The story of Mary’s cannibalism occurs in Book 6 at the climax of Josephus’ account of the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 ce, and it serves dramatically as the catalyst for the destruction of the Jewish Temple. By setting this abomination of cannibalism directly before the destruction of the Temple, Josephus plainly is creating a disaster of biblical proportions, especially for his Jewish audience, who would know of the first destruction and other dire cases of cannibalism from the scriptures. At the same time, he shapes this dramatic scene with topoi gleaned from Greek tragedy and historiography (Fornara 1983: 171; Feldman 1998a; Ullmann and Price 2002). Josephus sets the scene for Mary in BJ 6 by painting a picture of the social breakdown within Jerusalem as the siege persists and of the ‘‘indescribable sufferings’’ (6.193) of those perishing from famine. Throughout the War the victims are the majority of the Jewish people, and the villains are the Jewish rebels, whom Josephus calls leistai (brigands), and whom he excoriates for turning the Temple into a polluted brigand-stronghold (see further Mader 2000: 139-146).
Josephus introduces the story of Mary’s cannibalism with a rather lengthy prologue (6.199-200):
But why should I tell about their shamelessness in eating inanimate food because of the famine? For I am about to reveal a deed of such a kind that has never been recorded by Greeks or barbarians, awful to tell and unbelievable to hear. For my part, so that I did not seem to my future audience to be telling tales, I would gladly have left out this misfortune, if I had not had countless witnesses among my own contemporaries. Above all, I would be paying cold respect to my country if I lied in my account of the things it has suffered.
In this prologue, Josephus first tantalizes his audience by claiming that he will reveal a deed unparalleled in Greek or Jewish history. Thackeray (1928: 434) notes, ‘‘Josephus strangely ignores the parallel incident at the siege of Samaria, recorded in 2 Kings 6.28f.,’’ but I would emphasize that Josephus’ omission is essential to his historiographic goals. The historian’s declaration here of the incomparable nature of Mary’s cannibalism matches his larger claim at the beginning of Book 1 that the Jewish War was the greatest of all ever waged (1.1,4). In this, he is harking back to Thucydides’ claim (1.1) of the Peloponnesian War surpassing all previous wars. Great wars require great climaxes. In his story of Mary, Josephus is laying out an extraordinary explanation for why the cataclysmic destruction occurs in Jerusalem. It, therefore, would only have deflated the grandeur and supposed uniqueness of his material at this point to refer to the Samaritan cannibalism.
For Josephus’ Jewish audience these reports of cannibalism would have been read as fulfillments of the original warnings of God’s punishments for sacrilege (Leviticus 26:28; Deuteronomy 28:53). Both passages contain parents committing cannibalism against their own children. Later Hebrew literature set dramatically during the Babylonian exile repeatedly foretells/reports cannibalism during the siege of Jerusalem, which led to the destruction of its first Temple and the captivity of its people. What is key to these exilic texts, especially Jeremiah (19:9), Lamentations (2:20), and Ezekiel (5:9-10), is that Israel interpret its sufferings, including engaging in cannibalism, as punishments from Yahweh for not keeping the Jewish Law - and specifically for profaning the Temple, which is Josephus’ accusation against the rebels of his own day.
That Josephus was working from this biblical material seems evident; we should now consider how he could adapt it for a gentile audience as well. The Jewish philosopher Philo provides keen insight into how a hellenized Jew would consider and shape a narrative of cannibalism. On the famine and drought that will come against those who transgress the Law, and that will cause people to turn to cannibalism, Philo comments (De Pr. 134): ‘‘The tales of Thyestes will be child’s play compared with the extreme misfortunes, which the times will produce in great abundance.’’ Thyestes is a natural choice when referring to cannibalism, since in the myth he (albeit unwittingly) ate his own children. Philo then dwells on the horrible consequences of not obeying God (De Pr. 136): ‘‘But ills that last and waste away both body and soul produce new sufferings more profound than the ones described in tragedies, which seem to be told because of their excesses.’’ Philo, therefore, makes it very clear that tragedy is the natural point of association for his hellenized audience, regardless of one’s religion, when discussing extreme human suffering, whether real or hypothetical.
