The Masada Siege

The Roman assault on Herod’s desert fortress

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2014.—Ed.


 
masada-werner-braun

The Romans waged both literal and psychological warfare on the Jewish rebels in the siege of Masada. Evidence of the large-scale siege works, including the great assault ramp on the western slope of the cliff of Masada, reflects this strategy. Photo: Werner Braun.

Masada—for many, the name evokes the image of a cliff rising dramatically above an austere desert landscape. The name is famously associated with the Masada siege, the final stand between the Jewish rebels and the relentless Roman army at the end of the First Jewish Revolt in 73/74 C.E. Trapped in the desert fortress-palace Herod built in the previous century, the rebels chose—as Jewish historian Josephus tells us—to commit mass suicide rather than be captured and enslaved by the Romans.

This final scene in the siege of Masada has been celebrated and immortalized as an act of heroic resistance on the part of the Jewish rebels. But what do we know about the Roman siege itself? In “The Masada Siege—From the Roman Viewpoint” in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Gwyn Davies examines the assault from the Roman perspective.

After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Romans turned their attention to stamping out the last of the rebels holding out at the fortresses of Herodium and Machaerus as well as in the “Forest of Jardes” (which has not yet been identified). The last remaining site occupied by the Jewish rebels was at Herod’s desert fortress-palace on the cliff-top of Masada.

Led by Roman general Flavius Silva, the Legio X Fretensis—a veteran military unit—began the siege operation against the rebels in 72 or 73 C.E.

Herod’s desert fortress on the mountaintop of Masada was made famous as the site of the last stand between the besieged Jewish rebels and the relentlessly advancing Romans at the conclusion of the First Jewish Revolt. In the free ebook Masada: The Dead Sea’s Desert Fortress, discover what archaeology reveals about the Jewish defenders’ identity, fortifications and arms before their ultimate sacrifice.

masada-turret-11

Fifteen towers, including the one pictured, were mounted with catapults and positioned along the Roman circumvallation wall. Photo: Gwyn Davies.

Archaeological investigations of the Roman siege works at Masada have been much more limited in scope than those conducted on the cliff-top fortress. According to author Gwyn Davies, we must therefore consider both the account given by Josephus and the surviving archaeological evidence in order to reconstruct what happened in the Masada siege.

The Roman army began their assault, as described by Josephus, by throwing up “a wall all around the fortress to make it difficult for any of the besieged to escape, and posted sentinels to guard it” (The Jewish War VII.276). Archaeological investigations reveal that a 2.5-mile circumvallation wall ringed the area around the desert fortress. The wall, composed of rough stone blocks with a rubble core, measured more than 5 feet wide and 10 feet high. Fifteen towers lined the eastern and northern stretches of the circumvallation wall, while eight camps laid down around the wall served as bases and garrison points for the troops.

The most conspicuous surviving evidence of the Roman siege of Masada is the great assault ramp on the western slope of the cliff. The Romans constructed on a natural spur (which Josephus calls the “Leuke,” or “white promontory”) that abuts the mountain a ramp composed of stone and earth reinforced with timber bracings. Josephus tells us that an ironclad siege tower housing a battering ram was hoisted up the ramp and placed into position to strike against the rebels’ casemate wall. Indeed, the location of the breached defense wall lies directly above the modern summit of the ramp. Furthermore, the distribution of stone ballista projectiles discovered within the desert fortress suggests that they were fired from catapults mounted on a siege tower. Setting fire to the wood-and-earth defense wall, the Romans at last made it to the top of Masada.

For a deeper probe into how the Romans waged both literal and psychological warfare on the besieged rebels, read the full article “The Masada Siege—From the Roman Viewpoint” by Gwyn Davies in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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BAS Library Members: Read the full article “The Masada Siege—From the Roman Viewpoint” by Gwyn Davies as it appears in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on June 13, 2014.
 

 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Jewish Captives in the Imperial City

A Second Triumphal Arch of Titus Discovered

How Ancient Jews Dated Years

Coins Celebrating the Great Revolt Against the Romans Unearthed near Jerusalem

Ancient Cupping in Israel

New Jerusalem Discovery May Evidence Starvation During Roman Siege

Gold Nero Coin Comes to Light in Jerusalem
 


 

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  • Cornelia says

    My friend heard a Jewish speaker saying Masada didn’t happen because it would be against Torah to commit suicide or murder.
    Have skeletal remains been found? Or were they taken into captivity? After the Romans left did Jews come in to bury the dead?
    Have grave sights been found.

  • Helen says

    Pamela — Herod the “Great” was long dead by the time of the first Jewish Revolt ag Rome. The murder of the Holy Innocents was not his only murderous escapade. The Romans had a saying that it was better to be Herod’s dog than his son. Dogs were not well thought of in Jewish society of the day. Herod was as wicked as Ahab in his day.

  • Eng. says

    I visited the Holy Land in the October, 2012 and one story that fascinated me most in Israel is this particular one and I have continued to read about it regularly. I am a Ugandan scientist who is very keen on history.

  • Stephen says

    It’s more based the broken wall of Jerusalem ,Nehemiah cupbearer of king Artaxerxes together with the remnants rebuilded the walls .NehemiahBible series.
    The wall still remains after 2000 yrs back .

  • Carl says

    Josephus also says the ancient Kings of Israel built Masada. Herod would have modified or rebuilt it. See “The Wars of the Jews” Book IV, Chapter 7, subsection 2. More research is needed there I think.

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