Sicarii (Latin plural of Sicarius "dagger-men", in Modern Hebrew rendered siqariqim סיקריקים) is a term applied, in the decades immediately preceding the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, to an extremist splinter group of the Jewish Zealots, who attempted to expel the Romans and their partisans from the Roman province of Judea. The Sicarii carried sicae, or small daggers, concealed in their cloaks, hence their name. At public gatherings, they pulled out these daggers to attack Romans or Roman sympathizers, blending into the crowd after the deed to escape detection.
The Latin word sicarii translates to "dagger-wielders", from the root secare Latin for "to slice"; in Roman legal Latin it is the standard plural form of the term for a murderer, or for putting a murderer on trial (see e.g. the Lex Cornelia de Sicariis et Veneficiis) during that period of legal Latin.
Victims of the Sicarii included Jonathan the High Priest, although it is possible that his murder was orchestrated by the Roman governor Antonius Felix. Some murders were met with severe retaliation by the Romans on the entire Jewish population of the country. On some occasions, the Sicarii could be bribed to spare their intended victims. Once, Josephus relates, after kidnapping the secretary of Eleazar, governor of the Temple precincts, they agreed to release him in exchange for the release of ten of their captured assassins.
At the beginning of the Jewish Revolt of 66 CE, the Sicarii, and (possibly) Zealot helpers (Josephus differentiated between the two but did not explain the main differences in depth), gained access to Jerusalem and committed a series of atrocities, in order to force the population to war. In one account, given in the Talmud, they destroyed the city's food supply so that the people would be forced to fight against the Roman siege instead of negotiating peace. Their leaders, including Menahem ben Yehuda and Eleazar ben Ya'ir were important figures in the war, and Eleazar ben Ya'ir eventually succeeded in escaping the Roman onslaught. Together with a small group of followers, he made his way to the abandoned fortress of Masada where he continued his resistance to the Romans until 73 CE, when the Romans took the fortress and, according to Josephus, found that most of its defenders had committed suicide rather than surrender.
In Josephus' Jewish War (vii), after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, the sicarii became the dominant revolutionary Jewish party, scattered abroad. Josephus particularly associates them with the mass suicide at Masada in 73 CE and to the subsequent refusal "to submit to the taxation census when Cyrenius was sent to Judea to make one" (Josephus) as part of their religious and political scheme as resistance fighters:
Some of the faction of the Sicarion...not content with having saved themselves, again embarked on new revolutionary scheming, persuading those that received them there to assert their freedom, to esteem the Romans as no better than themselves and to look upon God as their only Lord and Master
- —quoted by Eisenman, p 180
According to Josephus, the Sicarii were antagonistic to a larger grouping of Jews referred to as the Zealots, who carried the main burden of the rebellion. Josephus emphasizes that the Sicarii were considered more extreme than the Zealots, to which group Josephus belonged until defecting to the Roman side.
Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus according to the New Testament, was believed to be a sicarius. This opinion is objected by modern historians, mainly because Josephus, in The Jewish War (2:254–7) mentions the apparition of the Sicarii as a new phenomenon during the procuratorships of Felix (52–60 C.E.), having no apparent relation with the group called Sicarii by Romans at times of Quirinius.
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- Nachman Ben-Yehuda, The Masada Myth: Scholar presents evidence that the heroes of the Jewish Great Revolt were not heroes at all., The Bible and Interpretation[dead link]
- Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilisations (2008,:407) talks of sicarii practising "terrorism within Jewish society".
- Essay on the Sicarii[dead link]
- The Credibility of Josephus, a critical report, comparing Josephus' account with archaeological evidence[dead link]
- Murphy-O'Connor, Jerome; Cunliffe, Barry. The Holy Land. Oxford Archaeological Guides (5th ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 378–381.
- The Wars of the Jews, or History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, by Flavius Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Project Gutenberg, Book IV, Chapter 7, Paragraph 2.
- Flavius Josephus, De bello Judaico libri vii, B. Niese, Ed. J. BJ 4.7.2
- Ancient battle divides Israel as Masada 'myth' unravels; Was the siege really so heroic, asks Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem, The Independent, 30 March 1997
- Bastiaan van Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary, Continuum International (1998), p. 167.
- Mark Andrew Brighton, The Sicarii in Josephus's Judean War: Rhetorical Analysis and Historical Observations (Atlanta, Society of Biblical Literature, 2009) (Early Judaism and Its Literature, 27).
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Richard Gottheil and Samuel Krauss (1901–1906). "Sicarii". Jewish Encyclopedia.