Trapped atop a remote cliff in the Judean desert, 960 men, women, and children were surrounded by nearly 8,000 Roman troops and their auxiliary forces. The year was 72–73 or perhaps 73–74 C.E. (scholars are uncertain). Vowing that these rebels on Masada’s summit would not escape, Roman general Flavius Silva ordered his soldiers to encircle it with several camps and a stone wall up to 12 feet in height. Then, he commanded his legionnaires to construct a massive earth-and-timber ramp for their battering ram to reach the summit.
Josephus—a Jewish priest, general, and (to some) a traitor for defecting to the Romans during the Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.)—documented the subsequent battle in his epic book The Jewish War. Josephus writes that when Silva and his men breached Masada’s gate, they were shocked to find that its defenders had taken their lives. Josephus’s account of this small band of Jews who chose suicide before submission to Roman tyranny is among the most amazing tales from antiquity. But is it true?
Jodi Magness is a familiar name to longtime readers of BAR. A renowned archaeologist and public speaker, she is the Keenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina. Magness’s new book on Masada is a stirring account of its history from antiquity to the present. Her excavation of one of Masada’s Roman camps and its siege ramp gives her a unique perspective on the site and Josephus’s story of its defenders.