Siege of Masada (72/73 CE) performed by the Romans was one of the last points of resistance in the Jewish war. After the capture of the walls, a massacre appeared to the eyes of the Romans.
Background of events
Masada was an ancient Jewish stronghold located on the top of the single plateau on the west edge of the Judaica desert near the Dead Sea in Israel. According to the legend it was here, where future king David found shelter after his escape from King Saul. The beginnings of this stronghold go back to the reign of the Maccabees – a dynasty ruling during a period between 147 – 37 BCE. King Herod took refuge here running away from Parthians in 40 BCE. Since then he liked this place. According to the report of Josephus Flavius, Herod in years from 37 to 31 BCE improved defence of this place through rising walls and defence towers as well as building water tanks and food warehouses. All of these improvements allowed to survive the siege for a long time.
Roman period and the siege
From 6 CE fortress was used as a Roman border watchtower. In 66 CE during the Jewish war, Masada was taken by Sicarii – an extreme branch of Zealots. Sicarii were armed with hidden small daggers. During all celebrations and gatherings, they stabbed people accused of collaboration with Romans. After the assault, they melted into the crowd and disappeared. Because of their way of working Sicarii are now considered the first terrorist organisation in the world.s. At the head of the defenders was Siccary Eleazar ben Jair and Masada became a shelter for rebels, who were responsible for robbery and theft in nearby areas.
And at this time it was that some of those that principally excited the people to go to war, made an assault upon a certain fortress called Masada. They took it by treachery, and slew the Romans that were there, and put others of their own party to keep it.
– Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War, II.17, 2
Masada was the last of three resistance points against Romans. Here many Jewish families and Zaelots found shelter after escaping from Jerusalem. By the end of 72 CE, Lucius Flavius Silva took on the challenge of sieging Jerusalem. He led the legion X Fretensis, auxiliary branches and prisoners of war (including women). He possessed from 8000 to 9000 men, who were ready to fight. Masada was a nearly unbeatable fortress in which stayed 960 men. Defenders were quite confident about victory bearing in mind a well-located stronghold and no access to the walls. To fortress led only one path so narrow, that it wasn’t even enough space for two people climbing at the same time. This path was called “Snake” because it was long and took the shape of many zigzags.
At the beginning of the siege, Flavius Silva ordered to build around Masada so-called circumvallation – a line of fortifications composed of defensive walls. In this way, Silva cut defenders off all help from the outside and wanted to cause starvation of Jews. It did not take effect, because inhabitants possessed huge amounts of water in tanks as well as food in warehouses (crops, olive oil and wine supposedly came from the time of Herod and were well preserved due to dry and clear air). Additionally, Roman constructions let them continue earthworks at a close distance from the stronghold. Romans had awareness, that taking fortress by force through narrow isthmus was impossible, that’s why they decided to build an enormous slope that led to the west walls of the fortress. To achieve this goal they used thousands of tons of stones and did lots of earthworks, in which thousands of prisoners of war were involved. Josephus Flavius didn’t mention, that Romans were forced to push back any attack from the Sicarii side, which seems to be a sensation according to this war.
The building of the slope was ended in the spring of 73 CE probably after two or three months of work. Romans also finished the construction of a huge tower and battering ram, which were to break through the walls. This is how Josephus Flavius describes it:
Since therefore the Roman commander, Silva, had now built a wall on the outside, round about this whole place, as we have said already; and had thereby made a most accurate provision to prevent any one of the besieged’s running away; he undertook the siege it self: though he found but one single place that would admit of the banks he was to raise. For behind that tower which secured the road that led to the palace, and to the top of the hill, from the west, there was a certain eminency of the rock; very broad, and very prominent: but three hundred cubits beneath the highest part of Masada. It was called The white promontory. Accordingly he got upon that part of the rock, and ordered the army to bring earth. And when they fell to that work with alacrity, and abundance of them together, the bank was raised, and became solid, for two hundred cubits in height. Yet was not this bank thought sufficiently high for the use of the engines that were to be set upon it: but still another elevated work, of great stones, compacted together was raised upon that bank. This was fifty cubits both in breadth and height. The other machines that were now got ready, were like to those that had been first devised by Vespasian, and afterwards by Titus for sieges. There was also a tower made, of the height of sixty cubits; and all over plated with iron. Out of which the Romans threw darts, and stones from the engines; and soon made those that fought from the walls of the place to retire; and would not let them lift up their heads above the works. At the same time Silva ordered that great battering ram which he had made, to be brought thither; and to be set against the wall, and to make frequent batteries against it.
– Josephus Flavius, War of the Jews, VII.8.5
During the transport of siege machines on the top of the slope Roman soldiers were responsible for their protection from torches and burning arrows released by defenders. On the 1st of May 73 CE, Romans crushed the gate at one point using a battering ram, but Jewish was able to rise a barricade, which Romans tried to burn. The wind was an interruption in this goal, but after it had changed its direction Romans set fire to the gate. When night felt Flavius Silva decided to postpone the time of attack until the next day.
