Masada Roman RampThe final chapter in the Great Revolt was the battle for Masada. Here, according to Josephus, the rebels faced certain defeat and so elected to deny their captors the opportunity to deprive them of their freedom by killing themselves. In recent years, scholars have debated the historicity of this account.

(252) When Bassus 56 had died, Flavius Silvas 57 succeeded him as procurator in Judea. When he saw that all the rest of the country was subdued in this war, and that there was only one stronghold that was still in rebellion, he got together all his army from various places and made an expedition against it. This fortress was called Masada. 58

(253) It was Eleazar, a man of influence and the commander of the Sicarii, 59 who had seized it. He was a descendant of that Judas who had persuaded multitudes of Jews, as we have previously related, not to submit to the taxation when Quirinius was sent into Judea to collect it…. 60

(275) For now it was that the Roman general came and led his army against Eleazar and those Sicarii who held the fortress of Masada together with him. He immediately conquered the whole country adjoining it and put garrisons into the most suitable places in it.

(276) He also built a wall all around the entire fortress so that none of the besieged might easily escape, and he also set his men to guard it.

(277) He himself pitched his camp in an agreeable place which he had chosen for the siege, where the rock belonging to the fortress abutted the neighboring mountain, which yet was a place of difficulty for obtaining sufficient provisions.

(278) For it was not only food that had to be brought from a great distance [to the army], and this with a great deal of hard labor for those Jews who were appointed for that purpose, but water also had to be brought to the camp because the place afforded no nearby water source.

(279) Therefore when Silva had completed the arrangements beforehand, he turned to the siege which was likely to demand a great deal of skill and exertion because of the strength of the fortress….

(295) As for the stores that were within this fortress, they was still more wonderful on account of its splendor and the length of time that it stood. (296) For here was stored grain in large quantities and supplies which would allow men to subsist for a long time. Here also were wine and oil in abundance with all kinds of pulse 61 and piles of dates,

(297) all of which Eleazar found there when he and his Sicarii got possession of the fortress by treachery….

(299) There was also found here a large quantity of all sorts of weapons of war which had been hoarded by king [Herod] and which were sufficient for ten thousand men….

(304) After the Roman commander Silva had built a wall on the outside, around this whole place, as we have said already, and had thereby taken the greatest precautions to prevent any of the besieged from running away, he undertook the siege itself. He found only one single place capable of supporting the earthworks he was to raise….

(315) When Silva saw this, he thought it best to try taking the wall 62 by setting fire to it. So he gave the order that the soldiers should throw a great number of burning torches upon it.

(316) Accordingly, as it was chiefly made of wood, it soon caught fire, and once it was set on fire, its hollowness made that fire spread into a mighty flame.

(317) Now, at the very beginning of this fire, a north wind that then blew proved terrible to the Romans, for by bringing the flame downward, it drove it upon them, and they were almost in despair of success, fearing that their machines would be burned.

(318) But after this, suddenly the wind changed to the south as if it were done by divine Providence, blew strongly the other way, and carried the flame and drove it against the wall which was now on fire through its entire thickness.

(319) So the Romans, having now assistance from God, returned to their camp with joy and resolved to attack their enemies the very next day. Because of this, they set their watch more carefully that night lest any of the Jews should run away from them without being discovered.

(320) However, Eleazar never once thought of fleeing, nor would he permit anyone else to do so.

(321) But when he saw their wall burned down by the fire, and could devise no other way of escaping or opportunity for their further courage, and imagining what the Romans would do to them, their children, and their wives if victorious, he consulted about having them all slain.

(322) Now, as he judged this to be the best thing they could do in their present circumstances, he gathered the most courageous of his companions together and encouraged them to take that course by a speech which he made to them….

(326) “…Nor can we propose to ourselves any more to fight them and beat them.

(327) It would have been proper indeed for us to have conjectured the purpose of God much sooner, at the very first, when we were so desirous of defending our liberty and when we received such hard treatment from one another, and worse treatment from our enemies, and to have been aware that the same God, who had of old taken the Jewish
nation into his favor, had now condemned them to destruction.

(328) For had he either continued to be favorable or had he been in a lesser degree displeased with us, he would not have overlooked the destruction of so many people or delivered his most holy city to be burned and demolished by our enemies.

(329) To be sure, we weakly hoped to have preserved ourselves—and ourselves alone—still in a state of freedom, as if we had been guilty of no sins ourselves against God nor taken part in those of others; we also taught other men to preserve their liberty.

(330) Wherefore, consider how God has convinced us that our hopes were in vain by bringing such distress upon us in the desperate state we are now in which is beyond all our expectations.

(331) For the nature of this fortress, which was in itself unconquerable, has not proved a means of our deliverance. And even while we still have a great abundance of food and a great quantity of arms and other necessities more than we need, we are openly deprived by God Himself of all hopes of deliverance.

