The Sicarii were a Jewish group who used various methods to rebel against Roman rule in the first century – in particular prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. If around today, many would consider the tactics they used as terrorism. Here, Dean Smith (following his article on the longest bombing run in history here) tells us about the Sicarii.

  The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus . Artist: David Roberts, 1850.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus. Artist: David Roberts, 1850.

Terror in the First Century

Picture the scene, a hot sun scorched day in a major metropolitan city. Passers-by go about their daily business unaware of what is about to unfold. From the crowd emerges an individual wielding a knife. A fanatic with a mind riddled by a complex mixture of religious zealotry and political ideology.  The knifeman begins a horrific spree of violence, killing some with his blade, and severely wounding others. The targets may have been specifically chosen or just been anonymous passers-by, seen as valid targets by what they represent rather than who they were. After the bloody rampage has been completed, the individual has a choice, either to martyr themselves at the hands of law enforcement or to attempt to escape back into the crowd. 

The decision is of minimal importance, the task has already been completed. The attack, an impossible to ignore example of propaganda by deed. 

The above scenario likely conjures up horrific images of recent knife attacks in London or Paris, of fanatical terrorists wielding blades in the name of religious and political ideology. However, the event I just described took place almost 2000 years ago, in first century Judea. After two millennia, political violence appears to have changed little. 

 

Judea Prior to the Romans

For centuries prior to the Roman rule in Judea, the Jews of the eastern Mediterranean had already been living under a string of foreign rulers. When the Syrians took Israel from the Ptolemaic dynasty in 168 BCE they quickly introduced worship deities from the Hellenistic Greek pantheon. This led to a Jewish priest by the name of Mattathias, and his sons, including the legendary Judah the Maccabee, to slay a Syrian official amid those who supported him. This attack was apparently not intended merely to destroy an enemy, but to inspire others to rise up against the occupation. This led to the event known as the Maccabee Revolt (Law, 2007). 

The result of the revolt led to the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty, a political system that would eventually spell disaster for Israel. After multiple civil wars, one of the rulers of the Hasmoneans’ line appealed to Rome for help in 64 BCE. This led to Israel being incorporated into the Roman Empire as a vassal state. In order to maintain their state and position within Israeli society, many members of the priestly caste, known as Sadducees, collaborated with their Roman occupiers (Bloom, 2010).

 

Occupiers and Traitors

As is the rule of foreign occupations supported with collaborators from within the old nobility, a revolutionary movement began to form within Israeli society. A small movement proclaiming, “no masters above God”, violently rebelled against both the Roman occupiers and their associated collaborators (Bloom, 2010). 

These events set the stage for one of the earliest recorded groups that would fit the profile for what we now call terrorists, the Sicarii. 

The debate around the historical events concerning the Sicarii continues to this day, almost 2,000 years later. This is primarily due to the fact that almost all the information recorded on the group comes from a single writer, the Jewish general, turned roman defector, Josephus (Chaliand,2007). 

According to the records laid out in his work, The Jewish War, Josephus states that the Sicarii began their activities in the mid-50s of the common era. As the latest advocate of the notion of Jewish sovereignty, their stated goals were the liberation of Israel and Judea from Roman rule (Josephus and Whiston, 1981). 

The Sicarii derived their name from the distinctive type of dagger they used, similar in size and shape to the Roman word Sica. This is of particular importance from a historical context because we have no evidence that the group ever referred to themselves as Sicarii. The word is only mentioned in the works of Josephus and is of Latin origin, not Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, the languages the people of the region would have used. This may be viewed as a case of the defeated group being named by the victor, since over a century before the events of the Jewish war, the Latin word Sicarius has come to mean “assassin” in Roman law (Law, 2007). 

The actions carried out by the Sicarii are disturbingly similar to modern groups who bear the moniker of terrorists. They assassinated prominent Jewish figures who were seen as Roman collaborators. These attacks often took place in public, allowing the attackers to blend back into the surrounding crowds after the attack had taken place. According to the writing of Josephus:

The first to have his throat cut by them (the Sicarii) was Jonathan the high priest, and after him, many were murdered every day. More terrible than the crimes themselves was the fear they aroused, every man hourly expecting death, as in war. (Josephus and Whiston, 1981)

 

This poignant statement creates a vision similar to acts of terrorism in the modern age, where the actual violence being committed is secondary to the level of fear and terror that such actions inspire. This is further compounded by other actions which the Sicarii participated in, such as the kidnapping and ransom of prominent Jewish figures for a multitude of reasons. These included raising funds for the cause, gaining the release of imprisoned compatriots, and further spreading the sense of fear and instability amongst the community. If the Sicarii could get to the most powerful and influential members of Jewish society, then no one was safe from their grasp (Laqueur and Hoffman, 2016). 

