Masada

Masada was the mountain stronghold used by the Jews in their struggle against Rome. The word “Masada” comes from the Aramaic and it means “stronghold,” “fortress.” Masada is located near the western shores of the Dead Sea, about 12 miles south of En-Gedi.

Masada, one of three Herodian fortress palace complexes occupied by Jewish rebels during the First Jewish Revolt. Andrew Shiva, Wikimedia Commons

The fortification rises about 820 feet above the valley. Masada was first fortified in the days of the Maccabees by the High Priest Jonathan, the brother and successor of Judas Maccabeus. Herod the Great enlarged and rebuilt the fortress and it became one of the most important military places of his empire. Masada played an important part in the Jewish revolt against the Romans.

In 66 A.D. a group of Jewish revolutionaries known as the sicarii took Masada from the Romans and it became the center of Jewish activities against the Roman army. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Jews made a last effort of resistance at Masada. In 73 A.D., Flavius Silva, the commander of the Tenth Roman Legion, was assigned to take Masada from the Jews. With the help of five thousand soldiers, nine thousand slaves, and many prisoners of war, Flavius Silva built an enormous siege ramp.

The ramp of beaten earth and stones was constructed at the western approach of Masada. The Romans built a siege tower on this ramp and from a covering at the top of the tower, the Romans used a battering ram against the defenses of the city and broke through the walls protecting Masada. The remains of nine Roman camps at the base of the mountain are still clearly visible today from the top of Masada.

Jodi Magness, in an article published in Popular Archaeology, describes the Roman Siege Camps:

In 72 or 73, the Roman troops arrived at the foot of Masada, the last fortress held by Jewish rebels. When the Romans arrived at the foot of Masada, they constructed a stone wall, 10-12 feet (ca. 3 meters) high and approximately 4,000 yards (4,500 meters) long, which completely encircled the base of the mountain. This circumvallation wall sealed off the fortress, preventing the besieged from escaping and making it impossible for others to join them. Gwyn Davies emphasizes “the clear symbolic message conveyed” by the construction of the siege works, both to the rebels holding out atop Masada and other peoples under Roman rule. Guards posted at towers along the wall kept watch to ensure that no one scaled it. In addition to the circumvallation wall, the Romans established eight camps to house their troops, which archaeologists have labeled with the letters A-H. The camps surround the base of the mountain, guarding potential routes of escape. Josephus’s description of the circumvallation wall and siege camps accords well with the archaeological remains:

The Roman general advanced at the head of his forces against Eleazar and his band of Sicarii who held Masada, and promptly making himself master of the whole district, established garrisons at the most suitable points, threw up a wall all round the fortress, to make it difficult for any of the besieged to escape, and posted sentinels to guard it. (War 7.275).

According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, Eleazar Ben Yair made a passionate speech to his compatriots. Ben Yair asked his compatriots to take their own lives in order to escape capture. He said that their death would deprive the Romans from claiming victory over the resistance. He said to his men:

Daybreak will end our resistance. But we are free to choose an honorable death with our loved ones. Let us leave this world unenslaved by our enemies, free men, in company with our wives and children. Let our wives thus die undishonored, our children unacquainted with slavery; and when they are gone, let us render a generous service to each other, preserving our liberty as a noble winding-sheet.

But before we die, let the whole fortress go up in flames: it will be a bitter blow to the Romans to find our persons beyond their reach and nothing for them to loot. One thing only let us spare; let us spare our store of food: it will bear witness that we perished not through hunger, but because we chose death rather than slavery (War 7.334-36).

The revolutionaries, 960 men, women, and children, then made a suicide pact. Each man killed his own wife and children. Then, each man laid beside his family to be killed by one of ten men selected by lot. After these ten men had killed the heads of the families, they cast lots among themselves and one of the ten was selected to slay the other nine, and finally, he took his own life.

The next morning, when the Romans entered Masada, they found the smoldering remains of the burnt houses and the silence of death. Two women and several children hid themselves and escaped the mass suicide to tell the story of those men, women, and children who preferred death to slavery.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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