New College, University of Edinburgh
The Judaean-Roman War

The Judaean-Roman War

(Helen Bond) Just a very brief write-up of the wonderful lecture series we’ve just had from Professor Steve Mason (from Aberdeen) on the above topic. More than 40 postgrads, visitors, friends and even undergrads gathered in the Martin Hall to hear 5 illustrated talks on everything from the causes of the war to its aftermath.

What stood out for me was Prof Mason’s way of doing history. The question for him is not so much ‘to what extent is Josephus accurate?’ as a careful process of separating out first, what Josephus wants to tell us, and second, the extent to which our modern questions overlap (or more often don’t overlap) with the historian’s aims. There’s something straight-forward and honest about this approach. Josephus is no longer ’embellishing’ some body of neutral facts, but telling his own story in his own way. And if we want to put different questions to the text, we can hardly complain if some of the information is lacking.

Prof Mason’s analysis of the war is as innovative as it is compelling. The primary ’cause’, he argues, was not so much a deeply ingrained anti-Roman sentiment amongst the Jews (though such feelings  may have existed amongst some), as ethnic tensions between Jews/Judaeans and Samaritans. An impressive list of clashes between the two groups can be assembled, with each side expecting Rome to act as arbiter. In the end, it was Rome’s failure to negotiate these tensions, particularly under the pro-Samaritan governorship of Gessius Florus, which led to open warfare.

The campaign of Cestius Gallus comes under similar scrutiny. Rather than the abject failure it is commonly believed to have been, Mason argues that Gallus never intended to besiege Jerusalem. His intention was rather to intimidate the people, and to inspire them to submit to the superiority of Rome and its troops. The initial campaigns of Vespasian and Titus followed a similar course; it was only when intimidation and hope of desertion clearly failed that Rome took to the offensive.

A final highlight for me was Mason’s discussion of Masada. The more important desert fortress, he argued, was Machaerus, which quickly fell. Rather than the last stand of Jewish freedom fighters, Masada was a refugee camp, filled mainly with families who hoped to remain under Rome’s radar for as long as possible. This explains why Rome was content to leave them there until 73. As far as the Romans were concerned, the war with the Judaeans had come to a decisive end in 70.

There was plenty more for us all to think over. Many thanks again to everyone who made this possible – not only Prof Mason, but also other members of CSCO who provided constant streams of caffeine and two wine receptions!


  • CSCO Team,
  • 14th June 2012


  • John Byron, 14th June 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply


    Thanks for this wonderful summary. I find Prof. Mason’s analysis interesting and wonder what then caused the Romans to attack Masada with such ferocity? If Masada was just a refuge camp then why not just surround it, as they did, or let them be? Did Prof. Mason indicate why the Romans decided to finally attack Masada?

  • cscoedinburgh, 16th June 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply

    Hi John, good to hear from you. I think the idea is that it was simply a ‘mopping up’ exercise. It seems that there’s quite a bit of debate about the so-called Roman ramp – its possible that it was a natural ramp, that it may not have eroded all that much, and even that it wasn’t ever finished. Clearly something happened at Masada, but if the ramp wasn’t finished, it may be that it was something much less spectacular than Josephus suggests (perhaps the inhabitants surrendered willingly??). Or maybe there was a murkier story that Silva was only too happy to have covered up (he was, after all, still alive in Rome). Once we start to doubt Josephus’ account, of course, almost anything could have happened . . .

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