Masada is an ancient fortification in the Southern District of Israel situated on top of an isolated rock plateau akin to a mesa on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod the Great built palaces for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE.
In 72, the Roman governor of Iudaea, Lucius Flavius Silva, led Roman legion X Fretensis, a number of auxiliary units and Jewish prisoners of war, totaling some 15,000 troops, to lay siege to the 960 people in Masada. The Roman legion surrounded Masada and built a circumvallation wall, before commencing construction of a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau, moving thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth to do so. 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 the revolt.
The ramp was completed in the spring of 73, after probably two to three months of siege. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp, while the Romans assaulted the wall, discharging “a volley of blazing torches against … a wall of timber”, allowing the Romans to finally breach the wall of the fortress on April 16, 73 CE. When the Romans entered the fortress, however, they found it to be “a citadel of death.” The Jewish rebels had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and had committed mass suicide, declaring “a glorious death … preferable to a life of infamy.”
According to Josephus, “The Jews hoped that all of their nation beyond the Euphrates would join together with them to raise an insurrection,” but in the end there were only 960 Jewish Zealots who fought the Roman army at Masada. When these Zealots were trapped on top of Masada with nowhere to run, Josephus tells us that the Zealots believed “it [was] by the will of G-d, and by necessity, that [they] are to die.” According to William Whiston, translator of Josephus, two women, who survived the suicide by hiding inside a cistern along with five children, repeated Eleazar ben Ya’ir’s exhortations to his followers, prior to the mass suicide, verbatim to the Romans:
“Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to G-d Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice … We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that G-d has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.”Elazar ben Yair
Because Judaism prohibits suicide, Josephus reported that the defenders had drawn lots and killed each other in turn, down to the last man, who would be the only one to actually take his own life. Josephus says that Eleazar ordered his men to destroy everything except the foodstuffs to show that the defenders retained the ability to live, and so had chosen death over slavery. However, archaeological excavations have shown that storerooms which contained their provisions were also burnt, though whether this was by Romans, by Jews, or natural fire spreading is unclear.
The siege of Masada is often revered in modern Israel as “a symbol of Jewish heroism”. According to Klara Palotai, “Masada became a symbol for a heroic ‘last stand’ for the State of Israel and played a major role for Israel in forging national identity”. To Israel, it symbolized the courage of the warriors of Masada, the strength they showed when they were able to keep hold of Masada for almost three years, and their choice of death over slavery in their struggle against an aggressive empire. Masada had become “the performance space of national heritage”, the site of military ceremonies. Palotai states how Masada “developed a special ‘love affair’ with archeology” because the site had drawn people from all around the world to help locate the remnants of the fortress and the battle that occurred there.