Flavius Josephus Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

0111205865-Josephus.jpg Flavius Josephus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Palestinian historian{Israel; Flavius Josephus}{Roman Empire; Flavius Josephus [Josephus]} Josephus’s history of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 c.e., the fall of Jerusalem in 70, and the capture of Masada in 73 remains, despite patent exaggerations and questionable reporting, the primary source of information for this segment of world history.

Early Life

Flavius Josephus (joh-SEE-fuhs) was born in Jerusalem into an influential priestly family. His Jewish name, Joseph ben Matthias, indicates that he was the son of Matthias, whom he asserts to have been of noble Hasmonaean (that is, Maccabean) lineage. He claims that he was consulted at the age of fourteen by high priests and leading citizens on the fine points of law and that, at the age of sixteen, he conducted inquiries into the relative merits of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Becoming a disciple of a Pharisee named Banus, he entered on an ascetic existence, living with Banus in the desert for three years and then returning, as a Pharisee, to Jerusalem at the age of nineteen.

Seven years later, by his account, he went to Rome as an emissary to plead for the release of some Jewish priests who were being held on what Josephus considered to be trivial charges. The sea voyage to Rome ended in shipwreck in the Adriatic Sea, with Josephus being one of eighty survivors out of the six hundred on board.

He reached Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) and was befriended by a Jewish actor named Aliturius who enjoyed Nero’s favor. Aliturius secured for Josephus an audience with Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s wife, and with her assistance Josephus gained the release of the priests. He returned to Palestine a year or two later.

His homeland at this time (66 c.e.) was in a state of incipient rebellion against Roman occupation. Josephus was opposed to insurrection and sided with the moderate faction against the extremists. The insurgent nationalists, however, prevailed. The Roman garrison at Masada was captured, and the Roman contingent was expelled from Jerusalem. The Roman Twelfth Legion, sent to put down the revolt and restore order, was decisively defeated by Jewish patriots. By the end of 66, the war between the Jews and the Romans was a military reality. Josephus was pressed into service as the commander of the region of Galilee.

Although his talents were for the priesthood and research, Josephus, like many learned men in classical antiquity, proved to be capable in military affairs. He conceived defenses and trained fighting forces but refrained from taking the initiative in attack. In the spring of 67 c.e. the Romans moved into Galilee. Josephus’s main fighting unit was routed, and he retreated to Jotapata, the most strongly fortified town in Galilee. Three Roman legions under Vespasian laid siege to Jotapata, captured it on the first of July in 67 c.e., and took Josephus prisoner.

Life’s Work

The relationship of Josephus with Vespasian and the Roman Imperial entourage marks the major stage in his life. Vespasian’s prisoner of war became his adviser and, in time, favored client. It is this sustained association with the dominant enemy of the Jews that clouds the attitudes toward Josephus taken by his compatriots and their descendants. In his early opposition to the Jewish revolt he had been suspected of complicity with the Romans, and in view of the perquisites accorded him by the Roman leaders after Jotapata, no apologist can effectively defend him against the charge of fraternization with the enemy.

He appears to have ingratiated himself with Vespasian by accurately predicting Vespasian’s installation as emperor. He assumed the name of Vespasian’s family, Flavius, when he Romanized his own. His account, published between 75 and 79 c.e., of the Jewish revolt against Rome carries the Greek title Peri tou Ioudaikou polemou, which in Latin is Bellum Judaicum (75-79 c.e.; History of the Jewish War, 1773). The significance of the title is that it denotes the Roman, not the Jewish, perspective, just as Julius Caesar’s Comentarii de bello Gallico (45 b.c.e.; The Gallic Wars, 1609, translated in Commentaries) denotes the Roman, not the Gallic, perspective. Josephus had clearly cast his lot with the victorious Romans.

A telling incident prior to the fall of Jotapata makes it difficult for anyone to admire Josephus as a patriotic Jew. The besieged had agreed on a mass suicide pact as a means of avoiding capture by the Romans. Josephus relates his attempt to dissuade them, his failure to do so, and his alternate and subsequently accepted plan to draw lots whereby number two would kill number one, number three would kill number two, and so on until, presumably, the last person left would be the only one actually to commit suicide. Josephus concludes this story with a nod to divine providence or pure chance: He and one other were the last two alive and, making a pact of their own, remained alive.

By contrast, Josephus’s account of the mass suicide in the year 73 c.e. of the 960 Jews at Masada, the last citadel of resistance to the Romans, who had conclusively ended the revolt three years earlier, includes reference to no survivors, save two women and five children who had hidden in subterranean aqueducts. Comparison of the respective survivors of Jotapata and Masada lends no honor to the historian of both defeats.

After the Jewish revolt of 66-70 c.e., Josephus was granted living quarters and a regular income in Rome. Thus ensconced, he produced his history of the revolt. His claim that he wrote the work initially in Aramaic and then translated it into Greek need not be disputed, although no Aramaic text whatsoever remains in either small part or citation. The Hellenistic Greek in which this work and the other works of Josephus appear is faultlessly in character with the lingua franca of the time. The idiomatic perfection of Josephus’s Greek may owe, in large part, to his employment of Greek-speaking assistants, but his own linguistic abilities were patently considerable.

History of the Jewish War was published between 75 and 79 c.e., the year in which Vespasian died and was succeeded as emperor by his son Titus. It covers not merely the years 66 to 73 c.e. but also much of the history of the Jews, from the desecration of the Temple at Jerusalem by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 b.c.e. through the events culminating in the capture of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 c.e. The work is composed of seven books, the first two of which outline the Hasmonaean, or Maccabean, revolt, the reign of Herod the Great, and the Roman...

(The entire section is 2719 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Military History)

Article abstract: Military significance: Josephus unsuccessfully defended Galilee as a rebel commander, then defected and aided the Romans in the Siege of Jerusalem. His main significance, though, is as a military historian.

Born into a wealthy family of priests, Flavius Josephus was appointed rebel governor of the Galilee in November or December, 66 c.e. Despite his claim of training an army of 60,000 in the Roman fashion, Josephus’s forces probably consisted of militia, some mercenaries, and a small bodyguard, a few thousand men at most. Other rebel units were independent and often hostile. In the spring of 67 c.e., Vespasian quickly overran most of the Galilee. Josephus defended Jotapata, which fell after a forty-seven-day siege. Then, defecting to the Romans, he became a translator for Titus, Vespasian’s son and successor as military commander in Judaea. At the Siege of Jerusalem (70 c.e.), Josephus aided in interrogating prisoners and exhorted the surrender of rebel forces.

After the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 c.e.), Josephus was granted Roman citizenship, moved to Rome and devoted himself to writing. His Bellum Judaicum (75-79 c.e.; The Jewish War, 1847) is the best surviving account of the early imperial army at war. In addition to his own experience and other eyewitness accounts, he used the war diaries of Vespasian and Titus.

Further Reading:

Bohrmann, Monette. Flavius Josephus, the Zealots, and Yavne: Towards a Rereading of the War of the Jews. Bern, Switzerland: Lang, 1994.

Cohen, Shaye. Josephus in Galilee and Rome. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1979.

Feldman, Louis, and Gohei Hata. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1986.