1. Agrippa II. Roman Governors.—Herod Agrippa’s son, who was named after him, was only seventeen years old at the time of his father’s death. Judea was once more, to all intents, a Roman province; for although the Emperor Claudius left the young Herod Agrippa in nominal possession of his dominions and his title, and was personally on pleasant terms with him, yet Roman governors of Judea were again put in commission. This Roman governorship was like an open wound to the Jews. It was not only that the procurators were often plunderers and oppressors; the people might have borne that more or less patiently; but the very presence of foreign rulers, alien in faith and race, kept up a constant irritation. And for another thing, they were unwisely selected. Once an apostate, a nephew of Philo, was put in command, and the people were expected to obey a man whom they very properly despised. Another time a brother of a favourite slave of the Emperor Nero was appointed governor, and this relationship was the sole qualification for the appointment that any one ever discovered in him. Jews are always, at the best of times, a little impatient of authority. They were not too easy to manage even under Moses. Under these unsympathetic Romans, and that Rome-patronised king of theirs, they grew turbulent and desperate. Herod Agrippa, in truth, was not of much use to them. He had a beautiful sister, Berenice, and on occasion she would kneel in picturesque attitudes, and he would plead in eloquent periods, to one or other of the Roman oppressors; but, on the whole, Herod and Berenice both kept on excellent terms with Rome, and prudence rather than patriotism was their ideal. They came of a self-seeking race, this royal brother and sister. Herod Agrippa preached peace when there was no peace to his subjects; and when he found his smooth counsels were unheeded he retired with his sister to Rome, and there found other things to talk about with Titus. Meanwhile in Judea riots grew into rebellion, and rebellion into organised revolt. In 66 the Roman garrison at Jerusalem was overpowered and put to death by the Jews, and the Roman governor, Cestius Gallus, had to appeal to the prefect of Syria for assistance.
2. Vespasian sent to Judea.—The war had begun in earnest. The Emperor Nero could not understand a repulse to the Roman arms from this small corner of the world; yet judging, from the accounts which reached him, that the desperation of the Jews was making the Judean revolt a somewhat serious affair, he sent the famous general Vespasian and his son Titus with orders to quell it at once. From a distance it did not seem a difficult order—the skilled cohorts of Rome, with obedient Syria for their base of operations, against that handful of undisciplined desperadoes. But it took four years to do—four long, dreadful years of terribly unequal struggle. Rome found these Jews no ordinary rebels, and the invasion of Judea was no ‘walk over’ to the conquerors of the world. The Romans encountered a people with a history and a faith, fighting valiantly for both, and found them very hard to conquer.
3. Preparations for Defence.—The Jews saw at once that, with such a foe as Rome, pitched battles in the open would be a mistake. Their best chance lay in defending the fortified cities, and in endeavouring to wear out by resistance the patience of the invader. There was no trouble to find commanders, the difficulty lay rather in the selection. There were volunteers in plenty for the post of officers, more in proportion perhaps than for that of privates. But supplies and troops were both forthcoming, and north, south, east, and west the country roused itself for the effort at freedom.
4. Josephus.—The province of Galilee was put in command of a man named Josephus, a descendant of the Asmoneans, who lived to earn for himself a better reputation as a chronicler of his country than as a soldier in its service. At this time (66) Josephus was about thirty years old, extremely clever and capable, and well inclined to play the part of his famous ancestor, and lead his followers to victory, if victory was to be won. It all lay in the ‘if,’ for Josephus was a very different sort of man from Judas Maccabeus. If Judas had been defeated by the Syrians he would have died fighting; he would never have surrendered. Judas Maccabeus fought in the uncompromising spirit that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego have made historical. ‘We are not careful, O king, to answer thee in this matter,’ said those model Jews: ‘if our God whom we serve will deliver us from the fiery furnace, He will deliver us; but if not, be it known to thee, O king, we will not serve thy gods.’ Josephus had no thought of cutting off all possibility of retreat in that fashion. His service was more after the sort of the half-hearted heathen, Naaman. He would fight for Judea, but Rome was his Rimmon in the background, and, in his most enthusiastic moments, Josephus was never unmindful of his own interests. He organised his troops, and defended in person a fine fortress built on a rock at Jotapata. This citadel he held for forty-seven days against Titus, and his soldiers supported him gallantly. The Romans were more than once repulsed, and presently Titus set up a strict blockade, intending to starve the garrison into surrender. The Jews liked fighting better than starving, and surrender was out of the question. They had no food, and hardly any water left, but they soaked their clothes in those last few precious bucketfuls, and hung the dripping garments in the sun. The Romans could not believe in such wilful defiant waste, and believing the garrison must be better supplied than they had imagined, they raised the blockade and began the attack again. The famine-stricken garrison fought like heroes—again and again the Romans were driven back. At last ‘the battle was to the strong,’ and Jotapata fell. The Romans entered the fortress, and found none to receive them save the dead and the dying. Josephus, and just a few like him, had made good their escape to a neighbouring cavern, and to this safe little retreat a Roman envoy from head-quarters was presently despatched. Vespasian was most anxious to transform Josephus from an enemy into an ally, and Josephus was equally anxious to give his strength to the stronger side. But it had to be managed. His followers were not so ready as he, to act like the rats in the proverb.
The envoy was desired to wait. ‘We must submit to the will of God,’ Josephus piously began, and, pressed by his companions for clearer counsel, he proceeded to urge that the death of martyrs during the siege having been denied to them, it were vain to seek that distinction now. The faces around looked but half convinced, and then, more boldly, the tempter hinted, ‘We may live to serve God and our country in other ways.’ The eager listeners frowned; they had faltered enough to flee, but not to altogether fall. Such counsels sounded to them like pious, unpatriotic platitudes. The crafty commander was quick to note the dark looks of his companions, and changed his tactics. He professed to agree with them. ‘You are right,’ he exclaimed; ‘it is better to die than to surrender. Let our own swords be the preservers of our honour.’ This was more welcome advice to men in an exalted mood, and they all agreed to die by each other’s hands, and the last left, it was arranged, should kill himself.
They cast lots to settle in what order they should die, and in the end, whether by good luck or by good management, Josephus was one of the only two remaining. Josephus at once politely offered to be executioner, but the other man hesitated, and offered his services in that capacity to Josephus. Neither really wanted to be victim, and so both made up their minds to live, and left the cave together. Josephus accompanied the waiting envoys to Rome, and was received by Vespasian with every mark of respect. The fact of the surrender was slurred over; Josephus called himself a prophet instead of a renegade, and claimed to be fulfilling events which he had all along foreseen. Vespasian smiled quietly at these pretensions. He had gained what he wanted, the co-operation of Josephus, and the qualms of the man’s crooked conscience were no concern of his.