Is the Truth About Masada Less Romantic?
Kim Stubbs is an Australian freelance writer specialising in ancient and early medieval history.
It is the spring of 73 AD and the revolt that has raged in the Roman province of Judea for eight years is about to reach its bloody and tragic conclusion. On an isolated rock overlooking the Dead Sea at the edge of the Judean Desert 967 men, women and children - the last remnants of Jewish resistance to Imperial Rome - await their fate. The spectacular natural redoubt that has become their final refuge is called Masada, from the Hebrew mezuda meaning “fortress” or “stronghold.”
For two years the inhabitants of Masada have waged a successful guerrilla war against the Romans, but now the Roman governor of Judea, Flavius Silva, has arrived with his army. After moving thousands of tons of earth and stone to construct a rampart 375 feet high abutting the western approach to Masada he begins to batter the stronghold’s walls with ballistae and catapult fire. Rather than allow themselves and their families to fall into enemy hands the brave but doomed defenders of Masada choose to commit mass suicide. When the Roman army finally breaks into the stronghold they find only an eerie silence and the bodies of the dead.
This is the version of the Masada story generally accepted today. However at least one Israeli academic, Nachman Ben-Yehuda, 1 suggests that the truth may be somewhat less romantic and heroic.
“When we carefully examine ……. the Great Revolt and Masada, a portrait of heroism …… is simply not provided. On the contrary. The narrative conveys the story of a doomed (and questionable) revolt, of a majestic failure and destruction of the Second Temple and of Jerusalem, of large-scale massacres of the Jews, of different factions of Jews fighting and killing each other, of collective suicide (an act not viewed favourably by the Jewish faith) by a group of terrorists and assassins whose “fighting spirit” may have been questionable.” 2
Understandably views such as these have raised the hackles of many Jewish historians. But is Ben-Yehuda’s interpretation of events correct? How much of the Masada story is history and how much is myth?
There are two major sources we can refer to in order to analyse this question. The first is the only contemporary account of the siege written by the Jewish historian Josephus. The second is the archaeological evidence that was unearthed by the Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin during his major excavation of the site between 1963 and 1965.
Both sources agree on the basic storyline. Jewish rebels seized the fortress around 66 BC (by treachery, according to Jospehus 3), and killed the Roman garrison. Josephus tells us that another group of rebels under the leadership of Eleazar ben Yair fled to Masada after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Yadin’s excavations support this period of occupation by way of numerous small finds including scrolls, pottery, weapons, clothes and Jewish coins dating up to the year of the siege. 4
The fact that there was a siege is also beyond doubt – the remains of the Roman circumvallation and siege camp, along with the great ramp Silva had constructed abutting the western approach to Masada, are still visible.
From this point, however, the “facts” are open to interpretation. Were the defenders of Masada a group of religious zealots who fought a heroic but doomed guerrilla war against an overwhelmingly superior adversary? Certainly Josephus’s account does not reflect this view. In fact he shows nothing but contempt for the defenders of the fortress, whom he describes as Sicarii – an extremist group that committed murder in order to obtain their political objectives. They took their name from the “sicae” or small daggers concealed under their cloaks with which they stabbed their opponents - almost exclusively fellow Jews who they perceived as too moderate or openly sympathetic to Roman rule. 5 These Sicarii, Josephus states, “strove with one another in their single capacity, and in their communities, who should run the greatest lengths in impiety towards God and in unjust actions towards their neighbors”.
Nowhere in his account of the Masada siege does Josephus make any reference to the defenders taking the initiative against the Roman army, even though many contemporary versions credit them with waging a guerilla war against the Romans for up to three years. This omission cannot be attributed to pro-Roman bias on Josephus’s part - he includes stories of Jewish attacks against the Romans at both Jerusalem and Machaerus in other parts of his narrative. The most likely reason that there is no mention of attacks being launched against the Romans at Masada is because the defenders never launched any. In fact the only military action of any size that he attributes to them is a raid on the nearby Jewish settlement of Ein-Gedi during which they slaughtered more than 700 of their co-religionists, many of them woman and children. 6
Regarding the conduct of the siege, Josephus tells us that Silva set his army to work moving thousands of tons of earth and stone to construct a rampart 375 high abutting the western approach to Masada. Excavations at the site, however, indicate that Josephus may be mistaken or deliberately misleading on this point as there is an extant spur of rock that the Roman’s used as a foundation for their construction. This meant they only had to add 25 to 30 feet to this natural feature in order to raise the ramp to the level of the fortress’ walls. The time required to complete this engineering feat would have been significantly less than building it from the ground up, which would have a resulting impact on the length of the siege itself. Rather than being a long and heroic resistance, the whole episode may have been over in as little a month.
