Sicarii (Latin plural form of Sicarius "dagger-man"; 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 fought the Roman occupation of Judea in an attempt to expel the Romans and their partisans from the area. 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. They were one of the earliest forms of an organized assassination unit or cloak and daggers, predating the Middle Eastern assassins and Japanese ninjas by centuries.
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 First Jewish–Roman War, 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 the group fought in many battles against the Romans as soldiers. Together with a small group of followers, Menahem made his way to the fortress of Masada, took over a Roman garrison and slaughtered all 700 soldiers there. They also took over another fortress called Antonia and overpowered the troops of Agrippa II. He also trained them to conduct various guerrilla operations on Roman convoys and legions stationed around Judea.
The Zealots, Sicarii and other prominent revolutionaries finally joined forces to attack and successfully liberate Jerusalem in 66 AD, where they took control of the Temple in Jerusalem, executing anyone who tried to usurp their power. The local populace grew tired of their control and launched a series of sieges and raids to remove the radical factions. The radicals eventually silenced the uprising and Jerusalem stayed in their hands for the duration of the war. The Romans finally came to take back the city, and they led counter-attacks and sieges to starve the rebels inside. The rebels held for a considerable amount of time, but the constant bickering and the lack of leadership led the groups to disintegrate. The leader of the Sicarii, Menahem, was murdered by rival factions during an altercation. Soon, the Romans stepped in and finally destroyed the whole city in 70 AD.
Eleazar and his followers returned to Masada and continued their resistance to the Romans until 73 AD. The Romans eventually took the fortress and, according to Josephus, found that most of its defenders had committed suicide rather than surrender. In Josephus' The Jewish War (vii), after the fall of the Temple in 70 AD, the sicarii became the dominant revolutionary Jewish party, scattered abroad. Josephus particularly associates them with the mass suicide at Masada in 73 AD 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.
Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus according to the New Testament, was believed to be a sicarius. This opinion is objected to by modern historians, mainly because Josephus in The War of the Jews (2:254–7) mentions the appearance of the Sicarii as a new phenomenon during the procuratorships of Felix (52–60 AD), having no apparent relation with the group called Sicarii by Romans at times of Quirinius.
- 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
- Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilisations (2008,:407) talks of sicarii practising "terrorism within Jewish society".
- Paul Christian Who were the Sicarii?, Meridian Magazine, June 7, 2004
- Pichtel, John, Terrorism and WMDs: Awareness and Response, CRC Press (April 25, 2011) p.3-4. ISBN 978-1439851753
- Ross, Jeffrey Ian, Religion and Violence: An Encyclopedia of Faith and Conflict from Antiquity to the Present, Routledge (January 15, 2011), Chapter: Sicarii. ISBN 978-0765620484
- "Definition of sicarius (noun, LNS, sīcārius) - Numen - The Latin Lexicon - An Online Latin Dictionary". Retrieved 30 September 2014.
- 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
- Levick, Barbara (1999). Vespasian. London: Routledge, pp. 116–119. ISBN 0-415-16618-7
- Josephus, War of the Jews II.8.11, II.13.7, II.14.4, II.14.5
- "Judas Iscariot". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
- Bastiaan van Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary, Continuum International (1998), p. 167.
- "Zealots and Sicarii". Retrieved 30 September 2014.
- 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.