(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!