Welcome back to our virtual tour of Israel. Today we arrive at Caesarea. As we enter into this beautiful ancient seaside town, we get our first glimpse of Roman architecture and grandeur. But before we begin exploring, let’s get familiar with a little Roman history.
Long before the Romans came into power, a Phoenician seaport city already existed here. After that, the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty controlled the area. But it was King Herod the Great that made this into the magnificent city we see the ruins of here today. Herod was King of Judea from 37-4 BCE. His father, Antipater, was an Edomite whose family had converted to Judaism during the time of the Hasmoneans, and his mother was a Nabatean. This technically made Herod half Jewish, but he always felt persecuted by the Jews because they didn’t consider him a legitimate king. He was cruel and paranoid and wanted desperately to leave his mark on the Roman Empire. He received honor as a modern builder from other leaders and from Caesar Augustus. He wanted to be remembered as a “Great” builder of the times. And he accomplished just that. The most magnificent ancient structures we see in the Land of Israel today are attributed to Herod, including the seaport city of Caesarea. But even in all the splendor of that legacy, this is what is said of Herod the Great: “He rose like a fox, ruled like a lion, and died like a dog”. How sad that a man should come to this sort of end. I would venture to say that if he were psychologically diagnosed today it would be paranoid schizophrenia. What a sad existence of a brilliant man!
In any event, Herod built Caesarea from 22-10 BCE to commemorate Caesar Augustus. It was a mixed city, with foreigners and Jews. The gentiles said Herod built the city for them and the Jews made the claim that it was built for them. This caused a great deal of conflict between the two groups which escalated during the Great Revolt of 66-73 CE, creating much bloodshed. As a matter of fact, the revolt actually started here in Caesarea as a result of a couple of youngsters who started to offer a pagan sacrifice in the Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath.
After Herod died in 4 BCE, his son Archelaus was given the middle part of the Land of Israel to govern. After a few years he was forced from Judea and sent to Rome. This begins the time of the Roman Governors. The governors lived in Caesarea. And after 70 CE, when Jerusalem was destroyed, Caesarea replaced Jerusalem as the capital until the Moslem conquest of 638 CE. It was during the time of the governors that Pontius Pilate lived here and built a pagan temple dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius.
We will begin our tour by walking over to the Roman theatre. Herod used locally quarried sand stone called, kurkar, to build the massive structure; much of which has stood the test of time for the last 2,000 years. We pass through a long narrow walkway, called the Vomitoria, leading into the grand seating area. I was told that the reason it was called the vomitoria was because when the show was over, the people crowded through the narrow walkway and were “vomited” out the other side. That could be an old tour guide joke, not quite sure, but it is a memorable explanation!
When we look around the theatre we can see where the modern stone seats have replaced the ancient worn seating. However, if we look closely off to our right, we can see much of the original seats underneath the new ones. In that area was found a stone being used in secondary use, meaning it was originally used elsewhere, in another time period, but was found and reused in this location. That stone had an inscription that mentioned Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judea. This is the same as finding a carving in a wall that said, “Pontius Pilate lived here.” That’s pretty amazing! You can find the original in the Israel museum, but we will come across a reproduction later as we enter into Herod’s Palace. Except for the stage area in front of us, we are surrounded by two Caveas, seating sections. In Herod’s day, there was a third, higher, seating level that did not weather the storm of time. But we did pass some of its remains just outside the walls of the theatre before we entered.
Now we focus on the stage of the theatre. The view of the Mediterranean Ocean is spectacular from this vantage point. However, during the Roman period, there was no view at all. How can it be? Well, there was a huge three story backdrop called a Scaenae Frons. It was used as part of the stage set. In front of the stage was the area of the orchestra, also used for VIP seating. The marble we see on the floor of the orchestra is not the original but is dated to the Byzantine era of the 4th to 7th centuries. An interesting tidbit; marble was not used for construction during the Roman era, only for decoration. So if you see an ancient marble floor in Israel, it would be a good guess that it is Byzantine or later.
If you were to stand on the stage and drop a coin, the acoustics are such that anyone sitting in this 5,000 seat theatre could hear it hit the floor. If you were to sing it would sound like you were using a microphone. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.” Did you ever memorize Shakespeare as a child in school? Can you imagine how he would have loved to perform in this magnificent theatre built almost 1,600 years before he was born? While Shakespeare is still an influence in literature today, so 2,000 years ago, the ancient Greek stories of Zeus and Dionysus and the culture of the Greek theatre influenced the Romans; and they were captivated by it.
The Romans adopted the architecture style of the Greek theatre but changed things according to the development of their engineering and their mix of culture and desire to impress. One major difference between the Greek and Roman theatrical experience was that the Greeks were into tragedies and comedies and the Romans, believe it or not, were into mimes and pantomimes. I suppose Shakespeare wouldn’t have gone over too well in the Roman world. Never the less, the Emperors of Rome wanted their subjects to enjoy this type of activity instead of being involved in politics, so they offered the residents amusement at the theatre or the amphitheater, or hippodrome, even as often as twice a week, free of charge.
This theatre was Herod’s tool to broadcast Roman culture in a city of a mixed population of Jews and pagans. Did the Jews participate in these cultural events? I’m sure that Jews joined in, even in the most bestial events that took place in the gladiator arenas. The nature of man has not changed in 2,000 years. There was then, and always will be a struggle with the moral dilemma within every cultural backdrop. This is something to ponder in our day as well. Have you ever justified a decision to participate in something that might not be what God’s best was for you but it was offered free of charge or you experienced peer pressure to do it? If we are honest we have all been there and done that. There is nothing new under the sun. The moral question has been visited and revisited and even rewritten in modern day. God help us if we do not learn from history and stay true to the biblical principles that help us become the best we can be.
As we leave the theatre through the Pordodos, the entrance for the actors, orchestra and VIP’s, we will walk through an “archaeological graveyard” to one of the most picturesque views of ancient Caesarea.
Stay tuned for next week’s continuation of Caesarea and find out what an “archaeological graveyard” is and what kind of free amusement took place other than at the theatre.
Until then… Shalom from Israel.
Top Photo Credit: Shalom Israel Tours