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Notes from Limmud 2011

Josephus Flavius and his source Nicolaus of Damascus on Women

Tal Ilan

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

[This talk was given at extreme speed; it would appear from a Google search, though, to fill in the bits that were too fast for me to take down, that much of it was the speaker reading from her book Integrating Woman into Second Temple history; q.v. for a fuller treatment.]

The little research carried out on Josephus' women has tended to concentrate on Biblical women. Louis Feldman writes:
We may expect that Josephus's portraits of women reflects his own personal life. [...] One guesses that Josephus must have been difficult to live with, to judge from the fact that he was, it appears, married three four times.
But this is no indication of his intellectual attitude to women! Feldman continues:
In his summary of the commandments he adds the detail (Antiquities of the Jews IV.219) not found in the Bible that the testimony of women is inadmissible in Jewish law because of their levity and because of the boldness of their sex.

These proclamations are few and far in between and can hardly be cited as a major issue which preoccupied Josephus. Feldman stands amazed at Josephus's negative description of Queen Shlomtzion [aka Salome Alexandra]. Talmudic rabbis poured praise on her piety, but he criticises her for listening too much to the Pharisees—yet he was a Pharisee himself!

This is only part of a large and detrimental portrayal of the women of the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties, not found in earlier portrayal of women, nor later; and leaves the reader thinking that behind every calamity lurks a woman.

Feldman branded Josephus a misogynist. However, Josephus did not originate the description of the Hasmoneans; it arose from, most likely, Herod's court historian Nicolaus of Damascus.

Shlomtzion and all other women portrayed in Josephus are creatures of Josephus's imagination.

The purpose is not to acquit Josephus and lay the blame at someone else's doorstep, but to demonstrate that this has far-reaching consequences for the history of women during these periods.

Josephus freely admits that he freely read the histories of Nicolaus; that he is far more indebted to them than he admits is a common assertion.

To discover what Josephus says for himself, one must examine where his text is neither based on the Bible, nor concerns Hasmoneans and Herodian women. Where there is no historical and Agaddic sources, he is his own source. For example, the latter part of the war [against the Romans].

The most striking feature of these texts [is the absence of named women]. Queen Berenice and Mary daughter of Eleazar the pariah are named, but only briefly. All others are nameless and characterless.

Josephus describes a war, and women are the victims rather than the perpetrator of war. Josephus acknowledges this my mentioning numerous cases of women who died of hunger, or were captured, raped, slaughtered, or sold into slavery.

However, this cannot be the whole story. Josephus occasionally admits their role was greater. Apart from ignoring their general contribution to the war, some specific women were too inmpotrant to be omitted.

The way they are introduced [lacuna]

1. Justus' sister

Justus of Tiberias was one of Josephus' literary opponents, who inspired Josephus to defend himself in the Vitae. Both toyed with fighting with Rome, but both ended up on the Roman side. Josephus moved in higher circles, and his version of the war got royal approval.

Josephus is not potrayed well in Justus.

In Vitae, Josephus describes how in in Gamla, a purge is carried out by the inhabitants of G on Justus and Philip's garrison. They executed a Chares, a relative of his called Jesus, and the sister of Justus. The reference to the sister is missing from most modern editions of Josephus; in one translation it even reads the brother of Justus. Only in a footnote does it add "most versions read "sister". Why did the publisher choose "brother"? What direction would we expect to correct? This is not an example of lectio difficilior.

The involvement of a woman in the business of war is unexpected. This is the only political assassination of a woman in the whole war as described by Josephus. Also, there is a general tendency in the transmission of ancient texts towards elimination of women. The confusion results from Josephus's utter lack of interest in the role of women qua women. But it is a dangerous game, regardless of your gender.

2. Ele`azar ben Ya'ir's wise relative.

The one flaw in Josephus's description of the massacre of Masada is that in cases of mass suicide there are no survivors to tell the tale! Josephus says an old woman and another relative of Ele`azar's hid themselves in the cisterns.

The evidence of the younger woman is behind the description of Masada (of which Josephus is the only source nowadays—Yadin excavated the site with Josephus in his hand). Unless she were the source, he would not have praised her wisdom.

However, we do not know whether the wives of the defenders supported their decision to commit suicide, or not.

Josephus also nowhere explains her motive. When, where or how did she defect? For him, she was a source of information but not a protagonist.

