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The Last Stand of Jewish Freedom Against Rome

Masada was first used by the Hasmoneans in the 2nd century BC, but it was Herod the Great—King of the Jews by the grace of Rome and his buddy Caesar Augustus—who renovated and expanded it into an impregnable yet palatial refuge, a testament to his huge ego. Here Herod could escape from his hostile subjects or from the military threats of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.

Later occupants provided the reason Masada still captures the Israeli imagination today. The fortress was the site of the dramatic last stand of the Jewish Zealots against Rome. With Herod's death in 4 BC and the exile of his son, Archelaus, a decade later, the central part of the country came under direct Roman control. Decades of oppression and misrule precipitated the Great Revolt of the Jews beginning in AD 66. After the Roman reconquest of the country and the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, Masada became the last refuge for almost 1,000 men, women, and children.

Roman Governor Silva pursued them with thousands of troops and slaves to crush the last vestige of resistance. The Roman siege wall, at the foot of the mountain, and the eight Roman legionnaire camps, ringing the mountain, attest to the thoroughness of the siege. These are the most complete surviving Roman siege works in the world.

The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius sets the final scene. Despite the Jews' vigorous defense, the Romans succeeded in constructing a massive earth assault ramp from the high western plateau to the summit of the mountain. Seeing that the battle was lost, the rebel leader, Elazar Ben Yair, assembled his warriors and exhorted them to "at once choose death with honor, and do the kindest thing we can for ourselves, our wives and children" rather than face the brutal consequences of capture. The decision was not easy, relates Josephus, but once taken, each man mustered the courage to "carry out his terrible resolve" without delay. Having dispatched their own families, the men then drew lots to select 10 executioners for the rest; the 10 similarly chose the last man, who would kill them all and afterward take his own life.

Some historians consider Josephus's melodramatic account suspect, not least because he’d gone over to the Romans during the revolt. Archaeologists and historians are still arguing over whether the artifacts discovered—including human skeletal remains and inscribed potsherds (the lots, perhaps?)—prove the veracity of his account.

The message of the Jews' last stand on Masada wasn’t lost on Jews fighting for independence in the 1930s and '40s, or on the modern Israel they created. "Masada shall not fall again!" became a rallying cry and a state of mind, reflecting the resolve of many Jews (made more poignant by the Nazi Holocaust) for self-determination. The legacy of Masada is still hotly debated within contemporary Israel, as the society continues to define its identity.

Updated: 2013-11-07

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