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Masada: History and Myth

When you'll study it
Semester 2
CATS points
15
ECTS points
7.5
Level
Level 4
Module lead
Sarah Pearce
Academic year
2024-25

Module overview

The Dead Sea fortress Masada was the last stronghold of resistance to Roman rule in Judea. Following the outbreak of revolt against Rome (66) and the fall of Jerusalem to the soldiers of the Roman emperor Vespasian (70), the fortress was finally taken in 73/74 AD. The memory of these events has had a deep and lasting effect on western civilisation.

The story of Masada is told by Flavius Josephus, first a commander on the rebel side, later a prisoner of Vespasian, and, finally, under Vespasian’s patronage in Rome, historian of the Judean War (66-73/74) – posthumously, one of the most read historians of all time. In his lifetime, serious questions were asked about Josephus’s loyalties (“traitor or patriot”?), and his truthfulness – those questions continue to be asked by historians today as they explore Josephus’s complex identity. His account of Masada supplies a classic case study for exploring Josephus’s credibility and the politics of his history writing. As Josephus tells it, armed rebels made Masada their home in 66, men, women, and children, inspired by religious ideology: “No ruler but God”. As proof of their beliefs, the leaders of Masada chose to kill themselves and their families (960 people) rather than surrender to the Roman forces who had laid siege to the fortress. Josephus condemns the rebels of Masada for their resistance to Rome and blames their ideology for the catastrophe of the war. But in their self-inflicted death, he also portrays them as heroes, admired for their bravery by the Roman soldiers who found their bodies. The story raises many questions. Not least, what really happened at Masada?

Following the excavation of Masada in the 1960s, the fortress has yielded a remarkable treasure-trove of evidence about the lives of the people who lived there and the Roman siege operation, which brought their occupation to an end. For historians of the ancient world, this is a rare and precious chance to compare the history of a major event with material evidence from the site of action. Does it confirm or refute Josephus? Can the archaeology tell us about that rarest of things, the viewpoint of rebels against Roman rule? In the modern world, the rebels’ last stand at Masada has become a powerful symbol of heroic resistance but also of survival: “Masada shall not fall again”.