The Mass Suicide of Masada

Modern Day Masada | Courtesy of Wikimedia

Masada was an impressive fortress built upon a plateau to protect Jewish Zealots and refugees from the Romans. The Jews wisely chose this location because of its natural defenses against invaders. They imagined it would be impossible for anyone to besiege the city; the treacherous terrain and great outer wall surrounding Masada surely would protect it. Unfortunately, the Jews underestimated the Roman army.

Map of Masada | Courtsey of Trave.Masada.org

Masada appeared to be the perfect fortress. Its four vertical sides made it nearly impossible to invade. The largest wall on the eastern side is one hundred forty meters above the desert floor, roughly half the size of the Eiffel Tower. From the east, there is a dangerous zig-zagging trail called the serpent’s path. The western side wall is eighty meters above the desert floor, as tall as the Statue of Liberty. The inhabitants took the extra precaution and built two walls on the perimeter of the plateau about 1400 meters long and six meters tall. The outer wall was 1.4 meters thick and the inner was 1 meter thick. Between the inner and outer wall, there was an empty space. During an invasion they planned to fill the gap with stone, wood, and dirt to strengthen the wall; until then it was used for storage. There were also twenty-meter-tall towers strategically spaced out throughout Masada for defensive reasons.1

The defenders were aware that if one were to attack, the first action the enemy would take would be to stop the water supply. Anticipating that possibility, the defenders built twelve cisterns to hold the water inside the fortress. Along the western slopes they had enough water stored to fill sixteen Olympic pools. It was very forward thinking of the Jews to do this. They also had many food storehouses toward the north. They kept grain, oils, corn, wine, dates, along with other foods. Thanks to the dry climate, storing the food was not a problem. In case they were to run low, the flat land would be ideal to grow additional food. Remains of the wall, tower, cisterns, food storage buildings, and other structures are still visible today.1

Roman Camp at Masada | Courtesy of Annettegendler.com

Unfortunately, these precautions were no match for the Roman army. In 73 C.E., Flavius Silva marched the Roman army and other troops totaling about 10,000 soldiers south to conquer Masada. Waiting on top of Masada were the 1,000 men (Jewish refugees and Zealots) willing to defend their safe haven. The Romans were aware it would take a significant amount of time to destroy Masada, so they set up camp and had Jewish war prisoners bring a constant supply of food and water. They first stopped up the aqueducts and diverted them for their own use. Next, they constructed a wall around Masada to prevent the inhabitants from escaping, and to cut them off from the outside world, a classic Roman war operation. The wall was three meters high and 3.2 kilometers long, and enforced by eight camps with many other guards posted. This impressive mechanism was built in a matter of days and can still be seen today.1

The White Rock | Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Romans knew this would not be a quick victory; they would have to overthrow Masada by force. They came to the conclusion that the only way to reach the top of Masada was by making the steep side into a gradual incline. To do this, they took advantage of a natural spur called the white rock on the western side. It was nearly two hundred meters from the top of Masada to the edge of the natural gulf. The ramp to the top was built at a twenty degree incline. It took months to build the massive ramp. Every day, the inhabitants of Masada would wake up to see the enemy growing closer and closer, with no way for them to escape. As the Romans got close to the top, they became more vulnerable to the defenders. The Jews at the top could now shoot arrows and defend themselves against the Romans. As a result, the Romans had the Jewish war prisoners shield them so that they could shoot back. Within two months, the great ramp was complete. It was two hundred twenty meters long, and archaeologists assume it weighed as much as one and a half empire state buildings.4

The Romans attacked Masada with their siege towers. They rolled the massive towers up the man-made ramp to overthrow Masada. The inhabitants tried to fight back, shooting arrows at the towers and trying to destroy it with fire.4 The day before the final attack, the Romans carefully planned how they would conquer Masada. Early that morning, they charged up the ramp, and over the walls. To their surprise, they were not met with a fight. Instead, they encountered thousands of dead bodies. The few remaining women and children explained to them what had happened. The Jews knew they did not stand a chance against the Roman army of 10,000. They decided it would be better to die than to be conquered. Since Judaism does not allow suicide, they came to the conclusion they would have to kill each other. The men first killed the children and women; then they cast lots to decide who would be killed first, and who would have to be the last to commit suicide. It is ironic how they ignored the sixth commandment not to murder, but decided to alter its meaning to mean not to murder yourself. Despite the confusion, they ultimately chose death over slavery.6

  1. Encyclopedia Judea, 2007, s.v. “Masada,” by Michael Berenbaum.
  2. Encyclopedia Judea, 2007, s.v. “Masada,” by Michael Berenbaum.
  3. Encyclopedia Judea, 2007, s.v. “Masada,” by Michael Berenbaum.
  4. The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, 2002, s.v. “Siege of Masada,” by Don Nardo.
  5. The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, 2002, s.v. “Siege of Masada,” by Don Nardo.
  6. Encyclopedia of Death & Human Experiences, 2009, s.v. “Mass Suicide,” by Clifton D. Bryant.

