Flavius Josephus’ books on Jewish history printed by Johann Schüssler in Augsburg, 1470

Flavius Josephus’ books on Jewish history printed by Johann Schüssler in Augsburg, 1470

One of the most reliable sources of ancient Jewish history is Flavius Josephus (about 37–97 A.D.), a native of Jerusalem and a learned statesman who became a favorite of Roman emperors. His two chief works, De bello Judaico (The Jewish war) and De antiquitate Judaica (Jewish antiquities), are bound together in a first Latin edition, printed by Johann Schüssler in Augsburg in 1470.

The subject of De bello is the war of resistance waged by the Jews against imperial Rome. In the prologue, Josephus explains that because he participated in the conflict, his history qualifies as an eyewitness account. He further states that although he originally wrote the book in his native language—Aramaic or Hebrew—he later translated it into Greek, to reach more readers in the Greco-Roman world. Josephus’s other work, De antiquitate, is an epic history of the Jewish people in 20 books.

Schüssler’s printed edition of De antiquitate opens in stunning fashion. A large initial in vivid blue is set against a gold background and framed by a red and green border. A naturalistic botanical design works its way along three of the page’s four margins. Its colors are the same red, green, and blue, but with the addition of magenta. Large, fanciful capitals in olive green, magenta, and blue begin each of the 20 books, as well as the prologue and seven books of De bello. The handsome binding is made of pigskin-covered boards stamped with floral and geometric patterns and secured by two brass and leather clasps.

Flavius Josephus, De bello Judaico, ca. 1200.In addition to the printed edition, the Rakow Research Library owns a Latin manuscript of De bello Judaico dating to about 1200. Here the complete text of Josephus, in a Gothic script laid out in two columns, is remarkably well preserved. Eight very large capital letters, hand-colored in gold and carefully nuanced reds, blues, and greens, introduce the prologue and each of the seven books. Intricately decorated, they appear as pictorial and narrative compositions in themselves, so that the reader must pause to make out the actual form of the letter amid the stylized jumble of birds, flowers, animals, and people.

Josephus and Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.) were contemporaries. Pliny’s work Historia naturalis (Natural history, about 77 A.D.) was published around the same time as De bello Judaico (75–79 A.D.). Both books describe the vitreous sands along the Belus River near Mount Carmel in ancient Syria, but with one important distinction. While Pliny told an improbable tale to explain the discovery of glass, Josephus adhered to the observation of geological phenomena. What is most striking, however, is that Josephus believed that these sands were significant enough to warrant a digression from the war, giving us a clear indication that the ancients took much more than a passing interest in glass.


Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.


Josephus, Flavius. De antiquitate Judaica and De bello Judaico. First Latin edition. Johann Schüssler, Augsburg, 1470.

______. De bello Judaico. Manuscript. About 1200.

______. The Jewish War. Translated by Henry St. John Thackeray. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Published on January 15, 2014