“I – Josephus, son of Matthias, a Hebrew by race, a native of Jerusalem and a priest, who at the opening of the war myself fought against the Romans and in the sequel was perforce an onlooker – propose to provide the subjects of the Roman Empire with a narrative of the facts, by translating into Greek the account which I previously composed in my vernacular tongue and sent to the barbarians in the interior.”
Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War, Book I, 3, from H. St. J. Thackeray’s translation from the Greek, Loeb Classical Library, 2004.
Were it not for the Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius, who sat down in Rome and wrote the history of the great war of the Jews against the Romans that started in the year 66 CE, then nothing would be known about Masada’s dramatic history.
Joseph son of Mattathias the priest, who is better known by his Roman name Josephus Flavius, arrived in Rome with Titus, the son of Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian), after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Titus had taken over command of the Roman legions in the war from his father, who had been nominated emperor. Later he would succeed his father as the Roman emperor. In accordance with Vespasian’s wishes, around the year 72 CE, Josephus began to write the history of the emperor’s war against the Jews. He finished the work eight or 10 years later, in the beginning of the 80s of the first century CE. He most likely presented drafts of the book to Vespasian in the years 75-79 CE. The first six books probably were finished around the years 79-81 CE, during Titus’s reign. Josephus probably completed the seventh and last book, in which he relates the story of Masada, during the reign of Titus’s successor and brother, Domitian. Once he finished writing the whole work, Josephus wrote an introduction to it.
Josephus was not only a witness to most of the events of the war, but also an active participant in them, at least in the war’s early stages. He also witnessed the vicissitudes of fortune and power that brought Vespasian to the throne. From the time of his capture until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Josephus resided in the Roman military camp as a prisoner of war, translator, and advisor to Titus. Following the conquest of Jerusalem, he traveled to Rome with Titus, witnessed the grand victory parade in honor of the “Captivity of Judea,” and lived in Vespasian’s house (since Vespasian had taken up residence in the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill). Vespasian assigned Josephus the task of describing the events of the war, which he had presided over almost in full, and gave him access to the libraries, archives, and military records on the war.
The introduction to The Jewish War, which includes a summary of each of the book’s chapters, not only was a novelty in the literary world, but also is considered one of the greatest historical introductions ever written. In the introduction, Josephus relates that he first wrote the book in his “vernacular tongue” and sent it to “the barbarians in the interior,” who later in the introduction turn out to be the Parthians, the Babylonians, “the most remote tribes of Arabia,” and “our countrymen beyond the Euphrates and the inhabitants of Adiabene” (Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War, Book I, 6, from H. St. J. Thackeray’s translation from the Greek, Loeb Classical Library, 2004). Josephus’s mission is to persuade the Jews in the east not to join or continue the rebellion and to prevent them from persuading the people of the nations in which they reside to oppose the Romans.
Josephus’s vernacular tongue was without a doubt Aramaic, the popular language in the lands of the Fertile Crescent and the east. Nothing has survived of the original work and many believe that it never existed. He translated the book into Greek, Josephus explains, so that the Romans and Greeks, who did not participate in the war, could learn the truth from a reliable source. It is reasonable to believe that Josephus, as a priest from Jerusalem, spoke Greek and that he translated the book himself. This was not the classical Greek of the fifth century BCE, in which the great Greek works were written, but the main language of communication in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Since the days of Alexander the Great, when the Hellenistic world came into being, Greek had been the language of government, commerce, and military. In Judea during Josephus’s time, the popular language was probably Aramaic, however, the upper classes, the priestly families, and those connected with the ruling power also spoke Greek. It is reasonable to believe that a large proportion of the population, especially the urban population, was bilingual. Latin was not spoken in the Land of Israel and the Hellenistic world, except by the commanders of the Roman army and their soldiers, the governor and procurators, and the lawyers that represented people before the government.
