Joseph, son of Matthias, is a young Hebrew nobleman. When his Judean homeland rebels under the thumb of Rome and its emperor, Nero, the capable Joseph is asked to defend Galilee against Roman attack. Though he prepares the city of Jotapata for the onslaught, the city falls to the Romans and Joseph is captured. After a harrowing shipwreck, Joseph is imprisoned in Rome and forced to lead a mock sea battle in the Colosseum for the amusement of the Romans. His skill, as well as his prophetic visions of Flavian ascendency, lead to his adoption into future emperor Vespasian’s family. In the climactic moments of this retelling, Joseph returns to Judea with his adoptive brother Flavius Titus, who oversees the siege and later destruction of Joseph’s sacred Jerusalem in 70 CE during the First Jewish-Roman War.
The battle for Jotapata could have been a novel in itself, but in JOSEPHUS, author B. Michael Antler relates tale after fascinating tale from Joseph’s life, weaving a powerful plot in which character and crisis coalesce into memorable stories within the story: the capture by Greek cannibals, a suicide pact in a mountain cave above Jotapata, Vespasian’s party in Rome, the opium seller and sea battle in the Colosseum, and the brutal siege of Jerusalem. This is mythmaking, similar to the Odyssey and the Aeneid. While carefully researched details — for example, specifics about the Roman war machine — enrich the story, historical precision matters less than the tale itself. Antler also effectively emphasizes the humanity of these historic events. In Flavius Josephus, Antler has chosen a complex figure. Joseph is an agile thinker and a consummate survivor. Is he a traitor? A loyalist? To his credit, Antler wastes little time judging Joseph. Whether Paris and Odysseus were heroic or morally reprehensible is less compelling than how they strove to face their circumstances. This personal focus means, traitor or loyalist, Joseph’s anguish at the fall of Jerusalem is palpable and moving. With the exception of the simplistic sadism of John of Ghiscala and Simon bar Giora, the other main characters, Titus and Frachas — like Joseph — hint at gratifying complexity.
The challenges in JOSEPHUS involve the writing style Antler uses to make this ancient story accessible and his choices about sadism. Antler’s simplified prose style is sometimes jarring in the context of the heightened ancient drama. And, while Antler references the historical accuracy of the sexual violence he portrays, the sheer quantity of gore overbalances sometimes, which overwhelms the story.
B. Michael Antler’s JOSEPHUS is a grand relaying of the incredible tale of first-century Judean historian Flavius Josephus, during a remote and dynamic period in Western history.
~Ellen Graham for IndieReader