Masada was an ancient Jewish stronghold located on the top of single plateau on the west edge of Judaica desert near Dead Sea in Israel. According to the legend it was here, where future king David found a shelter after his escape from king Saul. The beginnings of this stronghold goes 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 defense of this place through rising walls and defense 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 Roman border watchtower. In 66 CE during Jewish war Masada was taken by Sicarii – 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 assault they melted into crowd and disappeared. Because of their way of working Sicarii are now considered as 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, XVII, 2
Masada was the last of three resistance points againts Romans. Here many Jewish families and Zaelots found shelter after escape from Jerusalem. By the end of 72 CE Lucius Flavius Silva took on the challenge on 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 nearly unbeatable fortress in which stayed 960 men. Defenders were quite confident about victory bearing in mind 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 in 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 aroud Masada so called circumvallation – 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 inhabitans 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). Additionaly Roman constructions let them continue earthworks in close distance from stronghold. Romans had awareness, that taking fortress by force through narrow isthmus was impossible, that’s why they decided to build enormous slope led to west walls of fortress. To achieve this goal they used thousands of tons of stones and did lots of earthworks, in which tousands prisoners of war were involved. Josephus Flavius didn’t mention, that Romans were forced to pushed back any attack from Sicarii side, which seems to be a sensation according to this war.
Building of slope was ended in spring of 73 CE probably after two or three months of work. Romans also finished a construction of huge tower and battering ram, which were to break through the walls.
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 running away, he undertook the siege itself, 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
– Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War, VIII, 5
During the transport of siege machines on the top of slope Roman soldiers were responsible for their protection from torches and burning arrows released by defenders. In 1st of May 73 CE Romans crushed the gate in one point using battering ram, but Jewish were able to rise a barricade, which Romans tried to burn. Wind was interruption in this goal, but after it had change 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 masacre. Within the stronghold walls mass suicide of defenders took place. What’s more before they died most buildings had been burnt.
Situation inside 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 Jewish historian, when it had been noticed that futher defense is completely pointless, everyone accepted Ben Jair’s offer to commit mass suicide. As Josephus claims suicide is forbbiden 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. At the end one was obligated to slay the remaining people and finally kill himself.
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 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 buildins in the neighbourhood.
Two women with five children hidden in canals were manage 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 of 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 mosaic chapel as a proof). They were murder during Arabic or Persian raid. Since seventh century CE Masada hasn’t been settled.
Ruins if Masada survived on a plateau to our time. Their location proves that conquering the city was extremely difficult. For Israelis Masada stands as symbol of heroic resistance to the very end. Jewish soldiers take an oath within its remainings with words:”Masada will never be taken again”.