The Conquest of Gamla by the Romans

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We are at the lower part of the Golan region in northern Israel, overlooking the ancient city of Gamla. A change in this region took place during the time of Alexander Yannai, the Hasmonean king who brought the Kingdom of Judah to its peak size. In one of his war campaigns to the north, during the years 80 to 81BC, following the residents’ complaint against the local ruler Demetrius, Yannai captured Gamla from Demetrius. This alludes to the existence of a significant Jewish population in the central Golan region at that time. Almost a century later, in the year 67, Vespasian set up his Roman army camps here, where I am, to conquer the city.

Gamla is located on a mountain 330m high and very narrow at its top. You can see that the top hill has the shape of a camel’s hump – this is the origin of its name, as Camel in Hebrew is Gamal, hence the name Gamla. The mountain separates between Daliot and Gamla streams, and as a result a natural protection is created by the cliffs. The hill is connected by a narrow saddle to a high and level area – my current location. The southern slope is milder than the northern slope and therefore the ancient city was built entirely on the southern slope, over an area of 180 dunams equivalent to 45 acres.

One of the last actions of suppressing the revolt in the Galilee, and perhaps the most dramatic of them, took place in Gamla. Before the arrival of Vespasian, later emperor of Rome, the regional king was Agrippa II, appointed by the Romans and I will just mention that he was also Herod’s the Great-grandson. Agrippa sieged Gamla but was unable to conquer it even after a 7month siege. Why did Vespasian put so much effort into conquering a city in a relatively remote place? There are two reasons for this.

The first: the Roman strategy determined that a rebellion of any city, regardless of its location, cannot be ignored. The punishment was of great importance in deterring other cities that considered rebellion. The second reason: was that Gamla is close to one of the main roads leading to Babylon. The Golan was the only area that was open and allowed the Jews to receive assistance from their brothers in the rich diasporas: Babylon and Adiabene. The conquest of Gamla assured Vespasian that he was leaving behind him a safe rear from unwanted surprises on his way to Jerusalem.

Yosef ben Matityahu was the Jewish army commander at that time for the Golan region. Later he became famous for his books on the history of the Jews and the land of Israel. He is also known by his Roman name Josephus Flavious. According to his writings, Vespasian’ troops included three legions: the fifth, the tenth and the fifteenth, all together 18,000 soldiers. In addition, there were 22 infantry battalions, 6 cavalry battalions, 11,000-foot archers, 2,000 cavalries from allied armies, and 3,000 Agrippa’s soldiers. A total of 55,000 soldiers. Even if we subtract a quarter of this number for various services, we are still left with 40,000 soldiers to besiege Gamla, which was spread over 180 dunams or 45 acres. Gamla could not contain a population larger than 5,000 people, of which only about 1,000 were soldiers. If we add to these 4,000 warriors from the surrounding villages, then the situation is that there are about 5,000 defenders against 40,000 Roman troops. In addition to the huge number of soldiers, the Roman army had powerful artillery. The maximum effective range of the Roman artillery was here at Deir Qeruh. This location is out of the arrows range of the defenders.

When the heavy weapons such as the battering ram were brought closer to the wall, the defenders tried to stop it. But as the fire of the catapults and ballistae intensified, they were forced to abandon the wall and retreat. According to the description of Yosef ben Matityahu, the Roman breached the wall with battering rams in three places. At first the Jews tried to stop them, but after the Romans managed to advance into the city, the defenders retreated and went up to the upper city, and the Romans followed them.

While the Roman assault units chased the retreating defenders to the ridge, the Jews saw that the connection between the main forces that were entangled between the houses and the narrow alleys, and the force at the top, was detached. The Jews took advantage of the situation, and attacked the Romans from above. The Romans began to retreat, but in the process, they encountered forces that were trying to penetrate through the loophole into the city, meaning that the two forces collided with each other. In this chaos, the Roman commanders’ lost control of their soldiers. They climbed in a panic on the roofs of the houses, but these collapsed under the heavy weight. Many of them were killed under the rubble and others were killed by the arrows of the Jewish archers. With heavy losses, the Romans managed to escape outside the city. In the resulting chaos, Vespasian remained among the last to retreat with a handful of soldiers who formed a structure of a “living fortress” and thus managed to rescue Vespasian without major losses. The first battle of Gamla ended in the defeat of the Romans, the first defeat in their journey to defeat the Jews in the Galilee settlements.

The bravery of Gamla’s defenders brought victory, yet for a very short time. Water and food dwindled. Food rations were distributed only to the soldiers, and when the attack was renewed, many escaped from the city through tunnels, and many of those remaining in the city died of starvation. The Jews took advantage of the break in the battle and closed the breach in the wall. About 4 weeks after the Romans arrived, on the 22nd of the Jewish month of Tishrei, which usually occurs in September–October on the Gregorian calendar, before dawn, 3 soldiers from the 15th Legion sneaked into the city’s watchtower, and succeeded in undermining the foundations of the tower, causing it to fall. The fact that the tower was built with dry construction without foundations can explain the fall of the tower. The result was fear among the guards along the wall and many defenders fled from the wall, thinking that the Romans had broken into the city. As a conclusion from the first failed attack, this time the Romans were careful not to break into the city with many forces at the same time. It wasn’t until the next morning that 200 horsemen accompanied by infantry, under the command of Titus, son of Vespasian, approached the wall at the breach point. The guards at that point noticed them and called the defenders, but they were all exhausted. The rest of the population consisted mostly of old people, women and children, wounded and sick.

