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Series: Masada

Masada is an American television miniseries that first aired on ABC in April 1981. It is a fictionalized account of the historical siege of the Masada citadel in Israel by legions of the The Roman Empire in AD 73 during the first Jewish Revolts. The TV series' script is based on the novel The Antagonists by Ernest K. Gann while also using details from historical sources by Flavius Josephus.

It was directed by Boris Sagal and starred Peter O'Toole as Roman legion commander Cornelius Flavius Silva, Peter Strauss as the Jewish Sicarii commander Eleazar ben Ya'ir, Barbara Carrera as Sheva (Silva's Jewish mistress), Anthony Quayle as Rubrius Gallus, David Warner as Pomponius Falco and Timothy West as Emperor Vespasian. O'Toole was nominated for an Emmy for his performance. It was his first appearance in an American miniseries. Warner won the Best Supporting Actor Emmy. Jerry Goldsmith and Morton Stevens composed the series' score, which earned Goldsmith an Emmy Award.

The story is set three years after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Flavius Silva, commander in Roman Judea, wants to reach a reasonable compromise with the Jewish Zealot faction known as Sicarii, and withdraw his legion. Political pressure in Rome, however, leads to his besieging the fortress of Masada, the Last Bastion of the Zealots. There the engineering genius of the Romans must fight both the harsh climate and landscape, and the passion and ingenuity of leader Eleazar ben Ya'ir and his people.

This miniseries provides examples of:

