Indian wisdom: Josephos integrates Indians into Eleazar’s Masada speech (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indian wisdom: Josephos integrates Indians into Eleazar’s Masada speech (late first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 6, 2023,

Ancient author: Josephos, Judean War 7.341-388 (link).

Comments: This passage from Josephos’ Judean War – describing the last Judean hold-outs (“sicarii” / “dagger-carriers”) at Masada preparing for the final Roman assault (set ca. 73 CE) – illustrates well how ethnographic discourses find their way into all sorts of places. In this case, Josephos constructs a speech in which Eleazar calls on his trapped, fellow Judeans to commit themselves and their families to noble death. Beyond outlining cases of ethnic conflict in which Judeans (Jews) had been killed (on which go to this link for the full accounts), Josephos has Eleazar cite as an example of noble death Indians who pursue wisdom, perhaps drawing on Megasthenes (link) or Klearchos (link coming soon). The effect is an ethnic competition of sorts that alludes to ethnic hierarchies as the speaker wants his audience to worry about being perceived as inferior to Indians. It is worth presenting the entire speech here so that the relative importance of the ethnographic example remains clear.

Works consulted: Menahem Luz, “Eleazar’s Second Speech on Masada and Its Literary Precedents,” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 126 (1983): 25–43 (link).

Source of the translation: H.S.J. Thackeray and R. Marcus, Josephus, volumes 1-7; LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926-43), public domain (Thackeray passed away in 1930, Marcus passed away in 1956, and copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.


[Eleazar’s final speech set at Masada fortress]

However, neither did Eleazar himself contemplate flight, nor did he intend to permit anyone to do so. Seeing the wall consumed in the flames, unable to devise any further means of deliverance or brave plan, and setting before his eyes what the Romans, if victorious, would inflict on them, on their children and on their lives, he contemplated the death of everyone. Considering this the best course of action in present conditions, he assembled the most brave among his comrades and encouraged them to take action by words such as these:

[Bravery and noble death]

“Long ago, my brave men, we determined neither to serve the Romans nor to serve anyone except God, because God alone is man’s true and righteous lord. Now the time has come which calls us to confirm that resolution by our actions. At this crisis let us not shame ourselves. We who in the past refused to submit even to a slavery involving no peril, let us not now, along with slavery, deliberately accept the irreparable penalties awaiting us if we are to be captured alive by Roman hands. For as we were the first of all to revolt, so are we the last in arms against them. Moreover, I believe that it is God who has granted us this favour, namely to have it in our power to die nobly and in freedom – a privilege denied to others who have met with unexpected defeat. Our fate when morning comes is certain capture, but there is still the free choice of a noble death with those we hold most dear. For our enemies, fervently though they pray to take us alive, can no more prevent this than we can now hope to defeat them in battle. In fact, maybe we should from the outset – when, having chosen to assert our freedom, we invariably experienced such hard treatment from one another and still harder treatment from our foes – we should, I say, have read God’s purpose and recognized that the tribe (phylē) of Judeans, once loved by God, had been condemned. For had God continued to be gracious, or only slightly angry, he would never have overlooked such wholesale destruction or have abandoned his most holy city to be burnt and destroyed by our enemies. But did we hope that we alone of all the Judean descent group (genos) would survive and preserve our freedom, as persons guiltless towards God and without a hand in crime – we who had even been the instructors of the rest. Mark, now, how he exposes the pointlessness of our expectations, by delivering such terrible distress that exceeds anything we could anticipate. For not even the impregnable nature of this fortress has helped to save us. Not at all. Even with ample provisions, piles of weapons, and everything else that might be needed, we have been deprived, clearly by God himself, of all hope of deliverance. For it was not on their own that those flames which were driving against the enemy turned back upon the wall constructed by us. Not at all. All of this signals anger at the many wrongs which we madly dared to inflict upon our countrymen. Let us pay the penalty for those crimes not to our bitterest foes, the Romans, but to God through the act of our own hands. It will be more tolerable than the other option. In this way let our wives die without dishonour, our children without enslavement. When they are gone, let us render a generous service to each other, preserving our freedom as a noble funerary shroud. But first let us destroy our possessions and the fortress by fire because the Romans, I know well, will be upset to lose our persons and the valuables. Let us only keep our provisions so that they will testify, when we are dead, that it was not want which subdued us, but that, in keeping with our initial resolve, we preferred death to slavery.”

