The 2,000-year-old hilltop fortress stands as a revered symbol of Jewish nationalism— but does the historic record support the myth or a very different reality?
In 1963 Yigael Yadin, famed archeologist and former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, began excavating an ancient mountaintop fortress overlooking the Dead Sea. Known as Masada, the site was established in the 1st century BC by Judaean King Alexander Jannaeus and later fortified on the order of King Herod the Great, who envisioned Masada as a last redoubt in the event of war or civil unrest. Herod’s workers enclosed the flat top of the steep-sided, quarter-mile-high plateau within a casemate wall, the first line of defense for his palaces, barracks and other structures built over the course of some two decades. Cisterns hewn from solid rock and vast grain storehouses provided Masada’s residents the means to hold out for months against besieging enemies, and rich furnishings ensured Herod and his chosen guests would pass the time in luxurious surroundings.
Sparking Yadin’s interest in Masada were the writings of Flavius Josephus, a 1st century Roman historian of Jewish origin. In his writings on the First Jewish-Roman War of 66–73 Josephus related the story of a group of Jewish rebels who occupied Masada after being driven from Jerusalem. Known as the Sicarii (“dagger men”)—a name derived from the small, wickedly sharp knives that were their preferred weapon—the rebels used the fortress as a base from which to raid the surrounding region. Finally, in 73 the Romans had had enough and set out to destroy Masada and its occupants.
Josephus writes that the Romans first constructed a wall around the base of the steep mount atop which Masada sat, to prevent the defenders’ escape, and then constructed a siege ramp leading to the top of the hill. Following the ramp’s completion, the Romans assaulted the stone outer wall with a battering ram and a makeshift inner timber wall with blazing torches. When they finally broke through on April 16, Josephus notes they encountered no resistance but instead met with a “multitude of the slain.” The defenders had drawn lots and killed each other in turn, down to the last man, who then committed suicide. In all Josephus says 960 men, women and children died at Masada. Only two women and five children, who had hid in a subterranean cavern, survived to tell the tale.
In 1966 Yadin published a book in which he refers to Masada’s defenders not as Sicarii but as Zealots, whom the author regarded as the leaders of a nationalist movement seeking to drive the Romans from Judaea and who had led the resistance in Jerusalem after Roman general Titus Flavius Vespasianus (the future Emperor Titus) took the city under siege in 70. Yadin believed some of these Zealots fled to Masada, where they made their last stand against the Romans and chose suicide over surrender and lifelong slavery. That narrative became widely popular, turning the fortress into a major tourist attraction and a heroic symbol that played a significant role in forging a national identity for the fledgling Israeli state.
Yet there are serious discrepancies with Yadin’s version of the Masada event.
The story of Masada begins with the Sicarii, sometimes described as anti-Roman freedom fighters. They were, in fact, something quite different. The movement, if it can be called that, has its roots in a family of thieves that gradually assumed the mantle of a quasi-religious militia using profits from robbery, contract killing and kidnapping to support its vague messianic ideology. Originating sometime in the mid-1st century BC, this band of Jewish thieves exploited the area around Galilee and along the Syrian border. The patriarch of the band was Hezekiah, who made a name for himself as a sort of Robin Hood figure by stealing from wealthy landowners and merchants, while leaving the peasantry—who had little worth stealing anyway—pretty much alone. After a run of good fortune lasting more than a decade, Hezekiah was captured and executed by King Herod in the mid-40s BC. Leadership of the family business then passed to Hezekiah’s son Judas of Galilee.
Judaea was absorbed into the Roman imperium in AD 6, and procurators arrived to govern the country. Authorities ordered a census and required Judaeans to pay the Roman head and land taxes in addition to the civic tax paid to their king and a religious tax to support the Temple in Jerusalem. For reasons that are unclear, Judas led a sporadic revolt against the latter tax. He wasn’t paying it anyway, but the turmoil it generated offered more opportunities for banditry. Judas also seems to have fallen into some sort of messianic eschatological reverie and declared that Jews should have no ruler but God and therefore ought not to pay taxes. Predictably, the Romans soon crushed the revolt and executed Judas.
