How One Jewish Leader Escaped Mass Suicide
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some things are too important not to be left to chance.
In the year A.D. 67, the Roman army led by the commander Vespasian moved across the province of Judaea violently stamping out a rebellion among its Jewish inhabitants. The Jewish historian Josephus would later write, “From one end of Galilee to the other there was an orgy of fire and bloodshed.” But for a remarkable 47 days, the city of Jotapata, behind its clever leader Josephus, managed to hold off the most powerful military in the world.
The elusive Josephus, whose tale survives in his account The Jewish War, was only getting started. When the Romans finally breached the walls and slaughtered 40,000 of the city’s inhabitants, Josephus was gone. He would later be found in a cave at the bottom of a cistern with one other survivor, surrounded by a pile of bodies. Whether by an act of God, through his own cunning or sheer good fortune, the surprising manner in which Josephus managed to orchestrate — and then survive — a spectacular mass suicide is still the subject of great speculation today.
The incident at Jotapata is just one of many mass suicides that adorn early Jewish history. Six years later, in A.D. 73, the famous mass suicide at Masada would take place, in which holdouts in a mountaintop fortress above the Dead Sea allegedly killed all the women and children before turning their weapons on themselves as the Roman army approached. The similarly fortified Jotapata, writes historian Desmond Seward in Jerusalem’s Traitor, was “the safest place in Galilee, hidden away in the mountains and practically invisible until you reached it.” On three sides of the city, ravines fell steeply down, and on the fourth a massive wall stood. Josephus, only 30, was a wealthy Jewish priest who became one of the rebellion’s main leaders — and one of its cleverest. Under Josephus’ instructions, men were sent out from the besieged city under sheepskins to get supplies while the Romans were targeted with psychological warfare: Even with Jotapata running desperately low on water, soaking wet rags were draped over the ramparts to taunt the attacking army.
Josephus’ fortuitous survival led to suspicions that he had manipulated the lots.
The day the city eventually fell, Josephus and his fellow citizens hid in a deep cistern. When the Romans finally learned of their location, an emissary was sent down to the cave to convince them to surrender, which Josephus — who as leader was more likely to survive capture — was keen to do. Others in the cave, however, were eager to make a suicidal last stand and turned on their capitulating leader. Josephus quickly changed tactics and embraced a suicide pact, but one that would avoid the sin of self-slaughter.
Under the method Josephus claims he proposed, the person drawing the first lot would be killed by the one who drew the second lot, and so on, since in a simultaneously choreographed suicide, “it would be unfair if, when the rest are gone, somebody should repent and save himself.”
And so the gallant captives began the drawing of lots and the domino-like suicide proposed by their leader. Miraculously, and rather conveniently, two men were left at the end, including Josephus, who proceeded to convince his fellow holdout — witness to what must have been a horrendously brutal game of chance — to abort the suicide pact and not “to stain his hand with the blood of a fellow-countryman.” The pair surrendered and became Roman captives.
Josephus’ fortuitous survival led to suspicions that he had manipulated the lots. A Slavonic version of his text reports, “He counted the numbers with cunning and thereby misled them all.” Clearly, if Josephus had done anything truly underhanded, he would not have reported it so brazenly to posterity. But the fishy circumstances surrounding his survival have prompted various apocryphal versions of the story, including one that’s formed the basis of a favorite challenge for mathematicians, referred to as the “Josephus problem” or “Roman roulette.” Under this version, Josephus had the holdouts stand in a circle and count off, with every third person being killed in turn, and Josephus having calculated the spot in the circle he would need to occupy to escape execution (for example, the 31st position in a group of 41).
Of course, the major obstacle to understanding what really happened in the cave is that the only source we have is Josephus, whose wits did not desert him as a Roman prisoner. If in fact he escaped the cave by chance, then he appears to have doubled down on his luck, eventually earning his freedom after Vespasian became emperor in A.D. 69 — precisely as Josephus had once prophesized to the leader that he would.
Following his release, Josephus became a trusted advisor to Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian, and even adopted their family name, Flavius. For the remainder of the conflict, he would serve as a Roman mediator, attempting to convince his countrymen — most of whom considered him a traitor and a coward — to surrender in the face of Rome’s military superiority.
After the war he embarked on his literary career, writing up histories of the wars while enjoying an imperial pension until his death around A.D. 100. Demonstrating, yet again, that history is written by the winners, or sometimes just the lucky survivors.