Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIX.12.1

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The foundation of the colony of Aelia Capitolina.
Name of the author: 
Cassius Dio
207 CE to 229 CE
Roman and Greek
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Roman History

For a short biographical presentation of Cassius Dio and of his main work, the Roman History, see Cassius Dio, Roman History XXXVII.16-17.

The sixty ninth book of Cassius Dio’s Roman History is one of the books that has not been preserved at all. As a consequence, we only know it through the Epitome of the work that the byzantine monk John Xiphilinus made at the end of the eleventh century CE (John Xiphilinus’s Epitome includes books 36 to 80). The sixty ninth book of the Roman History starts with Hadrian’s accession to power.

This short extract from Cassius Dio’s Roman History, as far as we know it through the Epitome made by Xiphilinus, is part of a larger narrative of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (the narrative of the whole revolt is analysed separately in Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIX.12-14). The short text presented here is fundamental as it is a unique testimony of the foundation of the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina ordered by Hadrian.

First, it is important to recall several points about this colony and the context in which its foundation happened. The case of Aelia Capitolina is exceptional. On the one hand, no other colonial deduction is attested under Hadrian’s reign. On the other hand, it was, at that time, the unique example of a colony that served also as a legionary headquarters of the Legio X Fretensis (see Isaac, “Roman Colonies,” p. 32-35). As experienced by the Jewish population in Cyrene and Cyrenaica under Trajan’s reign (see Colonisation of Cyrene and the Jewish Riots under Trajan), the foundation of Roman colonies was not only concerned with re-population, but also entailed the imposition of a series of measures of imperial control against which Jewish local populations could certainly react. Thus, if one goal of the deductio of Aelia Capitolina was to settle veterans, it took part first and foremost in a more global plan of control of the province and of its turbulent inhabitants (Goodman, “Trajan and the Origins,” p. 21, 27-29). In fact, one should remember that Trajan had broken with Nerva’s policy towards the Jews – the later being characterised by the fact that it had been much more lenient than the one applied by Domitian –, and that the Jewish Diaspora Revolt in Cyprus, Cyrene, Egypt and Mesopotamia between 115 and 117 CE had been severely repressed. Then, at the end of his reign, Trajan hastened to tighten the control on the Judean province by making it a regular consular province with a second legion which has been alternatively identified as being the legio VI Ferrata, the legio II Traiana or the XXII Deiotariana (about the fact that the legio II Traiana may have been established in Judea under Trajan, see Isaac and Roll, “Legio II Traiana”). Then, Hadrian pursued the policy of control over Judea led by his predecessor. He thus continued to reorganise the entire road networks inside the province – works that were undertaken for and by the soldiers of the legion themselves (see Isaac, “Roman Colonies,” p. 44-46). Jerusalem had been integrated inside this new network and the foundation of Aelia Capitolina fitted in the usual practice, well attested during the imperial period, according to which road-building went together with the foundation of Roman colonies (Isaac, “Roman Colonies,” p. 46). Finally, the question of the utility of this colony and what could have been the real goals of Hadrian when he decided to proceed to this dedictio and not to grant it simply the status of polis, have to be studied even if scholars have proposed very different answers. First, Aelia Capitolina appeared as an advantageous site for founding a colony as the area where it was settled was ruined or cleared. In addition, as a consequence of the proximity of the legionary garrisons established in the area from many years, there was a reserve of veterans (especially those of the Legio X Fretensis) and of civilians called canabae (who lived of the activity of the legionary camp) who were ready to be settled here. Aelia Capitolina was thus one of the last “real veteran colonies” in the imperial period (see Isaac, “Roman Colonies,” p. 48-49). Second, one advantage of the settlement of these men in this colony was that all of its male inhabitants were Roman citizens who could serve in the legions of the province (see Isaac, “Roman Colonies,” p. 51). This reality fits in with Hadrian’s global plan that consisted in strengthening the pacification and the control on the province of Judea. Finally, it is clear that the deductio of this colony conveyed ideological messages that must have had a decisive impact on the way Jews perceived this colonial foundation. Two facts show the ideological aspect of the event. First, the very name of Aelia Capitolina refers to Hadrian himself identified with Capitoline Jupiter – Jupiter was actually his favourite god, see Hadrian and Zeus in Aizanoi –, because Aelia refers to the gens of Hadrian (P. Aelius Hadrianus) and Capitolina corresponds to a Latin form of one of the favourite epithets of Hadrian, Olympios (see Isaac, “Roman Colonies,” p. 52, n. 98). The second fact showing the ideological dimension of this colonial foundation is that the emperor is reported to have erected a temple to Zeus instead of rebuilding the former Jerusalem Temple. We will discuss below the effective location of this temple of Zeus, yet we can imagine the affront felt by many Jews when they heard about this project. Hadrian not only erected a pagan city onto a part of the Herodian Jerusalem, but he also wanted to erase – at least symbolically – the primacy of the Temple Mount by building a new temple of Jupiter that would become the bigger and the higher temple in the area. As Martin Goodman writes: “Hadrian’s solution was to ensure that Jews could never again expect to have a temple on their sacred site in Jerusalem, by founding a miniature Rome on the site of the Jews’ holy city” (Goodman, “Trajan and the Origins,” p. 28). We think Martin Goodman is right in highlighting the fact that, from its foundation perhaps in 130 CE, the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina had been first and foremost conceived as a way to assert and materialize Rome’s control on Jerusalem. Contrary to the thesis according to which the foundation of Aelia Capitolina could have been at first accepted by some Hellenised Jews, who would have considered the grant of the colonial status as a privilege (thesis partially supported in Isaac, “Roman Colonies,” p. 48, n. 78), it seems more probable that most of the Jews perceived the foundation of Aelia Capitolina as a dramatic event that implied the substitution of natives and the settlement of a new community of Roman citizens in a Jerusalem that was to become a Roman pagan city.

