At the very end of Masechet Nazir, as part of a conversation over what is more important, saying a blessing or saying amen, there is an interesting metaphor:
“the gulyarim initiate the war and the giborim follow them and prevail.” (Nazir 66b)
We are familiar with giborim, that is a Hebrew word that means the brave or the warriors. But what are gulyarim? Like many odd words in the Gemara, this is a foreign term that has been somewhat mangled. The Jastrow dictionary helps us out: a gulyar is really a galearius, the Latin word for a common soldier or a soldier’s assistant. Now the phrase makes sense (although the statement is still difficult): the battle is begun by the regular shleppers and then the generals come in to finish it off.
The Roman army was a constant presence in the Land of Israel in the time of the Mishnah and the Gemara. Eretz Yisrael was a strategically significant site, on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire, and it also was filled with troublemakers. Soldiers were stationed here permanently and references to the military are frequent in Rabbinic literature. Let’s take this opportunity to look at the Roman soldiers stationed in the Land of Israel.
The Roman army was composed of legions. Each legion was commanded by a legatus and comprised over five thousand soldiers. The legions each had a number and a name and were represented by specific symbols. The legions most associated with the Land of Israel were the Tenth and the Sixth. When do they arrive here?
Before the Great Revolt in the year 66 CE, no full Roman legion was stationed here permanently, although there certainly was a military presence. But with the rebellion of the Jews, the Romans sent a number of legions to fight them. The legion that fought the most significant battles, conquering Gamla, Qumran, Herodion, Jerusalem and finally Masada – was the Tenth Legion, Fretensis. After the war, they were stationed here permanently.
A Tenth Legion column, “Leg X FRE” underlined
Assayas, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
With the second revolt in the early second century CE, what is known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Romans saw that the Jews have not lost their appetite for trouble. After they quelled the rebellion, they built more miles of roads, to transport their soldiers more efficiently, and they added a second legion to create an even stronger military presence. This is the Sixth Legion, Ferrata, and they also found a permanent home here.
A Sixth Legion sign, “Leg VI FERR” underlined
Golf Bravo 11:43, 25 May 2007 (UTC), CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Each legion had objects that represented them on their insignias. While the Sixth Legon had a bull and a she-wolf, the Tenth Legion was represented by something that in the Jewish imagination was highly symbolic: a wild boar. What could be more fitting for the destruction of the Temple than the ultimate sign of uncleanliness, a pig? This is clearly the reference in this legend,
“As long as they occupy themselves with the Temple service, they will not be delivered into your hands. The next day they lowered down money in a box as usual, but this time they sent up to them a pig. When the pig reached to the midpoint of the Temple wall it stuck its hooves into the wall, and Eretz Yisrael quaked over an area of four hundred parasangs by four hundred parasangs.” (Bava Kama 82b)
Despite the fact that this story is set in the Hasmonean time period, I think it is clearly referencing the Romans who caused the ultimate downfall of the Temple and of Jerusalem.
Both the Tenth and the Sixth Legions are well represented in Israeli archaeological finds. Because the legions built their own housing and were dispatched to construct aqueducts and army camps, their insignias are everywhere. We have found both legions’ names and numbers on numerous roof tiles as well as on aqueduct pipes.
Tenth Legion roof tiles
אור פ, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Their camps have also been found. The Sixth Legion was based near Megiddo, in the Jezreel Valley, in a place that became known as Legio, a corruption of the word legion. They also had a camp in the Jordan Valley, in a place called Tel Shalem, There, besides inscriptions bearing their name, archaeologists found a massive bronze bust of Hadrian, the Roman emperor during the Bar Kokhba Revolt, as well as fragments of an enormous victory inscription.
Bust of Hadrian found at Tel Shalem
yoav dothan, GFDL <http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html>, via Wikimedia Commons
The Tenth Legion stayed on in Jerusalem after the Great Revolt. Remains of their camp, including a large bathhouse and most recently, a beautiful theater, have been discovered at the foot of the Temple Mount. But they were also active outside the borders of the city. In the 1950s, when Israel was building in the west of the city, on the remains of the Arab village of Sheikh Bader, archaeologists uncovered a large factory for pottery. Dozens of Tenth Legion roof tiles, bricks and kilns were discovered.
The theater discovered adjacent to the Western Wall
יאיר ליברמן, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
What were the working conditions of these galeari? Was it worthwhile to leave home for years at a time, risking life and limb? In the excavations at Masada, among the documents found in one of the casemate rooms around the perimeter of the site, was a payslip of one Gaius Messius, a Roman soldier. It seems to have been one of three payments over the course of the year. It was for fifty denari. While this was not an insignificant sum, the payslip also details the deductions that Gaius had to pay out to the army: sixteen denari for fodder for his horse, twenty for food for himself, five for boots, two for leather straps and seven for his linen tunic. The total? Fifty denari! But Roman soldiers had opportunities to make money in other ways. Loot and plunder were always popular as was money lending at high interest rates.
So many anonymous Roman soldiers passed through Israel, many of them wreaking havoc on Jewish communities and individuals. They left their imprint not only on the land but also on our literature, with many stories and metaphors about them. But for the rabbis, the true warriors are the ones involved in Jewish life and learning. As Rabbi Yohanan says to Resh Lakish, a former gladiator:חילך לאורייתא! Use your strength for Torah!
Hadran alach Masechet Nazir!