Last Days of Jerusalem: From Josephus - Alfred J. Church

Of Josephus and the Besieging of Jotapata

There being now open war between the Romans and the Jews, these last chose men to be their leaders, both in the City and also in the provinces; and among these was Josephus, the son of Matthias, who was set over the province of Galilee.

This Josephus was of the house and lineage of Aaron. And having been carefully taught in all things that a youth should know, he had got for himself such reputation that when he was fourteen years of age the priests and doctors of the law would come to his father's house, asking him questions concerning the more difficult matters of the law. And when he was now of about sixteen years, he purposed within himself that he would make trial of all the sects that are among the Jews; and of these sects there are three, to wit, Pharisees, and Sadducees, and Essenes. Of these he got, after great labour and trouble, full knowledge; also having heard that there was a certain Banus that dwelt in the desert, who had made to himself garments from the leaves of trees, and fed on such things as grew of themselves, he joined himself to this man, and spent three years in his company. After this he came back to Jerusalem, and being now nineteen years of age, resolved to live after the tenets of the Pharisees, the which sect may be compared to the school of the Stoics among the Greek philosophers.

When he was now twenty-and-five years of age, Josephus went to Rome; and the cause of his going was this. Felix, the Governor, had sent certain priests that were friends of Josephus to answer for themselves before Csar, the things whereof they were accused being but of small account. And Josephus being desirous to help them (which he was the more zealous to do when he heard that they were not forgetful of the law, but had for food figs and walnuts only, lest they should be found eating things unclean), he journeyed to Rome; in which journey he was in great danger of his life: for his ship having been broken by a storm in Hadria, he and his fellows floated on pieces of the wreck for the space of a whole night, and were taken up at dawn by a ship off Cyrene, eighty only being saved out of six hundred. Being arrived in Italy, at the city of Puteoli, Josephus made acquaintance with one Aliturus, who was an actor of plays in great favour with Csar, and was a Jew by birth. Thus he was made known to Poppa that was Csar's wife, and by her help procured that the priests his friends should be released from their bonds. Also Poppa gave him many gifts, so that he returned with great honour to his country.

This Josephus would fain have hindered his countrymen from rebelling against the Romans; but when he could not prevail he purposed to do them such service as he could, and was set, as hath been said, over the province of Galilee, in which government he behaved himself with great wisdom and courage. But when Flavius Vespasian came down by the command of Nero into the province of Juda and had gathered together a great army at Antioch, even sixty thousand men, Josephus judged that he could not stand against the Romans in battle. Wherefore he commanded that all the people of Galilee should fly into the fenced cities, and he himself, having with him the bravest of his soldiers, took refuge in that which was the strongest of these cities—to wit, Jotapata. At the same time he sent letters to the rulers at Jerusalem, setting forth the whole truth; in which letters he said that if they were minded to have peace with the Romans they should make no more delay; but that if they would have war, they would do well to send to him an army, that he might be able to join battle with the enemy.

This city of Jotapata is built upon a great hill, having cliffs about it very steep and high upon every side, save the north only; and on this Josephus, when he fortified the place, had built a great wall.

So soon as Vespasian knew that Josephus was in Jotapata, he made haste to besiege it. And first he sent soldiers, both horse and foot, who should make a road for the army; for the way was very rough, such as foot-soldiers could scarcely pass over, and horsemen not at all. This the men did in the space of four days. Afterwards he sent on Placidus, one of his lieutenants, with a thousand horsemen, bidding him watch the city, lest by any means Josephus should escape. And on the next day he himself came with the rest of his army, and pitched his camp on the north side of the city, about seven furlongs from the walls. And when the Jews saw the number of his host they were not a little dismayed, nor did they dare to come forth from the walls. The Romans, being wearied from their march, attacked not the city, but they made three lines round about it, so that none might go forth. But the Jews having now no hope of safety, were minded to fight to the uttermost. The next day Vespasian attacked the city on the north side where the wall was easy of approach; and Josephus, seeing this, and fearing lest the place should be taken, rushed out against the Romans with the whole multitude of the people and drave them back from the walls. Many were slain on both sides, for the Jews fought like men that had no hope, and the Romans were ashamed to give place. And they fought through the whole day, even until nightfall. The next day also the Romans came near to the walls, and the Jews ran out against them, and the battle was yet fiercer than before; and this was done for five days without ceasing.