The Sicarii also carried out campaigns of looting from pro-Roman Jewish gentry in the countryside surrounding Jerusalem. According to some historians, this was seen as an attempt to ferment uprising amongst the local Jewish population by demonstrating that the Roman authorities were powerless to maintain law and order (Bloom, 2010). It has also been suggested by some that the Sicarii were attempting to provoke a harsh crackdown on anti-roman Jewish movements by the Sadducees, further inspiring rebellion amongst the population. It is interesting to note that these are very similar to the types of tactics that Left-Wing revolutionary groups would apply to their campaigns, almost 2,000 years later (Hoffman, 1998). 

During the period in the lead up to the Jewish revolt of 66CE, the Sicarii were led by Menahem ben Judah, until he was assassinated by rivals. According to Josephus this is attributed largely to his leadership that: “turned to savagery and....became unbearably tyrannical”. His death spelt the end of the Sicarii’s participation in the Jewish revolt that eventually led to the scattering of the Jewish population and the destruction of the second temple (Law, 2007). 

 

Retreat and Last Stand

The Sicarii shifted the location to the mountain top fortress of Masada. During this period the group started raiding and pillaging the local countryside surrounding the fortress. Josephus describes one raid in particular, on the village of Engedi, where the Sicarii apparently “butchered’ seven hundred woman and children, “stripped the houses bare, seized the ripest of the crops, and brought the loot to Masada”. These actions are well in line with modern terrorist groups, who often blur the line between political activism and banditry when it is in support of an ideological cause. 

This period eventually came to an end with the Roman siege of Masada. The Roman forces apparently used Jewish slave labor from the sacking of Jerusalem to build a wall around Masada. They prevented any supplies reaching the entrenched Sicarii and stopped any attempts at escape (Richmond, 1962). 

The siege finally ended with the mass suicide of all inside the fortress of Masada, including the families and children of the Sicarii. This type of ritual suicide of a political faction, holed up in a fortress under siege has echoes in the modern era. Similarities can be seen between the siege of Masada and the incident in Waco, Texas, where a religious faction known as the Branch Davidians chose to end the siege by setting fire to their compound, killing everyone inside (Law, 2007). 

As with all terrorist organizations, the history of the Sicarii is short and bloody. Their legacy is a mixed one, with some schools of thought regarding them as martyrs who died for their faith, whilst others see them as murderous fanatics intolerant of change. Whatever the case may be, one thing that stands out is the striking similarity between both the motivation and modus operandiof the Sicarii and terrorist groups that exist in the twenty-first century. After two thousand years, the ability to instill terror in the hearts of the masses through simple means, a knife and a man willing to use it, remains the same. 

 

What do you think the main parallels are between the Sicarii and contemporary history? Let us know below.

References 

Bloom, J. (2010). The Jewish revolts against Rome, a. 1st ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, pp.100-125.

Chaliand, G, and Blin, A., eds. (2007). The History of Terrorism. From Antiquity to Al Qaeda. Berkeley etc: University of California Press, ch. 1.

Grant, M. (2002). The History of Ancient Israel. New York: History Book Club, Ch. 20.

Hoffman, B. (1998). Inside terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.63-81.

Josephus, F. and Whiston, W. (1981). The Complete Works of Josephus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Pub.

Laqueur, W, and Hoffman, B. (2016). A History of Terrorism: Expanded Edition. Expanded ed. edition. Transaction Publishers, ch. 1.

Law, R. (2009) Terrorism: A History. 1 edition. Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity, pp. 1-14.

Richmond, I. A. (1962). "The Roman Siege-Works of Masada, Israel". The Journal of Roman Studies. Washington College. Lib. Chestertown, MD.: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. 52: 142–155.

Simon, J. (2008). The Forgotten Terrorists: Lessons from the History of Terrorism, Terrorism and Political Violence20, no. 2: 195–214