Herod's trademark city of Caesarea actually owes more to Hadrian than it does to the Jewish king. Within seven years of the city's inaugural games Herod was dead and a decade later his kingdom was itself in pieces, the greater part reorganized as a minor Roman province governed from the harbour city.
The destruction of Jerusalem in the first Jewish war emphasized the importance of Caesarea as the economic and political hub of province Palaestina, and that predominance was elevated further after the Bar Kochba war, waged during the later years of Hadrian (132-136). Though in the popular mind overshadowed by the Herodian foundation, in fact both the city and the harbour of Caesarea were extensively rebuilt by the Roman emperor. The Hadrianic city extended far beyond the Herodian centre and had no defining city wall for more than 300 years.
At its height the city covered an urban area of nearly a thousand acres – almost five-times the size of Jerusalem.
Visualization of the harbour of Caesarea in its heyday.
Before Herod's day the coasts of Palestine had for centuries been a possession of Phoenicia, interrupted only briefly by an episode of Maccabean control. Traders from the Phoenician city of Sidon, shipping timber to Egypt, established an anchorage half way between Acco (Ptolemais/ Acre) and Joppa (Jaffa, Tel Aviv) as early as the 5th century BC. The traders named the point Strato's (or Straton’s) Tower for the Sidonian king.
The whole of Syria was annexed by Pompey in 63 BC and ownership of the coast passed to Rome. In Judaea, Pompey installed an Hasmonaean, Hyrcanus II, as high priest and "ethnarch," with the Arab Antipater as the effective governor. Judaea's maritime trade remained insignificant.
A Parthian invasion in 41 BC, at a time when Rome was weakened by civil war, set a chain of events in motion which led eventually to the installation by Rome of Antipater's son Herod as its local client king. The coastal littoral had been ceded by Antony to Cleopatra but that was a concession which lapsed following Octavian's victory at Actium in 31 BC. The wily Herod reaffirmed his loyalty at Octavian's feet and secured from his new master both his kingdom and the small coastal town around Strato's Tower.
In his travels Herod had seen for himself the achievements of Rome. By employing the latest technologies of Rome – particularly hydraulic concrete and massive artificial breakwaters – Herod saw a way to give his kingdom a trading port on an unpromising stretch of Mediterranean coast. Eight years later work began.
Caesarea – Herodian beginnings
In 22 BC, with the 10th Legion camped in the neighbourhood and providing manpower and expertise, Herod set about building an artificial harbour on the site of the ancient port, naming it, in honour of his Roman patron, Sebastos (Greek for Augustus). The southern breakwater
curved outward for more than 700 metres, while the northern breakwater extended 275 metres from the shore.
To further ingratiate himself with his Roman master, Herod built a temple to the imperial cult on a raised platform facing the harbour, complete with massive statues of Augustus (modeled after the Zeus of Olympia) and Roma (after the Hera at Argos). This temple to a profane religion dominated the city and was visible far out at sea. So, too, was the Drusion Tower, almost certainly a lighthouse, erected at the entrance to the harbour and named for the emperor's deceased stepson.
On land adjoining the harbour Herod built diversions for his own enjoyment, including a palace, a theatre and a racetrack. With neither a spring nor a river close to the city Herod also had an aqueduct built from a water source on Mount Carmel six miles away.
"So this city was thus finished in twelve years; during which time the king did not fail to go on both with the work, and to pay the charges that were necessary."
– Josephus, Antiquities, 15.9.6.
Inaugural games celebrated completion of the harbour in 11 BC and the new port began to attract a share of Rome's lucrative trade with the east. Local grain, oil, dates, figs and textiles passed through Herod's custom houses, along with more exotic spices, incense, silks and jewels from further east. Levies on the export trade funded the king's extravagant expenditure.
Impressive as the harbour was, the civilian city beyond the port began to develop only after Herod's death in 4 BC and especially after Caesarea was chosen as the seat of the Roman prefects and headquarters of the 10th Legion, early in the 1st century.
Caesarea – a Roman garrison city
Herod's successor in Judaea – his son Archelaus – was deposed by Rome in 6 AD, and Caesarea was the obvious choice as seat of the Roman prefect. The Roman governor moved into the "promontory palace" built by Herod twenty years earlier and converted it into the Praesidium. With a legion in residence and all that that entailed, the city grew rapidly, becoming the economic and political hub of the whole province, and acquiring a thorough-going Roman character.
