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William Shepard

The Capture of Josephus

The Romans sought in vain among the dead for the body of Josephus, and then looked among the secret recesses of the city, but without success, until they began to fear that the wily general had escaped them. During the massacre Josephus had leaped down in a deep pit, in the side of which was a large cavern invisible to those above. Here he found forty persons of distinction concealed, provided with necessaries sufficient to support them for a considerable time. He lay hidden during the day, and at night attempted to escape from the city, but, as every avenue was closely guarded, he was obliged to return to the cavern. For two days he escaped detection, but on the third a woman who had been with the party in the cave was captured, and betrayed the secret.

Vespasian at once despatched two tribunes with orders to offer Josephus protection and to induce him to leave his retreat. Repairing to the mouth of the cavern, they called to him to come out, and pledged themselves for his safety. But Josephus, being suspicious, would not leave his retreat until Vespasian sent another tribune, called Nicanor, known to Josephus, and formerly an associate of his.

Nicanor discoursed upon the generosity of the Romans to an enemy once subdued, and assured Josephus that on account of his valor he was rather an object of admiration than of hatred to the Roman officers. He said that Vespasian wished to save a man who had showed such courage, for did he wish to kill him he had it now in his power to do so; moreover, he would not have sent a friend to him for the purpose of deceiving him.

While Josephus was hesitating, the Roman soldiery in their rage rushed forward to throw fire into the cavern, but Nicanor, anxious to take the Jewish leader alive, restrained them. Josephus, hearing the tumult, and knowing that if he remained he would be killed anyway, consented to Nicanor's terms, and was about to leave the cave.

But here an unexpected difficulty arose. The Jews who were with Josephus, drawing their swords, declared that he must not surrender himself; that such a course would be cowardly and against the Jewish laws, and rather than see him fall into the hands of the Romans, they would slay him themselves.

Josephus, between his enemies outside the cavern and his friends within, found himself in a very tight fix indeed. He, however, attempted to persuade the Jews that it was right to save one's own life when it could be done without dishonor; indeed, that it was a great sin to throw away life unless in open warfare against an enemy. But the Jews would not listen to arguments. Upbraiding him with cowardice, they ran at him from all sides and tried to kill him. The general thrust aside their strokes as best he could, and by persuasion and command induced them to put up their swords, and then with his usual sagacity saved himself by a stratagem, speaking thus to his assailants:

"If we must die, let us not die by our own, but by each other's hands. Let us cast lots, and thus fall one after another; for if the rest perish it would not be just for any one of us to survive."

To a proposal apparently so fair they readily assented, and Josephus himself cast the lot. Each one in turn bared his throat to the next, until Josephus and one other alone remained. Josephus persuaded this man to surrender along with himself to Nicanor. The Jewish chieftain was immediately brought to Vespasian, while the Romans crowded from all quarters to obtain sight of him. Those who were at a distance from him cried out that he should be killed; but those near him thought of his exploits, and were struck with pity at his reverses. All the Roman officers, even those who had been most furious against him, were touched by the fortitude with which he bore his misfortunes, and relented towards him. Titus in particular was struck by his noble mien, and interceded for him with Vespasian, who ordered the general to be closely guarded, that he might be sent to Nero at Rome.

Josephus demanded a private interview with Vespasian, which was granted, and all retired except Titus and two of his friends. The Jewish chieftain then addressed Vespasian thus:

"You think, Vespasian, that you have possessed yourself merely of a captive in Josephus; but I come to you as a messenger of greater things. Why do you send me to Nero? For who will succeed Nero but yourself? You, Vespasian, are Cæsar and emperor,—you, and this your son. For you, Cæsar, are master not only of me, but of sea and land, and of the whole human race."

Vespasian at first mistrusted this declaration of Josephus, thinking it flattery, but gradually was led to believe it. One of the friends of Titus who was present expressed his surprise that Josephus should have been able to predict either the fall of Jotapata or his own captivity. Josephus replied that he had predicted both these things.

Vespasian, having privately questioned the prisoners respecting these statements, and finding them true, began to believe that Josephus was really a prophet. He, however, still kept him in chains, though he presented him with raiment and other articles, and treated him with much kindness and attention.