Masada, the mountaintop fortress where nearly a thousand Jewish rebels held out against Roman Proconsul Lucius Flavius Silva’s Legion X Fretensis between AD 72 and 73, is far more than an archaeological site. It is a symbol of steadfastness—both rebel and Roman. Atop this desert outpost, Jewish rebels fought for their beliefs, then killed themselves, not out of desperation, but in a conscious decision to die with dignity.
At the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, Masada is a diamondshaped plateau rising some 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea. In the 30s BC, Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed king of Judaea province, fortified this natural bastion as a refuge in the event of a revolt. That isn’t to say it was an austere military post. Herod added conveniences becoming a king, including palaces, a sophisticated Roman bathhouse and other comforts.
When relations between the Jews of Judaea and their Roman masters deteriorated into revolt in AD 66, the Sicarii, an extremist branch of a religious sect known as the Zealots, seized the garrison at Masada and used it as a base of operations. (The Sicarii were named for the sica daggers they carried and freely used against their enemies.) Rome largely subdued the rebellion by AD 70, taking Jerusalem and sacking its temple, but pockets of resistance remained. The Sicarii, in their desert mountain fortress, represented the last vestige of the revolt.
Reaching the site today requires a long drive down through the desert to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. Leaving the comfort of an air-conditioned car, the first thing one notices is the intense heat. While 15,000 Roman soldiers sweltered on the desert floor, the rebels on Masada lived comfortably with ample food and water, the latter collected by catchments and cisterns. In an early form of psyops, the rebels flaunted their advantage, throwing garbage-tainted water at the thirsty Romans below. It was soon apparent that starving out the defenders was not an option.
Determined to break the Sicarii, Silva ordered construction of an assault ramp on Masada’s western slope. Engineers built a wooden frame, then forced thousands of Jewish prisoners to fill it with tons of stones and earth until the ramp reached 330 feet, high enough for the Romans to deploy their siege engines. It was an epic feat of engineering that survives to this day. The message was clear: Rome would spare no effort to destroy enemies of the Pax Romana.
Visitors can imagine how the Sicarii must have felt as the Romans steadily closed on the summit, especially when they brought forward the battering ram (a film production replica now stands below). Realizing his men were no match for Roman regulars, Sicarii commander Eleazar Ben-Yair entreated his cohorts in an emotional speech: “Let us die unenslaved by our enemies and leave this world as free men in company with our wives and children.” The rebels opted to kill themselves. To deny the Romans the pleasure of looting, the Sicarii torched all but the food warehouses; the quantities of food would give testimony that their end had nothing to do with shortages.
In order not to contravene the Jewish prohibition against suicide, the defenders killed their wives and children, then drew lots and slew one another in turn, leaving but one man to fall on his own sword. They died free people, undefeated, and soured the Roman victory. Catching a quiet moment before the crowds arrive, one can imagine the eerie stillness that greeted the Roman assault troops when they finally reached the desolate outpost, the smoke from its smoldering ruins thick in the air.
In the confusion of those final moments, a handful of Jewish women and children took shelter in one of the cisterns. These seven survivors provided an account of the dramatic end recorded by historian Flavius Josephus, a turncoat Jewish commander who chronicled what became known as the First Jewish War.
Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, Masada has been left largely untouched for nearly two millennia, due no doubt to its remote location and desert climate. The fortress is accessible today by cable car or by foot via the Roman ramp or a steep, winding trail known as the snake path. Far below stand the remains of a three-mile-long siege wall built around the mountain’s base to prevent escape. These comprise the most extensive surviving Roman siege works in the world.
While the palaces, baths decorated with colorful mosaics and frescoes, storerooms, villas and fortifications might suggest luxury, life for the Sicarii was difficult, considering the works were built for a king and his entourage and not intended to house the hundreds of Jewish rebels who sought refuge from Roman wrath. A visitor center at the foot of the mountain tries to put the past in perspective, but there’s a deeper, more elusive emotional current.
Masada has become part of Israel’s national ethos, a symbol of heroism, a place where few stood against many and opted for an honorable death rather than slavery. Modern Israel lives by the credo never again to find itself in such a situation: Units of the Israel Defense Forces conduct swearing-in ceremonies atop Masada at the conclusion of basic training, echoing the cry, “Masada shall not fall again!”
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.