Monday, February 14, 2011


Ryan S. Olson, Tragedy, Authority, and Trickery: The Poetics of Embedded Letters in Josephus. Hellenic Studies 42. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2010. Pp. xiv, 254. ISBN 9780674053373. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Linda Zollschan (

Version at BMCR home site

This volume developed from Olson's DPhil dissertation from Oxford supervised by Martin Goodman, Chris Pelling and Steve Mason. Olson's central thesis is that the practice of quoting letters by Josephus was in imitation of long-standing Greek literary tradition that began with Homer. Olson proposes that Josephus made conscious allusions in his historical works to Greek literature which formed part of the influences that were part of Josephus' thought world. The author is completely up-to-date with the latest trends in scholarship regarding Josephus as a stylist of Greek literature, particularly the tragedians Sophocles and Euripides. Olson provides a stipulation that he is not concerned to distinguish between those Greek authors who were 'close' to Josephus' thought world from those that were distant.(4) Olson maintains that Josephus' audience was familiar with the literary models that Josephus incorporated into his work and that this audience was comprised of elite Romans in the city of Rome itself. (37-44)

The subtitle of this volume provides a indication that questions of authenticity or historicity of cited letters will not be central concerns of this work. (16) Instead, Olson's aim is to advance a theory regarding the reading of letters in narratives. In order to do this, he describes the basic functions of letters, how they are linked to the main text, the repercussions for intratextuality and intertextuality and the reasons for the inclusion of letters in the text of Josephus' works. (30)

Chapter 2 gives an overview of the letters in the Bellum Judaicum, Contra Apionem , the Antiquitates Judaicae and the Vita. Chapter 3 shows the similarities between the letters embedded in Josephus' works and with those found cited in other Greek authors. Olson finds that the basic epistolary functions were to advance the narrative and to close spatial and temporal gaps in the plot. (99) Olson's original contribution is to show the influence of Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris on Josephus. (155-162) In chapter 4, Olson explores how letters are used as attestation either by characters in the text or by Josephus as evidence for his interpretation of events. (165) Before touching on Josephus, he examines embedded letters in Herodotus, Thucydides and Euripides. In Chapter 5, Olson presents his conclusions, namely, in summary that Josephus was following Greek literary patterns to give his writing the sophistication necessary to show that Jews could be on a cultural parity with Romans. (210) Josephus hoped that his audience would find the letters that he quoted convincing. (216) Olson suggests that the letters provide an answer to the question of exactly who was Josephus' audience. (218)

Central to Olson's argument is the reception of Josephus' work by his intended audience, defined as the Roman elite in Rome, a position that is by no means uncontested among scholars. Olson's stance on this question owes a debt to the work of Steve Mason that he readily acknowledges. (41) On the other hand it should be noted that Rajak, Troiani, Parente and Price consider that Josephus' chief intended audience was to be found in the Jewish Diaspora.1 This view is barely given any consideration by Olson.

Olson follows the trend in scholarship today to suggest that Josephus' work circulated only among a small circle of people in Rome due to his understanding of the nature of book circulation in the first century CE. The non-commercial publication of books through distribution by the author himself is the latest view and may be found in R. Winsbury, The Roman Book. Books, Publishing and Performance in Classical Rome, London, 2009. What both Olson (following Mason) and Winsbury have in common is the overturning of the classic work on the topic, Birt,2 on the basis that he is accused of extreme anachronism. I am not sure that one may completely throw out Birt's view that there existed a commercial distribution of works in Rome and hold that publication only consisted of the recitation of a text in public. One needs to take into account a letter of Pliny (9.2.2) in which he says that the distribution of his works was entirely in the hands of the bibliopolae. The circle of Josephus; readers may have been considerably larger than Olson (and Mason) suggest, especially when one considers that the making of 1,000 copies did not present a problem.3

