Caesarea Maritima by Fred L. Horton

Caesarea Maritima constituted Herod the Great’s most remarkable architectural achievement not only because of the size and grandeur of the city he created on the Mediterranean shore but because of his conquest of formidable natural barriers to its construction. The Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 15.9.6; War 1.21.5) mentions that ships sailing to Egypt along the coast of Phoenicia had to ride out the frequent and dangerous southwest winds at anchor because no port was available to them between Dor (in Phoenicia) and Joppa (on the southern coast of Palestine). Accordingly, Herod began his creation of an artificial harbor at the ruins of an old Hellenistic city called “Strato’s Tower” (Antiquities 15.9.6; War 1.21.5) in the year 22 BCE and brought the project to completion in 10 BCE with a year-long celebration featuring games, races, shows, and feasting (Antiquities 16.5.1; War 1.21.8). Josephus tells us that the great harbor, named Sebastos, contained an area even larger than that of the great port of Athens at Piraeus (Antiquities 15.9.6; War 1.21.5), and underwater archaeology has confirmed that Herod’s port covered some 100,000 square meters.

 

How did Herod build an artificial harbor at such a difficult location?

Herod’s artificial harbor represented an engineering marvel that consisted of two massive underwater barriers (moles), one that extended west from the shore more than 200 meters and then hooked north and another that began about 300 meters north along the shoreline and extended west to a point about 40 meters from the first to form a northern entrance channel. Six giant statues welcomed ships into the harbor, and a great lighthouse, named for Emperor Augustus’s heir apparent, Drusus, stood atop the wall on the western side of the entrance.

The two moles that formed the harbor rested upon massive cement blocks created by pouring hydraulic cement from Italy into gigantic forms made from wood imported from Syria. The builders laid these enormous blocks end on end upon a foundation of rubble and in some places, upon cobbles of imported stones. The southern mole was augmented by a line of underwater cement blocks that provided it additional protection against the waves surging toward the harbor from the south and west. The two breakwaters were finished on top with a walkway some 60 meters wide.

What kind of city did Herod build to serve his mighty harbor?

Across the quay from the harbor an artificial platform rose some 13 meters and extended more than 100 meters north, built on a series of twelve great vaults that served as warehouses for goods transported in and out of Caesarea Maritima. The southernmost vault contains remains from the Hellenistic period and so may represent remains of Strato’s Tower.

The vaults also functioned to form a large platform, on which stood a temple to Roma and Augustus as deities similar to the temple Herod had built earlier to Augustus at Samaria. The temple to Roma and Augustus at Caesarea Maritima contained, Josephus writes, a “colossal statue of the emperor” comparable to the enormous statue of Zeus at Olympia and a statue of Roma, equal in splendor to the statue of Hera at Argos (War 1.21.7). Ships seeking a safe harbor, Josephus claims, could see the temple from a great distance (Antiquities 15.9.6).

A monumental east-west staircase led from the dockside up to the platform. Stairs from this platform descended to the south and led into the business and administrative center of the city toward the southern wall. Inside the southern wall was an Italian-style theater and Herod’s palace, built on a promontory, complete with a fresh-water swimming pool surrounded by decorative stoa. The sea has swept away the east portion of the nearby amphitheater in which Herod held his games and races, but its location near the theater and palace make clear how convenient those celebrating the founding of the city in 10 BCE would find it to attend the associated games, performances, and feasts.

The book of Acts in the New Testament mentions Caesarea Maritima fifteen times as a harbor, as home to a small organization of Christians, as the residence of the procurator, and as the place where Paul made his demand to stand trial before the emperor.

Fred L. Horton , "Caesarea Maritima", n.p. [cited 21 Feb 2020]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/caesarea-maritima

Contributors

horton-fred

Fred L. Horton
professor emeritus of Religion , Wake Forest University

Fred L. Horton is professor emeritus of Religion at Wake Forest University and was an excavator at Caesarea and at Tell el-Hesi. Professor Horton is the author of several articles on both sites and has edited volumes in the publication series of both excavations.

 

Caesarea Maritima was a city built by Herod the Great in honor of Emperor Augustus.

Did you know…?

  • Underwater archaeologists determined that Herod imported volcanic ash called pozzolana from Puteoli in Italy, more than 1000 kilometers away, to create the giant cement blocks that formed the harbor’s underwater foundation.
  • Josephus says the temple to Roma and Augustus was made of “white stones” (War 1.21.7) and translators have often taken him to mean marble stones. Archaeologists, however, have determined, that Herod used Caesarea Maritima’s local kurkar stone for building his monumental structures there, likely covering them with stucco.
  • In 1961, an Italian team of archaeologists discovered a stone mentioning Pontius Pilate as “prefect of Judea,” with a dedication to the Emperor Tiberius. The excavators found the stone as part of a late rebuild within Herod’s theater where the masons had reused the stone bearing the inscription as just another stone for a new staircase. We have no idea of its original location or function.

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

operated, moved, or hardened by water

underwater barrier formed from masonry, large stones, or earth

Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

a Roman administrative officer

a structure built on the shore of a waterway for use as a landing place

In Greek architecture, a platform supported by pillars, creating a covered walkway; a portico.

king of Greek gods

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

A plaster used to cover surfaces, often interior or exterior walls.

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