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Josephus and The Jewish War: AD c.77

Josephus is exceptionally interesting among early historians, as a writer in a neglected field who has first-hand experience of his subject - the Jews in Judaea and their struggle against Rome.

A member of an aristocratic priestly family, Josephus is in Jerusalem when the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule breaks out in AD 66. He is sent to command the Jewish forces in Galilee, but the advance of the Roman army soon results in Josephus and his men being besieged in the town of Jotapata. His escape from this predicament (by proposing to his followers a suicide pact from which he contrives his own survival) is told with the shameless self-exposure which gives his writing an added interest.

Josephus is now a prisoner of the Romans. He compounds his betrayal of the Jewish cause by changing sides, justifying himself on the grounds that the Zealots (whom he describes as bandits) are leading the Jews to disaster by their policy of confrontation with all-powerful Rome.

Josephus soon finds himself in a position which follows logically from this viewpoint. As Titus's spokesman during the siege of Jerusalem, he revels in his own eloquence - yelling up at the defenders on the walls, urging them to capitulate. It is a shameful position for a leading Pharisee, but an excellent one for a historian. He is perfectly placed to record the events leading up to the destruction of the Temple.

Josephus claims that Titus, no doubt aware of the Temple's contents, attempts to save it from harm. He says that Jewish partisans first set fire to the Temple colonnade after enticing Roman soldiers into a trap. Whatever the truth, the great building with its golden trimmings is soon destroyed by fire and by looting Romans. The best loot, taken by Titus himself, later features prominently on Titus's triumphal arch in Rome.

So ends the central shrine of Judaism. In the words of Josephus, 'neither its long history, nor its vast wealth, nor its people dispersed through the whole world, nor the unparalleled renown of its worship could avert its ruin'. The destruction of the Temple is another turning point in Jewish history (see the Temple in Jerusalem).

In the bitter aftermath of the disaster, Judaea is no place for a man regarded with some justification as a traitor. Josephus returns with Titus to Rome, becoming a Roman citizen and receiving a pension.

He immediately sets to work on his history, writing it in Aramaic - the lingua franca at this time of the Middle East, where he hopes that his account will discourage further uprisings against Rome. The book is ready for publication by about AD 77 (see Publishing in Rome), and Josephus later provides a Greek version for an educated readership elsewhere in the empire. Late in his life he publishes another major work in Greek. Known now as Jewish Antiquities, it attempts to explain the Jews and their history to outsiders.

Tacitus and the empire: AD 98-c.115

The wayward and tyrannical behaviour of Roman emperors during the 1st century AD provides a lively subject for historians. Two seize the opportunity - Tacitus, who views the scene with the analytical eye of the historian, and Suetonius, whose interests are those of a biographer.

The earliest works of Tacitus are on specialized topics. They are both published in the same year, AD 98. One, Agricola, describes in eulogistic vein the career of his father-in-law, the governor of Britain. The other, Germania, is an attempt to understand the barbarian German tribes, pressing on the Rhine frontier who, as Tacitus foresees, will soon prove a threat to the empire.

The major works of Tacitus are the Histories, appearing in about 109, and the Annals, published around the time of the death of Trajan in 117 (see Publishing in Rome). They cover the period from the accession of Tiberius in AD 14 to the death of Domitian in 96 (though several sections are now lost).

With an incisive style, and a talent for the barbed epigram, Tacitus emphasizes the damage done to the social fabric by tyrannical rulers. It is a theme on which he writes with painful knowledge. His own career as a public figure has flourished under the oppressive Domitian. The appalled and perhaps guilty fascination of an insider seems to have been part of the original impulse behind his great historical undertaking.

Plutarch and biography: AD c.105-c.115

The Greek historian Plutarch can validly be called the father of biography, though he treats his theme in an unusual and moralistic manner in his Parallel Lives. The lives consist of paired biographies, comparing a famous Greek with a Roman whose career is in some way related and then drawing a conclusion. Thus the story of Alexander the Great is linked with that of Julius Caesar, as great conquerors.

The parallels, often strained, have not necessarily been of much interest to subsequent generations of readers. But the biographical details gathered together by Plutarch, and his dramatic way with a good story, have made him one of the most popular of classical authors.

With the renewal of interest in Greek literature in the Renaissance, Plutarch is published in Greek and Latin in Italy in the early 16th century and is subsequently translated into French (1559) and from French into English (1579).

Thomas North's English translation of 1579 is the source from which Shakespeare derives the plots and characters for his Roman plays. Indeed Plutarch provides almost word for word the famous description of the Golden barge in which Cleopatra meets Antony.

Suetonius and the emperors: AD c.120-c.130

The racy Lives of the Caesars, by Suetonius, deals with the ten emperors who feature in the Annals and Histories of Tacitus and adds the two founders of the empire, Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar.

Suetonius moves in royal circles. Under Trajan he is director of the imperial libraries; he later becomes personal secretary to Hadrian, in charge of all the emperor's correspondence. These appointments give him access to archive material and to the lively gossip about the past which is current in court circles. Suetonius makes vivid use of both - often on the principle of the more scurrilous the better.

Many of the details which make the lives of the Caesars so vivid derive from Suetonius: Julius Caesar, silent as the assassins stab him until the blow from Brutus prompts the single question used by Shakespeare as Et tu Brute?'; or Claudius, hiding in terror in the palace when a Roman soldier discovers him and hails him as emperor.

In touches such as these Suetonius demonstrates the value of one lasting element of the biographer's repertoire. A telling anecdote, even if unsubstantiated, is always worth slipping in. The detail of Caesar's question to Brutus is introduced by Suetonius with the cautionary phrase 'Some say that..'. Such words are soon forgotten.

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