In The Archeology of the Holy Land, Jodi Magness goes back to the building activity of Herod the Great to tell the story of Masada. On a 1300 foot mesa in the southern desert near the Dead Sea, Herod built a fortress. It was one of several forts he built in the south for security against the ambitions of Cleopatra.
He fortified the plateau with walls and towers and built two palaces. One of the palaces contained a throne room and seems to have been for administrative purposes. The other palace looks like a family residence.
The southern part of Masada had a large swimming pool and gardens. This meant that there was a lot of water in this dry place. There was a system of cisterns and pools.. An aqueduct and channels collected flash flood water from nearby cliffs. But much of the water must have come up by pack animal.
Seventy some years after Herod’s death Jewish rebels against Rome retreated to Masada and held out there. They erected dwellings where Herod’s gardens had been. Some of them lived in the walls. One room in the walls they converted into a synagogue.
When the Jewish War broke out in 66 C.E. some rebels, apparently of the extreme Sicari terrorist group, occupied Masada. Qumran to the north fell to the Romans in 68 C.E. Some of the members of the Qumran sect probably took refuge at Masada. After Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E., others came to Masada. In about 73-74 C.E. Masada became the last Roman mopping up operation.
About 8,000 Roman soldiers arrived. There were about a thousand Jewish men, women and children on the plateau.
The Romans constructed these siege works of stone, so they still exist. The Romans built a 10 to 12 foot wall around the whole base of the mountain so that no one could escape.
Jodi Magness herself codirected the first excavation of the eight Roman army camps surrounding Masada. Each camp had a stone wall surrounding it. Low stone walls within the camps were used as bases for leather tent living quarters (think of Saul of Tarsus’s profession). She discovered a preatorium from and a podium from which the commander reviewed the troops. Pottery identifies and officer’s mess. A headquarters building was found as well.
This gives us more information than any other ancient site about how the Roman army operated.
The Romans did not try to starve the rebels out. The rebels actually had more provisions stored up than the Roman army had with them. So the Romans had to assault the fortress. Thus, they constructed a ramp on the western side of the mountain. It was built by soldiers, not slaves as some have thought. It was wide enough for troops to attack in formations rather than single file. This ramp still exists, although it has partly fallen due to earthquakes.
Archers firing volleys of arrows and ballistas, which hurled round stones provided cover for the builders. We found arrowheads and ballista stones all over around the top of the ramp.
Josephus reports that when the Roman’s breached Herod’s wall the defenders repaired it with dirt poured into wooden frames. The Roman battering rams had no effect on this berm, so they set the wooden frames on fire. The Jewish men then met and decided on mass suicide. The men killed their families and then themselves. Ten men were left. After drawing lots, one of them killed the other nine and then himself.
As we saw before in regard to Essene celibacy, Magness thinks Josephus is sometimes unreliable. There is no independent confirmation of Josephus’ story. He claimed that a few old women hid and survived, implying that they became his source. We have found some human remains, including women and children, at Masada, but not the 960 or so that would confirm a mass suicide. We do not know how or where the majority of the bodies might have been disposed of. Yigeal Yadin claimed that he might have found the lots the ten used to decide who would finish the deaths. But he found 12 potsherds that could have been used for this, not 10. This seems inconclusive to me. If old women who were hiding out were the source, they could easily have gotten the numbers wrong.
The only story we have is that of Josephus. As Magness points out, he wrote for propaganda and entertainment purposes, not historical objectivity. But archeology neither confirms nor undermines his story. As I said, it is the only narrative we have.
At the end of the chapter, Magness has spectacular photos of Masada, a drawing of how Herod’s northern palace (family quarters) must have looked, and a map with the layout of the Roman siege. I can’t reproduce her illustrations here. But you can look here, or just Google Masada and click on images.