A great rock curiously like an aircraft-carrier moored to the western cliffs of the Dead Sea, Masada is the ‘most spectacular site in the country and the scene of one of the most dramatic episodes in its history.
All our information on the history of Masada comes from Josephus’ Jewish War to which the bracketed numbers refer. First fortified by Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) to protect his south-eastern border (7:285), it was taken by Herod the Great (1:237) in the power struggle which followed the murder of his father Antipater in 43 BC. Forced to flee Jerusalem in 40 BC when the invading Parthians made Antigonus king, he put his womenfolk (mother, sisters, Mariamne his fiancée, and her mother) for security in Masada with a guard of 800 (1:267) while he escaped across the desert to Rome. In his absence Antigonus besieged Masada. Shortage of water forced the defenders to begin girding themselves for a break-out, but a sudden cloudburst replenished the cisterns (1:286-7). Shortly afterwards Herod relieved the garrison (1:293-4).
This experience showed Herod the value of Masada, and he replanned it as a last refuge in case the Jews should turn against him, or Cleopatra should persuade Mark Antony to have him killed (7:300). From AD6 the Romans controlled Masada, but in the summer of AD66 Jewish rebels took it over by a trick (2:408).
Masada of course is best remembered for the defence of the Zealots. When the Romans had subdued the whole of Palestine, Flavius Silvas led the 10th Legion against the fortress. He began by erecting a circumvallation around the mountain: this had 12 towers, with 8 encampments, 2 big and 6 small. Nobody was to escape. He then built a ramp on the west flank, 185 m long, and on this he set up his war machines, catapults and battering rams. As soon as a breach was opened in the walls, the defenders decided to kill themselves rather than surrender. 960 men, women and children died by their own hand: only 2 women and 5 children hid, and crept out of a cave to tell the Roman victors what had happened. Before they died they had burned most of the buildings.
Source: The Holy Land by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor and Guide to the Holy Land by Eugene Hoade