A popular text with scholars throughout the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, De bello Judaico is a history of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman overlords during the reign of Nero. It was written in the first century AD by a Jewish turncoat who was once a rebel leader but later wholly espoused the Roman point of view.
Joseph ben Mattathias was born in Jerusalem a few years after the time of Jesus. After joining the forces opposed to Nero's despotic rule, he was captured by the Roman general Vespasian in 67AD. He saved himself from execution by presenting himself as a prophet and predicting that before long Vespasian would become emperor. Luck was on Joseph's side. The following year Nero committed suicide and, in quick succession, during the eighteen months that followed three emperors – Galba, Otho and Vitellius – met violent ends. By the end of 69, Vespasian was in power.
He rewarded his prophet well. Joseph took the name Flavius Josephus, moved to Rome and wrote his history of the Jewish war while living in luxury at Vespasian's court. By no means a revolutionary tract, De bello Judaico advises against the folly of opposing Roman might. Joseph/Josephus wrote the first version in his native language, Aramaic, and later translated the work into Greek, but it was chiefly known to medieval and Renaissance scholars in the Latin adaptation made in 414 by the learned monk Rufinus of Aquilaea.
The Library's fifteenth-century manuscript is based on the Rufinus translation. Written in dark-brown ink, the script has a rounder and more modern look than that found in many of the Library's other medieval manuscripts. Historians of handwriting refer to this style as ‘humanist’ and to the angular style as ‘gothic’. In their seminal work Medieval and renaissance manuscripts in New Zealand collections, Margaret M. Manion, Vera F. Vines and Christopher de Hamel identify the De bello Judaico scribe as Domenico di Cassio from Narni in central Italy. They also comments that the decorative artwork on the manuscript's opening page, with its white vines, long-tailed birds and ‘judicious placing of sturdy putti which help to stabilize the design’, is in the style of Florentine artist Filippo di Matteo Torelli.
Domenico and Filippo are both known to have worked for the prominent Florentine bibliophile, bookseller and librarian Vespasiano da Bisticci. In all likelihood, this later Vespasian was the driving force behind the De bello Judaico manuscript.
Sir George Grey purchased the volume from booksellers Thomas and William Boone in the early 1860s.
Related resources: Our heritage collection; Medieval and renaissance manuscripts in New Zealand collections by Margaret M. Manion; medieval manuscripts.