The Masada Siege

The Roman assault on Herod’s desert fortress


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.


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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Cheek-by-jowl with Herod the Great’s handsomely decorated palace complex at Masada are the tattered remains of the Jewish defenders who, Josephus tells us, committed suicide rather than surrender to the Roman army. Did Masada excavator Yigael Yadin find the lots by which the Jewish rebels decided who would be the last to live? Back to Masada, edited by Hebrew University professor Amnon Ben-Tor, brings the siege of Masada vividly to life.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Masada Dig Reveals a Pleasure-Garden at King Herod’s Palace

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

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


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  • Rich says

    Have read many stories about Josephus over the past decades, & am now not sure of the Truth. Wasn’t Josephus a Jewish General @Masada who proposed the suicide, but somehow its only survivor? He then settled to Rome as their favourite Jewish Historian who praised the great Roman army victory for defeating the tough Jewish armies & population?

    Please correct my thinking if in error. Tx much!

    • DENNIS says

      Yes, originally he was a rebel general, Joseph son of Matthew, but up in Galilee where he surrendered to Vespasian. In order to escape crucifixion, he prophesied that Vespasian would become Roman Emperor which he did in July 69 AD/CE after which Josephus was freed. He adopted Vespasian’s family name Flavius.

      When Vespasian’s son Titus returned to Rome in 71 AD/CE, Josephus went with him and lived out his life there.

      • Rich says

        WOW, what I’ve previously read & difficult to accept.

        Seems that Josephus was an Elite Jew who betrayed the Jews. He lived as an Elite in Rome as a so-called “historian” who methodically praised the Romans for their defeat of the incredibly rich, powerful & cultured Jewish people iot live his royal life. Likely an exaggerated history of the Jews as a selfish Court Jew. Much like Herod the King of the Jews. Despicable …

  • Danny says


  • 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.

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