Archaeologists Pinpoint a Source of Roman Artillery Attack on Ancient Jerusalem

New research suggests that when Roman forces besieged Jerusalem in the year 70, they were firing barrages from what is now known as Cats Square

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Kfir Arbiv, Israel Antiquities Authority excavation director, cleans a ballista stone at the Russian Compound excavation site.
Kfir Arbiv, Israel Antiquities Authority excavation director, cleans a ballista stone at the Russian Compound excavation site.Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In the year 70, Roman forces commanded by Titus besieged and then vanquished Jerusalem, destroying a third fortification wall begun decades earlier, abandoned, then completed in haste by the Jewish rebels.

Now new research by the archaeologist Kfir Arbiv of the Israel Antiquities Authority posits where the Roman forces may have concentrated at least some of their artillery machines: Cats Square.

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That is the nickname today of a site in the modern Jerusalemite neighborhood of Nahalat Hashiva. Its formal name is Maccabi Mutzery-Mani Square, after an officer in the pre-state Haganah militia who died in 1948. How the nickname Cats Square arose is not clear, but one version says it was inspired by prostitutes who would hang out there.

Arbiv’s theory that Cats Square was one point from where the Romans fired on Jerusalem arose following some years of excavation at a site 200 meters away from that square: the Russian Compound, one of the most historic districts in the city.

Beneath the Russian Compound, the excavators, co-led by Dr. Rina Avner of the IAA found a section of Jerusalem’s destroyed third wall, and with it, hundreds of ballista (an ancient type of catapult) balls. It seems to be a moment frozen in time from the early part of the great battle between the Romans and the Jewish rebels, oddly undisturbed by the passage of time, perhaps because it lies outside the Ottoman Old City, explains Prof. Guy Stiebel of Tel Aviv University, an expert on ancient Roman warfare.

Walled cities go back thousands of years in the Middle East, and Jerusalem’s do as well. But the fortification wall we see today surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem is from the 16th century, when the Ottomans decided to repair the second ruined city wall from antiquity. What we do not see today is the third wall, which is gone, except for one tiny section between a gas station and the U.S. consulate on Naomi Kis Street.

The Russian Compound excavation site. The ballista stones are visible on the floor.Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The final fortification

According to historical records, during the late Second Temple period, in the year 40, King Agrippa II began building a third wall to protect Beit Zeta, a new neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. It would be the final act of fortifying Jerusalem, explains Amit Reem, director of Israel Antiquities Authority Jerusalem Region.

But the king did not complete it, in part for fear of provoking suspicion of disloyalty among the Roman overlords, led at that point by Emperor Claudius. Some work was continued by the Kanaim (41-44 CE), but it was only after the insurrection began in the year 66 that the wall was finished, by the Jewish rebels. However, they were likely short of resources and working in haste. Their effort would be in vain.

“If the construction of the wall had continued as it was begun it would have been impossible to conquer the city inasmuch as it had been built with hewn stones 20 cubits long and 10 cubits wide that were assembled so perfectly that … it would have been impossible to dig underneath them with an iron tool or to move them with machines of war,” Flavius Josephus wrote. Evidently, the rebels could not achieve such construction quality.

Some of the ballista balls the archaeologists found by the ruins of the third wall were broken after shattering on the stone wall. There could have been thousands of the balls – and they weren’t only tossing diverse ballista balls designed to break down the wall. They were also catapulting spearheads, bolts, armor-piercing arrowheads, and smaller stones, gravel, and other objects to hit human targets.

Huge catapult arrowheads that were launched from ballista firing machines, found in the Russian Compound excavations.Credit: Kfir Arbiv, Israel Antiquities Authority

The ancient Romans didn’t invent the catapulting technique, but they adopted it with fervor. They were famed for using ballistrae, or as they are sometimes called, bolt-throwing machines, during sieges.

Depending on the projectile size, angles and more, objects could be hurled as much as 400 or even 500 meters, says Kfir. He adds that a distance of 400 meters is accepted in research based on previous studies at Masada and Gamla, for instance.

That point in the third wall was a strategic point for the rebels. “Whoever controls this spot, dominates the whole area and the fate of the city. This aligns with Josephus’ account that Titus commanded to penetrate the city from the northwestern side of the city wall,” Arbiv says. “Probably the defenders of the city concentrated at that point and defended it – hence also the Romans’ insistence on firing at that point. They then burst into the city from that place.”

‘For I will bring evil from the north, and a great destruction’ — Jeremiah 4:6

Aided by software, Arbiv analyzed the topography of the area, virtually peeling away modern construction and infrastructure works; he factored in the (varying) sizes of the ballista balls and projectiles; and the height of the third wall, as described and the putative angles of fire. He also factored in Josephus’ elaborate, detailed description of Jerusalem’s fall. Thus he reached the conclusion using computer-aided ballistic calculations: When attacking that section of the Third Wall, the Romans may have been firing from Cats Square.

The ballista stones at the excavation site are physical evidence of the battle that took place 2,000 years ago. are visible on the floor.Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Where would all those ballista stones have come from? Going by Josephus, there were a lot: each of the three Roman legions aroung Jerusalem had 10 ballista and 55 catapults ,which means huge firepower, Stiebel says. “They would preare the stones on the site. At Masada and Herodion they used the local chalk but at Gamla [in the once–volcanic Golan] they used basalt. So the legions didn’t lug tons of stones about.” Which leads to a macabre wrinkle of history courtesy of Josephus: The Judean rebels would place observers in the towers on the wall to warn of incoming stones, which being made of local limestone, were white and easy to see. The Romans responded by painting the stones black, Stiebel says.

“In Jerusalem we have ballista stones of multiple calibers, mainly small – used against people. The big ones were used against the foundations.” The Romans were not, in short, firing one “machine gun” from one spot: they could create an arc of overwhelming firepower. And just like Jeremiah said, that evil would come from the north, indeed (from the rebels’ perspectve) it did.

One snag is that Cats Square as we know it today is topographically low in elevation, relatively speaking. One would ideally wish to fire one’s projectiles from a high point.

But assuming the calculations are correct and Cats Square was the origin of the stone rain of death, one possibility is that the Romans built it up or placed their machinery on platforms, or that the topography then was somewhat different 2,000 years ago, Reem suggests.

In any case looking at the big picture of the landscape, one shouldn’t get hung up on a hundred meters here or there, Stiebel adds: the general picture of that moment froze in time seems clear.

Reems adds that Josephus describes a lot of preliminary work done by the Romans ahead of their siege, including leveling land – and perhaps building what is today Cats Square higher, the better to deploy their machines of war.

Iron tips of Roman catapult projectiles.Credit: Ingeborg Simon

“We know from the historical sources that the Roman army employed massive siege rams to batter the fortification walls, and siege towers that reached the height of the walls, but these have not yet been found in Jerusalem,” Reem says.

Yet enter the city they did, and destroy it they did, as well as the Second Temple, which they joyously looted – according to the historic record. In fact they took such pride in this victory that they commemorated it with not one victory arch, but two.

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