The only written source about Masada is Josephus Flavius’ The Jewish War. According to Flavius, Herod the Great built the fortress of Masada between 37 and 31 BCE and “furnished this fortress as a refuge for himself.” It included a casemate wall around the plateau, storehouses, large cisterns ingeniously filled with rainwater, barracks, palaces and an armory.
During the Jewish War which broke out in AD 66, it was taken by Jewish rebels, and by Zealots after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. It remained a thorn in the Roman side, until AD 73 when Rome decided a mopping up operation was needed
“In 73 CE, Roman governor Flavius Silva marched against Masada with the Tenth Legion, auxiliary units and thousands of Jewish prisoners-of-war. The Romans established camps at the base of Masada, laid siege to it and built a circumvallation wall. They then constructed a rampart of thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth against the western approaches of the fortress and, in the spring of 74 CE, moved a battering ram up the ramp and breached the wall of the fortress.”
They found nine hundred and sixty dead. Faced with certain death at the hands of the Romans, the rebels had sought to take their own lives, and cheat the Romans of their glory.
“The Voices of Masada” by David Kossoff is an extraordinary book. It is an imaginative reconstruction of the events of the fall of Masada, beginning with the end of the siege, and told by one of the women who survived, the one Josephus described as “superior to most women in prudence and learning”.
The story then is interspersed with tales telling the story of the revolt, the fall of Jerusalem and the events leading up to the end of the siege of Masada.
Kossoff was well known at the time of publication in 1975 for his dramatic retellings of Bible Stories from the Old Testament on ITV’s “Stars on Sunday”. But here was a very different style. This was a book germinating for many years, only finally reaching completion after decades when he stood on Masada, and saw the July dawn breaking.
Like C.S. Lewis “Till we Have Faces”, it is quite unlike Kossoff’s other writings. Like Lewis, he is writing in a female voice, and bringing this character, whom he names Ruth, to life.
It is a vivid tale, and sadly only available in second hand copies. I hope that one day, it might get a Kindle release and be available to a wider audience. I’d recommend it to anyone. I first read it in the 1970s, and re-read it recently, and was struck by how the same powerful impression it made on me back in the 1970s is still present now.
Here is an extract, which gives something of the feel of the book, and the way in which it brings the ancient world of Masada to life in a way that no dry scholarly paper can ever do, although Kossoff was well read and in touch with archaeologists excavating the site.
An Extract from “The Voices of Masada” by David Kossoff
When all was done upon the, mountain, when everyone was dead and the Romans came in: through the gap in the wall, we waited, as Eleazar had told us to. We waited hidden, and heard more than we saw. Indeed, it was too dark .to see, just after dawn, the Masada dawn that is unlike anywhere else.
We heard the Romans, as we heard everything else, with absolute clarity. It had always been of wonder to me how clearly we could hear, the sounds of the siege camps far below. Every sound carried. It was of use to us, we became expert at recognizing changes in activity, preparations for assault, special drills, commands. When the great-attack ramp was half-built, and looked as solid and strong as our mountain, Silva, General Flavius Silva himself, spoke to us from the ramp, and he had no need to shout. We heard every word.
He spoke correctly and formally, telling us to surrender, to give up all resistance; that we were now alone, that the whole country was now subdued, that we could not but be beaten and destroyed. It was a strong voice, unemotional, the voice of power, the voice of. Rome. No 'sound but the voice, and we heard every word. Eleazar gave a soft order and one of the slingmen wrapped a rockball in oil-soaked rags, put a flame to it and sent it arching into the blue sky to land, in a shower of sparks at Silva's feet. We heard its flames and we heard its defiant thud.
And on that calm raid-April morning, when all was over, as the sky lightened, we heard every sound also. The soldiers came up the ramp fast, carrying ladders and platforms to bridge the gap between their great ram tower and our broken wall. We heard them call to others about the flames, the smoke, the fires everywhere.
Then more soldiers, and more. Then .a. silence, except for the roar of the flames. Then, as if by order, a great shout to bring us out to fight. The shout died away and, as though to emphasize the non-reply to the shout, the flames momentarily lost their roar. We could hear the puzzlement.
