Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Siege of Masada

Posted by foryourfaith on May 29, 2010


Soldiers of the Tenth Legion burst upon the horrifying carnage within the rocky fortress of Masada on May 2, AD 73. There lay the bodies of 960 men, women, and children. These Jewish rebels known as Zealots, who believed in “no rule but the Law – no King but God,” had chosen death rather than the shame of the galleys, the Egyptian mines, or the slave quarters of wealthy Roman households.

Never mentioned in the Bible, Masada was the last remaining Zealot stronghold in the Jewish revolt against Rome that began in AD 66. Set atop an isolated rock between the eastern edge of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea, Masada was virtually impregnable. Approximately 330 feet high on the west and some 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea on the east, it was approachable only by steep pathways.

Masada was settled as early as the fourth millennium, and some scholars believe that it was originally fortified by Alexander Janneus in the first century BC. It did not assume importance, however, until the reign of Herod the Great. This isolated and fortified rock was used by Herod as a refuge for his family when he fled from the Parthians in 40 BC. It was manned by a force of some 800 soldiers.

When Herod returned from Rome, he enhanced the fortifications of Masada, ensuring that any retreat in the future would be comfortable and secure. A double wall 4,590 feet in circumference was erected around the top of the site; it featured some 30 towers, 70 rooms, and 4 elaborately built gates. Within, he built an official palace of some 36,000 square feet, a large bathhouse in the Roman style, storehouses for food and other supplies, and lesser residential and administrative buildings. But probably most remarkable of all was Herod’s private villa, a three-tiered palace with royal living quarters on the top terrace and two lower terraces carved into the rock.

A Roman garrison held the fortress after Herod’s death, but Zealots captured it in AD 66 and slaughtered the Romans in cold blood after they had surrendered. This atrocity marked the opening of the first Jewish Revolt, which was to embroil Palestine for over four years, as tens of thousands of Jews were put to death by Roman troops or driven from their homes by mobs of Gentiles. It was in this turmoil that Jerusalem fell and the Temple, when a Zealot stronghold, was razed in AD 70.

Even as the rest of the Palestinian Jewry was cruelly subdued, however, Masada held out. Nearby, other Zealots were routed from the desert fortresses of Herodium and Machaerus by the Roman army, but this last remaining outpost of Zealots did not yield.

The Zealots of Masada, under the guidance of their leader Eleazar, adapted Herod’s showplace to suit their needs. To accommodate their numbers, they partitioned living quarters within the fortress walls. Stories of dried food left from the time of Herod’s occupancy a century earlier and rainwater collected in huge cisterns built during his reign were sufficient to sustain the people. The Zealots built two mikvahs, or ritual baths, and a synagogue.

The Romans failed to rout the Zealots from their stronghold until, under the Tenth Legion’s commander, Governor Flavius Silva, a massive assault was launched. A ramp was constructed on which their battering ram could hammer Masada’s impressive outer wall. The ramp was some 645 feet long and more than 200 feet high. Roman catapults bombarded Masada with enormous stones. Finally, on the eve of May 2, AD 73, the wall was breached, and a secondary wall was set on fire. The Romans settled in for the night thinking that the next day’s assault would be victorious.

What they could not know was that Eleazar had gathered together the surviving Zealots and, in a moving speech later described by Josephus, painted a lurid but no doubt accurate picture of the dishonor and indignities to come. In conclusion, Eleazar persuaded his people to take matters into their own hands. Each man killed his own family, and then, by lot, 10 men were chosen to kill the others. Also by lot, one of these 10 was selected to dispatch the remaining 9 and then commit suicide. Personal belongings and the great palace were torched, but food supplies were purposely left intact, as proof to the Romans that the Zealots had chosen death before dishonor. When the conquerors finally broke into the stronghold the next morning, they found alive only two women and five children who had hidden. Their story was the sole basis of all later accounts.

Masada remained a Roman garrison for at least the next 40 years. In the fifth and sixth centuries AD, a community of monks lived there. The site was then unoccupied, except fro brief periods of exploration, until large-scale excavations began in the 1960s. It is now a historical shrine in Israel.


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