Originally born Joseph ben Matthias in Jerusalem, Titus Flavius Josephus was a Jewish military commander and then historian. He was of priestly and royal descent, educated in both Hebrew and Greek literature. At age 16, he went into the desert, staying with the hermit Bannus; after this, he joined the Pharisees, and in 66 A.D., he reluctantly (or so he claims) took part in the Jewish revolt against Rome. After the Roman siege of Jotapata, Josephus, who as governor of Galilee led its defense, was captured and imprisoned in a Roman camp. He was later freed by the emperor Vespasian and became a Roman citizen. Adopting the Vespasian family name of Flavius, Josephus endeavored to act as a mediator between the Romans and the Jews during the assault on Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70. His attempts at mediation were unsuccessful, as he was distrusted by both the Jews as a traitor and the Romans for being a Jew. Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed by the Roman legions. Josephus returned to Rome where, with imperial patronage, he dedicated himself to writing until his death, sometime between 93 and 100 A.D..
Josephus wrote several works including the Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94; a history of the Jewish people from the Creation to 66 A.D., in 20 books), an Autobiography (c. 99), and Against Apion (c. 97; a defense of the Jewish people and their religion), but he is perhaps best known for his historical account of the Jewish revolt against Rome, The Jewish War (75–79). Much of the account of the revolt is taken from Josephus’ firsthand experiences. The influence of his Hebrew and Greek education, and of his Greek assistants, is also evident in its pages. Perhaps in an effort to defend himself against charges of treason, Josephus paints the Jews as their own worst enemies for being unwilling to bow to Roman might. While Josephus’ historical writings suffer from inaccuracy and frequent exaggeration, and while the details of matters affecting himself, as in the accounts of suicide presented here, may be particularly unreliable—probably at least in part a fabrication designed to please his Roman masters—they nevertheless provide a direct look at the relationship between the Jews and the secular Roman world.
The first of the two selections from The Jewish War is an account of the siege of the fortress of Jotapata. Josephus, the military leader at the fortress, successfully held off a Roman assault for 47 days, but the city fell to Vespasian on July 20, 67. Josephus hid for safety in a cave with 40 other Jews. When discovered by the Romans three days later, Josephus was on the point of surrendering, but his companions urged him to die rather than do so: “we will lend you a right hand and a sword.” Josephus tried to persuade them of the wrongness of suicide; his discourse is presented here, replete with Greek arguments against suicide. He alludes to the Athenian law that the hand of a suicide was to be cut off and buried separately and to a variation of the Pythagorean argument used by Plato that man is the property of God and should not “fly from the best of masters.” He also anticipates a natural-law argument later used by Thomas Aquinas that everything seeks to keep itself in being. Nevertheless, Josephus’ companions insisted on death. Josephus quickly devised a plan whereby each surrendered his throat to one before him, and Josephus, one of the last two in line, escaped.
The second selection is Josephus’ account of the siege of the fortress of Masada. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the fortress—built in a seemingly impregnable position at the top of a massive rock promontory on the western shore of the Dead Sea—became one of the last outposts for the Jewish nationalists known as the Zealots. On May 2, 73, during a major offensive by the Roman army, 960 Zealot revolutionaries under the command of Eleazar chose to commit mass suicide rather than to yield to the Roman attack. Eleazar’s arguments favoring suicide are counterparts to those Josephus had used against it: voluntary death gives liberty to the soul; it preserves honor and protects the pride of the Jewish nation; it spares one’s family and oneself from slavery and torture if captured. Incited by Eleazar, each husband killed his wife and children and was then killed by the next man in line; the last man willingly killed himself. Only two women and five children, hiding in the underground aqueducts, survived to tell the tale.
Josephus, The Jewish War, tr. H. St. J. Thackeray, London: William Heinemann; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927, Vol. 2 (I-III), 1927; Vol. 3 (IV-V), 1928, odd-numbered pp. Vol. 2, 665-689, Vol. 3, 591-619. Book III: The Defeat at Jotapata; Book VII: The Fall of Masada.
