Josephus’s portrait of a divided city

During the centuries when it was under Roman control, Palestine was often a politically volatile region. As a result, the citizens of Sepphoris sometimes had to make a difficult decision: Would they side with Jewish forces rebelling against Rome, or would they cooperate with the empire? In 4 B.C.E. many of the city’s inhabitants apparently chose rebellion. Rome’s client king, Herod the Great, had just died, and some Jews, frustrated by years of oppressive rule, seized the opportunity to foment disturbances in various parts of Judea and Galilee. As we learn from the first-century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus, Sepphoris was the scene of one such disturbance:

“In Sepphoris also, a city of Galilee, there was one Judas … This man got no small multitude together, and broke open the place where the royal armor was laid up, and armed those about him, and attacked those that were so earnest to gain the dominion.”

Josephus, The Jewish War 2.56

Judas’s rebellion was short-lived, however, for Rome’s Syrian legate, Varus, dealt swiftly and severely with the people of Sepphoris:

“Varus sent part of his army presently to Galilee … (and appointed Caius) for their captain. This Caius put those that met him to flight, and took the city Sepphoris, and burnt it, and made slaves of its inhabitants.”

The Jewish War 2.68

The memory of this bitter experience may have influenced the inhabitants of Sepphoris many years later, as they debated whether to support the more widespread Jewish revolt of 66–70 C.E. According to Josephus, who was himself involved in fortifying the towns of Galilee for the revolt, Sepphoris at first seemed eager to participate in the rebellion against Rome:

“And as he (Josephus) knew the Romans would fall upon Galilee, he built walls in proper places about Jotapata, and Bersabee, and Salamis (and many other towns) … But as to (the inhabitants) of Sepphoris, they were the only people to whom he gave leave to build their own walls, and this, because he perceived they were rich and wealthy, and ready to go to war, without standing in need of any injunctions for that purpose.”

The Jewish War 2.573–574

But sometime during the early stages of the revolt, the citizens of Sepphoris had a change of heart. Meeting with the Roman general (and emperor-to-be) Vespasian at Ptolemais, a delegation from Sepphoris expressed the city’s desire to accommodate the Romans:

“These citizens (of Sepphoris) had beforehand taken care of their own safety, and being sensible of the power of the Romans, they had been with Cestius Gallus before Vespasian came, and had given their faith to him, and received the security of his right hand; and had received a Roman garrison; and at this time withal they received Vespasian, the Roman general, very kindly, and readily promised that they would assist him against their own countrymen.”

The Jewish War 3.31–32