Yosef ben Matityahu (37 – 100 AD), who went on to Latinize his name into Titus Flavius Josephus, was a Jewish general and leader who commanded the Jewish forces in Galilee at the start of the First Jewish-Roman War (66 – 73 AD), also known as the Great Jewish Revolt, before switching sides after he was captured, and joining the Romans.
The revolt had erupted in 66 AD after the Roman authorities responded to tax protests by arresting prominent Jews and looting the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. That heavy-handedness transformed the protests into a full-blown rebellion, which forced the Romans to flee Judea. Armed bands seized forts across the country, while in Jerusalem, which the rebels captured, a national military government was organized.
In Galilee, Josephus, a 29-year-old priest, was chosen to lead. With a combination of guile and force – such as his bluffing the town of Tiberias into surrender with an overwhelming display of force from a navy of 230 boats that, unbeknownst to the Tiberans carried no more than five men each – he managed to bring Galilee under his control.
After its early setback, however, the Empire struck back, and the Roman general Vespasian was appointed to crush the revolt. Vespasian, with his son Titus, marched his legions from Syria into Judea, with Galilee as his first stop. Josephus gathered an army, but its undisciplined ranks broke and ran at the first sight of the Roman legions, and fled to the hilltop town of Jotapata. There, Vespasian surrounded Josephus and his men, and after a 47-day siege, successfully stormed the town.
Josephus and the rebel leaders fled to a secret hiding place down a well, but a prisoner told the Romans, who shouted an offer down the well for Josephus to surrender, as Vespasian wanted him alive. Josephus wanted to surrender, but the other leaders insisted that they all commit suicide instead. So Josephus suggested they do so in an orderly fashion, by drawing lots, with the loser of each round getting killed by the others. Josephus rigged the lots, as one by one the leaders were killed until he was one of only two men left alive, at which point he convinced the other survivor that they should surrender. They did, and while the other man was summarily executed, Josephus was taken in shackles to Vespasian.
There, claiming to be a prophet, Josephus told the Roman general that he had a vision in which he saw Vespasian as emperor. Vespasian, who was already pondering a revolt, spared Josephus’ life and kept him as a prisoner. In 69 AD, following Nero’s ouster and suicide, 3 Roman generals had followed in quick succession as Roman emperors, and Vespasian decided that he should be the fourth. He led a successful revolt that put him on the throne, and recalling Josephus’ prophecy, ordered him freed.
While Vespasian sailed off to Rome, Josephus joined Vespasian’s son, Titus, in besieging Jerusalem and finishing off the revolt. After a horrific siege, the city fell in 70 AD, and Titus ordered Jerusalem’s complete destruction, while tens of thousands of prisoners were sold off as slaves or forced to fight to the death in games for Titus’ amusement and to celebrate his victory.
Titus then took Josephus back with him to Rome, where he held a triumphal parade featuring captive rebel leaders chained to models of their towns on floats that paraded down Rome’s street, and off to their execution sites. Josephus joined Vespasian’s household, and spent the remainder of his life writing, leaving behind a valuable history of the Jewish Revolt.