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Flavius Josephus, a Jewish rebel turned war journalist and historian?

Published on 3 Sept, 2021


Since antiquity, Flavius Josephus' name has been deeply intertwined with the Judean War, or the Great Jewish Revolt, as his book "The Jewish War" was and still is the most important primary source recording this historical turning point marking the beginning of the Second Exile. Unlike most authors writing on this subject in antiquity, Josephus left us a first-person eyewitness account of the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple, recently renovated by Herod the Great.


Despite being known as a historian, at the beginning of the Great Revolt things were completely different. Josephus was fighting for his own people and once a prison-of-war facing the bleak prospect of torture and execution. How he ended up adopting the Roman Imperial surname "Flavius", wrote volumes of history books until his death many decades after the Great Revolt, in the capital city of Rome? What caused Josephus' destiny to take a 180-degrees turn? How much of his record was his own eyewitness testimony, how much of it was his imagination?

The young Josephus

Josephus (37 - ca. 100 CE) was born to a Jewish aristocratic family in Jerusalem, Roman Judea in 37 CE, and his name at birth was Yosef ben Matityahu. His father was a priest working in the Temple, and his maternal side had Royal blood. Judea had been Rome's client Kingdom since the conclusion of he Third Mithridatic War fought between the Roman Republic and a coalition of Caucasian and Hellenistic Kingdoms in the East. After Rome defeated the mighty opponent Tigranes the Great of Armenia, Judea was made a Roman client Kingdom. Back then, Judea was still ruled by the Hasmonean Dynasty, not the Herodian Dynasty.

In the 30s BCE, Herod quickly rose to power due to a series of successful political maneuvers during the Roman Civil War between Octavian and Mark Anthony. He switched side after Octavian gained an upper hand, and his gamble paid off. Octavian later ascended to the position of Roman Emperor, the founder of the Roman Empire, and renamed himself Augustus. Herod became Herod the Great, founder of the Herodian Kingdom, his power to rule was guaranteed by Rome. The Romans also gave him a high degree of autonomy, Judea had its own Laws applicable to the Jewish people. Local customs were preserved de jure, however, as more non-Jews immigrate to Judea looking for business opportunities, religious conflicts were causing ethnic tensions. Jewish traditions came under an ever-greater challenge by the powerful force of Hellenization, which had begun since Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic rule of Judea. The seeds of the Great Revolt had been sown.

After Herod the Great's death, Judea entered into a period of political troubles, and it was under direct Roman administration as early as 6 CE. Jewish self-governance was slowly abolished by the Romans. In 38 CE, Jewish Laws were replaced. Judea was no longer a client Kingdom, it had lost it partial sovereignty and became just another Roman province. It was around this time when Josephus was born.

Josephus' background and upbringing meant that he could receive the best education at his time, he was acquainted in not just his mother tongue Aramaic (Hebrew, the main official language of modern Israel, was not spoken in 1st Century Judea) but also Greek, the de facto first language in the Eastern part of Roman Empire. It is also certain that he knew Latin, even though no historical record indicate he had ever spoken it.

Marble Bust of Flavius Josephus


Troubles rising

In 64 CE, Gessius Florus was nominated Roman procurator in Judea, and according to Josephus, he was a brutal and greedy man who exploited the Jewish population with high tax. He did not care about the religious conflicts between the Jews and the Greeks, which intensified after a continuous influx of Greek merchants and  immigrants in Judea after it became a Roman province. Ethnic conflicts escalated out of control and in just 2 years, in 66 CE, a tipping point was reached when a seemingly unimportant neighbors' quarrel in Caesarea, the port city built by Herod the Great and named after the Roman Emperor who gave him everything he had, quickly escalated into an all-out Jewish rebellion against Rome. And as a Jewish aristocrat, Josephus had been in the rebel force since Day One and he was entrusted with the duty of defending the Galilee region, this made him an enemy of Rome.

