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Series / Masada

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Masada is an American Mini Series 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 Roman Empire in AD 73 during the first Jewish Revolts. The series' script is based on the novel The Antagonists by Ernest K. Gann while also using details from historical sources by Roman Jewish historian 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, Timothy West as Emperor Vespasian and Paul L. Smith as Gideon. O'Toole was nominated for an Emmy for his performance, his first appearance in an American TV production. Jerry Goldsmith and Morton Stevens composed the series' score, which earned Goldsmith an Emmy. David Warner also won an Emmy, for Best Supporting Actor.

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:

  • 24-Hour Armor: Averted. When not in battle the Romans are shown wearing their simple tunics, and when the Romans storm the citadel and discover all the defenders have committed suicide, Silva removes his armor in short order as he realizes he's not going to need it.
  • Affably Evil: Falco is soft-spoken but his villainy quickly shows.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Falco and his effeminate secretary Albinus.
  • Badass Israelites: Eleazar and his men, very much so. They conduct some really daring raids to hamper the Romans before The Siege begins.
  • 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. He is the strongest guy in all of Masada — it takes up to five men to carry a big wooden beam similar to the one Gideon carries alone to reinforce the wall that's to be destroyed by the Roman siege tower's ram.
  • Cadre of Foreign Bodyguards: Falco has 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.
  • Compilation Movie: The miniseries was cut down to a 2-hour movie called The Antagonists (just like the original book the mini-series is based on) for theatrical release.
  • 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.
  • David Versus Goliath: 900 Jewish people in Masada against 5000 Roman legionaries.
  • Despair Event Horizon: As Falco catapults more and more Jewish slaves to their death, Eleazar reacts to the situation with a mix of rage and despair, with some blasphemy thrown in inside the synagogue, 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.
  • Driven to Suicide: Everyone in the fortress once it becomes clear that they are defeated.
  • The Emperor: Vespasian, who reigned from AD 69 to AD 79.
  • A Father to His Men: Both Silva and Eleazar are this to their own forces.
  • Four-Star Badass: Silva, an Ancient Rome version of the trope.
  • Genre Savvy: Both Silva and Eleazar are experienced warriors who are well aware of some of each other's tactics and weaknesses.
  • Good Job Breaking It Hero: Silva stops Falco from catapulting the slaves just when Eleazar is about to surrender.
  • Gray-and-Gray Morality / Both Sides Have a Point: Both the Romans and the Zealots are right in many things they say against each other. They are also both hypocrites to some degree.
  • 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
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Narrowly subverted. When the battering ram proves ineffective against the wooden wall built by the defenders, the Romans light the wall on fire. After some time, the wind turns and the fire almost burns down the siege tower. Fortunately for the Romans, the wind turns again before it would happen.
  • I Shall Taunt You/Break Them by Talking : Eleazar loves psychological warfare. It shows in his bravado to the Romans.
  • Incendiary Exponent: 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.
  • 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.
  • The Lost Lenore: Silva's dead wife, Lilia. He keeps a death mask of her in his tent.
  • A Match Made in Stockholm: Zig-Zagged with Sheva and Silva's relationship.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": When the Zealots find out the Romans built a siege tower with a massive Battering Ram. And it's coming right at them on the ramp.
  • 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!: Silva has the following line once the siege tower reaches the walls of Masada, with the ram ready to demolish the wall.
    Flavius Silva: Now! Surrender now!
  • 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 Gods Are Different: 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.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: When Falco orders the Jewish slaves to be catapulted to death, Eleazar runs into the temple angrily and starts taunting God.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: There are thieves, murderers and criminals in the ranks of the Zealots.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: What the Romans do in Jerusalem at the beginning.
    • Eleazar and his men attack Roman outposts and granaries this way in retaliation.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Silva makes a truce with the Zealots at the beginning. Too bad the Emperor is not that reasonable.
  • Rebel Leader: Eleazar leads the Zealots, who rebel against Rome's authority.
  • 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 resist to the Roman domination.
  • Resistance Is Futile: The point Silva makes to Eleazar when they secretely meet.
  • 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.
  • Scare Chord: The music playing when the Romans discover the mass suicide of the Jews has a lot of this-
  • 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. He thinks his political power (acquired through morally questionable means) is all he needs to command a legion.
  • 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.
  • Superweapon Surprise: The Romans manage to keep the construction of their Battering Ram-equipped siege tower secret to the besieged Jews until its day of deployment, and by that day it's too late for Eleazar to device any serious counter-plan. All he can do is reinforcing the wall that's to be destroyed by the ram, and that plan doesn't work for long.
  • 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.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Rubius Gallus goes in range of the Jewish archers in broad daylight to make some measurements for the ramp.
  • 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:
    Legionary: For the Senate and People of Rome. To them, the victory!
    Flavius Silva: Victory? We have won a rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shores of a poisoned sea.
  • Weather of War: Extreme summer heat, sandstorms... Welcome to the Judean desert.
  • Worthy Opponents: Silva and Eleazar consider each other as this.