The siege of Masada was among the final accords of the First Jewish-Roman War. The long siege by the troops of the Roman Empire led to the mass suicide of the Sicarii rebels and resident Jewish families of the Masada fortress. The siege has become a controversial event in Jewish history, marking radicalism on the one hand and heroic struggle on the other.
Masada and First Jewish-Roman War
According to Josephus, a 1st-century AD 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 Great Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire, a group of Jewish extremists called the Sicarii overcame the Roman garrison of Masada and settled there. Three years later, following the Siege of Jerusalem and subsequent destruction of the Second Temple, additional members of the Sicarii and many Jewish families fled Jerusalem and settled on the mountaintop, with the Sicarii 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 and were equally antagonistic to both Romans and other Jewish groups. It was the Zealots, in contrast to the Sicarii, who 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, contrary to popular belief, was not the same person as Eleazar ben Simon), and in 70 AD they were joined by additional Sicarii and their families 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; these include a building that was modified to function as a synagogue facing Jerusalem (it may in fact have been a synagogue to begin with), although it did not contain a mikvah or the benches found in other early synagogues. It is one of the oldest synagogues in Israel. Remains of two mikvahs were found elsewhere on Masada.
The Roman siege
In 72, the Roman governor of Iudaea, Lucius Flavius Silva, led Roman legion X Fretensis to lay siege to the 960 people in Masada. The Roman legion surrounded Masada and built a circumvallation wall and then a siege embankment against the western face of the plateau, moving thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth to do so (see picture).
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 of Jewish fortresses. He did record their earlier raid on Ein-Gedi, a nearby Jewish settlement, where the Sicarii allegedly killed 700 of its inhabitants.
According to Dan Gill, geological investigations in the early 1990s confirmed earlier observations that the 375-foot (114 m) high assault ramp consisted mostly of a natural spur of bedrock that only required a ramp 30 feet (9.1 m) built atop it in order to reach Masada's defenses. This discovery would diminish both the scope of the construction and of the conflict between the Sicarii and Romans, relative to the popular perspective in which the ramp was an epic feat of construction.
The rampart was complete in the spring of 73, after probably two to three months of siege, allowing the Romans to finally breach the wall of the fortress with a battering ram on April 16. According to Josephus, however, when the Romans entered the fortress they discovered that its 960 inhabitants had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and had committed mass suicide. Modern archaeologists have found no evidence of mass suicide and only some thirty skeletons have been recovered from the site.