When he was born into a privileged, royal, priestly family in AD 37/38 (only a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion), Jerusalem was a thriving — if somewhat edgy — city at the heart of Roman Judaea. By the time he died in AD 100, all of Jerusalem, barring a few sections of wall, had been wiped off the face of the earth so comprehensively that, as he later said, no one would ever know that anyone had lived there.
Joseph, or Josephus as be became known, lived through the most turbulent period of the Jewish-Roman wars, and — to the joy of later historians — loved writing as much as he enjoyed talking about himself. He had a very high opinion of everything he did, and clearly saw himself at the centre of events. That said, his boastful personality is inextricably linked to the extraordinary life he led, and to his unique closeness to the decision makers on both sides of the war. Whatever one thinks of his character or actions, his eye for detail and his fascination with the politics driving Rome and Jerusalem make him one of the most immediate and exciting writers of the first century.
As a young man, Josephus saw three main groups around him in Jewish society: Pharisees, Sadducees, and the ascetic Essenes (who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls). He had an inquiring mind, and so spent three years in the desert with an Essene master named Banus, before coming back to civilisation and joining the Pharisees, whom he later described as Jewish Stoics. His choice to become a Pharisee speaks volumes about what was to happen later, as the Pharisees were notable for their willingness to live peacefully under Roman rule.
Josephus was known for his memory and knowledge of the Law (i.e., religious practices). Being from an elite family, he was soon drawn into Jerusalem’s political life. Aged 26, he was dispatched on a sensitive mission to Rome to negotiate the release of some Jewish priests being held hostage. Once there, he managed to arrange an introduction to the beautiful and political Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s second wife, with whom he made friends, and through whose intervention he succeeded in freeing the prisoners. The whole affair left a deep mark on him — especially the wonders of the Eternal City and its indomitable politico-military machine.
But back in Judaea, things were becoming increasingly tense.
When the Roman consul Pompey had first conquered Judaea in 63 BC, the Romans had been happy for the territory to be ruled by puppet kings (Hasmonean then Herodian). But when the Jews revolted against Herod Archelaus for contracting a bigamous marriage and for his ongoing cruelties, Rome banished him to the south of France and pulled Judaea fully into the empire as an official province.
Factions within Jewish society opposed the direct rule from Rome. Their resentment began to escalate, resulting in increasingly frequent rebellions. For instance, in his later writings, Josephus would mention the famous uprising led by Judas of Galilee in AD 6/7 around the time of the tax census ordered by Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria. Interestingly, this is the same census referred to in the Bible:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. (Luke, 2:1–5)
Unfortunately, this Gospel account is historically problematic as Rome never ordered a global census. Also, the Gospel of Matthew says Jesus was born in the reign of King Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC. Moreover, most scholars reject the idea that any Roman tax census ever required people to travel to their ancient ancestral homes in order to register, as it makes no economic sense. (It is most likely that the author of the Gospel of Luke was using entirely standard artistic licence of the day to tie Jesus more firmly to the royal house of David.)
Most importantly in this context, in his later writings Josephus cites Judas of Galilee’s rebellion as the start of the rise of the Zealots, or theKanna’im, an “aggressive and fanatical war party” sworn to overthrow the Romans.
The members of this party bore also the name Sicarii, from their custom of going about with daggers (“sicae”) hidden beneath their cloaks, with which they would stab any one found committing a sacrilegious act or anything provoking anti-Jewish feeling. (“Zealots”, Jewish Encylopedia, 1906)
By this or any other any definition, the Zealots/Sicarii were religious fundamentalists. Josephus describes them as a “seditious” group, “fond of war,” and filled with “madness”, and he puts the blame for everything that was to happen squarely on their shoulders. “They were the tyrants among the Jews who brought the Roman power upon us,” he laments.
Interestingly, the Bible corroborates the identity of Judas:
After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. (Acts, 5:37)
Following Judas’s failed revolt in AD 6/7, relations between the Judaean Jews and Rome remained fractious throughout the first half of the century.
A flare-up was narrowly avoided in AD 40 when the Emperor Caligula ordered a statue of himself to be set up in the Jerusalem Temple. The local governor, Petroius, realised how inflammatory it would be, and delayed. The inevitable riots were only finally averted when Caligula was assassinated early the following year.
Another flashpoint came a few years later, in AD 46–8, when Simon and Jacob of Galilee revolted, but the Romans crushed their uprising swiftly, executing both.