The first sentence of the text presented here has been quoted many times as it is one of the few sources making explicit the causal relationship between the foundation of the colony and the outbreak of the revolt, and mentioning the settlement of the colony or the construction of the new temple of Zeus.

The fact that the foundation of Aelia Capitolina had caused the outbreak of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (“This brought on (ἐκινήθη/ekinēthē) a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration...,” 12.1) is made explicit by Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus when he writes that the Jews stayed quiet when Hadrian was in Egypt and Syria, imperial journeys that can be respectively dated to the spring of 130 and the end of the summer of 131 CE (12.2). We can thus deduce from the narrative that Hadrian may have taken the decision to proceed to the foundation of the colony of Aelia Capitolina, when he crossed Syria, Arabia (Gerasa) and Palestine on his route to Egypt, at the end of 129 CE or beginning of 130 CE (see Halfmann, Itinera, p. 206-208; on this question see also Schäfer, “The Causes,” p. 82). This would mean that the founding of Aelia Capitolina was undertaken before the revolt, and that it was one of the causes of the revolt and not a repressive measure ordered after the revolt. However, this causal relationship challenges two other narratives. The first one is an extract from the Historia Augusta, more precisely from the Life of Hadrian, which explains the outbreak of the revolt exclusively by the fact that Hadrian promulgated a general ban on circumcision. However the credibility of this source and the very existence of this general ban, not attested by any other source, have been called into question (see Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian XIV.2). The second source that challenges Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’ testimony is a passage from the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea (IV.6.1-4; analysed in Schäfer, “The Causes,” p. 82-84). In this text, Eusebius presents the foundation of Aelia Capitolina as being the result and not the cause of the war. One possibility of conciliation of the two testimonies could be that Hadrian expressed his plan to found this colony before the war and that the foundation and the achievement of the building of the colony occurred after the war (Schäfer, “The Causes,” p. 84). However, numismatic, epigraphic and archeological discoveries prove that the founding of the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina must have occurred before the beginning of the revolt. First, Boaz Zissu and Hanan Eshel have interpreted the coins mentioning the colonia Aelia Capitolina and the three Bar Kokhba coinsfound in the el-Jai cave in the northern Judean desert as proofs of the fact that the minting of the coins mentioning the colonia Aelia Capitolina occurred before 135 CE and the end of the revolt (see Zissu and Eshel, “Religious Aspects,” p. 389-393). The second main evidence is the monumental Latin inscription discovered in 2014 at the north of Damascus Gate, which is in fact part of the same inscription than one who had been discovered during the nineteenth century. Once the two fragments put together, the inscription seems to have been dedicated by the Legio X Fretensis to the emperor Hadrian in 129/130 CE– as stated by the dating formula –, probably during his visit to the city (Zissu and Eshel, “Religious Aspects,” p. 395-396; on this inscription, see The renaming of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina (CIIP 1.2, 728)). The fact that the colony is not mentioned shows that it was not already founded, however, it is highly probable that the presence of Hadrian in the city had been a favourable occasion during which the founding could be undertaken. The third and last argument brought by Boaz Zissu and Hanan Eshel regarding the dating of the performance of the funding is that the excavations led in the zone corresponding to the Eastern cardo of Jerusalem have enabled to show that some important urban restructuration occurred in the first quarter of the second century and certainly before the revolt. Thus, when Hadrian visited the city in 129/130 CE, some of its parts had started to be rebuilt as those of a pagan Roman city (see Zissu and Eshel, “Religious Aspects,” p. 394). To conclude on this issue of the dating of the founding of the colonia Aelia Capitolina, it seems that the testimony of Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus can be trusted regarding the fact that this foundation on the spot where Jerusalem stood had been the main cause of the burst of the revolt in 132 CE.

