It’s (Not Quite) All True: Josephus – The Jewish War

The Jewish WarThe Jewish War by Josephus 

(trans. G.A. Williamson, revised with notes by Mary Smallwood)


Generally, the winning side wrote Roman history. When Carthage and Rome clashed or when Caesar ran amok through Gaul, Hannibal and Vercingetorix didn’t get to tell their sides of the story. Instead we know it through Caesar (previously reviewed here) and Livy (previously reviewed here, here and here). Essentially, the Romans wrote their own stories, either as propaganda, popular history or for moral teaching. Hell, they even made up their own origin story.

Indeed, the few ancient writers who’ve come down to us generally came through the Romans somehow, from their adoption of Greek history to the Byzantine Empire’s preservation of writers through the dark ages. Everything has a bit of a Roman spin to it. Which makes Josephus’ history of the Jewish War so interesting.

Josephus was a Jewish priest and general in the early stages of that war. He commanded some soldiers and, by his own account, was the only general with any success. But he was captured in the siege of Jotapata and quickly turned to the Roman side. He was clever, verbose and absolutely full of himself. His history is a fascinating mix of fact, score settling and outright fiction. Not only does it cover a period of history just about completely unknown outside of it, it tells it in an entertaining and gripping way. The problem is how Josephus never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.

Josephus opens his book with a short history of the Jews in ancient Palestine, ranging up through the rise of King Herod to Rome seizing control of the idea during the civil wars. His account of King Herod is interesting and wild stuff: murderous plots, backstabbing and the king slowly drifting into madness. In Josephus’ telling. it has all the elements of a classical tragedy. If it actually worked out this way is another matter, but I’ll get to that in a second.

The bulk of the book covers the Romans crushing the Jewish rebellion of the late 60s AD, climaxing with the siege of Jerusalem. From Josephus’ angle, it’s a grim story about a group who couldn’t stop fighting each other to unite against a common enemy. Instead, several rival factions – the Sicarii, Zealots and other ‘bandits’ – plotted against each other, killing leaders and setting traps for each other. Against the Romans, a tight and disciplined army, these squabbling groups barely had a chance. But they held on as long as possible, almost to the last man.

As a military historian, Josephus wasn’t overly concerned with tactics or troop formations. But what his history lacks in details he more than makes up for splashes of colour. Take his long look at the siege: the city runs red with blood, the bodies fill the valleys just outside the town and the people inside fall to calamitous depths.: murder, suicide even cannibalism.

Take this selection from the fall of Masada, one of the final Jewish strongholds against the Romans:

“ In the end, not a man failed to carry out his terrible resolve, but one and all disposed of their entire families, victims of cruel necessity who with their own hands murdered their wives and children and felt it to be the lightest of all evils… and when ten of them had been chosen by lot to be the executioners of the rest, every man flung himself down beside his wife and children where they lay, put his arms around them and exposed his throat to those who must perform the painful office.” (pg 404)

Tragic stuff, eh? The kind of melodramatic sacrifice the ancients loved (compare it to Herodotus’ account of Thermopylae). Of course it raises a basic question: if the Jews in Masada fell to a man, how would Josephus known what happened?

This is where editor E. Mary Smallwood really comes in handy. She’s written a lengthy introduction that explains who Josephus was and sets up his times and aims. But she really shines in the many footnotes at the back of this volume. Sometimes she explains a tricky piece of translation or an obscure reference. But at others she slyly contradicts Josephus’ many departures from fact and flights into invention.

For example, on the above quote Smallwood notes that a few people survived by hiding in the sewers, but would hardly have been in position to witness details like the drawing of lots. In many places, she’s quick to point out Josephus’ inventions and explains how other ancient writers like Thucydides influenced him and his wholesale invention of speeches.

At the same time, the translation by G.A. Williamson is nice. It’s clear, flows well and never gets too lost in jargon. At times it does fall back into British cliches and a passive voice, but those are minor nitpicks. It certainly doesn’t come across as dated or stiff, even if it’s well over 50 years old.
Rating: 7/10. On the whole, Josephus tells a gripping, dramatic history of a failed Jewish rebellion, crushed by the Roman Empire and an ascending Vespasian. While he’s a little fast and loose with the truth, it’s probably worth noting writers like Livy were too and nobody really holds it against them. It makes his story a little more confusing, but with a good editor like E. Mary Smallwood, it also makes his work leap off the page. Recommended, especially for those who enjoyed Tacitus, Livy or Herodotus.

(For more classical history, please check out the list of books reviewed! I’ve got tons in there, from Tacitus to Livy to Plutarch!)


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