Deep in Israel’s Judaean Desert stand the remains of a mighty fortress, built atop a high rocky plateau. With a commanding position over its barren surrounds and views towards the Dead Sea, Masada is a breathtaking sight. Two thousand years ago, however, it was the scene of a dramatic clash between the armies of Rome and their oppressed Jewish subjects.
In the year 66 the Roman province of Judaea revolted against Roman rule. Long after the Romans defeated the Jewish armies and captured Jerusalem, the fortress of Masada held out as the last rebel stronghold against the Roman legions.
Used as a defensive position since the early 1st century BC, Masada’s unique potential was exploited by Herod the Great, a Judaean king allied to Rome. Herod is well known for his appearance in the Gospel of Matthew, but his actions are better understood through the Jewish historian Josephus and Herod’s archaeological legacy.
In the 30s BC Herod built a huge fortified palace on the tabletop-mountain. In places Masada’s cliffs are over 1,300 feet high, which Herod knew would make it an ideal place of refuge. He added to the plateau’s natural defences a 13 foot wall around its perimeter, reinforced with towers and gatehouses.
Herod’s new fortress could only be reached by a narrow path, the ‘Snake Trail’, which wound up the eastern side of the cliffs. This path was so narrow that two men could not climb it abreast. With its high walls and narrow entrance, Masada was impregnable to traditional military attacks.
Herod had discovered the perfect place from which to rule Judaea and to entertain important Roman guests. In addition to the fortifications, a luxury three-tiered palace complex, Roman baths, and even a swimming pool were added for Herod and Roman ambassadors to enjoy.
The First Jewish War
Six decades after Herod’s death, Judaea had become a part of the Roman empire. After a series of abuses by the Emperor Nero‘s governors, the Jewish people rose up against their oppressors in the year 66 AD.
The war between the Jews and the Romans was long and bitter. Initially, the Jews were successful, but soon a Roman general called Vespasian was despatched to take command of the legions. After Vespasian won a series of victories, Masada’s famous historian Josephus (then a commander of the Jewish rebels) was captured by the Romans.
While in captivity, Josephus met with his captor Vespasian. The historian correctly predicted that Vespasian would one day become emperor of Rome. This chance encounter enabled Josephus to reside in Vespasian’s house in Rome after the war, where he wrote his history of the First Jewish War using both his own knowledge and that of the Roman generals.
Vespasian soon left his son, Titus, to finish the campaign against the Jews and began preparing to seize power in Rome. In 70 Titus finally captured the Jewish capital of Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple. The backbone of the Jewish resistance was now broken.
The Sicarii’s last stand
In 66, at the start of the war, an extremist group of Jewish rebels called the Sicarii had captured Masada from its Roman garrison by tricking the soldiers into allowing them inside the fortress. The Sicarii were fundamentalists, and were even known to attack moderate Jews who did not agree with their tactics.
By the year 70 AD Jerusalem was under Roman occupation and Masada became the final stronghold of Jewish resistance. The Sicarii were only 960 strong, and included the small force’s elderly relatives, wives and children.
During their years in the fortress the Sicarii turned Herod’s huge palace complex into a unique community. The remains of the building which they transformed into a synagogue have been discovered, and they dug out Herod’s swimming pool to allow many people to bathe at one time.
They had no shortage of supplies as the Roman garrison had kept the fortress well-stocked with food and water. To this day one can stand in the massive underground caverns which Herod, the Romans and the Sicarii all used to stored thousands of litres of water.
The Romans attack
In they year 72 AD the Roman governor of Judaea Lucius Flavius Silva finally decided to attack Masada. He brought a Roman legion, auxiliaries and Jewish prisoners of war, in total numbering over 10,000 men to attack the fortress.
On arriving, Silva had his legionaries build a wall around the entire plateau. Then, knowing that they could not assault the Snake Trail, Silva ordered his men to build a massive siege ramp up the western side of the cliffs.
The construction of this ramp involved moving thousands of tons of stone and earth; all the while, Masada’s defenders fired projectiles onto those labouring below. The project took several months, but at last the Romans completed the ramp and pushed a huge siege tower (with its own battering ram) up to the walls.
‘A glorious death’
When the Romans broke down the wall they expected to meet fierce resistance. Instead, the citadel was eerily silent. The Jewish defenders, knowing that the Romans were about to capture and enslave them, had taken drastic action.
After a powerful speech by the Sicarii leader, Eleazar, the Sicarii had committed mass suicide. Eleazar had convinced his supporters that it was more admirable to take their own lives than face torture, enslavement or death at the hands of the Romans. In a shocking display of fanaticism, the Sicarii chose several men by lot to kill the others, then these men took their own lives.
Only two women and five children survived. When the Romans found them they relayed what had happened to their captors. In addition to killing themselves, the Sicarii had burnt all of their stores to prevent the Roman army making use of them. It was an extreme and defiant statement against Roman power.
The physical ruins of Masada can be visited to this day. The fortress stands as a great testimony to Israel’s historic heritage. New archaeological finds, like osctraca (pottery shards) used for choosing lots, are found each year.
Masada’s place in the Israeli national consciousness is even more important. The sacrifice of the Sicarii is celebrated by many as a symbol of Jewish bravery; others view it as a failure to compromise or negotiate.
To this day, members of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) can complete their swearing-in ceremony on top of the plateau. The IDF oath ends with the poignant declaration: “Masada shall not fall again”.