After this it seemed good to Vespasian and his captains to raise a bank against the city, where the wall could be approached. For this end, therefore, he caused his whole army to fetch timber for the work, and to cut stone from the hills that were hard by. Also he caused to be set up mantlets, under cover of which the bank was made, they that built it being in nowise harmed by the stones and javelins and the like, which the Jews cast upon them from the wall. When the bank was finished Vespasian set his machines of war and catapults upon it, to the number of one hundred and sixty, which threw javelins and lighted brands and stones of a great weight, so that the Jews could not stand upon the wall, nor come to any place whither the engines could reach with their shooting. Also there was a great company of archers of Arabia and slingers that ceased not to attack the city. Nevertheless, the Jews, though they were hindered from going on to the walls, ceased not to sally from the gate; and they would drag away the shelter from them that worked, and wound the men, and they would set fire to the timber. But Vespasian, perceiving that they were able to do this, and because spaces had been left in the siege-works, commanded that these should be filled in; and when this had been done, the Jews ceased from attacking them. But when the bank had been made of equal height to the walls, Josephus, perceiving that the city was now in great danger, commanded the workmen that they should build the wall higher. And when they said that they could not do this while there were cast upon them so many javelins, he contrived this defence for them. He caused raw hides of oxen to be stretched upon stakes, and these could not either be pierced through with iron nor burnt by fire. And the men, working under cover of these, both night and day, raised the wall by twenty cubits, and built also towers upon it. This the Romans were greatly troubled to see. The Jews also, taking heart, made sallies continually from the walls against them, and did them all manner of damage. Wherefore Vespasian was minded not to suffer his soldiers to fight with them any more, but rather to blockade their city, and so at last to take them for lack of food. For he thought that they must perish or yield themselves; and that at the least, if they should be wasted with hunger, they would be the less able to fight. Therefore, sitting down before the city, he waited for the end.

Now there was sufficient in Jotapata of corn and of other things that are needful for food, save salt only. But of water there was great lack, for there is no spring in the city, and the people are content to live on such rain as falleth, taking it in cisterns. Now of rain there is but little in the summer season, in the which season it so chanced that the city was besieged. And Josephus, seeing that they had plenty of other things, and that his soldiers lacked neither numbers nor courage, and desiring that the siege should be prolonged, distributed the water to the inhabitants of the city by measure. And the Romans, perceiving that this was done, for they saw the multitude come together daily for their measure of water, and indeed cast their javelins and stones among them, slaying many, were of good hope that the city must soon yield itself. But Josephus, that he might deceive them, and cast them down from this hope, commanded that they should dip garments in water and hang them over the walls, so that the water should flow down from them to the ground. And when the Romans saw this, they were troubled, for they judged that there could be no lack of that which they saw, so to be spent to no purpose. Then Vespasian, thinking that the place would never yield itself for lack of food and drink, was resolved that he would set himself forthwith to take it by force of arms. And this was the thing which the Jews chiefly desired, for it seemed better to them to perish by the sword than to die of hunger and thirst. Also Josephus devised means by which he might hold communication with his friends that were in the cities round about. He sent letters by a certain path that there was on the western side of the valley, this path being very steep, and much overgrown, so that it was the less carefully watched; and they that bare the letters crept along the ground, being covered with skins, so that any that spied them might think they were dogs. And this was done many times, till the thing was discovered by the guards.

And now Josephus, seeing that there was no hope of escape, took counsel with the chief men of the city, concerning flight. Which when the people had knowledge of, a vast multitude came about him beseeching him that he would not leave them. "For thou," they said, "art the only hope of the place; and while thou art with us all will fight bravely, but if thou depart, no one will have the heart to stand up against the Romans." Then Josephus, fearing lest he should seem to have a thought for his own safety, spake to them saying, "If I depart, I depart for your good; for while I am here I profit you little, so long as this city is not taken, and if it be taken, then we perish together. But if I am gone from this place, then could I profit you much, stirring up war throughout the whole region of Galilee, so that the Romans must perforce give up besieging this place. But now, knowing that I am here, and being very desirous to lay hands upon me, they are all the more urgent in their attack." Nevertheless, he prevailed nothing by these words, for the old men and women and children caught him by the feet, and besought him, with many tears, that he would not leave them. Then Josephus changed his purpose, and thought no more of leaving the city, but only how he might best make war against the Romans, vexing them day and night with all manner of attacks. And when Vespasian saw that his men suffered much loss in their encounters (for they were ashamed to give way before the Jews, nor could they pursue them on account of the weight of their armour; but the Jews, being lighter-armed and of much more agility, suffered little loss), he commanded that the soldiers of the legions, being heavy-armed, should not fight any more with the Jews; but that the Arabs and Syrians, being archers and slingers, should drive them back. As for the machines of war and the catapults, they never were quiet. Yet the Jews ceased not to give battle with the besiegers, sparing neither limb nor life.