from THE JEWISH WAR
The Defeat at Jotapata
Meanwhile the defenders of Jotapata were still holding out and beyond all expectation bearing up under their miseries, when on the forty-seventh day of the siege the earthworks of the Romans overtopped the wall. That same day a deserter reported to Vespasian the reduced numbers and strength of the defence, and that, worn out with perpetual watching and continuous fighting, they would be unable longer to resist a vigorous assault and might be taken by stratagem, if the attempt were made. He stated that about the last watch of the night-• an hour when they expected some respite from their sufferings and when jaded men easily succumb to morning slumber -the sentinels used to drop asleep; and that was the hour when he advised the Romans to attack. Vespasian, knowing the Jews’ loyalty to each other and their indifference to chastisement, regarded the deserter with suspicion. For on a former occasion a man of Jotapata who .had been taken prisoner had held out under every variety of torture, and, without betraying to the enemy a word about the state of the town, even under the ordeal of fire, was finally crucified, meeting death with a smile. However, the probability of his account lent credit to the traitor; and so, thinking that the man might be speaking the truth, and that, even if his story were a trap, no serious risk would be run by acting upon it, Vespasian ordered him into custody and made ready his army for the capture of the city.
At the hour named they advanced in silence to the walls. The first to mount them was Titus, with one of the tribunes, Domitius Sabinus, followed by a few men of the fifteenth legion. They cut down the sentries and entered the city. Behind them came Sextus Calvarius, a tribune and Placidus, with the troops under their command. The citadel had actually been taken, the enemy was ranging through the heart of the town, and it was now broad daylight, before the vanquished ‘inhabitants were aware of the capture. Most of them were worn out with fatigue and asleep, and if any awoke, a thick mist, which happened at the time to envelop the city, obscured their vision. At length, when the whole army had poured in, they started up, but only to realize their calamity; the blade at their throat brought home to them that Jotapata was taken.
The Romans, remembering what they had borne during the siege, showed no quarter or pity for any, but thrust the people down the steep slope from the citadel in a general massacre. Even those still able to fight here found themselves deprived of the means of defence by the difficulties of the ground: crushed in the narrow alleys and slipping down the declivity, they were engulfed in ‘ the wave of carnage that streamed from the citadel. The situation even drove many of Josephus’s picked’ men to suicide; seeing themselves powerless to kill a single Roman, they could at least forestall death at Roman hands, and, retiring in a body to the outskirts of the town, they there put an end to themselves .
Those soldiers of the guard who, the moment it was known that the town was taken, had succeeded in escaping, took refuge in one of the northern towers, where for some time they held their own; but, being surrounded by large numbers of the enemy, they at length surrendered and cheerfully extended their throats to their assailants. The Romans might have boasted that this last phase of the siege had cost them no loss of life, had not one of them, the centurion Antonius, fallen when the town was captured. He was killed by treachery. One of the many fugitives who had taken refuge in the caverns besought Antonius to extend his hand to him, as a pledge of protection and to assist him to rise; the centurion incautiously complied, whereupon the Jew from below instantly stabbed him with his spear beneath the groin, and killed him on the spot.
On that day the Romans massacred all who showed themselves; on the ensuing days they searched the hiding-places and wreaked their vengeance on those who had sought refuge in subterranean vaults and caverns, sparing none, whatever their age, save infants and women. The prisoners thus collected were twelve hundred; the total number of the dead, whether killed in the final assault or in the previous combats, was computed at forty thousand. Vespasian ordered the city to be razed and had all its forts burnt to the ground. Thus was Jotapata taken in the thirteenth year of the principate of Nero, on the new moon of Panemus.
A search for Josephus was then instituted by the Romans, to satisfy both their own resentment and the keen desire of their general, who considered that the issue of the war depended largely on his capture. So the bodies of the slain and the men in hiding were closely examined. But Josephus, when the city was on the point of being taken, aided by some divine providence, had succeeded in stealing away from the midst of the enemy and plunged into a deep pit, giving access on one side to a broad cavern, invisible to those above. There he found forty persons of distinction in hiding, with a supply of provisions sufficient to last for a considerable time. During the day he lay hid, as the enemy were in occupation of every quarter of the town, but at night he would come up and look for some loophole for escape and reconnoitre the sentries; but, finding every spot guarded on his account and no means of eluding detection, he descended again into the cave. So for two days he continued in hiding. On the third, his secret was betrayed by a woman of the party, who was captured; whereupon Vespasian at once eagerly sent two tribunes, Paulinus and Gallicanus, with orders to offer Josephus security and to urge him to come up.
