Masada Backstories

September 21, 2020 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

Two thousand years ago, on a mountaintop overlooking the Dead Sea, 967 Jewish men, women, and children faced down the military might of the Roman empire. When defeat became certain, they chose to take their own lives rather than die at enemy hands or be enslaved. This is the defiant story of Masada recounted by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in The Jewish War. The mass suicide on Masada was the final chapter in the Jewish revolt against Rome, which had all but ended three years earlier, in 70 CE, with the brutal sacking of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple.

Archaeologist Jodi Magness’s Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth explores Masada’s long history, including the dramatic life stories of Masada’s builder, King Herod, and the chronicler Josephus. Informative and enjoyable, Masada is a good armchair travel choice for a shelter-at-home time. For more on the Judeo-Roman world, try Oxford professor Martin Goodman’s Josephus’s The Jewish War: A Biography.

King Herod: Builder of Masada

King Herod the Great (c.73 BCE – 4 BCE) reigned over Judea for more than 30 years. Cruel and ruthless, Herod is remembered both for his monstrous deeds (he murdered his wife and sons), and for his magnificent, monumental building projects. These included the city of Caesarea and its large harbor, the redesigned Jerusalem Temple, and the fortified palace complexes of Masada, all wonders of the ancient world.

The Masada project arose from Herod’s desire for a secure stronghold to which he could retreat in case of attack by restive subjects or the ambitious Egyptian ruler, Cleopatra. To that end, he rebuilt an existing fortress on Masada to include massive defense walls, a well-equipped armory, storehouses, and palaces. A sophisticated water system included 14 large cisterns; remarkably, each cistern held enough water to sustain a thousand people for one year. Decades after Herod’s death, his meticulous planning benefited the Jewish freedom fighters who took refuge on Masada.

Josephus: Historian of Masada

Flavius Josephus (37 CE – c.100 CE) grew up in Jerusalem as Yosef ben Matityahu, a member of a prominent Jewish family. Controversial in his own time for transferring his allegiance from the Jewish forces to Rome, Josephus remains a fascinating enigma today. Was he a coward, a traitor, an opportunist, or simply a realist?

When the Jewish revolt against Rome broke out in 66 CE, Josephus was in charge of the defense of the Galilee. As that region fell to the Romans, Josephus and other defenders made a suicide pact. But Josephus reneged on his suicide pledge, surrendering to the Romans and blackening his reputation among Jews.

The Roman general Vespasian took Josephus captive, but spared his life because Josephus predicted that, against all odds, Vespasian would become emperor. When that prophesy proved true in 69 CE, Vespasian freed Josephus who became part of his entourage. Josephus was an eyewitness to the siege of Jerusalem, reviled by Jews for urging them to surrender.

After the fall of Jerusalem, Josephus accompanied the victorious Romans back to Rome. He received Roman citizenship, a pension, and the patronage and name (Flavius) of the new imperial family. To the immense benefit of later generations, Josephus devoted himself to writing works of history. In addition to the seven-volume The Jewish War, the prolific Josephus produced the 20-volume Jewish Antiquities (a history of the Jewish people), and the two-volume Against Apion (a defense of Judaism). Although Jews traditionally have disparaged Josephus as a cowardly traitor, historian Martin Goodman notes that Josephus’s decision “to write so copiously and positively about Jewish tradition” was an act of “exceptional bravery” in the Roman world in which he lived.