Siege of Masada

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Siege of Masada
Part of the First Jewish–Roman War
Israel-2013-Aerial 21-Masada.jpg
Masada National Park
Date Late 72 – early 73 (traditional date)
Late 73 – early 74 CE (proposed date)[1][2]
Location Masada, Israel
31°18′56″N 35°21′13″E / 31.31556°N 35.35361°E / 31.31556; 35.35361
Result Roman victory
Jewish Sicarii Roman Empire
Commanders and leaders
Eleazar ben Ya'ir Lucius Flavius Silva
967, including non-combatants Legio X Fretensis 4,800
Auxiliaries and slaves 4,000–10,000
Casualties and losses
960 dead, 7 captured Unknown

The siege of Masada was one of the final events in the First Jewish–Roman War, occurring from 73 to 74 CE on a large hilltop in current-day Israel. The siege was chronicled by 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. Masada has become a controversial event in Jewish history, with some regarding it as a place of reverence, commemorating fallen ancestors and their heroic struggle against oppression, and others regarding it as a warning against extremism and the refusal to compromise.


Masada is "a lozenge-shaped table-mountain" that is "lofty, isolated, and to all appearance impregnable".[3] The terrain made it difficult to reach the top of the mountain because there was only one narrow pathway, not even wide enough for two people to climb together. This pathway is known as "the Snake" because it "worms its way to the summit with many ingenious zig-zags".[3] The fortress of Masada has been referred to as the place where David rested, after he "fled from his father-in-law, King Saul".[4]

Flavius Josephus, a Jew born and raised in Jerusalem, is the only historian to provide a detailed account of the Great Jewish Revolt and the only person who recorded what happened on Masada. After being captured during the Siege of Yodfat and then freed by Vespasian, Josephus chronicled the Roman campaign.[5] Josephus presumably based his narration on the field commentaries of the Roman commanders.[6] 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 Great Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire, a group of Jewish extremists called the Sicarii overcame the Roman garrison of Masada and settled there. The Sicarii were commanded by Eleazar ben Ya'ir,[3] 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. Shortly thereafter, following the Roman siege of Jerusalem and subsequent destruction of the Second Temple, additional members of the Sicarii 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.[7][8] The works of Josephus are the sole record of the events that took place during the siege. 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.[9] It was the Zealots, in contrast to the Sicarii, who carried the main burden of the rebellion, which opposed Roman rule of Judea (as the Roman province of Iudaea, its Latinized name).

According to Josephus, on Passover, the Sicarii raided Ein-Gedi, a nearby Jewish settlement, and killed 700 of its inhabitants.[5][10][11]

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.[12] It is one of the oldest synagogues in Israel. Remains of two mikvaot were found elsewhere on Masada.

The Roman siege[edit]

Remnants of Camp F, one of several legionary camps just outside the circumvallation wall around Masada

In 72, the Roman governor of Iudaea, Lucius Flavius Silva, led Roman legion X Fretensis, a number of auxiliary units and Jewish prisoners of war, totaling some 15,000 troops, 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 73, 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",[3] allowing the Romans to finally breach the wall of the fortress on April 16, 73 CE.[13][14][15] When the Romans entered the fortress, however, they found it to be "a citadel of death."[3] The Jewish rebels had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and had committed mass suicide, declaring "a glorious death ... preferable to a life of infamy."[13]

The Roman siege ramp seen from above

According to Josephus, "The Jews hoped that all of their nation beyond the Euphrates would join together with them to raise an insurrection," but in the end there were only 960 Jewish Zealots who fought the Roman army at Masada.[5] When these 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."[5] According to William Whiston, translator of Josephus,[5] 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:

"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[16]

Because 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 to actually 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 which contained their provisions were also burnt, though whether this was by Romans, by Jews, or 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. Josephus' account is contradicted by the "skeletons in the cave, and the numerous separate fires".[17]

According to Kenneth Atkinson, there is no "archaeological evidence that Masada's defenders committed mass suicide."[18]


The siege of Masada is often revered in modern Israel as "a symbol of Jewish heroism".[19] 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".[20] 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.[20] Palotai states how Masada "developed a special 'love affair' with archeology" because the site had drawn people from all around the world to help locate the remnants of the fortress and the battle that occurred there.[20]

