The tabletop mountain fortress of Masada in modern-day Israel near the Dead Sea was the site of the culminating battle between Rome and first Jewish Revolt during the period of 70-73 CE. The siege was chronicled by a Jewish prisoner Flavius Josephus, who became a historian and wrote the definitive story of the small band of Jewish rebels who committed suicide rather than submit to Roman rule.

The fortress in Masada was built in the mid-30s BCE and later was fortified by Herod the Great as a sanctuary in the event of a revolt. It rises about 1300 feet straight up from the Judean Desert. The only way to the top in that era was a serpentine pathway that is barely wide enough for two people to walk up. The many twists and zig-zags resulted in the name given the path as the Snake.

Aerial view of Masada with the remnants of the fortress on top and the Roman ramp visible on the right.

During the early days of the first Jewish revolt, around 66 CE, a group of Jewish rebels led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir, who called themselves the Sicarii, overcame the small Roman garrison in Masada and settled there. Masada was an important stopover and fort that held the gates of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea.

The Sicarii were perhaps the earliest group of professional assassins, predating even the Ninja. They were Jewish rebels who opposed the Roman occupation of Judea and would carry small daggers called sicae inside of their clothing. They would stab Romans or Jewish sympathizers of Rome in public places and then blend into the crowds of the cities. In Latin, Sicarii is the plural form of a dagger-wielder.

After the Romans sacked the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple, many of the residents there fled to Masada and joined the Sicarii in Masada. The Sicarii were an extremist splinter group of the Zealots who opposed Rome.

The Roman Governor of Judea,  Lucius Flavius Silva, led Roman Legion X Fretensis, (the Tenth Legion) to put down the revolt around 72 CE. The Tenth Legion was an experienced battle-hardened unit. They had been sent to Alexandria to help in the invasion of Ethiopia but were diverted to Jerusalem to lay siege to Masada.

Kristallnacht- Night of the Broken Glass, The Holocaust Begins in Germany

Read Next: Kristallnacht- Night of the Broken Glass, The Holocaust Begins in Germany

The 10th had about 15,000 total personnel with it, including Jewish prisoners but totaled about 9000 fighting men. When they arrived at the base of the mountain, they first constructed a circumvallation wall which stopped any escape attempt and any hope of resupply from outside sources.

The Roman ramp from inside the fortress of Masada. (Author photo)

The Romans built a series of forts around the base of the mountain and prepared themselves for a long siege. Any attempt at assaulting the fortress via the Snake path would be suicide.

Silva instead decided to build a siege ramp on a reverse (Western) slope of the mountain, using dirt, rocks, and timber and then use specially constructed siege towers to knock down the walls of Masada.

The ramp is a remarkable feat of engineering and took several months to construct. The Roman legionnaires used Jewish prisoners to do the work on the ramp so that the Jewish Sicarii inside would not be able to attack them from above.

The siege tower, due to the angle of the ramp had to be constructed to pivot the battering ram to strike the wall where it could do the most damage. The normally constructed siege towers would be useless.

Once the ramp was complete, the Romans slowly pushed the siege tower up the long slope to the fortress. Eleazar and the 960 Sicarii inside began to prepare for the battle. They constructed an inner wall of wood, bolstered by earth to withstand the assault. The Roman siege tower easily knocked down the outer wall. Faced with the wooden inner wall, they shot fire arrows which bolstered by the winds to burn the inner walls down.  

At the spot on the fortress wall where the Roman siege tower broke thru. (Author photo)

As it was nearing dark, the Roman soldiers retreated down the mountain and readied for a dawn assault. During the night Eleazar and his people decided that they had no chance of stopping the Roman legion once the assault began. They opted for ritual suicide. They torched everything on top of the mountain. When the Roman legion assaulted they found all 960 men, women and children dead.

Only two women and five children survived, hiding in a cistern and relayed the final words of Eleazar to his followers.

“Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice … We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.”

Israel's Sayeret Matkal

Read Next: Israel's Sayeret Matkal

Since Judaism prohibits the act of suicide, the Sicarii decided to draw lots and then killed each other in turn until only the last man was left and he was the only one who committed suicide.

Masada today in Israel evokes strong sentiments and was essential in the forging of their national identity. To the Israelis, it symbolizes the courage shown by the warriors of Masada. The tiny band of rebels, held off a powerful Roman Legion for almost three years, and they chose death over slavery in their struggle against an oppressive empire. Masada had become “the performance space of national heritage”, the site of military ceremonies. Many units in the Israeli military take their oath of allegiance after their training in a candlelit ceremony on Masada.

Other Jewish groups, uncomfortable with the idea of mass suicide by religious zealots have moved to rewrite the history and claim that there is no evidence to show that the defenders committed mass suicide. Unless of course, the account of an eyewitness is to be discounted.

Photos: Wikipedia, author