Then we heard, for the first time, Roman feet on our plateau. Quick trained feet, to this direction and that, to see and. report back. Then more feet, and a forming up. There was no inch by inch search. They seemed to know. Silva told me later that the silence of death, or emptiness, is different from the silence of ambush or concealment.
'One develops an instinct. All the senses are involved. Even touch, for the very air has a feel "Y6b learn to see what is there, and what is missing. Fear has a smell, as does victory. What you hear is important .and what you do not. I was taught to listen to the 'noire- of a camp, not to the words:,
'Did your instinct tell you what you would find-on Masada?'
`No. The fire was a hint but I allowed for it. We ourselves had set your wooden repair wall alight and the wind made it a furnace. We retired, knowing that the next morning would see the end of the: matter. You would not be able to, build another such wall by morning.'
`How was the fire a hint?'
`It burnt-too long. And seemed to move south. From below we had no way of knowing that the move south was not the wall but the palace. Your friends chose a handsome crematorium.
This was pure Silva. A flatly delivered remark, of calm perception.
`As I told you, I did not go up with the men that morning. Not at first. My officers are men of considerable experience but there is nothing, in regulations that would have prepared them for what they found. Which is why they sent for me.'
`Were you prepared?'
`Forewarned - by their messenger. But not prepared. Neither was I prepared when you appeared.'
Oh, wise Eleazar. Indeed, beloved friend, our Roman was not prepared. But I go 'too fast. This with Silva was later, down on the plant after the dinner. Before I met old Reuben. Let us not go fast. For on that calm mid-April morning the events had a tempo that was nor fast; the events had to do with the dead, who go slow.
So we waited, Sarah and I, listening to the sounds: of running feet, of flames, of puzzled shouts. We waited-until our ears told us that `The General' had arrived. `Silva,' we heard, 'Send for, Silva, get the General'. We waited, and when we were sure we joined hand, with the children and walked out into the morning sunlight.
The youngest child began to whimper and Sarah swung him up on to one muscular arm without losing step. The palace was alight from end to end. Our hiding place, the great water cistern, was over two hundred yards away, to the south, and the palace was a ,.sight to break the heart. We walked on
We were near, the small palace, about half-way, before we were noticed. A young-soldier, little more than a youth, saw us and shouted to, a large: crowd of officers and men who, with their backs to us, were watching the blaze. We walked on, and as we approached the men parted and watched, silent, as we passed between them. Then the officers made a path and we stood before Silva. He waited for me to speak and listened until he had heard enough. Then he rapped commands and the men, well trained, jumped into action. They brought loose earth and sand and water and broke down walls and-doors and soon the :fire was under control.
Silva, who had not spoken again to me after his orders to the men, and had moved Maya little, to stand alone, in thought, now came back.
`The old woman will look after the children,' he said. `You will come with me. If you have told me, the truth, the sight will not surprise-you. If you have lied' He stopped. He knew it was no lie. Beyond belief, incredible, not in regulations; but he knew, with his instinct of many senses, that it was no lie.
We had been standing near the small bathing pool, not far from the terrace outside the throne-room. We walked along the eastern face of the palace and round to the front, to the great archway. To our, right was the charred gap in. the rampart wall and beyond it, the top of the armoured ram tower, nearly a hundred feet high, its base on the colossal ramp, out of our sight.
I paused a moment, and Silva stopped also. He was pale, contained, with a sort of anger in him.
'Waste,' he said, following my look. `Waste. Of effort, of men. Not ours only yours also. Your God, whose rule alone you will accept, who made all men, so you believe. Seemingly, if they are Jews, he made them-mad also in-their devotion to him; Rome rules the-world, in justice and good sense. With more sense than gods, who know nothing of rule. But for your madmen only their God must rule. So we witness yet another vast gesture. Another heroic -last stand. On top of a. mountain in the middle of' a desert. We alone shall see it. And forget it. Waste. For nothing. Soon this place will be what it was before, a Roman garrison, and your friends will be forgotten.'
They will not, my General, they will not.