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The Masada Myth

    Scholar presents evidence that the heroes of the Jewish Great Revolt were not heroes at all.

    We must remind ourselves at this point that there are plenty of historical examples of real, remarkable and heroic "fighting to the last." For example: Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans at the pass of Thermopylae; the last stand at the Alamo; the readiness of the American commander of the101st Airborne Division in Bastogne to "fight to end" during the German counter-attack in the Ardennes in 1944; the heroic stand of the U.S. Marines on Wake Island in 1941; the Jewish revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto, against all odds and the death of Biblical Samson together with his enemies. Thus, using a strictly Jewish analogy, when the Sicarii were faced with the choice, they selected suicide rather than the destiny of Samson.  

    What Josephus has to say about the suicide is that after the Romans entered Masada and discovered the dead bodies: "Nor could they [the Romans] do other than wonder at the courage of their [the Sicarii] resolution, and at the immovable contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown, when they went through with such an action as that was" (p. 603). The absolute resolution and courage of the Sicarii and their act of collective suicide in Masada raised, apparently, much respect and wonder among the Romans and in Josephus Flavius. Indeed, it should. But, the analytic jump from "respect" to "heroism" is not made by Josephus. It was socially constructed. Indeed, elsewhere Josephus describes the Sicarii killing one another as: "Miserable men indeed they were!" (p. 603). 

    The unpleasant impression is that the Sicarii on Masada, so adept at raiding nearby villages, were not really good fighters and, in fact, avoided opportunities to fight. Josephus points out, in particular, that Eleazar Ben-Yair had to make two speeches in order to persuade his people to commit that suicide. He even "quotes" those speeches at length. The implication, obviously, is that the Jewish rebels on Masada were originally quite reluctant to commit themselves to collective suicide.  

    Josephus states that there were close to a thousand Sicarii on top of Masada. These people were not all warriors. There were women and children there, and perhaps other non-combatants. How many actual fighters were there is unknown. Although Josephus does not state the specific size of the 10th Roman legion, which carried out the siege on Masada, it seems safe to assume that it was probably composed of a minimum of 6,000 soldiers (the estimate found in the literature). However, the size could have reached 10,000 too. 

    It is imperative to emphasize that there were seven survivors from the collective suicide. This is an important point because the details about that last night of the Sicarii on Masada were provided by one of the women survivors.

    Thus, when we carefully examine the main ingredients of Josephus's narrative about both the Great Revolt and Masada, a portrait of heroism in Masada is simply not provided. On the contrary. The narrative conveys the story of a doomed (and questionable) revolt, of a majestic failure and destruction of the Second Temple and of Jerusalem, of large-scale massacres of the Jews, of different factions of Jews fighting and killing each other, of collective suicide (an act not viewed favorably by the Jewish faith) by a group of terrorists and assassins whose "fighting spirit" may have been questionable. Moreover, and specifically for Masada, Josephus’s implication is that it was not only the nature of the rebels there that was problematic, but their lack of a fighting spirit too. Josephus implies that the 10th Roman legion came in and put a siege around Masada. That siege was not too long and was not accompanied by any major fighting. When the Romans managed to enter the fortress they found seven survivors and the remains of the Jewish Sicarii (and perhaps some non-Sicarii, too) who had committed collective suicide. This act itself clearly instilled in both the Roman soldiers and Josephus a respect for those rebels.  

    From the Roman military perspective, the Masada campaign must have been an insignificant action following a very major war in Judea—a sort of a mop-up operation. It was something the Roman army had to do, but that did not involve anything too special in terms of military strategy or effort. In fact, Shatzman (1993) notes that the Roman siege of Masada was quite standard. Reading Josephus's narrative raises the immediate question of how could such a horrible and questionable story become such a positive symbol? After all, the heroism in the Masada narrative and in the context is not at all self evident or understood.  

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