Throughout this time, the Zealots were growing as a group, intent on seizing the “kingdom of heaven” by force, as alluded to in Bible:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matthew, 11:12)
By the time Josephus returned from his Roman mission, the Zealots had become dangerous. They wanted war with Rome, and were ready to provoke it.
Herod Agrippa II (a regional Roman-appointed Jewish governor) tried to appeal for calm and urge the Zealots to cease provoking the Romans to war. He reasoned that dozens of proud and warlike people, such as the Greeks, Germans, and Gauls, were all subject to Rome, and there was therefore no shame in it. But the Zealots did not listen. Josephus quotes Agrippa’s further appeal to them:
Have pity, therefore, if not on your children and wives, yet upon this your metropolis, and its sacred walls; spare the temple.
But to no avail. In AD 66, when relations with Gassius Florus, the Roman governor, were at an all-time low, the Zealots seized their opportunity. First they stormed the desert outpost of Masada, an imposing fortress built high on top of a vast rock in the Judaean desert, where they slaughtered the Roman garrison. Then they turned on the Roman forces in Jerusalem, killing the troops before ousting Florus and setting up a revolutionary government.
Josephus summarised the Zealots’ motives, none of which he had any sympathy with:
Some are earnest to go to war because they are young, and without experience of the miseries it brings … some are for it out of an unreasonable expectation of regaining their liberty … and others hope to get by it.
The Zealots were now in charge, and strategic parts of Jerusalem were in their hands. But it was only the start of what was to come.
Their rash coup horrified the majority of Judea’s Jews, and provoked bloody confrontations among an increasingly factional Jewish society. Civil war erupted, with family turning on family. For instance, one of the main rebel leaders was Eleazar, and one of the earliest casualties to be summarily executed was Ananias, his father, the High Priest most famous to Christians for overseeing the trial of St Paul (Acts, 22-23). In no time, the rebels began fighting among themselves and blood started to flow freely when Menahem, one of the Zealots’ leaders and son of Judas the Galilean (the original Zealot), fell out with Eleazar. Their rivalry for power began to spill over into violence in wider society. “They agreed in nothing,” Josephus lamented, “but this, to kill those that were innocent.”
In response to the rebels’ power grab, Cestius Gallus, the Roman legate in Syria, brought a small army to re-establish order, but left defeated. Meanwhile, in the wider eastern Mediterranean region, the coup provoked scattered waves of anti-Jewish violence. However, when Nero heard about the loss of Roman control in Judaea, he unleashed hell in the form of a vast imperial army led by the battle-hardened generals Vespasian and his son, Titus.
In the build-up to the revolt, Josephus had done his best, as a senior citizen of Jerusalem, to oppose the Zealots. He understood that they were fuelled by the fervour of their youth and “vehemently inflamed to fight”. With his experiences of Rome, he tried to convince them of the folly of picking a fight with the world’s foremost military empire, but to his surprise he was sucked directly into the conflict when the Jerusalem Sanhedrin appointed him military commander of Galilee. It was technically not part of Roman Judaea, but still a separate client state of the Roman Empire, just as Judea had been until AD 6. That is why, in the Gospels, Pontius Pilate (governor of Jerusalem in Judaea) says he has no jurisdiction over Jesus, and packs him back up north to Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, who also features in the Bible as Salome’s stepfather, who had John the Baptist beheaded (Mark, 6:21–29;Matthew, 14:6–11).
The Romans decided to invade Judaea from Syria through Galilee, so before long, Josephus faced the unenviable task of defending the fortress of Jotapata (modern Yodfat in Galilee) against Vespasian and his legions. To his credit, Josephus managed to hold out for 47 days, but when the city finally fell he hid in a cistern-cave with a bunch of 40 diehards who were convinced suicide was better than surrender. Josephus tried to argue that taking their own lives was immoral, but he made no headway. Finally, he agreed to their suicide plans, and suggested they draw lots to see who would kill whom in pairs. “Whether we must say it happened by chance, or whether by the providence of God,” (in other words, he rigged it) he ensured he was one of the final pair alive, at which point he succeeded in convincing his lone companion to surrender.