His sons, Jacob and Simon, in turn took over the family business of robbing the rich and prosperous, using the slogan “No Lord but God” to justify their escapades and gain popular support. Galilee at the time was a hotbed of religious messianism, a land beset by false prophets, self-proclaimed messiahs, bandits and wandering troublemakers. The religious ideology of this Jewish mafia clan went over well with the general populace, however, and Jacob and Simon enjoyed steady profits and wide popularity until captured and crucified by Roman procurator Tiberius Alexander. In the tradition of successful crime families everywhere, leadership fell to yet another relative, Judas’ grandson Menahem.
Things were generally not going well in Judaea, however. A disastrous drought struck the country between 44 and 48, followed as it almost always was in antiquity by a terrible famine that forced thousands from the land and into the cities and towns. Banditry became endemic, and the countryside erupted in spontaneous rebellions led by mystics foretelling of the coming messiah and the end of Roman rule. Over the next decade the procurators Ventidius Cumanus and Antonius Felix mercilessly crushed the outbreaks, arresting and crucifying many innocent peasants. Such conditions and the messianic ideology of Judas’ followers made for good recruiting, however, and the business continued to grow.
The Judas crime family “made its bones,” so to speak, when in 57 it assassinated Jonathan, the high priest. He had been sending reports to Rome regarding Felix’s corruption and harsh methods. The procurator sought to put a permanent end to the troublesome priest and had Jonathan stabbed to death while on his way to the Temple in Jerusalem. Josephus recorded it as the first public murder committed by the Sicarii.
When Felix made no effort to apprehend the murderers, the Sicarii entered Jerusalem and continued their outrages for private and mercenary reasons. The crimes and murders went on for days, and panic spread throughout the city. When the Sicarii finally left Jerusalem, they retired to their old haunts in the countryside and continued their campaign of brigandage. To protect themselves, the wealthy and powerful recruited their own gangs of thugs, whom they employed in the increasingly violent conflicts between those who wanted to drive the Romans from Judaea and those who wanted to make an accommodation with the occupiers. The country teetered on the brink of civil war, as various Jewish groups fought one another more than the Romans.
In 66 a minor altercation in Caesarea between Jews and Greeks over the use of an old synagogue flared into sectarian violence. When the Roman garrison failed to intervene, tensions escalated. In protest a clerk in the Temple in Jerusalem suspended the daily prayers and sacrifices for the health of the Roman emperor, at which point procurator Gessius Florus sent troops into the city to confiscate 17 talents of gold from the Temple treasury. When the unrest spread throughout Jerusalem, Florus arrested a number of city leaders and citizens and had them publicly whipped and crucified. Outraged, various Jewish groups converged on the Holy City, overran the small Roman garrison and occupied the capital. Shortly thereafter Jewish militias and rebel groups began attacking Roman citizens and pro-Roman Jewish officials throughout the country. The entire province was in turmoil, Josephus says, “till all Judaea was filled with the effects of their madness. And thus the flame was every day more and more blown up, till it came to a direct war.”
The Roman governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus, led a 30,000-man army into Judaea to put down the revolt. He pacified the northern coast and Galilee before taking Jerusalem under siege. Yet despite his initial successes, and for reasons that remain unclear, Gallus broke off the siege and sought to withdraw down the Beth–horon pass, descending from the central mountains to the coastal plain. There Jewish militia ambushed the retreating Romans. Josephus records that the rebels killed 5,300 Roman infantrymen and 380 horsemen, while Gallus abandoned his army and fled to Antioch. The defeat further emboldened the Jewish rebels.
The Sicarii were never part of the growing Jewish liberation movement, however. They didn’t share the nationalist goal of ridding Judaea of the occupiers, and Josephus does not mention a single instance in which the Sicarii attacked or killed Romans. Even when they returned to Jerusalem in 66 following the takeover of the city, they spent most of their time fighting other criminal groups and terrorizing the population with robberies and murders. The Sicarii’s primary goal was to appoint their leader, Menahem, as high priest. When the effort failed, and many of their members fell in fights with other factions, the Sicarii fled Jerusalem for Masada.
