Review of "The Jewish War" by Flavius Josephus

By Vexen Crabtree 2003

#book_reviews #history

Book CoverPenguin Books, 1959 translation by G. A. Williamson. I own the 1981 edition, quotes will be from that edition.

"The Jewish War" by Josephus1 is the voluminous, detailed and scholarly report of the first century Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire. The war climaxed with the siege of Jerusalem, built up as it was by King Herod, as the single most beautiful and wonderfully rich city in history. Also one of the most heavily fortified large cities. None other match in fortifications times beauty times defences.

The siege, resulting in the wholesale destruction of the most glorious temple, and the starvation of hundreds of thousands of the population (which was also undergoing two civil wars), is the single most bloody, inhumane and shocking thing I've ever read. To read of two armies of desperate bandits torturing their own populace (who were trying to surrender to the Romans), fighting each other, and continually refusing to surrender to the pleading Roman Emperor, Vespasian, despite all hope. Condemning the entire city to flame, blood and destruction and dooming all of its inhabitants to starvation, the two occupying armies of Jerusalem caused the entire beautiful city to be lost.

It's harrowing stuff, three chapters detail this final siege, page after page of descriptions of bodies in the streets, plague, disease, famine, internal fighting all while the Romans broke through the immense defences wall at a time. Retreating, wall at a time, to the upper city, then to the outer courts of the temple, then to the inner temple, and then to the sewers under the city, decimating all the populace for their food and fighting each other, the survivors had become soulless, unfeeling, brutal robots, driven by hunger and desperation and yet never surrendering to the Romans to save their own lives, save their city from destruction wall at a time, or to save their temple.

The destruction of the Jewish temple in 70ce, previously only a footnote in my mind, is now horrifically clear. Fact and history is more terrifying than any horror ever wrote by any fiction author, no human psychological trauma in any hollywood movie or film matches the depths of the horror of ancient war and siege.

Random other notes:
The Roman Army was supreme. I knew they were organized and efficient, but I didn't grasp just how much more amazingly advanced they were than everyone else. It's literally like the Puritan Christians, with guns and military organisation, wiping out the Native Americans - it's that scale of superiority of force. Josephus details reasons for the Roman Armies clear advantage: Discipline, and training. No other armies were in full-time training, back then, no armies marched, moved in such clearly defined units with such clear command, authority and skill.

I hadn't expected this book to be quite so informative or enlightening. I hadn't expected to be horrified and come away from it feeling more energized than after an epic nightmare, and I've never expected to have a deeper understanding of the importance of military discipline in making one set of people superior in mind and body to others.

But I didn't much learn more about the ancient Jews - which was my intention. (I happened across The Jewish War in a second hand bookstore, I had only intended reading Jewish Antiquities (Josephus), but I'll read it later).

I got a slightly better understanding of the situation between the Roman Empire and its neighbours.

All in all, a wonderfully deeply worthwhile read. If you're not interested in history, this will serve at one of the most exciting histories of human struggle, and war. If you're interested in religion, it serves as an enlightening history of the numerous Jews and their relations and some of their customs, and in particular sets the context of their religion and its tragic past wonderfully. Knowing this gives a deeper understanding to current events in the Middle East, even.