As the vibrant city developed, Caesarea attracted a community of Hellenized Jews, who settled in a Jewish quarter close to the original Strato's Tower, north of the harbour. The remains of their 5th century synagogue have been found on the seashore nearby. But for the most part, the city's population was drawn from Syrio-Greeks, the traditional seafarers of the eastern Mediterranean. Pagan shrines proliferated in the city and pagan festivals governed the annual calendar. Tyche was adopted as the city's protective goddess and other favoured cults included Isis/Aphrodite, Serapis, and Mithras.
By the mid-years of the century the Jewish minority had produced its own crop of rich merchants, who grew increasingly resentful of the dominant Greek influence. The Jews petitioned unsuccessfully for Nero's support for their claim to governance in the city – a claim based on Caesarea's Herodian foundation. Nero, like Hadrian after him, was a philhellenist, and had little patience with Jewish particularism.
As residents of a thoroughly pagan metropolis, the frustrated Hellenized Jews, least in sympathy with the messianic dreams of Jewish fanatics, were pushed closer to the revolutionary aims of the zealots. Like that other great entrepot of the eastern
Mediterranean, Alexandria, Caesarea became the
scene of racial and cultural conflict. As the Talmud itself recognized, coexistence of the Jewish and Roman
ways of life was "impossible."
Caesarea – a war capital
"The ostensible pretext for the war was insignificant in comparison with the fearful disasters to which it led."
– Josephus, Wars, 2.14.4.
In 66 AD, tensions between Jews and Greeks in Caesarea broke into the sectarian violence that precipitated the Jewish war with Rome – and NOT the "death of the apostle James" or
God's retribution for the "execution of Jesus"!
Josephus reports that a plot of land adjoining the synagogue of Caesarea was owned by a Greek. The local Jews insisted that he should sell them the land – at a generous price – so they could extend access to the synagogue. The Greek refused the Jewish offer and began the construction of workshops on the land in question. Hot headed Jewish zealots then attacked his labourers and the violence escalated.
This episode is often summarized as "desecration of the synagogue". Reports Josephus, not entirely without prejudice:
"As if divinely ordained, the inhabitants of Caesarea massacred the Jews who lived there; in less than an hour more than 20,000 were slaughtered and Caesarea was wholly deprived of Jews, for even the fugitives were seized by Florus and sent in chains to the dockyards."
– Josephus, Wars, 2.18.1.
The five-year conflict with Rome actually accelerated Caesarea's development. The city became the marshalling point for the Roman army and in July 67 a force of 60,000 troops, including allies and auxiliaries assembled here. That year and in the following three years, two legions (the 5th and 10th) had winter quarters in the city. A third legion (the 15th) moved up to Scythopolis.
After three years of war, in July of 69, Vespasian, already acclaimed by troops in Alexandria and distant Moesia, was hailed as emperor by his own legions in Caesarea. The soldiers received a donative and the city itself a new privileged status: Colonia Prima Flavia Augusta Caesarea. Untypically, the new colonia was not populated with army veterans. Rather, the locals were granted Italian rights for their loyalty to the Flavian cause.
As the war drew to its bloody climax, hundreds of captured rebels died in the arenas of Caesarea. Titus celebrated the birthday of his brother Domitian at Caesarea by executing Jewish prisoners.
"For the number of those who perished in combats with wild beasts, or in fighting each other, or by being burned alive exceeded twenty-five hundred. Yet all this seemed to the Romans too light a penalty, though their victims were dying in a myriad of ways."
– Josephus, Wars, 7.3.1.
Titus moved on to Berytus (Beirut) and celebrated his father's birthday in a similar fashion! The more fortunate Jews were sold as slaves at Gaza.
With the total destruction of the rival city of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Caesarea entered its most prosperous era.
Hadrian in Caesarea – a Roman metropolis
tells you that Jerusalem and Caesarea are both flourishing
or that both cities are destroyed, do not believe
it. But if he says that one is flourishing and the
other is destroyed, believe it."
– Talmud, Megila 6a.
Following the first Jewish war and the destruction of Jerusalem, the city of Caesarea grew rapidly, becoming the economic and political center of province Palaestina, with a population above 125,000 and the hub of the road network. But then, during the reign of Hadrian (117-138), much of Judaea was wrecked by war a second time, the rebels on this later occasion led by Simon Bar Kosiba (aka Bar Kochba). Caesarea was again the marshalling point for the Roman army.
Hadrian himself visited the city in 130 and again in 134. Hadrian, like Titus sixty-four years earlier, executed Jewish rebels in the city.
By tradition, the condemned including Akiva, a leading Jewish sage and the rabbi who had greeted the rebel leader as the expected Messiah (Yer. Ta'anit, iv. 68d).
