I Came, I Saw, I Conquered

Israel has seen its share of conquerors. History here is littered with a list of one power after another coming in and wresting control, usually through a bloody war. Perhaps no other empire in history is known for their brutal fighting strategies than Rome. At the heart of the Roman military apparatus stood the Roman legion. Ever since the siege of Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E., until the 4th century C.E., Roman legions fought the battles and controlled the main crossroads in Israel.

The VI Legion, Legio VI Ferrata (Sixth Ironclad Legion) was one of those legions. They are famous for winning the battle after which Caesar declared to the Roman Senate simply, “I Came, I Saw, I Conquered.” Recruited by Julius Caesar in Northern Italy, they served under Marc Anthony in Syria. After the battle of Actium which cemented Octavian’s victory over Marc Anthony, they served under the new emperor and established their base camp in the Galilee.

In the last year, this base camp of the VI Legion has been uncovered near one of the major intersectionlegiovis in the north, Megiddo Junction. Archaeologists have uncovered the principia, the heart of a Roman military base. All important functions happened here and it served as the legionary commander’s headquarters and the legion’s shrine. In the courtyard stood the legion’s standard, the sacred eagle; and it was the site for the aguere, consultation with birds for omens in preparation for battle. The principia was the site of the treasury, the armory and scribal activity of the legion. Archaeologists found a stone mark at the gate with a dedicatory inscription, including the name Flavius, perhaps alluding to Flavius Silva who was the general in charge of the battle of Masada, in which the VI Legion participated.

Soldiers came to the legion for life; and the camp near Megiddo has signs of day-to-day life. Latrines, a standard of Roman society and found in every large Roman city, were found here, as well as Roman coins, glass, potter, and animal bones (like soldiers today, they probably enjoyed a good barbecue). Death happened in the camp as well and the archaeologists found, inside a man-made cave, a Roman cooking pot with the remains of a cremated soldier.

The camp came to a well-planned end. Towards the end of the 3rd century C.E., during the reign of Diocletian, the Ironclad Legion, Legio VI Ferrata, was deployed to the eastern frontier and the base was decommissioned and dismantled.

The Legion which was famous for “I Came, I Saw, I Conquered” added “I Left” to their legacy in Israel.


Last of a Line

People tend to think that tomorrow will be like today.  It is very difficult to predict the end of an era unless there is a clear end point.  Most crises hit on random Tuesday afternoons when we are least expecting them; and just like that, one era finishes and we walk into the next.

gargiliusGargilius Antiquus certainly didn’t take the job of Roman Prefect of Judea knowing that he would be the last.  This life-long Roman politician was unknown in the history of Judea until January 2016.  While conducting an underwater archaeological expedition near Tel Dor on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, scientists found a Roman base which names  Gargilius as the Roman prefect of Judea.

Dor was an ancient city which stood on a small headland just north of a protected inlet on the Mediterranean.  The first Canaanites settled in Dor in the Bronze Age.  For the next 3000 years, this space would continue to be occupied.  It was under the influence of the Phoenicians during the Iron Age – one of a string of coastal towns.

During the 5th century B.C.E.,  an alliance between the Athenians and the Egyptians to protect their trade route saw Dor separated from the larger Phoenician centers to the north, to become a Greek outpost.  When the Romans took over the cities of Phoenicia, Dor was again included with them and absorbed into the province of Syria; it was not part of the province of the Jews, Judea.

At the end of the 1st century C.E., Dor was transferred to the Jewish province of Judea.  Could it be that the Jews fleeing revolt and destruction in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. settled in more far-flung places like Dor and made them more “Jewish”?

The statue base which was found at the bottom of the ancient harbor and its 7 lines of text provide a link between Judea, Gargilius and the office of Roman prefect.  Such a base could have helped to cement the inclusion of the city of Dor in Judea in the eyes of the population.  It is like a billboard which says, “Hey! You’re part of Judea now and Gargilius is your ruler.”

The period when Dor was under the Prefect of Judea was short-lived. After the Bar Cochva revolt in 135 C.E., Hadrian eliminated the prefects of Judea.  He changed the name of the region and absorbed the former province into the province of Syria.

