Lindsay Powell, Bar Kokhba (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Perhaps it is something to do with the seemingly unconquerable might of Imperial Rome that we are perennially fascinated by those leaders and peoples that stood up to them: Boudica, Aminius, and Vercingetorix are names that roll off the tongue. But for most Jewish people, it is the rebel Bar Kokhba who captures their imaginations. In this biography, Lindsay Powell attempts to track him down and examines his fight against his nemesis, the Emperor Hadrian.
Bar Kokhba led a revolt against the Romans in Judea between 132 and 136 CE in the second great rebellion after the one in 70 CE that ended at Masada. Bar Kokhba’s revolt is less well known because it lacks a single, authoritative source, so Lindsay had to pull together fragments of writing and archaeology to construct his story. He begins with Hadrian, though, and encounters similar source issues. That doesn’t stop Powell from producing a biography of Hadrian and a survey of the empire he inherited. What Hadrian did in Judea comes next as we follow Powell on his journey to Israel. The highlight of Hadrian’s trip was to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman city, which also proved to be the founding act of Bar Kokhba’s revolt along with alleged restrictions on the Jewish religion. And this is where we meet Bar Kokhba, or Ben Kosiba to give him his correct name.
Powell gets into the weeds, working out who this rebel leader was, or claimed to be, and why he thought he could win where others had failed. Historical precedent suggested guerrilla warfare might work, but it was a long shot at best. Powell describes the Jewish soldiers, including how to become a slinger, then we are into the revolt. This was a well-organised affair, a creation of a state, including an administrative structure and an extensive cave network used for hit-and-run tactics on the Romans. Initial Jewish success met with a Roman ‘shock-and-awe’ campaign that proved ineffectual at first. But anyone who knows Romans, knows they were a redoubtable and methodical oppressor. Powell describes how the pressure told on the rebel state. Bar Kokhba’s last stand came at a small hill town called Betar that the Romans besieged and stormed, though precisely what happened to him is unknown. Then the Roman mopping up operations began with predictable brutality.
Powell reflects on a revolt that had taken over three years and thousands of deaths on both sides to suppress. So many captives were made slaves that the market all but crashed, and Hadrian proscribed many Jewish practices. Bar Kokhba, however, became a legend, the development of which Powell narrates. He muses that Bar Kokhba was a man who lived two lives: his and the one invented for him. To round off his work, Powell adds a ‘places to visit’ guide, a glossary, and a list of place names. Finally, his 30 page bibliography is about as good as it gets.
In Bar Kokhba, Powell has written an ‘in search of’ style familiar to readers of Michael Wood’s historical explorations. For the most part, this is well done, though salacious details of Hadrian’s life made me wonder about their relevance to this story. I suspect also that this style will be marmite for some who will either love it or hate it. I enjoyed following Powell around as he uncovered his story, and he weaves his evidence quite seamlessly into an enjoyable read, which is part history, part travelogue. Powell also brings into play the continuing significance of Bar Kokhba, for good and bad. It is a book that is useful for understanding what happened and why, and why it matters. You cannot ask for much more in a narrative history book.