The last stand of the Jews during the First War took place at 1300 ft elevation next to the Dead Sea in a fortress that was mostly surrounded with shear cliffs. It offered a location where the only boundary was in supplies stored in precedence to a siege. But there is a considerable history of the site leading up to this point.
The earliest archaeological evidence of occupation at Masada was in the 4th millennium. The next findings are dated to the First Temple (Solomon) in 10th – 7thc BC, yet there are no indications of architecture until the Hasmonean (Jewish) period. Historically, it was Herod the Great that recognized the potential of fortifying the location for the protection of his family. However, Helix (second in command to Cassius, a Roman senator who plotted the death of Julius Caesar) took Masada in 42 BC when Herod had gone to Syria. Upon his return, Herod recaptured it and placed his family there when he traveled to Rome to accept a formal declaration of his reign as king. He had been challenged by Antigonus for the region of Judea and Masada held him off until Herod returned. They had almost yielded because they had run out of water, but a sudden rain refilled their cisterns and saved them from being overtaken. Herod forced Antigonus to resign from his battle and subsequently, released his family from the fortress.
Being the accomplished architect that he was, Herod began the improvements on Masada in 2 stages. Clearly identifying what had nearly happened to his family, he carved out an additional 4 enormous cisterns to the existing 8 that were already there. While the cisterns were not directly on the mountaintop, they were connected by a series of paths called “the snake pass (named by Josephus).” This was one of only 2 accessible ways to ascend Masada. The path is a cruel twist of steep ascents that can take a strong person 50 minutes to climb. The other path is a siege ramp that was built by the Romans during the First Jewish War. Josephus mentions a prior path existing there that provided easier access. However, this was covered over by the siege ramp. While both paths were used to transport water to the upper cisterns, the one on the NW corner was adeptly named the “water gate.”
In typical Herodian flamboyance, he built the Northern Palace, which had a large bathhouse, storehouses, and 3 natural terraces that were built in 90 ft stages along the northern face of the mountain (see picture). The lowest terrace had a reception hall with a circle of colonnades. An additional bathhouse was located there with frescoes. The large bathhouse included palaestra (peri-styled courtyard), with a receiving room, a tepid room, a cold room (frigidarium) equipped with a ritual immersion pool, a hot room (caldarium) and a heating system.
In the second stage, Herod built several other rooms and a grand Western Palace with service wings, guardhouses, storerooms and other luxury items. He then further fortified Masada with a 4,600 ft casemate wall that was almost 21.5 ft thick. The wall encased 70 rooms and had more than 30 towers. A synagogue was placed on the western wall facing towards Jerusalem.
The most formidable fortification of Masada was its natural location. Josephus described it as “A rock of no slight circumference and lofty from end to end is abruptly terminated on every side by deep ravines, the precipices rising sheer from an invisible base and being inaccessible to the foot of any living creature, save in two places where the rocks permits no easy ascent.” It is adjacent to the el-Lisan (cf. “This is The Dead Sea”) and 10 miles south of En-gedi. The mountain has deep wadis to the west and the south, which lie between it and the cliffs of the Dead Sea. The dimensions of the surface are 1900 ft from north to south and 650 ft from east to west. This gives an approximate total of 20 acres that is flat.
The First Jewish War began developing prior to 66 AD and it was not simply based on a rebellion against Rome. Factions of Jews were frustrated with Jewish leadership and were becoming more impoverished than ever. Differing views were rapidly forming and divisions began to spread. To say the least, it was completely unorganized and without solidarity in cause or leadership. These conditions were ripe for anarchy to bloom and rebels began to take front stage. While the most vocal of the groups were those decrying the idolatrous worship that had been not only tolerated, but even incorporated into Judaistic practices. This gave them some binding as agents of righteousness and perhaps a link to the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks (the cleansing of the temple).
It is important to note here that the majority of history that is possessed from this period is from the writings of Josephus, who had a disdain for all Zealots and a dedication to Rome. His views, though valuable in antiquity, can be seen as biased in many ways and must be sifted for truths.
