Source: Harold W. Attridge, “Josephus and His Works,” Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 203.
“The portrait of Titus [by Josephus] as the reluctant and compassionate destroyer of Jerusalem [in 70 C.E.] is briefly sketched for the last time when [Josephus] revisits the site of the campaign on a journey from Antioch to Alexandria before departing for his triumph in Rome. He ‘commiserated its destruction, not boasting, as another might have done, of having carried so glorious and great a city by storm, but heaping curses upon the criminal authors of the revolt, who had brought this chastisement upon it: plainly did he show that he could never have wished that the calamities attending their punishment should enhance his own deserts’ ([Jewish Wars] 7:112-12).
“The whole picture of Titus stands in striking contrast to reports in Roman sources about perceptions of his character prior to his accession to the principate. Suetonius (Tit. 7:1) reports that Titus was suspected of cruelty, unchastity, greed and extravagance. Cassius Dio (Hist. 66:18, 1) notes that Titus, as emperor, committed no act of murder or amatory power, either because his character had changed for the better when he became emperor, or simply because he did not live long enough to show his true colors. It may be that the flattering portrait in Josephus was deliberately designed to counter adverse public opinion and create a favourable image of the new emperor.”
Can anyone be portrayed as a hero or a villain? Obama has been represented as a hero since his recent victory, whereas his detractors maintain that he’s a corrupt radical leftist. Books have been written that portray George W. Bush as a principled Christians, while others depict him as a greedy powermonger. Spin, spin, spin.
In II Maccabees 4:4-5, we see the following about Onias, a high priest in the second century B.C.E.:
“Onias recognized that the rivalry was serious and that Apollonius son of Menestheus, and governor of Coelesyria and Phoenicia, was intensifying the malice of Simon. So he appealed to the king, not accusing his compatriots but having in view the welfare, both public and private, of all the people” (NRSV).
In those days, various parties in Judea sucked up to powerful Gentiles in an attempt to gain power for themselves. It looks like Onias is doing that too, but the author of II Maccabees views Onias as a righteous man, so he says that Onias is sucking up to the Gentiles for the benefit of his nation, not himself. Spin, spin, spin?
What’s strange is that Josephus portrays the Roman general Titus far more charitably than the Roman sources. You’d expect Roman sources to lionize Titus, but they don’t. Josephus has a political agenda to promote Roman rule in Judea–to ensure that the Romans treat the Jews well, and that the Jews submit to Rome. Consequently, he portrays Titus as a compassionate figure. But the Roman sources don’t have much of an agenda in this case. They’re already in power, so they have nothing to lose by being honest.