Masada PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Masada and revolt

Masada and the first Jewish revolt against Rome

The Jewish revolt of 66 AD caught the Romans by surprise. The Jews had enjoyed "favored-nation" status ever since the decrees of Julius Caesar. The Romans probably thought they were conducting an enlightened occupation. There had been small-scale uprisings since Herod's death in 4 BC, but nothing had prepared them for revolt en masse.

The extraordinary factor in bringing on the war wasn't Roman behavior, but the Jewish covenant faith, of which the Romans understood little. By the terms of God's covenant with Israel ( Deut. 11: 13-17), many Jews believed that because they no longer worshiped idols, they ought to be sovereign in their land. The Roman occupation was therefore a challenge to the heart of Jewish belief. Various groups, such as the Essenes or the movements behind John the Baptist and Jesus, understood the Roman occupation to signify the travails of the final days. These "birthpangs," they thought, would usher in Redemption. Some of them believed that Redemption would result from a war against Evil. The Essenes, for instance, grouped the Romans with the Sons of Darkness. They joined the revolt, which they must have seen as the final war. (More on the "birthpangs of Redemption"...)

The historian of the Jewish revolt was Josephus (also our sole ancient source for the events on Masada). Yet here we run into a problem: Josephus avoids the topic of apocalyptic eschatology. With one exception, his history gives no idea of the part such thinking played in causing the war. Here is the exception:

But now, what did the most elevate them in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, "about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth." The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea. (Wars...   VI 5.4)

"What did most elevate them in undertaking this war"! Only now, near the end of the book, does our historian mention the principal motive of the war, with a bow to Vespasian!

In Book II of his history, Josephus describes in some detail the events leading up to the revolt. Yet there he doesn't mention "what did most elevate them in undertaking this war," except for a cursory dismissal of "false prophets" and "deceivers." For reasons of his own life and livelihood, he did not want to write about the topic. (Why not?) We shall remember this deliberate omission when considering his account of Masada.

In 66 AD, Josephus tells us, while Jerusalem was in turmoil, "some of those most anxious for war made a united attack on a fort called Masada, captured it by stealth, and exterminated the Roman garrison, putting one of their own in its place" (Jewish War, II 408 [17.2]). Later (IV, 391-417) we find Masada in the hands of the Sicarii; it was they, apparently, who captured it. In order to capture the mountain "by stealth," the rebels would have had to take a route which the Romans would not have thought possible - that is, a route where the Romans would not have posted guards. One possibility is indicated in the photo below. During such a climb, however, anyone who fell would instinctively cry out, and this would have ruined the surprise. Presumably the Sicarii would have gagged themselves for the climb.


The Sicarii were pious Jews, as evinced by their synagogue on Masada, as well as two ritual baths built in accordance with Jewish law (halakha). Their relation to a group called the Zealots is unclear. (See Stern , pp. 135-152.) The cardinal point of their movement, stresses Josephus repeatedly, was "to serve neither the Romans nor anyone else, but only God." They were an apocalyptic group: that is, like the Essenes and others, they believed Redemption was near. How do we know this? First, there is a general point: the Sicarii instigated the revolt, whose chief motive, Josephus indicates, was Messianic. But there is also a particular piece of evidence, which creeps in despite his avoidance of the topic: In the book's last few pages, Josephus mentions one Jonathan, a member of the Sicarii, who escaped to Cyrene (in Libya of today). Here he "prevailed with no small number of the poorer sort to give ear to him; he also led them into the desert, upon promising them that he would show them signs and apparitions." (War VII 11.1)

The Sicarii stayed on the mountain throughout the revolt, sometimes plundering the area for food. On one occasion they overran Ein Gedi, a Jewish town six miles north of Masada, dispersing its inhabitants. "As for such as could not run away, being women and children, they slew of them above seven hundred. Afterward, when they had carried every thing out of their houses, and had seized upon all the fruits that were in a flourishing condition, they brought them into Masada. " (War , IV, 7.2)

Thus the famous rebels on Masada had no hesitation, if we believe Josephus, about massacring their fellow Jews: men, women and children.