From Joseph to Josephus
Joseph ben Mattathias, born in 37 CE, was the scion of a wealthy, well-connected priestly family from Jerusalem. On his mother’s side, he even was related to the royal Hasmonean dynasty. In 64 CE, he was sent to Rome to plead, before the emperor Nero, the case of two Jewish priests who had been sent to Rome for sentencing. In Rome, he befriended a Jewish actor named Aliturus, who participated in plays performed for the emperor. Through Aliturus, he got to know Nero’s wife, Poppaea Sabina, and tried to enlist her help to get the priests released. After two years in Rome, he returned to Jerusalem. The year was 66 CE and the city was on the verge of rebellion.
Even though ben Mattathias was a scion of the wealthy, pampered priestly class, the rebellion that he describes was not only a rebellion against Rome. It was, first and foremost, a social revolution: a conflict between the poor classes and the wealthy, privileged priests and families connected to the royal dynasty; between the capital and the periphery; and between popular leaders from the rural areas of Judea and the priesthood that dominated the positions of power. When the ruling leadership did not succeed in quelling the violent outbreaks in Jerusalem, it decided to join the rebellion in order to take control of it and bring it to a quick end from within. Ben Mattathias was selected to be the commander of the Galilee, a crucial area since it was where the Roman legions would first make their appearance in Judea. Officially, as he introduced himself to the Galilean rebels, he was entrusted with preparing the Galilee for war, but his preparations were not serious and most of the Galilean rebel leaders, especially John of Giscala, harbored suspicions about ben Mattathias’s true motives.
Nero entrusted the 63-year-old Vespasian with the task of quelling the rebellion. Vespasian was one of Nero’s most experienced commanders; he already had a long, tumultuous military career by this point. He had taken part in the invasion of the British Isles, but was sent to retirement after incurring the enmity of emperor Claudius’s wife. Nero recalled him from retirement and appointed him governor of North Africa, a task that he filled successfully. On returning from North Africa, he joined Nero’s retinue, but after falling asleep at one of the emperor’s recitals, he was again retired from political life. After the rebels in Judea defeated the governor of Syria, however, Nero was left with no choice: an army had to be fielded and Vespasian was the only experienced general who could command it without endangering the emperor. Nero put four legions, a total of 120,000 men, at Vespasian’s disposal and sent him to quell the rebellion before it got out of hand. Vespasian nominated his son Titus as his second in command. Vespasian’s army of 120,000 soon found itself facing some 50,000 Jewish rebels.
After organizing his troops in Alexandria and Acre, Vespasian advanced towards the town of Sepphoris on the main road between Acre and Tiberias. Sepphoris opened its gates to the Roman army, and Vespasian decided not to continue on the main road to Tiberias, but to detour to Yodefat, a small town in the mountains above Sepphoris that was serving as ben Mattathias’s headquarters. After a protracted siege, the Romans managed to break through the town walls. Ben Mattathias and 40 of the town’s leaders took refuge in a cave, where ben Mattathias persuaded them to commit suicide instead of falling prisoner to the Romans. Like at Masada, ben Mattathias relates, the order for doing so was determined by drawing lots. When only ben Mattathias and one other leader remained alive in the cave, ben Mattathias persuaded his companion that they should give themselves up to the Romans instead of committing suicide. When they emerged from the cave, the soldiers recognized ben Mattathias immediately and took him to Vespasian. The Jewish priest and commander of the Galilee then prophesied that Vespasian would be nominated emperor. Vespasian, who was superstitious like most Romans, spared ben Mattathias’s life and kept him in the camp as a prisoner of war.
The truth behind this tale never will be known. One cannot help but wonder if the wealthy families of Jerusalem sent ben Mattathias to the Galilee to negotiate its surrender and that when he did not succeed in alleviating the local rebels’ suspicions, he decided to give himself up and join the Roman camp.
