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Before Augustus
Augustus and patronage
1st - 5th century AD
     Josephus and The Jewish War
     Tacitus and the empire
     Suetonius and the emperors
     St Augustine

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Josephus and The Jewish War: AD c.77

Josephus is exceptionally interesting among early historians, as a writer in a neglected field who has first-hand experience of his subject - the Jews in Judaea and their struggle against Rome.

A member of an aristocratic priestly family, Josephus is in Jerusalem when the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule breaks out in AD 66. He is sent to command the Jewish forces in Galilee, but the advance of the Roman army soon results in Josephus and his men being besieged in the town of Jotapata. His escape from this predicament (by proposing to his followers a suicide pact from which he contrives his own survival) is told with the shameless self-exposure which gives his writing an added interest.


Josephus is now a prisoner of the Romans. He compounds his betrayal of the Jewish cause by changing sides, justifying himself on the grounds that the Zealots (whom he describes as bandits) are leading the Jews to disaster by their policy of confrontation with all-powerful Rome.

Josephus soon finds himself in a position which follows logically from this viewpoint. As Titus's spokesman during the siege of Jerusalem, he revels in his own eloquence - yelling up at the defenders on the walls, urging them to capitulate. It is a shameful position for a leading Pharisee, but an excellent one for a historian. He is perfectly placed to record the events leading up to the destruction of the Temple.


Josephus claims that Titus, no doubt aware of the Temple's contents, attempts to save it from harm. He says that Jewish partisans first set fire to the Temple colonnade after enticing Roman soldiers into a trap. Whatever the truth, the great building with its golden trimmings is soon destroyed by fire and by looting Romans. The best loot, taken by Titus himself, later features prominently on Titus's triumphal arch in Rome.

So ends the central shrine of Judaism. In the words of Josephus, 'neither its long history, nor its vast wealth, nor its people dispersed through the whole world, nor the unparalleled renown of its worship could avert its ruin'. The destruction of the Temple is another turning point in Jewish history (see the Temple in Jerusalem).


In the bitter aftermath of the disaster, Judaea is no place for a man regarded with some justification as a traitor. Josephus returns with Titus to Rome, becoming a Roman citizen and receiving a pension.

He immediately sets to work on his history, writing it in Aramaic - the lingua franca at this time of the Middle East, where he hopes that his account will discourage further uprisings against Rome. The book is ready for publication by about AD 77 (see Publishing in Rome), and Josephus later provides a Greek version for an educated readership elsewhere in the empire. Late in his life he publishes another major work in Greek. Known now as Jewish Antiquities, it attempts to explain the Jews and their history to outsiders.


Tacitus and the empire: AD 98-c.115

The wayward and tyrannical behaviour of Roman emperors during the 1st century AD provides a lively subject for historians. Two seize the opportunity - Tacitus, who views the scene with the analytical eye of the historian, and Suetonius, whose interests are those of a biographer.

The earliest works of Tacitus are on specialized topics. They are both published in the same year, AD 98. One, Agricola, describes in eulogistic vein the career of his father-in-law, the governor of Britain. The other, Germania, is an attempt to understand the barbarian German tribes, pressing on the Rhine frontier who, as Tacitus foresees, will soon prove a threat to the empire.


The major works of Tacitus are the Histories, appearing in about 109, and the Annals, published around the time of the death of Trajan in 117 (see Publishing in Rome). They cover the period from the accession of Tiberius in AD 14 to the death of Domitian in 96 (though several sections are now lost).

With an incisive style, and a talent for the barbed epigram, Tacitus emphasizes the damage done to the social fabric by tyrannical rulers. It is a theme on which he writes with painful knowledge. His own career as a public figure has flourished under the oppressive Domitian. The appalled and perhaps guilty fascination of an insider seems to have been part of the original impulse behind his great historical undertaking.


Suetonius and the emperors: AD c.120-c.130

The racy Lives of the Caesars, by Suetonius, deals with the ten emperors who feature in the Annals and Histories of Tacitus and adds the two founders of the empire, Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar.

Suetonius moves in royal circles. Under Trajan he is director of the imperial libraries; he later becomes personal secretary to Hadrian, in charge of all the emperor's correspondence. These appointments give him access to archive material and to the lively gossip about the past which is current in court circles. Suetonius makes vivid use of both - often on the principle of the more scurrilous the better.


Many of the details which make the lives of the Caesars so vivid derive from Suetonius: Julius Caesar, silent as the assassins stab him until the blow from Brutus prompts the single question used by Shakespeare as Et tu Brute?'; or Claudius, hiding in terror in the palace when a Roman soldier discovers him and hails him as emperor.

In touches such as these Suetonius demonstrates the value of one lasting element of the biographer's repertoire. A telling anecdote, even if unsubstantiated, is always worth slipping in. The detail of Caesar's question to Brutus is introduced by Suetonius with the cautionary phrase 'Some say that..'. Such words are soon forgotten.


St Augustine: AD 387-430

The first Christian writer since St Paul to reach a wide readership is also the last great figure in the story of Latin literature. Confessions, his account of his early life and conversion to Christianity, is the world's first autobiography, introducing the genre with a masterpiece. And the massive City of God is one of the most influential works of Christian philosophy.

The author of these very different but seminal works is the bishop of Hippo in north Africa, St Augustine.


Confessions: AD c.400

Augustine's famous Confessions is essentially a spiritual autobiography, written from the viewpoint of a Christian bishop describing how he came to the truth. It provides a rare and fascinating glimpse of the prevailing influences on an intelligent young man in the declining years of the Roman empire and the early centuries of established Christianity.

Augustine's mother, Monica, is a Christian; his father is a pagan; but their main concern is that their brilliant son shall thrive in the world, probably as a civil servant. Instead, as a student at Carthage, he becomes interested in philosophy and launches into a precarious existence as a freelance teacher.


The first prevailing fashion to take his fancy is Manichaeism, to which he subscribes for some nine years. This religion, devised by Mani in Persia in the 3rd century AD, attempts a synthesis of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity. The resulting truth, enlivened by a colourful theology invented by Mani, is that life is an eternal struggle between two irreconcilable opposites - Good and Evil, which can be seen also as light and darkness.

Jesus plays a large part in Mani's theology, and Augustine's account reveals how easily the Manichees find followers within an ostensibly Christian community. But the next stage of his own development derives from a more central influence on early Christianity, that of Neo-Platonism.


Formulated by Plotinus (a 3rd-century philosopher teaching in Rome), Neo-Platonism is less literal than Manichaeism but deals with the same contrast at the heart of all religious thought - between the pure and the impure, or the spiritual and the material.

The ideas of Plotinus derive at several removes from Plato's theory of Forms, but they add a more religious element. The ultimate reality, called the One or the Good, is at the far extreme of a hierarchy; everyday material existence is at our end. In between are successive spheres of higher experience ('soul' nearest to us, then 'mind'). Each individual, by looking inward to these more refined realities, may approach the One.


This Neo-Platonic scheme allows more scope for God than Manichaeism, and it brings Augustine an intense mystical experience. The disappointing brevity of this experience convinces him that he is still too bound up in the flesh, prompting the most famous confession of his Confessions - that on many occasions in his amorous youth, knowing his duty, he has prayed to God with the words 'Give me chastity and continence, but not yet'.

Augustine is finally brought to Christianity after hearing the sermons of Ambrose in Milan, where he has taken a post as professor of rhetoric. Baptized by Ambrose in AD 387, he returns to Africa - where he is ordained a priest in 391 and becomes bishop of Hippo in 396.


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