3. Queen Berenice.

Queen Berenice was Agrippa II's sister, and an important historical figure who influenced events in the highest circles. She was the daughter of Agrippa I, and was married as a teenager to the nephew of the philosopher Philo, and almost immediately widowed. Her second marriage was to her uncle Herod, king of Chalcis. She then married and divorced King Polemo of Cilicia, and then lived alongside her brother Agrippa, causing gossip to brand their relationship incestuous.

During the war, she became Titus' lover. If she harboured hopes of yet another marriage, we don't know anything more.

Most of this information is absent from the The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. We know it only from the writing of contemporaneous and later historians.Josephus probably knew her personally; why does he keep silent?

Josephus was a protege and friend of Titus. It has often been claimed Josephus whitewashes Titus: he acquits Titus of burning the Temple.

Josephus does not completely ignore the existence of Berenice, and her appearance and disappearance from the screen of war is reminiscent of the way other women appear and disappear.

She was present in Jerusalem at the start of the war, when she had come to fulfil her Nazirite vow. Josephus says "it is customary for those... [who take this vow] to shave their heads... and she would come barefoot before the tribunal" (a unique halachic contribution of Josephus).

Berenice intervenes to try and stop the masscacre and plunder carried out by the procurator's troops in Jerusalem. She writes to Syria to protest their behaviour and with her brother to fight the Jews's eagerness to fight Rome. Then she disappears from the scene. Her influence is never followed up in War. It doesn't say how she escaped from Jerusalem, though Tacitus names her a prominent supporter of Vespasian.

Her attempt to influence Florus in the summer of 66 could have had major repercussions on following events; however it failed.

Josephus was not tempted to return to the topic after the death of his patron, hence he did not regard her of enough significance. Hence Josephus is no Plutarch (regarding the latter's treatment of Cleopatra).


The meagre data shows why Josephus showed women uninterestingly. This tells us nothing about his personal attitutude towards women.

Even if he was a misogyinist, [lacuna]

Josephus is an even poorer source for history than previously expected. He seems to place them [women] in a precise position to influence events.

I-II of War, and XIII-XVII of Antiquities cover the period for which he is principally dependent on Nicolaus of Damascus.

Nicolaus, a native of Damascus, received a formal Greek education and emerged as a writer, dramatist and historian. He wrote a world history of 144 volumes, of which nothing remains except quotations elsewhere. Antony and Cleopatra hired his services as tutor to their children. After the battle of Actium, when his employer had died, he became Herod's companion, mentor, court historian and political advisor. He retired after Herod's death to Rome to finish writing his World History.

He was a member of the peripatetic school of thought: history should be dramatic, entertaining. Historical proof need not be furnished. Wacholder: "Faced with the conflict between telling a good story and telling the truth, there is no doubt that Nicolaus preferred a good story." Thucydides attacked the Peripatetic school for deceitfulness.

Nicolaus seems to have had a preference for describing the domestic rather than the political, and for concentrating on peace rather than war. Because of this, he accords women a bigger role.

Of the 39 women [in Antiquities?], no fewer than 29? appear in Nicolaus.

A much debated question: How far does Josephus rely on Nicolaus for his description of the Hasmoneans?

Stern: [The following quotation was waaay too fast to take down, but I thought I'd leave my attempt anyway, as it's amusing:] "Notwithstanding his
and the [ride he took in his
with the Hasmoneans."

[Now interpreted: "Notwithstanding his ???patriotism?? and the pride he took in his kinship with the Hasmoneans." Still can't understand it in context, though.]

This presents us with a rather cold picture of the three main figures of the Hasmonean monarchy: Aristobulus I, Alexander Jannaeus, and Salome Alexandra. Also, John Hyrcanus II.

Josephus depends on 1 Maccabees, which scarcely mentions women at all, as victims of Antiochus's persecutions, or hardships of war.

No female relation of the Hasmonean leaders are ever mentioned by name. That they had a mother only because Simon built a monumental tomb for his father, mother and brothers.

We learn that Jonathan and Simon had wives only because they had sons, and that Simon had a daughter because he had had a son-in-law.

[1. Simon's mother]

Simon was invited by son-in-law to a banquet, who took advantage of his drunkenness to murder him and his sons. In Josephus' account the same story ends with an extensive epilogue on the behaviour of Simon.