Vespasian, seeing that he was himself in a manner besieged, for the Jews assailed him continually, judged it well to use the battering rams against the walls of the city. Now a battering ram is a great beam, like unto the mast of a ship, whereof the end is shod with iron that is of the shape of a ram's head, from which also it hath its name. This beam is hung in the middle from another beam by means of ropes, as it might be in a balance; and at either end it is rested on strong posts. This beam being first swung back with the whole strength of a great company of men, is after swung forward, and driveth the end of iron against the wall; nor is there any tower so strong, or wall of such thickness that can stand against such blows, being oftentimes repeated. Such, therefore, did Vespasian cause to be brought near to the walls; and that the working of them might not be hindered, he brought nearer also the catapults and the machines, with the slingers and archers. And when all the Jews had been driven from the walls, then they that had charge of the ram brought it up to the wall, covering it with hurdles and hides for a protection both to it and to themselves. And so soon as they drave it against the wall, the stones were shaken, and there rose a great cry from the people within, even as though the town were already taken. But Josephus, seeing that the ram was driven continually against the self-same place, and that the wall was now about to be broken down, devised means by which the violence of the attack might be diminished. He commanded that they should fill sacks with straw, and let them down in the place where the ram was about to be driven against the wall. And this they did continually, and whenever the ram was brought against the wall, then the Jews would let down the sacks of straw; and this thing made much delay and hindrance to the captains of the Romans. Then these fixed blades of iron to the end of poles and cut the ropes by which the sacks were let down. But Josephus, seeing that the ram began to work damage again, and that the wall, being for the most part newly built, was shaken by their blows, bethought him how he might help himself with fire. So he caused to be gathered together all dry wood that could be found, and making a sally with his soldiers in three divisions, set fire to the machines and siege-works of the enemy. Also they heaped on them bitumen, and pitch, and sulphur, and the fire spread itself with all the speed that can be thought, till that which it had cost the Romans the labour of many days to accomplish was destroyed in the space of one hour.

And now a certain Jew, Eleazar by name, of Sahab, in Galilee, did a thing that is worthy to be told; for, lifting up a great stone in his hands, he threw it down from the wall upon the ram so mightily that he brake off the head. And when he saw what he had done, he leapt down from the wall, and caught up the head in his hands and carried it to the wall. And though all the archers shot at him, so that their arrows stuck in his body, he heeded them not at all, but climbed the wall, and so at last, holding the ram's head in his arms, fell down overcome with weakness.

After this, Josephus and they that were with him set upon the machines and siege-works of the fifth and tenth legions—for this last had fled from its place—and burned them with fire. Nevertheless, before nightfall, the Romans brought another battering ram against that part of the wall which had been shaken at the first. Now it befell that one of them that defended the wall cast his javelin at Vespasian and smote him and wounded him; and though the wound was a small thing (for the javelin was cast from afar, and its force was spent), yet were the Romans much troubled, and especially Titus, his son. But Vespasian, making light of the pain of his wound, showed himself to the army that he was yet alive. And all the soldiers were yet more eager than before to quit themselves bravely, for they thought it shame if they should not take vengeance for the hurt which the Emperor had suffered.

Nevertheless, for all the violence of their enemies, Josephus and his soldiers stood yet upon the wall, seeking to drive back, with lighted torches and javelins and stones, them that used the battering rams. But they prevailed little or not at all; for they could not see them at whom they cast their missiles, yet could themselves be seen very plainly. For the night was as the day, by reason of the many fires that were burning, and they that stood upon the wall were manifest, nor, seeing that the machines were a long way off, could they avoid the bolts. Many indeed were slain by the darts and arrows that were cast by the artillery, and as for the stones from the catapults, they brake off the battlements of the walls and the corners of the towers. And the plying of the machines made a horrible loud noise, as also did the hissing of the stones as they flew by. These indeed were cast forth with such strength as can scarcely be believed. One that stood by Josephus on the wall was smitten by a stone, so that his head was driven, as it had been a bullet from a sling, to the length of three furlongs. And all the while there rose up from the city a great wailing of women, and from the wall the groanings of them that were wounded. Truly a man could not see or hear anything more horrible than the things which the people of Jotapata saw that night. And in the morning the wall gave way. Nevertheless Josephus and his men made up the breach as best they were able.



The next day, after that the army had rested itself and taken some food, Vespasian commanded that they should attack the city. And first he bade the bravest of his horsemen dismount; these he set in three troops at the place where the wall had been broken down. They were altogether clad in armour, and had in their hands long pikes, and it was commanded them that they should mount the breach so soon as the machine that was made for that end should be fixed. Behind these he set the best of the foot-soldiers, and behind these again the archers and slingers and them that had charge of the artillery. And on the hills about the city he set the remainder of his horsemen that none might escape when it should be taken. Others also carried scaling ladders, which they should put to the wall where it was not broken, that so some of the Jews might be called away from the defending of the breach. When Josephus perceived this he set at these parts of the wall the old men and them that were the weakest and the most wearied of his soldiers; but at the breach he set the bravest and strongest; and before all he chose six men, of whom he himself was one. To these he said, "Shut your ears against the shouting of these men; and as for their missiles, kneel upon your knees, and holding your shields over your heads, so hide yourselves till the archers have spent their arrows. But when those that ye see seek to mount the breach, then quit yourselves like men, for ye have not so much to fight for a country that yet liveth, but to avenge one that is dead. Also think within yourselves how they will slay them that are dear to you, and satisfy your wrath against them." As for the women, Josephus bade them shut themselves up in their houses, lest their crying and wailing should break the hearts of the men.

