The Storerooms at Masada

The desert fortress of Masada was once the site of a heroic last stand between Jewish Zealots and besieging Romans. But before we get there, we should discuss what Masada is and how it came to be the site of such a memorable event in Jewish history.

The story of Masada begins with the rule of Herod the Great, whom the Roman Senate unexpectedly named “king of the Jews” in about 40 BCE. Herod was a client king of Judea during Roman occupation–that is, he was a local ruler whom the Romans recognized and allowed to exercise authority. Balancing loyalties to both Jewish subjects and Roman superiors, however, was tricky business. There were conflicts of interest and numerous ways that the balancing act could go awry.

In response to ongoing tensions between Jews and Romans, Herod constructed a fortress complex high on an isolated rock plateau on the western shore of the Dead Sea, near Idumaea, about 66 miles south of Jerusalem. Construction began in about 37 BCE–the year Herod became a Roman client-king– and continued until about 31 BCE. The historian Josephus says that Herod had two motivations for building the fortress. First, Herod’s ancestors had converted to Judaism but were not ethnically Jewish. Herod’s mother was an Arabian, and only those born to Jewish mothers were considered Jews themselves. Herod’s father was an Idumean, and Jews looked down upon Idumeans as racially impure.1 Thus Herod was not fully accepted by the Jewish population he governed. Masada could serve as a safehouse in the event of a coup d’etat or citizen uprising.

Second, Josephus says that Herod feared Cleopatra2, the queen of Egypt, who had a knack for persuading her lover Marc Antony, one of Rome’s three rulers, to capture kingdoms and then give them over to her.3 In the decades prior to Herod’s assumption of power in Judea, the region had been captured and recaptured by opposing political rulers, and all was in flux. The Hasmonean dynasty had ruled until Roman occupation in 67 BCE, recaptured Judea in 41 BCE, and been driven out again by the Romans a year later. Thus, Herod knew that his hold on Judea could be ephemeral.4 It was not unreasonable to fear that Cleopatra might try to claim Judea as territory of Egypt. When Herod had traveled to Alexandria in 41 BCE to seek Marc Antony’s help in driving out the Hasmoneans, Cleopatra had attempted to seduce him. He had refused her, and Cleopatra bore a grudge against him.5 Although Cleopatra never seized Judea from Herod, she did gain control of Iturea in northeastern Palestine, Jericho, and Chalcis in northern Judea. Herod was then forced to lease parts of his own territory from her.6

It was with these threats in mind that Herod constructed the Masada fortress. Herod the Great was renowned for his monumental building projects, and Masada is a prime example of his taste for size and grandeur.7 The Masada fortress is no small rough-hewn fort. Rather, it was an elaborate complex which included two palaces. One was constructed in the style of imperial palaces on Rome’s Palatine Hill. It had a semicircular colonnaded balcony with commanding views of the Dead Sea lying 1,200 feet below. Excavations have revealed that all the palace rooms boasted frescos and mosaic floors. A second, larger palace nearly an acre in size was concealed on the western side of the fortress. It is likely that Herod never lived at Masada, but the grand palaces were constructed for comfort in the event that he did set himself up there.

For the guards and servants who helped operate the fortress, Herod constructed a village complete with bedrooms, bathhouses, 12 cisterns hewn into the cliffs, and 29 storerooms. Herod intended for the fortress to withstand prolonged siege, and so he stocked its storerooms with all sorts of preserved foods. Josephus describes the storerooms as containing “corn in large quantities… such as would subsist men for a long time” as well as “wine and oil in abundance, all kinds of pulse, and dates heaped up together.”8 These foods were stored in sealed earthen jars, and each was inscribed with a label.9 Because Herod never occupied Masada, these provisions were not consumed.

