Cæsarea Maritima (Greek: Παράλιος Καισάρεια, Paralios Kaisareia), called Cæsarea Palæstina after 133 AD, was a city built on the shore on the Mediterranean Sea by Herod the Great about 25–13 BC. It was considered a magnificent jewel of the Roman Empire and was indeed the greatest engineering wonder of its time. Her beauty was to be a testament to the might and grandeur of Rome and built to honor Caesar Augustus. From massive stadiums and temples to Herod's promontory palace, Caesarea Maritima was constructed to rival the City of Zion and become the Roman "Jerusalem," and the Roman capital of Palestine for more than five hundred years.
In 500 BC the Persians gave the Sidonians all the coastline from Dor to Joppa in gratitude for use of their fleet in the Persian invasion of Greece. The Sidonians used this site as an anchorage for merchant ships on the trade route to Egypt, and this location slowly grew into an important coastal town. The city was originally called Straton's Tower after its alleged founder Straton, the king of Sidon. He built a lighthouse and fortifications around this small town in order to protect the port. This Phoenician city fell to Alexander Yannai in 96 BC and became part of the Hasmonean kingdom until Pompey conquered it in 63 BC. It was temporarily under the control of Cleopatra of Egypt, but then the city was returned to Roman emperor Augustus.
Augustus gave this city to Herod the Great in 30 BC, under whose control it achieved its greatest glory and splendor. Herod named it Caesarea Maritima after Caesar Augustus, and to identify it separately from Caesarea Palestine. Over the course of twelve years (22-10 BC), Herod the Great rebuilt most of Caesarea and, in 6 BC, it became the Roman capital of the Judean province. Caesarea Maritima remained the Roman capital of Palestine for the next five hundred years. The Roman governor of Judea lived in Caesarea, and the Roman legions for the province were also headquartered there. It became the site of the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 AD) that began after a massacre of 20,000 Jews, and the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 AD). The persecution and executions of Jews, including famous Rabbi Akiva, also occurred in Caesarea. In the second century, Caesarea became the seat of a Christian bishop and an important center for Christian learning and study.
Caesarea was the last city in Palestine to fall during the Muslim invasion in 640 AD. After its fall and until the Crusades, this area was overall neglected and allowed to decay. Baldwin I captured Caesarea in 1101, and Saladin conquered the city in 1187. King Richard the Lion Heart of England retook Caesarea in 1191 and exiled all Muslims from the city. Louis IX of France rebuilt and fortified Caesarea from 1251-1252, and thirteen years later Baybars, the Egyptian sultan, captured and destroyed the whole city. It was left in ruins for the next five hundred years until 1878, when Ottoman Turks sent Bosnian Muslim refugees to live there. The tiny fishing village built by the Muslims was abandoned in 1948 during the War of Independence, and today has become an increasingly popular tourist attraction, resort town, and archaeological dig site.
Under Herod the Great, Caesarea was modeled after the common Roman city, containing a network of streets and square city blocks forming a massive grid. The city included the Temple of Augustus, Herod’s palace, and a marketplace/forum, as well as multiple public entertainment facilities.
One vital thing that Caesarea lacked was fresh water, being situated on the coast far from any springs or rivers. To solve this problem, a pair of aqueducts was built to the southern side of Mount Carmel to bring water into the city. The seven-mile long twin aqueducts were part of an extensive sewer and water system developed in Caesarea. The aqueducts were enlarged as the city grew and their precise engineering included arches and tunnels and used gravity to move the water into Caesarea's pools and fountains through a network of pipes. Inscriptions on the aqueducts indicate that their maintenance was conducted by the Second and Tenth Legions of the Roman army stationed in Caesarea.
Herod the Great’s theater was one of his earliest entertainment buildings and located in the southernmost part of Caesarea, facing out towards the Mediterranean Sea. This large facility contained six vaulted entrances (vomitoria) and six tiers of stone seats that could hold more than 5,000 people. There was also a rectangular, stone box in the central portion of the theater that was probably reserved for the governor. The orchestra section of the theater is 80 ft. in diameter and is semicircular, surrounding the stage portion. The original flooring was painted plaster with colored designs of animals and plants and imitations of stone tiles. The Herodion theater was completely reconstructed between 193-235 AD during the Severan dynasty. The new Imperial Theater included marble flooring instead of plaster and the orchestra portion was expanded into a full circle. This circular stage area was then used for nautical games. The Imperial Theater was in use until the end of the Byzantine era and then it was included within a fortress, complete with walls and towers.