As with all mounting internal conflicts within countries, those who are wealthy and with prestigious position are prone to seek out peaceful solutions, so as to maintain their comfort and status. The poor and oppressed have a tendency to seek war, when the option is presented to them. The Zealots clearly emerged as the radicals they had been historically known for amongst the Jews. Their cause had gained traction and their numbers increased. Two main factions developed following two different leaders. The Sicarii (meaning “dagger carrier;” Spanish = “sicario,” meaning “assassin”) were named after their habit of carrying daggers in their cloaks to kill Romans. They followed a leader name Menachem, a descendant of Judas the Galilean, who was considered to be one of the original zealots. The other group was led by a priest named Eleazar, son of Ananias. He had called for the ceasing of offering sacrifices to the Emperor of Rome and led a group priests and leaders who stood against the corruption of the high priest and other authorities among the Jews. At one point, they take control of the temple and do not allow the other priests to enter.
Menachem and the Sicarii joined forces with Eleazar and took control of Herod’s palace and towers and seized the Roman garrison at Masada. In doing so, weaponry and supplies were greatly increased for the Zealots. Later, jealousy provoked the ranks of Eleazar and they killed several of his men in the temple. Menachem fled to Ophel, where he was captured, tortured and killed. Eleazar saw the possible looming conflict with the Sicarii escalating, so he and some of his men fled to Masada.
As Rome began to entrench itself against the rebellion, their campaign under Vespasian spread from Galilee to Judea. The pressure from Rome upset the hierarchy in Jerusalem and thousands of refugees poured into the city. The result was full-fledged anarchy. Incorporating many of the refugees, a new Zealot party emerged and was galvanized in 67 AD under John of Gischala. They aggressively began to forcibly take control of the city and punished anyone who resisted. An attempt was made by the people to negotiate with the Zealots, which failed. John believed the attempt was a trick to hand over control to the Romans. He then called for another group of radicals to come to their aid – the Jews of Idumea.
Upon their arrival, the Zealots proceeded to slaughter the resisting populace, including the moderate leaders. They plundered the city and killed the high priest, Ananus, with the rest of the major leaders they could find. The people began to desert Jerusalem. The coalition fell apart and a new one formed between the people and the remaining Idumeans, along with another group following Simon bar Giora, to attack John and the Zealots and regain the temple. This siege took one year to oust the Zealots from the temple. It was 69 AD and the city was completely divided and at war with itself. Pillaging and murder became commonplace and there was no central leadership in the city.
Titus had been dispatched by Emperor Vespasian to quell the rebellion once and for all. In conjunction with other generals, he closed in on Jerusalem. The people in the city appointed Simon to lead. Now, all of the Jews who had been at each other’s throats had to join forces against the impending army of Rome. But it would be too little, too late. In short, Jerusalem fell. Even when John and Simon attempted to negotiate, Rome would have nothing of the sort. The time for talk had long passed. Following a mass slaughter, fire was set to the city, which entirely burned. John was sentenced to life imprisonment and Simon was executed after a victory march in Rome.
But there was an item left undone in the rebellion. The rebels still held three fortresses: Herodium, Machaerus, and Masada. A new Roman legate named Lucilius Bassus easily takes the first two. But in 73 AD, Bassus dies and is succeeded by Flavius Silva. He sets his eyes on the last stronghold, which is Masada. But clearly, it presents more problems than all the others combined. Because of the shear cliffs and position of the fortress, there is only one place a siege ramp can be built and it is on the west side of the mountain. It takes an embankment over 300 ft tall to get the battering rams up the slope. Built with large stones and leveled, the battering ram easily breaches the outer walls, only for the Romans to find that the Jews had built an interior wall. They set fire to the wall, but the wind curled the fire back into their faces. At first, it seemed as if the Romans would have to retreat. However, the winds suddenly reversed and covered the inner wall.
Eleazar could see that all was lost. He appealed to the people that they should die before becoming slaves. To him, suicide was the only option. Josephus writes that many of the people disagreed and refused to join him. Therefore, he made a second appeal on a more philosophical front. He told them that to die was to be set free from the bondage of the body and that to watch their families tortured, desecrated, or enslaved was worse than death.
It is said that the men of the families in Masada each executed his own family. Then, they chose 10 men by lot and these men killed the other men. The last survivor was to have killed the other 9 and then have been the only one that committed suicide. 2 women and 5 children were the only survivors by hiding themselves in a cistern. This historical narrative given by Josephus is said to be problematic on multiple levels. It is still a matter of debate whether or not the Jews jumped to their deaths, died as Josephus describes, or were laid waste by the Roman sword. Nevertheless, 960 Jews had survived a little over 2 years of siege before all dying together on Masada in 74 AD.
Many fragments of Scripture have been discovered at Masada, including Deuteronomy, Psalms, Ezekiel and Leviticus. Other artifacts and writings of Jewish antiquity were also found.