Saturday, July 02, 2022

Josephus, The Jewish War


Opening Passage:

The war of the Jews against the Romans was the greatest of our time; greater too, perhaps, than any recorded struggle whether between cities or nations. Yet persons with no first-hand knowledge, accepting baseless and inconsistent stories on hearsay, have written garbled accounts of it, while those of eyewitnesses have been falsified either to flatter the Romans or to vilify the Jews, eulogy or abuse has been substituted for factual record. So for the benefit of the Emperor's subjects I have decided to translate into Greek the books which I wrote some time ago in my native language for circulation among non-Greek speakers inland. I myself, Josephus, son of Matthias, am a Hebrew by race, and a priest from Jerusalem; in the early stages I fought against the Romans, and of the later events I was an unwilling witness. (p. 27)

Summary: The Jewish War is divided into seven books. In Books I and II, Josephus goes through the historical background that forms the context of the war between the Romans and the Jewish nation. The rest of the books follow the war through to its conclusion. In AD 66, a series of anti-taxation protests began to spiral out of control and touched off a major revolt in Judea, Galilee, and Idumea. Significant Jewish victories in early days led to the formation of a provisional government in Jerusalem; a provisional governor was appointed for each of Galilee and Idumea. Josephus was the one who was appointed to be governor of Galilee. The Emperor Nero, unsurprisingly displeased at the course things had taken, assigned the general Vespasian to be the commander of the invasion of the region. Vespasian and his son Titus then systematically seized the rebel strongholds in Galilee.

One of these strongholds was Jodapata (Yodfat), and played the central role Josephus's last attempt to hold off the Romans. According to his own account, he had been opposed to war with the Romans, but now committed, was resolved to give them a serious fight, and he did so with great ingenuity. It is, of course, Josephus telling us how clever Josephus was, but as he is writing the book for Vespasian and Titus, who defeated him, we can perhaps expect that he is never outright lying, although we also perhaps cannot rule out that he might exaggerate whenever it would also reflect well on Vespasian and Titus and their ability to overcome such a military genius. Josephus's numbers, for instance, are almost always wrong, but they tend to be wrong in the same direction -- that is, his number estimates never make things smaller and less impressive.

In any case, Josephus came up with several stratagems to foil both the early siege machines and the attempts to take advantage of the city's limited war supply, forcing the Romans into the dangers of direct assault. Perhaps the cleverest was when Vespasian brought a battering ram against the walls of the city, and Josephus had bags of chaff lowered in front of it to absorb the blows. The Romans cut these down, of course, but it gave Josephus time to throw large rocks down on the ram to try to break it. When the Romans eventually did make a small breakthrough, Josephus had the defenders pour boiling oil on them. Vespasian in response decided to go over the wall, so built large siege towers that kept the defenders busy while his engineers built up the siege ramp until it was scalable. At this point a deserter escaped to the Romans and informed them that the defenders were stretched were very thinly, so there was a period during the night when there were few if any people on watch. Then Titus and a number of others scaled the wall at night, killed the guards, and opened the gates. The Romans slaughtered almost everyone; Josephus escaped and hid in a cave with a number of supporters, prepared to wait out the Romans, but he was eventually discovered and only survived because of the boldness with which he leveraged his status as a Jewish priest in predicting that Vespasian and Titus would be emperors.

Having captured Galilee, they turned their attention to Judea, although most of this will be under Titus, since the Roman succession crisis by this point leads Vespasian's army to declare Vespasian emperor. Titus's portrayal is interesting; Josephus always depicts him in laudatory terms, but looking at his actions alone, it is always difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is a rather reckless commander and lacks Vespasian's cleverness. In any case, the fight in Judea, and especially the siege of Jerusalem, is given in great detail. Josephus depicts it as a war between Roman discipline and inexorability and Jewish ingenuity and love of freedom. He treats it as an almost equal match. But the Jews have the disadvantage of not being a unified group. Over and over again, Jewish infighting hampers the Jewish resistance, and Josephus himself seems to attribute the loss of Jerusalem (whose importance was always that it was naturally well fortified, and easily could be built up with additional artificial fortifications) to the willingness of the Zealots to kill other Jews who stood in their way even in the Temple area. This sacrilegious fraternal murder also lets the Romans claim the moral high ground (they would never desecrate a temple like that, at least deliberately) and gives them an excuse to stop being careful not to harm the Temple (because the Jews themselves in their impiety already desecrated it).

Titus at this point leaves to join his father, bringing with him the triumph at Jerusalem as a sort of stamp or seal on Vespasian's reign (and also, not to be forgotten, a source of an immense amount of wealth for the Flavian government). There is still some mopping up, and the Roman legion takes some of the last Jewish holdouts, ending with the siege of Masada in 74.

Favorite Passage:

During this period one of the Jews called Jonathan, a man of small stature and nothing much to look at, whose birth and attainments were negligible, stepped forward opposite the tomb of John the High Priest, heaped contempt and abuse on the heads of the Romans, and challenged the bravest of them to single combat. Of the Romans lined up at that point the majority treated him with contempt; some in all probability were frightened, while a few were struck by the very reasonable though that a man who was looking for death was not one to be engaged at close quarters: those who despaired of their lives might well have uncontrollable passions and the willing help of the Almighty; and to risk everything in a duel with one whose defeat would be nothing to boast of, and whose victory would be disgraceful as well as dangerous, was an act not of courage but of recklessness. For a long time no one came forward and the Jew hurled a volley of gibes at their cowardice, for he had a great admiration for himself and contempt for the Romans. But at last one Pudens, a member of a cavalry squadron, sickened by his arrogant vapourings and no doubt foolishly over-confident because of his small stature, ran out, joined battle, and was getting the better of it when fortune left him in the lurch: he fell, and Jonathan ran up and dispatched him. Then standing on the body he brandished his dripping sword and with his left hand waved his shield, shouting vociferously at the troops, crowing over the fallen man, and mocking the Romans as they watched. At length, while he still jumped about and played the fool, Priscus, a centurion, shot an arrow which pierced him through; at this shouts went up from Jews and Romans -- very different in character. Jonathan, spinning round in his agony, fell down on the body of his foe, clear proof that in war undeserved success instantly brings on itself the vengeance of heaven. (pp. 350-351)

Recommendation:  Recommended. It's a bit uneven as a read, but some parts of it -- like the siege of Jodapata, the siege of Jerusalem, and the siege of Masade, are fascinating. Josephus is also extraordinarily good at description, so one has a very vivid sense of the terrain.


Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson, tr., Smallwood, ed., Penguin (New York: 1981).

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