As a senior captive, Josephus was then dragged before Vespasian and Titus, where he had something of a brainwave. He declared himself to be a prophet, and foretold in front of the gathering that Vespasian would soon be emperor, followed by Titus. Vespasian must have been tickled by it, because he spared Josephus’s life. When Nero died the following year and Vespasian then became emperor, Josephus was freed in recognition of his gift of foresight (or his brassiness and good luck).
Seeing clearly which way the wind was blowing, Josephus now took the single biggest decisions of his life. Instead of going back and rejoining his countrymen, he swapped sides, becoming a close friend and confidant of Vespasian, and even adopting the emperor’s family nomen, calling himself Flavius Josephus.
Josephus travelled with Vespasian to Alexandria, and then returned to Judaea with Titus to set about besieging Jerusalem. As the siege unfolded, Titus sent him into the city as a messenger several times to convince the Zealots and other defenders to surrender, but no one wanted to listen. In truth, Josephus’s life was now fairly uncomfortable — the Jews loathed him for his desertion, while many of the Roman officers assumed that every smallest setback was owing to his treachery.
After a brutal seven-month siege, Titus finally took Jerusalem. In the chaos of the hand-to-hand battle, the truth of how the Temple was destroyed has been lost. The Roman consul Cassius Dio says Titus gave orders for it to be levelled, whereas Josephus maintains that Titus forbade its destruction but the soldiery torched it anyway. Whichever, the triumphal arch later erected to Titus’s victory at the entry to the Roman Forum shows in detail the Romans carrying off the most precious artefacts from the Temple. Like Pompey before him, Titus then entered the Temple, but whereas Pompey had penetrated into the forbidden Holy of Holies, Titus was beaten back by the smoke.
In victory, the Romans showed no mercy in culling the Zealots. The fate of Jerusalem was sealed. Josephus recorded what happened next:
Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple … that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.
Even after the loss of Jerusalem, the war raged throughout Judaea. The Zealots’ last stand was at Masada, the fortress they had taken at the beginning of the conflict. Unable to scale it, the Romans built a monumental earthen ramp up to the summit. To avoid capture, the 960 Zealots defending it killed each other. Only two women survived by hiding in the complex together with five children.
With the revolt crushed, Josephus looked around his wrecked country, packed his bags, and resettled in Rome — where he was granted citizenship, a very healthy tax-free income from land in Judaea, and a permanently warm welcome at the courts of Emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. With the benefit of their patronage and the money, he dedicated the remaining 30 years of his life to writing history.
From AD 75–79 he composed The Jewish Wars, chronicling the bloody conflict he had lived through. His original Aramaic text is long lost, but the eloquent Greek version he supervised survives. It is the most comprehensive source of information for the war, and contains an amazing amount of priceless military detail. The book began to circulate as a clear warning to anyone who opposed Caesar, but it soon won praise from many corners for its detailed accuracy.
In AD 93, Josephus published his masterpiece, The Antiquities of the Jews — a highly successful attempt to tell selected stories of the Jewish people in a way his Romano-Hellenic audience would warm to. Even though his account of the Jewish-Roman wars was uncompromising in its criticism of the Zealots and “seditious” factions he blamed for the loss of his country, he remained firmly wedded to his religion and culture, keen to present it in a rational, Hellenistic light. Antiquities is without doubt one of the greatest books of the classical world, and demonstrates an extraordinary and rich breadth of knowledge of Jewish and classical authors. St Jerome (who famously later translated the Bible into Latin) called him “the Greek Livy”.
Josephus was very aware that he lived in brutal times and that life was cheap. Both Jewish Wars and Antiquities make for pretty gruesome and depressing reading in places. His friend Titus was cruel beyond normal — inflicting ghastly punishments on those he captured. However, Josephus knew that rulers of all cultures committed atrocities. He recounted with horror how the Jewish King Alexander Jannaeus (“King Yannai” in the Talmud), king of Judah from 103–76 BC:
as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred [Pharisees] to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes.
No one reading Josephus’s works can be in any doubt about the fact that the power politics of the classical-era Mediterranean were brutal.
Although things ended well for Josephus in Rome, over in Judaea the dramatic endgame was about to be played out.
In AD 131, the Emperor Hadrian went on a tour of the east. He had been fighting off minor Jewish rebellions for a decade, but something seismic was about to happen to reignite the passions of the war Josephus had lived through.
