Masada - Mass Suicide in the First Jewish-Roman War C. AD 73

Masada - Mass Suicide in the First Jewish-Roman War C. AD 73

Phil Carradice
ARRSE Rating
3.5 Mushroom Heads
The siege of the fortress of Masada and the resulting mass suicide of the defenders as the Romans breached the defences in AD 73 has assumed the same place in the Israeli psyche as the self-immolation of Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae has in the Greek one. Both have come to represent a heroic defence against overwhelming odds.

In writing a book on Masada the author, Phil Carradice, has had to overcome the problem any writer on ancient events has – a paucity of original source material. In this instance the primary (and sometimes only) source is ‘The Jewish War’ by Titus Flavius Josephus. Born Yosef ben Matityahu, Josephus initially fought on the Jewish side in a revolt against the Romans, was captured and then went over to the Roman side. He prophesied that the Roman commander in Galilee, Vespasian, would become Emperor of Rome. Vespasian took Yosef ben Matityahu as a slave and interpreter. When Vespasian did eventually become Emperor, he gave ben Matityahu his freedom, the former slave taking up Vespasian’s family name in gratitude. The primary source on the siege is thus a book written by a Romanised Jew with strong reasons to present a pro-Roman account.

The siege of Masada had its origins in a revolt against Roman rule. Judea had originally been annexed by the Roman General Pompey in 63 BC and, under its client Herodian Kings, had been uneasily part of the Roman Empire ever since. Jewish dissatisfaction resulted in periodic revolts, including that of the first Romano-Jewish war of AD 66 to AD 73. By the latter date, the bulk of Judea was firmly back in Roman hands with the Fortress of Masada one of the last places held by the Jews. Defended by a fanatical Jewish sect, the Sicarii, it was obviously going to attract Roman attention.

Yet the fortress was going to be difficult to a tough nut to crack. Built at the top of a rocky outcrop hundreds of feet high, amply supplied with food and water, with substantial defensive walls, approachable only by narrow steep tracks and situated in the middle of a barren desert, it presented the Romans with a substantial problem. Yet Roman prestige demanded it be captured.

The Roman approach was simplicity. Using a spur of rock running out from the fortress as a base, they moved tens of thousands of tons of rock and earth to build a ramp running up to the fortress walls. There, they made preparations to batter through the defensive wall and overrun the defenders. According to legend, they broke through into a charnel house, the defenders having all committed suicide in the night.

Or did they? One of the many problems associated with the legend of Masada is that there were never enough bodies found, giving rise to the alternative explanations that some of the defenders escaped through Roman lines, some were taken prisoner and only some (but not all) committed suicide. This is one of the many problems discussed by the book’s author.

The book is relatively short, just 125 pages, but is workmanlike. The first chapter seems a little out of place, being a fictionalised account of the siege from the perspective of both attackers and defenders as the siege ramp nears completion. After that, the author moves methodically through a series of chapters, giving the historical background to the revolt, the main events of the revolt itself, a description of the fortress of Masada, the construction of the ramp, the aftermath of the assault and the results of the varying archaeological excavations.

There have been relatively few books written on Masada – and the reason is that stated above: there is relatively little source material and hence any book must necessarily be short. That said, the author has made the best of what he has and the result is a readable account of the siege of Masada and the events surrounding it.

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