On reaching the spot they pressed him to do so and pledged themselves for his safety, but failed to persuade him. His suspicions were based not on the humane character of the envoys, but on the consciousness of all he had done and the feeling that he must suffer proportionately. The presentiment that he was being summoned to punishment persisted, until Vespasian sent a third messenger, the tribune Nicanor, an old acquaintance .and friend of Josephus. He, on his arrival, dwelt on the innate generosity of the Romans to those whom they had once subdued; assuring him that his valour made him an object rather of admiration, than of hatred, to the commanding officers, and that the general was anxious to bring him up from his retreat, not for punishment – that he could inflict though he refused to come forth – but from a desire to save a brave man. He added that Vespasian, had he intended to entrap him, would never have sent him one of his friends, thus using the fairest of virtues, friendship, as a cloak for the foulest of crimes, perfidy; nor would he himself have consented to come in order to deceive a friend.
While Josephus was still hesitating, even after Nicanor’s assurances, the soldiers in their rage attempted to set fire to the cave, but were restrained by their commander, who was anxious to take the Jewish general alive. But as Nicanor was urgently pressing his proposals and Josephus overheard the threats of the hostile crowd, suddenly there came back into his mind those nightly dreams, in which God had foretold to him the impending fate of the Jews and the destinies of the Roman sovereigns. He was an interpreter of dreams and skilled in divining the meaning of ambiguous utterances of the Deity; a priest himself arid of priestly descent, he was not ignorant of the prophecies in the sacred books. At that hour he was inspired to read their meaning, and recalling the .dreadful images of his recent dreams, he offered up a silent prayer to God. “Since it pleases thee,” so it ran, “who didst create the Jewish nation, to break thy work, since fortune has wholly passed to the Romans, and since thou hast made choice of my spirit to announce the things that are to come, I willingly surrender to the Romans and consent to live; but I take thee to witness that I go, not as a traitor, but as thy minister.”
With these words he was about to surrender to Nicanor. But when the Jews who shared his retreat understood that Josephus was yielding to entreaty, they came round him in a body, crying out, “Ah ! well might the laws of our fathers groan aloud and God Himself hide His face for grief – God who implanted in Jewish breasts souls that scorn death! Is life so dear to you, Josephus, that you can endure to see the light in slavery? How soon have you forgotten yourself! How many have you persuaded to die for liberty! False, then, was that reputation for bravery, false that fame for sagacity, if you can hope for pardon from those whom you have fought so bitterly, or, supposing that they grant it, can deign to accept your life at their hands. Nay, if the fortune of the Romans has cast over you some strange forgetfulness of yourself, the care of our country’s honour devolves on us. We will lend you a right hand and a sword. If you meet death willingly, you will have died as general of the Jews; if unwillingly, as a traitor.” With these words they pointed their swords at him and threatened to kill him if he surrendered to the Romans.
Josephus, fearing an assault, and holding that it would be a betrayal of God’s commands, should he die before delivering his message, proceeded, in this emergency, to reason philosophically with them. “Why, comrades,” said he, “this thirst for our own blood? Why set asunder such fond companions as soul and body? One says that I am changed: well, the Romans know the truth about that. Another says, “It is honourable to die in war’: yes, but according to the law of war, that is to say by the hand of the conqueror. “Were I now flinching from the sword of the Romans, I should assuredly deserve to perish by my own sword and my own hand; but if they are moved to spare an enemy, how much stronger reason have we to spare ourselves? It would surely be folly to inflict on ourselves treatment which we seek to avoid by our quarrel with them. “It is honourable to die for liberty,’ says another: I concur, but on condition that one dies fighting, by the hands of those who would rob us of it. But now they are neither coming to fight us nor to take our lives. It is equally cowardly not to wish to die when one ought to do so, and to wish to die when one ought not.. What is it we fear that prevents us from surrendering to the Romans? Is it not death? And shall we then inflict up an ourselves certain death, to avoid an uncertain death, which we fear, at the hands of our foes? “No, it is slavery we fear,” I shall be told. Much liberty we enjoy at present! “It is noble to destroy oneself,” another will say. Not so, I retort, but most ignoble; in my opinion there could be no more arrant coward than the pilot who, for fear of a tempest, deliberately sinks his ship before the storm. “No; suicide is alike repugnant to that nature which all creatures share, and an act of impiety towards God who created us. Among the animals there is not one that deliberately seeks death or kills itself; so firmly rooted in all is nature’s law – the will to live. That is why we account as enemies those who would openly take our lives and punish as assassins those who clandestinely attempt to do so. And God – think you not that He is indignant when man treats His gift with scorn? For it is from Him that we have received our being, and it is to Him that we should leave the