And now the trumpeters blew their trumpets, and the army shouted; and the archers and slingers sent forth a great shower of arrows and bullets, so that the day was darkened. But they that stood by Josephus, remembering the words that he had spoken to them, shut their ears against the shouting, and covered their bodies with their shields; and when the horsemen would have mounted the breach, they ran upon them with great fury. Then were many valiant deeds done on both sides; but at the last the Romans (for there were always those that came into the places of such as were wounded or slain, but the Jews had not), joining themselves closely together, and holding their shields over their heads, so advanced, and drave the Jews back from the breach.

Then Josephus, being in a great strait (when men are wont to be best at devising that which is needful), commanded that they should pour hot oil on the shields of the Romans. Of this the Jews had a plentiful store, and when they poured it down upon the Romans, these cried aloud for the pain of the burning, and brake their order, and fell back from the wall, for the oil crept under the armour from their heads even unto their feet, and consumed them even like fire; and the nature of oil is that it is easily kindled but hardly quenched.

Also the Jews used another device against them who would mount by the gangways on to the breach of the wall. They boiled a certain herb, and poured the water upon the planks of the gangways, whereby these were made so slippery that no man could stand firm upon them, but all fell, whether they sought to ascend or to descend. And when they fell the Jews cast their javelins and wounded many; so that in the end the Romans ceased from their undertaking, having had not a few slain and many wounded. Of the Jews there were slain six in all, but the number of the wounded was three hundred.

For all this the Romans lost not heart, but were rather kindled to greater wrath. Then Vespasian commanded that the bank should be made higher than before, and that there should be built upon it three towers of fifty feet in height. These towers were cased all about with iron; and this was done both that it might be the more difficult to overthrow them by reason of their weight, and also that they might not be consumed with fire. In these towers he set slingers and archers, and artillery also of the lighter sort, who themselves not being seen by reason of the great height of the tower, could yet look down upon them that defended the wall.

These then seeing that they could not escape the things that were cast upon them, nor yet cast back again others upon the enemy, and could not do any hurt to the towers (for that they were cased with iron), were driven to leave the walls; only when any sought to get footing upon them they would run out against them.

In these days, while the men of Jotapata were much troubled about their own affairs, there came tidings how that the Romans had taken the city of Joppa, and had slain all the inhabitants thereof with the sword. Also they heard that a great multitude of the Samaritans had been slain on Mount Gerizim, whither they had gathered themselves together.

On the forty-and-seventh day from the beginning of the siege there went a certain runaway to the camp to Vespasian, and showed him the whole truth, how it fared with them that were in the city, how that they were worn out with watching and fighting, and also how they might easily he taken, if he would use craft with them. For he said that at the last watch of the night, having it seemed some respite from their troubles, they were wont to take some rest, and that if he would attack the wall at that time, he would find the guards sleeping. Vespasian, indeed, doubted whether the man was speaking truth, for he knew that the Jews were, for the most part, faithful to each other, and that they could not be driven, even by the greatest torments, to betray that which they knew. Notwithstanding, thinking that even if the man spake falsely he should not receive damage, he commanded that the wall should be assailed.

Therefore, at the last watch of the night there went a company of men to the wall, who climbed on to the top; and they that stood first on the wall were Titus and another, a centurion, Domitius Sabinus by name. They found the watch sleeping, as had been told them; and when they had slain the men they went down without let into the city. Afterwards the gate being opened, the soldiers came in. And first they took possession of the citadel, and afterwards went to and fro through the city. And though the day had now dawned, yet did not the Jews know what had befallen them, for they were very weary and heavy with sleep; and also the sight of those that were awake was hindered by a great mist that chanced to prevail over the city. Nor did they understand the matter till the whole army of the Romans was in the city. These, indeed, remembering what things they had suffered in the siege for now nigh upon fifty days, had no mercy upon any. Many also of the bravest of the Jews, seeing that they could not prevail even to the avenging of themselves upon the enemy, slew themselves with their own hands. And, indeed, the Romans had that day taken the city, nor had had so much as one man slain, but for this that shall now be told. One of them that had fled into the caves that were in the city (and many had so fled) cried to a certain Antonius that he should stretch out his right hand to him, helping him to climb out of the cave. Which when Antonius had done, the other smote him from below with the spear in the groin and slew him.

All the men that were found in the city did Vespasian and the Romans slay; and the women and the children they sold into captivity. As for the city, Vespasian commanded that it should be utterly destroyed.