By Hadrian's time Caesarea's outer harbour had deteriorated badly. The harbour had been wrecked by a tsunami in December 115. Tectonic activity had lowered the ocean floor and sunken parts of the breakwater were causing a hazard to shipping. Another earthquake struck in 132 when urban areas were again severely damaged. Much of the original city, including its celebrated harbour, had to be built anew, by Hadrian and his successor Antoninus Pius.
From the evidence of the theatre and elsewhere, "Herodian" materials were reused in the construction. Along the shoreline, Herod's ancient racetrack was shortened and redeveloped as an unusual elongated amphitheater, with double the original seating capacity. The governor's headquarters, the praetorium, was refurbished and extended fifty metres further east. A new pier was attached to the earlier, Herodian structure, to inhibit silting up of the inner harbour. A huge new hippodrome (circus), 460-metres long, was built inland to the east and was the venue for races that became famous throughout the Roman world. A second amphitheatre was added on the north side of the town. One of the many warehouses (horrea) from the Herodian period was redeveloped as a Mithraeum, doubtless to meet the religious needs of the military. To supply the city's larger 2nd century population,
engineers of the 10th Legion tapped into a new water
source, the Tanninim (Crocodile) River, running underground piping for four miles and then attached a second
aqueduct to the first built by Herod a century earlier.
Decline and Fall
The harbour which gave birth to Caesarea remained in regular use until the 6th century, and sporadically thereafter until post-Crusader times. The imposing Augustan temple which dominated the harbour front was robbed out in the 6th century and replaced by an octagonal church, the Martyrion of the Holy Procopius. A substantial wall was thrown up around the central area of the city, abandoning the extensive suburbs.
In the late Byzantine period the amphitheater was converted into a palace-redoubt and the high rear wall of the abandoned theatre pressed into service as one side of a hastily constructed fortress. Forlorn marble statuary that had once embellished the ancient city was burned for lime and used in hastily constructed concrete defenses. The famous Christian library was destroyed, either by Persians or the Saracens, in the 7th century. The harbour area was the last toe-hold of the Byzantines in Palestine. The besieged garrison of Caesarea capitulated in 638, surrendering to the conqueror "two hundred thousand pieces of gold." (Gibbon).
Thereafter, a small Muslim community huddled around the harbour area throughout the 7th to 11th centuries. Crusaders took the town in 1101 and established a "principality" which lasted 150 years. But neither Arab conquerors of the 7th century nor
Crusaders of the 12th century were capable of repairing or maintaining the civic amenities that had given grandeur to the ancient city. For more than a thousand years the aqueduct continued to feed water into Caesarea but when the structure was breached during the crusaders' wars, the still flowing water pooled north of the town, creating a swamp and a hazard of malaria.
Monumental courtyard buildings on the temple platform – that probably functioned as "cloisters" for the Knights Templar – still dominated Caesarea during the 13th century when Crusaders, in a brief period of optimism, began the construction of a cathedral to replaced the earlier church. The work was never completed.
Several times the town changed hands between Muslims and Christians, precipitating a steady desertion of most of the population. When the harbour finally silted up the Crusader settlement shrank to little more than a citadel built on the southern breakwater. Caesarea eventually disappeared under swamp and sand dunes.
PS: "The Holy Grail" – Made in Caesarea!
One Green Bottle ...
The Holy Grail?
Roman glassware (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
In May 1101 Crusaders from Genoa captured Caesarea and pillaged the small Islamic town. Among the booty that fell into their hands was a particularly fine hexagonal green dish taken from the mosque. The invaders were largely ignorant of glass-making and imagined that the dish had been carved from a giant emerald! Thus valued, the "gem" was used to pay their creditors back in Italy.
In Genoa, the precious vessel was delivered to the Church of San Lorenzo which, by 1104, laid claim to one-third of Caesarea. Within a century – perhaps the prelates having learnt something about glass-making? – the dish had been accorded a more sacred value: it was declared to have been used by Jesus at the Last Supper – the sacro catino or Holy Grail.
The bauble was particularly useful at a time when the Catholic church was exalting the mystique and ritual of "Holy Communion."
The dish in reality is early Islamic glassware. The Romans had been outstanding glass-makers and the skill had not been entirely lost in the Muslim world.
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15; Jewish War I.
Avner Raban, Kenneth Holum, Caesarea Maritima - A Retrospective after Two Millennia (Brill, 1995)
Eusebius, The Martyrs of Palestine (Digireads, 2005)
Ehud Netzer, The Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder (Baker, 2008)
Lee I. Levine, "Roman Caesarea: An Archaeological-Topographical Study." Qedem II,
Lee I. Levine, Caesarea under Roman rule (Brill, 1975)
M. Grant, Herod the Great (McGraw-Hill, 1971)
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land (OUP, 1986)
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