decision to take it away. All of us, it is true, have mortal bodies, composed of perishable matter, but the soul lives forever, immortal: it is a portion of the Deity housed in our bodies. If, then, one who makes away with or misapplies a deposit entrusted to him by a fellow-man is reckoned a perjured villain, how can he who casts out from his own body the deposit which God has placed there, hope to elude Him whom he has thus wronged? It is considered right to punish a fugitive slave, even though the master he leaves be a scoundrel; and shall we fly from the best of masters, from God Himself, and not be deemed impious? Know you not that they who depart this life in accordance with the law of nature and repay the loan which they received from God, when He who lent is pleased to reclaim it, win eternal renown; that their houses and families are secure; that their souls, remaining spotless and obedient, are allotted the most holy place in heaven, whence, in the revolution of the ages, they return to find in chaste bodies a new habitation? But as for those who have laid mad hands upon themselves, the darker regions of the nether world receive their souls, and God, their father, visits upon their posterity the outrageous acts of the parents. That is why this crime, so hateful to God, is punished also by the sagest of legislators. With us it is ordained that the body of a suicide should be exposed unburied until sunset, although it is thought right to bury even our enemies slain in war. In other nations the law requires that a suicide’s right hand, with which he made war on himself, should be cut off, holding that, as the body was unnaturally severed from the soul, so the hand should be severed from the body.
“We shall do well then, comrades, to listen to reason and not to add to our human calamities the crime of impiety towards our creator. If our lives are offered us, let us live: there is nothing dishonourable in accepting this offer from those who have had so many proofs of our valour; if they think fit to kill us, death at the hands of our conquerors is honourable. But, for my part, I shall never pass over to the enemy’s ranks, to prove a traitor to myself; I should indeed then be far more senseless than deserters who go over to the enemy for safety, whereas I should be going to destruction – my own destruction. I pray, however, that the Romans may prove faithless; if, after pledging their word, they put me to death, I shall die content, for I shall carry with me the consolation, better than a victory, that their triumph has been sullied by perjury.”
By these and many similar arguments Josephus sought to deter his companions from suicide. But desperation stopped their ears, for they had long since devoted themselves to death; they were, therefore, infuriated at him, and ran at him from this side and that, sword in hand, upbraiding him as a coward, each one seeming on the point of striking him. But he, addressing one by name, fixing his general’s eye of command upon another, clasping the hand of a third, shaming a fourth by entreaty, and torn by all manner of emotions at this critical moment, succeeded in warding off from his throat the blades of all, turning like a wild beast surrounded by the hunters to face his successive assailants . Even in his extremity, they still held their general in reverence; their hands were powerless, their swords glanced aside, and many, in the act of thrusting at him, spontaneously dropped their weapons. But, in his straits, his resource did not forsake him. Trusting to God’s protection, he put his life to the hazard, and said: “Since we are resolved to die, come, let us leave the lot to decide the order in which we are to kill ourselves; let him who draws the first lot fall by the hand of him who comes next; fortune will thus take her course through the whole number, and we shall be spared from taking our lives with our own hands. For it would be unjust that, when the rest were gone, any should repent and escape.” This proposal inspired confidence; his advice was taken, and he drew lots with the rest. Each man thus selected presented his throat to his neighbor in the assurance that his general was forthwith to share his fate; for sweeter to them than life was the thought of death with Josephus. He, however (should one say by fortune or by the providence of God?), was left alone with one other; and, anxious neither to be condemned by the lot nor, should he be left to the last, to stain his hand with the blood of a fellow-countryman, he persuaded this man also, under a pledge, to remain alive.
Having thus survived both the war with the Romans and that with his own friends, Josephus was brought by Nicanor into Vespasian’s presence. The Romans all flocked to see him, and from the multitude crowding around the general arose a hubbub of discordant voices: some exulting at his capture, some threatening, some pushing forward to obtain a nearer view. The more distant spectators clamoured for the punishment of their enemy, but those close beside him recalled his exploits and marvelled at such a reversal of fortune. Of the officers there was not one who, whatever his past resentment, did not then relent at the sight of him. Titus in particular was specially touched by the fortitude of Josephus under misfortunes and by pity for his youth. As he recalled the combatant of yesterday and saw him now a prisoner in his enemy’s hands, he was led to reflect on the power of fortune, the quick vicissitudes of war, and the general instability of human affairs. So he brought over many Romans at the time to share his compassion for Josephus, and his pleading with his father was the main influence in saving the prisoner’s life.