masada-camp-details.jpgThe Romans took Jerusalem in 70 AD, quelling the revolt. The Jews had suffered enormous losses. Some rebels managed to flee to the fortresses at the desert passes of Herodium, Machaerus and Masada. In 72 AD the first two of these surrendered, leaving 967 Jews still free on Masada. That freedom was an embarrassment to Titus and Vespasian, who had already celebrated their triumph over the Jews in Rome. This victory was their sole claim to fame, hence the sole basis for their authority. Vespasian, therefore, ordered the Roman governor of Judaea, Flavius Silva, to eradicate this last rebel stronghold.

Silva showed up in 72 or 73 AD with "all the forces available." Thus the Jews, most of whom lived in the casemate wall, one day looked over the side and found themselves surrounded by the Tenth Legion and its auxiliaries: six to ten thousand Roman soldiers, with at least as many captured Jewish slaves. The Romans were busy building a wall down below, sealing off the mountain. They also constructed siege camps. Eight are visible today, including one atop the nearest mountain to the south; from here they could observe the top of Masada. Because it rains so little, there is hardly any erosion, and inside the camps one can still make out the roads, the bases for tents, even a triclinium (the dining room of the officers). Only earthquakes have shaken the walls down: once they were nine feet high. Near points in the wall where the rebels could have attempted a sortie, one can still see turrets for mounting catapults.


Silva had a topographical problem. He would have wanted to finish the work in a winter (and did, in fact, by the 15th of Xanthicos, which would have been in May; there is no basis for the popular notion that the siege lasted three years). He knew that the Jews had plenty of water in the cisterns. They could cultivate the southern part of the plateau, as Herod had. He could not simply sit and wait: he would have to attack. To assault the mountain from the east, up the Snake Path, was clearly impossible (a 1200-foot climb).


On the west, however, the natural saddle offered a chance, if he could build an assault ramp on it. Silva pitched his camp, therefore, on the west. 

But here was the rub. The Roman army never initiated anything significant on a given day without an oracle from the gods. How did they get the oracle? The priest, at sunrise, spread grain for the "prophetic chickens" and let them out of their coops. If they ate with appetite, this was a good omen. If not, the Romans had better stay put. (See Graves, p. 19, for the melancholy story of an admiral who did not revere his chickens.)

Yet if the priest stood waiting for the sunrise in Silva's camp on the western side of Masada, he wouldn't see it till late morning -- and the winter days were short. He could see the sun much earlier from the eastern side, without that hulk directly in front of him.

The topography, then, forced general and priest to separate. The priest on the east would get his oracle and then send a messenger to Silva in his camp on the west. We can still see the path of the messenger just beside the wall. 

From his station on the west, Silva commanded his men to erect a ramp broad and strong enough to support a tower. By using the natural saddle that joined Masada to the cliff on the west, they would need to add 90 feet of height. They built a frame of tamarisk trunks (some of which still poke from the sides) and onto this they heaped white soil. From the moment construction started, the Jews knew exactly the point they had to defend. They could shoot at the builders or roll stones down on them. Such a stone could do its work without a direct hit, because each was large enough to cause a mini-avalanche. (This may be the explanation for some of the great rounded stones found on Masada near the assault ramp.) The question, then, is how the Romans managed to build this ramp.


A popular explanation is that they used Jewish slaves. But that would hardly have given the rebels pause. They'd had no compunctions, as noted above, about massacring Jewish women and children for lesser reasons.

Perhaps the Romans worked by night under protective roofs. And/or: perhaps they employed the principle Pompey had used when he built ramps against Jerusalem: he erected them on Sabbaths, and the Jews did not resist (War I. 7.3). Since the Maccabean revolt, they would fight on Sabbath only in direct self-defense. (An exception.)


One way or another, the Romans managed to get the ramp close enough to bring in their catapults, which hurled stones to cover their work. They finished it and hoisted up onto it a huge iron-plated tower. Ninety feet high, it contained a battering ram and a staircase. They then began to batter the casemate wall. Seeing it beginning to give, the Jews built a stronger wall behind it, composed of a pliant wooden frame and earth. Having broken through the first, the Romans began pounding this new wall, but the more they battered, the firmer it got.