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This Post Has 81 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Very interesting article. I have never heard of this. I didn’t know about the mass suicide, but I have studied much about the Romans and their conquering styles. Their conquering styles and battles were of course very very bloody. The information here did not seem out of the ordinary. It was very ironic that the people of Masada died in such a brutal way, the Romans would have done the same thing to them.

  2. Avatar

    Very interesting article, I had heard of this battle before, but, definitely learned a lot from this. Very sad how they felt that they had to kill themselves before really fighting the Romans, but, they must have been from the school of thought that it’s better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees, meaning its better to take a stand and die than to never take a stand.

  3. Avatar

    Nice article. The fifth commandment is though shall not kill not the sixth. It is very ingenious of the Romans to build a ramp that would help them reach the top of Masada. It is also interesting that they isolated the Zealots from the outside world and cut off their water supply. But the Zealots planned for this occurrence and were prepared already by the time the siege began. It must have been a bit of a spoiled party for the Romans when they reached the top of the hill, and discovered that the Zealots had already killed themselves.

  4. Avatar

    This is one of the many things in history that I have never heard of before. It almost sounds like something out of a book, building a giant ramp in order to attack a city at the higher elevation. It seems so hard to believe but seems believable because the Romans would let nothing stop them. It was horrible that they decided to kill themselves rather than be conquered. I would argue that they did not commit “murder” as murder requires a malicious intent in many understandings of the word.

  5. Avatar

    The article took a very strange twist when the author explained how they Jews chose to murder each other rather than to be conquered by the Romans. I think it is horrible how they killed the women and children, but in the hindsight they believed that death was better than what the Romans would have done to them. The Romans were ruthless people and they did everything in their power to get over the wall to fight the Jews. Overall the story was very interesting.

  6. Avatar

    This was a very cool article. I know that the ramp can still be seen today and that some of the ruins are there as well. I’m still curious how they got siege weapons up the ramp assuming they didn’t have diesel engines. Those things were massive so it must of took a lot of slaves and manpower to get those up. I think it was a pretty coward thing to do to commit suicide rather than face slavery. At least with slavery there is a chance of freedom, but once you kill yourself your done. Also it is weird how they sugarcoated the 6th commandment not to kill.

  7. Avatar

    The Romans were very intelligent, especially in war. They won many battles before, and the Jews would no be the exception. For being so smart, I still don’t understand why they built a wall around the jews camp just to build a ramp and attack. Other than that the Romans were very creative in the ways to defeat their enemies, so simple but yet so creative.

  8. Avatar

    Reading about Roman conquests has always been a fun thing, though I can imagine how it probably wasn’t for the Jews as they watched their invaders work. Roman invasions, though they may sound complicated, are very entertaining when looked at objectively and simplified. The Roman conquest of Masada quite literally dumbs down to the Romans deciding to build an even bigger wall than the walls the city were surrounded by then building a really, really big ramp in order to reach the city.

  9. Avatar

    Initially, this story reads like a basic history lesson. Although, towards the end, the title of the piece really comes into play, which is what pulled me in in the first place. I didn’t know about this historical occurrence but I have studied much about the Romans and their conquering styles, so the information here did not seem out of the ordinary. Something that I did find ironic though was how, even though the Romans were some of the most violent people in history, they didn’t need to enact their brutal attack but rather just use suspense to have the people of Masada do to themselves what the Romans would’ve done anyways.

  10. Avatar

    I just imagine myself in the shoes of the Jews on top of their impenetrable fortress, watching their enemy, the Romans, slowly and progressively build their way up to you. I’m sure it was a scare no man would ever wish on their worst enemy. There was an extremely hard decision that the people of Masada had to make: die fighting, accept defeat and probably become slaves, or, what their decision was, kill themselves.Unfortunately, they decided the latter, and didn’t put up a fight at all.

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