Lucius Flavius Silva

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Masada fortress.
The ruins of a Roman camp near the fortress of Masada. Picture by Ester Inbar.

Lucius Flavius Silva Nonius Bassus was a late-1st-century Roman general, governor of the province of Iudaea and consul.[1] History remembers Silva as the Roman commander who led his army, composed mainly of the Legio X Fretensis, in 72 AD up to Masada and laid siege to its near-impregnable mountain fortress occupied by a group of Jewish rebels called the Sicarii. The end of the siege in 73 AD culminated with Silva's forces breaching the defenses of the Masada plateau and the mass suicide of the Sicarii who preferred death to defeat or capture. Silva's actions are documented by 1st-century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus; the remains of a 1st-century Roman victory arch identified in Jerusalem in 2005; and of course the extensive earthworks at the Masada site, a monument to the high-water mark of Roman siege warfare.

Early Life and Career[edit]

Flavius Silva was born in the Roman town of Urbs Salvia what is now Italy circa 40 AD. Silva’s career trajectory was typical of a child of a privileged family seeking power in the Roman Empire. He began his career within the vigintivirat which is an early first step toward a gaining entry into the Roman Senate . The vigintivirat was a college of twenty citizens charged with administering municipal and government affairs within the government of Rome. As part of the triumvir capitalized, Silva was one of three "responsible for assisting the judicial magistrates ". After Vigintivirat , Silva became military tribune of legio IV Scythica , Quaestor and tribune and and legate of the Legio XXI Rapax. Quaestor is the first stage of curriculum honorum judiciary allowing entry in the Senate. During the civil war in Rome A.D. 68-69, Silva backed Vespasian. Silva was adlected into Praetorian and Patrician rank in 73. In 73 Silva was appointed legatus Augusti pro praetore of Judaea, replacing Sextus Lucilius Bassus, who died during his tenure. Silva was governor of Judea for eight years under the reign of Vespasian and his elder son Titus , from 73 to 81 . In 81 he became ordinary consul . Flavius Silva was patron of Urbs Salvia and held there twice the honorary position of Praetor quinquennalis.

Siege Of Masada[edit]

Main article: Masada

The historical context of Silva's siege of Masada was Rome's 'cleaning up' of the remaining Jewish resistance to Roman rule after crushing the rebellion in Jerusalem in 70 AD. While Masada was the last vestige of the rebellion it was as much a symbol as a threat. Thus, the attack on Masada was as much for Roman prestige as security. Silva's forces were a projection of Roman power. Rome's 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers outnumbered the people on Masada — estimated by Josephus at 960 men, women and children — by 5 to 1.

The central challenge to Silva and his battlefield engineers was to overcome the isolated plateau and its fortifications, originally constructed by King Herod. Silva surrounded the mountain fortress by constructing a 1.8 metres (6 foot) high, 11 km (7 mile) long siege wall (circumvallation) to prevent attacks and escapes. The wall also enclosed the eight base camps established for the army. After initial efforts to breach Masada's defenses failed, Silva's army built a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau, using thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth. The huge dirt ramp, which survives to this day, allowed the Romans to roll up a battering ram to breach Masada's walls. Silva's victory was incomplete. His opponents, some 960 men, women and children, had committed mass suicide shortly before the Romans took the mountain top. However, the Romans succeeded in making their point clear and removed an obstacle to reasserting their rule in Judaea.

Later life[edit]

Silva was Roman governor of Judaea from 73 to 81 AD. In 81, he became Roman Consul, serving in office during January and February. See also List of Roman consuls. Silva commissioned an amphitheater to be built in Urbs Salvia after the year 81 AD. The amphitheater was used for gladiatorial contests and other entertainments. In 1957 a stone inscription was found at the amphitheater which described Silva's various posts - tresvir capitalis, tribune quality figures of the Legio IV Scythica, Quaestor, tribune Plebis and legatus legionis of the Legio XXI Rapax. The amphitheater is used to this day for annual drama festivals.

Historians[who?] speculate about the end of Silva's life. After his consulate and after the death of emperor Titus, Silva likely fell victim to Domitian's reign of terror which purged popular generals whom the emperor saw as rivals. Falling into disfavour, Silva's accomplishments were erased from Roman archives in what Romans called damnatio memoriae. [Isaac, 1998].

Archaeological finds[edit]

In October 2005, Hungarian Archaeologist Dr. Tibor Grull published an article about a stone tablet unearthed in 1999 near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Latin inscription on the tablet describes Silva as the victor of Masada. It is believed the tablet was part of the Roman restoration of Jerusalem after Rome's victory.

On film & television[edit]

  • Silva was portrayed by Peter O'Toole in the 1981 Television Mini-Series Masada (where his character is incorrectly called 'Cornelius Flavius Silva').
  • Lucius Flavius Silva was portrayed by Sam Hazeldine in the 2015 Television Mini-Series The Dovekeepers.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Benjamin H. Isaac (1998). The Near East Under Roman Rule: Selected Papers. BRILL. pp. 76–. ISBN 90-04-10736-3.