Finally, Romans broke through the Masada’s walls, but then they beheld a massacre. Within the stronghold walls, the mass suicide of defenders took place. What’s more, before they died most buildings had been burnt.
The situation inside the stronghold during the siege is known only because of reports of Josephus Flavius, but it is really hard to say whether its description is true. According to the Jewish historian, when it had been noticed that further defence is completely pointless, everyone accepted Ben Jair’s offer to commit mass suicide. As Josephus claims suicide is forbidden in Judaism. Therefore it was agreed that every man will murder his own wife and children. After that ten of them were drawn to kill the rest of the men. In the end, one was obligated to slay the remaining people and finally kill himself. Josephus Flavius tells us what words he was to address to other defenders of the fortress:
Since we long ago, my generous friends, 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. And let us not at this time bring a reproach upon our selves for self contradiction; while we formerly would not undergo slavery, though it were then without danger; but must now, together with slavery, chuse such punishments also as are intolerable. I mean this upon the supposition that the Romans once reduce us under their power while we are alive. We were the very first that revolted from them; and we are the last that fight against them. And I cannot but esteem it as a favour that God hath granted us, that ’tis still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom. Which hath not been the case of others, who were conquered unexpectedly. ’Tis very plain that we shall be taken within a days time: but ’tis still an eligible thing to die, after a glorious manner, together with our dearest friends. This is what our enemies themselves cannot by any means hinder: although they be very desirous to take us alive. Nor can we propose to our selves any more to fight them, and beat them. It had been proper indeed for us to have conjectured at the purpose of God much sooner; and at the very first; when we were so desirous of defending our liberty; and when we received such sore treatment from one another, and worse treatment from our enemies: and to have been sensible that the same God, who had of old took the Jewish nation into his favour, had now condemned them to destruction. For had he either continued favourable, or been but in a lesser degree displeased with us, he had not overlooked the destruction of so many men, or delivered his most holy city to be burnt; and demolished by our enemies. To be sure we weakly hoped to have preserved our selves, and our selves alone still in a state of freedom; as if we had been guilty of no sins our selves against God; nor been partners with those of others. We also taught other men to preserve their liberty. Wherefore consider how God hath convinced us, that our hopes were in vain, by bringing such distress upon us, in the desperate state we are now in, and which is beyond all our expectations. For the nature of this fortress, which was in it self unconquerable, hath not proved a means of our deliverance. And even while we have still great abundance of food, and a great quantity of arms, and other necessaries, more than we want, we are openly deprived by God himself of all hope of deliverance. For that fire which was driven upon our enemies, did not, of its own accord, turn back upon the wall which we had built. This was the effect of God’s anger against us, for our manifold sins, which we have been guilty of in a most insolent and extravagant manner, with regard to our own countrymen. The punishments of which let us not receive from the Romans, but from God himself, as executed by our own hands. For these will be more moderate than the other. Let our wives die before they are abused; and our children before they have tasted of slavery. And after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually; and preserve our selves in freedom, as an excellent funeral monument for us. But first let us destroy our money, and the fortress by fire. For I am well assured that this will be a great grief to the Romans; that they shall not be able to seize upon our bodies, and shall fall of our wealth also. And let us spare nothing but our provisions. For they will be a testimonial, when we are dead, that we were not subdued for want of necessaries: but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery.
– Josephus Flavius, War of the Jews, VII.8.6
As mentioned the Jewish commander Eleazar ordered his soldiers to set fire to all remainings within the city except a granary. It was meant to mean, that city wasn’t taken by hunger, but its defenders chose to die instead of falling to slavery. Despite this fact, the excavations show, that granaries were burnt too. However, it is not clear enough if it was caused by Romans or defenders. It is suspected that fire moved from buildings in the neighbourhood.
Two women with five children hidden in canals managed to escape from Masada.
This night Eleazar ordered people to kill wives and children first and then take their own life. Next day Romans found 967 dead bodies except two women and five children hidden in the caves.
– Nachman Ben-Yehuda, The Masada Myth
The siege lasted for 2-3 months. Pliny the Elder claimed that within five years after the suppression of the rebellion in Judea, Rome managed to obtain a huge sum of 800, 000 sesterces from the perfume trade in the region. This proves that Masada’s real goal was primarily money and the desire to take over the balsam plantation in En Gedi – near Masada.
After conquering Masada Roman military station functioned there for a certain period of time. Then it became the place of residence for Byzantine monks (with the remainings of the mosaic chapel as proof). They were murdered during the Arabic or Persian raid. Since the seventh century CE Masada hasn’t been settled.
Ruins of Masada survived on a plateau to our time. Their location proves that conquering the city was extremely difficult. For Israelis Masada stands as a symbol of heroic resistance to the very end. Jewish soldiers take an oath within its remainings with words: “Masada shall not fall again”.