There was no way for Gargilius Antiquus to know that he was to be the last prefect of Judea; and his forgettable reign  sank to the bottom of the sea, as did the recently found testament to his term.  Although Hadrian tried to erase Judea, even the sea brings forth signs of Judea, the land of the Jews.

Looting Masada

One of my favorite sites is Masada.  The drama of the story and the messages coupled with the extensive archaeological finds and the desert landscape make Masada a “must see” on most tourists itineraries.  So, it was with much excitement that I approached a recent paper by archaeologist Steven Garfinkle titled “Roman Military Adventurism and the Fall of Masada.”  Dr. Garfinkle has a unique angle on answering some of the pesky technical questions which are asked at Masada.

Why did the Romans bother with such a small group of Jews left on Masada?  About 1000 Jews lived on Masada during winter 73 C.E.  This number does not present a military challenge, especially when only about 250 were fit to be fighters.

Why did the Romans commit so many troops to the battle? Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian who provides us with the narrative of Masada, states that as many as 15,000 trained and battle-hardened soldiers came to Masada for the battle.

Why did the Romans build such an extensive siege camp?  The camp includes a siege wall 4.5 km (2.7 miles) in circumference, 8 separate camps for soldiers, and a siege ramp. masada-ramp

According to Garfinkle, these questions can all be answered by looking at Masada from a different perspective.  Josephus encourages us to look at the Masada battle from a Jewish perspective – the last remnant from a destroyed Jerusalem facing off against the most powerful army of the time.  Garfinkle looks at the situation from the Roman general’s perspective.  War is expensive.  After putting down the Jewish rebellion and destroying the Temple, the Roman army sought to “mop up” what was left and collect the spoils from any lingering Jewish community in the area.  A refugee is likely to take his most valuable possession with him.  Masada, home to nearly 1000 refugees and the administrative center (and treasury) of the rebels, was a profitable target.

According to Roman military law, the spoils from a town which surrenders, go to the commander; whereas a city which is sacked, has its spoils taken by the individual soldiers.  The Roman general, Silva, therefore has a vested interest in the Jews’ surrender.  To this end, he brought many soldiers and built impressive siege structures in order to scare the Jews into giving up.  Silva’s greed is why the soldiers, after breaching the wall, do not ascend to the summit at night as it would be hard for Silva to monitor the collection of spoils under the cover of darkness.  Because there are no Jews left to battle in the morning, it is not counted as a sack but rather a surrender, and therefore any spoils found must go to Silva.  From the Roman perspective, this is just another looting mission to line the pockets of the Roman general.

Exploring different perspectives adds another layer to the complex story of Masada and offers some answers to questions which arise from the narrative.

Nearby sites:

  • Herodian
  • Mt. Sedom
  • Dead Sea


Deathly Trade Routes

We imaging that we are sophisticated and yet the more we look into the past, the humbler we become.  Technologies, trade and ideas in the past were actually quite complex and far-reaching.  As reported recently, the world was much more interconnected in antiquity than we thought and products associated with burial were shipped around the world.

Researchers in England decided to see what they could find about Roman influence on the local culture by analyzing some Roman era graves in England.  Dating back 1700 years or more, the graves show the extent of the influence of the Roman empire.  Upon opening the tombs, the archaeologists were met with dust.  When they analyzed the dust, they found traces of frankincense.  This precious of all perfumes was from the Middle East and features in the spices used in the Temple and in the gifts of the wise men.  Frankincense kept away the putrid smells associated with the dead but apparently was also buried with them to  make their journey to the next world sweet.

asphaltThe second important find in the English tombs was thought at first to be simply tar, something which can be locally procured.  Upon further analysis, the black gooey substance used in these 4th century burials was found to be asphalt from the Dead Sea.  The Dead Sea, also known as Mar Asphaltis by the Romans, had a unique phenomenon producing pure asphalt.  Every once in a while, a block of pure asphalt would erupt from the sea bottom and float to the surface.  The Egyptians prized this product as it was used for embalming; but from this find we see that it was also important all through the Roman period and was traded as far away as England.

In today’s world, there is much concern over who controls the sources of petroleum products.  Even before the combustion engine, Israel, with no oil resources whatsoever, was square in the middle of a petroleum product – asphalt.  And some of that product made it as far as England.  Sounds like the global village – almost 2000 years ago.

