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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : Chapter 5: The Siege Of Jotapata.

For The Temple by G. A. Henty

Chapter 5: The Siege Of Jotapata.

|Well, Joab, what do you think, now?| John said, as he stood on the wall with his older companion, watching the seemingly endless column of the enemy. |It seems to me that we are caught here, like rats in a trap, and that we should have done better, a thousand times, in maintaining our freedom of movement among the mountains. It is one thing to cut a road; it would be another to clear off all the forests from the Anti-Libanus and, so long as there was a forest to shelter us, the Romans could never have overtaken us. Here, there is nothing to do but to die.|

|That is so, John. I own that the counsel you urged would have been wiser than this. Here are all the best fighting men in Galilee, shut up without hope of succor, or of mercy. Well, lad, we can at least teach the Romans the lesson that the Jews know how to die; and the capture of this mountain town will cost them as much as they reckoned would suffice for the conquest of the whole country. Jotapata may save Jerusalem, yet.|

John was no coward, and was prepared to fight to the last; but he was young, and the love of life was strong within. He thought of his old father and mother, who had no children but him; of his pretty Mary -- far away now, he hoped, on the slopes of Mount Hermon -- and of the grief that his death would cause to them; and he resolved that, although he would do his duty, he would strain every nerve to preserve the life so dear to them.

He had no longer any duties to perform, other than those common to all able to bear arms. When the Romans attacked, his place would be near Josephus or, were a sally ordered, he would issue out with the general; but until then, his time was his own. There was no mission to be performed, now, no fear of plots against the life of the general; therefore, he was free to wander where he liked. Save the newly erected wall, across the neck of rock below the town, there were no defenses; for it was deemed impossible for man to climb the cliffs that fell, sheer down, at every other point.

John strolled quietly round the town; stopping, now and then, to look over the low wall that bordered the precipice -- erected solely to prevent children from falling over. The depth was very great; and it seemed to him that there could be no escape, anywhere, save on that side which was now blocked by the wall -- and which would, ere long, be trebly blocked by the Romans.

The town was crowded. At ordinary times, it might contain near three or four thousand inhabitants; now, over twenty-five thousand had gathered there. Of these, more than half were men; but many had brought their wives and children with them. Every vacant foot of ground was taken up. The inhabitants shared their homes with the strangers, but the accommodation was altogether insufficient; and the greater part of the newcomers had erected little tents, and shelters, of cloths or blankets.

In the upper part of the town there were, at present, comparatively few people about; for the greater part had gone to the slope, whence they watched, with terror and dismay, the great Roman column as it poured down, in an unbroken line, hour after hour. The news of the destruction which had fallen on Gadara had been brought in, by fugitives; and all knew that, although no resistance had been offered there, every male had been put to death, and the women taken captives.

There was naught, then, to be gained by surrender; even had anyone dared to propose it. As for victory, over such a host as that which was marching to the assault, none could hope for it. For, hold out as they might, and repel every assault on the wall, there was an enemy within which would conquer them.

For Jotapata possessed no wells. The water had, daily, to be fetched by the women from the stream in the ravine and, although stores of grain had been collected, sufficient to last for many months, the supply of water stored up in cisterns would scarce suffice to supply the multitudes gathered on the rock for a fortnight.

Death, then, certain and inevitable, awaited them; and yet, an occasional wail from some woman, as she pressed her children to her breast, alone told of the despair which reigned in every heart. The greater portion looked out, silent, and as if stupefied. They had relied, absolutely, on the mountains and forests to block the progress of the invader. They had thought that, at the worst, they would have had to deal with a few companies of infantry, only. Thus, the sight of the sixty thousand Roman troops -- swelled to nigh a hundred thousand, by the camp followers and artificers -- with its cavalry and machines of war, seemed like some terrible nightmare.

After making the circuit of the rock, and wandering for some time among the impromptu camps in the streets, John returned to a group of boys whom he had noticed, leaning against the low wall with a carelessness, as to the danger of a fall over the precipice, which proved that they must be natives of the place.

|If there be any possible way of descending these precipices,| he said to himself, |it will be the boys who will know of it. Where a goat could climb, these boys, born among the mountains, would try to follow; if only to excel each other in daring, and to risk breaking their necks.|

Thus thinking, he walked up to the group, who were from twelve to fifteen years old.

|I suppose you belong to the town?| he began.