After Herod died in 4 BCE, the fortress of Masada was most likely abandoned for the next 75 years, except for a small Roman garrison. This changed in 66 CE, when a group of Jewish rebels overcame the Roman outpost and began to occupy the fortress. Masada was always intended to be a place of last resort, and the Jews of Judea were in dire straits. Sixty-six CE saw the outbreak of the first Jewish-Roman war: in response to the Romans’ raid on the Second Temple of Jerusalem’s coffers10, Jews in Jerusalem and beyond revolted. In retaliation, the Romans began to destroy and subjugate Jewish towns outside Jerusalem. In 70 CE, the Romans turned their sights on destroying Jerusalem, the last stronghold of the Jewish people. They breached the city walls, tore down the Second Temple of Jerusalem block by block11, and killed 6,000 Jews in a single act.12 According to Josephus, over a million civilians died in the conflict, though this figure may not be a reliable estimate.13

With Jerusalem vanquished, a few hundred Jewish rebels who had survived the war fled to Masada to join the first group of rebels. These refugees from Jerusalem took up residence in the fortress for about two years and resupplied themselves with violent raids nearby towns such as Ein Gedi. In 73 CE, the Roman tenth legion came to finish off the rebels of Masada. The rebels then holed up in the fortress and subsisted on the provisions Herod left behind more than 75 years prior. Josephus reports that the provisions were still fresh and uncorrupted, owing in part to the dry climate.14

The Jewish rebels withstood two or three months of siege before succumbing to the 5,000 Roman soldiers, who had constructed both a huge ramp leading up to the fortress walls and a siege tower with a battering ram. The ruse was over, and the Jews knew that the end was near. As the Roman legionnaires made their attack on the fortress, the Jewish rebels resolved to deprive the Romans of their satisfaction. Josephus tells us that instead of allowing themselves to be conquered, they decided to end their lives on their own terms and become martyrs of Roman resistance. Josephus imagines the leader of the rebels urging his fellows to “Do it quickly, before you hear your children crying, ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ and you won’t be able to help them, before you see your wives being violated and you will be helpless.”15

When the Romans finally broke through the walls and stormed the fortress, they found only two women and five children alive. The grand palaces had been set on fire, and the personal effects of the Jewish rebels were hidden away within the fortress’ double walls.16 After months of siege, there was no showdown, no “Remember the Alamo!”-type faceoff between defenders and assailants. Instead, there was only stillness in the aftermath of the Jews’ escape by death.


“Herod the Great – Livius.”, June 28, 2017.

“Masada Desert Fortress.” Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed October 25, 2017.

Watkins, Thayer. “The Timeline of the Life of Cleopatra.” Accessed October 25, 2017.

Weigall, Arthur. Life & Times of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. New York: Kegan Paul Limited, 2004.

Yadin, Yigael, and S. Kent Brown. “Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand: A BYU Forum Address.” Brigham Young University Studies 36, no. 3 (1996): 15–32.

Zeitlin, Solomon. “Masada and the Sicarii.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 55, no. 4 (1965): 299–317.

  1. “Herod the Great,” 
  2. Herod the Great’s fifth wife was also named Cleopatra. This woman, however, is usually called Cleopatra of Jerusalem to distinguish her from Cleopatra of Egypt. 
  3. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book XV, chapter 4. 
  4. Zeitlin, 300-301. 
  5. Watkins, “The Timeline of the Life of Cleopatra.” 
  6. Weigall, 272. 
  7. “Masada Desert Fortress,” 
  8. Josephus, The Jewish War, book VIII, chapter 4. 
  9. Excavators working at Masada have recovered dozens of labels, many of which are documented in the IIP repository. 
  10. See also the “Heliodorus Stele” and its associated story entitled “Temple Raid Sparks Revolt.” 
  11. Only a small section of outer wall survived because it was buried in rubble. This wall is what is now called the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall. 
  12. Josephus, The Jewish War, book VI, chapter 5. 
  13. Josephus, The Jewish War, book VI, chapter 9. 
  14. Josephus, The Jewish War, book VII, chapter 4. 
  15. Yadin and Brown, “Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand: A BYU Forum Address.” 
  16. Yadin and Brown, “Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand: A BYU Forum Address.” 

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