  • Ambiguously Gay: Falco and his secretary Albinus
  • Badass Beard: Eleazar and his men.
  • Badass Israelites: Eleazar and his men, very much so.
  • Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me: Silva orders this done with Sheva (though she bathes alone).
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: How the siege ends for the people of Masada.
  • The Big Guy: Gideon (Paul L. Smith), among the Zealots. The strongest guy in all of Masada.
  • Cadre of Foreign Bodyguards: Falco's Germanic guards.
  • Catapult to Glory: Of the harmful variant for the catapulted people. Pomponius Falco, now in command of Silva's troops thanks to a fake imperial letter, orders them to do this with Jewish slaves until Masada surrenders while Silva is preparing himself to leave the camp with Sheva. After hearing the catapulted slaves' screams, Silva can't stand it anymore and rushes to the catapults, gladius in hand, then puts his men's loyalty to a test in front of Falco. His men approve his action, and he forcibly deposes Falco of his authority, stopping the massacre in the process and allowing the siege to continue under his command and following his code of honor.
    Flavius Silva: WE ARE LEGIONARIES! WE ARE NOT BARBARIANS!
  • Corrupt Politician: Pomponius Falco. Rubrius Gallus warns Silva about some suspicious deaths which were linked to Falco's rise in the highest circles of power in Rome, in the Equestrian Order notably.
  • Israel Doubling: Completely averted. It was filmed on the site of the actual siege.
  • David Versus Goliath: 900 people in Masada against 5000 legionaries.
  • Despair Event Horizon: As Falco catapults more and more Jewish slaves, Eleazar has one. Until Silva stops the massacre.
  • Determinator: Both Silva and Eleazar. Silva won't quit Palestine until the last remnants of Jewish resistance are beaten. Eleazar is very willing to fight Roman invaders to the death.
  • The Emperor: Vespasian.
  • Four-Star Badass: Silva.
  • Genre Savvy: Both Silva and Eleazar are experienced warriors who are well aware of some of each other's tactics and weaknesses.
  • Guile Hero: Eleazar.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Sheva offers herself to Roman officers to avoid being raped by demobilized legionaries. Being a beautiful woman from Alexandria and knowing her trade helps.
  • High Priest: Silva's legion's priest (played by Vernon Dobtcheff), who's in charge of the sacrifices to ensure victory. Silva doesn't take him seriously but these sacrifices have a non-negligeable role for the troops' motivation and morale.
  • Historical Domain Characters: Flavius Silva, Eleazar ben Ya'ir and Emperor Vespasian.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Eleazar isn't so much an atheist as he is somewhat cynical when it comes to G-D, after his brother was killed and the Temple destroyed in the attack on Jerusalem
  • I Shall Taunt You / Break Them by Talking : Eleazar loves psychological warfare. It shows in his bravados to the Romans.
  • In-Universe Catharsis: More like the catharsis of a Show Within a Show. Emperor Vespasian attends a representation of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, which contains probably the most famous example of catharsis in ancient theatre. A Greek Chorus shows up at the end.
  • Jewish Revolts
  • Kill It with Fire: The Zealots have no choice but to build a wooden wall behind the stone wall that is being quickly destroyed by the ram. In turn, the Romans have no choice but to put said wooden wall on fire, at the risk of a changing wind, which can propagate the fire to the siege tower.
  • The Lost Lenore: Silva's dead wife, Lilia.
  • Million Mook March: Silva's 5000 men-strong legion shows up in its full force, in bright day, all around the mountain of Masada. It is said to be the standard Roman procedure before actually starting the siege, for psychological effect on the besieged Zealots. Of course, it doesn't work, and the Zealots catapult manure bags on the emissaries and laugh at them.
  • The Mutiny: A lone legionary tries to assassinate Silva at the beginning, but Silva spares his life to show off his magnanimous authority to his troops. Several legionaries also rebel because of the harsh conditions and try to flee the camp. They're caught, and Silva punishes them by forcing them to wander in the desert without anything but their clothes.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Almost occurs when Rubrius Gallus (the Roman engineer in chief) is shot in the neck by an arrow. Fortunately enough for the Romans, he gives sufficient instructions to finish the siege tower's construction before dying.
  • Nothing Can Stop Us Now / Resistance Is Futile : What Silva says to Eleazar during their secret meeting the night after Falco's failed Catapult to Glory blackmail. He also has this line once the siege tower reaches the walls of Masada:
    Flavius Silva: Now they will surrender.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Pomponius Falco.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Silva.
  • Oh Crap: When the besieged Jews realize that a big siege tower with a ram is moving towards them on the ramp. Cue the ominous Fanfare leitmotif.
  • Old Soldier: Silva. He's been fighting in Palestine for quite a while before the siege.
  • Our God is Greater: The Zealots, naturally. Though Eleazar's opinions are much more mixed about religion until the last days of the siege.
  • Platonic Prostitution: Silva needs Sheva's services, mainly because he needs someone to talk to. He also sleeps with her, naturally, and ends up loving her.
  • The Queen's Latin: The Roman characters are all played by British actors. The Jewish characters are all played by American actors.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: There are thieves, murderers and criminals among Eleazar's ranks.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: What the Romans do in Jerusalem at the beginning.
    • Eleazar and his men attack Roman outposts and granaries in retaliation.
  • Rebel Leader: Eleazar.
  • Reluctant Warrior: Silva. He's tired of the wars in Judea but still obliges when it's time to besiege the Zealots, even though he's well aware of the political reasons behind this.
  • La Résistance: The Jewish Zealots.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: What Eleazar and his warband do after the pillage of Jerusalem and once Jewish farms are attributed to demobilized Roman legionaries. For the latter, they use a more subtle and effective method.
  • Siege Engines: The series gives a nice view on Roman siege genius.
    • Catapults, onagers (on both sides) and ballistae. Both Masada and the Roman camp are out of reach of each other's stone-throwing siege engines, so it's either waiting for Masada's people to die of starvation (which can take months) or using a craftier solution. That's why Silva recruited Rubrius Gallus.
    • A particularly elaborated siege tower is being built in secret, out of the sight of the besieged Zealots. It is due to reach the walls of the fortress using a gigantic stone ramp. Then...
    • Battering Ram: With a massive bronze ram-shaped head to take down the walls of the fortress. And mounted at the top of the siege tower, no less.
  • Shoot The Builder: Rubrius Gallus' fate. Though the Zealot who shot an arrow in his neck didn't know he was building a siege tower and a ram.
  • Smug Snake: Falco.
  • Staff of Authority: The legatus baton that was given to Silva. It is held high while proclaiming "above your head and mine" to represent the Emperor's authority and the right to command the legion. Falco takes it briefly before giving it back to Silva once he is deposed.
  • The Strategist:
    • Eleazar on the Jewish side.
    • Silva on the Roman side.
      • Rubrius Gallus is the best Roman siege engineer at Silva's disposal and gives him very helpful advices, especially concerning the management of slaves.
  • Suicide Mission: Silva sends the two officers who are spies for the Senate on a mission to scout out the Serpent Path up to Masada, with the clear expectation that they won't be coming back
  • Take That: In-Universe. The satirical play that follows the tragedy Vespasian was attending is not of his taste (although he makes a show of laughing at it), as it features actors in giant head costumes representing the nations conquered by the Roman empire. The Jewish effigy shows up, refuses to kneel in front of the Emperor's effigy and starts hitting everyone on the head. Unsurprisingly, the author of the play is anonymous.
  • Talking to the Dead: Silva to Eleazar's corpse at the end.
  • Thirsty Desert: The Judean desert is not the most hospitable land to wage a war, especially in summer. Silva learned it through the years before the siege and regularly point this out.
    • The people of Masada take baths, and audibly, in order to upset the Roman troops, whose rations of water are strictly limited. They also drop their used water down the cliffs during the Romans' drinking pause, for additional taunting.
  • Training the Peaceful Villagers: And the priests as well.
  • Underestimating Badassery: The Roman Empire's legions conquered the Mediterranean world and the besieged Zealots still laugh at them. But once the Roman siege genius shows its full might...
  • Was It Really Worth It?: In the words of Silva:
    Flavius Silva: We have won a rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shore of a poisoned sea.
  • Weather of War: Extreme summer heat, sandstorms... Welcome to the Judean desert.
  • Worthy Opponents: Silva and Eleazar.

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