16 April AD 74: Masada’s Jewish defenders choose suicide over surrender

Roman siege of the Dead Sea fortress reaches a bloody end


The siege of Masada is one of the most controversial moments in Jewish history. In AD 66, anti-tax protests in the Roman province of Judaea had escalated into a general uprising. But the Romans fought back, and by the spring of 74, the last rebels had been cornered in the great fastness of Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea.

The siege lasted for months. The Jewish defenders made no attempt to break out, merely waiting as the Romans built their ramps and siege engines.

At last, recorded the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, the attackers managed to set Masada’s wooden wall on fire. That evening, they “returned to their camp with joy, and resolved to attack their enemies the very next day”.

As dawn broke on 16 April, the Romans prepared for the final assault. Yet as they approached the smouldering fortress, they heard not a sound. There was only a long, dead silence. At last, they found two women, hiding in a cistern, who told them the awful truth.

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The evening before, the Jewish leader, Eleazar ben Ya’ir, had persuaded the defenders to commit mass suicide.

They had, he said, “resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself”; now it was time to make good on their pledge. They “chose 10 men by lot among them to slay all the rest”. When the 10 men had done their work, they drew lots again; one killed the others, and then turned his sword on himself.

According to Josephus, the Romans did not at first believe it. But as they made their way into the fortress, they realised the terrible truth. There were 960 bodies in all. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

16 April 1660

Birth in County Down of physician and collector Sir Hans Sloane. After his death in 1753 his extensive collections of plants, animals, antiquities and coins were incorporated into the British Museum and, later, the Natural History Museum.

16 April 1661

Birth at Horton, Northamptonshire, of statesman and poet Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax. In 1694 he was appointed chancellor of the exchequer in lieu of his contribution to the establishment of the Bank of England.

16 April 1859

French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville dies in Cannes, aged 53. His most influential work is a two-volume study of democracy in America.

16 April 1907

Joseph-Armand Bombardier, inventor of the snowmobile, is born in Valcourt, Quebec.

16 April 1912

At the age of 37, Michigan-born aviator and writer Harriet Quimby became the first woman to pilot an aeroplane across the English Channel, making the flight in just under an hour. However, her achievement received comparatively little attention at the time, being overshadowed by the news of the sinking of Titanic on the previous day. Eleven weeks later, back in America, Quimby was killed when she and her passenger fell from the Bleriot two-seater monoplane she was piloting at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet.

16 April 1943

Albert Hoffman, a chemist at the Sandoz pharmaceutical laboratory in Basel, Switzerland, first discovered the hallucinogenic effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, or LSD, after accidentally absorbing the drug which he had synthesised five years earlier as a stimulant. Hoffman noted that he sank into a “not unpleasant, intoxicated-like condition characterised by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed... I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours.”


16 April 1958

The British chemist and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin dies aged 37. Her X-ray diffraction photos were a vital clue in the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.

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