Who Led the Romans at Masada?

When the Jews revolted against Roman rule in Palestine it resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and the holy Jewish Second Temple. A small group of Jewish zealots retreated to the remote mountain-top fortress of Masada which was being manned by a small Roman garrison. They overthrew the garrison and were soon joined by more surviving Jews.  The group of survivors knew that the hill-top fortress, built years before by Herod, offered ideal natural and man-made protection from the Romans. However the Romans didn’t want to leave any free Jews in Palestine, and certainly didn’t want the embarrassment of allowing this group to escape. So troops were sent to scale Masada, breach the fortress and capture or kill the Jewish Zealots. 15,000 Roman troops of the Legio X Fretensis were sent south to Masada led by General Lucius Flavius Silva.

king herod palaceSilva was the governor of Ludaea (Judea); he was born in c.40AD in the Roman town of Urbs Salvia in Italy. He became Legatus Augusti pro praetor (governor) of Judaea following Sextus Lucilius Bassus. When Silva led the troops against Masada it was a representation of Roman power, the number of troops in comparison with the number of Jews was disproportionate, at first sight there was no need for such large numbers of troops. However the difficult challenge of scaling Masada turned out to be more problematic than they originally thought. The Jews managed to hold out for 3 years as the Romans employed every weapon in their arsenal to conquer the mount. Silva was faced with supplying water and food to the troops in this isolated location.

First the Romans constructed a siege wall to protect them from attacks and any zealots trying to escape the army’s eight base camps were surrounded by the siege wall. When attempts to scale Masada failed they built a siege ramp on Masada’s western face using stone and earth. The ramp allowed the troops to get closer and higher to their target. They could roll their large weapons (sling shots and battering rams etc) up the ramp to reach Masada’s outer fortress walls. Once the troops eventually reached the mountain top, with their swords drawn ready to fight they found that the zealots had committed suicide rather than face capture and torture by the Romans. However Silva had made his point, the zealots had been beaten and the Romans had proved their ingenuity, perseverance and that no enemy of the Empire would be left untouched.

Following the capture of Masada in 73AD Silva continued to be the governor of Judaea until 81AD when he was appointed a Roman Consul. Few traces remain of the Silva family who may have suffered at the hands of Emperor Domitian who purged the empire of powerful generals who had been favored by Domitian’s predecessor and he had many records erased from the archives. The information we have about Silva comes from the writings of Roman historian Josephus; an excavated 1st century Roman victory arch uncovered in Jerusalem; an inscription on a stone tablet found near Temple Mount proclaiming Silva as the victor of Masada and an inscription found at an amphitheatre in Italy listing the posts held by Silva.


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