According to archaeologist Ehud Netzer, who excavated here both with and after Yadin, the rebels would not have waited until the last minute to build the wall of wood and earth. They would have realized that Herod's casemate wall, 5 feet thick on the outside, could not withstand a Roman ram. Netzer finds evidence for the wooden-earthen wall in the fact that the archaeologists discovered charred wood and ash in only certain buildings on Masada. The fire lit by the rebels on their last night did not spread from roof to contiguous roof as one would expect. The reason, he suggests, is that the wood of the roofs in the unburnt rooms was simply not there when the fire was lit! In these cases, the roofing wood (consisting perhaps of palm trunks) had already been taken for use in the new, wooden-earthen wall. At the point nearest the natural saddle, where the Romans were building their ramp, the rebels must have pulled down the inner part of the casemate wall and built their wooden-earthen wall against the outer part. They would have piled and bound the 13-16-foot palm trunks lengthwise, their ends abutting the outer wall. On the east side of this mass of timber they'd have piled earth, held in place and reinforced by more wooden beams, and then, to back it, another section of wooden wall, composed of shorter beams. Estimating on the basis of the unburnt rooms (how much wood each would have required for roofing), Netzer figures they must have used 4000 long beams plus hundreds of shorter ones. The new wall would have been 70 to 80 feet long, about 60 feet wide, and 24 to 27 feet high (higher than the casemate, forcing the Romans to build their ramp higher).

After ramming through the original casemate wall, the Romans rammed the new wall, only succeeding in making it firmer. But Silva saw that wood had been used. He ordered his soldiers to throw torches. The rebels must have prepared this, but their measures did not work. The wall caught fire. Yet a gust from the north blew the flames back against the Romans and their machines. "For a moment they stood aghast, but after this, on a sudden the wind changed into the south, as if it were done by Divine Providence, and blew strongly the contrary way, and carried the flame, and drove it against the wall, which was now on fire through its entire thickness." (War VII 8.5).

It was getting dark. The Romans withdrew, writes Josephus, planning to attack the next day. They posted guards to prevent escape. The Jews, for their part, sat in council to consider what to do in the situation.

At this juncture Eleazar ben Ya'ir made a lengthy and eloquent speech in two parts. The second often corresponds to sections of Plato's Phaedo. The gist is this (in paraphrase):

"Comrades, we face two alternatives. If we remain alive tomorrow, we shall be in the hands of the Romans. They will torture our children to death before our eyes. They will rape our wives and kill them. Then they will keep us as slaves -- us, who long ago took an oath to serve God alone! And what is the other alternative? Not to be alive tomorrow! Rather, as lovingly and painlessly as we can, let us dispatch our families and ourselves. On seeing this, the sadistic Romans will be disappointed, as well as awed by our courage in having preferred death to slavery!" (Excerpts from the speech.)

At length Eleazar persuaded them. They went and killed their families. After burning their possessions, they met again and cast lots. Ten were chosen. The others returned to their dead, and the ten made the round, killing the fathers. They, in turn, cast lots, and one was chosen. After killing the nine, he set the palace on fire and fell on his sword beside his family.

The next morning the Romans came up, charging out of their tower through the breach. Finding no resistance, they let out a shout. Two women and five children emerged; they had hidden in a cistern. One woman "gave a lucid report of Eleazar's speech and of the action that had followed." She then led the Romans to the burning palace, where they put out the fire and found the dead bodies in rows.  

Thus far Josephus. One archaeological find may relate to the story. In a long chamber next to the large bathhouse, the diggers discovered a group of eleven pottery shards, each with a name written on it, including the name Ben Ya'ir. Could these have been the lots?

Yet there are problems with Josephus' account. First, the suicide. Brave fighters do not kill themselves. Even in a hopeless situation, they fight to the last. At the very end of his speech, Ben Ya'ir says that suicide "is what the Law ordains." Religious Jews, such as those on Masada, do not permit suicide except when they are commanded to worship idols, engage in illicit sexual acts, or commit murder.

