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By Kim Stubbs
It is the spring of 73 AD and the revolt that has raged in the Roman province of Judea for eight years is about to reach its bloody and tragic conclusion. On an isolated rock overlooking the Dead Sea at the edge of the Judean Desert 967 men, women and children - the last remnants of Jewish resistance to Imperial Rome - await their fate. The rock that has become their final refuge is called Masada, from the Hebrew mezuda meaning “fortress” or “stronghold”. And it is a most appropriate name for this spectacular natural redoubt.
The diamond-shaped prominence is about 600 metres long and 200 metres wide rising almost vertically on its higher eastern side to a height of 450 metres above the desert floor. The mountaintop slopes from east to west with the western approach reaching a height of 100 metres.
There are only two paths that lead to the summit of Masada. The Jewish historian Joesphus (who wrote the only contemporary account of the siege) refers to the one ascending the eastern slope of the mountain as the Serpent because of its “narrowness and perpetual windings” and promises any who use it “nothing but destruction in case your feet slip”. The second path, on the western side, is somewhat easier but in no way conducive to launching an assault. Josephus also describes the soil on Masada as “fat” (i.e. productive) thus allowing enough food to be grown to feed the inhabitants in the event of a siege.
As if Masada’s natural defences were not formidable enough, the Jewish king Herod (who carried out major construction work at the site a century before) had a casemate wall six metres high and four metres deep constructed around the entire hilltop. This was strengthened by the addition of 38 towers each approximately 25 metres high, one of which was positioned at Masada’s only potential weak point – the top of the more accessible path on the western approach. Finally several cisterns on the north-western side of the hill, also constructed by Herod and fed by run off from the surrounding mountains, meant the inhabitants would never suffer from thirst.
In short, Masada seemed impregnable, and no doubt when the Roman governor of Judea, Flavius Silva, moved to invest the citadel in 73 AD, the now besieged inhabitants probably believed all they needed to do was sit tight and wait for the enemy’s patience to run out. But Rome was a ruthless and determined foe with huge reserves of manpower and resources at its disposal.
Silva marched against Masada with the Tenth Fretensis Legion, various auxiliary units and thousands of Jewish prisoners of war. The total force under his command is thought to be somewhere between 9,000 – 10,000 men (some estimates suggest a figure as high as 15,000, however as a full strength Roman legion contained only around 6,000 soldiers the lower estimate seems more likely).
Silva’s first move, Josephus tells us, was to isolate the fortress by surrounding it with a circumvallation. This done, he set his force to work moving thousands of tons of earth and stone to construct a rampart 375 feet high abutting the western approach to Masada. (Josephus may be mistaken or deliberately misleading here as recent excavations indicate that there was an extant spur of rock that the Roman’s used as a foundation for their construction which meant they only had to add 25 to 30 feet to this natural feature in order to raise the ramp to the level of the fortress’ walls.)
The Tenth was now able to bring its siege engines into play and began raking the stronghold’s walls with ballistae and catapult fire. Additionally an iron plated siege tower 27 metres in height was dragged to the top of the ramp and from within it Roman legionaries began peppering the defenders with javelins and stones, forcing them to retreat. Silva then ordered his men to bring up the great battering ram he had ordered constructed and set it to work against the stone walls of the fortifications, breaching them.
The defenders reacted by throwing up a second wall of timber beams and earth that proved much more effective at absorbing the blows of the ram. Silva countered by ordering troops forward with burning torches which they hurled at the wooden wall, eventually setting it alight (after an inopportune change in the wind almost resulted in the fire being blown back on the Roman lines and destroying their own siege engines). Jospehus relates that the Romans then retired to their camp planning to storm the breach they had created and take the citadel on the following morning (an odd course of action to take with victory seemingly in their grasp).
By now Masada’s defenders knew they were doomed, but rather than surrender, their leader Eleazer ben Yair proposed a gruesome alternative. “Let our wives die before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted of slavery: and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another”.
So it was that every man on Masada became the executioner of his own wife and children. Once this terrible task was completed ten men were chosen by lot to kill the survivors. These ten then drew lots to establish which among them would kill the other nine. Having dispatched his compatriots the sole survivor set fire to the fortress (with the exception of the well supplied store houses that, according to Josephus, were left intact to show the Romans that the defenders had not been “subdued for want of necessaries”) before finally dispatching himself. Only two women and five children (who had hidden themselves in the caverns beneath the citadel) survived to relate the story of Masada’s last hours.