The Fall of Masada
The Roman general [Silva] having now completed his wall surrounding the whole exterior of the place [Masada] and taken the strictest precautions that none should escape, applied himself to the siege. He had discovered only one spot capable of supporting earthworks. For 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. Silva, having accordingly ascended and occupied this eminence, ordered his troops to throw up an embankment. Working with a will and a multitude of hands, they raised a solid bank to the height of two hundred cubits, This, however, being still considered of insufficient stability and extent as an emplacement for the engines, on top of it was constructed a platform of great stones fitted closely together, fifty cubits broad and as many high. The engines in general were similarly constructed to those first devised by Vespasian and afterwards by Titus for their siege operations; in addition a sixty-cubit tower was constructed 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. Simultaneously, Silva, having further provided himself with a great battering-ram, ordered it to be directed without intermission against the wall, and having, though with difficulty, succeeded in effecting a breach, brought it down in ruins. The Sicarii, however, had already hastily built up another wall inside, which was not likely to meet with a similar fate from the engines; for it was pliable and calculated to break the force of the impact, having been constructed as follows. Great beams were laid lengthwise and contiguous and joined at the extremities; of these there were two parallel rows a wall’s breadth apart, and the intermediate space was filled with earth. Further, to prevent the soil from dispersing as the mound rose, they clamped, by other transverse beams, those laid longitudinally. The work thus presented to the enemy the appearance of masonry, but the blows of the engines were weakened, battering upon a yielding material which, as it settled down under the concussion, they merely served to solidify. 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, and, from its hollow nature becoming ignited right through blazed up in a volume of flame. 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 veering, 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.
However, neither did Eleazar himself contemplate flight, nor did he intend to permit any other to do so. Seeing the wall consuming in the flames, unable to devise any further means of deliverance or gallant endeavour, and setting before his eyes what the Romans, if victorious, would inflict on them, their children and their wives, he deliberated on the death of all. And, judging, as matters stood, this course the best, he assembled the most doughty of his comrades and incited them to the deed by such words as these:
“Long since, my brave men, we determined , neither to serve the Romans nor any other – save God, for He alone is man’s true and righteous Lord; and now the time has come which bids us verify that resolution by our actions. At this crisis let us not disgrace ourselves; we who in the past refused to submit even to a slavery involving no peril, let us not now, along with slavery, deliberately accept the irreparable penalties awaiting us if we are to fall alive into Roman hands. For as we were the first of all to revolt, so are we the last in arms against them. Moreover, 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 – a privilege denied to others who have met with unexpected defeat. 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. For our enemies, fervently though they pray to take us alive, can no more prevent this than we can now hope to defeat them in battle. 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, had 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, as persons guiltless towards God and without a hand in crime – we who had even been the instructors of the rest? Mark, now, how He exposes the vanity of our expectations, by visiting us with such dire distress as exceeds all that we could anticipate. For not even the impregnable nature of this fortress has availed to save us; nay, though ample provisions are ours, piles of arms, and a superabundance of every other requisite, yet 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. It will be more tolerable than the other. 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; for the Romans, well I know, will be grieved to lose at once our persons and the lucre. 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,”
Thus spoke Eleazar; but his words did not touch the hearts of all hearers alike. Some, indeed, were eager to respond and all but filled with delight at the thought of a death so noble; but others, softer-hearted, were moved with compassion for their wives and families, and doubtless also by the vivid prospect of their own end, and their tears as they looked upon one another revealed their unwillingness of heart. Eleazar, seeing them flinching and their courage breaking down in face of so vast a scheme, feared that their whimpers and tears might unman even those who had listened to his speech with fortitude. Far, therefore, from slackening in his exhortation, he roused himself and, fired with mighty fervour, essayed a higher flight of oratory on the immortality of the soul. Indignantly protesting and with eyes intently fixed on those in tears, he exclaimed:
“Deeply, indeed, was I deceived in thinking that I should have brave men as associates in our struggles for freedom – men determined to live with honour or to die. But you, it seems, were no better than the common herd in valour or in courage, you who are afraid even of that death that will deliver you from the direst ills, when in such a cause you ought neither to hesitate an instant nor wait for a counselor. For from of old, since the first dawn of intelligence, we have been continually taught by those precepts, ancestral and divine – confirmed by the deeds and noble spirit of our forefathers – that life, not death, is man’s misfortune. For it is death which gives liberty to the soul and permits it to depart to its own pure abode, there to be free from all calamity; but so long as it is imprisoned in a mortal body and tainted with all its miseries, it is, in sober truth, dead, for association with what is mortal ill befits that which is divine. True, the soul possesses great capacity, even while incarcerated in the body; for it makes the latter its organ of perception, invisibly swaying it and directing it onward in its actions beyond the range of mortal nature. But it is not until, freed from the weight that drags it down to earth and clings about it, the soul is restored to its proper sphere, that it enjoys a blessed energy and a power untrammelled on every side, remaining, like God Himself, invisible to human eyes. For even while in the body it is withdrawn from view: unperceived it comes and unseen it again departs, itself of a nature one and incorruptible, but a cause of change to the body. For whatever the soul has touched lives and flourishes, whatever it abandons withers and dies; so abundant is her wealth of immortality.