There was a general assent from the five boys, who looked with considerable respect at John -- who, although but two years the senior of the eldest among them, wore a man's garb, and carried sword and buckler.

|I am one of the bodyguard of the governor,| John went on, |and I dare say you can tell me all sorts of things, about this country, that may be useful for him to know. Is it quite certain that no one could climb up these rocks from below; and that there is no fear of the Romans making a surprise, in that way?|

The boys looked at each other, but no one volunteered to give information.

|Come!| John went on, |I have only just left off being a boy, myself, and I was always climbing into all sorts of places, when I got a chance; and I have no doubt it's the same, with you. When you have been down below, there, you have tried how far you can get up.

|Did you ever get up far, or did you ever hear of anyone getting up far?|

|I expect I have been up as far as anyone,| the eldest of the boys said. |I went up after a young kid that had strayed away from its mother. I got up a long way -- half way up, I should say -- but I couldn't get any further. I was barefooted, too.

|I am sure no one with armor on could have got up anything like so far. I don't believe he could get up fifty feet.|

|And have any of you ever tried to get down from above?|

They shook their heads.

|Jonas the son of James did, once,| one of the smaller boys said. |He had a pet hawk he had tamed, and it flew away and perched, a good way down; and he clambered down to fetch it. He had a rope tied round him, and some of the others held it, in case he should slip. I know he went down a good way, and he got the hawk; and his father beat him for doing it, I know.|

|Is he here, now?| John asked.

|Yes, he is here,| the boy said. |That's his father's house, the one close to the edge of the rock. I don't know whether you will find him there, now. He ain't indoors more than he can help. His own mother's dead, and his father's got another wife, and they don't get on well together.|

|Well, I will have a chat with him, one of these days. And you are all quite sure that there is no possible path up, from below?|

|I won't say there isn't any possible path,| the eldest boy said; |but I feel quite sure there is not. I have looked, hundreds of times, when I have been down below; and I feel pretty sure that, if there had been any place where a goat could have got up, I should have noticed it. But you see, the rock goes down almost straight, in most places. Anyhow, I have never heard of anyone who ever got up and, if anyone had done it, it would have been talked about, for years and years.|

|No doubt it would,| John agreed. |So I shall tell the governor that he need not be in the least uneasy about an attack, except in front.|

So saying, he nodded to the boys, and walked away again.

In the evening, the whole of the Roman army had arrived; and Vespasian drew up his troops on a hill, less than a mile to the north of the city, and there encamped them. The next morning, a triple line of embankments was thrown up, by the Romans, around the foot of the hill where, alone, escape or issue was possible; and this entirely cut off those within the town from any possibility of flight.

The Jews looked on at these preparations as wild animals might regard a line of hunters surrounding them. But the dull despair of the previous day had now been succeeded by a fierce rage. Hope there was none. They must die, doubtless; but they would die fighting fiercely, till the last. Disdaining to be pent up within the walls, many of the fighting men encamped outside, and boldly went forward to meet the enemy.

Vespasian called up his slingers and archers, and these poured their missiles upon the Jews; while he himself, with his heavy infantry, began to mount the slope towards the part of the wall which appeared the weakest. Josephus at once summoned the fighting men in the town and, sallying at their head through the gate, rushed down and flung himself upon the Romans. Both sides fought bravely; the Romans strong in their discipline, their skill with their weapons, and their defensive armor; the Jews fighting with the valor of despair, heightened by the thought of their wives and children in the town, above.

The Romans were pushed down the hill, and the fight continued at its foot until darkness came on, when both parties drew off. The number of killed on either side was small, for the bucklers and helmets defended the vital points. The Romans had thirteen killed and very many wounded, the Jews seventeen killed and six hundred wounded.

John had fought bravely by the side of Josephus. Joab and two others of the little band were killed. All the others were wounded, more or less severely; for Josephus was always in the front, and his chosen followers kept close to him. In the heat of the fight, John felt his spirits rise higher than they had done since the troubles had begun. He had fought, at first, so recklessly that Josephus had checked him, with the words:

|Steady, my brave lad. He fights best who fights most coolly. The more you guard yourself, the more you will kill.|

More than once, when Josephus -- whose commanding figure, and evident leadership, attracted the attention of the Roman soldiers -- was surrounded and cut off, John, with three or four others, made their way through to him, and brought him off.

