The finish line for the chariot races conducted in the amphitheatre/hippodrome in Caesarea Maritima was on the east side, near its southern end. To be precise, it was located directly in front of the dignitaries’ tribune (the VIP seating area). That area is pictured in the photograph above. Not visible here, but quite close to this seating (toward the right side of this photograph) is where a shrine stood with images of various gods and/or goddesses. And it is quite likely that it was on this very spot that Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great and king over all Palestine from 37-44 A.D., met his end.
We have both a secular record (Josephus) and a Scriptural account (Acts 12.21-23) of the death of Herod Agrippa I. The two accounts go well with each other. Josephus tells us:
“After his seventh year of rule, Agrippa came to Caesarea to celebrate games in honor of Caesar. At daybreak he entered the theater, dressed in a garment of woven silver which gleamed in the rays of the rising sun. His flatterers started addressing him as a god, but then he looked up and saw an owl perched on a rope overhead was struck with intense pain. ‘I, whom you called a god,’ he cried, ‘am now under sentence of death!’ Five days later he died, at age 54.”
Luke’s account in Acts 12.21-23 reads:
“On the scheduled day Herod dressed himself in royal attire, seated himself on the throne, and gave a speech to the people. Those assembled kept shouting, over and over, ‘This is a god’s voice, not the voice of a mere human!’ Immediately an angel from the Lord struck Herod down, because he didn’t give the honor to God. He was eaten by worms and died.”
It was this Herod, Herod Agrippa I, who executed the apostle James and who had the apostle Peter arrested.
Hippodrome is a compound of two Greek words: “hippos” for horse and dromos for “course” or “circuit.” Both two-horse (bigae) and four-horse (quadrigae) chariot races were conducted in the amphitheatre/hippodrome in Caesarea Maritima. A historical marker there reads:
The chariot races thrilled the crowds. The counterclockwise seven-lap [roughly 2 1/2 mile] race commenced at the starting gates (carceres) and ended at a finishing line situated in front of the dignitaries’ tribune. At each end of the axial rib (spina) were the two turning points (meta prima and meta secunda). Their sharp curves posed a major challenge to the skilled charioteers and the galloping horses.
In the photograph above I’m standing in some iron artwork resembling a chariot team immediately in front of the starting gates located at the northern end of the amphitheatre/hippodrome.
A historical marker in the amphitheatre/hippodrome in Caesarea Maritima reads:
King Herod’s ‘Hippodrome’
This hippodrome (circus* in Latin) built in 10/9 B.C. by King Herod [the Great] for the inauguration of the city, held horse and chariot races, athletics, gladiatorial combat, and hunting games. Before falling into disuse at the end of the Roman period, the building’s southern end was converted into an oval amphitheater for the staging of gladiatorial combat and hunting games.
Did the Building Serve Other Purposes as Well?
In the Greek speaking eastern part of the Roman Empire, these spectacles as well as sprint races were held in a building known as a stadium. Historical sources on Caesarea mention a stadium where Jewish, and later, Christian prisoners were sent to their death fighting in the arena as gladiators or as prey for wild beasts.
* The Roman circus, based on the design of the Greek hippodrome, is a U-shaped enclosure built for horse and chariot races.
The 315x68m building underwent various changes. In the 1st c. A.D. the western seating area was added, bringing the structure’s capacity to ca. 12,000.
Use this photo of an informative sign in the amphitheatre/hippodrome in Caesarea Maritima to appreciate more of the photograph that appeared in yesterday’s post. And remember: thank an archaeologist!
To visit Caesarea Maritima today, one might think that most of what can be seen now has always been obvious, especially given its location beside the sea. However, such is not the case. Even, a quick perusal of the writings of visitors a hundred years ago reveal no awareness whatsoever of much of what is visible today.
In fact, from the third century A.D. onward – over a millennium and a half ago – the area occupied by the amphitheatre/hippodrome was either neglected and left to erosion by the elements, deliberately filled in with sand and debris, or built upon by other construction. Only in recent decades has archaeological excavation, on both land and under the sea, revealed what was largely hidden from view.