On June 9, 68 CE, before the rebellion ended, Nero killed himself. The death of the emperor, the first Roman ruler to commit suicide, led to a bid for power by four Roman commanders, one after the other, who were declared emperors by the legions under their command. Ben Mattathias joined Vespasian, who traveled from Caesarea to Alexandria, where, on July 1, 69 CE, the legions of the east declared Vespasian emperor of Rome, the last of the four emperors of the year 69 CE. Vespasian then left for Rome and ben Mattathias returned to Judea with Titus to continue the war. A few months later, after the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem, which signaled the end of the rebellion, he left for Rome with Titus.
In the capital of the empire, ben Mattathias, who had adopted the name of his benefactor and now was known as Josephus Flavius, witnessed the grand triumphal parade in which thousands of Jewish captives, including leaders of the rebellion, carried the treasures of the Temple in Jerusalem to the Capitoline Hill, to be offered as tribute to the gods of Rome, before being put to death. In Rome, Josephus prepared to write the history of the war. He went over military reports, checked official documents, and probably also interviewed military commanders. It was during this period that Josephus also enhanced his rhetorical skills (skills that he puts to good use in the many speeches in his writings) and took the time to learn classical Greek, as was customary among authors in Rome in the first century CE.
Josephus reports that he was allocated a staff to help him prepare his works. Some scholars believe that his books were not actually written by him, but by his assistants. However, the image of a torn soul, of a Jew proud of his ancestral heritage who is enthralled by the wonders of the wide imperial world and the abilities of the Romans, emerges from every chapter of these books.
Even though Josephus was influenced by his imperial patrons and his personal leanings, he still was a competent historian. He mentions in his works that the great fifth- and third-century BCE historians, Thucydides and Polybius, are his role models. He also explains that he took the material about the Hasmoneans and Herod from the works of Nicolaus of Damascus, a writer, diplomat, and playwright who had been a close advisor of Herod and wrote a history of the world. The works of Nicolaus are mentioned in a few other ancient works and from them it is known that Nicolaus, like Josephus, wrote in Greek.
During the 30 years that Josephus lived in Rome, his personal life was scarred with unhappiness. While he was still a captive in Judea, Vespasian gave him a captive Jewish woman as a spouse. Even though Jewish religious law forbids priests to marry captives of war, Josephus writes that he complied because the order came from Vespasian. When Vespasian and he left Judea for Alexandria, he divorced his captive wife and married a Jewish woman from Alexandria. He and his new wife had three children, two of whom died in childhood; only the third, their son Hyrcanus, survived. In Rome, he divorced his second wife because he was “not pleased with her behaviour,” Josephus writes in his autobiography (Josephus Flavius, The Life, from William Whiston’s translation from the Greek). He then married a third time, this time to a scion of a wealthy Jewish family from Crete. They had two children: Justus and Simonides, who also was known as Agrippa.
In Rome, Josephus had enemies in both Jewish and Roman circles. The Jews saw him as a traitor, the Romans as a collaborator with the rebels. Time and again, they tried to discredit him before Vespasian and Titus, who inherited the throne from his father. The Flavian emperors, whose name Josephus adopted, not only defended him, but also had his detractors killed in most cases.
Thirteen years after Josephus finished writing The Jewish War, he came out with his major work, Antiquities of the Jews, in which he recounts the history of the Jewish people up to the outbreak of the rebellion. It was published in the thirteenth year of the reign of Domitian, Titus’s successor. Domitian, the last of the Flavian emperors, was known for his cruelty and was murdered in the year 98 CE. It is unclear what became of Josephus upon the end of the Flavian dynasty; he probably passed away near the end of Domitian’s reign or a few years later.
The Jewish War
In first-century Rome, it was customary to read works of merit in public and hold discussions on them. However, Josephus and his writings are not mentioned in relation to events such as these. Furthermore, even though the Jewish community in Rome was large and well established at that time, Josephus makes no mention in his works of any figure from this community, in which synagogue he prayed, or of having any connection with the Jews of the city. Josephus is not mentioned in any of the many sources that have been preserved from that period. It was the church, not his fellow Jews, that preserved his work and it apparently did so solely due to the fact that he writes about the period that was presented in the New Testament. Josephus even mentions the brother of Jesus in a paragraph that has been enhanced from time to time, by the Christian scribes who copied it, to prove Jesus’ divinity.