In this introduction to the Mary episode Josephus is also insisting upon his own personal integrity as a historian who tells the truth, based on eyewitness account, and records it accurately for posterity. Here he is aspiring to Thucydidean reliability, trustworthiness, and permanence (Thuc. 1.20-22), goals outlined in Josephus’ mission statement in the introduction to his history (1.2, 6, 16, 18, 30). As Josephus explains, there were witnesses to Mary’s deed, and consequently his insistence upon accuracy in his main introduction would be a sham were he not to include the event. Josephus commences his main account of Mary in the following way (6.201):
There was a certain woman among the people who live beyond the Jordan named Mary, daughter of Eleazar, of the village of Bethezuba (this means the ‘‘house of hyssop’’), distinguished by birth and wealth, who escaped with the rest of the people to Jerusalem and became involved in the siege.
The very first words in this passage, ‘‘a certain woman’’ (gune tis), immediately alert his audience that he is going to be telling an engaging story involving an otherwise minor character. Throughout the War Josephus uses tis with a noun to introduce provocative or exemplary material (cf., e. g., 2.57, 60, 101, 118). Josephus commences his story by giving details of Mary’s father’s name and home in Perea. He provides the details about her great wealth and high social position perhaps in order to increase his audience’s respect for her, to recall the elegant cannibal mother in Deuteronomy 28, and to prepare for the tragedy of her great fall. She takes refuge in Jerusalem, only to lose all her belongings to rebel raids.
The focus of this passage rests upon Mary’s emotional state. Josephus highlights the terrible vexation that drives her to reproach and curse the looters, who, in turn, are provoked to act against her (6.203). The historian then suspends the narrative, in order to build up to the supposedly unparalleled deed, by crafting a comparatively long sentence and by delaying introduction of the baby until Mary’s dramatic direct address (6.204-207):
But when no one out of either anger or pity killed her, and she was tired of finding any food for others, and it was difficult now to find it from any source, and the famine was advancing through her innards and marrow while her anger was burning stronger than the famine, she, under the influence of her anger, along with necessity, went against nature and seizing her child - she had a nursing infant - said, ‘‘Poor baby, in the midst of war and famine and civil strife, why should I preserve you? There will be slavery with the Romans, if we are alive under them, but the famine is beating out even slavery, and the rebels are harsher than both. Be food for me and for the rebels a fury and for the world a myth, the only one lacking for the calamities of the Jews.’’
This passage is rich with themes crucial to Josephus’ history as a whole (Mader 2000: 140-146) and tragic language.
The picture of a passionate female as known from Greek tragedy strongly emerges. Josephus explains Mary’s emotional state in terms very familiar from Greek tragedy: she is overwhelmed by the goads of anger (orjge) and necessity (anagke) to commit a deed ‘‘against nature,’’ characteristics that Josephus and his audience would have readily identified with the mythological Medea (see Macleod 1983: 140-158 for the themes in Euripides and Thucydides). In Euripides, Medea is driven by orjge: against her former husband, Jason (Med. 121, 176,447, 520, 870, 909). After killing Jason’s new bride (and his new father-in-law), Medea believes she must kill her own children, an unnatural act, so that they will not be killed by another (1062-1063): ‘‘Surely it is necessity for them to die; and since it is necessary, I, the very one who bore them, will kill them.’’
The audience of the War finally learns the crucial piece of information just before her speech: Mary has a child. Josephus heightens the suspense and tragic pathos by delaying this revelation until the beginning of Mary’s tragic monologue. When Mary seizes her baby, she mirrors the violence of the rebels’ guards who have snatched her property earlier (6.202). That the baby is a nursling makes it that much more vulnerable, thereby increasing the pathos and inviting the audience’s pity.