That’s how Eleazar spoke, but his words did not convince the hearts of everyone who heard them in the same way. In fact, some were eager to respond and almost filled with happiness at the thought of a death so noble. However, others who were softer-hearted were moved with compassion for their wives and families, and doubtless also by the vivid prospect of their own end. Their tears as they looked at one another revealed the unwillingness of their hearts. Eleazar, seeing them flinching and their courage breaking in face of so extreme a plan, feared that their loud cries and tears might womanize even those who had listened to his speech with fortitude. Far, therefore, from slackening in his exhortation, he energized himself and, fired with mighty fervour, lit up an elevated speech on the immortality of the soul. Righteously protesting and with eyes intently fixed on those in tears, he exclaimed:

[On the nature of the soul]

“I was certainly deeply deceived in thinking that I would have brave men as associates in our struggles for freedom, men determined to live with honour or to die. But you, it seems, were no better than the common crowd in tenacity or courage, you who are afraid even of that death that will deliver you from the worst circumstances. In such a situation you should neither hesitate an instant nor wait for a counsellor. For from the beginning, since the first dawn of intelligence, we have been continually taught by those precepts, ancestral and divine – confirmed by the actions and noble spirit of our ancestors – that life, not death, is man’s misfortune. For it is death which gives freedom to the soul and permits it to depart to its own pure home, where it is free from every disaster. Yet as long as the soul is imprisoned in a mortal body and tainted with all its miseries, it is, to tell the truth, dead. Association with what is mortal does not fit with what is divine. True, the soul possesses great capacity, even while imprisoned in the body because it makes the body its means of perception, invisibly swaying it and directing it onward in its actions beyond the range of mortal nature. But it is not until the soul is freed from the weight that drags it down to earth and clings onto it that the soul is restored to its proper sphere. That is when it enjoys a blessed energy and a power unrestricted on every side, remaining, like God himself, invisible to human eyes. For even while in the body it is withdrawn from view. Unperceived, it comes and and goes without being seen, united and incorruptible in its nature, but a cause of change to the body. For whatever the soul has touched lives and flourishes, whatever it abandons whithers and dies. The soul is so abundant in its wealth of immortality. Let sleep supply you with very convincing evidence of what I say: sleep, in which the soul, undistracted by the body, while enjoying in perfect independence the most delightful rest, relates with God by right of kinship, ranges the universe and predicts many things that are to come. So why should those who welcome the rest of sleep fear death. And isn’t it absolutely senseless to refuse ourselves what is eternal while pursuing freedom in this life?”

[Ethnographic example of the Indian philosophers]

“In fact, having been taught in our homes, we should supply others with an example of readiness to die. If, however, we really need proof about this from other tribes (allophyloi), let us look at those Indians who engage in the practice of wisdom. They, brave men that they are, reluctantly endure the period of life as though it was some necessary service due to nature, but they hurry to release their souls from their bodies. Even though no disaster impels or drives them from the scene, they announce to the others that they are about to depart due simply to a longing for immortal existence. Nor is there anyone who would stop them. Instead, everyone is happy for them and each person gives letters to his loved ones. That is how certain and absolutely sincere their belief is in the relationships which souls hold with one another. Then, after listening to these encouragements, they commit their bodies to the fire so that the soul may be parted from the body in the utmost purity and expire amidst hymns of praise. Indeed, their family members escort them to their death more readily than do the rest of humankind does for their fellow-citizens when starting on a very long journey. Their family members weep for themselves, but they consider the one who is about to depart happy because that person is regaining immortal rank.”

“So aren’t we ashamed of being inferior to Indians and, by being cowardly, of shamefully insulting our ancestral laws, which are the envy of all humankind? Yet, even if we had been schooled in the opposite teaching from the outset and taught that man’s highest blessing is life and that death is a disaster, still the crisis is one that calls us to bear it with a strong heart since it is by God’s will and a necessity that we will die.”

[Experiences of mistreatment and death]

“It seems long ago that God passed this decree against the whole Judean descent group (genos) in common: that, if we do not live correctly, we must die. Do not blame yourselves, nor credit the Romans, that this war has ruined everyone. For it was not Roman power that brought these things to pass, but the intervention of some more powerful cause has given them the appearance of victory. What Roman weapons, I ask, killed the Judeans of Caesarea [cf. Josephos, War 2.456-457]? No, they had not even contemplated revolt from Rome, but were engaged in keeping their sabbath festival, when the Caesarean mob attacked them and massacred them with their wives and children even though they did not resist and paid no attention to the Romans, who were treating no one but us as enemies, who had in fact rebelled. But I will be told that the Caesareans had an ongoing quarrel with their Judean residents and seized that opportunity to satisfy their ancient hate.”