There are conflicting reports as to when Masada was first fortified. Some sources state this began during the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucids, which would date the original construction to the mid 2nd century BC. However Josephus is quite specific in attributing the work to king Alexander Janneus who ruled between 103 – 76 BC. Certainly coins from this period are almost the only archaeological evidence found on the site dating from the Hasmonean period. However it was under Herod son of Antipater that the majority of construction on Masada was undertaken.
Although he is best known today by the sobriquet “Herod the Great”, a title bestowed on him by the Romans, he was largely unpopular with his own people who referred to him as “Herod the Impious”. A popular revolt against his rule was therefore always a possibility, however there was a greater more serious threat externally from Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. Not surprisingly after Herod was installed by Rome as a client king in 37 BC he began fortifying Masada almost immediately. One of Herod's first undertakings was to create a water supply system, an obvious necessity if the desert fortress was to survive a siege. A series of drains were cut to channel rainwater from the streams in the mountains west of Masada to a group of cisterns in the northwestern slope of the rock. So effective was this that Josephus describes the resulting catchment as “…in quantity no less than that of those who had springs at their disposal.”
The casemate wall surrounding the edge of the plateau was 1400 metres in length and its hollow interior divided into approximately 70 chambers. Four gates were built into the wall along with 38 defensive towers, each 25 metres high.
Many of the most impressive buildings were located on the higher northern side of the rock, including the king’s residential palace. This royal villa (also known as the Northern Palace) was built in three tiers. The upper tier contained the royal living quarters whose black and white tiled rooms opened onto a semi-circular balcony with spectacular views towards the nearby town of Ein-Gedi. The second and third tiers were devoted to entertainment and included porticos surrounding central courtyards. The palace contained all the luxuries you would expect in a Roman style villa of the period including frescoed walls and a small bathhouse on the lower terrace. It was here, beneath a layer of debris, that the skeletons of a man, woman and child were found. The woman’s beautifully braided hair was apparently well preserved and her intact sandals were laid beside her. Several hundred small bronze scales of the type used in armor were also discovered, possibly plunder taken from the Romans. In 1971 Yigael Yadin, the Israeli archaeologist who conducted the first major excavation of the site between 1963 and 1965, stated that these "skeletons undoubtedly represent the remains of an important commander of Masada and his family”, however as the woman’s age has been estimated as between 17 and 18, the man’s between 20 and 22 and the child 11 or 12 the adults could not be the child’s parents.
A cluster of eleven small ostraca (some sources specify 12) were found in front of the palace by Yadin.. Each of these was inscribed with a single name; including one that reads “Ben Yair”, possibly referring to Eleazor ben Yair the leader of the Jewish rebels during the siege of Masada. Many writers have suggested that these were the lots used by the last survivors to decide which of their number would kill the others before ending his own life, however if this is the case it begs the question; why are there eleven names (or 12 depending on who you believe) inscribed instead of the ten specified by Jospehus?
There were fifteen long storerooms built in two rows opening onto a central corridor. Inscriptions on jars recovered suggest that each room housed a different commodity. Josephus says that fruit and grain stored here during the Herodian period was still edible during the time of Silva’s siege a century later claiming that “…the air was here the cause of their enduring so long; this fortress being so high, and so free from the mixture of all terrain and muddy
particles of matter”. When the storerooms were excavated the original floor was covered with a thick layer of ash. This seems to contradict Josephus’ assertion that these rooms were not put to the torch prior to the conclusion of Silva’s siege. The largest structure on Masada is the Western Palace. Located along the centre of the western casemate wall and covering an area of 4000 square metres, it sits adjacent the main gate facing Jerusalem. This building was the administrative centre of Masada and acted as Herod’s ceremonial palace. The largest chamber, situated at the eastern side of the building has a mosaic floor decorated with geometric and floral motifs and may have acted as Herod’s throne room. As well as administrative areas the palace contained an elaborate royal apartment, workshops and storage rooms. There were several bathhouses on Masada, the largest of which is located south of the royal palace. Built in traditional Roman style it consists of a large courtyard surrounded by porticos and numerous rooms all with tiled floors and frescoed walls. The caldarium (hot room) had a suspended floor supported by 200 small brick pillars. Hot air from an adjacent furnace was blown under the floor and through a network of clay pipes built into the walls to allow the room to be heated to the desired temperature.
Incorporated into the north western corner of the complex was a building measuring 12.5 by 10.5 metres and oriented towards Jerusalem that has been identified as a synagogue. At the time of its excavation it was the only known example dating from the time of the Second Temple (i.e. before the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD). Numerous coins dating from the years of the Revolt along with an ostracon inscribed with the words “priestly tithe” and some scroll fragments, (parts of the books of Deuteronomy and Ezekiel) were found here.
