Josephus in Rome: How Spending Time Abroad Can Change Your Life
Updated: Apr 22
The Jewish historian Josephus spent two years in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Nero. It changed the direction of his life. Having received a first-rate education funded by his upper-class parents in Jerusalem, he was an accomplished scholar who followed the practices of the Pharisees. He most likely was well-trained in what we call the classical languages, Greek and Latin. In his day they were the lingua Franca, much as English is today. He probably had a good book knowledge of these languages, but not much experience conversing. Nor had he experienced the cultures firsthand. But at the age of 27 he got his chance to take a trip to Rome and spend over a year there. He was sent by the council in Jerusalem to attempt to obtain the release of several Temple priests who had been imprisoned there on trumped up charges.
A cityscape of Rome today.
One factor that greatly facilitated his visit in Rome was the fact that the Jewish populace had already preceded him. Since the Babylonian captivity the Jewish diaspora had made their way into most of the major cities of the known world. Rome had a large Jewish population. Josephus’ could therefore find lodgings with various countrymen and make acquaintances with persons of importance. One of these was the wife of Nero, Poppaea, who Josephus wrote was a sympathizer with the Jewish religion to the point that she was “a believer in God”. His connection with her ultimately led to the success of his mission with the release of the priests.
The most impactful part of Josephus’ visit was the opportunity to immerse himself in the culture. This allowed him to develop a fluency in spoken Greek and Latin and an ability to interact with Romans as fellow human beings, rather than just seeing them as the oppressors of his nation. He said that during his stay he was also able to read many well-known Greek authors like Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Sophocles, Euripides, and Epicurus. His later writings, well-known today, were all in Greek, and demonstrated his excellent command of the language. Importantly, he also got to see the workings and trainings of the Roman legions, for which he developed a respect. He wrote of this experience:
“What they undergo when training is in no way different from fighting, since each soldier is trained every day as if on campaign, with the utmost thoroughness, which is why they always stand up so well to the rigors of war. No setbacks affect their discipline. They are incapable of panic and cannot be frightened, while nothing tires them, with the result that they defeat untrained opponents. It is not exaggeration to say that their drilling is a bloodless battle and their battles are blood-stained drilling. The enemy never has a chance of catching them off guard because as soon as they march into his territory they refuse to go into action until they have fortified their camp. Nothing is done without a command. At first light, the legionaries report to their centurions and the centurions go to salute their tribunes, every senior officer then going to their general, who gives them the watchword for the day together with his orders.” The Jewish Wars 3:73-87.
When Josephus returned to Jerusalem this experience in Rome got him assigned to being the general to oversee the defense of Galilee in the year 67 during the First Jewish Revolt. Although his knowledge allowed him to create a valiant defense of the town of Jotapata against the Romans, the end of the battle was never in question, and Josephus was captured. Inevitably his experience at speaking with and relating to Roman dignitaries surely helped to convince his captors to keep him alive and eventually give him his freedom. This gave him the ability to act as an emissary to the Jews during the siege of Jerusalem. His closeness to the Romans though was seen as treason. Winning the confidence of the Roman generals also meant losing the confidence of his countrymen. He was accused of spying by both the Jews and the Roman soldiers, which led to death threats from both sides after the siege at Jerusalem. Thus, he chose to live out his remaining years in the protection of the Flavian emperors, writing down Jewish history for posterity.