Germans and Sarmatians: Josephos on impulsive and violent northerners (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Germans and Sarmatians: Josephos on impulsive and violent northerners (late first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 6, 2023,

Ancient author: Josephos, Judean War 7.75-95 (link).

Comments: In his discussion of the triumphal reception of Titus and emperor Vespasian (ca. 71 CE) in the wake of the destruction of the Judean temple (on which also see the so-called arch of Titus at this link [coming soon]), Josephos reflects back on earlier revolts and violent incidents involving other peoples confronting the Roman power just a year or two earlier. In this digression, he briefly sketches out two main incidents: the revolt by the Germans (Batavians among the Chattians, known more extensively from Tacitus’ account) and the incursions by Sarmatians into Moesia. What is most notable for us is the picture the Judean (Jew) Josephos draws of impulsive and violent northerners, aligning with many other stereotypical assumptions found in Greek writers’ chararacterizations of Germans and Scythians (see those peoples under category two on the right for examples). Once again, we witness a Judean fully engaged in navigating peoples in his world and even beyond the frontiers of the empire.

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.


[Rebellion of Germans]

(7.75-95) However, before this period, while Vespasian was at Alexandria and Titus occupied with the siege of Jerusalem, a large portion of the Germans had been incited to revolt [ca. 69-70 CE; cf. Tacitus, Histories 4.12-37, 54-79 and 5.14-26, involving Batavians among the Chattians, which may draw on a source common with Josephos]. The neighbouring Galatians [i.e. Celts or Gauls], sharing their aspirations, conceived, in partnership with them, high hopes of release from Roman domination. The Germans were instigated to attempt this insurrection and to declare war based on two things. First is their natural disposition, which is devoid of sound judgement and ready to rush into danger with only slight hope of success. Second is their hatred of their conquerors, knowing that no one except the Romans have reduced their descent group (genos) to servitude.

But what most of all inspired them with confidence was this golden opportunity. For seeing the Roman empire internally disordered through the continuous change of its masters [civil wars in 69 CE, the so-called year of four emperors], and hearing that every quarter of the world beneath their sway was seething and quivering with excitement, they thought that their enemy’s disasters and dissensions presented them with an excellent opportunity. The scheme was fostered and the people inflated with these crazy expectations by a certain Classicus and Civilis, leading men among them, who had notoriously long been planning this rebellion. Now they were encouraged by the occasion to disclose their plans and were to test the resilience of those masses so eager for rebellion.

A large section of the Germans was, accordingly, already committed to the revolt, and their views had met with no opposition from the rest. Then Vespasian, as if by the guidance of providence, dispatched letters to Petilius Cerealius, previously in command in Germany, conferring upon him consular dignity and instructing him to set out to take over the governorship of Britain. While proceeding accordingly to his appointed sphere, Cerealius heard of the revolt of the Germans, attacked them just when their forces were united and, having in a pitched battle slain masses of them, forced them to abandon their folly and learn prudence. But, even if Cerealius had not so promptly visited the spot, the Germans were doomed before long to suffer punishment.

For as soon as the news of their rebellion reached Rome, Domitian Caesar, on hearing of it, did not hesitate, as another at his age might have done (for he was still quite young) to shoulder such a burden of responsibility. Inheriting by nature his father’s prowess and blessed with a training beyond his years, he immediately marched off against the barbarians. Their hearts failng them at the rumour of his approach, they threw themselves on his mercy, finding it a highly advantageous relief from their terror to be again reduced under the same yoke without experiencing disaster. Domitian having therefore duly settled all affairs in Gaul, so as to prevent any disorder in future from lightly recurring in that quarter, returned to Rome, with brilliant honours and universally admired for achievements surpassing his age and like his father.

[Incursions by Scythian Sarmatians]

(3) Simultaneously with the above mentioned revolt of the Germans a daring Scythian outbreak against the Romans took place. For those called Sarmatians among the Scythians, a very populous group, stealthily crossed the Ister [Danube] river to this side of its bank. Attacking the Romans with great violence (which was more intense because their attack was utterly unexpected) they killed large numbers of the Roman guards. Among them was the consular legate, Fonteius Agrippa, who advanced to meet them and died fighting bravely. They then overran all the territory to the south, attacking and plundering whatever was in their way.

Vespasian, on hearing of what had taken place and of the devastation of Moesia, dispatched Rubrius Gallus to punish the Sarmatians. Gallus killed multitudes of them in the ensuing battles, and the survivors fled in terror to their own country. After bringing the war to conclusion in this way, the general further took precautions for future security by posting more numerous and stronger garrisons throughout the district. This was done to make passage across the river totally impossible to the barbarians. The war in Moesia was speedily decided in this manner.

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