“Let sleep furnish you with a most convincing proof of what I say – sleep, in which the soul, undistracted by the body, while enjoying in perfect independence the most delightful repose, holds converse with God by right of kinship, ranges the universe and foretells many things that are to come. Why then should we fear death who welcome the repose of sleep? And is it not surely foolish, while pursuing liberty in this life, to grudge ourselves that which is eternal?
“We ought, indeed, blest with our home training, to afford others an example of readiness to die; if however, we really need an assurance in this matter from alien nations, let us look at those Indians who profess the practice of philosophy. They, brave men that they are, reluctantly endure the period of life, as some necessary service due to nature, but hasten to release their souls from their bodies; and though no calamity impels nor drives them from the scene, from sheer longing for the immortal state, they announce to their comrades that they are about to depart. Nor is there any who would hinder them: no, all felicitate them and each gives them commissions to his loved ones; so certain and absolutely sincere is their belief in the intercourse which souls hold with one another. Then, after listening to these behests, they commit their bodies to the fire, that so the soul may be parted from the body in the utmost purity, and expire amidst hymns of praise. Indeed, their dearest ones escort them to their death more readily than do the rest of mankind their fellow-citizens when starting on a very long journey; for themselves they weep, but them they count happy as now regaining immortal rank. Are we not, then, ashamed of being more mean-spirited than Indians, and of bringing, by our faint-heartedness, shameful reproach upon our country’s laws, which are the envy of all mankind?
“Yet, even had we from the first been schooled in the opposite doctrine and taught that man’s highest blessing is life and that death is a calamity, still the crisis is one that calls upon us to bear it with a stout heart, since it is by God’s will and of necessity that we are to die. For long since, so it seems, God passed this decree against the whole Jewish race in common, that we must quit this life if we would not use it aright. Do not attach the blame to yourselves, nor the credit to the Romans, that this war with them has been the ruin of us all; for it was not their might that brought these things to pass, but the intervention of some more powerful cause has afforded them the semblance of victory.
“What Roman weapons, I ask, slew the Jews of Caesarea? Nay, they had not even contemplated revolt from Rome, but were engaged in keeping their Sabbath festival when the Caesarean rabble rushed upon them and massacred them, unresisting, with their wives and children, without even the slightest respect for the Romans, who regarded as enemies only us who had revolted. But I sha1l be told that the Caesareans had a standing quarrel with their Jewish residents and seized that opportunity to satisfy their ancient hate. What then shall we say of the Jews in Scythopolis, who had the audacity to wage war on us in the cause of the Greeks, but refused to unite with us, their kinsmen, in resisting the Romans? Much benefit, to be sure, did they reap from their goodwill and loyalty to the men of Scythopolis! Ruthlessly butchered by them, they and all their families – that was the recompense that they received for their alliance; the fate from which they had saved their neighbours at our hands, that they endured, as though they had themselves desired to inflict it. Time would fail me now to name each instance severally; for, as you know, there is not a city in Syria which has not slain its Jewish inhabitants, though more hosti1e to us than to the Romans. Thus, the people of Damascus, though unable even to invent a plausible pretext, deluged their city with the foulest slaughter, butchering eighteen thousand Jews, with their wives and families. As for Egypt, we were told that the number of those who there perished in tortures perhaps exceeded sixty thousand.
