Masada PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Water Supply
Herodian Structures
Northern Palace
First Jewish Revolt
Masada and revolt

Build-up to the First Jewish Revolt Against Rome

1. The Jewish king of Judaea, Agrippas I, dies in Caesarea (43 AD).

2. The Romans return to the system of sending procurators.

3. Rebel bands appear  ("robbers" [Gr. lestes] Josephus calls them.) One of these bands, first appearing in the 50's, was that of the Sicarii or "dagger men." It was also a time of "false prophets," "seducers" and "deceivers." (Josephus' War II 5.2-3). These "robbers" and "deceivers" were apocalyptic eschatologists, as is evident from the sequel to the Masada story in Josephus, although he downplays their motives. (Why?)

4. Under Nero, the procurators become increasingly corrupt. The Jewish and Gentile residents of Caesarea get into a dispute over land beside the synagogue. The Jews bribe Florus, the procurator, to rule in their favor; he takes the money and spurns them. Then he sends forces to the Temple treasury, seizing silver. When the Jews of Jerusalem protest, Florus goes up to Jerusalem with an army. In response to the mockery of a few youngsters, he erects a judgment-seat outside the palace (in the Armenian quarter of today, south of the Jaffa Gate) and orders his soldiers to sack the marketplace. They not only sack, they massacre. Florus has some Jews crucified. When the mass of the Jerusalemites continue to defy him (cutting the colonnades that link the Temple to the Antonia Fortress), Florus feels threatened and returns to Caesarea, leaving a Roman garrison in the Citadel near the Jaffa Gate.

5. "Meanwhile, 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]. My italics.). Later (IV, 391-417) we find Masada in the hands of the Sicarii, so it must have been 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. Presumably the Sicarii would have gagged themselves while climbing, so that anyone who fell would not spoil the surprise.

6. The leader of the Sicarii, Menahem, finds weapons at Masada and takes them to Jerusalem, where he fans the revolt. In Jerusalem the Jews are split between rebels and peacemakers. Within the Temple command, some refuse to make sacrifices in honor of Rome and Caesar. Amid rivalry between rebel groups, Menahem is killed. His cousin, Eleazar ben Ya'ir, escapes from Jerusalem with a small band to Masada. They remain here for the rest of the revolt.  

7. The rebels who killed Menahem surround the Roman garrison in the Citadel, which surrenders. As these are leaving the city, having put down their arms, the rebels massacre them. They do this on a Sabbath, and now most of the Jews in Jerusalem expect terrible Roman revenge.

8. In Caesarea, the Gentiles massacre the Jews. Throughout the country, Jews turn on Gentiles in reprisal. Thousands die on both sides.

9. The Roman legate in Syria, Cestius Gallus, realizes at last that he has a problem. He comes with a legion and lays siege to Jerusalem. But then, for reasons that Josephus cannot fathom (and which we, therefore, don't know) he "recalled his soldiers from the place, and by despairing of any expectation of taking it, without having received any disgrace, he retired from the city, without any reason in the world." (War II 8.7) This encourages the rebels, and they pursue his troops down the ridge of Beth Horon. In the narrowest place, they block the Romans and force them down the steep slope into the ravine, decimating much of the legion. Cestius manages to escape with a remnant to Caesarea.

10. "But as to those who had pursued after Cestius, when they were returned back to Jerusalem, they overbore some of those that favored the Romans by violence, and some they persuaded to join with them, and got together in great numbers in the temple, and appointed a great many generals for the war" (Ibid. II 9.3). These generals include Eleazar, chief of the Zealots (not to be confused with Eleazar son of Ya'ir, leader of the Sicarii on Masada), one "John the Essene," and Josephus himself.

This is the moment when the great mass of the people joins the revolt. Perhaps many do so under compulsion. They have, besides, a precedent: the successful Maccabean revolt against the Greek Empire. But it is likely that some see the three successive victories, culminating in the defeat of a whole Roman legion, as a sign that God has re-entered history on their side. How else can we explain the fact that even the separatist Essenes joined in?

The Roman response was at first in the nature of a punitive action. But political circumstances in Rome, of which the Jews probably had no inkling (as little inkling as the Romans had of the Jewish covenant faith) would greatly increase the importance of the campaign against Jerusalem.