[Obey me, for I am your benevolent
dictator editor! I am the decider when it comes to these. Ok, seriously though, it's about as bad ass as history gets, so I'm glad Dan took my suggestion. - Max]
Some time ago I asked Max what topic he wanted to see as a weekly fact. After some consideration, Max asked for the infamous Siege of Masada, and I completely understand why. A deep understanding of the historiography can’t be attained through understanding Jewish revolts against the Roman empire, but lessons can be drawn from the examples of what people do, and what they’re capable of, when trapped with nowhere else to go.
In 73 CE, atop of rugged plateau in modern Palestine, just fewer than 1,000 Jewish rebels and their families braced themselves against a Roman army after a protracted siege. Contemporary sources tell us that when the Romans finally broke into the mountainous fortress at Masada, that all just a handful of the inhabitants had committed mass-suicide, an affront to the Romans who had sought to kill them for months.
But let’s look back a little to the time before Rome was even an empire. The name Pompey the Great, though known to many classics students, is often lost to modern readers and pales in comparison in terms of fame, and perhaps rightly so, to his contemporary, Gaius Julius Caesar. Gneas Pompeius Magnus, or ‘Pompey the Great’ to you and me, was a renewed Roman general who, apart from admiring Alexander the Great so much that he copied the conqueror’s boyishly dishevelled flowing hair (seriously, he did), conquered the kingdom of Judea in 63 BCE. Pompey’s stay in Jerusalem was short, and it should be mentioned that the territory of the Jews wasn’t actually incorporated into the empire as much as it became a Roman ‘client’ state, as the Romans were prone to propping-up.
Over the sixty-year period that followed, the territory which we ascribe as Israel-Palestine was ruled by a series of Roman-backed regents and kings, before the land was converted into a the Roman province of Judea in 6 CE by the emperor Augustus. There are several reasons for the occupation of Judea, one being that it was wedged between the two important Roman provinces of Egypt, to the south, and Syria, to the north, and the second being that political instability and severe mismanagement by rulers could’ve posed threats to the actual Roman territories. So bad was the reign of one Jewish king, Herod Archelaus, that the people of Judea actually appeal to the Roman emperor to dismiss him (not the word, dismiss).
Now whilst the Jews had hated their own Roman-appointed kings ruling over them, they utterly loathed the Romans who succeeded them. Whilst Roman occupation had brought about relative peace in other parts of the empire, and had indeed brought about the province in league commercially with the rest of the Mediterranean world, violence always persisted in Judea. The Romans, with their urbanisation, law, infrastructure and blend of Romano-Hellenic culture, could never really understood the Jews who, with their exclusivist One God, rejected Roman culture for their own, which they claimed to be just as ancient and special.
In 66 CE, the powder-keg exploded with a massive Jewish rebellion against the Romans. Whilst starting out merely as anti-taxation protests, the rebellion was the culmination of deep racial and religious animosity. The Romans, despite having their own pantheon of gods, were religious pluralists who didn’t really mind which gods their subjects worshiped to long as they were well-bahaaved and paid their taxes. In Jerusalem itself, where Jews mixed with Romans, Greeks and Syrians, tension boiled over when Greeks made sacrifices to the Olympian gods in from of a synagogue. What started out as a small riot turned into a full-blown rebellion which engulfed the entire country. Roman and Greek citizens, along with Jewish collaborators, were killed in the streets and a Roman from Syria was quickly defeated. The emperor at the time, Nero, entrusted the pacification of the province to the future emperor, Vespasian. Vespasian, along with his son Titus (also a future emperor) marched on the province with 60,000 troops and burned Jerusalem, the provincial capital and fortified strong-hold, to the ground. The act in itself is infamous, as the Romans looted and burned the Temple of God, a form of punishment many Jews saw as visited upon them by God for their sinfulness.
The rebellion was not an easy effort. As noted, it took the efforts of six legions and just as many auxiliaries, and was only really quashed after years of combat. Bu the low-light of the rebellion, the last chapter, really was at Masada in 73 AD.
At Masada, which was a Roman fort perched high atop a mountain, Jewish rebels belonging to the Sicarii sect captured the stronghold and slaughtered the Roman inhabitants. With the Sicarii fortified at Masada, the Romans decided to siege the fort and constructed a monumental siege tower to scale the place. Months of siege were required, but when the Romans, numbering some 15,000, broke into the Jewish camp, they found it desolated by death, and not by their hands. Rather than allowing themselves to be killed or enslaved by the Romans, the some 960 people of Masada performed mass suicide: the men killed their women and children, and then each man killed the man next to him, leaving only at least one man left standing. This was done in accordance to Jewish law, which prohibited suicide among its practitioners. The Jewish revolt had finally ended. Rome would rule the province without resistance for decades to come.
- Daniel Vancea