Legio X Fretensis

Legio X Fretensis (Tenth Legion of the Sea Straits) was formed around 40 BC by Octavian to fight in the civil wars after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Octavian called it “The Tenth” in honor of Caesar’s famed Tenth Legion, and it earned its nickname “of the Sea Straits” after an early battle near the Straits of Messina.

The Naval Battle of Actium, 31 BC

The Tenth Legion Fretensis fought across the ships at Actium

It consolidated this name in the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC, when Octavian’s ships grappled the ships of Antony and Cleopatra, and the Tenth Legion was able to fight across from ship to ship. Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Octavian became Caesar Augustus.

Roman Standards of Wolf and Boar

The Tenth Fretensis was stationed in and around Judea for over 400 years, at Damascus, Caesarea and latterly Aqaba. It was involved in the suppression of the ongoing Jewish insurrection against the Roman occupation, including:

  • the defeat of Judas of Galilee and the crucifixion of 2,000 rebels at Sepphoris (Zippori), four miles from Nazareth, in 6 AD
  • the siege of Jerusalem in the Great Revolt of 66-73 AD, the looting and destruction of the Temple, and the capture of Masada
  • the suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132-135 AD, with the destruction of Jerusalem, and the enslavement, deportation and banishment of all Jews from Judea.

That other minor (but well-known) incident in the mid-30s, ending with the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and two Zealot ringleaders, was trivial compared with what the Legion had to deal with a lot of the time. But that incident, of course, is the focal point of my novel “The Gospel According to the Romans”.

Roman detachment with Standards

The Tenth’s symbols were the Bull, the Ship and the Boar. The Bull, Taurus, may be from its being created sometime between April 20 and May 20 – but it certainly made an easy connection with the Mithraic religion that was spreading into the Empire from the East. The Boar was, in itself, a source of conflict with the Jewish inhabitants throughout the region – they didn’t like to see foreign troops in any case, but for them to parade around under the graven image of a pig was an extreme insult.

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Who were the Zealots?

The Zealots were the armed resistance to the Roman occupation of Israel, and caused uprisings throughout a 200 year period. They terrorized collaborators, assassinated leaders, robbed caravans and killed legionaries whenever they could, operating as urban and rural guerrillas with their trademark curved dagger, the sica. They were sicariots, dagger men.

Zealots - robbers, or freedom fighters?

The Romans called them sicariots, robbers, thieves and brigands. But they would hardly call them heroes, patriots and freedom fighters, would they?

Once a generation or so a Zealot leader would arise who would lead a full-scale revolt – capture a city, massacre gentiles, loot arms and treasure, and finally be crushed when the Romans sent in a couple of Legions.

In 6 CE when Jesus was about 12, Judas of Galilee captured Sepphoris (or Zippori), the capital of Galilee only four miles from Nazareth. The Romans defeated his ragtag forces and crucified 2,000 of them. (Jesus’ father Joseph is not heard of after that event.)

After Jesus led his unsuccessful uprising in the Temple at Jerusalem, he was caught and crucified between two “thieves”. Neither theft nor blasphemy was punished with crucifixion; only rebellion was. When the Romans labeled Jesus “King of the Jews” they were echoing his claim from his ride into Jerusalem on his donkey, and clarifying why they were crucifying him. The two “thieves” were also important enough to be crucified.

A fourth was arrested and released: Barabbas, identified as “a robber”. “Bar-abbas” is a strange name – it means “son of a father”, “son of his father”, or “Son of the Father”. He was a Zealot, anyway. In “The Gospel According to the Romans” I suggest a couple of different reasons for his release.

The Zealots were active for another 100 years, until the final destruction of Jerusalem in the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

Jewish Uprisings against the Romans – after Jesus

Some time in the 30s CE, Jesus of Nazareth attempted to – at the very least – cleanse the Temple in advance of Passover, having entered Jerusalem as a Messianic claimant and would-be King. He was caught and crucified together with two Zealot leaders.

In 36 a Taheb, or Samaritan Messiah, and his followers were massacred by Pilate. Pilate was sent to Rome for trial for excessive brutality, but we don’t know the outcome.

About 45 CE, Theudas claimed to be the Messiah and raised an army of 400 men; they were slaughtered and Theudas was beheaded.

About 47 CE, Judas of Galilee’s sons Jacob and Simon were arrested and crucified by the Romans.

In the 50s, 400 followers of the Egyptian Prophet were massacred by the Romans though the Prophet himself escaped and disappeared.

The Great Revolt began in 67 with Menahem – another son of Judas of Galilee – breaking into the armory at Masada and arming the Zealots, then entering Jerusalem as King and executing the High Priest. Vespasian laid siege to Jerusalem in 68, and his son Titus captured it and looted and destroyed the Temple in 70.

All that has been left of the Temple since 70 CE: the foundations of the Western Wall

It took the Romans a further three years to mop up the province, culminating in the capture of Masada in 73.

The Kitos War of 117 began with a massacre – this time by the Jews, of Greeks and Romans in Libya – and spread to Egypt, Cyprus and Palestine.

In the culmination of 200 years of uprisings, the Bar Kokhba Revolt saw Simon bar-Kokhba and Rabbi Akiva take control of Judea in 132 CE, with 200,000 Zealots. The Romans sent 12 Legions to retake and sack Jerusalem. 580,000 Jews were killed. Jerusalem was plowed under, the new city of Aelia Capitolina built on the site, and Judea was renamed Syria Palestine. The remaining Jews were enslaved, dispersed, and barred from Jerusalem.