Until the third century BCE, literary works were written on papyrus scrolls. The texts were written without punctuation marks and each line was filled with words. Upon filling up an entire line, the scribe simply continued to write the word on the next line, even in the middle of a word. In the third century BCE, parchment came into use and eventually the sheets of parchment were bound together in codices. Parchment works were written with punctuation marks and had spaces between sentences. Very few papyri have survived to this day; those that have are mostly ones that were hidden in the dry deserts of Egypt, the Sinai, and the Judean Desert.
Starting in the fourth century CE, manuscripts were copied by monks and scholars in the Byzantine Empire and were kept in monasteries, churches, and libraries. When Islam started to conquer the Byzantine Empire, these literary treasures were removed to the west for safekeeping in places like the Vatican library and the grand libraries of Florence, Milan, and Paris. Seven manuscripts of Josephus’s works have survived in these libraries: four manuscripts are in the library of the Vatican, one is in Florence, one is in Paris, and one is in Milan. The manuscripts, which are from the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, are not exactly identical.
The first scientific publications of Josephus’s works began to appear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the fifth century CE, Rufinus of Aqueila translated part of Josephus’s works into Latin. Almost a millennium later, in 1470 in Augsburg, Germany, this translation became the first work by Josephus to appear in print. The first translations into German and English were printed in the seventeenth century. One of the most important of these translations was done by Thomas Lodge, a doctor and poet from London who published the first English edition of Josephus in 1602. Additional editions appeared in 1609 and 1620, before Lodge died in the London Plague in 1625. In 1700, Roger L’Estrange published a new English translation, which was so popular that it was reprinted five times in the next four decades.
The most important English translation was published in 1737 by William Whiston; it is considered the most popular translation of Josephus to date. Whiston was the first to divide Josephus’s books into chapters, numbering the chapters and adding a short summary at the beginning of each one.
After analyzing the Greek manuscripts, Benedict Niese, a German professor of linguistics, put together the most important critical version of Josephus’s works. Niese numbered each sentence in Josephus, with a separate numbering for each one of the books in each one of the different works. This numbering, which appears in all the following translations of Josephus, is used by scholars to compare different versions and different translations.
The first Hebrew translation of The Jewish War was the work of Kalman Shulman in Vilna in 1859. However, he did not translate it from the original Greek, but from a translation into German. The first Hebrew translation of The Jewish War from the original Greek was the work of Jacob Naftali Hertz Simchoni and it was published in Warsaw in 1929. Two more Hebrew translations soon followed, first by Alexander Schor in 1939 and then by Samuel Haggai in 1967.
A Rock Called Masada
The final chapters of the last book of The Jewish War describe the siege of Masada. Many scholars believe that this final book was not written as part of the original monolithic description of the war, which culminates in the fall and destruction of Jerusalem.
After the conquest of Jerusalem, it seemed that a few areas still remained that were not subdued, especially south of Jerusalem in the Judean Desert and around the Dead Sea. Therefore, a new commander was sent to Judea, Lucilius Bassus, who “received the army from Cerealis Vitellianus, and took that citadel which was in Herodium, together with the garrison that was in it; after which he got together all the soldiery that was there, (which was a large body, but dispersed into several parties,) with the tenth legion, and resolved to make war upon Machaerus; for it was highly necessary that this citadel should be demolished, lest it might be a means of drawing away many into a rebellion” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 163-165, Thackeray).
Following a difficult battle, Machaerus, which is on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, surrendered; some of the rebels escaped and other were killed. Bassus then led his legions to a forest called Jardes, where a pitched battle was waged against a large contingent of rebels. The battle claimed the lives of 3,000 Jews, including their commander, Judas son of Ari, who some sources refer to as Judas ben Ya’ir and perhaps was a relative of Eleazar ben Ya’ir, the commander of Masada. Judas had commanded a company during the siege of Jerusalem and secretly escaped through the drainage tunnels that ran under the city.