When it became dark, both parties drew off; the Romans sullenly, for they felt it a disgrace to have been thus driven back, by foes they despised; the Jews with shouts of triumph, for they had proved themselves a match for the first soldiers in the world, and the dread with which the glittering column had inspired them had passed away.

The following day, the Jews again sallied out and attacked the Romans as they advanced and, for five days in succession, the combat raged -- the Jews fighting with desperate valor, the Romans with steady resolution. At the end of that time, the Jews had been forced back behind their wall, and the Romans established themselves in front of it.

Vespasian, seeing that the wall could not be carried by assault, as he had expected, called a council of war; and it was determined to proceed by the regular process of a siege, and to erect a bank against that part of the wall which offered the greatest facility for attack. Accordingly the whole army, with the exception of the troops who guarded the banks of circumvallation, went into the mountains to get materials. Stone and timber, in vast quantities, were brought down and, when these were in readiness, the work commenced.

A sort of penthouse roofing, constructed of wattles covered with earth, was first raised, to protect the workers from the missiles of the enemy upon the wall; and here the working parties labored securely, while the rest of the troops brought up earth, stone, and wood for their use. The Jews did their best to interfere with the work, hurling down huge stones upon the penthouse; sometimes breaking down the supports of the roof and causing gaps, through which they poured a storm of arrows and javelins, until the damage had been repaired.

To protect his workmen, Vespasian brought up his siege engines -- of which he had a hundred and sixty -- and, from these, vast quantities of missiles were discharged at the Jews upon the walls. The catapults threw javelins, balls of fire, and blazing arrows; while the ballistae hurled huge stones, which swept lanes through the ranks of the defenders. At the same time the light-armed troops, the Arab archers, and those of Agrippa and Antiochus kept up a rain of arrows, so that it became impossible for the Jews to remain on the walls.

But they were not inactive. Sallying out in small parties, they fell with fury upon the working parties who, having stripped off their heavy armor, were unable to resist their sudden onslaughts. Driving out and slaying all before them, the Jews so often applied fire to the wattles and timbers of the bank that Vespasian was obliged to make his work continuous, along the whole extent of the wall, to keep out the assailants.

But, in spite of all the efforts of the Jews, the embankment rose steadily, until it almost equaled the height of the wall; and the struggle now went on between the combatants on even terms, they being separated only by the short interval between the wall and bank. Josephus found that in such a conflict the Romans -- with their crowd of archers and slingers, and their formidable machines -- had all the advantage; and that it was absolutely necessary to raise the walls still higher.

He called together a number of the principal men, and pointed out the necessity for this. They agreed with him, but urged that it was impossible for men to work, exposed to such a storm of missiles. Josephus replied that he had thought of that. A number of strong posts were prepared and, at night, these were fixed securely, standing on the wall. Along the top of these, a strong rope was stretched; and on this were hung, touching each other, the hides of newly-killed oxen. These formed a complete screen, hiding the workers from the sight of those on the embankment.

Illustration: Heightening the Walls of Jotapata under Shelter of Ox Hides.

The hides, when struck with the stones from the ballistae, gave way and deadened the force of the missiles; while the arrows and javelins glanced off from the slippery surface. Behind this shelter, the garrison worked night and day, raising the posts and screens as their work proceeded, until they had heightened the wall no less than thirty-five feet; with a number of towers on its summit, and a strong battlement facing the Romans.

The besiegers were much discouraged at their want of success, and enraged at finding the efforts of so large an army completely baffled by a small town, which they had expected to carry at the first assault; while the Jews proportionately rejoiced. Becoming more and more confident, they continually sallied out in small parties, through the gateway or by ladders from the walls, attacked the Romans upon their embankment, or set fire to it. And it was the desperation with which these men fought, even more than their success in defending the wall, that discouraged the Romans; for the Jews were utterly careless of their lives, and were well content to die, when they saw that they had achieved their object of setting fire to the Roman works.

