The Jewish Assassins: Who were the Sicarii?
I had never heard of the Sicarii until I read Josephus’ The Jewish Wars. The Sicarii were a subgroup of Zealots during the years leading up to the First Jewish Revolt from 66-70 CE. They were willing to kill any Roman or any Jew who collaborated with Rome. The Sicarii also kidnapped important Jews to hold for ransom. They appeared publicly on the scene first during the reign of Roman Governor Felix in 57 CE when they slew Jonathan the High Priest. Next during the time of Albinus in 64 CE they kidnapped Eleazar ben Ananias, son of the High Priest, in exchange for ten of their comrades being held prisoner. Their attack at the Temple in the crowded festival of Xylophory in 66 CE sparked the beginning of the Great Revolt. Their leader at the outset of the Revolt was Menahem ben Yehuda, followed by Eleazar ben Ya’ir after Menahem was killed. They operated by stealth, killed quickly, and escaped unnoticed--as they would dress in normal attire and often feign shock and panic at the murder near them. They basically avoided the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Their skill set was not in open warfare, but in stealth. They waited instead at Masada and were ultimately defeated there in the infamous siege of 73 CE, where Eleazar led the entire group to commit suicide rather than surrender. In our book series Cry for Jerusalem, we use the name variety Elazar, in place of Eleazar, to distinguish him more easily from the other Eleazar (ben Ananias), who we call Eleasar.
The Sicarii were in one sense one of the world’s first terrorist organizations. Here is what Josephus had to say:
“Certain of those robbers went up to the city, as if they were going to worship God, while they had daggers under their garments; and, by thus mingling themselves among the multitude, they slew Jonathan; and as this murder was never avenged, the robbers went up with the greatest security at the festivals after this time; and having weapons concealed in the like manner as before, and mingling themselves among the multitude, they slew certain of their own enemies, and were subservient to other men for money; and slew others not only in remote parts of the city, but in the temple itself also; for they had the boldness to murder men there, without thinking of the impiety of which they were guilty. And this seems to me to have been the reason why God, out of his hatred for these men’s wickedness, rejected the city; and as for the temple, he no longer esteemed it sufficiently pure for him to inhabit therein, but brought the Romans upon us, and threw a fire upon the city to purge it; and brought upon us, our wives, and children, slavery,--as desirous to make us wiser by our calamities.”
--Antiquities 20:5 164-166.
Although in this passage Josephus seems to lay the blame of Jerusalem’s destruction at the feet of the Sicarii, and uses that name specifically elsewhere, in other places he places equal blame at the feet of wicked behavior of certain rebel leaders such as Yohanan ben Levi, otherwise known as John of Gischala. In his true distaste for the rebels and their tactics, Josephus appears to blame the Jews for the disaster rather than the Romans. This only added to the dislike that the Jews had for him after the war. Besides laying blame of the loss of the war to the wickedness of certain Jewish parties, he does lay blame for the beginning of the war squarely with the Roman procurator Gessius Florus, who went overboard in antagonizing the Jews in clear provocations in 65 and 66 CE.
The name Sicarii comes from the Latin “sica” for a curved dagger. The Romans coined the word “sicarii” for dagger-men. Their daggers remind me of the jambiya (short, curved blades) one sees in Arabian culture today, which might have descended from the same type of weapon. It is likely that the blades of the Sicarii were not held by the elaborately decorated sheaths seen in today’s mostly ceremonial blades (see below).