I would like to propose another possibility that would account for both the circulation of Josephus' works by the author both inside Rome and in the Jewish Diaspora. Rajak 4 shows the wide-ranging personal contacts that Josephus maintained with the Diaspora, including with Crete, Cyrene, Asia Minor and Babylon. To my mind, this suggests the likelihood that Josephus could have personally distributed his works over this large area of the ancient world. Nowhere in Olson's book is to be found Price's view that Josephus' elite Roman audience may have extended beyond the confines if the city of Rome, but may have consisted of Roman citizens living in Alexandria and indeed in almost any eastern city of the Roman Empire.5

On the subject of the source of Josephus' Greek literary allusions, it would have been helpful on this point for Olson to mention the possibility that has already been raised by other scholars that these influences were mediated through Roman historians. Some interesting work has been done on the Latinisms in the Greek of Josephus, a field that is not yet exhausted and which could provide a fruitful subject for further attention.6

Finally, I would like to take issue with two statements made by Olson. On pages 2, 4 and 24 n.112 may be found statements without documentation to the effect that Josephus used the Septuagint version of the Bible. Olson only once states that Josephus knew the Hebrew text and never mentions that Josephus had use of an early Aramaic Targum.7 The second statement that Olson makes is that Josephus was fully involved in Roman society. This view is challenged in a paper by Cotton and Eck, who paint an entirely different picture, namely, that '. . . he held no prominent position in the social life of Flavian Rome' and that he '. . . was in all likelihood extremely lonely and extremely isolated in Rome – at least from the socio-political elite.8

In this volume, Olson has remained true to the latest trends in scholarship on Josephus. He writes of Greek literature with thorough familiarity and provides numerous parallels between the Greek historians and tragedians and passages from the works of Josephus. His work reflects the scholarship of Feldman and Mason. For countervailing views the reader will have to look elsewhere.


1.   T. Rajak (1983) Josephus: the historian and his society, London, 178; L. Troiani (1986) 'I lettori delle Antichità Guidaiche di Giuseppe: Prospettive e problemi' Athenaeum 64, 343-353; F. Parente (2005) 'The Impotence of Titus, or Josephus' Bellum Judaicum as an example of "Pathetic Historiography"' in J. Sievers and G. Lembi (eds.) Josephus and Jewish History in Flavian Rome and Beyond, Leiden, 49; J. Price (2005) 'The Provincial Historian in Rome' in J. Sievers and G. Lembi (eds.) Josephus and Jewish History in Flavian Rome and Beyond, Leiden, 107-108.
2.   T. Birt (1907) Die Buchrolle in der Kunst, Leipzig.
3.   Pliny, ep. 4.7.2; T. Kleberg (1967) Buchhandel und Verlagswesen in der Antike, Darmstadt, 62.
4.   T. Rajak (2005) 'Josephus in the Diaspora' in J. Edmondson, S. Mason, J. Rives (eds.) Flavius Josephus in Flavian Rome, Oxford, 87-90.
5.   Price (as in n. 1 above) 108.
6.   J.S. Ward (2007) 'Roman Greek: Latinisms in the Greek of Flavius Josephus' CQ 57, 633. Earlier works: B. Brüne (1913) Latinismen bei Josephus', Schriften in seinem Verhältnis zum Judentum, zur griechisch-römischen Welt und zum Christentum, Gütersloh, 175-177 and E. Stein (1937) "De Woordenkeuze in het Bellum Judaicum van Flavius Josephus", Diss. Amsterdam.
7.   H. St. J. Thackeray (1930) Josephus IV. Jewish Antiquities. Books I-IV, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge MA, p. xii and L. Feldman (1988) 'Use, Authority and Exegesis of Mikra in the Writings of Josephus' in M.J. Mulder (ed.) Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, Maastricht-Philadelphia, 456-460.
8.   H. Cotton and W. Eck (2005) 'Josephus' Roman Audience: Josephus and the Roman Elites' in J. Edmondson, S. Mason, J. Rives (eds.) Flavius Josephus in Flavian Rome, Oxford, 52.

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