The Hashshashin were not the first covert group in history. The Jewish Sicarii predate them and were most active in the ‘60s AD. Like the Hashshashin, the Sicarii were driven by religion and politics. In the Sicarii’s case, the aim was to drive out all Romans and Jewish collaborators from Judea.
The name Sicarii is the plural of the Latin Sicarius or ‘dagger man.’ Because of the Jewish assassins, the term also later became synonymous with an assassin or murderer. The group became most notably active under the leadership of Menahem, the grandson of Judah, a former Jewish dissident when it began a reign of terror in Jerusalem. Josephus in his ‘War of the Jews‘ describes how the Sicarii would mingle with crowds at festivals, stalking their targets, then discretely stabbing them with their eponymous daggers which they hid under cloaks before melting away into the crowd.
The group’s first notable killing was the High Priest, Jonathan. After that, Josephus tells us that: “many were slain every day, while the fear men were in of being so served was …afflicting…. and everybody expected death every hour as men do in war” (War of the Jews, Book II, Ch. 13)
The Sicarii also indulged in kidnap, their targets being the Jewish priests and wealthy elite who most obviously supported Roman rule. Often they executed their victims. However, the Sicarii were open to doing deals with their hated oppressors. When they kidnapped the secretary of the governor of the temple of Jerusalem, they agreed to free him unharmed for the safe return of ten of their captured assassins.
When the Great Jewish revolt began in 66AD, the Sicarii started their part of the campaign by capturing the Roman fortress at Masada. Menahem ordered the slaughter of the garrison and replaced them with 900 of his men. He then marched to Jerusalem to join Eleazar, the leader of the rebellion.
However, the alliance did not go well. Firstly, the Sicarii tried to bully the people of Jerusalem into fighting the Romans by destroying food supplies within the city. Their logic was, without food, the people would have no choice but to fight rather than waiting to sue for peace. Then Menahem alienated rebels and civilians alike by claiming to be the Messiah. Eleazar executed him to limit the damage. However, the discord and disunity fermenting in the city weakened Jewish unity and helped the Romans to retake Jerusalem in 70 AD. They destroyed the temple and dispersed the Jews.
Meanwhile, the remaining Sicarii held Masada, and there they stayed until the Romans retook the fortress in 73AD. However, when the Romans entered the fort, they found only dead bodies. Defiant to the last, the Sicarii had chosen suicide to crucifixion or enslavement.