Masada is a famous mountain fortress above the western shore of the Dead Sea in Israel. The history of Masada goes back to 31 BC, when Herod the Great completed construction on this “palace of refuge” that he had built in the case of a revolt against him.
According to the historian Josephus, King Herod was an Edomite appointed by the Roman Empire as a client king over Judea. Because he was not a Judean and was cruel to his subjects, Herod was despised by the Jews. Some modern psychologists, examining Herod’s track record, have classified him as bipolar and suffering from extreme paranoia. From his extensive building projects, including Masada, to his numerous political assassinations, Herod exhibited paranoia about losing power. His unhealthy suspicions were evident to everyone.
Masada is built on a high elevation. The fortress contains a number of barracks, armories, and defensive structures. It also has huge storehouses and cisterns, which contained months’ worth of food and water. The primary defense of Masada was a single-file “snake path” up the 1,300-foot mountain. The path was extremely easy to defend from vantage points above.
About one hundred years after Herod the Great built the “impregnable” fortress of Masada, it became home to a group of Jewish Zealots who hid there during the Roman conquest of Israel. After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, Masada was the last Jewish holdout. As the Romans worked south in a final purge of the land, they came to Masada and the Jewish resistance there.
In AD 72, a Roman legion under the command of General Flavius Silva finally surrounded Masada, but they couldn’t reach the small band of holdouts living at the top. In true Roman fashion, the Romans brought in thousands of slaves and spent a number of months building a huge siege ramp up the backside of the mountain. When the Romans finally breached the fortress in the spring of AD 73, they found a ghastly scene. The Zealots, choosing death over capture, had committed ceremonial suicide. In total, 953 men, women, and children died in a final rejection of Roman oppression.
Accounts of the siege of Masada and the mass suicide were later reported by two women who had hid in a cistern with five children. They recounted the final words of their leader, Eleazar, which Josephus wrote down:
“Since we, long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, not to any other than to God himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice.”
Israel became a formal nation again in 1948. And, nearly 1,900 years after the fall of Masada, the fortress still figures significantly in Israeli culture. As part of defending their renewed country, all Israeli men and women are asked to serve a term in the IDF—the Israeli Defense Forces. Upon their completion of basic training, new IDF soldiers climb the “snake path” to Masada at night and are sworn in during a torch-lit ceremony at the top of Masada. Their final declaration of the night before descending the mountain as full-fledged soldiers is “Masada shall not fall again.”