for a shopping center, is a rare Latin-language find and adds to the debate on what caused the Jewish Bar Kochba Revolt in the second century.

The dig by the Israel Antiquities Authority this summer took place on Nablus Road just north of Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem.

During the excavations, a Byzantine-era compound, perhaps a monastery, was uncovered. Floor tiles there date to an earlier Roman period, and Latin letters were found on a stone that the Byzantines used to build a water cistern.

“I saw the Latin letter G and realized it wasn’t Greek, so I got excited. Then I saw the letters AVGVS [from the name Augustus] and realized that we had an emperor,” says Dr. Rina Avner, who co-led the salvage dig.

The authority called in Latin expert Avner Ecker to decipher the inscription – the second half of an inscription that had been discovered in Jerusalem more than a century earlier. The other half is on display at the Studium Biblican Franciscanum Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City.

When the two stones are brought together, the entire sentence is clear: “To Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, son of the deified Traianus Parthicus, grandson of the deified Nerva, high priest, invested with tribunician power for the 14th time, consul for the third time, father of the country.” The message is dedicated by the Tenth Legion.

The inscription probably topped an arch or large public building constructed by the legion, which took part in the suppression of the Great Revolt in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and remained in the city. The soldiers inscribed the stone in the run-up to Hadrian’s visit to the city in 130 C.E.

Avner says the arch may have been a triumphal arch similar to the Arch of Titus in Rome.

Despite Jerusalem’s extensive archaeological work, very few Latin, Roman-era inscriptions have been uncovered. This Hadrian-era find is valuable in part because it mentions the emperor’s names, titles and a clear date.

But the tablet is also important regarding the debate over the causes of the Bar Kochba Revolt. There are two opposing views – one that the revolt erupted following Hadrian’s decision to rebuild Jerusalem with a pagan temple at the center. This view is supported by Roman historian Dio Cassius, who died in 235 C.E.

According to the second view, supported by the historian Eusebius decades later, the pagan city was built as a punitive measure after the revolt.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg debate,” says archaeologist Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah. “Which came first – did the revolt lead to the building of the city, or did the building of the city lead to the revolt?”

Ecker notes that the inscription does not include the word colonia, indicating that when Hadrian visited, the city had not yet been completely transformed into a Roman city. Also, the inscription was written by soldiers, not by new residents of the city.

The inscription attests to the large and impressive public construction in Jerusalem before the emperor’s visit, which fell two years before the Bar Kochba Revolt. The rebellion therefore would have erupted after the construction work, not before.

The inscription will be discussed Thursday at a conference at Hebrew University. The Antiquities Authority and the Franciscan Order have agreed that each will provide the other with a copy of the missing half of the tablet. Additional copies will go on display at the shopping center planned for the site.