Rome. Its name still evokes conquest, power, and empire over 1500 years after its final downfall. Yet the tiny province of Judea fought the mighty empire for more than three years. The Roman legions may have been unstoppable, but the stubborn Jews refused to give up. There were some exceptions; Yosef ben Mattityahu, better known by his Roman name Josephus, was the most famous.
Yosef was a Cohen who had worked in the Temple in Jerusalem. In his youth he lived with the ascetic Essene sect in the desert for three years. Later he traveled to Rome and pursued a classical education. On his return to Judea, at the start of the Great Revolt in 66 CE, he was appointed military commander of the Galil.
We have few details about his life, beyond what he chose to share in his autobiography. And for political reasons, his autobiography may not have been dedicated to the true facts of his life. What we do know is that as commander of the Galil, Yosef went to Yodfat, called Jotapata by the Romans, to command its defense against the advancing legions.
The city of Yodfat stands on a hilltop about 25 kilometers west of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). With cliffs on the east side and very steep drops on two other sides, it is accessible only from the north. And even from the north, the climb is steep. Most of the people in my class, including me, were out of breath from climbing part way up the hill to a stopping place. We sat on rocks overlooking the parking lot where our tour bus was parked far below. That valley was where the Romans, under the command of Vespasian, had camped during the brief siege. They didn’t have to put up a tight perimeter wall as they did in other places; geography itself prevented defenders from leaving for supplies.
The path to the top was neither as long nor as winding as the famous Snake Path to the top of Masada. The ledge where we stopped to learn about the battle
looked to the north, towards what would have been the camp of the Roman 15th Legion. About a third of the way up the slope, two rows of long spears and shields stand as if held there by invisible Roman soldiers. Next to where we sat stood a replica of a Roman battering ram. The replica weapons were placed here to give visitors a hint of what the enemy might have looked like to defenders.
After conquering the hill, the Romans had destroyed what was up there, and left. The only evidence that remained were traces of foundations, a few mikves, and some cisterns. No one ever built there again. It was not of sufficient strategic value. But this is where Yosef ben Matityahu, and a band of fighters made a stand in 67 CE during the Great Revolt against the Romans.
At the beginning of the revolt, Yodfat was one of the towns that was fortified with a surrounding wall. Undeterred by the height of the hill or the city walls at its top, the Romans built a ramp to the top. Their archers and spearmen were able to shoot over the wall. A battering ram damaged the walls themselves.
The siege went on for 47 days. It was summer and although they had sufficient food, the town ran out of water. When Yosef instituted water rationing to preserve what little they had, the people complained that knowing they had so little each day made their thirst even worse. And then the Romans broke through the wall. Titus, Vespasian’s son and one of the commanding officers, led the legionnaires into the city, where they killed all the men and captured 1200 women and children. The Romans then razed the city, and burned what was left.
Forty of the fighters survived the initial Roman onslaught and retreated to one of the caves that dot the sides of the hill. Yosef proposed that rather than allow themselves to be killed by the Romans, or be captured and taken into slavery, they should take their own lives. They would choose, by lottery, men who would be responsible for killing others. In the end, two would be left. One would kill the other and then kill himself. Maybe Divine Providence helped Yosef that day, maybe it was sheer good luck, or maybe he had somehow rigged the lottery. Whatever it was, Yosef was one of those last two men.
Perhaps he had already known when he arrived at Yodfat that the Jewish revolt was doomed to fail. Perhaps he realized it as he looked down on the Romans from the city walls. He does not write about his thinking. It is unclear what happened to the other man, whose name is unknown, but we know Yosef ben Mattityahu, Jewish commander of the north, surrendered to the Romans.
Somehow he managed to convince them not to kill him. Being able to write better than the Roman commanders, he suggested they needed an official historian. He offered his services. The captive Jewish general was useful to the Romans. Changing his name to Flavius Josephus, he wrote the history of the Great Revolt, The War of the Jews. This book is almost the only detailed written record we have of the end of the Second Temple period .
When we read history, we always ask, how reliable is this author? Does he take an objective stance, or does he have some agenda to promote? In The War of the Jews, Josephus clearly has an agenda—his own survival. He needs to flatter the Roman generals, so they will allow him to live. By the time he writes Antiquities of the Jews many years later, he is no longer worried about his survival, and is somewhat more objective. So should we trust him as a historian? Yes, and no.
As Shulie Mishkin often says when referring to Josephus, “When he does not have a reason to lie, he tells the truth.” So when he writes about life in the Second Temple period, or about geography, he is trustworthy. Indeed, many of his observations and comments have been supported by archaeological finds. But when he is talking about war and the Romans, that’s another story.
Although Josephus wrote War of the Jews in a way that glorifies Rome and the achievements of her brave legions and its officers, the book nonetheless tells us many details that we would otherwise not know. Even if in doing so, he invented some of those historical details. For example, he reports the speech made by Elazar ben Yair on top of Masada the night before it was captured by the Romans. It was a stirring inspirational speech. Josephus most likely wrote and polished every word himself, since the only survivors at Masada were two women and five children who would not have heard Elazar’s words. I wonder how much of Elazar ben Yair’s speech came from Josephus’ own words to his men at Yodfat.
But most other non-military details in his history are accurate. Some of us climbed further from the ledge where we had paused to catch our breaths and hear the story of the site. Josephus wrote that the Romans killed 40,000 people in Yodfat, and, indeed, the flat top of the hill is large enough for a city with that size population. We could see traces of building foundations, but not much h
ad been excavated. We walked towards its eastern edge. The drop to the valley far below was breathtaking. It induced thoughts of slipping on a pebble and dropping so fast and far it would take a team of dedicated mountaineers and people being lowered from a helicopter to rescue you. I backed away as quickly—and carefully– as I could. Although two people went even closer to the drop, no one dared standing on the absolute edge. No wonder the defenders of the city felt invulnerable. Unfortunately for them, the Romans had enough men and supplies to make the word “invulnerable” meaningless.
When the archaeologists finally came to Yodfat, they found one cistern had been filled with bones. They also found a stone nearby with two drawings carved on it. One was the ancient symbol of a mausoleum, the other a crab, the zodiac sign of the month of Tammuz, the month that the Romans conquered the city. After the Romans left the area, someone had come to Yodfat to take care of the dead, depositing their remains in this one place, and marking it with a memorial stone.
Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, known in the US as the Jewish National Fund, has erected a monument to the defenders of Yodfat at the foot of the hill. Above the story of Yodfat are the two strange symbols. The fight against the Romans may have been futile, but we remember the stubborn fighters who tried to restore Jewish rule to the land.