Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.06.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.06.33

William den Hollander, Josephus, the Emperors, and the City of Rome: From Hostage to Historian. Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity 86.   Leiden:  Brill, 2014.  Pp. xii, 410.  ISBN 9789004264335.  $149.00.  

Reviewed by Sean A. Adams, University of Edinburgh (


This book, a version of the author’s PhD dissertation at York University, provides a renewed picture of the historical Josephus by challenging the dominant view that Josephus was closely tied to the Flavian Caesars and that his works were somehow constrained by this relationship. Moreover, den Hollander attempts to identify the types of relationships Josephus might have had with the Caesars and with the people living in Rome.

Chapter one begins by providing a brief introduction to the person of Yosef/Josephus primarily based on his Life and War. Following this den Hollander outlines some of the major scholarly trends regarding Josephus’ role in Roman life, highlighting the areas that have received limited scholarly attention and indentifying current topics of disagreement (e.g. the degree to which Josephus was engaged in Roman society). In the final part of chapter one den Hollander outlines the contribution and scope of his study, the goal of which is to create a “web of imaginative construction” by which to better understand Josephus’ social circumstances within Rome (p. 22). In doing so, den Hollander seeks to provide “not only a picture of Josephus in Rome but also a window through which to analyze his narratives” (p. 26).

At the center of the book are four chapters, each of which evaluates Josephus’ relationship with a different emperor: Nero, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Chapter two attempts to tease out Yosef’s experience when he travelled to Neronian Rome as part of the delegation to secure the release of imprisoned priests. The first half of the chapter, which focuses on duration of Yosef’s stay in Rome, includes discussions of departure dates, seafaring schedules, and timeframes of provincial embassies to the emperors. From this investigation den Hollander concludes that it is not unlikely that Yosef would have spent one and a half to two and a half years in Rome before returning to Judaea. The second half of the chapter poses the question of whom Yosef would have known during his roughly two-year stay. Two contacts that are explicitly mentioned by Josephus—the Jewish mime-actor Aliturus and Poppaea Sabina—and they become the main focus for den Hollander. Important for den Hollander’s study is the role of hospitality in antiquity, specifically that which would have been offered to visiting Jews by their resident countrymen. He argues that this social practice that binds together ethnic communities was the foundation of Yosef’s relationships during his time in Rome. den Hollander concludes that Josephus’ relationship with Aliturus and the Jewish community was more important and long-lasting than his association with Poppaea Sabina, despite her superior social position.

Chapter three focuses on the relationship between Josephus and Vespasian, beginning with Josephus’ time as a prisoner-of-war. Again, den Hollander seeks to understand Josephus’ narrative in light of contemporary practice and in doing so comes to two conclusions. First, the stigma of being a Roman captive followed Josephus both throughout his lifetime and beyond. Second, the concessions given to him by Vespasian were minor and do not indicate a substantially privileged relationship. The latter understanding is further supported by a nuanced understanding of imperial patronage and the silence within Josephus of any intimate relationship with Vespasian.

In chapter four den Hollander evaluates Josephus’ multifaceted relationship with Titus. Once again, den Hollander argues that there is little evidence of a relationship between Josephus and Titus during their time in Judaea. Moreover, Josephus’ role in the war and the gifts reportedly given to him following its completion do not signify a close association, but rather parallel the jobs and rewards of other natives who were loyal and assisted the Roman army. According to den Hollander’s analysis of Josephus’ works, Josephus and Titus were no closer during their mutual time in Rome. This leads den Hollander to claim that the relationship between Josephus and Titus was “informal and not marked by any particular intimacy” (p. 188). Indeed, Josephus’ depictions of Titus, which at times place Titus in a bad light, can be understood to undermine the dominant Flavian propaganda and so challenge the dominant scholarly view that Josephus was a Flavian lackey.

Josephus’ relationship with Domitian is the subject of chapter five and again den Hollander attempts to correct problematic scholarly assumptions regarding Josephus’ connection with the reigning Caesar. Unlike the dominant position that has asserted that Josephus’ relationship with imperial power diminished after the death of Titus, den Hollander argues that, according to Josephus, it remained relatively consistent.

Having spent most of his work arguing that Josephus was not part of the Flavian court, in his final major chapter den Hollander attempts to reconstruct the social circles within which Josephus moved. The evaluation of Josephus’ relationship with several residents of Rome forms the first half of the chapter. Building on this discussion den Hollander suggests that Josephus, like other Roman authors, had delivered oral performances of his works and so would have tailored his narrative to his Roman audience—although the exact makeup of this group of auditors cannot be known with certainty. The final portion of this chapter examines the evidence of Jews living in Rome, which supports the view that there was a significant group of wealthy Jews. The exact relationship between the members of this group and Josephus remains uncertain, but it is possible that Roman Jews who were educated in Greek literature may have been part of Josephus’ wider audience.

The work concludes with a short chapter outlining the major arguments and goals of the work. This is followed by a lengthy bibliography along with helpful indices of ancient names and places, modern authors, and ancient works cited.

The work is clean, well written, and well signposted. As might be expected in a published dissertation, the author sometimes has the tendency to give even more evidence than is needed, but nowhere does this become excessive. His conclusions, although sometimes anticipated by earlier scholars (e.g., Goodman, Mason), are well considered and expressed in a clear manner.

One of the strengths of this work is den Hollander’s insistence on using our knowledge of Flavian Rome to shape our reading of Josephus. That Josephus needs to be understood and evaluated in light of contemporary literature and history is an important step forward in the scholarly attempt to reconstruct the historical Josephus and his place within his Roman environment. Equally impressive is the wide range of primary sources employed to support his reconstruction and argument for specific social practices. The author does a very good job at avoiding entanglement in unnecessary scholarly debates. Rather, his attention to primary texts makes a useful contribution.

One of the potential weaknesses of this work is the way den Hollander embraces the realm of the historically possible as a foundation for his critical reconstruction. Although den Hollander is no doubt correct when he (following Collingwood) highlights the inherently imaginative nature of historical reconstruction, his repetitive use of conditional terms (e.g. possibly, might, potentially, etc.) undermines some of the reader’s confidence and might, in extreme cases, garner the label “speculative”. Nevertheless, I do not wish for the author to be unduly faulted for his prudence, as I think den Hollander has done an admirable job in mitigating some of the inherent weaknesses of his approach. His weakest chapter in this regard, however, is chapter six in which he attempts to reconstruct the social circles in which Josephus might have moved. By his own admission den Hollander recognises that his attempted reconstruction lacks solid data and that he is extrapolating from context. This is a necessary evil for this topic, but this will likely be the chapter that will garner the most attention. If readers are not convinced with den Hollander’s historical reconstruction (or our ability to apply a general practice to a specific person) it is unlikely that they will be entirely convinced with his conclusions regarding Josephus’ relationships in Rome. With this being said, I appreciate his attempt to make a positive contribution in addition to his needed correctives. Although not every scholar will agree with den Hollander’s reconstruction, I think it is a contribution that those attempting to reconstruct the historical Josephus will have to interact with.

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