Vespasian, at length, determined to turn the siege into a blockade; and to starve out the town which he could not capture. He accordingly contented himself by posting a strong force to defend the embankment, and withdrew the main body of the army to their encampment. He had been informed of the shortness of the supply of water; and had anticipated that, in a very short time, thirst would compel the inhabitants to yield.

John had taken his full share in the fighting, and had frequently earned the warm commendation of Josephus. His spirits had risen with the conflict; but he could not shut his eyes to the fact that, sooner or later, the Romans must become masters of the place. One evening, therefore, when he had done his share of duty on the walls, he went up to the house which had been pointed out to him as that in which lived the boy who had descended the face of the rocks, for some distance.

At a short distance from the door, a lad of some fifteen years old, with no covering but a piece of ragged sackcloth round the loins, was crouched up in a corner, seemingly asleep. At the sound of John's footsteps, he opened his eyes in a quick, watchful way, that showed that he had not been really asleep.

|Are you Jonas, the son of James?| John asked.

|Yes I am,| the boy said, rising to his feet. |What do you want with me?|

|I want to have a talk with you,| John said. |I am one of the governor's bodyguard; and I think, perhaps, you may be able to give us some useful information.|

|Well, come away from here,| the boy said, |else we shall be having her -- | and he nodded to the house, | -- coming out with a stick.|

|You have rather a hard time of it, from what I hear,| John began, when they stopped at the wall, a short distance away from the house.

|I have that,| the boy said. |I look like it, don't I?|

|You do,| John agreed, looking at the boy's thin, half-starved figure; |and yet, there is plenty to eat in the town.|

|There may be,| the boy said; |anyhow, I don't get my share. Father is away fighting on the wall, and so she's worse than ever. She is always beating me, and I dare not go back, now. I told her, this morning, the sooner the Romans came, in the better I should be pleased. They could only kill me, and there would be an end of it; but they would send her to Rome for a slave, and then she would see how she liked being cuffed and beaten, all day.|

|And you are hungry, now?| John asked.

|I am pretty near always hungry,| the boy said.

|Well, come along with me, then. I have got a little room to myself, and you shall have as much to eat as you like.|

The room John occupied had formerly been a loft over a stable, in the rear of the house in which Josephus now lodged; and it was reached by a ladder from the outside. He had shared it, at first, with two of his comrades; but these had both fallen, during the siege. After seeing the boy up into it, John went to the house and procured him an abundant meal; and took it, with a small horn of water, back to his quarters.

|Here's plenty for you to eat, Jonas, but not much to drink. We are all on short allowance, the same as the rest of the people; and I am afraid that won't last long.|

There was a twinkle of amusement in the boy's face but, without a word, he set to work at the food, eating ravenously all that John had brought him. The latter was surprised to see that he did not touch the water; for he thought that if his stepmother deprived him of food, of which there was abundance, she would all the more deprive him of water, of which the ration to each person was so scanty.

|Now,| John said, |you had better throw away that bit of sackcloth, and take this garment. It belonged to a comrade of mine, who has been killed.|

|There's too much of it,| the boy said. |If you don't mind my tearing it in half, I will take it.|

|Do as you like with it,| John replied; and the boy tore the long strip of cotton in two, and wrapped half of it round his loins.

|Now,| he said, |what do you want to ask me?|

|They tell me, Jonas, that you are a first-rate climber, and can go anywhere?|

The boy nodded.

|I can get about, I can. I have been tending goats, pretty well ever since I could walk and, where they can go, I can.|

|I want to know, in the first place, whether there is any possible way by which one can get up and down from this place, except by the road through the wall?|

The boy was silent.

|Now look here, Jonas,| John went on, feeling sure that the lad could tell something, if he would, |if you could point out a way down, the governor would be very pleased; and as long as the siege lasts you can live here with me, and have as much food as you want, and not go near that stepmother of yours, at all.|

|And nobody will beat me, for telling you?| the boy asked.

|Certainly not, Jonas.|

|It wouldn't take you beyond the Romans. They have got guards, all round.|

|No, but it might enable us to get down to the water,| John urged, the sight of the unemptied horn causing the thought to flash through his mind that the boy had been in the habit of going down, and getting water.