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",[21] 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 honour [of recognition as Jewish heroes and a state burial] on three Romans".[21] There is also some discussion of Masada's defenders, and whether they were "the heroic hard core of the great Jewish revolt against Rome, or a gang of killers who became victims of a last Roman mopping-up operation".[22]

See also[edit]


  1. Jump up ^ Campbell, Duncan B. (1988). "Dating the Siege of Masada". Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 73 (1988): 156–158. JSTOR 20186870. 
  2. Jump up ^ Cotton, Hannah M. (1989). "The Date of the Fall of Masada: The Evidence of the Masada Papyri". Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 78 (1989): 157–162. JSTOR 20187128. 
  3. ^ Jump up to: a b c d e Richmond, I. A. (1962). "The Roman Siege-Works of Masada, Israel". The Journal of Roman Studies (Washington College. Lib. Chestertown, MD.: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies) 52: 142–155. doi:10.2307/297886. JSTOR 297886. OCLC 486741153. 
  4. Jump up ^ Zeitlin, Solomon (1965). "Masada and the Sicarii". The Jewish Quarterly Review (Washington College. Lib. Chestertown, MD: University of Pennsylvania Press) 55 (4): 299–317. doi:10.2307/1453447. JSTOR 1453447. 
  5. ^ Jump up to: a b c d e Josephus, Flavius (1974). Wasserstein, Abraham, ed. Flavius Josephus: Selections from His Works (1st ed.). New York: Viking Press. pp. 186–300. OCLC 470915959. 
  6. Jump up ^ Stiebel, Guy D. "Masada." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 13. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 593-599. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  7. Jump up ^ Sheppard, Si. The Jewish Revolt. p. 82. ISBN 978-1-78096-183-5. 
  8. Jump up ^ "Masada Desert Fortress - Jewish Virtual Library". Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  9. Jump up ^ Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. The Masada Myth: Scholar presents evidence that the heroes of the Jewish Great Revolt were not heroes at all, The Bible and Interpretation
  10. Jump up ^ Flavius Josephus, De bello Judaico libri vii, B. Niese, Ed. J. BJ 4.7.2
  11. Jump up ^ Ancient battle divides Israel as Masada 'myth' unravels; Was the siege really so heroic, asks Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem, The Independent, 30 March 1997
  12. Jump up ^ Kloppenborg, John (1996). Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World. London: Routledge. p. 101. ISBN 0-415-13593-1. 
  13. ^ Jump up to: a b UNESCO World Heritage Centre. "Masada". Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  14. Jump up ^ "Masada". Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  15. Jump up ^ Campbell, Duncan B. (2010). "Capturing a desert fortress: Flavius Silva and the siege of Masada". Ancient Warfare 4 (2): 28–35.  The dating is explained on pp. 29 and 32.
  16. Jump up ^ "Elazar Ben Yair Speech at Masada - Jewish Virtual Library". Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  17. Jump up ^ Shaye J.D. Cohen. The significance of Yavneh and other essays in Jewish Hellenism. p. 143. 
  18. Jump up ^ Zuleika Rodgers, ed. (2007). Making History: Josephus And Historical Method. BRILL. p. 397. 
  19. Jump up ^ Isseroff, Amy (2005–2009). "Masada". Zionism and Israel – Encyclopedic Dictionary. Zionism & Israel Information Center. Retrieved 23 May 2011. 
  20. ^ Jump up to: a b c Palotai, Klara (2002). "Masada – the changing meaning of a historical site/archeological site in the reflection of a nation's changing history". Politics of the Performance Space. Retrieved 23 May 2011. 
  21. ^ Jump up to: a b Kantrowitz, Jonathan (25 June 2007). "Solved mystery of Masada remains". Archaeology News Report. Retrieved 23 May 2011. 
  22. Jump up ^ Cockburn, Patrick (30 March 1997). "Ancient battle divides Israel as Masada 'myth' unravels". The Independent. Retrieved 23 May 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Grant, Michael (1984). The Jews in the Roman World. New York: Scribner. ISBN 978-0-684-13340-9. 
  • Pearlman, Moshe (1967). The Zealots of Masada: Story of a Dig. New York: Scribner. OCLC 2019849. 
  • Yadin, Yigael (1966). Masada; Herod's fortress and the Zealot's last stand. New York: Random House. OCLC 1175632.