Are Josephus and other ancient writings considered historically sound or does the fact that his numbers are sometimes overly inflated to aggrandize his fellow countrymen make it a source of questionable validity and reliability?

Essentially, what are the limitations when using such an ancient text when looking for legitimate historical information?

1 Answer 1


While a healthy dose of scepticism is warranted when reading any historical text, there are several things in particular to be wary of when dealing with ancient sources. One of them, as you say, is exaggerated numbers. Geography is also suspect owing to poor measurements and traditional beliefs. Probably the most notorious is the quoting of speeches which are "required by the occasion" (ie. made up by the historian but hopefully reflective of what was likely in that situation).

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics publication of G. A. Williamson's translation of the Jewish War by Josephus, E. Mary Smallwood criticises Josephus for making exaggerations for dramatic effect and for overuse of speeches, some of excessive length and implausibility. She also criticises his inconsistencies, the undue weight he attaches to minor issues and his attraction to incredible accounts.

Because Josephus is our sole source of information for many of the topics that he covers, we can not afford to treat him as an illegitimate source. However, the inability to compare his accounts with those of others means that we can not know exactly to what extent his personal biases coloured his history writing, and this, coupled with his obvious deficiencies, means that he needs to be read with care.

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    Also, I'd tend to discount the numerous passages that testify to the popularity, influence, and virtue of a guy named Josephus. Commented Oct 28, 2011 at 3:45
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    Would one who was not truly talented and virtuous have been chosen by God to inform Vespasian of his glorious destiny? Would one lacking in influence and intelligence, when attacked by some forty others "running at him from all directions sword in hand", have avoided death because he "called one by name, glared like a general at another, shook hands with a third, pleaded with a fourth till he was ashamed...he kept all their swords away from his throat"? Why, only Xenophon of the Anabasis can be compared with Josephus for brilliance.
    – lins314159
    Commented Oct 29, 2011 at 4:38
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    All the points you make are valid and true. It is also worthwhile to bear in mind that exaggeration of numbers, heavy reliance on speeches, etc. are features of practically any ancient history primary source. Commented Nov 30, 2012 at 14:33
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    A similar (albeit somewhat different) problem comes with Thucydides, and the use of speeches in re The Peloponnesian War. Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 19:02

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