“What then will we say of the Judeans in Scythopolis [War 2.466-467; modern Beit She’an], who had the audacity to wage war on us to please the Greeks, but refused to unite with us, their kinsmen, in resisting the Romans? They certainly received much benefit in return for their goodwill and loyalty to those people! Ruthlessly butchered by them, they and all their families – that was what they received in return for their alliance. What they saved the Greeks from suffering at our hands they themselves endured as if it was they who had wished to inflict it!”

“There is not time to name every instance of this because, as you know, there is not a city in Syria which has not killed its Judean inhabitants, being even more hostile to us than to the Romans. For instance, the people of Damascus, though unable even to invent a plausible excuse, flooded their city with the foulest slaughter, butchering eighteen thousand with their wives and families. As for Egypt, we were told that the number of those who perished there in tortures perhaps exceeded sixty thousand. Perhaps those Judeans perished like they did because they were on foreign soil, where they found themselves no match for their enemies.”

[Experiences facing the Romans]

“But consider all those who in their own territory embarked on war with Rome. What did they lack with regard to things that could inspire them with hopes of assured success? Weapons, ramparts, almost impregnable fortresses, a spirit undaunted by risks to be run in the cause of freedom — these encouraged all to revolt. Yet these only helped briefly and, after lifting us up with hopes, proved the beginning of greater disasters, because everyone was taken, everyone succumbed to the enemy, as though furnished for the enemy’s more glorious triumph, and not for the protection of those who provided them. Those men who fell in battle may appropriately be praised because they died defending, not betraying, freedom. But who would not pity the multitudes in Roman hands? Who would not rush to his death before he shared their fate? Of them some have perished on the rack or tortured by fire and scourge. Others, half-devoured by wild beasts, have been preserved alive to provide them with a second helping, after affording merriment and sport for their foes. But those still alive must be considered the most miserable of all as they have often prayed for death and are denied the benefit.”

[Desolation of Jerusalem]

“Where now is that great city, the mother-city of the whole Judean descent group, entrenched behind all those lines of ramparts, screened by all those forts and massive towers, that could scarcely hold the weapons of war, and held all those tens of thousands of defenders? What has become of Jerusalem that was believed to have God as founder? Uprooted from her base she has been swept away, and the sole memorial of her remaining is that of the dead still quartered in her ruins! Unfortunate old men sit beside the ashes of the shrine and a few women, reserved by the enemy for the lowest violent treatment. Which of us, taking these things to heart, could bear to even look at the sun, even if he could live secure from peril? Who would be such an enemy to his country, so unmanly, so fond of life, as not to regret that he is still alive today? No, I wish that we had all been dead before we ever saw that holy city destroyed by an enemy’s hands, that sacred sanctuary so profanely uprooted!”

[Final call for noble death]

“But seeing that we have been tricked by a less than noble hope that we might by chance find means of avenging Jerusalem of her foes, and now that hope has vanished and left us alone in our distress, let us hurry to die honourably. Let us have pity on ourselves, our children and our wives, while it is still in our power to find pity from ourselves. For we were born for death, we and our children. Even the lucky ones cannot escape from this. But outrage, servitude and the sight of our wives being led to shame with their children are no necessary evils imposed by nature on humankind. These things happen through their own cowardice to those who, having the chance of stopping them by death, refuse to take the opportunity. But we, priding ourselves on our courage, revolted from the Romans. Now at the final moment, when they offered us our lives, we refused the offer. Who then can fail to predict the results of their anger if they take us alive? Wretched will be the young whose vigorous frames can sustain many tortures, wretched the more advanced in years whose age is incapable of bearing such calamities. Is a man to see his wife led off to violation, to hear the voice of his child crying ‘Father!’ when his own hands are bound? No, while those hands are free and grasp the sword, let them deliver an honourable service. Let’s die without being enslaved to the enemy, as free men with our children and wives let us leave this life together! This our laws enjoin, this our wives and children implore us to do. The need for this was brought by God. The reverse of this is the Romans’ desire, and their fear is that a single one of us dies before capture. Let’s leave them in a hurry instead of their hoped-for enjoyment at securing us, amazement at our death and admiration of our fortitude.”

Eleazar would have continued his exhortation but was cut short by his hearers, who, overpowered by some uncontrollable impulse, were all ready to do the deed. Like men possessed they went their way, each eager to outstrip his neighbour and considering it a signal proof of courage and sound judgement not to be seen among the last. So extreme was the passion that had seized them to slaughter their wives, their little ones and themselves.

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