(332) For that fire which was driven upon our enemies did not, of its own accord, turn back upon the wall which we had built. This was the effect of God’s anger against us for our manifold sins of which we have been guilty in a most insolent and extravagant manner with regard to our own countrymen.

(333) “Let us not receive the punishments for them from the Romans, but from God Himself, as executed by our own hands, for these will be more moderate than the other.

(334) Let our wives die before they are abused and our children before they have tasted of slavery. After we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually and preserve ourselves in freedom, as an excellent funeral monument for us.

(335) But first let us destroy our property and the fortress by fire, for I am well assured that it will be a great source of grief to the Romans that they will not be able to seize our bodies and our wealth as well. (336) Let us spare nothing but our provisions, for they will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not subdued for lack of provisions but that, according to our initial resolution, we have preferred death over slavery….”

(389) Even as Eleazar was exhorting them, they all cut him off short and made haste to do the deed, full of an unconquerable impulse, and moved with a demoniacal fury. So they went their ways each endeavoring to outdo the other, and thinking that this eagerness would be a demonstration of their courage and good conduct if they could avoid appearing among the last. So great was the zeal they were in to slay their wives and children and themselves also!

(390) Nor, indeed, when they came to the deed itself did their courage fail them, as one might imagine it would have, but they then held fast to the same resolution, without wavering, which they had upon hearing Eleazar’s speech. Even though every one of them still retained the natural passion of love for themselves and their families, the reasoning they followed still appeared to them to be very just, even with regard to those who were dearest to them.

(391) For the husbands tenderly embraced their wives, took their children into their arms, and gave the longest parting kisses to them with tears in their eyes.

(392) Yet at the same time they completed what they had resolved upon as if they had been executed by the hands of strangers, and they had nothing else to console them but the necessity they were in of doing this execution to avoid that prospect they had of the miseries they would suffer from their enemies.

(393) Nor was there in the end anyone of these men who hesitated to act their part in this terrible execution, but everyone of them dispatched his dearest relatives. Wretched victims indeed were they, whose distress forced them to kill their own wives and children with their own hands, as the least of those evils that were before them.

(394) Being no longer able to bear the grief they were under for what they had done, and considering it an injury to those they had killed to live even the shortest space of time after them, they quickly laid all they had in a heap and set fire to it.

(395) They then chose ten men by lot to kill all the rest, every one of whom laid himself down next to his wife and children on the ground, and threw his arms about them, and they offered their necks to the stroke of those who by lot executed that melancholy office.

(396) And when these ten had, without fear, killed them all, they made the same rule for casting lots for themselves, that he whose lot it was should first kill the other nine, and last of all should kill himself. Accordingly, all these had courage sufficient to be in no way behind one another in doing or suffering.

(397) Finally, the nine offered their necks to the executioner, and he who was the last of all surveyed all the other bodies, lest perchance some one among so many who were slain should want his assistance to be dispatched. When he perceived that they were all dead, he set fire to the palace, and with the great force of his hands ran his sword entirely through himself and fell down dead near his own relatives.

(398) These people died with this intention, that they would not leave alive even one soul among them all to be subject to the Romans.

(399) Yet there was an old woman and another who was related to Eleazar, superior to most women in prudence and learning, with five children, who had concealed themselves in the subterranean aqueducts, and who were hidden there when the rest were intent upon the slaughter of one another.

(400) Those others were nine hundred and sixty in number, including the women and children.

(401) This calamitous slaughter occurred on the fifteenth day of the month Xanthicus [Nisan]. 63

(402) The Romans expected that they would be fought in the morning. Accordingly, they put on their armor and laid bridges of planks upon their ladders from their embankments to make an assault upon the fortress.

(403) But they saw nobody as an enemy, only a terrible solitude on every side with a fire within the place as well as a perfect silence. So they were at a loss to guess at what had happened. At length they made a shout, as if it had been at a blow given by the battering- ram, to try to see whether they could bring anyone out who was inside.

(404) The women heard this noise, came out of their underground cavern, and informed the Romans of what had been done. One of the two clearly described all that was said and what was done and the manner of it….

56. Lucilius Bassus had been sent as governor to Judea. Cf. War VII, 162.

57. L. Flavius Silva was governor 73/4-81 C.E.

58. Located on top of an isolated rock on the western shore of the Dead Sea, 15½ miles
south of the oasis of Ein Gedi.

59. Literally, “dagger carriers,” one of the groups of rebels against Rome.

60. P. Sculpius Quirinius was a Roman commander and administrator. In 6 C.E. he was appointed governor of Syria. He soon conducted a property census of Judea which generated much opposition among anti-Roman elements. Luke 2-1-2 links this census with the birth of Jesus.

61. The seeds of legumes such as peas and beans

62. The wall around Masada protecting the defenders.

63. May 2, 73 C.E.