The truth is lost, but either Hadrian provoked a war by a series of restrictive religious declarations, or he published the harsh orders after the war as revenge. Either way, he reached a decision to Hellenise the Jews in order to integrate them into the Empire and remove their separate identity that he saw as the cause of their incessant rebellions. He therefore forbade circumcision and ordered a new city, Aelia Capitolina, to be built on the rubble of Jerusalem. It was named after Aelius, his nomen, and Jupiter Capitolinus, to whom he built a temple on the site of the destroyed Jewish Temple. The implication was clear — Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, was gone.
Opposing Hadrian was a Jewish army under Simon, whom his followers revered as a Messiah — a Davidic figure who would deliver them from their troubles and lead them back to God, hence they began calling him “bar Kokhba”, or Son of the Star, a Messianic title. As the uprising spread, bar Kokhba appointed himself a prince, seized large amounts of territory, and began minting coins stamped with triumphant texts such as “To the freedom of Jerusalem”.
Unlike previous emperors, Hadrian was a man who believed in decisive action, and he reacted to the “Bar Kokhba Revolt” (as it is now known) with crushing force, summoning his greatest general, Julius Severus, then in Britain, to march on Judaea with a vast army.
A vicious war of over 50 individual battles ensued, leaving bar Kokhba and a reported 580,000 of his men slaughtered (not including those who died of hunger and disease). The Romans then grimly laid waste to the whole of Judaea, annihilating virtually the entire Jewish population.
After so many rebellions for as long as anyone could remember, Hadrian decided that prevention was better than cure. Aelia Capitolina was completed in order to obliterate all trace of Jewish Jerusalem. The regional name Judaea was scrapped as sounding too Jewish, and replaced by “Syria Palaestina”. All Jewish religious rites and rituals in Judaea were forbidden. And Jews were banished forever from Aelia Capitolina, except for one day a year, on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning to commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of the Second Temple by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (587 BC) and the final destruction of the rebuilt Second Temple by Titus in AD 70. As the 1906Jewish Encyclopedia comments laconically: “the end of the Jewish Nation had come”.
As it turned out, the price had been heavy on all sides. The Romans had also suffered major losses, and Cassius Dio reported that Hadrian’s victory message back to the Senate did not start with the usual airy greeting, “The army and I are well.”
Hadrian’s retribution was, historically, one of the most profound events in the history of the Jewish people. They were permanently uprooted from the city they had conquered and made theirs just over a thousand years earlier. It was far worse than the Babylonian captivity of 500 years earlier, which had come to an end after 50–60 years.
When Hadrian’s city of Aelia Capitolina rose from the rubble of Jerusalem, Josephus had been dead for 35 years. But he had already made his decision to live at the heart of the Roman Empire rather than on its troubled eastern border. He may even have suspected that something as dramatic as Hadrian’s revenge would one day be inevitable. Yet what neither he nor Hadrian could have foretold was that Aelia Capitolina would eventually pass from Roman hands into a variety of others for almost two millennia before again becoming Jewish in 1948.
History is a witness that the land has belonged to many rulers. Before King David conquered Jerusalem around 1020 BC it had already been a Jebusite Canaanite city for around 2,000 years. During “biblical” Jewish control (c. 1020 BC–AD 135) Jerusalem was sacked five times according to Josephus, most seriously by Nebuchadnezzar and Titus. After the Jews came the Romans (AD 135–325), then Constantine and the Byzantine Christians (AD 325–637), Muslims (AD 637–1099), Christian crusaders (AD 1099–1187), Muslims (AD 1187–1516), Turks (AD 1516–1917), the British (AD 1917–1948), and finally the Jews again (1948–present), with dozens of short-lived minor conquests breaking the sequence.
The eastern Mediterranean seaboard is — and has always been — a troubled region that has seen too much blood spilled for one reason or another, all of which seemed important at the time. As Churchill noted, so bluntly but accurately, the first casualty of war is truth. And the truth of the land is that the various competing webs and roots of nationhood, identity, and memory that have flourished for millennia are thick and run deep into its dust and soil.
As Josephus observed, “as for war, if it be once begun, it is not easily laid down again.” History may not repeat itself exactly, but it does teach us lessons. One thing is certain: in 1,000 years’ time, the Near East will look different. And perhaps the lesson for the troubled land is that throughout history extreme military force has been used there time and time again — but, in over five millennia, it has never yet brought lasting peace for anyone
(First published in The Daily Telegraph, 5 August 2014)