Looting Masada

One of my favorite sites is Masada.  The drama of the story and the messages coupled with the extensive archaeological finds and the desert landscape make Masada a “must see” on most tourists itineraries.  So, it was with much excitement that I approached a recent paper by archaeologist Steven Garfinkle titled “Roman Military Adventurism and the Fall of Masada.”  Dr. Garfinkle has a unique angle on answering some of the pesky technical questions which are asked at Masada.

Why did the Romans bother with such a small group of Jews left on Masada?  About 1000 Jews lived on Masada during winter 73 C.E.  This number does not present a military challenge, especially when only about 250 were fit to be fighters.

Why did the Romans commit so many troops to the battle? Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian who provides us with the narrative of Masada, states that as many as 15,000 trained and battle-hardened soldiers came to Masada for the battle.

Why did the Romans build such an extensive siege camp?  The camp includes a siege wall 4.5 km (2.7 miles) in circumference, 8 separate camps for soldiers, and a siege ramp. masada-ramp

According to Garfinkle, these questions can all be answered by looking at Masada from a different perspective.  Josephus encourages us to look at the Masada battle from a Jewish perspective – the last remnant from a destroyed Jerusalem facing off against the most powerful army of the time.  Garfinkle looks at the situation from the Roman general’s perspective.  War is expensive.  After putting down the Jewish rebellion and destroying the Temple, the Roman army sought to “mop up” what was left and collect the spoils from any lingering Jewish community in the area.  A refugee is likely to take his most valuable possession with him.  Masada, home to nearly 1000 refugees and the administrative center (and treasury) of the rebels, was a profitable target.

According to Roman military law, the spoils from a town which surrenders, go to the commander; whereas a city which is sacked, has its spoils taken by the individual soldiers.  The Roman general, Silva, therefore has a vested interest in the Jews’ surrender.  To this end, he brought many soldiers and built impressive siege structures in order to scare the Jews into giving up.  Silva’s greed is why the soldiers, after breaching the wall, do not ascend to the summit at night as it would be hard for Silva to monitor the collection of spoils under the cover of darkness.  Because there are no Jews left to battle in the morning, it is not counted as a sack but rather a surrender, and therefore any spoils found must go to Silva.  From the Roman perspective, this is just another looting mission to line the pockets of the Roman general.

Exploring different perspectives adds another layer to the complex story of Masada and offers some answers to questions which arise from the narrative.

Nearby sites:

  • Herodian
  • Mt. Sedom
  • Dead Sea

 

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