The Dramatic Story of the Battle of Masada

For two years 1,000 Jewish men, women and children were able to hold off the Roman army of 15,000 soldiers in Masada. The Romans were forced to built a huge sloping siege ramp to move battering rams up to the walls to subdue the defenders. At the end, they were able to breach the walls of the defenders by sheer weight of numbers. This is the story of the defenders and attackers of Masada. Click here to see the maps of Masada.

Plateau on which stood the Masada stronghold, with the Roman base camp and siege ramp below
Plateau on which stood the Masada stronghold, with the Roman base camp and siege ramp below

The Romans began the siege in 72AD, building camps around the foot of the mountain, and another on the heights overlooking it. They slowly constructed a dike to take the soldiers and their siege engines up to the ramparts of the fortress.

The slope was mainly build by soldiers and slaves under threat of their lives; many died there. Later, the siege machines needed to be pushed upward the slope and that was a very slow, deadly process.

Thousands of slingshots (rounded balls of stone the size of grapefruit) were collected from the surroundings of Masada, to be transferred to the Roman base camp. The Romans fired the slingshots with their siege engines towards Masada. The defenders of Masada collected the slingshots and hurtled it back to the attackers, especially those who were pushing the huge siege engines up the slope.

Each day the artillery barrages became more deadly and caused damage to the walls of Masada, especially after one and half years of the siege. During the siege, Romans received their food and water from carriers.

The water supply for Masada was provided by a network of large, rock-hewn cisternsThe water supply for the defenders in Masada was provided by a network of large, rock-hewn cisterns. Those cisterns were 10 meters high, 8 meters wide and 20 meters long and holding 750,000 liters (200,000 gallons) of water. They filled during the winter with rainwater  and could be relied upon in time of siege.

Pigeon coops provided a source of fresh meat, and the pigeons were also used to carry messages
Pigeon coops provided a source of fresh meat, and the pigeons were also used to carry messages

The defenders used to hold many pigeons, which they ate for meat and used them to communicate with the outside world. But the defenders were alone; there was nobody who could help them, because they were the last remaining fortress holding against the Roman armies, who were there to put down a Jewish rebellion. And even when there was help out there, the Romans had them encircled; nobody came out or in Masada, the last remaining rebel-fortress.

The last months of the siege was hell for the defenders of Masada. There was almost a constant bombardment of slingshots raining down on the defenders and it was dangerous to walk in the fortress; even at night. It took a heavy toll on the defenders. The slope was after almost two years of construction completed. The Romans could use larger siege engines now and they concentrated their fire on the outer walls of the Masada fortress.

In 73 AD, the Romans were able to push through the outer walls at last. As the outer walls crumbled, the defenders retired hastily behind a second wall to defend themselves for the expected onslaught of the Roman legions. But the Romans did not attack!

The palace buildings faced out towards a spectacular view across the valley beneath
The palace buildings faced out towards a spectacular view across the valley beneath

They used the slope to bring closer the smaller siege engines to attack with pieces of burning wood, which brought devastation to the defenders. Cut off from their water supplies, and avoid to be burned alive, the defenders and their families retreated in desperation into Herold’s palace. They had no hope, they could not retreat any further, it was the end. The Roman troops poured in Masada behind them, looking for them.

They knew what would happen to them if the Romans would come there. Some men would be killed, the rest – especially the women and children would be kept or sold as slaves.

The dreaded, much spoken and discussed moment was upon them. The choice between slavery and death. With desperation and deep anguish, the men started to kill first their wives and their own children, and finally each other and themselves.

When the Romans finally discovered what happened, the reactions were divided. The Roman professional soldiers showed signs of respect, but the Roman officers were frustrated; losing the spoils of war after so much work and effort.

The heated or thermal bath
The heated or thermal bath

The Romans threw the bodies from the rebels down from Masada; none were buried. People found skeletons in a cave on a cliff. In the ruins of a heated bath near the lowest palace they found the skeletons of a man, woman and child.

Only a woman and two children survived the slaughter, who were indeed captured and kept as slaves. The manner of their death was recorded by Flavius Josephus (first-century Romano-Jewish scholar, historian and hagiographer) who claimed to have learned the story from that one surviving woman.

This ends the story of the dramatic battle of Masada and the unexpected end of the defenders of Masada, the last fighting remaining Jewish rebels, who chose for death above slavery.

In many tours, I’ve answered questions how Jews could kill themselves, while it’s forbidden by Jewish law to do so.

First, almost nobody killed themselves, they killed each other. The leader of the rebels at Masada, a man with the name Eleazar, was one of the few who killed himself with his sword, because he was the last to die.

Secondly, the knowledge of what’s going to happen to them – especially the women and children – by the fast approaching Roman soldiers brought terror bigger then their own death.

And finally, those last rebels were the last of them, they fought against professional Roman soldiers, which were more then fifteen times larger then their numbers, and that fact made them refuse to surrender.

Normal Masada tours takes about 2-3 hours. This dramatic customized tour takes about 4-5 hours, going through the two year battle of Masada. Visiting the places, while I tell the extraordinary final journey about the last rebels of Masada, their families and final moments of their lives. Most groups are so impressed, that it takes a while before they start asking questions.

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