Only when the elite Roman vanguard took control of the lower city and drove the inhabitants towards the top of the mountain, Vespasian arrived and joined the battle. The defenders fled in their thousands towards the steep north-west slope, but here too the Romans overtook them. Those at the back were killed, and the rest threw themselves into the abyss and died. Yosef estimate that 5,000 fell into the abyss compared to 4,000 killed by the Romans. No one was left alive, except for two nieces of the commander of Agrippa’s army. The occupation of Gamla lasted about a month. With its fall, the most important center of the revolt in the north of the country was destroyed. From then on, the Romans focused on Jerusalem.

One of the most impressive discoveries in Gamla was the huge amount of ammunition and military items discovered in the excavations. Most of these items were found along the city wall on both sides. The distribution of the weapons and ammunition including the artillery ammunition, shows that the Romans targeted a narrow strip of about 50 meters wide in front of the wall and less so its other side. The wall that we see along the eastern side of the city is partially restored. The route of the wall is far from a straight line. Its thickness also varies. It turns out that Yosef ben Matityahu who was the regional Jewish commander, did indeed build the wall and did not strengthen an existing wall. For this purpose, he adopted several methods: filling spaces between existing buildings, thickening existing walls by adding a parallel wall, and filling rooms that stood along the route of the wall with field stones, such as, for example, the study room adjacent to the synagogue.

According to Yosef, the Romans used three battering rams in three different locations, yet there is no evidence of more than one breaking location in the wall. The wall here was found dismantled almost to the core and around a huge amount of approximately 300 arrowheads and 180 sling stones, both inside the wall and outside it. In this place the wall consisted of the original wall of a residential building, which was 70cm thick and another wall built behind it mainly of field stones so that the total thickness of the resulting wall was 2m. With this thickness it was one of the weakest points of the wall. To the south, the thickness of the wall reaches 4m, and to the north, in the complex of the synagogue it is almost 6m. Did the Romans have prior information about the profile of the wall in different areas? It is possible that an observer standing on the cliff to the east of the saddle could stand the thickness of the wall. It is also possible that the information was extorted from captives who fell into the hands of the Romans.

As for the quantities of arrowheads and sling stones, it seems that there are no other sites in the Roman Empire where similar quantities over similar distance have been found to those found at Gamla. According to the concentration of arrows and stones, it can be understood that the Romans directed the main attack effort to the upper parts of the wall and not to the slopes, perhaps, because this area was more accessible and convenient for attack. Nearly 2000 sling stones were uncovered in the excavations. The greatest concentration was at ​​the point where the wall was breached, but everywhere along the wall, sling stones were discovered. 157 sling stones were found in the synagogue hall, evidence of a heavy shooting there, and about 130 along the round tower.

The catapults had an effective range of about 350 to 450m. In ancient sources, catapults are often mentioned in reference to a siege. Three main use cases: (1) break through the wall, (2), to provide artillery cover for the advance of the attacking forces, and (3), to attack a large crowd of people. Due to the concentration of the sling stones near the wall, it seems that the purpose of their use in Gamla refers to the first two use cases.

As for the arrows, approximately 1,600 iron arrowheads were found in Gamla. This number is probably a small part of the arrows that were shot during the siege and the battles, since many were taken by the Roman soldiers who used to collect arrows for reuse. A large number of the arrows were found with the tip of the arrow bent from the force of the impact on the wall. Of all the arrowheads found, over 90% are of the three-wing type. Flat, leaf shaped arrowheads and a pyramid-like type with a square cross-section were also found. Although there is no proof, it is possible that different type of arrows, is an evidence of ethnic archer units that some of them may have used traditional arrowheads typical of their place of origin at the same time as using the standard Roman ammunition. The Romans themselves did not excel in archery and preferred to form special archery units from the eastern nations of the empire. In addition to the arrowheads of the regular bows, about 100 arrowheads of catapults, the heavy mechanical shooting machines, were also found.

The settlement of Gamla has not been inhabited since the Great Revolt, when it was occupied by Vespasian in the fall of 67.

And to conclude, as usual, I have a question for you, when was Vespasian appointed Roman emperor. The answer will appear at the end of the video.

How to get there?

Information Sources

  1. Book: Gamla: A city in rebellion, Authors: Shmaria Gutman, Publisher: Ministry of Defense
  2. Book: Ariel: A Journal for the knowledge of Eretz Israel-The Golan Highest, Editors: Eli Shiler and Moshe Inbar, Publisher: Ariel
  3. Book: The new Israel Guide, book 2 – Hermon, Golan, Hula Valley, Editor: Menachem Markus, Publisher: Keter
  4. Book: The Jewish War, Author: Josephus Flavius
  5. Qadmoniot: Magazine for the Antiquities of Eretz-Israel & Bible Lands No. 121, Publisher: Israel Exploration Society Jerusalem
  6. The new encyclopedia for archeological excavations in Israel

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