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The Siege of Masada
Overall, the way Rome administered Judaea did not change much despite the rotation of emperors. Many of the changes occurred on the Jewish side as there were rumors rippling through the land of a Messiah to save them from foreign rule. This was nothing new as it had been going on for decades. To many, this Messiah had already come through the father of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth. To those that did not accept him as the Messiah, impatience took over as more and more prophets declared that the time had come and a Messiah was near. The more the Romans squashed rumors and the small uprisings about this new Jewish leader, or king, the more resentment there was against Rome.
All of this tension was simmering under the surface when Florus, the Roman governor, took the money from the Jewish Temple treasury to pay off back-taxes that were owed. Though from a legal sense this was not wrong, the Jews viewed it as outright theft from their God. It started as a small altercation but soon escalated to such heights that the governor had to flee Jerusalem.
The revolt was not supported by all within the Jewish community. The Jewish leaders saw the revolt as futile, but the passion was in the wind and could not be stopped. The fate of Jerusalem was sealed when the retreating Roman soldiers were annihilated in the process of retreat. Rome had no choice but to come in forcefully and put down the revolt.
Fighting commenced with thousands dying. With the failure of Gallus, the Syrian governor, not being able to snuff out the revolt, Nero had him replaced with Flavius Vespasianus, or Vespasian. He was making much progress in retaking Judaea when the news of Nero’s suicide reached him. Putting a hold on things until he knew which way the wind blew, Jerusalem got a short breather. The entire Empire waited with baited breath as blood was shed over who would ultimately be emperor.
After three very short termed emperors, Vespasian was proclaimed the next Roman emperor. Obviously, the new emperor had more important things to do than continue fighting so far from the Roman capital that awaited its new leader. He left his son, Titus, in charge of suppressing the revolt. The fighting resumed. The revolt did not last much longer. Thousands died with others becoming mine workers or gladiators. The great city of Jerusalem was burned to the ground including the revered Temple. The Jewish population plummeted. Judaea was no more. The message from Rome was loud and clear. Rome would not tolerate those that rebelled.
The end of the revolt was not the end of the rebellion. Like with many battles, there are many that just refuse to give up. Those that continued to fight left the city and found places to hold up in the wilderness. The very last place that was suppressed by the Romans was Masada.
Masada was a palace fortress that was built by Herod the Great sometime between 37 – 31 B.C. and was located 1300 feet above sea level. During the revolt, a Roman garrison was stationed there but was overtaken when Jerusalem fell and the zealots took to the hills to avoid capture and to continue fighting. This was a great place to set up camp and continue raiding Roman sites. Masada was comprised of large storehouses, cisterns, an armory, barracks, and the palaces. This was not a small hideout. It was huge and built to withstand sieges. The only way to access this fortress located south of Jerusalem was by foot. This path was very narrow which added to the protected nature of Masada. Called ‘Metzada’ by the Jews, it was not going to fall easily to Rome.
A series of ramparts were built around the site by the Romans to prevent anyone from escaping and thus avoiding punishment. The Roman army under Flavius Silva set up camp around the site. The army then began to build siege ramps using the natural formations around the fortress. Battering rams were then constructed and used to hit the walls. This was the only thing that worked to breach the walls. The group of Jews inside the fortress were not about to give up. As the Romans were constructing the ramps and battering rams, the Jews were busy constructing a second wall. When the Romans discovered the new wall, they set it on fire and completely destroyed it.
The Jews inside were faced with a decision of when to surrender. If they chose to surrender, they were faced with forced labor or death for the men and slavery for all the women and children. The indignity of Roman rule would be worse than it was before the revolt. All they saw “setting before their eyes [was] what the Romans would do to them, their children, and their wives, if they got them into their power, he [the rebel leader, Eleazar ben Ya’ir] consulted about having them all slain.” To the rebels there was only the option of suicide except that their religion forbade it. Instead, they choose a few men to carry out the murders and then killed each other.
When the Romans breached the last wall, they were expecting even more fighting. If there was to be no fighting, then there would be those wanting to surrender waiting for them. What they found was very unexpected for the typical Roman soldier. There was no battle cry. There was nothing to indicate that the rebels were ready to die fighting or to surrender the power of Rome. The Romans “saw nobody as an enemy, but a terrible solitude on every side, with a fire within the place, as well as a perfect silence.”
Two surviving women who had hidden saw the whole thing. They later reported it to Josephus, a Jew who had become a Roman citizen. It is from his writings that the world knows anything about the siege. Almost a thousand rebels died in Masada rather than surrender to the army. The siege only lasted a few months with the Jewish rebels choosing to die free rather than become enslaved or die as prisoners. To the Romans, this was a minor skirmish that meant nothing. To the Jews, the siege at Masada meant everything. It was very similar to the American cry, “Remember the Alamo” or the Greek remembrance of Thermopylae.
- Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1995.
- Cappelletti, Silvia. The Jewish Community of Rome: From the Second Century B.C. to the Third Century C.E. Boston: Brill, 2006.
- Gibbon, Edward. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Volume I . Public Domain Books, 2006, Kindle edition.
- Josephus, Flavius. Translated by William Whiston. “The Works of Flavius Josephus.” Sacred Texts, accessed 11/9/2010, http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/index.htm.
- Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. New York: Cambridge, 2007.
- “Masada: Desert Fortress Overlooking the Dead Sea,” Israeli Ministry of Tourism, accessed 11/9/2010, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Archaeology/Masada1.html.
- Rashba, Gary L. “Masada, Israel.” Military History 24, Issue 7, 2007.
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