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When Rome Crushed Israel: The Siege of Masada

The inhabitants of modern Israel and Palestine have a long history of stubborn defiance in the face of outside threats and military oppression. It’s a character trait thousands of years old, and can be seen as far back as the Roman Empire, in one of the most famous acts of defiance in ancient history – the Siege of Masada.

The Jewish Rebellion
In AD 66, rebels in the province of Judea rose up against the Roman Empire. It was a time of tumult for the region, full of new prophets and portents of doom. A period out of which would come both Christianity and a strengthened sense of Jewish identity.

Prominent among the rebels were the Sicarii, one of many Jewish groups espousing violent resistance to Roman rule. The Sicarii earned their name for the curved knives which were their trademark weapon.

The revolt saw some success at first, with the vital city of Jerusalem becoming a rebel stronghold. But the Roman army was a brutally efficient war machine. Jerusalem was stormed in AD 70 following a siege that saw many die at Roman hands.

While the main thrust of the rebellion died at Jerusalem, some rebels hung on in strongholds such as Masada.

Masada was half a fortress, half a palace. Built by Herod the Great, it was meant to provide that ruler with a luxurious refuge to which he could retreat in times of crisis.

The fortress was an incredible feat of engineering, possibly the most intimidating fortification any besieger could face. Built on top of a rocky, steep-sided hill, it could be reached only by a winding path on the eastern flank of the hill, a long and challenging route which would force attackers to approach a few at a time, leaving them exposed to attacks by the defenders the whole way up.

In most cases, a castle which could not be assaulted could instead be taken by a protracted siege, cutting off the inhabitants from supplies and starving them out. But here again, Masada was well placed to resist any threat. Cisterns cut deep into the rock stored rainwater from storms. Large storerooms were filled with supplies. There was even some space on which to grow crops, providing the inhabitants with fresh food.

Laying Siege
Around 960 Judeans occupied the fortress when the Romans arrived. Not all of them were warriors. Entire families had sought refuge there, and a significant proportion of the besieged were children, the elderly and noncombatant women. Their leader, Eleazer Ben Yair, was a militant from a family with a history of such resistance.

The force of soldiers surrounding the fortress outnumbered its entire population at least five to one. The legion X Fretensis, probably under-strength from long years fighting the rebels, was accompanied by the auxiliary troops that always supported Rome’s elite soldiers in battle.

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