Now, the question is, who would be dispatched to Judea to crush the revolt?

At that time, the Roman General Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, a very capable General who performed exceptionally well in the War of the Armenian Succession, would be expected as the first choice. However, Nero did not like him because the infamous tyrant was a suspicious person, and the national hero Corbulo was becoming too popular among the Romans. And under the rule of a tyrant, being too popular always backfires. Therefore, Nero decided to call for a lesser-known retired General Vespasian, and his son Titus. Josephus' encounter with Vespasian in Yodfat, which was under siege by the Romans, turned out to be a Roman victory. The city fell to Roman hands after a long siege.

For Josephus, this should have been the end of the story, as the price for high treason against Rome was an inevitable death. However, it was in such a dire situation when history took an interesting turn. Josephus' comrades drew lots to kill each other, as Jewish Laws and religious customs prohibited suicide. Josephus managed to hide in a cave and survived, but now, he needed to devise a way to survive the Romans. He was captured by Roman soldiers and brought to Vespasian, who was going to decide his ultimate fate. If he did anything wrong, just one small mistake, he would be finished. However, the smart Josephus came up with an ingenious way to survive Vespasian's wrath.

Marble Busts of Vespasian and Titus

in The British Museum, London, UK

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"You will one day become Roman Emperor"

Facing torture and execution, Josephus devised an ingenious way to persuade Vespasian not to kill him. He made a bold prediction: he prophesized that Vespasian would one day become Emperor. Vespasian was skeptical at the beginning, he had no Royal blood anyway, and no one completely unrelated to the ruling Julio-Claudian Dynasty had ever become a Roman Emperor since the Empire's foundation. To Vespasian, it was a fantasy, he most probably knew very well that Josephus was making things up out of desperation, but somehow he decided to keep Josephus alive. More like a wait-and-see attitude.

After Vespasian decided to spare Josephus' life, he made this former Jewish rebel leader an interpreter and chief negotiator when he advanced to Jerusalem, the base camp of the Jews. Jerusalem was and still is the holiest city in Jewish culture, it was heavily defended by a determined rebel force at all costs. It would be a bloody battle.

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem

Oil painting by 19th Century Scottish painter David Roberts, painted in 1850

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The fateful moment

The Roman Army advanced to Jerusalem in 70 CE, a year that would forever be remembered in World history. The Romans were the undisputed number one when it comes to siege warfare, Jerusalem was quickly surrounded by the Romans and it was completely cut off from supplies and communications with the outside world. to make things worse, the Roman siege coincided with the Jewish festival of Passover, and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were trapped inside.

Before the siege began, the Romans attempted to settle this through peaceful means, and Josephus was the key. Josephus tried repeatedly to negotiate for a surrender to no avail, he was even wounded by an arrow shot from inside the city. As Josephus switched side to the Romans, his fellow Jews considered him a traitor, they would never listen to him. All possible means of peaceful resolution were exhausted, there were no alternatives other than war.

The Roman siege began on 14    April, 70 CE, siege ramps were built and powerful torsion catapults bombarded the city and its fortifications with stones and fire day and night, while food and fresh water quickly ran low in the city. Roman catapults were so powerful that, according to Josephus, a pregnant woman hit by a stone launched by a Roman catapult was not only immediately killed, but the sheer force of impact carried her fetus half a furlong (about 200m) away, and a soldier hit by a similar stone had his head flew out as far as 3 furlongs (600+ m). However, the stone wall was so well-built that they remained unmoved even under heavy continuous bombardments.

The most disturbing chapter of this siege was the story of Mary of Bethezuba, she was probably driven insane by the desperate situation and horrible famine inside the besieged city, where fresh water, food, and weapons were all running low. She murdered her own child and committed an act of cannibalism. The Jews inside the city were so shocked when they learn about this tragedy, and when the news spread to the Roman camp, even battle-hardened Roman soldiers showed similar response. Some Romans could not believe, some felt distressed but some felt even deeper hatred towards the Jews. Even Vespasian had to excuse himself from the responsibility by stating the fact that he had offered peace and it was the Jewish rebels who refused the offer of olive branch.


