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

The Hippodrome (Amphitheater) and Palace

South of the harbor, writes Josephus in his Antiquities (XV 9.6), Herod built an "amphitheater." The word, in his usage, can also mean "hippodrome" or "stadium."

When we leave the harbor area through the southern gate of the later Crusader city, we walk south till we stand on a very slight rise overlooking a long flat area. Almost 300 yards to the south, facing us, are rows of stone seats. That was the hippodrome's southern end. We are standing at the northern end, where the race started. We can make out the long straight rows of the eastern seats as well. The western side fell beneath the sea in the 2nd century AD, probably in the same earthquake that took the harbor's southern breakwater.


(We also see the three large chimneys of a coal-burning power plant built in 1982.)

Herod built the original structure, which was open to the sea -- that is, there were no seats on the west. (Perhaps he staged mock sea battles there.) At a later phase, no doubt in response to a growing demand, the western seats were added, the whole thing accommodating perhaps 12,000. At some point in time, a wall was built east-west through the middle, turning it into an amphitheater for gladiator fights and the martyring of Christians. Later this wall was removed, restoring the hippodrome. Finally, in the 2nd or 3d centuries, a separate amphitheater as well as a new hippodrome were built in the eastern part of the city.

Just below us are the outlines of the starting gates. Down the middle (visible today only at the southern end) ran the dividing wall or spina. In order to win, a charioteer had to get and keep the inside track. As he circled again and again, the crucial battles for this track would occur at the ends of the spina. These sometimes held statues so contrived as to terrify the horses, to which the charioteers were strapped. If they collided with the spina at the turn, the chariots would go out from under them, and they would be dragged the rest of the course.


Chariot racing was the great sport of the Roman and Byzantine worlds. One remembers Ben Hur. Indeed, the political parties of Byzantium arose from among the devotees of the rival chariot squads, the "blues" and the "greens." The tombstones of charioteers all over the Roman world mention victories at Caesarea.

To the west of the hippodrome's southern end, we see an area with parts of pillars sticking up. According to the archaeologists (Sefi Porat, Ehud Netzer, Lee Levine) this belonged to the palace of the Roman procurators, including Pontius Pilate. The last two think it was Herod's as well.

Between the palace and the stadium, then, we have the scene for the following episode from 26 AD: 

Now Pilate, who was sent as procurator into Judea by Tiberius, sent by night those images of Caesar that are called ensigns into Jerusalem. This excited a very great tumult among the Jews when it was day; for those that were near them were astonished at the sight of them, as indications that their laws were trodden under foot; for those laws do not permit any sort of image to be brought into the city. Nay, besides the indignation which the citizens had themselves at this procedure, a vast number of people came running out of the country. These came zealously to Pilate to Caesarea, and besought him to carry those ensigns out of Jerusalem, and to preserve them their ancient laws inviolable; but upon Pilate's denial of their request, they fell down prostrate upon the ground, and continued immovable in that posture for five days and as many nights.

On the next day Pilate sat upon his tribunal, in the open market-place (the words may be translated, "great stadium," probably meaning our hippodrome -- SL) and called to him the multitude, as desirous to give them an answer; and then gave a signal to the soldiers, that they should all by agreement at once encompass the Jews with their weapons; so the band of soldiers stood round about the Jews in three ranks. The Jews were under the utmost consternation at that unexpected sight. Pilate also said to them that they should be cut in pieces, unless they would admit of Caesar's images, and gave intimation to the soldiers to draw their naked swords. Hereupon the Jews, as it were at one signal, fell down in vast numbers together, and exposed their necks bare, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be slain, than that their law should be transgressed. Hereupon Pilate was greatly surprised at their prodigious superstition, and gave order that the ensigns should be presently carried out of Jerusalem. (From Josephus, War   II 9.2.)

An example of non-violent civil disobedience that worked! Here the exception illustrates the rule. In general, the Romans yielded to Jewish religious sensibilities: before Pilate's time, they had not tried to place images in Jerusalem. According to Josephus in the Antiquities , the decrees of Julius Caesar allowed the Jews many extraordinary privileges: They did not have to worship any god but their own. Alone among conquered peoples, they were permitted freedom of assembly (synagogues!). They were not subject to the draft. They did not have to bivouac Roman soldiers. Those living in the land of Israel did not have to pay taxes in the seventh year, when the land lay fallow. Caesar had granted them these benefits, no doubt, in response to their support for him during his civil war against Pompey, who had not only conquered the land for Rome – but had committed the arch-offense of stepping into the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed (and only in a state of ritual purity and only on the Day of Atonement).

The Romans had reason, therefore, to think that the Jews must be content to live under such an "enlightened" occupation. Expecting no problems, they put the land under a man of mere equestrian rank. That is, they did not bother to station a legion in the country. (The commander of a legion had to be of senatorial rank -- and could not serve under an equestrian.) Pilate had only about 3000 soldiers for the entire province of Judaea, mostly Gentiles from Caesarea and Sebastia. (E. Mary Smallwood in Josephus, The Jewish War , p. 465.)  This force was utterly inadequate, especially after the death of Agrippa in 44 AD, when the size of the province doubled. But the Romans had no inkling of Jewish discontent. That is, they had no notion of the Jewish covenant faith

When Pilate introduced the images into Jerusalem, he was violating not only the status quo, but also the Roman principles of governance for the province. The sole thing that could fire the Jews to massive concerted action was a trespass against their religion. In the present case, resistance took nonviolent form. Forty years later, when another procurator, Florus, seized money from the Temple, resistance swelled into violence, spawning the first great Jewish revolt. When it was over, Titus subjected more than 2500 Jews to torture and execution in Caesarea, no doubt in this hippodrome, much to the delight of the Gentile spectators (Josephus War , VII 3.1).