The siege of Masada was one of the final events in the First Jewish–Roman War; occurring from 73 to 74 CE on and around a large hilltop in current-day Israel. The Siege of Masada is known to history via a single source; Flavius Josephus, a Jewish rebel leader captured by the Romans; in whose service he became a historian. According to Josephus, the long siege by the troops of the Roman Empire led to the mass suicide of the Sicarii rebels and resident Jewish families of the Masada fortress; although this is not supported by archaeological investigation.
The Siege of Masada has become controversial. Some Jews regard Masada as a place of reverence, commemorating ancestors who fell heroically against oppression, and others regard it as a testament to extremism and a refusal to compromise.
The Siege of Masada: Some Background
Masada has been described as “a lozenge-shaped table-mountain” that is “lofty, isolated, and to all appearance impregnable”. Historically, the fortress could be reached only by a single pathway that was too narrow for men to walk abreast. This pathway was named “the Snake” because it twists and zig-zags to the summit.
Flavius Josephus, a Jew born and raised in Jerusalem, is the only historian to provide a detailed account of the First Jewish–Roman War and the only person who recorded what happened on Masada. After being captured during the Siege of Yodfat and freed by Vespasian, Josephus chronicled the Roman campaign. Josephus presumably based his narration on the field commentaries of the Roman commanders.
According to Josephus, Masada was first constructed by the Hasmoneans. Between 37 and 31 BCE, Herod the Great fortified it as a refuge for himself in the event of a revolt. In 66 CE, at the beginning of the First Jewish–Roman War, a group of Jewish extremists called the Sicarii overcame the Roman garrison of Masada and settled there. The Sicarii were commanded by Eleazar Ben Yair, and in 70 CE, they were joined by additional Sicarii and their families expelled from Jerusalem by the Jewish population with whom the Sicarii were in conflict.
The Siege of Masada: The Sicarii Rebels
Shortly thereafter, following the Roman siege of Jerusalem and subsequent destruction of the Second Temple; additional Sicarii members and many Jewish families fled Jerusalem and settled on the mountaintop; with the Sicarii using it as a refuge and base for raiding the surrounding countryside. According to modern interpretations of Josephus, the Sicarii were an extremist splinter group of the Zealots and were equally antagonistic to both Romans and other Jewish groups. It was the Zealots, in contrast to the Sicarii, who carried the main burden of the rebellion, which opposed the Roman rule of Judea.
According to Josephus, the Sicarii raided Ein Gedi, a nearby Jewish settlement, on Passover and killed 700 of its inhabitants. Archaeology indicates that the Sicarii modified some of the structures they found there; these include a building that was modified to function as a synagogue facing Jerusalem (it may, in fact, have been a synagogue to begin with), although it did not contain a mikvah or the benches found in other early synagogues. It is one of the oldest synagogues in Israel. Remains of two mikvaot were found elsewhere on Masada.
The Siege of Masada: Josephus’ Narrative
In 72 CE, the Roman governor of Judaea, Lucius Flavius Silva; led Roman legion X Fretensis, several auxiliary units, and Jewish prisoners of war; totaling some 15,000 men and women (of whom an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 were fighting men) to lay siege to the 960 people in Masada. The Roman legion surrounded Masada and built a circumvallation wall; before commencing construction of a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau, moving thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth to do so. Josephus does not record any attempts by the Sicarii to counterattack the besiegers during this process, a significant difference from his accounts of other sieges of the revolt.
The ramp was completed in the spring of 73CE, after probably two to three months of siege. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp; while the Romans assaulted the wall, discharging “a volley of blazing torches against … a wall of timber”, allowing the Romans to finally breach the wall of the fortress on April 16, 73 CE. When the Romans entered the fortress, however, they found it to be “a citadel of death.” The Jewish rebels had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and had killed each other, declaring “a glorious death … preferable to a life of infamy.”
According to Josephus, when these 960 Zealots were trapped on top of Masada with nowhere to run, Josephus tells us that the Zealots believed “it [was] by the will of God, and by necessity, that [they] are to die.” According to William Whiston, translator of Josephus; two women, who survived the suicide by hiding inside a cistern along with five children, repeated Eleazar ben Ya’ir’s exhortations to his followers prior to the mass suicide, verbatim to the Romans:
The Speech of Elazar ben Yair
“Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice … We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.”Elazar Ben Yair
As Judaism prohibits suicide, Josephus reported that the defenders had drawn lots and killed each other in turn, down to the last man, who would be the only one actually to take his own life. Josephus says that Eleazar ordered his men to destroy everything except the foodstuffs to show that the defenders retained the ability to live and so had chosen death over slavery. However, archaeological excavations have shown that storerooms that contained their provisions were also burnt, though whether this was by Romans, by Jews, by later events, or by natural fire spreading is unclear.
According to Shaye Cohen, archaeology shows that Josephus’ account is “incomplete and inaccurate.” Josephus only writes of one palace, archaeology reveals two; his description of the northern palace contains several inaccuracies, and he gives exaggerated figures for the height of the walls and towers. The “skeletons contradict Josephus’ account in the cave and the numerous separate fires.”
According to Kenneth Atkinson, no “archaeological evidence exists that Masada’s defenders committed mass suicide.”
According to archaeologist Eric H. Cline, Josephus’ narrative is impossible because the Romans would have immediately pressed their advantage, leaving no time for Eleazar’s speech or the mass suicides. Instead, Cline proposes that the defenders were massacred by Romans.
The siege of Masada is often revered in modern Israel as “a symbol of Jewish heroism.” According to Klara Palotai, “Masada became a symbol for a heroic ‘last stand’ for the State of Israel and played a major role for Israel in forging national identity”. To Israel, it symbolized the courage of the warriors of Masada; the strength they showed when they were able to keep hold of Masada for almost three years; and their choice of death over slavery in their struggle against an aggressive empire. Masada had become “the performance space of national heritage”; the site of military ceremonies. Palotai states that Masada “developed a special ‘love affair’ with archeology” because the site had drawn people from around the world to help locate the remnants of the fortress and the battle there.
Others, however, see it as a case of Jewish radicals refusing to compromise, resorting instead to suicide and the murder of their families, both prohibited by Rabbinic Judaism. Researchers are questioning the findings of Yigael Yadin; the Israeli archaeologist who first excavated Masada. Masada was once a place of celebration for Israelis, but now “Israelis [have] become less comfortable with glorifying mass suicide and identifying with religious fanatics” (Kantrowitz Jonathan, 2011); Other archaeologists have reviewed Yadin’s findings and have found some discrepancies.
During Yadin’s excavations, he found three bodies that he claimed were Jewish Zealots. Anthropologist Joe Zias and forensic expert Azriel Gorski claim that the bodies were actually three Romans taken hostage by the Jewish Zealots. If this is true, “Israel might have mistakenly bestowed the honor [of recognition as Jewish heroes and a state burial] on three Romans”. There is also some discussion of Masada’s defenders; and whether they were “the heroic hardcore of the great Jewish revolt against Rome or a gang of killers who became victims of a last Roman mopping-up operation”.