What evidence do we have that the Romans sacrificed a pig to the ensigns in the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70? The suovetaurilia, the ritual sacrifice of a pig, sheep and an ox, was customarily performed for land purification ceremonies so as to cleanse the past and future sins committed on that land. If a temple was destroyed as was the case in A.D. 70, the site of Temple must be purified by the suovetaurilia, the ritual sacrifice of an ox, a sheep and a pig.1 Illustrating this custom, the suovetaurilia was performed one year earlier in A.D. 69 by Vespasian (of all people) for the purification of the Temple to Jupiter (Zeus), Juno and Minerva in Rome when the Temple burned due to the civil war during the Year of the Four Caesars (Tacitus, Histories 4.53).
If Vespasian sacrificed a pig as part of the suovetaurilia at the destruction of a Temple in Rome, Vespasian’s son, Titus, would have also been expected to do the same during the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as the suovetaurilia was the customary sacrifice to purify a Temple that had been destroyed. Recall that the Romans instituted these sacrifices while the Jewish Temple was aflame (Wars 6.6.1), a fact strongly hinting that a pig was sacrificed as part of the suovetaurilia at that time.
Considering the historical circumstances surrounding the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 there are a few reasons why Titus and his army may have been especially eager to make this unholy sacrifice. According to Professor Watts, professor of New Testament at Regent College, “No Roman tomb was legally protected without a pig being sacrificed.”2 Obviously, the Temple in Jerusalem was littered with the bodies of dead Roman soldiers in A.D. 70. Also citing K.M.T. Atkinson, Brain Incigneri points out “that the Romans would sacrifice a pig before the standards [ensigns] at the taking of a military oath, sacramentum militare, shown in coins of the first century BCE.”3 The sacramentum militare was the oath taken by soldiers to pledge their loyalty to the emperor.4 Recall that during these sacrifices to the ensigns, Titus was declared imperator by his army:
And now the Romans, upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator. [Emphasis mine.] (Wars 6.6.1.)
Suetonius suggests that there were rumors that Titus’ soldiers may have even wanted to make him emperor.5 If Titus’ soldiers wished to crown Titus emperor during these chants, perhaps these soldiers would have taken the sacramentum militare additionally motivating them to sacrificed a pig to the ensigns at that time?
Perhaps the most compelling reason the Romans would have been eager to sacrifice a pig in the Temple in A.D. 70 is because that the Jews had a fervent and well-known religious aversion to pig sacrifice especially in their Temple. Knowing this the Romans would have likely looked forward to and reveled immensely in the making of this spiteful sacrifice. And perhaps no legion would have been more eager to do so than Legio X Fretensis, one of the legions present during the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, whose military standard was the image of a boar.
Though Titus’ army–especially the soldiers of the Tenth Legion–likely pestered Titus to sacrifice a pig in the Temple, Titus probably already planned to do so for more practical and strategic reasons. Even in the absence of any other motivations, Titus may have intended to sacrifice a pig as a military scare tactic. The Jewish rebels must have believed that God was on their side and would save them from their more numerous, better trained Roman adversary. This appears to also be why Titus entered the Holy of Holies (Wars 6.4.7). When Titus entered the Holy of Holies immediately before the Romans set up the ensigns in the Temple and offered a pig in sacrifice to them, these acts would have likely been performed in an obtrusive, overt and theatrical manner so as to ensure that the Jews were aware of these impieties. This is because the purpose of these deeds appears to have been to frighten the Jewish rebels into surrendering. If Titus was able to enter the Holy of Holies, worship foreign gods in the Temple and even offer a pig in sacrifice to them, these acts should seal Titus’ immediate fate. The fact that Titus was able to perform these blasphemies unmarred sent a powerful message that YHWH was either unable or unwilling to defend His people. Either way, the Jews were not to rely on God to protect them. And if the rebels could not hope in God to defeat the Romans, the Jews had no chance of victory after the Romans entered the Temple. This is because the Romans were a much larger, better equipped and better trained army and the Jews had lost control of their strongest fortification at that time. It seems that this military strategy worked since Cassius Dio and Josephus record many Jews committing suicide around the time in which Titus entered the Holy of Holies and the Romans sacrificed a pig to the ensigns in the Temple.6 Thus it is likely that the Romans under Titus also sacrificed a pig in the Temple as another military scare tactic to frighten the Jews into early surrender.7
It is also worth noting that Josephus begins his account of the Jews’ first-century war with Rome with the reminder that Antiochus Epiphanies compelled the Jews to sacrifice a pig in the Temple (Wars 1.1.2). Josephus begins his account of the Jewish War by mentioning the events of the Maccabean Wars and the deeds of Antiochus Epiphanies so as to, of course, highlight the similarities of both wars. The fact that Josephus mentioned that Antiochus Epiphanies oversaw the sacrifice of a pig in the Temple at the start of Wars may be a veiled show of disapproval of Titus’ having also overseen pig sacrifice in the Temple.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suovetaurilia (3/13/2020).
- Rikki E. Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark, (Baker Academic, 2001), 158, cited in Brian J. Incigneri, The Gospel to the Romans: The Setting and Rhetoric of Mark’s Gospel, (Boston: 2003), 192.
- Atkinson, K. M. T 1959, ‘The Historical Setting of the Habakkuk Commentary’, Journal of Semitic Studies, vol. 4, no. 3, pp.252-255, cited in Brian J. Incigneri, The Gospel to the Romans: The Setting and Rhetoric of Mark’s Gospel, (Boston: 2003), 192.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacramentum_(oath) (3/13/2020).
- Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars 11.5
- Cassius Dio Roman History 66.6; Josephus The Wars of the Jews 6.4.7.
- The army that besieged Jerusalem was believed to have roughly 20,000 local troops composing roughly 30% of the Roman army during the siege of Jerusalem. Invicta believes this number may be inaccurately high. He also correctly states that these soldiers could not be relied upon like the legionaries or auxiliaries but they could take up many responsibilities of the army to free up the elite soldiers to do what they do best ([Invicta]. (2016, December 16). The Siege of Jerusalem (70 AD) – Romans at the Gates (Part 1/4) [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hen0wmoj5RU). It seems unlikely that local troops would have been dispatched into the city of Jerusalem and Temple during the slaughter in A.D. 70 as they could not be relied upon to take part in these military acts nor did they likely have the training to do so. Jewish soldiers likely stayed behind to perform the menial every day tasks to free up the auxiliaries and legionaries who were likely the active participants in the slaughter inside Jerusalem. This fact is implied in Wars 6.330 where Titus says that “a very small part of the Roman soldiery” were too much for the Jews when they entered the Temple and defeated them. It is unlikely that Titus would have permitted Jewish soldiers to enter the Temple with the Roman legions as the local religion would not have permitted them to enter this Temple and especially take part in murder in it. The Jewish religion also did not allow the Romans to enter the Temple either. The fact that the Romans entered the Temple and slaughtered Jews there would cause strife with the Jewish local soldiers. It is perhaps for this reason that it is believed that the local troops may have been much less than 20,000. The fact that these soldiers likely stayed behind freed up Titus to perform his blasphemous military scare tactics without intervention from these soldiers. But the presence of these soldiers in the camp and the rumors about these acts that would have circulated in the camp afterwards might trigger mutiny if word got out. Thus Titus’ actions whereby he ran around likely pretending to wish to put out the fire of the Temple is probably historically accurate so as to reduce the risk of mutiny with Titus’ local allies.