Josephus is quite specific about how the defenders of Masada met their end. When the Romans had completed their siege works and defeat was inevitable they chose to kill themselves rather than fall into captivity. Each man first executed his own wife and children, then ten men were chosen by lot to kill the survivors. These remaining ten then drew lots to establish which among them would kill the other nine.
Yadin’s excavations uncovered a cluster of eleven small ostraca in front of the palace. Each of these was inscribed with a single name; including one that reads “Ben Yair”. Yadin believed these to be the lots used by the last survivors to decide which of their number would kill the others before ending his own life. However if this is the case it begs the question; why are there eleven names inscribed instead of the ten specified by Jospehus?
Having dispatched his compatriots the sole survivor is stated to have set fire to the fortress - with the exception of the well supplied store houses that, according to Josephus, were left intact to show the Romans that the defenders had not been “subdued for want of necessaries”. 7 This appears to contradict the archaeological evidence. When the storerooms were excavated the original floor was covered with a thick layer of ash indicating that they were also put to the torch.
Josephus was specific about the number of people besieged at Masada – 967 men, women and children. He also states that with the exception of two women and five children who hid themselves in the caverns beneath the citadel that they all perished. He is equally specific about where they died; the royal palace. Yadin’s excavations uncovered the remains of only 28 people, however, and of these only three were discovered under the debris of the palace. The remainder were discovered in a cave at the base of the cliff.
Yadin proposed that the remains were those of Masada’s defenders, and went so far as to state that the three skeletons found in the palace “undoubtedly represent the remains of an important commander of Masada and his family”. He even went so far as to suggest that the man might have been the last warrior who, having killed his comrades, committed suicide next to the bodies of his wife and child. 8 This interpretation appears to have been based solely on the fact that some armour was found near the remains. The theory was further weakened by one of Yadin’s own team, an anthropologist, who estimated the man’s age as between 20 and 22, the woman’s between 17 and 18, and the child’s about 11 or 12 years old at the time of death. If these estimations are correct the grouping could not possibly constitute a nuclear family. 9 The whereabouts of the remaining 932 bodies remains a mystery.
Josephus makes no mention of the 25 bodies in the cave so their origin is open to conjecture. Were they, as Shaye Cohen 10 believes, the “remains of Jews who attempted to hide from the Romans but were discovered and killed” (which contradicts the popularly held belief that the entire population of Masada willingly committed mass suicide), or are they the bodies of Christians who inhabited Masada during Byzantine times as some scholars have suggested?
Joseph Zias of Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum has yet another theory. After carbon dating samples of textiles found with the remains indicated that they appeared to be contemporaneous with the period of the Revolt, he postulated that they could in fact be of Roman origin. Yadin admitted in 1982 that he had found pig bones alongside the remains – a highly unlikely combination if they were indeed those of zealous Jews to whom the pig is an unclean animal. But Zias notes that Romans sacrificed pigs at burials. Fourteen of the skeletons were adult males, 6 of whom were described as between 35-50, powerfully built and of a “distinctively different physical type from the rest”. 12 Could these be the remains of members of the Legion Tenth Fretensis who conducted the siege of Masada and occupied it after its recapture? 11 As one of the emblems of this legion was the boar this would be a quite reasonable interpretation.
A government committee overruled Yadin’s suggestion that all these remains be interred in the cave where they were found. Instead they were buried at Masada with full military honours on July 7, 1969.