Numerous other small finds included pottery and stone vessels, textile remnants and even foodstuffs that had been preserved in the dry climate. Several hoards of coins, including silver shekalim in excellent condition and dating from the years of the revolt, were also found.
Twenty-five skeletons were also discovered in a cave at the base of the cliff by Yadin. Josephus makes no mention of these bodies so their origin is open to conjecture. Were they, as Shaye Cohen believes, the “remains of Jews who attempted to hide from the Romans but were discovered and killed” (which contradicts the popularly held belief that the entire population of Masada willingly committed mass suicide), or are they the bodies of Christians who inhabited Masada during Byzantine times as some scholars have suggested?
Joseph Zias of Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum has yet another theory. After carbon dating samples of textiles found with the remains indicated that they appeared to be contemporaneous with the period of the Revolt, he postulated that they could in fact be of Roman origin. Yadin admitted in 1982 that he had found pig bones alongside the remains – a highly unlikely combination if they were indeed those of zealous Jews to whom the pig is an unclean animal. But Zias notes that Romans sacrificed pigs at burials. Could the skeletons be the remains of Roman legionaries who garrisoned Masada after it was recaptured? And is it nothing more than an interesting coincidence that one of the emblems of the Legion Tenth Fretensis was the boar?
This is just one example of how the archaeological evidence discovered on and around Masada is still being interpreted and why Masada remains such a fascinating and increasingly controversial site. While the account delivered by Josephus is generally accepted as being factual, the interpretation of the events he describes is open to conjecture. Were the inhabitants of Masada a courageous band of freedom fighters that held out against the tyranny of Rome for several years until finally, faced by an overwhelmingly superior military force, unanimously chose death instead of slavery? This is certainly the version generally accepted today.
However academics such as Nachman Ben-Yehuda (Dean of the Faculty of Sociology at the Hebrew University in Jeruslalem) have begun to suggest that the truth may be somewhat less romantic and heroic.
“When we carefully examine the main ingredients of Josephus’ narrative about both the Great Revolt and Masada, a portrait of heroism in Masada is simply not provided. On the contrary. The narrative conveys the story of a doomed (and questionable) revolt, of a majestic failure and destruction of the Second Temple and of Jerusalem, of large-scale massacres of the Jews, of different factions of Jews fighting and killing each other, of collective suicide (an act not viewed favourably by the Jewish faith) by a group of terrorists and assassins whose “fighting spirit” may have been questionable.”
Understandably views such as these have raised the hackles of many Jewish historians, however Ben-Yehuda makes some valid points.
Certainly the only primary source, Josephus, shows nothing but contempt for the defenders of the fortress, whom he describes as Sicarri – a sect that was most renowned for assassinating Jews sympathetic to Roman rule rather than actually fighting the Romans themselves. These Sicarri, Josephus states, “strove with one another in their single capacity, and in their communities, who should run the greatest lengths in impiety towards God and in unjust actions towards their neighbors”.
Nowhere in his account of the Masada siege does Josephus make any reference to the defenders taking the initiative against the besieging forces, even though many contemporary versions credit them of waging a virtual guerilla war against the Romans for up to three years. In fact the only military action he attributes to them is a raid on the nearby Jewish settlement of Ein-Gedi during which they slaughtered more than 700 fellow Jews, a point most contemporary accounts choose to ignore.
Of course, Josephus cannot be considered in any way bi-partisan. Although he served as a commander in the Jewish forces during the early stages of the revolt (most notably at the siege of Jotopata where he lead a clever and courageous defence against the very formidable Vespasian), he became a staunch supporter of Rome after his capture in 67 AD and remained so for the rest of his life. It was obviously in his best interests to promote the Roman version of events; in fact his survival may have depended upon it.
Wherever the truth lies, the Masada story still resonates strongly today both as an enduring symbol of the Jewish state’s struggle for existence and of human courage in the face of insurmountable opposition. In December 2001 UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee inscribed the Masada site on the World Heritage List stating that it was:
“…a symbol of the ancient Jewish Kingdom of Israel, of its violent destruction in the later 1st century CE, and of the subsequent Diaspora.
”The Palace of Herod the Great at Masada is an outstanding example of a luxurious villa of the Early Roman Empire, whilst the camps and other fortifications that encircle the monument constitute the finest and most complete Roman siege works to have survived to the present day.
”The tragic events during the last days of the Jewish refugees who occupied the fortress and palace of Masada make it a symbol both of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.”
Picture in this article are from BiblePlaces.com.
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