Josephus then relates that Bassus had died and was succeeded in the governorship of Judea by Flavius Silva, “who, seeing the whole country now subjugated by the Roman arms, with the exception of one fortress still in revolt, concentrated all forces in the district and marched against it. This fortress was called Masada; and the Sicarii who had occupied it had at their head a man of influence named Eleazar” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 252-253, Thackeray).
Eleazar ben Ya’ir, the commander of Masada, was much more than a “man of influence.” He was a descendant of Judas the Galilean, who hailed from Gamla on the Golan. One of the leaders of Jewish resistance to Rome, Judas founded the faction that Josephus calls, “The Fourth Philosophy,” a faction that refused to accept Roman rule because God was the only master. The adherents of this philosophy eventually became known as Sicarii for the small double-edged dagger known as the sica that they carried, concealed in their cloaks.
The Sicarii’s outlook on life was the complete opposite of that of Josephus and the priestly leadership to which he belonged. While Josephus’s world advocated reconciliation with the Roman conquerors, the Sicarii were determined to resist at all costs. Josephus describes in detail the maliciousness of the Sicarii, their wish to take control of the rebellion, their attempt to rule over their brethren, and their cruel murders of their opponents.
Josephus relates that the rebellion broke out after Judas the Galilean’s son Menahem led a group of Sicarii, whose members were “some of the most ardent promoters of hostilities” (The Jewish War, Book II, 408, Thackeray), to Masada. They surprised the Roman garrison on the mountain, slaying the Roman soldiers and taking over the fortress that Herod had built. Meanwhile, the situation in Jerusalem spiraled out of control. Eleazar, the captain of the Temple guard and the son of the high priest, Ananias, ceased offering the daily temple sacrifice on behalf of the Roman emperor, an act that was considered sedition against Rome.
The ruling priestly elite tried to persuade the rebels to renew the sacrifices and attempted to restore order, with the aid of soldiers of king Agrippa II, Herod’s great-grandson. However, the Sicarii infiltrated the crowd that had gathered and started stabbing those who opposed the rebellion. The rebels set the house of the high priest on fire, together with the palace of the Hasmonean royalty and the archive, where the deeds, bonds, and records of debt were kept as the rebels were “eager to destroy the money-lenders’ bonds and to prevent the recovery of debts, in order to win over a host of grateful debtors and to cause a rising of the poor against the rich” (The Jewish War, Book II, 427-428, Thackeray). The elite, together with Agrippa’s soldiers and the Roman garrison, managed to retain control of the great Antonia fortress, which overlooked the Temple precinct and the three fortified towers to the north of Herod’s palace.
Meanwhile, Menahem and his followers broke into the armory at Masada, which Herod had stocked with weapons several generations earlier. They returned to Jerusalem fully armed and gained control of the fortified positions in the city. When the Roman garrison agreed to surrender, the Sicarii slaughtered them all and Menahem took control of the rebellion. The remaining opponents to the rebellion hid in the drainage tunnels underneath the city, but Menahem ferreted them out and had all of them murdered, including Ananias the high priest and his brother Ezechias.
The cruelty of Menahem and his followers, coupled with the murder of the high priest, split the rebel forces. Eleazar, the captain of the Temple guard, together with his men, attacked the Sicarii as they made their way to the Temple. Menahem and his followers were murdered. A few managed to hide and some, including Menahem’s nephew Eleazar ben Ya’ir, escaped Jerusalem to Masada, where they remained until the end of the rebellion.