The excavation of the Imperial Theater is the largest ever to take place in Israel. This archaeological find included the only known extra-biblical documentation of Pontius Pilate’s existence on a stone in a rebuilt staircase. The dig also unearthed fourteen different layers of plaster flooring. The theater is now restored and can host 3,800 spectators for outdoor performances.
Herod built his circus to host athletic competitions for the 192nd Olympiad in 9/10 BC. This entertainment included foot races, boxing, gladiator fights, chariot races, and battles with wild animals. The circus was constructed after the typical Roman circus, forming a U-shape with four to eight starting gates at one end for chariot races. Herod’s circus extended for almost 1,000 ft. and was approximately 170 ft. wide. The stands could hold 5,000 spectators and were separated from the arena by a large ditch. The circus also housed a shrine, which contained four marble human right feet. These offerings, especially of carved body parts, supposedly protected the strength, power, and well-being of the worshiper. Chariot races consisted of seven laps around the arena, the middle divider displaying an obelisk and two towers at each end. Herod’s circus was replaced by a larger circus in the 2nd Century BC, and a part of the old circus was converted into an amphitheater.
Caesarea’s natural harbor tended to silt up, and its currents were treacherous to navigate. To avoid these problems, Herod the Great had an artificial harbor constructed over a period of twelve years (21-33 BC) and named it Sebastos, after Caesar Augustus. Herod’s harbor consisted of an inner and outer harbor made up of breakwaters. These breakwaters were made from hydraulic concrete, and they formed concrete islands that, when connected, were 150-200 ft wide and could hold barrel-topped warehouses and provide mooring space for ships. The southern breakwater formed an arc into the sea for 1,800 ft. and the northern breakwater formed a straight dock wall for 750 ft. The resulting harbor was 40 acres, and among harbors in the eastern Mediterranean is considered second finest only to the great harbor of Alexandria in Egypt. The Caesarea harbor was as large as Athens’ port, Piraeus, and was close enough to Rome that the trip was a mere ten days. A lighthouse was placed on the end of the southern breakwater, marking the entrance, and its fires burned at all times; sandbars were marked by six impressive bronze statues. The incredible and complex construction of Caesarea’s harbor is considered by many scholars to be one of the most amazing accomplishments of the ancient world.
Caesarea’s significance in the Bible is found chiefly in Acts during the lifetime of the apostle Paul. Paul traveled through Caesarea when he first returned to Tarsus after becoming a Christian (Acts 9:28-29). The believer Philip journeyed to Caesarea after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:40. Peter baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family stationed in Caesarea, beginning the ministry of salvation among the Gentiles. (Acts 10:24-48) Herod Agrippa, after allowing the people to idolize and praise him as a god, received God’s punishment and died from worms in Caesarea (Acts 12:19, 21-23). Paul’s missionary trips frequently ended in Caesarea’s large port and after his last journey, he stayed with Philip and the believers in Caesarea before going to Jerusalem (Acts 18:22, 21:8-16). Once imprisoned for his faith, Paul was sent to Caesarea and appeared before the governors Felix and Festus, as well as King Agrippa. Paul eventually appealed to Caesar after spending three years under house arrest in Caesarea. (Acts 23:23-26:32
A stone found in the excavation of Caesarea is the only extra-biblical proof of Pontius Pilate’s existence. It reads, “Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judea, has dedicated to the people of Caesarea a temple in honor of Tiberius."
Over the years, Caesarea became a center of Christian study and learning. In 231 AD, Origen, a leading Christian apologist and teacher, visited the city. During the Great Persecution (303-313 AD) by Emperor Diocletian, many Christians were also martyred in Caesarea. An extensive library was collected by Pamphilius in Caesarea, which was only surpassed by the famous library in Alexandria, Egypt. One of Pamphilius’s disciples, Eusebius, was the first geographer and historian of the Christian church, and his great work, the “Onomasticon,” has enabled archaeologists to locate many Biblical sites.
- Caesarea Maritima BibArch, February 13, 2009.
- Virtual Israel Experience: Caesarea The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
- Walking in Their Sandals: Caesarea - Location Profile by Columbia International University's Distance Education & Media Development.
- Caesarea - From Roman City to Crusader Fortress by Ministry of Foreign Affairs - The State of Israel. December 17, 2001.
- Vegas on the Med: A Tour of Caesarea’s Entertainment District by Yosef Porath. Biblical Archaeology Review. September/October 2004 (Vol 30, No 5): 24-35.
- Caesarea Maritima by PBS.org.
- “Building Power - The Politics of Architecture”. by Kenneth G. Holum. Biblical Archaeology Review. September/October 2004 (Vol 30, No 5): 36-45,57.