The Siege of Masada

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Podcast Transcript

Around the year 36 BC, the King of Judea, Herod the Great, built a fortress in the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea.

Almost 100 years later, that fortress became the scene for what was one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Jewish people. 

It was the final act in a rebellion against the Roman Empire, the ramifications of which are still felt in the world today. 

Learn more about The Siege of Masada and the end of the First Jewish-Roman War on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

The conquest of the Levant by the Roman Empire began in the year 63 BC when the Romans conquered Syria. 

Rather than conquer the land to the south known as Judea, the Romans installed a puppet on the Judean  throne by the name of Herrod, who ran the Kingdom of Judea as a Roman vassal state.

The people who lived in this region were very different from all the other subjects who lived under Roman rule. These people, known as Jews, practiced a very odd religion compared to the other religions of the period. 

They didn’t have a pantheon of gods like the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, or Gauls. They just had one God, and the practice of their religion was centered around the city of Jerusalem. There they had a singular temple and practiced rites and dietary practices, which, again, were very unlike other peoples who were ruled by Rome. 

Roman rule of Judea was always very tenuous as the Jews in the region didn’t particularly like the Romans. There were constant protests, minor rebellions, and uprisings, but nothing got too out of hand. The Romans did give the people of Judea a surprising amount of latitude to practice their religion and culture, so long as they gave money to Rome. 

Herod created a whole new monarchy and ruling class from scratch, and was responsible for many large building projects, including reconstructing the Second Temple and the creation of royal palaces. Most importantly, Herod was a stabilizing force in Judea. 

When he died sometime between 4 BC and the year 1, his kingdom was split between his sons, which, as history tells us, is almost always a bad idea.  Just a few years later, in the year 4, Judea went from being a vassal kingdom of Rome to being a Roman province that was directly administered by a Roman governor appointed by the Emperor. 

Without the stabilizing influence of Herod or his sons, Roman rule increased tensions in the region. 

This eventually boiled over in the year 66. 

What eventually became one of the most significant events in the history of the Jewish people began innocently enough with complaints about Greek merchants in the coastal town of Caesaria making sacrifices in front of a synagogue. 

The Jews responded by ceasing saying prayers in front of the temple for the Emperor, targeting Romans in the region, and starting a tax revolt. 

To paraphrase the great Ron Burgundy, things escalated quickly.

The Roman governor of Judea, Gessius Florus, took troops into the Jewish temple to raid the temple treasury to take money that he felt was owed in taxes.

He then sent Roman troops into Jerusalem the next day to round up senior Jewish officials.

Sending troops into the temple and arresting senior Jewish leaders was the last straw, so it led to an armed uprising and the beginning of what is now known as the First Jewish-Roman War.

The Governor of the province and other senior Roman officials fled Jerusalem, and a legion was sent down from Syria to quell the uprising. However, the Jewish rebels ambushed the legion and killed 6,000 Roman soldiers. 

When something like this happened, Rome didn’t mess around. They sent the experienced General Vespasian and four legions to Judea to subdue the province. 

Eventually, he had to return to Rome to become the new Emperor, and the job of finishing off the rebellion fell to his son and future Emperor, Titus. 

I’m skipping a lot here, but Titus eventually won. He destroyed the Jewish Temple in the year 70 and expelled all of the Jews from Jerusalem. This was the start of the great Jewish diaspora, which caused the Jews to fee to points around Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. 

I’m going to leave the fall of Jerusalem and a more in-depth treatment of the First Jewish-Roman War for another episode. My focus today is how that war ended. 

With the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the Jewish rebels were down to just a small group known as the Sicarii. The Sicarri got their names from the small knives they used for assassinations during public gatherings, which made them hard to capture. 

Once the Romans had quashed the rebellion, the Sicarii fled to a mountain fortress in the Judean desert, which was occupied by a Roman garrison. They killed the garrison and set up camp in what was probably the most impregnable fortification in the entire Middle East.

It was a fortress built by Herod the Great known as Masada. Masada is the Hebrew word for “fortress.”

You need to visit or at least look at some images to understand just how well fortified Masada is. 

It is built on the top of a rock mesa in the Judean Desert. In order to lay siege to it, you would first have to get there, which is very difficult, then you’d need enough water to support you during the siege, of which there is almost none as it is overlooking the Dead Sea. 

Finally, you’d need to figure out a way to scale the cliffs surrounding the mesa on which it is situated. 

Herod built two palaces on top of the mesa as well as several large cisterns to store water. 

Herod’s plan was basically to use Masada as a place to flee to in the event of revolt, and he may have also visited in the winter as temperatures there were warmer. 

