Masada is famous for several reasons. To Israeli Jews, it is a symbol of Jewish Independence. To those interested in military or ancient history, it is an example of Rome’s famed tenacity. For some modern tourists, it is the site of an ancient battle which happens to offer magnificent views of the Dead Sea valley.
Masada was fortified by Herod the Great a few decades before the birth of Christ. Herod took advantage of its exceptional defensive strength and prepared it as a place of refuge in the event of war. The site was well equipped to handle a long siege. Only a narrow, difficult path offered access to the fortified summit, which is some 1,300 feet above the valley floor. (The distance from top to bottom is smaller on the west side, but remains a formidable 300 feet.) A clever aquaduct system carried rain runoff into large cisterns that had been carved into the mountain. Besides its casemate walls and towers, the site had a lavish palace complete with mosiac floors, frescoed walls and Roman baths. Excavators have uncovered numerous storerooms that once held large quantities of food, drink and weaponry. It was an intimidating fortress by any measure.
During the Jewish Revolt against Rome, Jewish rebels seized the summit ahead of the advancing Roman armies. When the 10th Roman legion arrived it surrounded Masada with a siege wall and 8 forts. Since the Romans had no good path to assault the top, they created their own. The video below shows how that worked.
Josephus wrote what is the only extant history of the battle at Masada. He records that on the night before the final Roman assault, the doomed Jewish fighters decided they and their families would not live as Roman slaves. They drew lots to determine who would kill the others before killing themselves. When the Romans broke in the next morning, nobody was alive except for a few women and children who had hidden themselves during the mass suicide.
There is no known mention of Masada in the Bible, though some speculate it could have been the “stronghold” used by David in 1 Samuel 22:4 when he was on the run from Saul. We will likely never be sure, but who knows what future excavations may yield?