War I.57-60 (also covered in Antiquities XIII:230-5):

So [Hyrcanus] laid siege to the fortress, and was superior to Ptolemy in other respects, but was overcome by him as to the just affection [he had for his relations]; for when Ptolemy was distressed, he brought forth his mother, and his brethren, and set them upon the wall, and beat them with rods in every body's sight, and threatened, that unless he would go away immediately, he would throw them down headlong; at which sight Hyrcanus's commiseration and concern were too hard for his anger. But his mother was not dismayed, neither at the stripes she received, nor at the death with which she was threatened; but stretched out her hands, and prayed her son not to be moved with the injuries that she suffered to spare the wretch; since it was to her better to die by the means of Ptolemy, than to live ever so long, provided he might be punished for the injuries he done to their family. Now John's case was this: When he considered the courage of his mother, and heard her entreaty, he set about his attacks; but when he saw her beaten, and torn to pieces with the stripes, he grew feeble, and was entirely overcome by his affections.

And as the siege was delayed by this means, the year of rest came on, upon which the Jews rest every seventh year as they do on every seventh day. On this year, therefore, Ptolemy was freed from being besieged, and slew the brethren of John, with their mother, and fled to Zeno, who was also called Cotylas, who was tyrant of Philadelphia.

This is the moment, the moment that 1 Maccabees ends, when Nicolaus of Damascus enters Josephus' narrative. Nicolaus is the major source for John Hyrcanus' reign and rise to power.

2. Queen Salome Alexandra

The main female hero of the Hasmonean was Queen Shlomtzion. She succeeded her husband even though she had adult sons. In her domestic policy, she installed the Pharisees in power, and her eldest son, Hyrcanus in the High Priesthood. The Pharisees carried out reprisals against their former (Sadducee?) enemies. She recruited a large force of mercenaries, sent an abortive expedition to Damascus, and contracted a peace agreement with Tigranes of Armenia.

In War, I.107-8:

Now Alexander left the kingdom to Alexandra his wife, and depended upon it that the Jews would now very readily submit to her, because she had been very averse to such cruelty as he had treated them with, and had opposed his violation of their laws, and had thereby got the good-will of the people. Nor was he mistaken as to his expectations; for this woman kept the dominion, by the opinion that the people had of her piety; for she chiefly studied the ancient customs of her country, and cast those men out of the government that offended against their holy laws.

War says negative things about her association with the Pharisees, but positive things about her herself.

Antiquities adds that she appointed the Pharisees on her husband's advice, but generally views the queen's reign negatively.

Firstly, her ascent of the throne is regarded as a mistake (Antiquities XIII:407):

Alexander left behind him two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, but committed the kingdom to Alexandra. Now, as to these two sons, Hyrcanus was indeed unable to manage public affairs, and delighted rather in a quiet life; but the younger, Aristobulus, was an active and a bold man; and for this woman herself, Alexandra, she was loved by the multitude, because she seemed displeased at the offences her husband had been guilty of.

It ends with Antiquities XIII:417

"But still they themselves were to blame for their misfortunes, in permitting a woman who, against reason, was mad with ambition, to reign over them, when there were sons in the flower of their age fitter for it." So Alexandra, not knowing what to do with any decency, committed the fortresses to them, all but Hyrcania, and Alexandrium, and Macherus, where her principal treasures were.

The worst publicity accorded to Shlomtzion (Antiquities XIII:430-2):

of her sex, for she was sagacious to the greatest degree in her ambition of governing; and demonstrated by her doings at once, that her mind was fit for action, and that sometimes men themselves show the little understanding they have by the frequent mistakes they make in point of government; for she always preferred the present to futurity, and preferred the power of an imperious dominion above all things, and in comparison of that had no regard to what was good, or what was right. However, she brought the affairs of her house to such an unfortunate condition, that she was the occasion of the taking away that authority from it, and that in no long time afterward, which she had obtained by a vast number of hazards and misfortunes, and this out of a desire of what does not belong to a woman, and all by a compliance in her sentiments with those that bare ill-will to their family, and by leaving the administration destitute of a proper support of great men; and, indeed, her management during her administration while she was alive, was such as filled the palace after her death with calamities and disturbance. However, although this had been her way of governing, she preserved the nation in peace. And this is the conclusion of the affairs of, Alexandra.

This blames her for all the misfortunes of the Hasmonean house, including the Roman conquest, for no other reason that she is a woman. This attitude is not normally presnt in Josephus' writings.

In War normally Josephus is slavishly adherent to Nicolaus, but in Antiquities presents his own opinion.

However, other historians agree that this is not always the case. Antiquities XIV.78:

Now the occasions of this misery which came upon Jerusalem were Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, by raising a sedition one against the other; for now we lost our liberty, and became subject to the Romans, and were deprived of that country which we had gained by our arms from the Syrians, and were compelled to restore it to the Syrians. Moreover, the Romans exacted of us, in a little time, above ten thousand talents; and the royal authority, which was a dignity formerly bestowed on those that were high priests, by the right of their family, became the property of commoners.