Architectural Model of the Herodian Temple

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Josephus provided a first-hand eyewitness account of the war because he was personally present at the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. His writing style could be compared to a war journalist. Actually, this was not unprecedented in Western history. For example, Callisthenes the great nephew of Aristotle was appointed the official historian of Alexander the Great and recorded his conquest of the Persian Empire up till his arrest, imprisonment and death in 327 BCE. "The Jewish War" provided minute details when describing military mobilizations and it could often offer the exact date and even hour of important events. That's why even though his account might be biased and contained political propaganda, the book is still widely used and cited as the most valuable historical record of the First Jewish War.

The destruction of the Second Temple

According to War of the Jews Book VI Chapter IV, on the 8th day of month Ab on Jewish calendar (27 or 28   July, 70 CE), two Roman legions completed the bank just outside of the second wall of Jerusalem. Titus had ordered his army to use battering ram before and it had been ramming the wall for 6 days and 6 nights non-stop. However, his effort to bring down the wall was in vain because the wall was simply too strong. Roman army was forced to use ladders and the fierce resistance of Jewish rebels resulted in significant casualties among Roman soldiers. After a bloody battle, the defensive wall of the Temple was finally breached.


After the Temple was about to be captured, the Romans were divided on the final fate of this architectural wonder. Some demanded its destruction due to fear that it might be used as a stronghold if the Jewish people revolt against the Romans in the future. At the same time, Vespasian and Titus were both big fans of architecture. Vespasian would eventually decided to commence the construction of the symbol of Roman civilization: the Colosseum, which would be completed in his son's reign.

The Temple itself was a truly magnificent architectural wonder of its time. The Temple in 70 CE was classified as the "Second Temple". According to the Hebrew Bible, the First Temple was constructed by Solomon the Israeli King of the United monarchy period, ca. 1,000 BCE. It was eventually destroyed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire after the famous king Nebuchadnezzar II captured Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE and sent the Jews into exile. In 539 BCE, Babylon was overthrown by the Persians and the Persian King Cyrus the Great issued an edict to liberate the Jews, allowing them to return to Canaan and to rebuild their Temple. That Temple was completed in 516 BCE and was called the Second Temple.


Five centuries later, Herod the Great began a project of major renovation to the Second Temple in 20/19 BCE. He recruited the most talented engineers from Greece, Rome and Egypt and significantly expanded the dimensions of the exterior of the Temple. Its height was increased to 46 meters, width of the façade also increased to 46 meters. The entire Temple Mount was covered by a 500 meters long, 300 meters wide artificial platform which was almost 10 stories high. More than one million tons of stone was quarried and installed exactly according to architectural blueprints, the largest one was over 600 tons in weight. The sheer scale of this project was unheard of in the entirety of Israeli history. 20,000 foreign labors were employed to build the outer parts and the Temple proper was handled by the priests. When Jesus visited the Temple, the Bible stated that construction had been going on for 46 years but the structure was not yet finished. The entire Temple Mount renovation project toke some 83 years, a full 3 to 4 generations to complete, the completion date was probably 63 CE.


When Roman soldiers lobbied for the destruction of the Temple and the permission to loot its vast treasures, Josephus, himself also a Jew, pleaded Titus not to destroy it. Titus was a cultured man and he agreed to preserve the Temple. However according to eyewitness testimony in "the Jewish War", on 29 or 30    of July, 70 CE, when the final battle for the Temple proper entered the most intense phase of fighting, a Roman soldier threw something on fire into the Temple. Despite the fact that the Temple was built with solid marble, its interior nevertheless contained flammable Cedar woods and insanely expensive blue/purple textile. The Temple proper quickly went up in flame and was burnt down, on the same day as the destruction of the First Temple in Jewish calendar according to Jewish tradition.