A small stretch of some of the eastern section of the amphitheatre/hippodromee has been deliberately left unexcavated so as to illustrate the challenge and effort required of archaeologists. In this section of dirt, pictured above, the various, striped layers of deposits and rubble through the centuries can be clearly seen.
And so, if you can see Caesarea Maritima, thank an archaeologist, and thank God for them!
“On leaving the Palace of the Procurators through its main entrance (on the east, an open space with a square structure in each corner) turn left [north] into a passage in the middle of a curved stepped structure. Josephus removes all doubt as to its function, ‘south of the harbor and set back from the shore Herod built an amphitheatre capable of accommodating a large crowd of people, and conveniently located for a view over the sea’ (Antiquities 15.341). Once one recognizes the fluidity of Josephus’ use of the term ‘amphitheatre’, this description perfectly fits the stepped structure, whose curved south end and east side are well preserved. Its proportions (50×290 m) [164 feet x 951 feet] mean that it could have been used for a variety of entertainments from running to chariot races; starting gates are visible at the north end. The podium wall was 1.7 m [5 1/2 feet] above the original floor, and above it on the east side were 12 rows of seats. Here in 11BC Herod celebrated the great games inaugurating the new city (Antiquities 16:138-139).” (Source: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide by Jerome Murphy-O’Conner)
Josephus’ description of things is clear, but references in modern literature to amphitheatres and hippodromes located in Caesarea Maritima can be confusing for the remains of not one, but two amphitheatres have been discovered there. A large hippodrome has also been discovered but, one of the amphitheatres (the one pictured above) also served as a hippodrome.
The amphitheatre pictured here is the dual purpose amphitheatre: an anphitheatre/hippodrome. It’s the only amphitheatre (or hippodrome) that existed during the time of the events recorded in the book of Acts.
I snapped this photograph while standing on the floor of the amphitheatre/hippdrome, looking north. Some of the seating is visible on the extreme right. Starting gates (carceres) for the horse and chariot races are visible at the north end, one third of the way toward the photograph’s center from the right.
A much larger and more elaborate, dedicated hippodrome was constructed in the middle of the second century A.D. about a quarter of a mile east of the dual purpose amphitheatre/hippodrome pictured here. Similarly, a much larger and more nearly “true amphitheatre” was built in the third century A.D. about one half or two-thirds of a mile (as the crow flies) to the north-north-east of the amphiteatre/hippdrome pictured above.
Leaving the architectural garden (walking north) and crossing the remains of the Herodian wall/Umayyad fortress wall to the north you immediately come across the remains of a palace complex. Commonly known by a variety of names (e.g. – the Palace of the Procurators, the Promontory Palace, the Reef Palace) this palace consisted of two sections: the Upper Palace and the Lower Palace. A historical marker explains:
“The edifice consists of two main units: the Lower Palace comprising the private wing, and the Upper Palace, housing the public wing. The latter, built around a large peristyle courtyard, was associated with the ruler’s judicial and administrative functions, as well as the reception and the entertainment of dignitaries. The Upper Palace was built shortly after the erection of the Lower Palace.
“Who built this palace? Was it King Herod, on the occasion of the inauguration of the city? Was it a Roman governor, when Caesarea became the capital of the province? Archaeology could not solve this riddle.”
While we do not know with absolute certainty who first built this palace, Jerome Murphy-O’Conner notes (p.243) what we do know:
“This two-level complex was erected by the Romans after they assumed direct control of Judea and Samaria in AD 6. It was the administrative centre (praetorium) from which procurators, such as Pontus Pilate (AD 26-36) governed Judea and Samaria. The apostle Paul was imprisoned here for over two years under the procurators Felix and Festus (Acts 23.31-35; 24.27).”
The photograph above was taken while standing near the base of the Herodian wall/Umayyad fortress wall, looking north. The remains of the entrance into the courtyard for the Upper Palace can be seen running virtually the length of the center of the photograph from left to right. The courtyard proper begins at the extreme left of the photo. Following the courtyard, and located on a short peninsula (not pictured) that extends into the Mediterranean (preceding from east to west), are the remains of a triclinium, a large pool, and the Lower Palace. Located in the photograph’s center (and to the right of center) are the remains of the Herodian amphitheatre (aka: stadium), which we’ll make note of a few posts from now.