The Fall of Masada
Contributed by David Verne
The Jewish Revolt was crushed after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., but a last holdout remained. Masada was a mountaintop fortress in the middle of the desert near the Dead Sea and was held by 967 men, women, and children of the Sicarii, a radical Jewish faction. On the mountain's eastern side, it rose 460 ft. above the desert with a small trail leading to the top, and the western side was 262 ft. high and was only slightly easier to attack. The flat top was ringed by a 20 ft. tall and 13 ft. wide stone wall, supported by 30 towers. Cisterns were cut into the rock to store enough water to fill 16 Olympic swimming pools, and storehouses with enough food to last years. This was what the Roman army of 10,000 faced in early 73.
The Romans were led by the local governor, Lucius Silva. The core of the army was the 10th Fretensis, grizzled veterans of the Armenian wars and the Jewish revolt. They started the siege by constructing a stone wall surrounding the fortress. Silva decided that they couldn't wait the defenders out, since logistics would be a nightmare in the barren desert. An assault was the only option, but the mountain was too steep for siege equipment and too high for artillery to reach. On the western side of the mountain was a rocky spur, and the Romans drew up plans to build a massive ramp on top of this rock, enabling them to reach the walls.
After two months, the Romans completed the enormous construction. It was 722 ft. at its base, was almost 300 ft. high, and archaeologists estimate it weighed as much as one and a half times the Empire State Building. An 82 ft. siege tower was built, specifically designed to handle the 20-degree incline, and housed a battering ram in the front. The ram broke through the stone wall, but a second wall of earth and wood absorbed the ram's blows. This wall was flammable, and the Romans managed to burn much of it. When the legionaries charged through the breach the next day, they faced no resistance and found only a disconcerting silence. The bodies of the defenders were found throughout the fortress, and it was only after finding two women and five children in one of the water cisterns that they learned the story. The rebels had killed themselves in a mass suicide pact, refusing to be captured. Recent archaeological has shown inconsistencies with this story though.