Siege of Masada
September 11, 2010
I’m one of the least zealous of Jewish Zealots who’ve killed many Romans for attacking and forcing us out of Jerusalem and eventually onto this scorched rock plateau called Masada, leering down at the Dead Sea, in the Judean desert. I keep thinking I’m here about a century too late. Why can’t I be King Herod in his ornate tri-level palace at the northern end or his elegant other palace in the west? I would enjoy having bathhouses with furnaces under floors and pipes in walls, though at this moment I’d be content to live in one of the more modest palaces used by Herod’s relatives and officials and now by our strongest men led by Elazar. Instead, I reside in one of the chambers in thick casemate walls boasting towers and circling the plateau six hundred yards long and two hundred wide.
The other day, as part of a group ripping up elegant wooden floors to burn, I said it was sad we were destroying such beauty. Shut up or you’re going over the side, a superior said. That meant four hundred yards down the east side or a hundred in the west. I didn’t tell him logic indicated we all may go that way some day. We’d wrested fortress Masada from a small Roman garrison a couple of years ago and have used this bastion as a base from which to raid them, and now our nearly one thousand Zealots, two-thirds women and children, including my wife and five kids, won’t forever be able to hold off several thousand recently-amassed Roman warriors garrisoned in nine very organized camps below. We have plenty of food and water, collected from winter rain in cisterns, as well as many weapons. But the Romans, led by Silva, their general, are coming and have already encircled us with a wide wall nine miles long.
And every day we watch below as they pile stones and earth on the White Promontory, the only area sufficiently broad and direct, to push their ramp up the west side of Masada closer to us. Why don’t we stop them? We try. We hurl rocks and shoot arrows that fail to significantly impede their advance, and then we use several men to hoist each large stone rolled down at the Romans but such efforts are slow and quite visible, and they almost always clear the ramp before being hit. Frequently, we bombard them with threats and insults most don’t understand but those who do respond with vile promises they’ll soon be here. But it won’t be that soon. The Romans lose a lot of earth sliding back at their feet, and have to bring in wood to build support scaffolding to keep the ramp strong and in place.
In the spring of the year 73, following three months of arduous and quite informed labor, some by Jewish slaves, the ramp is complete and to its base the Romans push an iron-plated siege tower a hundred feet high, which we have just been distressed to see. Up the ramp the Romans push their formidable structure, and to the casemate walls we rush to thwart them. At that point hails of catapulted white stones the size of grapefruits whistle through the air: one crushes the head of the man to my right and another destroys the arm of a nearby Zealot and all of us have to duck.
As the climbing Romans advance to the casemate wall and themselves become potential victims of catapulted stones that soon cease, we return to our defensive positions but duck again as archers assail us with thousands of arrows. Now, operated from the bowels of the siege tower, a battering ram pounds and pounds the casemate wall until it eventually knocks a hole in our final defense. Fill the breach, shouts our leader Elazar. Large wooden beams are quickly carried in and shoved horizontally across the breach and strengthened by earth and then more beams vertically secure the wall.
Is this possible? Have we thousand zealots repulsed the greatest army in the world? I’m ready to rejoice. But Silva is ever ingenious and at once orders his archers to assault our wooden wall with volleys of burning arrows whose spreading flames we cannot extinguish until God orders a powerful wind to hurl the flames back into Roman faces and threaten their hateful machines. This is an extraordinary reprieve, and I feel blessed, until the wind suddenly shifts from divine to diabolical, saving the attackers and consuming our wall with such overwhelming heat and intensity the Romans pull back, doubtless delighted and relieved, knowing on the morrow they can march en masse back up the ramp to destroy us all.
That night and early next morning there is debate aplenty about what the Romans will do. Will they kill everyone at once? Or will they rape our women before they kill all of us? Or will they rape our women before killing all the men and then enslaving the women and children. Or will they enslave all of us? Regardless, wouldn’t they also, in Roman fashion, order our men to be whipped or burned or reviled on the rack or set upon by beasts or a combination thereof?
It matters not, Elazar declares, for we have always vowed never to be Roman servants and are blessed by God that it is still our decision to determine how we die and ensure our passing is both dignified and brave. Our leader is indeed bold and a gifted orator but a few others and I are unwilling to heed his demand to slay our wives and children. Elazar is aghast and proclaims himself greatly mistaken to have once believed that the effeminate few before him were brave men who struggled for freedom and were committed to either live with honor or die. We are, he rails, lower than the Indians and cowards for ignoring God’s will and our duty to die now. Elazar’s righteous pronouncements continue many minutes until I raise my sword and lunge at a head he adroitly moves.
Quickly I am set upon and dispatched, along with the other effeminate men, and all the women and children are killed by their brave men who then draw lots to determine the ten who will kill the rest, all of whom lie down and embrace dead families before bravely baring their necks. Then the final ten draw lots to determine the man who kills the other nine and burns us and as many structures as possible but makes sure to spare our food so the Romans will know we did not die in need.
Our conquerors arrive in great confusion, dressed for blood but received in malicious silence, and shout for an explanation they receive when from a deep cavern emerge a very old woman and my wife and five children.
Sources: Masada by Yigael Yadin – this book features second-hand accounts by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus; Masada, bibleplaces.com; Wikipedia – Masada.