Skip to main content
  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: February 2016



A few grey federales say,

They could have had him any day.

They only let him go so long

Out of kindness, I suppose.

Townes van Zandt, Pancho and Lefty

No site in modern Israel receives more attention than Masada, the striking mesa at the southwest end of the Dead Sea's main basin. And none offers more food for thought concerning the relationship between history and tradition (Chapter 1). Although Masada's meaning as a national icon has increasingly been questioned, the site continues to be seen as a symbol of the heroic struggle for national freedom. In 1932, 60-year-old German academic Adolf von Schulten and a former general named Adolf Lammerer camped below the hilltop for a month to study the Roman siege works. They were inspired by the thought that “the heroic struggle for the Fatherland has been and remains one of the most distinguished objects of historical research and writing.” In 2001, when Masada became Israel's first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the criterion was still that Masada symbolized “the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.”

What happened to create this image? That question is entangled with interests other than historical curiosity. Before and after Israel's creation in 1948, fascination was intense. Masada hosted thousands of hikers from the embryonic state. A preliminary survey in 1955 and 1956 prepared for full-scale excavations from 1963 to 1965. The latter were of exceptional duration, intensity, thoroughness, and international exposure. It helped that they were led by Yigael Yadin: soldier, Chief of Defence Staff, and archaeologist, later founder of a political party and Deputy Prime Minister. Yadin's patriotic interpretation of the stunning discoveries, especially in his popular book, helped to secure Masada's position in Israel's and the world's imagination.

The line between plausible reality and inspiring story quickly became blurred. American aviator-sailor-author Ernest K. Gann novelized Josephus’ brief Masada story in The Antagonists (1971), which Boris Sagal then brought into American living rooms as the eight-part television series Masada (1981). He used British actors to play the Roman imperialists, Americans for the death-defying Jewish patriots under Eleazar.

Historical scholarship could not indulge so obviously in emotional stakes, but it often seemed to pit heroic freedom-fighters against imperial enforcers just as clearly. Scholars debated exactly how the freedom-fighters died and what this might say about their moral character.

Recommend this book

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.

A History of the Jewish War
  • Online ISBN: 9781139020718
  • Book DOI:
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to *