By Jean Marie Carey

On 16 April 73, legions of the Roman Empire penetrated the mountaintop fortress of Masada, in the Roman province of Judaea (what is today Israel). The defenders of Masada, a group of Jewish rebels called the Sicarii, had held off the Roman Empire for three years. The Fall of Masada marked the end of the rebellion known as the Great Jewish Revolt, but became a powerful symbol of resistance and resilience. The dramatic story of Masada, related by Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian of the Second Temple period, coupled with the excavation of the remains of Masada, have made it one of the most famous archaeological sites in Israel.

According to Josephus, Herod the Great fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE as a refuge for himself. In 72, the Roman governor laid a siege on Masada. According to Josephus, when the Romans entered the fortress they discovered that its 960 inhabitants committed mass suicide.

Ever since the identification in 1838 of the isolated rock of es-Sebba with Josephus’ Masada, the site has attracted explorers and scholars. The most extensive excavations of the built-up area on top of Masada and in the Roman siege camp were carried out by Yigael Yadin between 1963 and 1965. Supplementary excavations were conducted on top of Masada between 1995 and 2000 and in the Roman camps and at the assault ramp in 1995.

Such studies confirm much of Josephus’ narrative. In addition, the extensive archaeological work conducted at Masada and its environs have provided a plethora of details regarding the exact chronological sequence of occupation, the various structures, and the material culture of everyday life. Scattered pot shards found in the caves on the northern escarpment of Masada dated to the Chalcolithic and the Iron Age periods testify to the earliest habitation near the site.

Among the structures built during the Herodian period, the most elaborate and richly-embellished ones were the western palace complex, used for ceremonial and administrative purposes, and the three-tiered, northern villa-palace. Other main structures included a wall constructed along the edge of Masada plateau, an elaborate bath-house, storerooms, numerous water reservoirs on the summit, and twelve large cisterns cut into the northwestern cliff of the site. Many of these structures were altered and adapted for dwellings during the rebels’ occupation of Masada. The siege apparatus built by Flavius Silva in 73 or 74, which is still visible and well-preserved today, comprised a circumvallation wall, eight siege camps, and an assault ramp. This apparatus perfectly fits the general course of the siege described by Josephus, and therefore it most likely fulfilled its purpose in the attack on the fortified rebels on the mountain.

The last phase of occupation of Masada took place during the Byzantine period, from the 5th to the 7thcenturies. At that time a small monastic community of hermits, the Laura of Marda, settled on the hilltop, reusing some of the ruined Herodian structures. The only new building they constructed was the church compound, which was substantially preserved near the northeast of the western Herodian palace.

Reference: Haim Goldfus and Benjamin Y.Arubas. “Masada.” The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013.

 Oven and cooking pots from Masada, c.74. Israel Museum, IDAM Collection.

Edward Lear, Masada on the Dead Sea, 1858. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 1986.40 | FASF.64471.

Herod the Great Western Palace, Bathhouse, and Promontory Palace with Byzantine modifications. Built probably 22-10 BCE, fortified between 37-31 BCE, during the heyday of Herod the Great’s building projects in Caesarea; modifications date to 324-638. Masada, Israel. Shmuel Magal, Sites and Photos.

Further Reading: Mladen Popović. The Jewish Revolt Against Rome: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Boston: Brill, 2011. 

Jonathan Edmondson, Steve Mason, and James Rives. Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 

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