errorist groups have a very distinctive look as well as persistence in today’s society. Still, most people do not know that the term “terrorist” isn’t something new that was invented in the 20th century, but something that was actually first recorded in the 1st century. From the ancient writings of Flavius Josephus (37–100), a historian from Roman times, we can see that there is a group of people that match the characteristics of the phrase “terrorist group.”
This group was known as the Zealots, a group of Jewish extremists who wanted to rebel against the Roman Empire by terrorizing the Roman population and destroying everything they had in their name. Although the Zealots started as a political movement early in the 1st century, it quickly turned into a rebel army as it imposed its ideology onto the Jewish population around the area.
In their minds, the Roman Empire had taken their Holy Land and they were ready to show their power to the world. At the time, the Roman Empire was the most feared nation in the world, not only due to its impressive rapid extension but also its feared military power. This is why the Zealots wanted to use terror in order to show the world, but especially the Roman Empire that they were facing a new type of enemy.
It is imperative to remember that religion was used as politics in those times, therefore the Zealots didn’t only fight against the Roman Empire, but also against Christianity. Some of you may recognize “zealot” as a word that is not often used, but you may have heard of it. The meaning of this word based on the Cambridge Dictionary is:
“A person who has very strong opinions about something, and tries to make other people have them too.”
This word was actually taken from the name of this group, the Zealots, as they were the embodiment of the word’s definition. Just like modern terrorist groups, they were trying to forcefully indoctrinate people with a certain religious ideology, and if this ideology was not accepted, they would terrorize them to death.
The Zealots although following a similar structure by using terrorism as their main weapon against the Roman Empire (or Christianity) had different ideologies that were mainly focused on taking down what was in their eyes an unrighteous “unstoppable power,” as it was seen at the time.
In the writings of Josephus, he refers to the Zealots with the term Sicarii which refers to Zealot rebels that used daggers as their main weapon. These troops were also seen as the main fanatics of the Zealot movement, as they held the most hatred towards the Roman Empire. The Jewish population at the time had their independence, but due to the power of the Roman Empire they were still indirectly controlled by them, therefore they wanted “total independence.”
By the early start of the 1st century, when the group was only in its early stages, it focused on small attacks on villages that were part of the Roman Empire in order to get their presence known. The Romans responded to the provocation with Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 BC-AD 9), the governor of Siria at the time, sending two Roman legions (around 12,000 Roman troops) to intercept the fanatic group.
In order to discourage further displays from the Zealots, the Roman Empire crucified 2,000 Sicarii. Although the Romans hoped to discourage the Zealots with this action, they ended up encouraging them to become even worse. We can argue that in this action the Roman Empire also used a form of terrorism to stop the Zealots from more raids on Roman villages, but this only enhanced their desire for provocation.
The Zealots became quite a popular group which made many teenagers join in due to their ideology. Josephus also refers that the ideology of the Zealots and the Pharisees was quite similar in the way that both groups initially wanted initially the same thing, however, the Pharisees didn’t want to combat anyone, they just wanted to focus on developing their own people.
Most of the world viewed the Zealots as an organized criminal group, therefore they were seen by most nations as enemies to society. The Jewish people that didn’t follow their ideology despised them as they gave a bad reputation to the Jewish nation. Just as some modern terrorist groups give a bad reputation to Islamic society.
The leader and founder of the Zealot movement were Judas, from Galilea, who employed the ideology of an extremist religious group. For him, every Jewish person that wasn’t as extremely faithful towards Judaism as his group was a threat that needed to be punished and forcefully made to be a religious extremist.
Instrumentalizing religion with a fanatical perspective can only result in violence. If this is associated with a group of extremists being pushed beyond the boundaries, giving rise to what we call organized terrorist groups. Some historians define the Zealots as a combination of Barbarians and Romans as they both entice power whilst using violence which in most historians’ perspectives is justified due to the different religious views that were accounted as political views at the time.
Comparing the Zealots to modern terrorism
A similar trend that we can see between modern terrorist groups and the Zealots — which is noted by Josephus — is that the Sicarii units liked to kill people in the middle of crowds by chopping their heads or slicing their throats. This was used as a tactic to put fear into the Roman public. The Zealots were also responsible for the assassination of many Roman politicians as well as religious figures from the Roman Empire.
Two other similar trends are torturing people as well as going in a battle toward certain death without fear. They even started killing Jewish people that we’re collaborating with the Roman Empire in order to further scare the public as well as push forward their ideology.
By 66 AD when they became a more powerful group, they started major attacks on Roman cities which concluded with the First Jewish-Roman War (66–70). The Zealots died out in 70 AD when the Roman Empire pushed them into the Jewish Temple and destroyed it, annihilating the Zealot group.
As powerful as the Zealot group had become, they proved no match for the military power of the Roman Empire, however, despite its numerous enemies, they were the most feared and actually put up quite a good fight.
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