When the Sicarii took Masada, they then began conducting raids on nearby towns, including a massacre of 700 people in the nearby community of Ein Gedi. 

By the year 72, the Sicarii located on Masada were the last of the rebels from the Jewish uprising. The were a total of 960 men, women, and children holed up inside the fortress. They had enough food and water to last several years. 

The Romans decided to lay siege to Masada and end the revolt once and for all. 

The Roman governor, Lucius Flavius Silva, was tapped to lead the siege with 8,000 Romans at his disposal.  

If you aren’t familiar with Masada, I highly recommend you take a look at some photos or check it out on Google Earth. It is a very well-defended position. Herod chose what was probably the best location in his kingdom for a fortress. 

When the Romans arrived, they realized that this siege would probably take a while, so the first order of business was to build a containment wall around the plateau. This would ensure that none of the rebels in the fortress would be able to escape. 

The other thing they did, and which every Roman legion did, was erect a camp. 

The only reason I mention the construction of a camp is that Masada is one of the only places in the world where you can still see the outline of a Roman camp today.

Camps built by legions were designed to be temporary structures. What they all had in common was an earthen wall that would surround the camp, usually in the shape of a square. 

That square can still be seen in the Judean desert.  Because the desert is so dry, almost nothing erodes. Also, given the conditions in the desert, almost no one has gone there for centuries, which preserved what would otherwise have been a temporary structure. 

If you look at a satellite image of Masada, look to the east of the plateau, and you will see a very recognizable square on the ground. That was where the Romans camped. 

With a wall around Masada, the Sicarii were now in a prison rather than a fortress. It was just a matter of how and when the end would arrive. 

The Roman plan for taking the fortress was pretty simple. They were going to build a giant ramp up to the top of the plateau and storm the fortress. It was a very Roman solution to the problem.

Over the next several months, the Romans began construction of the ramp. It was mostly an earthen ramp which required moving a tremendous amount of dirt.

The Sicarii on top of the fortress could only look as they saw the ramp get larger day after day. 

Eventually, as the ramp got close to the edge of the plateau, the Sicarii  were able to harass the troops on the ramp to keep it from being completed. The Romans eventually decided to build a siege tower with a battering ram that could be rolled up to the walls of the fortress to penetrate their final defenses. 

On the evening of April 15, 73, the remaining rebels in Masada knew that the next day the Romans were going to break through. The fate for everyone, including the women and children, was either going to be crucifixion or slavery. 

Instead of allowing themselves to be enslaved or horribly executed, they decided to take their own lives. 

Judaism prohibits suicide, so they drew lots amongst the men. 10 were chosen to kill everyone else. The remaining ten men then killed each other until only one left, who then had to kill themselves. 

The last man also set fire to all the buildings. 

When the Romans finally entered, they did not find what they expected. 

The Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus described the scene when the Romans entered. He wrote:

…they (the Romans) came within the palace and so met with the multitude of the slain but could take no pleasure in the fact, though it were done to their enemies. Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution and the immovable contempt of death, which so great a number of them had shown when they went through with such an action as that was.

The only Jewish survivors were two women and five children who were hidden in the water cisterns. 

After the siege was over, Masada was abandoned for centuries. It was in such an inhospitable place that there was no reason for anyone to go there. It was one of the reasons why so much was so well preserved. 

Eventually, an Orthodox Christian monastery was built on the site during the Byzantine era, but it was abandoned after the Islamic Caliphate took over the region. 

Then, again for centuries, the site was simply abandoned as it was such a difficult place to live, and the top of the plateau was difficult to reach. 

It was visited for the first time in the modern era in the 19th century, and archaeological excavations were finally begun in the early 1960s. 

They found many artifacts, including the remains of 28 people and a 2000-year-old seed from a date palm which they managed to get to sprout in 2005.

The site was declared an Israeli National Park in 1966 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. 

The Roman built camp, the wall around the plateau, and the ramp are all still there, as are the ruins of the palace built by Herod. 

If you visit, there is a cable car that can take you to the top, and there is a museum at the bottom near the entrance of the cable car. 

In addition to being the last act of the First Jewish-Roman war, the Siege of Masada has become a cultural reference point for anyone who would rather face death than suffer the ignominy of defeat or enslavement. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Sir David Gabriel Joseph, over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. He writes:

Amazing podcast

Gary makes every episode interesting, even if the title doesn’t sound interesting. 

Thanks, Sir David! As you did leave this review on the US version of Apple Podcasts, I would like to remind you about the constitutional prohibition on titles of nobility. 

As for uninteresting episodes, I think someday I will put this to the test by releasing an episode with the title “dirt.” I’ll see if I can make dirt interesting. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.