Josephus returns to describing the events at Masada only when Silva advanced against Eleazar, “promptly making himself master of the whole district, [Silva] established garrisons at the most suitable points, threw up a wall all round the fortress, to make it difficult for any of the besieged to escape, and posted sentinels to guard it” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 275, Thackeray). Here Josephus stops the narrative and describes the wonders and strength of the fortress. It was originally built by “Jonathan the high priest,” he relates. Herod the Great, however, is the one who deserves credit for transforming Masada into a sturdy fortress. He built it “as a refuge for himself, suspecting a twofold danger: peril on the one hand from the Jewish people, lest they should depose him and restore their former dynasty to power; the greater and more serious from Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. For she never concealed her intention, but was constantly importuning Antony, urging him to slay Herod, and praying him to confer on her the throne of Judea…. It was such fears that drove Herod to fortify Masada, which he was destined to leave to the Romans as a final task in their war with the Jews” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 300-303, Thackeray). Josephus also describes the narrow, dangerous approaches to the mountaintop, the water systems that supplied its defenders with ample water, and the storerooms generously stocked with sufficient food and wine to sustain besieged inhabitants for many years as well as the wonderful palace that Herod had built that hangs from the cliff.
Since the Roman army had held Masada for decades, Silva already was familiar with the site and its advantages. He proceeded to surround Masada with a siege wall and set up a series of camps around it for his soldiers. Silva then turned his attention, in accordance with Roman battle strategy, to building a ramp to the mountain on which a battering ram could be mounted. Josephus details the ramp’s exact location: “in rear of the tower which barred the road leading from the west to the palace and the ridge, was a projection of rock, of considerable breadth and jutting far out, but still three hundred cubits below the elevation of Masada; it was called Leuce [white cliff]” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 305, Thackeray). After harnessing “a will and a multitude of hands” to the task, the ramp reached the height of 200 cubits, which was still not sufficient for the siege engines, and so “on top of it was constructed a platform of great stones fitted closely together, fifty cubits broad and as many high.” In addition to the platform on top of the ramp, a 60-cubit tower was built, “entirely cased in iron, from which the Romans by volleys of missiles from numerous quick-firers and ballistae quickly beat off the defenders on the ramparts and prevented them from showing themselves” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 305-309, Thackeray). At the same time, Silva turned a great battering ram toward the wall. Working nonstop, the battering ram finally succeeded, with difficulty, in breaching the wall.
Victory, however, was not yet in Silva’s hands. The Sicarii had built another wall inside the breach that consisted of a frame of great beams of wood filled with earth. A battering ram was useless against such a wall since each blow merely solidified the earth within the wooden frame.
“Observing this, Silva, thinking it easier to destroy this wall by fire, ordered his soldiers to hurl at it showers of burning torches. Being mainly made of wood, it quickly caught fire.… At the first outbreak of the fire, a north wind which blew in the faces of the Romans caused them an alarm; for, diverting the flame from above, it drove it against them, and the fear that all their engines would be burnt up had almost reduced them to despair. Then suddenly the wind veered, as if by divine providence, to the south and blowing with full force in the opposite direction, wafted and flung the flames against the wall, which now through and through was all ablaze. The Romans, thus blessed by God’s aid, returned rejoicing to their camp, with the determination of attacking the enemy on the morrow; and throughout that night they kept stricter watch lest any of them should secretly escape” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 317-319, Thackeray).
Josephus pauses here, for dramatic literary effect, and then continues, “However, neither did Eleazar himself contemplate flight, nor did he intend to permit any other to do so” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 320, Thackeray). Instead Eleazar gathered his people and delivered one of the most famous speeches in the history of Israel. He began it by praising their courage and steadfastness, declaring, “Long since, my brave men, we determined neither to serve the Romans nor any other save God… For as we were the first of all to revolt, so are we the last in arms against them” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 323-324, Thackeray). He then explained to his people what their fate will be becoming Roman slaves, people without freedom, but that, “I believe that it is God who has granted us this favour, that we have it in our power to die nobly and in freedom” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 325, Thackeray).
