Sunday, February 26, 2017


Steve Mason, A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xii, 689. ISBN 9780521853293. $150.00.

Reviewed by Matthew V. Novenson, University of Edinburgh (

Version at BMCR home site


When I discovered the package containing Steve Mason's A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74 in my office mailbox, my first response was excitement, since I, like many scholars of Judaism in antiquity, had known about and been anticipating Mason's summa on the war for some years now. My second response, upon opening the package, was surprise at the book's title, since one of Mason's professional calling cards is his insistence upon using "Judaean" rather than "Jew" or "Jewish" for Greek Ἰουδαῖος and Latin Iudaeus. (I can only guess that the title represents a compromise between author and publisher, since in the pages of the book Mason uses his customary "Judaean" throughout.) My third and lasting response, upon reading the book, was deep appreciation for Mason's encyclopaedic knowledge of the contexts of the war and his nimble handling of numerous historiographical problems. Mason's Jewish War was originally commissioned for Cambridge University Press's Key Conflicts of Classical Antiquity series, a match made in publishing heaven. But whereas the previous entries in that series—Michael Kulikowski's Rome's Gothic Wars and Waldemar Heckel's Conquests of Alexander the Great—weigh in at about 240 pages, Mason's Jewish War runs to nearly 700. While a series-appropriate 240-page "foundation for undergraduates with no background in ancient history" (as per the series description in the CUP catalogue) on the Jewish War from Mason would be very welcome, the book that he has in fact produced is a far more interesting one.

This book undertakes two discrete tasks, corresponding to parts I and II of its table of contents. Part I, "Contexts," treats several key conceptual and methodological issues over three chapters. Chapter 1, "A Famous and Unknown War," does some initial de-mystifying of the war, showing how modern perceptions of it, both popular and academic, are unwittingly in thrall to Flavian propaganda and Christian (and latterly also Jewish) mythmaking: "Flavian propagandists conjured up Jews as a foreign enemy with a great army, or as a nation in revolt. Christians portrayed them as the people that had crucified God and so faced eternal punishment. That was all anyone needed to know" (58). Chapter 2, "Understanding Historical Evidence: Josephus' Judean War in Context," situates Josephus's War as a work of Roman literary art, warning against the modern temptation to approach it as a trove of data: "It should now be clear why [Josephus's] literary effort could never be reliable for us. We might as well ask whether a song or a mountain is reliable… [The modern] longing for safe, unskewed data is not only a mirage but a recipe for misery. A realistic approach to Josephus' work is far more interesting" (136). Here Mason also briefly but efficiently theorises the concept of history: "I shall use history to mean simply the investigation of the human past" (69). Chapter 3, "Parthian Saviours, Sieges, and Morale: Ancient Warfare in Human Perspective," explicates a number of unspectacular but nonetheless important factors in the conduct of the war on both sides. Mason writes, "Rome's legions have acquired the mystique of an unstoppable machine driven by a cool, purely military discipline, whereas Jewish-Judaean rebels appear in film (Ben-Hur, Life of Brian) as motivated by wide-eyed, religious-nationalist fervour. On both sides, we easily forget the human conditions that affected both and their largely shared values" (138), namely: pragmatism regarding loss of life and potential strategic gains, the hope or fear of Parthian intervention, the awarding of military commands to men of high status but no competence, the high rate of infectious disease in military camps, and the psychological appeal of desertion, inter alia.

The longer Part II, "Investigations," effectively comprises Mason's history of the war as such. It is organised as a series of topical studies rather than a march through the war year by year, but it manages pretty well to cover the waterfront. In chapter 4, "Why Did They Do It? Antecedents, Circumstances, and 'Causes' of the Revolt," Mason roundly rejects the old idea that the Judaeans were uniquely intolerant of Roman rule and so inevitably rose up. He writes, "The beginnings of this war had little to do with long-term antagonism… Judaea's real, and finally existential threats, were local" (200). And again, "The Judaean War was not the revolt of a 'province of Judaea' against Roman rule. Judaea was not a province but the ethnic zone around world-famous Jerusalem. Its people and elite found themselves in the autumn of 66 awaiting Roman retribution because they had recently acted against the local apparatus of administration—Caesarea, its resident prefect, and the auxiliary force" (278). Chapter 5, "Nero's War I: The Blunder of Cestius Gallus?" analyses the particular event that kindled the war: the expedition of the legate C. Cestius Gallus to Jerusalem in autumn of 66 C.E. Against the received view that Cestius found Judaea already in revolt and went to Jerusalem to crush it, Mason argues, "[It is] unlikely that he ever imagined Jerusalem or Judaeans to be in revolt against him or Rome. Certainly he seems not [to] have known about a province of Judaea or an independent rebel state. Nor could he have intended his reluctant expedition… to culminate in an assault on Jerusalem" (327). Ironically, Mason suggests, Cestius's expedition to Jerusalem created new enemies of Rome among Judaeans who had not hitherto been thus inclined. Chapter 6, "Nero's War II: Flavians in Galilee," poses the question why Vespasian spent the year 67 fighting in Galilee. Against the common view, read off the surface of Josephus, that his Galilean campaign was phase one of a grand plan to crush a nation-wide revolt, Mason argues, "[War book 3] is simply not the story of a 'Judaean-Roman war in Galilee,' much less of Vespasian's scorched- earth destruction en route to Jerusalem. The Roman general has no expectation of fighting after Sepphoris' pre-emptive submission, which leaves his confident army with only patrols, confidence-building exercises, [and so on]" (377). At any number of points, events could have unfolded very differently than they did. But Josephus, looking back after the war's end, invests these early episodes in Galilee—especially the ones in which he himself had participated—with world-historical importance.