Gallus’ defeat in the Beth–horon pass brought a swift Roman response. In April 67 the general Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus (the future Emperor Vespasian) arrived in Ptolemaïs (present-day Acre, Israel) at the head of two legions, X Fretensis and V Macedonia. Legion XV Apollinaris, led by Vespasian’s elder son, Titus, joined him from Alexandria. Vespasian further increased his army with troops from local allies and from King Herod Agrippa II of Judaea for a total of 60,000 men. He moved quickly into Galilee, taking several towns from the rebels and forcing the remnants south toward Jerusalem. Within six months Vespasian was in Caesarea preparing to assault Jerusalem. Troubles in Rome forced his recall, however. Command transferred to Titus, who immediately marched on Jerusalem, driving the civilian population before him into the city. Josephus tells us Jerusalem’s population swelled to 1 million.
While Vespasian was moving through Judaea, the conflict in the southern Judaean towns, between the advocates of resistance and those who wanted to surrender, grew more violent. Those favoring resistance got the upper hand and began looting their neighbors and ravaging the countryside. Then they entered Jerusalem, where the various groups merged into one amorphous gang and began to terrorize the city— arresting, imprisoning and murdering many of the most prominent citizens, seizing the Temple and appointing a new high priest. Members of this group called themselves Zealots, and the siege marked their first appearance in the historical record. The city fairly overflowed with a number of factions, including the leaders of the collapsed northern revolt—John of Giscala and Simon bar Giora—who had managed to elude Vespasian’s dragnet. Cut off by the Romans, Jerusalem descended into anarchy and brutal civil war, with the Zealots executing anyone who advocated surrender.
Before the revolt broke out, Menahem had formed an alliance with the Jerusalem priesthood, thus en abling the Sicarii to gain control of Masada by treachery. With access to Herod’s armory, Menahem was able to recruit and arm a considerable number of troops. Marching on Jerusalem, he entered the city and threw in his lot with the other factions against the leaders of the northern revolt who had fled Vespasian’s advance. But Menahem had personal ambitions—he wanted command of the revolt and to be appointed high priest. To achieve this, he planned to kill Ananias, the current high priest. The Sicarii carried out the murder.
Menahem did not have long to enjoy his new position, however. Eleazar ben Ananias, son of the high priest Jonathan murdered in 57 and now leader of the Temple faction, had the Sicarii leader assassinated as he walked to the Temple clad in the vestments of the high priest. This provoked a violent struggle between ben Ananias’ faction and the Sicarii, with the latter getting the worst of it. After losing a good number of men, the Sicarii again fled Jerusalem and took refuge in Masada under the leadership of Eleazar ben Ya’ir, whom Josephus describes as “a relative” of Menahem and who assumed command of the Sicarii after Menahem’s son was killed.
Thus, by late 66 or early 67 the Sicarii had already been driven from Jerusalem, their leader had been killed, and they had taken up residence in Masada, where they sat out the rest of the revolt against Rome. The Sicarii occupying Herod’s fortress supported themselves as they had always done, by raiding and robbing. “They plundered all the villages around the fortress,” Josephus says, “and laid waste the entire area while many from every side were daily corrupted along with them.”
In early 70 Titus and his legions laid siege to Jerusalem. The Romans first encircled the city with a deep trench, and then used its earthen walls as a place to crucify anyone caught trying to escape. According to one source, on some days the Romans executed 500 people in this manner. That summer, after a seven-month siege, Titus’ legions breached Jerusalem’s defenses, slaughtered its population, pulled down its walls and burned down the Temple, the flames quickly spreading to the rest of the city. Sporadic resistance continued in the countryside but was soon overcome. In the spring of 71 Titus sailed for Rome, directing Lucilius Bassus to sweep up any remaining rebels. Bassus died, however and command passed to Lucius Flavius Silva. In late autumn 72, Legion X Fretensis, supported by auxiliary troops and employing thousands of Jewish slave laborers, laid siege to Masada.
