Biblical Archaeology Review 40:4, July/August 2014

The Masada Siege—From the Roman Viewpoint

By Gwyn Davies

The dramatic archaeological site of Masada, perched on an isolated mesa-top in the Judean desert above the southwest corner of the Dead Sea, is justifiably one of Israel’s premier visitor attractions. The thousands of tourists who come here every year to visit the spectacular ruins of the Herodian fortress-palace exposed by Yigael Yadin’s famous excavation between 1963 and 1965 are treated by their guides to an equally stirring account of the sustained resistance mounted here by a band of determined Jewish fighters against the implacable might of the Roman Empire. Eventually, with their defenses breached and defeat inevitable, the defenders are celebrated for choosing mass suicide over the ignominy of surrender.

This human tragedy derives much of its impact from the austere landscape in which it was enacted, as well as the story of death over dishonor and of resistance to external oppression. This chronicle was ready-made to be harnessed in the fashioning of a suitable ideological narrative in the early days of the new state of Israel.

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