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Written by Stephen Langfur
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Beth Shean

Scythopolis: the Roman-Byzantine City 

beth-shean-dionysus.jpgIn the time of the First Testament, the city was confined to the tell. By the Hellenistic period (332 BC), however, the population was too large for this mound alone, so some people moved to the hill across the river. Eventually, under the pax romana, the sense of security increased, and most activities shifted to the valley below. The tell became the acropolis ("top of the city") with a temple to Zeus.


Before 1985 the entire area, except the theatre, was covered with eucalyptus trees. In that year the modern Beth Shean had a serious problem of unemployment. Archaeologists knew there was plenty waiting to be dug. Here was a major city of the Decapolis, but only the tell and the theatre had been excavated. Since Decapolis cities such as Jerash (Gerasa) in Jordan are splendid, this must be splendid too! And so they were able to put 200 breadwinners from Beth Shean to work.

Over the Harod River, northeast of the tell/acropolis, are the remains of a triple-arched Roman bridge. (The Romans were the first to introduce bridges to the land.) Beyond it was the main entrance to the town.


The tell's southern edge affords a grand view of the Roman/Byzantine ruins. The downtown area extended beyond the theatre to an amphitheater. (See the satellite photo above.)  Indeed, the area of the Byzantine city was a square mile (Jerusalem's Old City is less, a square kilometer). The population, in the Roman period, may have been 20,000, in the Byzantine, 50,000.
The theatre dates from the 2nd century AD. Today it has two tiers of seats, but then it had three. (The earthquake of 363 brought it down, and it was never repaired to its original height.) The seats were all of white limestone imported from Mt. Gilboa, and they were set at an angle to catch the natural rise of the sound waves from the stage. About 7000 people could fit inside. On hot or rainy days, the whole top would be covered with a canopy, made perhaps from the town's famous linen. The niches for the supporting posts are visible in the seats. This raised a problem of stuffiness,  which the Romans solved (Oscar {jtips} Seyffert, Oskar. Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Meridian informs us) by squirting a mixture of saffron and water into the air between acts. The alcoves beside the exits, unique to this theatre, may have held the spraying machines, especially needed in so hot a valley.

East of the theatre, a 2nd-century Roman bathhouse  stretched all the way to a porch or stoa, now indicated only by its line of impressive pillars. We may visit the public restroom. On a close-up view, we note beneath the rows of seats a ditch, through which was channeled the southern river of Scythopolis, taking the waste to the Jordan. Men and women used the restroom at different times. There were no dividers between the seats. It was a favorite place for conversation.

Returning to the line of impressive pillars at the eastern end of this bathhouse: originally, between them and the street, there was a shallow reflecting pool, so that one saw them twice. The Byzantines filled the pool and built shops, calling the street "Sylvanus Street" after the Samaritan lawyer who financed its reconstruction in 515. On January 18, 749 an earthquake brought the city down, including these pillars. One covered the skeleton of a man reaching for a bag of coins. This quake devastated much of the country, especially cities in the Syro-African rift valley. We have literary records of many Jewish casualties in Tiberias. Scythopolis never recovered, although a small town was built over part of the ruins, incorporating pillars in the foundations.
We follow Sylvanus Street toward the tell, encountering next on our left a square platform. This supported a monument that greeted those coming from the main gate. It included statues made of green Athenian marble. Next we find a nymphaeum (a public fountain with statues of nymphs), and next, at the corner, a temple to Dionysus, patron god of the city.

Today we see the steps of this temple, along with the huge pillars of its facade that fell in the earthquake (above). The Byzantine Christians got rid of its inner chamber (cella), but left the facade. Here then we encounter, as at Sepphoris, the cult of Dionysus. 


A ceremonial staircase connected the Dionysus temple with a Zeus temple on the acropolis. For Zeus was the father of Dionysus. The mother, however, was not Hera, his wife, but Semele, a mortal. Disguised as an old woman, Hera wheedled the pregnant Semele into wheedling Zeus to show himself in his true form. This was the lightning stroke, which turned Semele to a crisp. Zeus saved the embryo and sewed it into his thigh, out of which, at term, burst the god of flowing wine.

The columned street coming down toward the tell, intersecting Silvanus at the temple, is called Palladius, after its 4th-century funder. (See photo above.) In a mosaic inscription, Palladius assures us that he donated the money for the street from his own pocket. (He does not say how the money got into his pocket, but that would take too long for a mosaic inscription.) To the south of this street was the agora or marketplace, including some striking animal mosaics. To its north is an open semicircle with small rooms radiating off it. In one of them we find a 6th-century mosaic showing a rather unhappy looking Tyche (the luck of the city), with the urban wall on her head for a crown. She holds a cornucopia. We may wonder what a goddess like this is doing in a Christian city, but then we see that the date palm growing out of the horn is a cross.


Several of the floors in the rooms of this semicircle have mosaics containing erotic poems in Greek.
Continuing westward on Palladius street, we find a 4th-century bathhouse on the north side. Since the reconstructers did not know what the roofs looked like, they made roofs they were sure would not resemble the originals. Inside, however, we find the country's best-preserved saunas (calidaria). We have seen two bathhouses. Five have been found, including one for lepers.

We have not, however, seen the remains of churches. There was one on the acropolis. But the Byzantines wanted the downtown area for bathing and commerce, shunting religion to the margins. On the hills north of the Harod River are the remains of a 6th century monastery, as well as Jewish and Samaritan synagogues. The monastery, built by "the lady Mary" (perhaps the wife of a Byzantine official) includes a large mosaic. The months are depicted, each "represented by a man equipped for an occupation typical of the season." (Murphy-O'Connor , p. 195).

Palladius street leads us up to the modern entrance. We can then walk or drive around to the amphitheatre ("double theatre"). Such structures, among them the Coliseum in Rome, were used for the bloodiest spectacles of Roman public life: gladiator and animal fights, as well as execution by animals. Only the arena (from Latin harena, meaning sand, which was used to soak up the blood) and the first few tiers of benches remain, but in the 2nd century AD it had between eleven and thirteen rows, accommodating about 6000 people, including soldiers from the Roman Sixth Legion. In all of Asia Minor no amphitheatres have been found, but in this small land we know of five so far: here, in Beit Guvrin (the best-preserved), in Shechem, and two (from different periods) in Caesarea Maritima. The reason: after the first Jewish revolt, Roman legions were stationed here, and the armies loved spectacles of blood. Yet not only the armies. From the time of Julius Caesar, no Roman politician could gain favor with the people if he did not stage extravagant spectacles ending in death. The effect was aphrodisiac. After the killings inside, prostitutes made a killing at the gates.

In this example at Scythopolis, the first row is more than ten feet above the arena, and of course there would have been a fence as well, protecting the drooling spectators from the beasts and gladiators. These beasts would have included lions, caught in what was still then the "thickets of the Jordan" (Jeremiah 49:19 ). (The last lion was sighted in the 13th century.) During the persecutions by Decius (250 AD), Valerian (258) and Diocletian (304), Christians would have undergone martyrdom here.

Given such memories, the Byzantines had no interest in amphitheatres. They buried this one with a neighborhood, whose basalt-cobbled streets we may walk.