Those Jews, maybe, perished as they did, because they were on alien soil, where they found themselves no match for their enemies. But consider all those who in their own territory embarked on war with Rome: what did they lack of all that could inspire them with hopes of assured success? Arms, ramparts, fortresses well nigh impregnable, a spirit undaunted by risks to be run in the cause of liberty – these encouraged all to revolt. Yet these availed but for a brief season, and after buoying us up with hopes proved the beginning of greater disasters. For all were taken, all succumbed to the enemy, as though furnished for his more glorious triumph, and not for the protection of those who provided them. Those men who fell in battle may fitly be felicitated, for they died defending, not betraying, liberty; but the multitudes in Roman hands who would not pity? Who would not rush to his death ere he shared their fate? Of them some have perished on the rack or tortured by fire and scourge; others, half-devoured by wild beasts have been preserved alive to provide them with a second repast, after affording merriment and sport for their foes. But most miserable of all must be reckoned those still alive, who have often prayed for death and are denied the boon.
“And where now is that great city, the mother-city of the whole Jewish race, intrenched behind all those lines of ramparts, screened by all those forts and massive towers, that could scarce contain her munitions of war, and held all those myriads of defenders? What has become of her that was believed to have God for her founder? Uprooted from her base she has been swept away, and the sole memorial of her remaining is that of the slain sti1l quartered in her ruins! Hapless old men sit beside the ashes of the shrine and a few women, reserved by the enemy for basest outrage.
“Which of us, taking these things to heart, could bear to behold the sun, even could he live secure from peril? Who such a foe to his country, so unmanly, so fond of life, as not to regret that he is still alive to-day? Nay, I would that we had all been dead ere ever we saw that holy city razed by an enemy’s hands, that sacred sanctuary so profanely uprooted! But seeing that we have been beguiled by a not ignoble hope, that we might perchance find means of avenging her of her foes, and now that hope has vanished and left us alone in our distress, let us hasten to die honourably; let us have pity on ourselves, our children and our wives, while it is still in our power to find pity from ourselves. For we were born for death, we and those whom we have begotten; and this even the fortunate cannot escape. But outrage and servitude and the sight of our lives being led to shame with their children – these are no necessary evils imposed by nature on mankind, but befall, through their own cowardice, those who, having the chance of forestalling them by death, refuse to take it. But we, priding ourselves on our courage, revolted from the Romans, and now at the last, when they offered us our lives, we refused the offer. Who then can fail to foresee their wrath if they take us alive? Wretched will be the young whose vigorous frames can sustain many tortures, wretched the more advanced in years whose age is incapable of bearing such calamities. Is a man to see his wife led off to violation, to hear the voice of his child crying “Father!” when his own hands are bound? No, while those hands are free and grasp the sword, let them render an honourable service. Unenslaved by the foe let us die, as free men with our children and wives let us quit this life together! This our laws enjoin, this our wives and children implore of us. The need for this is of God’s sending, the reverse of this is the Romans’ desire, and their fear is lest a single one of us should die before capture. Haste we then to leave them, instead of their hoped-for enjoyment at securing us, amazement at our death and admiration of our fortitude.”
He would have pursued his exhortation but 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 and deeming it a signal proof of courage and sound judgement not to be seen among the last: so ardent the passion that had seized them to slaughter their wives, their little ones and themselves. Nor, as might have been expected, did their ardour cool when they approached the task: inflexibly they held to the resolution, which they had formed while listening to the address, and though personal emotion and affection were alive in all, reason which they knew had consulted best for their loved ones, was paramount. 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, having the thought of the ills they would endure under the enemy’s hands to console them for their constraint in killing them. And in the end not one was found a truant in so daring a deed: 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 ere but for a moment, they quickly piled together all the 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 it fell should slay first the nine and then himself last of all; such mutual confidence had they all that neither in acting nor in suffering would one differ from another. Finally, then, the nine bared their throats, and the last solitary survivor, after surveying the prostrate multitude, to see whether haply amid the shambles 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, while the rest were absorbed in the slaughter. The victims numbered nine hundred and sixty, including women and children; and the tragedy occurred on the fifteenth of the month Xanthicus.
The Romans, expecting further opposition, were by daybreak under arms and, having with gangways formed bridges of approach from the earthworks, advanced to the assault. Seeing none of the enemy but on all sides an awful solitude, and flames within and silence, they were at a loss to conjecture what had happened. At length, as if for a signal to shoot, they shouted, to call forth haply any of those within. The shout was heard by the women-folk, who, emerging from the caverns, informed the Romans how matters stood, one of the two lucidly reporting 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 endeavoured 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.