Eleazar touched the hearts of his followers with his stirring words: “Our fate at break of day is certain capture, but there is still the free choice of a noble death with those we hold most dear…. Maybe, indeed, we ought from the very first – when, having chosen to assert our liberty, we invariably experienced such hard treatment from one another, and still harder from our foes – we ought, I say, to have read God’s purpose and to have recognized that the Jewish race, once beloved of Him, has been doomed to perdition. For had he continued to be gracious, or but lightly incensed, he would never have overlooked such wholesale destruction or have abandoned His most holy city to be burnt and razed to the ground by our enemies. But did we forsooth hope that we alone of all the Jewish nation would survive and preserve our freedom…? Mark, now, how He exposes the vanity of our expectations…. For not even the impregnable nature of this fortress has availed to save us; nay, though ample provisions are ours [and]piles of arms… we have been deprived, manifestly by God Himself, of all hope of deliverance. For it was not of their own accord that those flames which were driving against the enemy turned back upon the wall constructed by us; no, all this betokens wrath at the many wrongs which we madly dared to inflict upon our countrymen. The penalty for those crimes let us pay not to our bitterest foes, the Romans, but to God through the act of our own hands…. Let our wives thus die undishonoured, our children unacquainted with slavery; and when they are gone, let us render a generous service to each other, preserving our liberty as a noble winding-sheet. But first let us destroy our chattels and the fortress by fire.… Our provisions only let us spare; for they will testify, when we are dead, that it was not want which subdued us, but that, in keeping with our initial resolve, we preferred death to slavery” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 326-336, Thackeray).
Despite the power of his words, Eleazar’s companions, gathered in the darkness of that last night, were not persuaded to kill their families and themselves. Undeterred, Eleazar gathered his strength to deliver another speech in which he summarized the events of the rebellion, presenting one of the most dramatic descriptions in the annals of historic literature, until he was “cut short by his hearers, who, overpowered by some uncontrollable impulse, were all in haste to do the deed. Like men possessed they went their way, each eager to outstrip his neighbour… so ardent the passion that had seized them to slaughter their wives, their little ones and themselves.… inflexibly they held to the resolution…. For, while they caressed and embraced their wives and took their children in their arms, clinging in tears to those parting kisses, at that same instant, as though served by hands other than their own, they accomplished their purpose.… all carried through their task with their dearest ones. Wretched victims of necessity, to whom to slay with their own hands their own wives and children seemed the lightest of evils! Unable, indeed, any longer to endure their anguish at what they had done, and feeling that they wronged the slain by surviving them if it were but for a moment, they quickly piled together all their stores and set them on fire; then, having chosen by lot ten of their number to dispatch the rest, they laid themselves down each beside his prostrate wife and children, and, flinging their arms around them, offered their throats in readiness for the executants of the melancholy office. These, having unswervingly slaughtered all, ordained the same rule of the lot for one another, that he on whom if fell should slay first the nine and then himself last of all.… the last solitary survivor, after surveying the prostrate multitude, to see … there were yet one left who needed his hand, and finding that all were slain, set the palace ablaze, and then collecting his strength drove his sword clean through his body and fell beside his family. They had died in the belief that they had left not a soul of them alive to fall into Roman hands; but an old woman and another, a relative of Eleazar, superior in sagacity and training to most of her sex, with five children, escaped by concealing themselves in the subterranean aqueducts…. The victims numbered nine hundred and sixty, including women and children; and the tragedy occurred on the fifteenth of the month of Xanthicus [the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Nissan, which is the eve of Passover]” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 389-401, Thackeray).
The next morning, the Roman forces ascended to the fortress and broke through the remainder of the breach in the wall.
“Seeing none of the enemy but on all sides an awful solitude” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 403, Thackeray), they shouted loudly, so loudly that the women and children hidden in the water cisterns heard them. The hidden emerged from their shelter and told the Roman conquerors of “both the speech and how the deed was done. But it was with difficulty that they listened to her, incredulous of such amazing fortitude; meanwhile they endeavored to extinguish the flames and soon cutting a passage through them entered the palace. Here encountering the mass of slain, instead of exulting as over enemies, they admired the nobility of their resolve and the contempt of death displayed by so many in carrying it, unwavering, into execution” (The Jewish War, Book VII, 404-406, Thackeray).
Thus the rebellion ended.
“For not an enemy remained throughout the country, the whole having now been subdued by this protracted war,” Josephus concludes (The Jewish War, Book VII, 408, Thackeray).
