Book review: A noble death?

Jodi Magness has taken a closer look at the legendary tale of Masada, and the facts, speculations and myths

THE ARCHEOLOGICAL remains of Masada, the author says, could be interpreted in many different ways. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE ARCHEOLOGICAL remains of Masada, the author says, could be interpreted in many different ways.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In 73 CE, at a mountain-top fortress in Masada, as Flavius Josephus claimed two years later, 967 men, women, and children killed each other and themselves. The last holdouts in a revolt against Rome (which had ended officially in 70 CE, with the siege, sacking and ransacking of Jerusalem and the Second Temple), they committed mass suicide as a “free choice of a noble death” over slavery to the Romans.
Almost 2,000 years later, Masada, which has become a national park, serves as a metaphor for the physical connection of Jews to their homeland; the heroism of Jewish freedom fighters (often compared to Warsaw Ghetto resisters); and for the State of Israel: isolated and threatened by enemies on all sides.
In Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth, Jodi Magness, a professor in the department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the author, among other books, of Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, provides an examination of the site and the now iconic event. Noting that Josephus was the only ancient author to refer to a mass suicide, Magness separates facts, speculations and myths.
Masada is not without flaws. For no apparent reason, Magness moves backward and forward in time, with a chapter on “Judea Before Herod” following one entitled “Masada and Herod’s Other Projects.” And, alas, she often repeats information, sometimes more than once.
That said, her book is filled with fascinating details; it is informative and judicious. Magness sets the Jewish revolt against Rome in historical context. She identifies the beliefs and practices of the Jewish philosophical schools (Sadducees, Pharisees and Essences) of the late Second Temple period. She notes, “as one of the great ironies of Jewish history,” that the Maccabean victory (celebrated as Hanukkah) over Antiochus IV’s attempt to Hellenize Jews, was followed by the adoption of Greek customs when the family established the Hasmonean dynasty.
Documenting the brutality of the siege of Jerusalem, Magness indicates that Vespasian and his sons used the war “to bolster their claims to legitimacy” by celebrating “victory over a people who had already been under Roman rule as if they were newly conquered,” and replacing the cult of the God of Israel with that of Capitoline Jupiter.
The co-director of Roman siege works at Masada in 1995 and the current director of excavations at Huqoq in Galilee, Magness is especially adept at drawing inferences about daily living from architecture and artifacts. Archeological remains, she indicates, verify that hundreds of Jews were living at Masada at the time of the siege. Indeed, 145 ovens and 85 stoves have been discovered at Masada. The arid climate also preserved the remains of seeds, nuts and fruits (including pomegranates, olives and dried figs) for two millennia. Nonetheless, Magness believes that conditions during the siege were harsh. Delicacies were probably consumed early on, by commanders and officers, leaving bread dipped in oil and bean paste and lentil stews as dietary staples for everyone else; and fruits appear to have contained charred larvae and adult insects.
Inscriptions on jars and pottery, Magness reveals, probably mean that Aramaic was the dominant language spoken at Masada (as it was among Jews during the late Second Temple period), but that Hebrew and Greek were used, and some refugees were bilingual or trilingual. The discoveries of ovoid and cylindrical jars (which were used to store scrolls in Qumran caves and settlements), a fragment inscribed “priest’s tithe,” and of mikvaot, she suggests, constitute evidence of a sectarian (and perhaps Essene) contingent at Masada, committed to observing biblical laws. She acknowledges, however, that archeologists sometimes identify every stepped and plastered pools as a mikvah. Nor is it clear, she adds, whether the mikvaot were built during Herod’s reign or added at the time of the revolt.
Unfailingly careful, Magness declares that archeologists are not equipped to determine whether a mass suicide occurred at Masada in 73 CE. In her view, the archeological remains “can be interpreted differently as supporting or disproving Josephus’s account.” She does remind us, however, that mass suicides are a common literary motif in the stories told by ancient historians, including Josephus, who reported similar episodes in two other sieges.
At this point, it does not really matter. Virtually every nation, after all, has foundational myths. As Benedict Anderson, my former colleague at Cornell, has demonstrated, virtually every nation is “an imagined community.” Inextricably bound up with the identity and career of Yigal Yadin, the larger-than-life excavator of the site, who also played a pivotal role in military planning in the 1967 war, Masada continues to attract tens of thousands of visitors, who make the two-hour drive from Jerusalem and take a cable car to the top of the mountain, to celebrate 967 Jews who refused to surrender to the mighty Roman Empire.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American Studies at Cornell University.