De bello Judaico

'De bello Judaico' was a popular text with scholars throughout the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. It tells the history of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman overlords during the reign of Nero. It was written in the first century AD by a Jew who was originally a rebel leader but later became a supporter of the Roman empire.

The text was written by Joseph ben Mattathias, who was born in Jerusalem a few years after the time of Jesus. After joining the rebel forces who were against Emperor Nero, he was captured by the Roman general Vespasian in 67AD. By claiming to be a prophet and predicting that Vespasian would become emperor, he was able to save himself from certain death. Luckily for Joseph, Nero committed suicide the following year and over the next eighteen months the emperors Galba, Otho and Vitellius died violently. By the end of 69, Vespasian was in power.

AWNS-19100922-15-1, Ancient and modern Rome, 1910, Sir George Grey Special Collections
'Joseph  the prophet' was treated well by Emperor Vespasian. He was renamed Flavius Josephus, moved to Rome and wrote 'De bello Judaico',  his version of the Jewish war whilst living in unparalleled luxury at Emperor Vespasian's court. Despite his rebel beginnings, the text is hardly revolutionary and advises against the pointlessness of opposing the tremendous might of the Roman Empire.

It was written in Josephus' native language Aramaic and later translated into Greek. However it is the Latin version written in 414 by the learned monk Rufinus of Aquilaea, which was well known to medieval and Renaissance scholars.

Ref: 7-C1905, 'De bello Judaico', Sir George Grey Special Collections
The 15th century manuscript held in the Sir George Grey Special Collections, is based on the Rufinus Lation translation. Sir George Grey purchased the volume from booksellers Thomas and William Boone in the early 1860s.

Written in dark-brown ink, the writing has a rounder and more modern look than the other medieval manuscripts held in the collections. Handwriting historians refer to this style as ‘humanist’ and to the angular style as ‘gothic’.

The  scribe has been identified as Domenico di Cassio from Narni, central Italy. Whilst the decorative artwork on the manuscript's opening page (see image above), with its white vines, long-tailed birds and putti (angels or cherubs shown in religions works) is in the style of Florentine artist, Filippo di Matteo Torelli.

Domenico and Filippo are both known to have worked for Vespasiano da Bisticci, who was a well known Florentine bibliophile, bookseller and librarian. It is likely that this Vespasian was the driving force behind the 'De bello Judaico' manuscript.

Ref: AWNS-19310603-47-1, aerial view of Rom from St. Peter's Square, 1931, Sir George Grey Special Collections