7/21/09 - masada

In today's excerpt - the mass suicide of nine hundred and sixty Jews at the Dead Sea fortress of Masada in 72 AD as reported by the ancient historian Josephus in his classic The Jewish War (circa 75 AD). These Jews chose suicide rather than give themselves up to be slaves to the Romans, who were in the process of decimating the Jews throughout Palestine in the First Jewish-Roman War. As a result Masada has become a powerful symbol of courage and defiance for Jews the nation of Israel and many beyond as well:

"[Eleazer the leader of the small band of Jews besieged by the Romans inside the fortress of Masada said to the group] 'My loyal followers, long ago we resolved to serve neither the Romans nor anyone else but only God, who alone is the true and righteous Lord of men: now the time has come that bids us prove our determination by our deeds. At such a time we must not disgrace ourselves: hitherto we have never submitted to slavery even when it brought no danger with it: we must not choose slavery now and with it penalties that will mean the end of everything if we fall alive into the hands of the Romans. And I think it is God who has given us this privilege that we can die nobly and as free men unlike others who were unexpectedly defeated. In our case, it is evident that daybreak will end our resistance but we are free to choose an honourable death with our loved ones. ...

"Now all hope has fled, abandoning us to our fate let us at once choose death with honour and do the kindest thing we can for ourselves, our wives and children, while it is still possible to show ourselves any kindness. After all, we were born to die, we and those we brought into the world: this even the luckiest must face. But outrage, slavery and the sight of our wives led away to shame with our children—these are not evils to which man is subject by the laws of nature: men undergo them through their own cowardice, if they have a chance to forestall them by death and will not take it. ... A man will see his wife violently carried off; he will hear the voice of his child crying 'Father!' when his own hands are fettered. ... So let us deny the enemy their hoped-for pleasure at our expense and without more ado leave them to be dumbfounded by our death and awed by our courage.'

"Eleazar had many more arguments to urge, but all his listeners cut him short and full of uncontrollable enthusiasm made haste to do the deed. As if possessed, they rushed off, everyone anxious to be quicker than the next man and regarding it as proof positive of manliness and wisdom not to be found among the last: so irresistible a desire had seized them to slaughter their wives, their children and themselves. ... At the very moment when with streaming eyes they embraced and caressed their wives and taking their children in their arms pressed upon them the last lingering kisses, hands other than their own seemed to assist them and they carried out their purpose, the thought of the agonies which they would suffer at the hands of the enemy consoling them for the necessity of killing them. In the end not a man failed to carry out his terrible resolve, but one and all disposed of their entire families victims of cruel necessity who with their own hands murdered their wives and children and felt it to be the lightest of evils!

"Unable to endure any longer the horror of what they had done and thinking they would be wronging the dead if they outlived them a moment longer, they quickly made one heap of all they possessed and set it on fire; and when ten of them had been chosen by lot to be the executioners of the rest, every man flung himself down beside his wife and children where they lay put his arms round them and exposed his throat to those who must perform the painful office. ... And [later] the one man left till last ... summoning all his strength drove his sword right through his body and fell dead by the side of his family. Thus these men died supposing that they had left no living soul to fall into the hands of the Romans; but an old woman escaped along with another who was related to Eleazar in intelligence and education, superior to most women, and five little children."


Flavius Josephus


The Jewish War, Volume 2


Penguin Books




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