As mentioned earlier, Yigael Yadin’s version of events at Masada has come increasingly into question. defenders of Masada were Sicarii At the most basic level, Josephus makes it clear the and not Zealots. When Menahem was killed and the Sicarii driven from Jerusalem in 66, the Zealots had yet to coalesce as a recognized faction. Indeed, their formation was a spontaneous response by young men in the southern towns to Vespasian’s advance, and nowhere in the record do they appear before the winter of 67–68—almost a year after the Sicarii fled to Masada.
Moreover, there simply was no three-year siege of Masada. Yadin lumped the siege of Jerusalem together with the later attack on Masada, which occurred two years after the fall of Jerusalem, making it appear that Zealot resistance was long and continuous when in truth it was short and episodic. While Josephus implies the siege of Masada lasted about four months, in fact the Romans probably concluded operations in about six weeks. Equally curious is the claim that its defenders did nothing to resist the Romans. This stands in stark contrast to Josephus’ accounts of sieges elsewhere in Judaea, where defenders made strong efforts to hinder the Roman attack. Except for the ramp leading to the Masada summit, the only other archaeological evidence for the siege are a few arrowheads whose quality falls below the usual Roman standard for these weapons.
The story of mass murder and suicide at Masada is also suspicious—there is no archaeological evidence to support it. Disposing of so many bodies would have been vital in the heat of the Judaean Desert, and the Romans would have quickly buried the dead in a mass grave. Yet Yadin’s efforts to find any such burial place proved fruitless. He did discover the skeletons of a man in his 20s, a woman in her late teens and a 12-year-old boy. Yadin pronounced these remains “of an important commander of Masada and his family.” Israeli forensic experts later determined the bodies were actually those of Romans possibly taken captive by the Sicarii. By then, however, the skeletons had already been given a state funeral and burial.
Josephus tells us some Sicarii escaped the Romans and fled to Alexandria, where they also caused trouble. He is unclear as to where they came from, but Masada is at least a possibility. The Roman wall around Masada could hardly have been complete enough to prevent all escapes. The area is devoid of wood and building stones, thus the “wall” may have been little more than a ditch with pointed wooden stakes on the earthen rampart, much like the typical palisades erected around Roman field camps.
Josephus’ account of two long and detailed speeches delivered by Eleazar ben Ya’ir to convince his followers to submit to the murder-suicide scheme are likely a literary device, common in Roman-Hellenistic literature, whereby the author invents a speech to explain an event. These speeches are found in the works of almost every Roman and Greek historian of antiquity. Josephus was writing for a Roman audience and utilized the literary motifs most familiar to them. The length and detail of ben Ya’ir’s speeches suggest a literary invention more than an actual account, as Josephus had no way of knowing what ben Ya’ir may or may not have said.
Josephus’ story is more typical of Greek and Roman values, with its characteristic glorification of a hero’s martyrdom in service to a moral cause, and runs counter to Judaism’s basic ethical values. Judaism holds life to be the highest human value and never hopeless, even when it is difficult or tragic. Judaism regards murder and suicide as terrible sins.
That Yadin’s take on the Masada story gained such wide acceptance is understandable—the parallels between the situation of Jews forced to live under brutal Roman occupation and the situation in which the relatively young state of Israel found itself at the time of Yadin’s work at Masada are obvious. Yet now, decades later, it is perhaps time to discard patriotic symbolism in favor of the facts history provides.
Rick Gabriel is a frequent contributor to Military History. For further reading he recommends The Jewish War, by Flavius Josephus; Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel, by Nachman Ben-Yehuda; and Selective Remembrances: Archaeology in the Construction, Commemoration and Consecration of National Pasts, edited by Philip L. Kohl, Mara Kozelsky and Nachman Ben-Yahuda.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.