Caesarea Maritima PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Caesarea Maritima
The Theater
Hippodrome, Palace

The Theater and the Death of Herod Agrippa

Rome took the land in 63 BC, but the turmoil continued for decades. Until Herod started building Caesarea 40 years later, there wasn't enough security to found a city in the Roman style on the flatlands. The theater must have signaled to people, then, that Rome had indeed arrived. Herod carved it into the kurkar ridge running alongside the sea, just as he did the eastern seats of his hippodrome to the north. Therefore the cavea, containing the audience, faces west - not north, shielding people's eyes from the sun, as in most Roman theaters. The rows of seats are raked according to the natural rise of the sound waves from the stage, behind which stood an ornate multi-tiered wall called a skene, from which we get the word "scene." Only a few stones of the skene are to be seen today at Caesarea, and the cavea has largely been reconstructed.


01112002043930.jpgThe theater was rebuilt often in antiquity. On one such occasion, the builders recycled a stone with the following remnant of an inscription:




This is the only mention of Pilate in stone. Like all the Roman governors, he lived in Caesarea, the administrative center of the province, most of the year , and he must have dedicated a building here to the emperor, Tiberius. At some point this "Tiberieum" ceased to function, and the stone was re-used in a rebuilding of the theater. A copy is on the site in the palace area. The original is in the Israel Museum

An event in the theater

As the architecture of Roman theaters became more splendid, the quality of the material performed on the stage degenerated. The most dramatic event that occurred here, however, was no fiction. It concerned Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great. He had been brought up in Rome. One day, a servant informed on him to the emperor, the old and ailing Tiberius, saying he had voiced a wish that his friend Caligula should soon come to rule instead. Tiberius had Agrippa arrested, although the head of the guard was careful to treat him royally, for he knew that Tiberius might soon die and that Caligula might indeed take power. Some time later, a fellow prisoner - a German - called Agrippa over, pointing to a fierce-looking owl in a tree. Such an owl is called an "uhu" or "bubo," and it is rarely seen in daylight. The German declared himself to be a prophet and said that the owl was a sign (from Josephus, Antiquities , XVIII 6.7):

"I think it fit to declare to thee the prediction of the gods. It cannot be that thou shouldst long continue in these bonds; but thou wilt soon be delivered from them, and wilt be promoted to the highest dignity and power, and thou wilt be envied by all those who now pity thy hard fortune; and thou wilt be happy till thy death, and wilt leave thine happiness to the children whom thou shalt have. But do thou remember, when thou seest this bird again, that thou wilt then live but five days longer. This event will be brought to pass by that God who hath sent this bird hither to be a sign unto thee."

Indeed, Tiberius soon died (suffocated perhaps by the head of the guard). Caligula came to the throne and freed his friend Agrippa, giving him the rule over the area of today's Golan as well as Perea in today's Kingdom of Jordan. A few years later, when Caligula, now utterly mad, insisted that his statue be set up for worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, Agrippa laid his life on the line: bravely relying on their friendship, he pled with Caligula to back off - and the latter did so, temporarily. Soon after Caligula renewed the order he was assassinated, so it never went into effect. Agrippa was in Rome at the time of the assassination, and amid the chaos of that day it was he who persuaded the Praetorian Guard to elevate the antiquarian, disabled Claudius to be emperor; he then had the guard surround the Senate, which wanted to restore the Republic, and by this threat he persuaded the Senators to accept Claudius. The new emperor, in turn, gave Agrippa the rule over Judaea - so that now at last a Jewish king replaced the hated procurators. One of his acts was to execute the Apostle James, son of Zebedee (Acts 12:2).

Thus the German's prophecy appeared to be coming true. However, he had spoken of "the highest dignity and power," and the rest of the story indicates that this phrase may have stuck in Agrippa's mind. For he began to build a new wall around Jerusalem, until Claudius ordered him to desist. And he gathered five local kings for a conference, but Claudius' man in Syria made them go home. There was suspicion, in short, that Agrippa was aiming for too much dignity and power. Perhaps to counter that suspicion, he decided to celebrate the emperor's birthday by a series of games at Caesarea (from Antiquities XIX 8.2):
On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver ... and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror [i.e. awe] over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god; and they added, "Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature." Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly....Accordingly he was carried into the palace...And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.... 

The story is more briefly told in Acts 12:18-23:  

Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers about what had become of Peter.  When Herod had sought for him, and didn’t find him, he examined the guards, and commanded that they should be put to death. He went down from Judea to Caesarea, and stayed there.  Now Herod was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. They came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus, the king’s personal aide, their friend, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day, Herod dressed himself in royal clothing, sat on the throne, and gave a speech to them.  The people shouted, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he didn’t give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died.  

The Mishnah (Sotah 7.8) indicates that Agrippa's Jewish subjects loved him. The death of this Jewish king in 44 AD, and his replacement by a procurator once again, appears to have hastened the deterioration of Roman-Jewish relations, contributing to the motives for the Great Revolt that started in 66. If the uhu-owl had not appeared, Agrippa might have enjoyed a long reign, the revolt might not have occurred, and - if we follow the reasoning of historian Martin Goodman - a major path to European anti-Semitism would have been averted.