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Masada (Hebrew מצדה, pronounced Metzada, from מצודה, metzuda, "fortress") is the name for a site of ancient palaces and fortifications in the South District of Israel on top of an isolated rock plateau, or horst, on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. After the First Jewish-Roman War a siege of the fortress by troops of the Roman Empire led to the mass suicide of the Sicarii rebels, who preferred death to surrender.

History Edit

According to Josephus, a first-century Jewish Roman historian, Herod the Great fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BC as a refuge for himself in the event of a revolt. In 66 AD, at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War against the Roman Empire, a group of Jewish extremists called the Sicarii overcame the Roman garrison of Masada. After the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish rebels and their families fled Jerusalem and settled on the mountain top, using it as a base for harassing the Romans.

The works of Josephus are the sole record of events that took place during the siege. According to modern interpretations of Josephus, the Sicarii were an extremist splinter group of the Zealots who were equally antagonistic to both Romans and other Jewish groups. The Zealots (according to Josephus), in contrast to the Sicarii, carried the main burden of the rebellion, which opposed Roman rule of Judea (as the Roman province of Iudaea, its Latinized name).

The Sicarii on Masada were commanded by Elazar ben Ya'ir (who may have been the same person as Eleazar ben Simon), and in 70 AD they were joined by additional Sicarii and their families that were expelled from Jerusalem by the Jewish population with whom the Sicarii were in conflict shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple.

Archaeology indicates that they modified some of the structures they found there; this includes a building which was modified to function as a synagogue facing Jerusalem (in fact, the building may originally have been one), although it did not contain a mikvah or the benches found in other early synagogues. Remains of two mikvahs were found elsewhere on Masada.

Masada Roman Ruins by David Shankbone

Remnants of one of several legionary camps at Masada, just outside the circumvallation wall

In 72, the Roman governor of Iudaea Lucius Flavius Silva marched against Masada with the Roman legion X Fretensis and laid siege to the fortress. After failed attempts to breach the wall, they built a circumvallation wall and then a rampart against the western face of the plateau, using thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth.

Josephus does not record any attempts by the Sicarii to counterattack the besiegers during this process, a significant difference from his accounts of other sieges against Jewish fortresses. He did record a raid on a nearby Jewish settlement called Ein-Gedi during the siege, where the Sicarii killed 700 of its inhabitants.

Some historians also believe that Romans may have used Jewish slaves to build the rampart. According to Dan Gill, geological observations in the early 1990s revealed that the assault ramp consisted mostly of a natural spur of bedrock that required a ramp built atop it in order to reach the Masada defenses. This discovery would diminish both the scope of the construction and of the conflict between the Sicarii and Romans, relative to the previous perspective in which the ramp was an epic feat of construction.

Masada Roman Ramp by David Shankbone

The ramp seen from above

The rampart was complete in the spring of 73, after approximately two to three months of siege, allowing the Romans to finally breach the wall of the fortress with a battering ram on April 16. When they entered the fortress, however, the Romans discovered that its 960 inhabitants had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and committed mass suicide rather than face certain capture, defeat, slavery or execution by their enemies.

The account of the siege of Masada was related to Josephus by two women who survived the suicide by hiding inside a cistern along with five children, and repeated Eleazar ben Ya'ir's exhortations to his followers, prior to the mass suicide, verbatim to the Romans. Because Judaism strongly discourages suicide, Josephus reported that the defenders had drawn lots and killed each other in turn, down to the last man, who would be the only one to actually take his own life. Josephus says that Eleazar ordered his men to destroy everything except the foodstuffs to show that the defenders retained the ability to live, and so chose their own death over slavery, but archaeological excavations have shown that storerooms which contained their provisions were also burnt, though whether this was by Romans, by Jews, or natural fire spreading is unclear. Josephus also reported that the Romans found arms sufficient for ten thousand men as well as iron, brass and lead which casts further doubt on the accuracy of the account, especially when considering Josephus' predilection for exaggeration. Historians also point out the parallels between the incidents at Jotapata and Masada such as Eleazar's second speech corresponding to the speech which Josephus himself delivered at Jotapata under similar circumstances and the transference of the lottery motif from the former to the latter. Though whether Josephus added Eleazar's speech in his own name at Jotapata or vice versa is also unclear.

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