The New Translation
In 2009, the Carmel Publishing House released a new translation into Hebrew of The Jewish War. The translation is the work of Lisa Ullmann, who dedicated a decade to completing it.
The Jewish War is an important book for Jews all over the world – and especially in the Land of Israel – because it is a contemporary description of the last time prior to the establishment of the State of Israel that Jews lived independently in the Land of Israel, Ullmann explained in an interview with ERETZ Magazine in 2009 upon the publication of her translation shortly after her eighty-sixth birthday. Even though most of the Jewish population was not exiled after the rebellion – indeed, some 60 years later, many of the remaining Jews rebelled against Rome again – this was the last time that an independent Jewish entity existed. The book is important not only because it sheds light on this period, but also because its author took part in many of the events that he describes and witnessed them from both the Jewish and the Roman side.
“When you translate, going carefully over the text,” Ullmann said, “you get to know the person who wrote it.”
Josephus was a tormented soul, she said, torn between the Romans and his own people. His phrasing twists around trying to explain and excuse what had happened. He is actually telling readers his own story, that of a Jew, a privileged priest, who was suddenly cast into a social and military rebellion that he did not want and whose consequences he feared.
Not all were rebels, Josephus repeats again and again, most wanted peace and not the events that were forced upon them by tyrants and extremists. On the other hand, Josephus must satisfy his Roman benefactors, to whom he owed his life.
There is no objective history, especially not when it is written by an active participant, Ullmann noted. Many of the narratives in the book raise doubts as to whether they really happened. On the other hand, the book was written when participants in the war – soldiers, commanders, and administrators – still were alive, some of them even living in Rome. They could have denounced the book as false were Josephus to stretch the truth too far. The account of Josephus’s escape from the cave at Yodefat does not sound credible. Nor do some of the battle narratives in which Roman bravery or mercy are highlighted. A critical reader cannot refrain from wondering what really happened in Magdala on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Josephus relates that the Jews took to the water in a fleet of fishing vessels and Titus managed to save the day in a grand naval battle.
The mass suicide at Masada raises similar doubts. Josephus writes of three mass suicides that are very similar to each other: in the cave at Yodefat; at Gamla on the Golan; and at Masada. The last two were both Sicarii strongholds. In both of these places, passionate speeches were delivered, crafted along the best lines of Roman rhetoric; in both places, the wind – a manifestation of God’s will – changed direction at the last minute and turned the flames away from the Romans towards the Jews; and in both places, a few people survived the suicide to tell the Romans what had happened.
The Jewish War ends with the suicide of the Sicarii at Masada and the flight of the last of the Sicarii to Alexandria and North Africa.
Despite the doubts that some passages raise, Josephus’s central message is clear: rebelling against Rome is suicidal. It does not matter if everything really happened as he describes. The Jewish War has a well-defined purpose, which is clearly presented in Josephus’s introduction to the book: to prevent others from rebelling against Rome. This message is woven throughout the book.
Yet, what really happened on Masada on that night of the fifteenth of Nisan, 19 centuries ago? It is unlikely that anyone ever will know. Josephus’s narrative is full of loopholes. When exactly did the battle at Masada take place? Why did the Romans, two or three years after the destruction of Jerusalem, suddenly decide to put an end to this tiny ember of Jewish independence in the Judean Desert? Why, after breaching the wall, did the Romans return to their camps? On the surface, it seems as if Josephus is trying to create a time slot in the narrative into which he could insert the suicide. Why did a few women survive, including one who is more learned? Maybe Josephus needs them to tell the Romans what happened during that last night on the mountain and repeat the speeches – speeches whose philosophical perspective would, without a doubt, never have been uttered by a Jew as religious as Eleazar ben Ya’ir. Mountains of material has been written in the last 80 years on these ponderings. However, as plausible as some of the alternative explanations may seem, it must be remembered that the only existing description of those last days at Masada is the one written by Josephus in The Jewish War.