There are other problems too. After they have finally breached the wall, why did the Romans pull back and wait for morning? The rebels could have used this pause to erect a new wall. Besides, the morning sun would have shone in the Romans' eyes. And what if the sacred chickens weren't hungry?

Did the Romans perhaps pull back to allow Eleazar time to make a profound and glorious speech, thus giving Josephus a nice rhetorical ending?

Moreover, the Jews had known for weeks or months that the Romans would attack at this one point. They also knew that a casemate wall is not as strong as a solid one. Why didn't they strengthen it weeks before? And wouldn't they have made contingency plans well in advance?

There is also a theological problem. Josephus did not want to mention apocalyptic eschatology (Why not?), but it must have been central to the faith of the Sicarii, as indicated above. Upon hearing the speech of Eleazar proposing suicide, an eschatologist would have objected: "There is a third alternative! Didn't we begin this war in the faith that God would intervene? Now, when everything looks hopeless, is precisely the time of testing. God has waited till all odds seemed against us, in order that the miracle may be greater! Therefore, we must fight tomorrow morning in the faith that God will give us victory! Consider the example of Abraham. When God ordered him to sacrifice his beloved son, they traveled three days to the appointed place. God didn't intervene on the second day and say, 'Abraham, I see you're serious. You can go home now.' No, he waited till the father had lifted the knife above the son! So now, our faith is being tested. The knife is raised. Let us stand the test!"

If someone had made such an objection, what could Eleazar have answered?

On the other hand, if the suicide were a fabrication, wouldn't some eyewitness have exposed the historian as a liar?

Curiously, the Masada story does not quite end the book. "The next incident," we are told, "occurred in Egypt...Some members of the party of the Sicarii had managed to escape to Alexandria, where...they started a subversive movement." They numbered more than six hundred. The Jewish community of Alexandria betrayed them to the Romans, who subjected them and their children to the tortures foreseen in the speech of Eleazar. This happened sometime between March and August of 73 AD.

Where could these people have escaped from? The revolt had been quelled in 70. Herodium and Machaerus had surrendered in 72, but Josephus does not mention Sicarii in either of them. Could these escapees have come from Masada? (See, for example, what had happened earlier at Gamla.)

In short, we do not know whether the mass murder-suicide really occurred, nor have the stones been kind enough to say. We do know this: The Masada story remained insignificant to the Jewish people (the Talmud does not mention it) until the Zionist movement took root in Palestine. In 1927 Yitzhak Lamdan wrote an epic poem in which Masada functioned as a symbol for the whole land of Israel. The poet presented it as the last stronghold of the Jewish people. He included the line, "Masada shall not fall again!" Just as this mountain was surrounded by enemies, so the Jews of Palestine saw themselves surrounded. Josephus' account, true or not, inspired sacrifices on the Jewish side in the War of 1948. "Here is Masada!" cried one. "But this time we are fighting to save Jerusalem!" The story, therefore, was a factor in the creation of the present reality. We are such stuff as dreams are made of.

The dream has dissolved. After military successes in 1956 and 1967, the War of 1973 proved a catastrophe for Israel. Many laid the blame on overconfidence and complacency. They began to look critically at Zionist legends, including the ever-dubious story of the suicides on Masada. In a letter to the New York Times on May 5, 1974, Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua wrote: "Our stiff-neckedness and arrogance derive from a lack of confidence in the world. It's a terrible irony that our fears create our own traps. Masada is far more today than just a national symbol. It is like a self-fulfilling metaphor that colors our everyday life. Every Israeli carries that hill around inside him; and the obsession only serves to bring the reality closer. The only way to shed our fatalism is to break our preoccupation with the past and learn to improvise. We must create a new Jew."  

Until a few years ago, the Armored Corps and the Paratroopers, having finished their training, would make a torchlight procession to the top of Masada and here take the oath of service, culminating in the cry from Lamdan's poem, "Masada shall not fall again!" Today they prefer more recent battlefields. Occasionally, the Engineering Corps holds a ceremony here.