Related sites:

  • Ein Gedi ancient synagogue
  • Ahava Dead Sea products factory in Mitzpeh Shalem
  • Masada

Traditional Location

It spoke to me.  It yelled at me, so several weeks ago at the Gofna Archaeology conference across the street from my house, I bought it – the complete book on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  It may seem odd – an English-speaking Orthodox Jew reading a book on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Hebrew – but since my first encounter with the church in the Tour Guide course, I have been fascinated with the building and the pilgrims who come.

I find the experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (COHS) to be raw in every way.  From the building itself, sitting in its Crusader glory (mostly), with sections under deliberate neglect and lack of natural lighting, to the ceremonies and squabbles of the various Christian sects which control specific real estate in the church, to the vast numbers of pilgrims of all kinds who come and wait patiently in line and pour their sorrows out on the unction stone, there is very little smoothed over to make it politically correct.  In every way, the COHS is set up to make you feel uncomfortable; and, for me, an orthodox Jew, it also pushes me beyond my comfort zone.   According to Ginni Rometty of IBM, “Growth and comfort do not coexist,” so being uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing, and it keeps drawing me back to be fascinated anew by the COHS.

I am not the only one who finds herself on shpilkes there, however.   Even Constantine the Great, the builder of the first COHS was uncomfortable with the building from the get go.  Why? Location, location, location.

The COHS was built on the supposed site of Jesus’s burial in order to provide a shrine for the seminal Christian act.  One might even conjecture that had Jesus simply sermonized, prophesied, and performed a few miracles, after his crucifixion by the Romans, his followers would have made up a small, insignificant, sect within Judaism.  We know that several small sects, with non-normative Jewish beliefs or practices existed at the time.  These sects, such as the Essenes, were systematically destroyed by the Romans during the time of the Great Revolt (66-74 C.E.)  The belief in Jesus’s resurrection, however, set Christianity apart from Judaism. Christianity’s Jewish roots, and the fact that Jesus lived and died as a Jew, lead to the difficulty in the location of the COHS.

Constantine realized that Jesus’s death as a Jew would include his being buried OUTSIDE of the city walls, according to Jewish custom.  Constantine accepts this as fact, even though he is persuaded to build his monumental church in memory of Jesus’s burial INSIDE the city of Jerusalem of his day (4th century C.E.)  How these two are related, and how they can both be true and accurate takes us on a journey of the walls of Jerusalem.

Britannica_Plan_of_JerusalemAccording to Josephus, Jerusalem has 3 walls in the northern end of Jerusalem which were built at different times. The First Wall (not really the first, but the Romans considered it the first) was built during the reign of Hezekiah during the 8th century B.C.E.  It runs along David Street of today, straight from the area of Jaffa Gate to the Temple Mount.  The COHS is clearly outside of this wall.

The Third Wall, which runs north of the Old City of today, was built in 41 C.E.  It runs much north of Damascus Gate and encompassed a huge tract of land.  The COHS is clearly inside this wall,but the wall was built years after the crucifixion.

The interesting wall is the Second Wall.  We do not have clear archaeological evidence for the exact path of this wall, but according to Josephus, the wall went from somewhere near the Jaffa Gate to the Antonio Fortress (on the northwest corner of the Temple Mount) and was most likely built in the Hellenistic time period (4th – 2nd century B.C.E.) Excavations in the basement of church adjacent to the COHS of today have uncovered what may be a gate of the city of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus.  It is as yet unclear as to whether this gate and the associated stairs and pavement were from the Second Wall or from the time of Hadrian (134 C.E.)  If it is part of the Second Wall, then the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher would be proven without a doubt to have been outside of the city during the time of Jesus.
Constantine didn’t learn archaeology so how could he build the church where he did?  To quote the Fiddler on the Roof – TRADITION.  There was a long standing tradition from Christian pilgrims of the site of the crucifixion.  Many times in absence of scientific proof for a location, tradition provides us with a good clue.  Constantine went with the pilgrims’ traditions over his intellectual concerns, and, in the end, turned out to be plausible even on academic grounds.