The Sicarii Burned Bridges to Force the Populace’s Hand
Adopting a strategy common among terrorists today, the Sicarii engaged in sabotage to worsen the populace’s living conditions and keep them disgruntled, and faced with an occupier ready to resort to indiscriminate violence, they committed atrocities that all but guaranteed massive Roman retaliation. That forced the hands of many fence sitters by presenting them with the choice of doing nothing and likely ending up massacred or enslaved by angry Romans in no mood to distinguish “good” locals from bad, or joining the resistance in the hopes of gaining freedom, or at least the dignity of dying while fighting.
That strategy was in evidence during the run-up to the Jewish Revolt, which began in 66 AD when the Roman governor responded to tax protests by arresting prominent Jews and looting Jerusalem’s Temple. The protests escalated into a full-blown revolt that forced the Romans and their pet king to flee Judea. Early on, the Sicarii attacked and seized the fortress of Masada near the Dead Sea, then descended upon nearby Roman enclaves to massacre whomever they could find, and slaughtered over 700 Roman women and children. That ensured that there would be no turning back and thus solidified their own ranks, and simultaneously confronted other Judeans with the prospect of massive retaliation and collective punishment of the innocent and guilty alike should the Romans win.
The Sicarii then joined the Zealots and other rebels to attack Jerusalem, which they liberated in 66 AD. Once in control of the city, the Sicarii began killing known and suspected collaborators en masse, as well as any opponents, suspected opponents, and those who failed to express the requisite enthusiasm in supporting their cause. Their extremism led to a backlash and uprising by the city’s population, and a falling out with the other rebels that culminated in Sicarii defeat, the capture, torture, and execution of their leader, and the group’s expulsion from Jerusalem. The survivors retreated to the fortress of Masada and contented themselves with plundering the surrounding countryside.
In the meantime, the Zealots and other radicals managed to crush the popular backlash and retained control of Jerusalem until it was besieged, conquered, and razed by the Romans in 70 AD. The Romans then began mopping up operations and eventually reached the final holdouts, the Sicarii in Masada, whom they besieged. Realizing that all was lost and that their fate would be unenviable if they were captured, the Sicarii resorted to mass suicide, killing their families and then themselves.