Skip to main content Accesibility Help

The Roman Siege-Works of Masàda, Israel

  • I. A. Richmond

The western shore of the Dead Sea, the most remarkable natural feature in Palestine (fig. 4), is a strip of flat or very gently sloping land, mostly barren, its parched surface seamed with a wrinkled pattern of erosion channels. The strip represents in part the old bed of the lake, once larger than now, and in part the spill of detritus from the rocky cliffs which tower above it. These precipitous heights form an almost unbroken wall some 300 ft. high extending from Qumran to Sdom, being patterned in high relief only by the few wadis which bite through them and carry the rare but torrential winter rains. The cliffs themselves are but the floor of the plateau through which the Jordan valley has opened its deep and famous rift, reaching a depth of over a thousand feet below Mediterranean sea-level; and from the plateau itself rises the mountainous, pitiless desert of Judah, stretching to Hebron 21 miles westward and draining eastwards towards the rift-valley. Where the eastward face of the cliffs is cut by water-courses it is carved into promontories, but in the main these constitute an integral part of wide sweeps of hinterland and are not positions of strength. At one point only (fig. 5) do two wadis flow close together and then divide, to tear out deep ravines behind a promontory, and almost to cut it off on the landward side. The spot in question is Masàda (pl. XVI), a lozenge-shaped table-mountain, 730 yds. long and 215 yds. wide overall, lofty, isolated and to all appearance impregnable.

Hide All

1 This paper, given to the British Academy and by their generosity printed here, is the outcome of a visit to Masàda in December, 1960, under the a visit to Masàda in December, 1960, under the auspices of the British Council, when the writer spent a day-and-a-half examining the site with its excavator, Mr. S. Gutmann, who had begun work on Camp A. The Herodian fortress and all the camps were visited except G and H. The plans given here are based partly upon Schulten's overall measurements, partly on notes taken on the spot and much upon the air-photographs kindly put at my disposal by Dr. J. K. St. Joseph, Curator of Air Photography, University of Cambridge.

2 Josephus, BJ VII, 282, καλοῦσι δὲ τὴν ἑτέραν ὄφιν, τῇ στενότητι προσεικάσαντες καὶ τοῖς συνεχέσιν ἐλιγμοῖς.

3 ibid. 283, δεῖ δὲ παραλλὰξ τὸν δι'αὐτῆς βαδίζοντα τὸν ἕτερον τῶν ποδῶν ἐρείδεσθαι.

4 ibid. 285 ; Jonathan reigned in 161–143 B.C.

5 ibid. 295 : see Schulten, A., Zeitschr. des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins LVI (1933), 60, plan XIII building I; plan XVII, building A.

6 l.c., πολλοὺς καὶ μεγάλους ἐτετμήκει λάκκους ἐν ταῖς πέτραις φυλακτῆρας ὑδάτων, μηχανώμενος εἶναι χορηγίαν ὅση τῷ ἐκ πηγῶν ἐστι χρωμένοις. Josephus does not explain how the water was gathered.

7 BJ II, 408, describes the capture of Masàda from Roman guards : for its strength, see BJ 1, 237, τὀ πάντων ὀχυρώτατον Μασάδαν.

8 BJ VII 253: their origin is described, BJ 11, 254–7.

9 BJ VII, 252: for the chronology, see Schulten, o.c. (n.5) 17, who points out that the investment of the forest of Jarden by Bassus fell after July, 72 (BJ VII, 219), and preceded the concentration upon Masàda.

10 BJ VII, 400, enumerates 960 victims, while seven had saved themselves (ibid. 399).

11 A. Schulten, o.c. (n. 5) I–185.

12 BJ VII, 278, οὐ γὰρ ἡ τροφὴ μόνον πόρρωθεν ἐκουίζετο καὶ σὺν μεγάλῃ ταλαπωρίᾳ τῶν ἐπὶ τοῦτο τεταγμένων Ἰουδαίων ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ ποτὸν ἧν ἀγώγιμον.

Schulten calculates a minimum daily requirement of 20,000 litres, or about 4,600 gallons.

13 BJ VII, 410, on the behaviour of refugee sicarii.

14 BJ VII, 276, τεῖχος δὲ περιέβαλε κύκλῳ περὶ πᾶν τὸ φρούριον ὅπως μηδενὶ τῶν πολιορκουμένων ᾗ ῥᾴ διον διαφυγεῖν.

15 BJ VII, 164. The special reputation for engineering gained by this legion during the Jerusalem siege (BJ v, 269) is worth recall.

16 Hawkes, Antiquity III, 201, attributes the work to troops of Ventidius Bassus accompanying Herod: but Josephus does not suggest that Roman troops were then present (AJ XIV, 394; cf. ibid. 400, where the junction of forces comes later, at Jerusalem).

17 De mun. castr. 53, ‘aggeribus autem ita fit vallum, si locus petrosus aut arenosus fuerit.’

18 cf. Caesar, BG VI, 38, ‘capit arma a proximis atque in porta consistit.’

19 Arch. Journ. LXXXIX, 57, pl. XII, B ; 59, fig. 12. The Masàda walls cannot be walls surrounding tents, because the area enclosed would then be impossibly small. Von Domaszewski thought they were marking-out lines, but they are far too massive (Neue Heidelberger Jahrb. IX, 2 , 140).

20 Cumb. and Westm. Antiq. and Arch. Soc. Trans. 2 ( = CW 2) XXXIV, 63, for a consideration of the bivouactent.

21 De mun. castr. I, ‘papilio unus occupat pedes x, … tegit homines viii.’

22 o.c. (n. 5) 101: Schulten was at Masàda during the dry month of March (o.c. 4).