Josephus clearly here blames the brothers for the downfall of the Hasmonean dynasty, not Shlomtzion. (What had happened was that Shlomtzion's two sons fought for the throne after her death. They went to Pompey and said which of us do you think should rule? He said "Neither, I should!", and besieged Jerusalem. It was at that point that Herod turns up and is installed as king by the Romans.) The different styles leaves one in no doubt which was written by Josephus: "We", also dissing the high priests as commoners.

While the blame is placed firmly on the queen, the consequences are not spelled out. As Herod's servant, Nicolaus took delight in dissing the incompetence of the Hasmoneans.

In the last line of Book XIII, the following is found:

Nevertheless, in spite of reigning in this manner, she kept the nation in peace.

Sievers: "This contradiction... is hard to explain by any other means than by Josephus' careless juxtaposition of sources." Klausner attributes it to Josephus' use of two different source, a Jewish Pharisee source, and a Greek source hostile to the Jews.

The speaker believes that Josephus was taken aback by Nicolaus's description and felt the need to modify it.

Miriam the Hasmonean

Miriam [or as she is known in the English speaking world, Mariamne], the wife of King Herod, was the great-grandfaughter of Shlomtzion. She had five children by him, but twenty years later he had her put to death.

Antiquities XV.218-19:

For the affection he had for Mariamne was no way inferior to the affections of such as are on that account celebrated in history, and this very justly. As for her, she was in other respects a chaste woman, and faithful to him; yet had she somewhat of a woman rough by nature, and treated her husband imperiously enough, because she saw he was so fond of her as to be enslaved to her.

The word for "arrogance" [used in the speaker's translation, but not the out-of-copyright Whitston translation I'm copying and pasting from] is hubris—the root of all tragedy.

Compare this to how Josephus writes about Eleazar's relative, and even how he writes about Shlomtzion. He has decieded to tell this story as a romance.

Antiquities 16:183-7

for [Nicolaus] wrote in Herod's lifetime, and under his reign, and so as to please him, and as a servant to him, touching upon nothing but what tended to his glory, and openly excusing many of his notorious crimes, and very diligently concealing them. And as he was desirous to put handsome colors on the death of Mariamne and her sons, which were barbarous actions in the king, he tells falsehoods about the incontinence of Mariamne, and the treacherous designs of his sons upon him; and thus he proceeded in his whole work, making a pompous encomium upon what just actions he had done, but earnestly apologizing for his unjust ones. Indeed, a man, as I said, may have a great deal to say by way of excuse for Nicolaus; for he did not so properly write this as a history for others, as somewhat that might be subservient to the king himself. As for ourselves, who come of a family nearly allied to the Asamonean kings, and on that account have an honourable place, which is the priesthood, we think it indecent to say any thing that is false about them, and accordingly we have described their actions after an unblemished and upright manner.

"We" = Josephus,

This is an example of the arguments he had with Nicolaus... but he goes on to tell the same things about him!

Josephus is not the first Jewish historian, but the last; we don't get anyone else doing this until Iosifon in ninth century Italy, who rewrites Josephus and even still doesn't go beyond this. Jews just stopped writing history.

Nicolaus himself says:

At the same time the court of Herod was thrown into confusion since the eldest of his sons falsely accused the two next born of plotting against ther father.

Josephus reads Nicolaus wrongly. He wants to portray the whole family of Herod as being intrigue[-possessed].

So what did Herod execute Miriam for? On the one hand Herod suspectecd her of adultery. No. Herod suspected her of attempted murder. But this isn't true because his sister was involved in it.

She gave the butler a drink and said bring this to Herod; and say to him Miriam sent this to you, it's a love potion

In either case, the speaker thinks both cases were trumped up; he decided to kill Miriam just like he did all the other Hasmoneans, as they were in his way.

As long as there was a fight between Mark Antony and Octavian as to who was going to rule the Roman world, he kept her as a foil, in case Octavian won. But Octavian won and recognised his rule, so now he had a Hasmonean wife with lots of trouble, and he trumps up charges to have her executed.

He was right about this, in seeing in her a real enemy. In the Hasmonean family there was a woman who had been queen; the fact he had got rid of all the male Hasmoneans did not help. And the very next thing he did after killing her was kill her mother.

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