Masada is a historical site in modern-day Israel that is perceived as a symbol of Jewish resistance. It is the place where the Masada Siege took place, which was the last battle between the Roman army and Jewish rebels when the First Jewish Revolt came to an end. Besieged in the mountaintop fortress built by King Herod the Great in the first century, the Masada defenders opted to commit mass suicide rather than get captured by the Romans. This event has been celebrated and commemorated as an act of heroic resistance by the Jews. This essay looks at who the Masada defenders were and how they ended up in the fortress.
The Masada narrative starts with the Sicarii, also referred to as the anti-Roman freedom fighters. The movement had its origins from a family of robbers who gradually formed a religious cult and using proceedings from robberies, kidnappings, and contract killings to fund its activities. The group originated sometimes in the mid-first century BC, and operated in the area along the Syrian border and around Galilee. Its leader was a man called Hezekiah who had a reputation for stealing from rich merchants and landowners while ignoring the peasants. After leading the group for over a decade and amassing a sizeable fortune, Hezekiah was captured by King Herod and eventually executed. His son Judas of Galilee took over the family business.
In 6 AD, Judaea was incorporated into the Roman Empire, and imperialists arrived to govern it. Judeans were supposed to pay the Roman head and land taxes, civil tax to the king, and religious tax to fund the Jerusalem Temple. Judas organized an insurgency against the Temple tax, although it was not known why he did it. While he was not paying it anyway, the fracas caused by the revolt presented more opportunities for banditry. Also, he seemed to have adopted some religious inclinations that Jews should only be ruled by God and hence should not pay taxes. It was not long before the Romans crushed the insurgency and had Judas executed.
Judas sons Simon and Jacob took over the family business of banditry directed at the wealthy and prosperous, using the name of God to justify their actions and attract popular support. At the time, Galilee was in the midst of religious evangelism and was full of self-proclaimed messiahs, false prophets, bandits, and outlaws. All in all, the religious ideology of the Sacarii was well received by the general population, and Judas sons enjoyed widespread popularity and steady profits. This went on until Simon and Jacob got captured and executed by a Roman procurator called Tiberius Alexander. Once again, the business was taken over by a relative, in this case Judas grandson known as Menahem.
It turns out that things were not that well in Judea. A bad drought occurred in the country from 44AD to 48AD, followed by a pervasive famine that forced thousands of people to migrate from rural areas to urban centers. Crime became prevalent, and rebellion erupted in the countryside triggered by predictions of the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Lord. Over the next decade or so, Roman procurators such as Antonius Felix brutally cracked down on the insurgences, capturing and executing many innocent peasants. However, such conditions and the messianic doctrine followed by Judas followers were ideal for recruitment, and the banditry business thrived. The Judas crime family made a huge mistake when it facilitated the assassination of a high priest called Jonathan. He had been reporting Felixs corrupt tendencies and harsh ways of dealing with insurgents to Rome. Felix decided to put an end to the pesky priest once and for all, and had him murdered while en-route to the Jerusalem Temple. This was the first public murder that the Sicarii was responsible for.
When Felix did not do anything to solve the murder, the Sicarii invaded Jerusalem and went on with their banditry for mercenary and business reasons. The mayhem went on for several days, causing widespread panic in the city. When they eventually left, they went back to their old hideouts in the rural areas where they continued with their banditry. The rich and powerful managed to recruit their militia for protection. The gangs were often used in some rather violent confrontation between those who wanted to chase away the Romans from Judea and those who wished to collaborate with the invaders. There was a likelihood of a civil war breaking out as several Jewish groups battled each other more than they fought the Romans.
It is worth noting that the Sicarii did not take part in the then rising Jewish liberation movement. They did not subscribe to the nationalist goal of chasing away the occupiers. Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian who recorded the Masada siege, did not mention as single time when the Sicarii attacked or assaulted Romans. Even in 66AD when they went back to Jerusalem after it was taken over, all they did was battle other criminal factions and rob residents. The main goal of the Sicarii was to appoint Menahem, who was their leader, as a high priest. When they failed to achieve that and lost many of their members to rival gangs, they fled to Masada. Menahem had earlier formed an alliance with Jerusalems priests; something that enabled the Sicarii to get access to the fortress by treachery. Since Menahem had access to King Herods weapons, he managed to train and arm a significant number of militias. He then went into Jerusalem and started collaborating with other groups to cause a revolt. However, Menahem had his own selfish ambitions-to be made high priest and take command of the revolt. For this to happen, he had to get rid of the serving high priest called Ananias; and ordered the Sicarii to assassinate him.
Menahem did not last long in his new post. A son to Jonathan-the high priest who was assassinated in 57AD- called Eleazar ben Ananias, and then leader of a faction of the Temple, had him murdered. The assassination triggered a violent crash between the Sicarii and Eleazar ben Ananias faction, with the former bearing the blunt of it. After several of their men died, the Sicarii once again fled Jerusalem and went into hiding in Masada. They were led by a relative of Mebahem called Eleazar ben Yair, who took over command of the group after Menahems son was murdered. Hence, by early 67AD, Sicariis leader had been assassinated, and the group had been chased away from Jerusalem. They sought refuge in Masada where they stated for the remainder of the revolt against the Roman Empire. The Masada defenders survived by doing what they did best- banditry.
In early 70AD, general Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus and his men laid siege to Jerusalem. They managed to breach the citys defenses in the summer of that year, slaughtered its population, burned the Temple, and pulled down walls. After the city fell, the Romans focused their attention on eliminating the last of the Jewish rebels occupying the fortresses of Machaerus and Herodium. The final remaining site being held by the rebels was the Masada fortress. A veteran army unit called the Legio X Fretensis, under the command of General Flavius Silva, began the Masada siege on 72AD or 73AD.
The Masada siege was narrated by historian Flavius Josephus, initially a commander with the Great Jewish revolt who later defected to become an advisor for Emperor Vespasian. He told of how the Masada defenders, under the leadership of Elazar ben Yair, chose to take their own lives rather than become slaves to the Romans. According to him, there were more than 900 people at the fortress who had been waging a guerilla-like campaign against the occupiers. However, with the Romans virtually have won the war, the defenders were no match for General Silva and his men. To die free instead of living a life of slavery, they each murdered their own families and then figured out amongst themselves who would finish out their compatriots. It is said that the systematically murdered each other until one person was left, and who took his own life.
An archaeologist called Yigael Yadin, who carried out excavations on the Masada fortress in 1963, stated that Flavius Josephus account is supported by archeological evidence. However, although Israelis generally accept this narrative as a fact, not all scholars agree. All in all, the excavations conducted by Yadin did not present much archaeological materials to either corroborate or dispute the account of the Masada siege as narrated by the Josephus. Whatever the case, his account is the only one in existence of what happened during the event.
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