23 This becomes plain from inspection of the ground: cf. pls. XVII, XIX.

24 The triclinium is first mentioned in describing events of 178 B.C.: Livy XLI, 2, ‘expositamque copiam et stratos lectos in quaestorio invenissent.’

25 SHA Hadrianus 10, 4, ‘triclinia de castris … dirueret.’

26 CW 2 XXXV, 241, fig. 20.

27 Lixa, military slang from lixa, ‘water’ : cf. Isidore, s.v. ‘Lixiones’, aquarum portitores.’

28 Shown to me at Masàda camp A, by the excavator, Mr. S. Gutmann.

29 For comparably bad setting-out in temporary works, cf. Featherwood West camp, Northumberland County Hist. XV, 127, fig. 36.

30 The term is an augural term but is more convenient than retentura which includes only the space behind the via quintana.

31 The detail, however, is eroded and obscure. Schulten's plan, when compared with the airphotograph and actual remains, breaks down completely at this end of the camp, and seems to have been based upon preconceived ideas.

32 o.c. 113.

33 o.c. Plan IV.

34 Von Domaszewski, , Neue Heidelberger Jahrb. IX, 2, 144: for the large general's tent see Cichorius, Die Reliefs des Traianssäule, scenes VIII, XII, XIII, XVII, XXI, LIII, LXI, LXII, XCVIII, CXXV, CXLI, CXLVII.

35 For tables in general see F. Richter, Ancient Furniture 138 ff., or J. Liversidge, Furniture in Roman Britain, passim. E. Pernice and F. Winter, Der Hildesheimer Silberfund, Taf. XXVIII and fig. 26, should not be forgotten, for a folding table.

36 For comparable staff triclinia, see Schulten, Numantia in, Plan XX, 2, 3.

37 Von Domaszewski, o.c. 143: Schulten, o.c. 122–3, improves on the details, particularly the height.

38 Von Domaszewski, l.c.; also Taf. 1.

39 Von Domaszewski, o.c. 143: Schulten, o.c. 123–5, greatly improves upon this, particularly as regards the augural seat and supposed bed. That the augurale could be used as the general's sleeping-quarters follows from Tac., Ann. XV, 30.

40 Von Domaszewski, o.c. 145.

41 o.c. 117–8.

42 Von Domaszewski, o.c. ( n. 34) 143, note 16, and 145; cf. Tac., Hist., 111, 10.

43 The heat (see p. 146) and tightly packed quarters Schulten, o.c, n. 5) 116, ‘lagen die Soldaten wie die Heringe’) demand this.

44 o.c. 128.

45 o.c. 127–8.

46 cf. Chester (Chester Arch. Journ. XXXVIII, 2, fig. 1), where the barracks of the first cohort have extra contubernia, or Inchtuthil (JRS LI, 158, fig. 9), where all barracks have fourteen divisions.

47 Unless this were held temporarily by an auxiliary unit.

48 BJ VII, 277.

49 For canabae outside field works, see Caes., BG VI, 37, ‘castris appropinquant usque eo ut qui sub vallo tenderent mercatores recipiendi sui facultatem non haberent’.

50 For plans of two, each with triclinium, Schulten, o.c. (n. 5) plan XXVIII, B and C. The surviving remains are those in which stone was used. Other materials for flimsier structure have left no trace, but are not to be discounted.

51 The structures in fact seem original and may be ballistaria, see von Domaszewski, Die Provinz Arabia 111, 232, fig. 1114, and Hawkes, Antiquity 111, 212: for Schulten's views, see o.c. 141–3.

52 cf. for legionaries, V. E. Nash-Williams, The Roman frontier in Wales, 132, fig. 56; for auxiliaries, Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot. LXXIII 134–6.

53 Ant. III, 211.

54 o.c. 156: Hawkes also takes this meaning, but presumes the phrase was not to be taken literally.

55 BJ VII 407, ἐπὶ μὲν τοῦ φρουρίου καταλείπει φυλακὴν.

56 o.c. (n. 5) 158–62.

57 The catch-water arrangements have been destroyed by the siege-mound and the circumvallation.

58 Gadara, BJ IV, 417; Jericho and Adida, BJ IV, 486.

59 BJ VII, 276.

60 o.c. (n. 5) 93; see also plan 1.

61 Bowmen are not known among the auxiliaries of the day in Palestine : for artillery on the investing works at Jerusalem, BJ VI, 21.

62 For signalling, see Appian, Iberica 90.

63 BJ V, 508–9.

64 BJ VII, 305.

65 cf. Arch. Journ. LXXXIX, 32, pl. VIII, for a hollow ballista emplacement at Cawthorn.

66 BJ VII, 309.

67 Schulten, o.c. (n. 5) 167–71, by Gen. von Lammerer.

68 BJ VII, 306–7.

69 BJ VII, 309.

70 Von Lammerer, see Schulten, I.c., visualizes a wheeled track, but does not suggest how the motive power was applied. Some kind of rack or corduroy, with stays consecutively adjusted, seems the only possibility.

71 BJ V, 292, συνέβη πεσεῖν αὐτομάτως ἕνα μέσης νυκτός.

72 BJ V, 470.

73 BJ VII, 299, mentions stores of arms of every kind, but no artillery.

74 BJ VII, 310, συνεχεῖς ποιεῖσθαι κελεύσας τῷ τείχει τὰς ἐμβολάς.

75 BJ VII, 403–6.

76 BJ VII, 418.

77 As shown to me by Mr. Gutmann.

Recommend this journal

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

The Journal of Roman Studies
  • ISSN: 0075-4358
  • EISSN: 1753-528X
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-roman-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed