Masada: A History

Posted on: 23 January 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

The award winning Masada starring Peter O’Toole is now on DVD. We take a look at the event which inspired the TV series.

Masada today is one of the Jewish people's greatest symbols. Israeli soldiers take an oath there, "Masada shall not fall again."

Next to Jerusalem, it is the most popular destination of Jewish tourists visiting Israel.

After Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 AD, the Great Revolt against the Romans ended and the surviving Zealots fled Jerusalem to the fortress of Masada, near the Dead Sea. There, they held out for three years; every morning, they awoke to see the Roman Tenth Legion hard at work, constructing battering rams and other weapons.

The Romans were well aware that the Zealots at Masada were the group that had started the Great Revolt. More than anything else, the length and bitterness of their uprising probably account for Rome's unwillingness to let Masada and its small group of defiant Jews alone.

Masada DVDOnce it became apparent that the Tenth Legion's battering rams and catapults would succeed in breaching Masada's walls, Elazar ben Yair, the Zealots’ leader, decided that all the Jewish defenders should commit suicide. The alternative facing the fortress’s defenders were hardly more attractive than death. Once the Romans defeated them, the men could expect to be sold off as slaves, the women as slaves and prostitutes.

The little information we have about the final hours of Masada comes from a writer called Flavius Josephus. When he wrote the history of the Jewish revolt against Rome, he included an extensive, largely sympathetic section on Masada’s fall. According to Josephus, two women and five children managed to hide themselves during the mass suicide, and it was from one of these women that he heard an account of Elazar ben Yair's final speech:

"Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor 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.... We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last that fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favour that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom."

Even at this late juncture, Elazar could not accept that the main reason the revolt had failed was because Rome's army was vastly superior. Instead, he dwelt on his belief that the Lord had turned against the Jewish people. Finally, he came to an inescapable conclusion:

"Let our wives die before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted of slavery, and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually."

After his speech, the men killed their wives and children, and then each other.

Masada is available now on DVD. Visit for more information.

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