This component of a mother and child suffering during siege is one shared in the Hebrew and Greek traditions, surely because the literary topos is a reflection of the realities of war through which both cultures suffered. Homer’s Andromache serves as the archetype in Greek literature of the pathetic woman left alone with a babe in arms after the father has died in war. Josephus, however, is also recalling the Hebrew prophetic literature of lamentation, which decries the plight of women in war (e. g., Lamentations 2:10-12, 20; cf. Isaiah 66). The Christian gospels, composed in response to the Hebrew tradition as well as current realities in the first century CE, also attest through the prophecies of Jesus to the theme that women and their babes will suffer because of war and the destruction of Jerusalem (Mk. 13:17; Mt. 24:19; Lk. 21:23). Josephus is thus shaping his narrative within both Greek and Hebrew lines of thought.
After seizing her infant at the breast, Mary delivers a short tragic monologue. As with other speeches in the War (Aune 1987: 107-108), it reflects Josephus’ own apologetic Tendenz, but the fact that a woman speaks creates heightened drama, as with the performance of Lucretia in Livy 1. (Speeches are given to women elsewhere in the War only in Book 1, during the destruction of Herod’s house and his tragic downfall.) What makes the speech more unusual still is that it is addressed to a baby; after all, Josephus could have had Mary simply direct her words to the rebels, who were the source of her agony. Babies are hardly the typical addressees of set speeches in Greco-Roman historiography, especially at the climax of an account (but cf. Golden 1997 for children as dramatic foci in classical and Hellenistic historiography). Instead, this rings of the role of children in Greek tragedy, which had as its archetype the role of Astyanax as a focus of pathos in Homer’s Iliad.
Women, children, and the gods are considered among the main conventional objects of concern before battle in histories (e. g., Hdt. 8.41.1; Thuc. 7.68.2, 69.2). Josephus, however, raises this typical element to a much more dramatic level by allowing a woman to speak to her child in order to explain just what is at stake in the war he is describing. We cannot possibly determine whether this is a new interpretation of the conventional mention of women and children at the climax of a history of a war, since so many histories from antiquity are now lost. We can assume, however, that Josephus presents the scene with Mary very deliberately in order to further his apologetic aims and to appeal to his audience’s taste.
The fact that Mary is addressing her own son and commanding him to serve a higher purpose through his death belongs to the tradition of the Jewish stories found in 2 and 4 Maccabees (though Josephus seems not to have used the former) describing the courageous mother who urges her seven sons to resist the attempts of Antiochus Epiphanes to hellenize the Jews and to endure his punishments. Josephus, too, is telling a story of resistance to political power, but not so much against the foreign Romans, who potentially would enslave the mother and child, as against the rebels, whom the historian has been so careful to blame for the famine and the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem.
Mary offers an interpretation ofwhat her baby’s death signifies: food, fury, and myth all rolled into one. On the practical level within the story, the baby will serve as ‘‘food’’ to alleviate the mother’s hunger. On the thematic level, the baby will play the tragic role of a ‘‘fury’’ after its death (though those in Aeschylus’ Oresteia are not spirits of babies!), hounding the rebels for the crimes they have committed. The echo of the Oresteia resounds, especially since Josephus is condemning the rebels yet again for their murderous ‘‘domestic civil war’’ (oikeia stasis) and slaughter (homophulosphonos). Finally, the label of‘‘myth’’ (muthos, used only once elsewhere in the War, 3.420) elevates the baby to a role in a tragedy, which is a further clue to the nature of this particular narrative.
The baby embodies all the suffering of the Jews in this war by suffering murder, dismemberment, and consumption at the hands of his own mother. Josephus states (6.208):
And with these words she slew her son, and then having roasted the body, she devoured half of it, while the rest she covered and was safeguarding.
