Josephus, who introduced himself in Greek as “Iosepos (Ιώσηπος), son of Matthias, an ethnic Jew, a priest from Jerusalem”, fought the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War of 66–73 as a Jewish military leader in Galilee. After the Jewish garrison of Yodfat was taken under siege, the Romans invaded, killing thousands; the survivors committed suicide.

According to Josephus, however, in circumstances that are somewhat unclear, Josephus found himself trapped in a cave with forty of his companions. The Romans asked him to surrender once they discovered where he was, but his companions refused to allow this. He therefore suggested a method of collective suicide: they draw lots and killed each other, one by one, counting to every third person. The sole survivor of this process was Josephus (this method as a mathematical problem is referred to as the Josephus problem, or Roman Roulette) Josephus and one of his soldiers then surrendered to the Roman forces invading Galilee in July 67 and became prisoners. The Roman forces were led by Flavius Vespasian and his son Titus, both subsequently Roman emperors. In 69, Josephus was released (cf. War IV.622–629) and according to Josephus’s own account, he appears to have played a role as a negotiator with the defenders during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70.

The Galilee, site of Josephus’ governorship, in late antiquity.In 71, he arrived in Rome in the entourage of Titus, becoming a Roman citizen and client of the ruling Flavian dynasty (hence he is often referred to as Flavius Josephus — see below). In addition to Roman citizenship he was granted accommodation in conquered Judaea, and a decent, if not extravagant, pension. It was while in Rome, and under Flavian patronage, that Josephus wrote all of his known works. Although he only ever calls himself “Josephus”, he appears to have taken the Roman praenomen Titus and nomen Flavius from his patrons. This was standard practice for ‘new’ Roman citizens.

Josephus’s first wife perished, together with his parents, in Jerusalem during the siege and Vespasian arranged for him to marry a Jewish woman who had been captured. This woman left Josephus, and around 70, he married a Jewish woman from Alexandria by whom he had three male children. Only one, Flavius Hyrcanus, survived childhood. Josephus later divorced his third wife and around 75, married his fourth wife, a Jewish woman from Crete, member of a distinguished family. This last marriage produced two sons, Flavius Justus and Flavius Simonides Agrippa.

Josephus’s life is beset with ambiguity. For his critics, he never satisfactorily explained his actions during the Jewish war — why he failed to commit suicide in Galilee in 67 with some of his compatriots, and why, after his capture, he accepted patronage from the Romans.

Historian E. Mary Smallwood wrote:

(Josephus) was conceited, not only about his own learning but also about the opinions held of him as commander both by the Galileans and by the Romans; he was guilty of shocking duplicity at Jotapata, saving himself by sacrifice of his companions; he was too naive to see how he stood condemned out of his own mouth for his conduct, and yet no words were too harsh when he was blackening his opponents; and after landing, however involuntarily, in the Roman camp, he turned his captivity to his own advantage, and benefitted for the rest of his days from his change of side.

However, all those who do not forgive Josephus for not commiting suicide, fail to provide a reasonable explanation as to why the two leaders of the Jewish zealots, namely, John of Jiscala and Simon Bar giora, preferred Roman captivity, and quietly rejected taking their own life. Did they approve of Josephus’ choice?

Josephus’ credibility as a historian is questionable — his works are usually dismissed as Roman propaganda or as a personal or Jewish apologetic, aimed at rehabilitating his reputation in history. More recently, commentators have reassessed previously-held views of Josephus. As P.J. O’Rourke quipped:

Reason dictates we should hate this man. But it’s hard to get angry at Josephus. What, after all, did he do? A few soldiers were tricked into suicide. Some demoralizing claptrap was shouted at a beleaguered army. A wife was distressed… all of which pale by comparison to what the good men did. For it was the loyal, the idealistic and the brave who did the real damage. The devout and patriotic leaders of Jerusalem sacrificed tens of thousands of lives to the cause of freedom. Vespasian and Titus sacrificed tens of thousands or more to the cause of civil order. Even Agrippa II, the Roman client king of Judea who did all he could to prevent the war, ended by supervising the destruction of half a dozen of his cities and the sale of their inhabitants into slavery. How much better for everyone if all the principal figures of the region had been slithering filth like Josephus.