The Sicarii – which may be translated as ‘daggermen’ from the Latin – were a group of Jewish zealots who lived during the 1 st century AD. The Sicarii intended to expel the Romans and their collaborators from Judaea, and resisted their rule. One of the tools they employed in their effort to achieve this end was assassination, especially in crowded places, which was calculated to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. The Sicarii are often considered to be one of the earliest groups of terrorists in human history.
The Roman province of Judaea was formed in 6 AD, following the end of the Herodian Tetrarchy. The Romans had already established their presence in the area prior to the formation of this province, as the Herodians had been client-kings of the Romans. For certain Jews, the Roman occupation of their land was deemed illegitimate, and they were hoping to rid themselves of Roman rule. Several groups rose to challenge the Romans, one of which was the Sicarii.
The Zealots were another rebel group, including the Apostle St Simon the Zealot , represented here by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1611), from his Twelve Apostles series ( Public Domain )
The Sicarii are mentioned in Josephus’ The Jewish War . In Book VII, Chapter 8 of this piece of writing, Josephus mentions the Sicarii treated the Jews who had submitted to the Romans as enemies, and plundered their property. Josephus goes on to say that although the Sicarii claimed that those Jews had given up their freedom out of cowardice, this was in fact a “cloak for the barbarity which was made use of by them, and to colour over their own avarice”.
Josephus also mentions the Sicarii in his Antiquities of the Jews . In Book XX, Chapter 8, Josephus mentions that the Sicarii were thus called because of their weapon of choice, “small swords, not much different in length from the Persian acinacæ, but somewhat crooked, and like the Roman sicae, [or sickles], as they were called”. Moreover, it is from here that we learn about the movement’s modus operandi : “they mingled themselves among the multitude at their festivals, when they were come up in crowds from all parts to the city to worship God, as we said before, and easily slew those that they had a mind to slay.” In ‘ The Jewish War’ , Josephus reports that the first victim of the Sicarii was the high priest Jonathan.
Sicarii Dagger used as the weapon of choice by the Sicarii Assassins. ( CC BY 2.0 )
The First Jewish-Roman War
During the First Jewish-Roman War, which lasted from AD 66 – 73, the Sicarii were led by a Manahem, the son of Judas. Under Manahem’s leadership, the Sicarii participated in the rebellion against Rome. Having captured the old Herodian fortress of Masada, and plundering its armoury, the Sicarii continued their march to Jerusalem, where they formed an alliance with the other Jewish rebel groups. Although the rebels succeeded in expelling the Romans from the city, there was soon conflict between the different groups.
The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Hayez. In the year 70 AD, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army during the First Jewish-Roman War ( Public Domain )
Manahem intended to make himself the leader of the entire rebellion by having himself crowned as the messiah-king in the Temple. The other rebels were outraged by this, and the Sicarii were attacked by the rest of the rebels. Manahem was eventually defeated, captured, tortured, and then executed, along with many other followers. The surviving Sicarii, led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir, a relative of Manahem, fled to Masada, which served as their stronghold for the rest of the war. The Sicarii did not participate any further in the rebellion against the Romans, and limited their military actions to the plundering of Jewish villages near their fortress.
Seige of Masada Aerial view of Masada in the Judaean Desert, Modern Israel ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
Death Before Dishonor
Masada was one of the last strongholds held by the Jewish rebels during their revolt against the Romans. In AD 73, the Romans under Lucius Flavius Silva began to besiege this fortress. When Eleazar, the Sicarii leader, realised that all was lost, he gathered the remaining defenders together, and told them what the Romans would do to them and their families if they were captured alive. By this means, he convinced them to kill their families, and then commit suicide. When the Romans captured the fortress, they found that all the Jews in the fortress, with the exception of two women and five children, had chosen to die by their own swords, rather than surrender to the Romans.