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 of the "Investigations" examine the Romans campaigns at Jerusalem and in the Judaean desert. In chapter 7, "Jerusalem I: Josephus and the Education of Titus," Mason treats the events recounted in War books 4-6, reconstructing what happened in and around Jerusalem from 68 to 70. Taking a cue from Josephus's emphasis on intra-Judaean stasis—and noting how Josephus parallels this to the Roman civil war of 69—Mason characterizes the several parties who occupied Jerusalem during the siege: the partisans of Simon bar Giora, those of John of Gischala, priestly Zelotai ("Disciples" in Mason's rendering), Adiabenians, and Idumeans. As most of these were not native Jerusalemites but wartime refugees, Mason suggests that perhaps "Jerusalem itself would have capitulated, had it not been for the large numbers of desperate men who fled to Jerusalem from elsewhere and who could not surrender" (465). Chapter 8, "Jerusalem II: Coins, Councils, Constructions," is a companion-piece to chapter 7. It adduces evidence for the siege of Jerusalem from sources other than Josephus, in particular, first, the numerous and diverse wartime coins excavated in Jerusalem and, second, the account of Titus's council of war related by Sulpicius Severus. An especial burden of the chapter is to account for Titus's decision to raze the the temple, about which Mason concludes, "There seems no reason to imagine that Titus had a policy concerning the city or temple, any more than Vespasian had one in 68… Titus was happy to exploit what had happened, as part of the myth of Flavian origins. But he could not have planned it" (513). Finally, chapter 9, "A Tale of Two Eleazars: Machaerus and Masada," treats the sieges of the Judaean desert strongholds, some three years after Titus's victory in Jerusalem, as related in War book 7. Masada, Mason argues, was not the last stand of the most heroic Judaean rebels, but a refugee camp for families which operated on its own bandit economy and so, from a Roman perspective, needed eventually to be shuttered. Reasoning from Josephus's account, Mason argues, "Masada's wartime Judaean inhabitants [were] family men seeking the security of the former royal refuge for their women and children. Fearing the bloody factionalism in Jerusalem… they remove themselves from the fray to this remote, fortified site… [hoping to] ride out the storm in security" (534). He finds corroboration in Ronny Reich's account of the archaeology of Masada: "From 66 until the final siege, Masada was 'a camp of displaced persons.' It was not a 'Zealot' stronghold but rather a place for different kinds of refugees" (550).

The book ends with 15 or so pages of "Conclusions," which include a pithy statement of Mason's realist and "human" account of the war: "The Judaean-Roman conflict broke out… not from anti-Roman ideas or dreams among the uniquely favoured Judaean population, but from the sort of thing that more commonly drives nations to arms: injury, threats of more injury, perceived helplessness, the closure of avenues of redress, and ultimately the concern for survival" (584). Mason's resolutely realist account of the war is in most respects a triumph. Given the disproportionately elaborate mythology that has grown up around this war ("the greatest not only of the wars of our own time, but well nigh of all that ever broke out between cities or nations" [Josephus, War 1.1]), the task of writing its history requires not only a thorough command of the mass of relevant evidence but also a tough-minded demythologizing programme, both of which Mason amply provides. There is one theme, however, on which, it seems to me, Mason mishandles his own method, namely, the religion of the Judaeans: their god, temple, priests, oracles, and so on. On the Judaean side of the conflict, Mason treats religion as an anomaly: extreme, irrational, and unusual, not to be invoked by way of explanation if simpler, more realist, more human factors (e.g., ambition, self-preservation) are on offer, as they always are. But I would argue that for the Jews, as for ancient peoples generally (though not for us moderns), nothing was more realist or more human than religion. For just this reason, they often expressed other, ostensibly more realist ideas in the language of religion. By their lights, military intervention by the Parthians was not a different, simpler outcome than salvation by a god. The former just was the latter. Interestingly, on the Roman side, Mason does allow for the tremendous importance of gods, priests, and sacrifices as social facts (see 139-155, especially 152-153). But he does not extend this courtesy to the Judaeans, perhaps on the assumption that their god has been given rather too much credit for the war already (see 199).

Mason's History of the Jewish War is, as I have said, a triumph. The physical artefact is a handsome and substantial hardback, well suited for a magisterial volume such as this. The back matter includes an appendix on distance measurements in Josephus's War and thorough indices of modern authors, historical persons, groups, and places, and ancient texts, inscriptions, and papyri. The main text is complemented by some 40 high-quality illustrations (maps, coins, inscriptions, archaeological site plans, landscape photographs, and the like) and four tables. There are a few inconsistences of style, for instance, the occasional "Judean" for "Judaean." I spotted only a very few typos, including the running page header for chapter 2, which reads "in Contest" for "in Context" throughout. On the whole, however, the Press's production values live up to contents of the book. This is as it should be, since it seems clear to the present reviewer, at least, that Mason's Jewish War is now the definitive treatment of the subject.

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