Who were the Sicarii?
By Daniel C. Peterson and William J. Hamblin

Some observers in the national media have implied that religious terrorism is a new phenomenon, unique to Islam.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Religion has often played a crucial role in rebellions and wars throughout history; a classic example is the role of religion in the struggle of the Jews against Rome from A.D. 66-73, which culminated in the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from Judea, in many ways laying the basic foundation for the Arab-Israeli struggle today.  Although there were many political, social and economic reasons for the Jewish rebellion, religion and apocalyptic expectations played an important role. 

Judaism of that period was divided into a number of denominations, each with differing perspectives on the messiah and eschatology.  The nine hundred defenders of Masada against the Romans were members of a radical Jewish sect known by their enemies as the Sicarii, meaning literally “dagger-men,” (Latin sica = dagger).  The Sicarii were quite distinct from the three major Jewish denominations of the day-the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.  Josephus, our main source of knowledge of the Jewish wars and religious sects around the time of Christ, places their origins in the failed rebellion of Judah of Galilee against the Romans in A.D. 6.  Josephus describes Judah as a scholar and leader of a religious sect which maintained that paying tribute to Rome was a violation of Jewish religious law.  Israel, he said, should have no king but God.  Judah was killed in his rebellion, after which his followers were scattered but not completely destroyed.

Some fifty years later the Sicarii reappeared under the leadership of the religious teacher Menachem, grandson of Judah.  The Jewish high priests of the day were seen as collaborators with the Romans, and it was therefore permissible (according to the Sicarii) to use violence to remove such illegitimate rulers and free the people of God from their wicked domination.  The Sicarii began agitation in the late 50s, becoming prominent only in the 60s, when they began to use murder, kidnapping and terrorism to support their cause.  Ironically, their efforts were not mainly directed against the Romans, but against Jewish “collaborators” such as priests of the temple, Sadducees, Herodians, and other wealthy elites who had profited from working with the Romans.  According to Josephus, who is an unfriendly source, the Sicarii would hide short daggers under their cloaks, mingle with crowds at the great festivals, murder their victims, and then disappear into the crowd during the ensuing panic.  Their most successful assassination was that of the high priest Jonathan.

Although the Sicarii have sometimes been confused with the Jewish Zealots-a primarily political group which led the rebellion against Rome-modern research has shown that the Sicarii were an entirely different religious sect, who were frequently at odds with the more numerous Zealots.  The Sicarii did not begin the great rebellion against Rome in A.D. 66, which was initially lead by Eleazar, the captain of the Temple guard and the son of Ananias the high priest.  When the revolt against Rome was underway, however, the Sicarii quickly joined the rebellion, capturing Herod’s old fortress of Masada from its small Roman garrison.  Menachem and the Sicarii plundered the armory at Masada and marched on Jerusalem, where they allied with the Zealots to drive the Roman troops from their strongholds in the city. 

With the Romans temporarily expelled from Jerusalem, relations between the Sicarii, the Zealots, and other rebel groups quickly soured.  Menachem attempted to usurp authority over the entire rebellion by having himself crowned as the messiah-king in the Temple.  Most of the other Jews were outraged by this act, refusing to accept Menachem’s pretensions.  The Sicarii were attacked and defeated by Eleazar, the captain of the temple guard; Menachem was captured, tortured, and put to death with many of his followers.  The surviving Sicarii, under the leadership of Menachem’s relative Eleazar ben Ya’ir, fled to their stronghold of Masada, refusing further participation in the Jewish rebellion against Rome.  Indeed, during the subsequent four years of the war between Jews and Romans, the only major military action of the Sicarii was to plunder Jewish villages near Masada, including the massacre of seven hundred Jewish men, women and children at Engedi during Passover.

After their valiant but vain defense of Masada against a Roman siege in A.D. 73, the Sicarii committed mass suicide rather than submit to the authority of the Romans.  Minor uprisings of Sicarii supporters occurred in Egypt and Cyrene in North Africa, after which the movement disappeared.

From the perspective of the history of religions, the Sicarii provide a classic example of the unfortunate tendency for some religious movements to become radicalized, violently rejecting the legal, political and social consensus of the wider society.  Especially volatile is the mixture of eschatological fervor with a willingness to advance a radical religious and political agenda by violence.  Such movements, although usually quite small, can be found in all major religions and in most periods of history.  A recent parallel to the mass suicide of the Sicarii after the failure of their radical eschatological hopes can be seen in the tragic deaths of the followers of David Koresh at Waco, Texas.  But, of course, the most striking parallel is to the al-Qaeda movement, with its radical interpretation of Islam, extreme eschatological expectation, and their willingness to use violence to achieve what they perceive as the will of God.

Further reading:  Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, tr. G. A. Williamson (1981); Richard A. Horsley, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus (1985).