|Well, I will tell you,| the boy said. |I don't like to tell, because I don't think there's anyone here knows it, but me. I found it out, and I never said a word about it, because I was able to slip away when I liked; and no one knows anything about it. But it doesn't make much difference, now, because the Romans are going to kill us all. So I will tell you.

|At the end of the rock, you have to climb down about fifty feet. It's very steep there, and it's as much as you can do to get down; but when you have got down that far, you get to the head of a sort of dried-up water course, and it ain't very difficult to go down there and, that way, you can get right down to the stream. It don't look, from below, as if you could do it; and the Romans haven't put any guards on the stream, just there. I know, because I go down every morning, as soon as it gets light. I never tried to get through the Roman sentries; but I expect one could, if one tried.

|But I don't see how you are to bring water up here, if that's what you want. I tell you, it is as much as you can do to get up and down, and you want both your hands and your feet; but I could go down and bring up a little water for you, in a skin hanging round my neck, if you like.|

|I am afraid that wouldn't be much good, Jonas,| John said; |but it might be very useful to send messages out, that way.|

|Yes,| the boy said; |but you see I have always intended, when the Romans took the place, to make off that way. If other people go, it's pretty sure to be found out, before long; and then the Romans will keep watch. But it don't much matter. I know another place where you and I could lie hidden, any time, if we had got enough to eat and drink. I will show you but, mind, you must promise not to tell anyone else. There's no room for more than two; and I don't mean to tell you, unless you promise.|

|I will promise, Jonas. I promise you, faithfully, not to tell anyone.|

|Well, the way down ain't far from the other one. I will show it you, one of these days. I went down there, once, to get a hawk I had taken from the nest, and tamed. I went down, first, with a rope tied round me; but I found I could have done it without that -- but I didn't tell any of the others, as I wanted to keep the place to myself.

|You climb down about fifty feet, and then you get on a sort of ledge, about three feet wide and six or seven feet long. You can't see it from above, because it's a hollow, as if a bit of rock had fallen out. Of course, if you stood up you might be seen by someone below, or on the hill opposite; but it's so high it is not likely anyone would notice you. Anyhow, if you lie down there, no one would see you. I have been down there, often and often, since. When she gets too bad to bear, I go down there and take a sleep; or lie there and laugh, when I think how she is hunting about for me to carry down the pails to the stream, for water.|

|I will say nothing about it, Jonas, you may be quite sure. That place may save both our lives. But the other path I will tell Josephus about. He may find it of great use.|

Josephus was indeed greatly pleased, when he heard that a way existed by which he could send out messages. Two or three active men were chosen for the work; but they would not venture to descend the steep precipice, by which Jonas made his way down to the top of the water course, but were lowered by ropes to that point. Before starting they were sewn up in skins so that, if a Roman sentry caught sight of them making their way down the water course, on their hands and feet, he would take them for dogs, or some other animals. Once at the bottom, they lay still till night, and then crawled through the line of sentries.

In this way Josephus was able to send out dispatches to his friends outside, and to Jerusalem; imploring them to send an army, at once, to harass the rear of the Romans, and to afford an opportunity for the garrison of Jotapata to cut their way out. Messages came back by return and, for three weeks, communications were thus kept up; until one of the messengers slipped while descending the ravine and, as he rolled down, attracted the attention of the Romans who, after that, placed a strong guard at the foot of the water course.

Until this discovery was made, Jonas had gone down regularly, every morning, and drank his fill; and had brought up a small skin of water to John, who had divided it among the children whom he saw most in want of it -- for the pressure of thirst was now heavy. The Romans, from rising ground at a distance, had noticed the women going daily with jugs to the cistern, whence the water was doled out; and the besiegers directed their missiles to that point, and many were killed, daily, while fetching water.

A dull despair now seized the Jews. So long as they were fighting, they had had little time to think of their situation; but now that the enemy no longer attacked, and there was nothing to do but to sit down and suffer, the hopelessness of their position stared them in the face. But there was no thought of surrender. They knew too well the fate that awaited them, at the hands of the Romans.

