A Traitor's Tale
Imagine if the only account of the American Revolution was written by Benedict Arnold and you get a good idea of what Josephus' history is like. The Jewish War is a contemporary account of the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation in 66-73 AD. In terms of ancient history, The Jewish War is unusually detailed since the author was an active participant in events. Josephus was born in 37 AD, seven years after the crucifixion of Christ, and he was educated as a scholar and priest. Shortly after Judaea erupted in rebellion in May 66 AD, Josephus joined the insurgents and was tasked with organizing the military defense of Galilee. Although the initial Roman effort to suppress the rebellion in late 66 AD failed, the Roman Empire quickly responded to the Jewish revolt. A 50,000 man Roman army under the general Vespasian was assembled in Syria and invaded Galilee in Spring 67 AD. Although Josephus put up a stout defense of the province, Vespasian overran one town after another until Josephus' own stronghold of Jotapata fell in July 67 AD. While most of the Jewish defenders were killed in the final assault or committed mass suicide, Josephus decided to remain alive and collaborate with the all-conquering Romans. Initially Josephus was treated as a prisoner but after demonstrating himself as a willing collaborator, he was treated as a guest. For the remainder of the war, Josephus remained close to the Roman command headquarters and was able to gather insights that he would commit to his history of the war. However it is important to remember that Josephus was a traitor (after the war he settled in Italy), and his desire to flatter his former enemies and to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation are important bias factors that shape the account.
The first six chapters (130 pages) deals mostly with the reign of Herod the Great and the internal power struggles in Judaea in the 1st Century BC. Although this third of the book is only intended to provide the background history of Judaea, it does hammer home the reality of constant struggles for dominance by various factions. Jew on Jew violence was endemic. The seventh chapter covers the period 6 - 58 AD when Judaea came under direct Roman rule due to anarchy in the province after Herod's death. Pontius Pilate, the famous Roman governor of 26-36 AD, is only mentioned in three paragraphs. Jesus Christ is not mentioned at all in this Penguin translation, but the Loeb translation does offer a short section on Christ and John the Baptist. Certainly these chapters are disappointing in the relative lack of detail provided on recent events prior to the revolt, as opposed to the highly-detailed accounts of events that occurred 100-200 years prior.
Josephus' account of the outbreak of the war is a bit confusing. Whether they were revolting for political or religious reasons is unclear. The relative impact of Roman heavy-handedness versus nationalist aspirations is ambiguous. Josephus covers the period May 66 to July 67 AD in great detail, primarily because he was an active commander in Galilee in this period. Most of this account is probably factual, except to where it relates to the author's prowess or the incident in which he was captured.
After Josephus capture, the account then focuses primarily on the rival Jewish factions which attempted to seize power in Jerusalem and the Roman siege of that city. Josephus covers the four-month siege of the capital (summer 70 AD) in great, bloody detail. While the author's claims that over one million Jews died in the siege are greatly exaggerated since the population was only 600,000, there is little doubt that the final capture of the city was a scene of great carnage. Josephus spends great effort to paint the Jewish defenders in the blackest light as impious gangsters, bent only on looting their own city and eliminating all rivals. On the other hand, the Romans are painted in a very favorable light. Both these portrayals are colored by Josephus' circumstances as a traitor (during the siege he repeatedly went to the walls and called on the defenders to surrender).
The siege of Masada is covered in only the last fifteen pages, with little discussion of the Roman assault ramp. This overly-succinct section, which covers the dramatic ending of the war, is disappointing. As military history, The Jewish War does provide interesting lessons. The initial Roman punitive expedition to crush the rebellion failed due to poor planning and hasty execution. Vespasian's campaign was methodical and successful, particularly in eliminating all insurgent towns around Jerusalem before beginning a major siege. The Roman Army fought best in open, set-piece battle but was several times defeated in confused street fighting inside Jerusalem and other towns. Untrained but fanatical enemies can inflict losses on even well prepared regular troops, particularly when the fanatics are cornered and their situation is desperate.
Despite omissions that were included in the Loeb translation, the Penguin editors are to be applauded for the excellent footnotes and appendices covering topics such as money, provincial administration and Jewish bandit factions. The map of Judaea is decent, but the map of Jerusalem does not show surrounding areas where the Romans camped. All in all, The Jewish War is valuable in covering a little-known war at a crucial time, but the author's veracity is often suspect.