As rousing death-and-glory speeches go, it is one of the best. With a besieging Roman army only hours from storming the mountain stronghold of Masada, where 967 Jews were making their last stand in around AD 73, the rebel leader Eleazar Ben-Yair gathered the men together and called for a mass suicide. He told them:
We have it in our power to die nobly and in freedom. Our fate at the break of day is certain capture; but there is still the free choice of a noble death with those we hold most dear.
That way their wives would not be dishonoured by Roman soldiers, nor their children enslaved:
Let us spare nothing but our provisions; for they will testify, when we are dead, that it was not want which subdued us, but that… we preferred death to slavery.
The stirring story comes from Josephus, the 1st-century Jewish-Roman historian, in his seven-volume account of The Jewish War. It is so powerful that in the earliest years of Israel it became the new state’s rallying cry — ‘Masada shall not fall again!’ — and the Israel Defense Forces have long used the ancient hilltop fortress for induction ceremonies. This hugely evocative site, perched in a spectacular natural setting in the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea, has served for decades, in the words of the archaeologist and historian Neil Silberman, as the ‘elaborate and persuasive stage scenery for a modern passion play of national rebirth’.
The tantalising problem with all this is that Josephus is our only source for the siege of Masada. And his credentials as an impartial historian are suspect, to say the least. For many Jews, he was a turncoat, a rebel leader in Galilee who failed to honour a suicide pact during the first Jewish revolt against Rome, which broke out in 66, then surrendered and joined the other side.
He was a witness during Titus’s devastating siege of Jerusalem in 70, circumambulating the walls on behalf of the Romans and encouraging the besieged to surrender. That Titus’s army then proceeded to sack the city, destroy the Temple and massacre its inhabitants in an orgy of bloodletting did nothing to improve his reputation. After the fall of Jerusalem he took Roman citizenship, adopted the name Titus Josephus Flavius, became a client of the new Flavian dynasty under Vespasian and later accepted a commission from his imperial patrons to write histories of the Jewish people and the revolt.
Jodi Magness, an American archaeologist and scholar of early Judaism at the University of Carolina, comes to this seminal story with impressive qualifications. As an undergraduate in the 1970s, she studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under Yigael Yadin, Israel’s most famous archaeologist, sometime soldier and short-lived politician, the man who excavated Masada in the 1960s and ardently promoted the modern myth. In 1995, Magness co-directed excavations of the Roman siege works at Masada, the most complete that survive today.
But much of her book is less about the actual siege than the immediate geographical and historical context around it. She tells us about Holy Land explorers from the 19th century, a number of whom died in the crushing heat. And there is much material about Herod the Great, ‘the single greatest builder in the history of the Holy Land’, whose constructions range from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to the port city of Caesarea Maritima, Herodium and Masada itself.
Better known as the man who ordered the massacre of the innocents in and around Bethlehem, as reported in the Gospel of Matthew (Magness reckons he didn’t do it), Herod was a notoriously cruel Roman client king of Judea who got through high priests like Theresa May got through defence secretaries (albeit he actually killed them). He finally got his comeuppance in around 4 BC, dying from an eye-watering combination of fever, itching, intestinal pain, tumours in the feet, abdominal inflammation, asthma, convulsions and, Josephus writes with some relish, ‘gangrene of the privy parts’.
So did the 967 Jews of Masada really exist, and did they commit mass suicide? Magness confesses that archaeology cannot provide a definitive answer, and she won’t go out on a limb to offer one. Which leaves us with Josephus. She is, however, fascinating on the conflation of archaeology and nationalism in modern Israel’s use of the ‘Masada myth’. There is an enduring irony in that today’s narrative lionises ‘a band of Jewish rebels who terrorised other Jews’, a reference to the sicarii extremists who were among the disparate Jewish population during the legendary last stand.
Historical details aside, the story remains sufficiently compelling to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site every year. Where many of us would slog up the monumental Roman siege ramp to the 350-metre hilltop, today tourists can jump into a cable car and be there in minutes.
Magness ends with a practical and refreshingly non-academic visitors’ guide to Masada. Should you ever visit the place and hear a lot of noise at the top while searching for your inner Eleazar Ben-Yair, you can blame her. ‘Before leaving,’ she writes, ‘listen to the amazing echo created by the sheer cliff of Mount Eleazar opposite, by shouting as loudly as possible across the chasm’.
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