They were therefore seized with rage, and indignation, when they heard that Josephus and some of the principal men were thinking of making an endeavor to escape. John, who had hitherto regarded his leader with a passionate devotion -- although he thought that he had been wrong in taking to the fortified towns, instead of fighting among the mountains -- shared in the general indignation at the proposed desertion.

|It is he who has brought us all here,| he said to Jonas -- who had attached himself to him with dog-like fidelity -- |and now he proposes to go away, and leave everyone here to be massacred! I cannot believe it.|

The news was, however, well founded for, when the inhabitants crowded down to the house -- the women weeping and wailing, the men sullen and fierce -- to beg Josephus to abandon his intention, the governor attempted to argue that it was for the public good that he should leave them. He might, he said, hurry to Jerusalem, and bring an army to the rescue. The people, however, were in no way convinced.

|If you go,| they said, |the Romans will speedily capture the city. We are ready to die, all together -- to share one common fate -- but do not leave us.|

As Josephus saw that, if he did not accede to the prayers of the women, the men would interfere by force to prevent his carrying out his intentions, he told them he would remain with them; and tranquillity was at once restored. The men, however, came again and again to him, asking to be led out to attack the Romans.

|Let us die fighting,| was the cry. |Let us die among our foes, and not with the agonies of thirst.|

|We must make them come up to attack us, again,| Josephus said. |We shall fight to far greater advantage, so, than if we sallied out to attack them in their own intrenchments -- when we should be shot down by their archers and slingers, before ever we should reach them.|

|But how are we to make them attack us? We want nothing better.|

|I will think it over,| Josephus said, |and tell you in the morning.|

In the morning, to the surprise of the men, they were ordered to dip large numbers of garments into the precious supply of water, and to hang them on the walls. Loud were the outcries of the women, as they saw the scanty store of water, upon which their lives depended, so wasted; but the orders were obeyed, and the Romans were astonished at seeing the long line of dripping garments on the wall.

The stratagem had its effect. Vespasian thought that the news he had received, that the place was ill supplied with water, must be erroneous; and ordered the troops again to take their station on the walls, and renew the attack. Great was the exultation among the Jews, when they saw the movement among the troops; and Josephus, ordering the fighting men together, said that now was their opportunity. There was no hope of safety, in passive resistance; therefore they had best sally out and, if they must die, leave at least a glorious example to posterity.

The proposal was joyfully received, and he placed himself at their head. The gates were suddenly opened, and they poured out to the attack. So furious was their onslaught that the Romans were driven from the embankment. The Jews pursued them, crossed the lines of circumvallation, and attacked the Romans in their camp; tearing up the hides and penthouses behind which the Romans defended themselves, and setting fire to the lines in many places.

The fight raged all day. The Jews then retired to the city, only to sally out again, the following morning. For three days the attacks were continued; the Jews driving in the Romans, each day, and retiring when Vespasian brought up heavy columns -- who were unable, from the weight of their armor, to follow their lightly-armed assailants. Vespasian then ordered the regular troops to remain in camp, the assaults being repelled by the archers and slingers.

Finding that the courage of the Jews was unabated, and that his troops were losing heavily in this irregular fighting, he determined to renew the siege, at all hazards, and bring the matter to a close. The heavy-armed troops were ordered to be in readiness, and to advance against the walls with the battering ram. This was pushed forward by a great number of men; being covered, as it advanced, with a great shield constructed of wattles and hides. As it was brought forward, the archers and slingers covered its advance by a shower of missiles against the defenders of the wall; while all the war machines poured in their terrible shower.

The Jews, unable to show themselves above the battlements, or to oppose the advance of the terrible machine, crouched in shelter until the battering ram was placed in position.

Then the ropes by which it swung from the framework overhead were seized, by a number of soldiers, and the first blow was delivered at the wall. It quivered beneath the terrible shock, and a cry of dismay arose from the defenders. Again and again the heavy ram struck, in the same place. The wall tottered beneath the blows; and would soon have fallen, had not Josephus ordered a number of sacks to be filled with straw, and let down by ropes from the walls, so as to deaden the blows of the ram.

For a time the Romans ceased work; and then, fastening scythes to the ends of long poles, cut the ropes. The Jews were unable to show themselves above the walls, or to interfere with the men at work. In a few minutes the sacks were cut down, and the ram recommenced its work of destruction.

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