Events surrounding the massacre at Masada back in Roman times have long been debated. In his new book, Welsh historian Phil Carradice delves into the fascinating story, only to find that when it comes to what really happened at Masada, nothing is certain. BY NICK SMITH.
If you haven’t heard of Masada don’t worry, you’re not alone. Almost nobody has these days, because it’s one of those forgotten moments in history. Quite why one of the biggest mass suicides ever should be virtually unknown today is a question for historians, and so we should be grateful to veteran Welsh writer Phil Carradice for bringing the story to our attention. So, what is or was Masada?
Put simply, nearly two millennia ago, in the year 73 CE (or AD if you prefer) during the First Jewish-Roman War a hilltop settlement of less than a thousand Sicarii Jewish zealots withstood a two-year siege against the occupying Roman militia that outnumbered them by a factor of 15. The Romans built a ramp, shifting thousands of tons of earth and rock in the process, so that they could breach the walled town of Masada with a battering ram. When they finally entered Masada, they found themselves in the city of the dead. Rather than fall into enemy hands and face a future of, at the very best, a life of slavery, the people of Masada slaughtered themselves, down to the last man, who committed suicide. As Carradice says: “It was a massacre. But a massacre with a difference” in that it had been carried out by the victims.
The only survivors were two women along with the five children they were protecting, hidden in a cistern, which meant that “960 men, women and children had voluntarily offered themselves for suicide in Masada.” The women were probably the source for the First Century Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, whose account of the events at Masada became the traditional explanation of what happened. But as Carradice says, Josephus is hardly a reliable source. As dramatic and heart-rending as his story is, we’re left wondering how much of the narrative is politically biased or simply fiction. Since there are no other contemporary accounts, and archaeological evidence doesn’t do much to support Josephus, “no one will ever really know what happened.”
Carradice concludes by offering the reader three choices. Either it all happened as the chronicler describes and the people of Masada orchestrated their own slaughter. Or, the Romans entered the city and massacred its occupants and Josephus covered it up with his suicide pact story. Or, when the Romans finally walked into Masada, there was no one there. Each of these options, says the historian, has its merits and drawbacks. While the first has dramatic appeal, Josephus’ account is riddled with holes and is easy to pick apart. While the second seems to make more sense from a military point of view, the Sicarii had until this point successfully defended Masada, implying that something extraordinary (and unrecorded) must have happened to trigger a complete capitulation. The third is scarcely worth considering as, with Masada completely surrounded, it’s hard to believe nearly a thousand people escaped unnoticed. Carradice thinks the most likely explanation lies somewhere between the first two scenarios but is left understandably “lamenting that nobody apart from Josephus wrote an informed account of the events.”
What actually happened at Masada might be unclear, but the story has become a byword for heroism and defiance in the face of the mighty Roman Empire. As Carradice says towards the end of his compelling and though-provoking account of Masada: “What matters is the symbolic nature of the mountain and what went on there. It is a symbol of man’s courage and determination not to give in to powerful bullying forces. And that applies whatever nation you’re from.”