Josephus, Masada heroes and ancient Jewish rebels

After the fall of Jerusalem Emperor Titus returned to Rome and received a triumphant welcome. At the same time, the Romans began to restore order in Judaea by putting down any final resistance and regaining control of the last few strongholds held by Zealots. The last and longest of these final encounters was the Siege of Masada.

Only a small number of Zealots escaped the massacre of men, women, and children when Jerusalem fell in 70 ce. Some of those who escaped—members of the extremist Sicarii sect—settled in the apparently impregnable mountaintop fortress of Masada.

Masada, Israel

Picture the desperate band of Zealots at Masada:

With just a few days left before the Romans were sure to breach their defences, men, women and children frantically tore apart the roofs of their homes and hauled dirt from around the mountaintop, all in last-minute attempt to throw up a new wood-and-earth wall that might hold back the coming battering ram.


It’s a fantastic scene, and though it dates to the late first century C.E., we can easily imagine it, and what’s more, know that it’s more likely true than not.

How? With the help of three people: archaeologists Yigael Yadin and Ehud Netzer and the first-century Jewish historian Josephus.

The archaeological evidence brought to us by Yadin and Netzer is compelling. Josephus’s Jewish Wars, our only real textual recounting of the Masada siege, describes an ingenious earth-and-wood wall intended to blunt the power of the Roman battering rams, as well as the fiery end of the Zealots’ resistance.

And what have archaeologists found?

No evidence of the wall itself, but much other evidence that confirms Josephus’s account. There are a few scattered rooms with charred roof beams that highlight the lack of beams in most of the rest of the compound as it burned—something that would be true if the defenders had other uses for the wood.

There were also potsherds bearing the names of individuals … perhaps the names of the last men who drew lots deciding who would be charged with killing the others in the planned mass suicide that Josephus so dramatically describes?

Get to know more about Masada, Hebrew H̱orvot Meẕada (“Ruins of Masada”), ancient mountaintop fortress in southeastern Israel, site of the Jews’ last stand against the Romans after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce. > Get to know all of them right now with an All-Access pass

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