Caesarea Maritima


The Romans had strong interests in the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. They needed it as a buffer against Parthia, their main enemy in the East (based where Iran is today). They had to protect the land and sea routes between Rome and Egypt, for the latter supplied grain to the Empire. (There were times when an emperor's survival, Nero's, for example, depended on his ability to provide free grain.) In addition, this coast was a station for the transport of spices from Arabia Felix ("Happy Arabia": Yemen today). These spices fetched an enormous profit in the Roman world. Why? - The upper classes liked to eat red meat. Lacking refrigeration, either you would eat the entire beast immediately at a feast where the extended family gathered, or you would salt it. The cooks of Rome used the spices of Arabia to bring flavor back to salted meat. Salt itself was valuable – we get the word "salary" from its root. (And a worker's "worth his salt.") 

In addition, there were the perfumes, especially the balsam manufactured at Jericho and Ein Gedi.) Harbors on this coast, then, were important to the Romans. Yet south of the Acco-Haifa bay, natural harbors are few. (See the map below.) Of these, the only well-sheltered example was Dor. Some 45 miles further south lay Jaffa, but bad weather could make its entrance extremely dangerous.

Between Dor and Jaffa, at a Phoenician town called Strato's Tower, Herod, later called "the Great", took a not-very-promising inlet and transformed it into a harbor. 

Why did he choose this spot? Dor was out of the question: the city lay beyond his realm. Jaffa was largely Jewish. He wanted a free, untroubled hand to build in the Roman style. This he could do at Strato's Tower, which Augustus, had given him in 28 BC. Here, then, Herod constructed one of the biggest harbors in the world (and the first to be built without benefit of natural breakwaters). The work took thirteen years. He named it "Sebastos," which is Greek for "Augustus." As an adjunct, he superseded Strato's Tower with a new city, Caesarea. It was the land's first major urban center to be distinctly Roman in plan and architecture. (More about the harbor) 

To grasp the significance of Sebastos, we need to step back forty years from the time when Herod started building it. Another "Great," Pompey, had taken the land for Rome in 63 BC, ending a century of Jewish sovereignty . The Romans organized the northern part of the King's Highway into a league of ten cities called the Decapolis, The cities on the Great Trunk Road came under direct Roman rule. The roads formed a kind of pincers, by which Rome could rule the country.

The Roman hold must have been strengthened, however, after Herod built his harbor, Sebastos. 

Sebastos was connected by relatively easy roads to the highland city of Sebastia, which Herod had rebuilt on the ruins of a Hellenistic city. (The latter had stood, in turn, on the ruins of Ahab's capital, Samaria.) The combination Sebastos-Sebastia formed a pagan dagger thrust from the coast into the heart of the country. Around this "dagger," in the hitherto sparsely inhabited Sharon Plain, arose 93 Roman settlements, each near a Roman road (Levine, p. 6 n. 10).

Imagine you're a Roman sailor coming in through the harbor gate. You've got Augustus in Rome behind you. But here is Augustus-Sebastos embracing you. Before and above you is his temple, related to the breakwaters as head to arms. (These form a unit on a slightly different axis from the rest of the city.) The pillars of the temple are thirty feet high. Inside is the emperor's statue, modeled on the famous "Zeus" by Phidias. Up in the hills, an easy journey, is yet another temple to him in Sebastia. 

Augustus! Augustus! Augustus! 

With the harbor at Caesarea, Herod effectively joined his realm to the Roman domain, at the same time establishing for the Romans a bridgehead to the East. Here we have the beginning of a pattern which repeats itself through later history. (Whenever the dominant power comes out of the West, the coastal region develops at the expense of the inner highlands. We see this with the Romans and the Crusaders: the second Crusader kingdom was confined to the coast. It is also the case at present: the descendants of the ancient Israelites (who came from the East), namely, the Jews coming in from the West in the twentieth century, currently dominate the land. They live mostly in the coastal plain that their ancestors avoided.)

Little remains upon Herod's platform today. (The chief reason to stand here is to sight the remains of the harbor beneath the sea and reconstruct it in imagination.) There are the foundations of the temple, the Augusteum, along with those of the octagonal Byzantine Church that replaced it. Just south of these stand the walls of a Crusader chapel. One can find shade here and remember some of the immense Christian history at Caesarea.

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), (c) Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. (

© 2003 Near East Tourist Agency (NET)
Text © 2003 Stephen Langfur