There are times where one must simply choose: which fork in the road of life do we follow?
Often, these crucial decisions can be delayed or the terms of the choice reframed so as to offer a more palatable contrast. And by planning ahead and understanding both yourself and your hopes for the future, the right answer can become self-evident.
But sometimes, even the wisest and most artful can find themselves faced with a crossroads that they have done little to prepare for, and a solution must be extemporised.
So it was with Josephus, a commander of the Jews in their rebellion against Roman rule in the 1st century AD. Legions led first by Vespasian and later his son Titus (both future Emperors) were wreaking revenge across Judaea, razing cities and massacring local populations. Josephus and 40 of his comrades found themselves cornered in a hideout in the city of Jotapata. He had predicted that the city would fall on the 47th day of the Roman siege, and his prediction had now come true.
Josephus, a moderate man, wanted to surrender and seek clemency. His colleagues felt death by suicide was the only honourable option. A man at ease with words, Josephus attempted to persuade them away from this decision, arguing it would be against God’s will to suicide. He failed in that line of argument, but convinced them that rather than each man killing himself, they should instead kill each other as this would be less likely to offend God.
We will never know whether what happened next was pure luck or brilliant inspiration, though the circumstances are all so odd that I rather suspect the latter. Josephus said that they should all stand in a circle and then every third man should be killed by his neighbour.
The brilliance lies in where Josephus stood in that circle. By positioning himself correctly, he ensured that every time the count went round, he was never the third man, and so was never killed. He and one other man were the last two survivors and with only one man left to persuade, he was now able to argue successfully in favour of surrender.
He lived, became a Roman citizen and left several important histories of the age behind. Some have painted him as a traitor, others as an opportunist. Perhaps he was. But I have to admire his skill and tenacity in surviving such a lethal situation. True, we’re unlikely to ever be in the exact same situation (though if you are, I recommend standing either 16th or 31st in the circle), but the ability to improvise and to persuade remains vital to survival.