Concerning the places where the colony and the new temple of Zeus were settled, both issues have been questioned by scholars.
Regarding the location of the colony, Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’ testimony gives the impression that the colony had been settled onto the former city that would have been razed to the ground probably after the defeat of 70 CE. This idea of stratigraphy is now considered too simplistic by a majority of scholars, who consider that the colony was not settled onto the whole Herodian city. Scholars continue to debate the scope of the urbanistic transformation undertaken during the settlement of the colony, as well as the degree of continuity concerning the organisation of the urban space between the Herodian Jerusalem and Aelia Capitolina. For some of them, the southern area could have hosted the castrum of the Tenth Legion (even if others consider that the Legion may have been settled on the Temple Mount; for a synthesis on the subject see Arnould-Béhar, “L’espace urbain,” p. 91-93). Even if this question of the location of the headquarters of the Tenth Legion remains very uncertain and debated, a majority of scholars agree on the fact that the centre of the new colony must have been placed towards the North-Western area of the former Herodian city. Nicole Belayche thus insists upon the fact that Aelia Capitolina was not Jerusalem (see the map in Belayche, Iudaea-Palestina, p. 131-136, map p. 132; see also in a quite similar perspective Eliav, “The Urban Layout,” p. 256, map p. 277). One major consequence of the reorganisation of the urban space was that the Temple Mount was relegated outside the colony (see Belayche, Iudaea-Palestina, p. 133-134). This last point is interpreted by some as being led by ideological concerns – the emperor Hadrian would have wanted to make manifest the fact that the Jewish city and in particular its religious centre had disappeared –, whereas Yaron Z. Eliav thinks that to attribute to Hadrian this kind of feeling before the beginning of the revolt is anachronistic. For him, the exclusion of the area of the Temple Mount from the new colonial settlement was pragmatic, this area being ruined and difficult to clear away (Eliav, “The Urban Layout,” p. 266). This idea that there would have been no or only few elements of continuity between the Herodian Jerusalem and Aelia Capitolina and that the urban space would have been reorganised through a North/South partition – the North concentrating the activities of the colony and the South being occupied by the military camp – is not unanimously agreed upon even today (for a recent study reasserting the idea of continuity in the organisation of the urban space of Aelia Capitolina, see Arnould-Béhar, “L’espace urbain”). We will however keep in mind that Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus’s statement that the colony had been settled in place of the ruined Jerusalem is true even if it may have concerned only the North-Western quarter of the former Herodian city. 

The testimony of Cassius Dio-Xiphilinus is also crucial because it is the sole source mentioning the existence of a temple dedicated to Jupiter. However, the passage in which he writes that Hadrian raised a new temple to Jupiter ἐς τὸν τοῦ ναοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ τόπον (es ton tou naou tou theou topon), “on the site of the temple of the [Jewish] god,” has been variously interpreted. Some scholars consider that the Jupiter temple was erected “on the site of” the Jerusalem Temple, whereas others understand that the Jupiter Temple had been erected somewhere in Aelia Capitolina becoming thus the major temple of the city as there was no Temple on the Temple Mount anymore (in favour of the second interpretation, which we also find the most convincing, see Cotton, Di Segni, Eck et als, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae I, Pars 1, p. 19-20). Nicole Belayche has shown – we think rightly – through an accurate re-examination of the historical and archaeological data that the first interpretation is largely implausible. Among the arguments she develops, there is the fact that all the eyewitnesses of the IVth century, some of whom, such as Jerome, lived in Jerusalem, depict the Temple as destroyed and the Temple Mount totally abandoned. If the Romans had actually left the area of the Temple totally abandoned from 70 CE onwards, it would have been an inappropriate environment for the erection of the new temple to Zeus (Belayche, “Du Mont du Temple,” p. 398-399). The second main source she quotes is the testimony of Eusebius of Caesarea who narrates the reclamation works carried out by the Hadrianic architects on the Golgotha (Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine III.26.2-3; on the interpretation of this text Belayche, “Du Mont du Temple,” p. 403-404). She thus suggests that the temple mentioned by Cassius Dio corresponds to a temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad that would have been erected above the Northern side of the forum of the colony, on a height, the Golgotha.

To conclude, this short sentence extracted from the Byzantine version of Cassius Dio’s Roman History is a crucial source as it is one of the rare Greco-Roman documents dealing with the settlement of this colony and with the construction of the new Capitol of the colony of Aelia Capitolina. Through a noticeable economy of words, Cassius Dio-Xiphilius presents the situation: Hadrian wanted to get rid of the ruined Herodian Jerusalem by erecting a new flourishing Roman colony dominated not by the Temple Mount but by a new Capitol. Second, the Jews reacted and revolted in 132 CE because they perceived Hadrian’s colonial foundation as a religious affront. Due to this concise presentation – which can be explained by Cassius Dio’s style and approach of the event or by the work made by the compiler Xiphilinus –, the outbreak of the revolt of Bar Kokhba is presented as a Jewish reaction to a Roman religious and ideological affront.


Bibliographical references: 
Schäfer, Peter, “The Causes of the Bar Kokhba Revolt”, in Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann (ed. J. J. Petuchowski , E. Fleischer; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1981), 74-94
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Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIX.12.1
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Tue, 03/06/2018 - 14:44
Visited: Fri, 03/23/2018 - 19:31

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