The rebels now appear, and Mary invites them to eat part of her ‘‘sacrifice’’ (6.211):
‘‘This is my own child, and this is my deed. Eat, for I, too, have eaten. Don’t be weaker
Than a woman or more compassionate than a mother. If you are pious and turn away
From my sacrifice, then I have eaten for you, and let the leftovers remain for me.’’
Josephus clearly has made Mary a woman from Greek tragedy, both in proclaiming this murder-cannibalism her ‘‘deed’’ and by referring explicitly to her status as a woman and a mother as a challenge to the rebels. She is, in fact, a Medea/Agave hybrid. Medea, before she murders her children, calls their deaths her ‘‘sacrificial offerings’’ (Eur. Med. 1054), and agonizes over their fate at the hands of enemies should she not dispatch them. As to Agave, the Bacchic allusions in the War are profound: in the Bacchae, impiety leads to dismemberment (sparagmos), which in turn results possibly in diaspora ordained as divine punishment (but see Seaford 1996: 252-253). (For the Bacchic sparagmos theme earlier in the War see 2.90; 5.27.) In the extant portions of the play, Euripides’ Agave does not call the brutal death and dismemberment of her son Pentheus a ‘‘sacrifice,’’ but she does invite the chorus to ‘‘share the banquet’’ (1184) and her father Cadmus to the ‘‘feast’’ (1242). Cadmus, in response, refers to the death as ‘‘murder’’ and Pentheus’ body as a ‘‘sacrifice victim’’ (1245-1246). In the War Mary does not dwell upon her baby’s severed limbs, nor does she try to put her baby’s body back together again as Agave may have done towards the end of the Bacchae (Dodds 1960a: 57-59). Yet both women and their people perhaps suffer the same fate of dispersion and slavery after the terrible sacrifice. Josephus’ readers may very well have perceived an allusive connection between the tragic fate of the Thebans and their city at the end of the Bacchae and that of the Judeans and Jerusalem in the war (see Chapman 2005b for Bacchic allusions in Pseudo-Hegesippus’ De Excidio, which is based on the War), while Jewish readers in particular might have recalled Leviticus 26.
Josephus then reports, in the tradition of political invective, that the rebels depart having almost eaten the human flesh (6.212; for accusations of human sacrifice and cannibalism being used to discredit an enemy, see McGowan 1994 and Rives 1995). The historian has used this image of the rebels as virtual cannibals twice before, and returns to it again when he claims that they would have eaten corpses had the Romans not captured them first (4.541; 5.4; 6.373). The true villains here are the rebels, not Mary, as Titus will soon make clear in his reply to this deed.
We now receive the mixed audience response of Jews in the city and of the Roman soldiers just outside. Josephus engages in word play: the muthos of the mother’s deed is interpreted by the residents of Jerusalem as a musos, an abomination (6.212). The Roman army’s response to the news of the pathos is a mixture of incredulity, pity, but mostly deeper misos (hatred) towards the Jews (6.214). The triple word play creates a causal link and explanation for the events to follow: the muthos of the baby’s musos inflames Roman misos. This helps to explain the Romans’ ferocity later in the assault upon Jerusalem. Mary’s tragic act of cannibalism also provides the ultimate justification for the destruction of the Temple (on the Temple’s demise, see Barnes 2005; Chapman 2005a: 296-303; Rives 2005).
Josephus gives Titus a defense speech in which, among other things, he blames the Jews for ‘‘first setting fire with their own hands to the Temple which is being preserved by us for them’’ (6.216). Titus then declares (ibid.) that such people, who would set their own Temple on fire, ‘‘are worthy of such food’’ as Mary’s cannibal feast. The Roman general pronounces his verdict (6.217): he will ‘‘bury this abomination of infant-cannibalism (to tes teknophagias musos) in the very destruction of the country’’ and vows ‘‘not to leave in his oikoumene a city standing for the sun to look upon where mothers are fed thus.’’ Thus ends the tale of Mary in the War; having served her narrative purpose, she is never mentioned again.