Masada: The little-known back story

From a distance, Masada does not look too different from the other hills in the Judean desert. Yet, it was on this unassuming flat-topped hill that a group of desperate and besieged Jewish rebels made their final stand against the Romans. The siege of Masada was documented by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian.

King Herod’s Fortress

King Herod, who lived between 74BCE and 4BCE, was the ruler of Judea. During his reign, he constructed several buildings and palaces. One of the most notable was the fortress at Masada which he intended to be a refuge for his family during a struggle with Antigonus for control of Judea. The name ‘Masada’ itself derives from the Hebrew word ‘mezuda’ which means stronghold or fortress. The Masada fortress consisted of two palaces and several buildings all of which were surrounded by a mile-long perimeter wall with 27 towers. Its location and design meant it could hold out for a considerable period in the event of a siege.

The Jewish Revolt

70 years after Herod’s death, the fortress at Masada would become the site of perhaps the most famous Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire. The revolt started in 66 CE in different parts of Judea and reached its peak when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. As the rebels lost ground in other areas and came under ever increasing pressure from the Romans, they fled to Masada which became the last rebel holdout in 73 or 74 CE. The Romans set out to crush this last remaining resistance.

The Siege

When the 9,000 Roman soldiers led by Governor Flavius Silva arrived at Masada, there were 972 people inside the fortress with Eleazar be Yair as their leader. Masada had an elaborate series of long buildings that could serve as storage of arms and food. The fortress also had a configuration of water cisterns on its northwestern slope. There was even the equivalent of a modern day Olympic size swimming pool. These systems and contingencies made Masada an excellent choice for holding out against an opponent that vastly outnumbered you which is what the rebels sought out to do.

The Ending

The Roman soldiers built 8 distinct camps around the fortress with siege dykes between the camps to stop the people in Masada from fleeing. The soldiers constructed a ramp on the northwest wall to breach the fortress. They battered the wall with catapult fire and ballistae. In response to this, the people inside the fortress built a makeshift second wall in a last ditch effort to prevent entry. As the realization dawned that resistance was futile, the inhabitants of Masada chose to commit mass suicide rather than be at the mercy of the Romans.

There are two schools of thought on the events at Masada. On the one hand, the rebels of Masada are considered an enviable example of Jewish resistance to tyranny. On the other, some Jews view Masada as the tragic example of what happens when extremism is exalted above compromise.