Ben Yair’s Last Speech According to Josephus

When the besieged Jewish defenders of Masada saw that the Romans had completed a ramp up to their walls and were preparing to attack in the morning, they realized that their long struggle would soon be over. They knew no one could rescue them; they were the last holdout of the Jewish resistance that had fought Rome in the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 A.D.). Jerusalem had fallen in 70 A.D., and the Temple had been destroyed. All other pockets of resistance had been crushed one by one and the captured rebels tortured and killed, enslaved or sent to Rome to die as gladiators.

Masada’s defenders assembled for the last time. According to the first-century A.D. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, their leader, Eleazar Ben Yair, addressed them with so moving a speech that 960 of the 967 Masada defenders were convinced to commit suicide and die as free persons rather than face torment, slaughter, rape and enslavement at the hands of the Romans. The defenders cast lots, Josephus writes: Ten men would kill the others and then draw lots again to determine which one would kill the other nine before killing himself. Yigael Yadin, Masada’s excavator, believed the inscribed lots he had found (photo at center) were the ones described by Josephus.

Josephus claimed that seven people slipped out of Masada just before its fall, avoiding both suicide and capture by the Romans. Josephus, who was not an eyewitness, claims that one of those survivors told him of Ben Yair’s speech. However, some scholars question Josephus’s account, claiming that Ben Yair never made the speech, that no mass suicide occurred and that Masada’s excavator, Yigael Yadin, claimed too quickly that the archaeological evidence fit Josephus’s account. Though archaeological evidence at other sites has been found to verify Josephus’s accounts in great detail, scholars point out that the most important evidence of all is missing from Masada—the remains of the 960. Whatever its veracity, Ben Yair’s speech undoubtedly still has the power to stir emotions nearly 2,000 years later:

“My loyal followers, long ago we resolved to serve neither the Romans nor anyone else but only God, who alone is the true and righteous Lord of men: now the time has come that bids us prove our determination by our deeds. At such a time we must not disgrace ourselves: hitherto we have never submitted to slavery, even when it brought no danger with it. We must not choose slavery now, and with it penalties that will mean the end of everything if we fall alive into the hands of the Romans. For we were the first of all to revolt, and shall be the last to break off the struggle. And I think it is God who has given us this privilege, that we can die nobly and as free men, unlike others who were unexpectedly defeated. In our case it is evident that daybreak will end our resistance, but we are free to choose an honorable death with our loved ones. This our enemies cannot prevent, however earnestly they may pray to take us alive; nor can we defeat them in battle …

“Let our wives die unabused, our children without knowledge of slavery: after that, let us do each other an ungrudging kindness, preserving our freedom as a glorious winding-sheet. But first let our possessions and the whole fortress go up in flames: it will be a bitter blow to the Romans, that I know, to find our persons beyond their reach and nothing left for them to loot. One thing let us spare—our store of food: it will bear witness when we are dead to the fact that we perished, not through want but because, as we resolved at the beginning, we chose death rather than slavery …

“If only we had all died before seeing the Sacred City utterly destroyed by enemy hands, the Holy Sanctuary so impiously uprooted! But since an honorable ambition deluded us into thinking that perhaps we should succeed in avenging her of her enemies, and now all hope has fled, abandoning us to our fate, let us at once choose death with honor and do the kindest thing we can for ourselves, our wives and children, while it is still possible to show ourselves any kindness. After all, we were born to die, we and those we brought into the world: this even the luckiest must face. But outrage, slavery, and the sight of our wives led away to shame with our children—these are not evils to which man is subject by the laws of nature: men undergo them through their own cowardice if they have a chance to forestall them by death and will not take it. We are very proud of our courage, so we revolted from Rome: now in the final stages they have offered to spare our lives and we have turned the offer down. Is anyone too blind to see how furious they will be if they take us alive? Pity the young whose bodies are strong enough to survive prolonged torture; pity the not-so-young whose old frames would break under such ill-usage. A man will see his wife violently carried off; he will hear the voice of his child crying ‘Daddy!’ when his own hands are fettered. Come! while our hands are free and can hold a sword, let them do a noble service! Let us die unenslaved by our enemies, and leave this world in company with our wives and children.”

Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 7.8.6–7