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An accessible classic
on 2 May 2008
Having gone through the state education system, I came out of school completely uneducated about things like history and classic literature and I've been trying to rectify this omission for many years. This has resulted in me reading a lot of the classics line, and something I've realised is what hard work many of them are. As times change, so do writing styles and ideas of what makes a narrative work, and to the modern reader many books written hundreds of years past can be a challenging read.
This is why Josephus is such a pleasure. For all that we are separated from him by almost two thousand years, his humanity shines through. His history of the Jewish war against the Romans in the late 1st century AD is very much a history of his own activities therein, and what an unashamedly self-serving document it is. Originally a regional commander in the rebellious jewish army, Josephus wrote his history after his capture by the Romans and defection to their side (he became a Roman citizen and a courtier to more than one emperor). By turns witty, outrageously immodest and deceitful, Josephus wrote a hagiography of himself and his roman patrons and a tremendously enjoyable read it is too. By humanising his narrative, he also succeeds in making it accessible.
We have so few records of the ancient world it is impossible to be absolutely certain how accurate any given historical document is. However, as well as being enjoyable, the archaelogical and historical record suggests that when Josephus talks about the facts of the war (who won and fought who, where and when) he can be trusted in the broad sweep if not in the details.
It's a fascinating and human insight into the ancient world which shows that people, wherever and whenever they lived, are just as human - and as worried about their reputations - as are we.