There are many apparent anomalies in the Masada story, and many of these can be traced to Yigael Yadin and his interpretation of the archaeological remains. Although a revered figure in Israel, he has been accused of interpreting his finds to fit with the heroic mythos of Masada. As to his motives for doing this, Ben-Yehuda suggests “nationalistic, ideological motivation played a very major part in the decision to excavate Masada”. 12 He also argues that a nation needs myths to help it “shape a central process of nation and state-building….to shape identities and create cohesion by fostering a strong sense of a shared past”. 13 This is particularly true of Israel at the time of Yadin’s dig. Less than two decades old and surrounded on all sides by enemies dedicated to her destruction, Israel needed “a new type of Jew, somebody that was willing to fight and die for his own country”. 14 Yadin interpreted the events at Masada in a way that provided the requisite role model.
Wherever the truth lies, the Masada story still resonates strongly today both as an enduring symbol of the Jewish state’s struggle for existence and of human courage in the face of insurmountable opposition. In December 2001 UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee inscribed the Masada site on the World Heritage List stating that it was:
“…a symbol of the ancient Jewish Kingdom of Israel, of its violent destruction in the later 1st century CE, and of the subsequent Diaspora.
”The tragic events during the last days of the Jewish refugees who occupied the fortress and palace of Masada make it a symbol both of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.”
The Jewish war – Flavius Josephus
Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Masada Myth – Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Prometheus Books, 2002
Apocalypse – The Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome, Neil Faulkner, Tempus Publishing, UK, 2002
Masada : Cave 2001/2002 – Dr James D Tabor
Flavius Josephus Eyewitness to Rome’s First-Century Conquest of Judea – Mireille Hadas-Lebel
Masada – The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Website
Masada ; Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains and the Credibility of Jospehus – Shaye Cohen
Masada Martyrs – Haim Watzman, Archaeological Institute of America – Volume 50 Number 6, November/December 1997
Israeli Icon Under Fire, Chronicle of Higher Education Dec 6, 2002 – Richard Monastersky
UNESCO World Heritage Committee Meeting Minutes, Dec 2001
1 Dean of the Faculty of Sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of “The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel”
2 The Masada Myth – Nachman Ben-Yehuda
3 The Wars of the Jews, Book II, Chapter 17 - Josephus
4 Israeli Icon Under Fire – Richard Monastersky
5 Jewish Encyclopedia – entry by Richard Gottheil and Samuel Kraus
6 Jewish War 4:401-4 - Jospehus
8 Israeli Icon Under Fire, Richard Monastersky
9 Israeli Icon Under Fire, Richard Monastersky
10 Masada; Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains and the Credibility of Josephus
12 Masada Cave 2001/2002 – James D Tabor
11 Masada Martyrs – Haim Watzman, Archaeological Institute of America
12 Interview of Nachman Ben-Yehuda moderated by Richard Monastersky, Chronicle of Higher Education
13 Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Masada Myth – Nachman Ben-Yehuda
14 Israeli Icon Under Fire, Richard Monastersky
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rebecca isabelle denova - 8/7/2006
I have always followed the Masada story (and have visited the site four times). Two major issues when it comes to the historicity of Josephus's account: (1) he was not an eye-witness--someone needs to fully analyze his treatment of the material in comparison with other cases where he reports information without being a witness and see if there are patterns, etc. One immediately understands that his "speech" on the "noble suicide" by Eleazor fits very well with concepts shared throughout Mediterranean culture at the time; and (2) the bodies. It makes me crazy when historians always point out that the 900 or so bodies were not found (the remains). But why would there be remains? Do you really think the Romans (if they had suffered through this seige in that awful heat and stench from the Dead Sea), would have taken the time or the effort to bury their enemy? At the most, they would have burned them all--the Roman method of disposing of many bodies. Or, they may not have bothered--I have always felt that the parimeter of the escarpment should be excavated, and perhaps that is where they would find some evidence, if it exists--the Romans could have just thrown them over the walls and let them rot in the ravines.
John Reed Tarver - 6/12/2006
The author of this article asserts that Yadin's excavation of various ostraca as Masada "begs the question" but does not demonstrate how the excavation results in this logical fallacy. Did the author omit a portion of the basic argement?