When Titus heard the news that the Temple was on fire, he tried his best to control his troops and ordered them to put out the fire. However, his commands were ignored. The siege of the Temple quickly became a one-sided massacre. According to Josephus in his own words:



The slaughter at the Altar

"Now round about the altar lay dead bodies heaped one upon another, as at the steps going up to it ran a great quantity of their blood, whither also the dead bodies that were slain above on the altar fell down."

The Jewish War Book VI, Chapter IV, Section VI.

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The ending of the Great Revolt

10,000 Jewish priests, men, women and children were indiscriminately massacred on the Temple Mount, which is their holiest place. 97,000 prisoners of war were eventually sold as salves and the Menorah made with pure Gold was transferred to Rome and publicly displayed in the triumphal ceremony. This scene was recorded on the relief of the Triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome. Estimates of civilian and military casualties in Jerusalem varied, but the number was high, ranging from 600,000 given by Tacitus to over 1,000,000 by Josephus himself.


After the capture of the Temple, Jewish resistance quickly disintegrated except for the mountain stronghold of Masada, where 967 determined rebels held out against the Roman attack by taking advantage of impenetrable terrain and hostile natural environment nearby.


However, the Romans were still able to construct a gigantic siege ramp to bring siege engines to the top of the almost vertical cliff. The wall was eventually breached on 16    April, 73 CE and the remaining rebels drew lots to slay each other. They had chosen death instead of slavery, quietly stealing the glory of victory from Romans' hands. The archrival of Rome: the Parthian Empire did not intervene because of the non-aggression Treaty of Rhandeia signed 10 years ago in 63 CE after a ceasefire agreement was reached as an aftermath of the Armenian Succession War. The fall of Masada pretty much concluded the First Jewish War which had lasted for 7 years.

However, how much of this dramatic finale of the Great Revolt was historical truth, how much of it was Josephus' imagination? Modern historians have cast a doubt on the historical accuracy of the most dramatic description in this great last battle of the Great Revolt. Unlike the Battle for Jerusalem, Josephus did not witness the siege of Masada in person, he was safely in Rome, the Imperial capital when it happened. Archaeological work done in Masada did not provide strong indications that the Jewish rebels drew lots to kill their comrades on top of the mountain fortress. Therefore, the historical accuracy of this ending scene of the Great Revolt is open to question. Nevertheless, the fortress of Masada still carries special meaning to the nation-building of modern State of Israel. Israeli conscripts still need to ascend to the top of the mountain fortress before dawn during their military training and swear "Masada shall never fall again".


Vespasian and Titus' Triumphal Ceremony

Relief on Arch of Titus, Rome, Italy showing war trophy brought to Rome from Judea, including the Menorah looted from the Temple, made of pure Gold.

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The latter life of Josephus as an author, a historian and a philosopher

After Nero died in 68 CE, Rome was in chaos and there was a rapid succession of Emperors called "Year of the Four Emperors". Vespasian had to lay siege to Rome itself, and after a bloody urban guerrilla battle, he became Roman Emperor, of course with the consent of the Senate. Josephus' prophecy was fulfilled and he was given the Imperial surname "Flavius".


Josephus was granted a luxurious life and he became a scholar. He wrote volumes of books on the Jewish War and Jewish history, including the famous "The Jewish War", "Antiquities of the Jews" and "Against Apion". His works were so important that they survive to these days. He was also a philosopher, an advocate of harmonizing Hellenistic philosophy and Judaism. His books are important sources for historians and archaeologists studying the antiquities of the Jews and Christianity, as his work provided extra-Biblical references to Biblical characters. Josephus died in around 100 CE in his late 50s to early 60s, during the reign of Trajan.

References and footnotes

  1. Josephus (ca. 75) The War of the Jews, translated by William Whiston. Project Gutenberg.

  2. Josephus (ca. 99) The Life of Flavius Josephus, translated by William Whiston. Project Gutenberg.

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