The lost letters (The historian)
So much has been burned or stripped away by time. Much has walked away in the stomach of a beetle who found a cache of letters to devour, or has been thrown away to make room in the closet. How many thoughts or discoveries in the ancient world or simply observations were noted in a letter and disgarded. Sometimes I lie awake and night and wonder.
To my friend Maximus:
It was a cool morning. I had set out through the street. I met a man who asked if I would like to sit and talk with him. “It is cool and restful here. Join me,” He said. It was slightly odd thing to do but he offered me a place to sit. I agreed. He was dark, from the sun I imagine, and well dressed.
“Surely not,” the man said. “I am Josephus.”
I nodded. “Greetings Josephus.”
“Sit, sit. The world will be there when you are done with me.”
I was grateful for the company. I had lost my wife in childbirth, and her family had done little to console me. They blamed me for her death, by the surest and most undeniable way…for the weapon of her demise was the birth of my own daughter. I was the murderer that used my ’prick’ to send her on her way. In-laws…what can I say?
His Latin was thick. It is different, spoken harshly as if his tongue searched for the right inflections. His eyes and hair are dark. From the stains on his hand I can see he is a writer. The stain of ink is a distinctive clue.
“Are you a scribe?” I asked.
“In a way. The difference I write what I have seen with my own eyes.”
“Are you an historian?” I asked.
“Yes. A historian. By order of the emperor, in fact.”
I raise my eyebrows in surprise. “You walk in high circles.”
“For a slave, you mean?”
“You a slave? Nonsense. You are too finely dressed.”
He laughed. “Well…not really. I am free enough. You could say I am a slave of fate.” He runs a hand through his black hair and sighs. From his expression I can see that he has seen much.
I can’t resist to ask the following. “Tell me what you write about?” I asked.
“I have seen a people, a proud people brought down. They were like the small dog that thinks they can bring down the lumbering bear. The dog can achieve small victories but one swipe from the bear’s claw sends the creatures splattering against the wall.”
“Who were these people?” I ask.
” They were my people. They fought the Romans and hid in the moutains. They laughed down from the mountain redoubt and the Romans grew angry and sent an army to bring them down.”
“The Romans built a giant road up to the gates. From the bottom of the mountain to the top so they could march their armies up its side and pound upon the gates.”
“You were at Masada!” I said. The name Masada was a mountain fort taken by the General Lucius Bassus. That battle was talked about in every wine bar in Rome at the time. Now it comes up once in a while in passing. The tongue wags have moved on to other news.
“Yes. I was there fighting the Romans. I was a chieftain at one time. I lived and fought and saw the gates fall. I was one of a few captured.”
“I thought all on Masada committed suicide?”
“Most. A few women, a few children hiding in a well, and…me.”
“How did you survive?”
“I beg your pardon?”
He sighed and looked sad. “The power of numbers is very powerful. As the defenders of Masada killed themselves rather than enter slavery, the remaining Sacarii warriors remained alive as long as possible to give the appearence of defending the walls. As the Romans rushed though the last remaining gate, we hid in a cellar below the palace of Herod. As we heard the shouts of soldiers above on the street I proposed that we – the remaining few — kill each while standing in a circle. It would work like this. Each man would kill his neighbor. Each man would be the executioner and the victim as death walked around the circle. The game is this, each puts his blade in the belly of the next man until no one is left standing, and the last man, the very last man kills himself. ” There is silence for a moment. ”I was the last man.”
“The Gods favoried you then.”
“Did they? No…the truth is I chose the way of our death so that I could live.”
“How is that possible?”
“Through mathematics.” He then rattled off a mathematical equation like I had met Archimedes himself. He was an extraordinary man. He had saved himself by finding a way to know where he should stand in the circle to avoid death and thus becoming the final remaining man required to kill himself. Every 2nd man was to be killed in the circle, for one is executioner and one is the victim. That means once around only the executioners remain standing. All even people had died. Now the killing game is resumed. The game of death goes around the circle again…executioners taking more victims.
Josephus takes his finger draws a circle and in the air taps every other person that is intended to die. ”Gone…gone…gone…gone…”
“How could you possibly know where you would have come out upon the list? IMPOSSIBLE? You would have to know where to place yourself in the circle!”
He smiled again. “Simply mathamatics. Knowledge is valued in my family I learned the equations of the Greeks. I always listened carefully in school. Let us say n equals the number of warriors in the circle. Once around the the circle every second person is killed by the man to his left. Let us go around again. Once more every 2nd person is eliminated. This goes on till the final man — the living man — executes the final man. Numbers have rules, and numbers are sequential, and all I had to do was stand in the proper place for me to remain standing. All I had to do is know the last number in the series and stand in that spot.”
“And you figured all that out in your head, while WE Romans pounded on the gates.”
He was silent as a squad of soldiers march by. He sighed. His eyes watched their weapons warily as a man of such a past should.
“How did you wind up here in Rome?” I asked.
“I saw a prophesy. While in prison I foretold that Vespasian would be emperor.”
“You did! Amazing! You survived a killing ring and you foresaw the old bull taking the purple.”
“No so. I made the vision up. I saw nothing. I LIED! If you want to live tell any and all Roman Generals that they will be Emperor some day. Maybe you will be right. Who knows?”
“So how did you get to here?”
“Vespasian thought me lucky and brought me to Rome. Now, I am his scribe and historian.”
“Amazing. What history are you writing?”
“Ah…the subject is my punishment. I must write a history on the greatness of the Roman State, and tell the end of my own people so that Romans can read about it and feel good about themselves. Yes, I know what you are thinking. I conspired in numbers so that I may live. I conspired in numbers so that death would take my friends and I would save face. In addition, I write a history of my enemy. We all face a punishment for what we do in life. I must write a history to make the Romans immortal. I have no choice. The only thing that keeps me going is that maybe, just maybe I shall place enough words into my history to make my people immortal as well.”
We sat silently for a moment. He sighed and said, “It is time to get back. I am at a special chapter. I write at inspiration and not by the water clock.” He stands, stretches, and takes a few steps away before looking back over his shoulder. “I am sorry for you, Roman. To loose a wife is hard, but to loose a people is even harder. I am a stranger in a stranger land.”
“What is your real name, historian?” I asked.
“ Joseph ben Matityahu.”
“What will you name your history?”
“The Jewish War.” He smiled. “Yes, people will remember the men of Masada, but no one will remember me. That is my punishment.”
– End of Letter –
Note* ”No one will remember me?” Not a chance. Of course this letter is not real. One can only imagine the demons floated about Josephus when it came time for him to sleep? He was human, like the rest of us…sometimes we do things to survive…and sometimes we do things to help us live with ourselves just a little longer.
Want to read more about Josephus?
Does anyone have any good sources on this historian? Have you read THE JEWISH WAR? What do you think?