Herod, a Great Builder of Antiquity, and the City of Caesarea

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Image credit: National Geographic

Herod, around the time of Jesus’ birth, was building the mighty city of Caesarea, and with it, a man-made harbor called Sebastos (Greek for Augustus), ,which were both dedicated to Caesar Augustus. A devoted follower of Rome and all things Roman, some have called this city Herod’s “Rome.” To furnish his Rome with fresh water, and run the many fountains he had constructed, a roman aqueduct was constructed that, at one point, runs for four miles through rock. It is a marvel of the ancient world and is pictured on the left.

Who was Herod? Like a “Kennedy,” a “Bush” or a “Clinton,” Herod was a member of a dynastic “ruling class” in first century Jewish society; “Herod” was more like a title than a personal name. As such, his affections and affinities were less for his religion (Judaism) and more for his position of power and prestige. This meant that while “personally” he may have been Jewish, politically, he was a pawn and a sycophant to his pagan overlord, Caesar Augustus, and blended his faith (such as it was) with that of the polytheistic, and idolatrous, regime of the Roman empire. For proof of this spiritual compromise, we need look no farther than his building and dedicating an entire city, and this massive aqueduct to support it, to Caesar himself.

You might say that Herod had no choice; after all, the Roman Empire was truly an impressive (frightening) marvel of the ancient world. (Check out this beautiful and detailed clickable map, here.) But surely Herod went beyond merely “going along to get along” when he built Caesarea, its harbor, and the aqueduct. Here’s how one scholarly article puts it:

In 21 BC King Herod commissioned the construction of a large, all-weather harbour at Caesarea Maritima, which he named Sebastos in honour of Augustus Caesar (Fig. 1A). The harbour took more than five years to construct and when completed was the largest artificial harbour of its time in the Mediterranean (Raban, 1992).

Besides being a treasure trove for science-history geeks (I am not, but aspire to be one), the construction of this massive structure was not only an act of religious devotion (which I’ve already argued), but nothing short of an expression of sheer genius by ancient engineers. This Wikipedia-like essay (but not Wikipedia) on the history and construction of the city and the structure, though not fancy, is actually quite a good source of information; notice the visual diagram provided on how much ash would have to have been imported to this area. (Note also that it cites forty-five different sources for the basis of its conclusions.)

History, in short, is important for those who would read and benefit from their reading of the Bible. Take, for example, this essay on the historical significance of ancient Caesarea. Filled with highly detailed information and clear, annotated pictures, we learn about a city of which it is likely, truth be told, most evangelical Christians are largely ignorant. Which should be surprising considering how important it is in the Bible and in the Early Church–the list of Bible references for this city is not short! For example, Jesus, Philip, Peter, Paul, Origen, Eusebius all have significant events that are centered in, or related to, this city.

For example, the author of this article, Stephen Languor, argues because of the conversion of the famous Cornelius in Caesarea,

[in] Acts 10, the first breakthrough [for the spread of Christianity] occurred in Caesarea. From here, we can say, the faith in Jesus went out to the ancestors of present-day Christians.


[t]he irony is that the great harbor city which Herod built as his chief point of contact with Rome (those breakwaters in the form of arms reaching out) became the initial point of contact between the faith in Jesus and the world.

Speaking of history, this great structure, and Herod’s involvement in it, along with the importance that Caesarea plays in the biblical record, reminds me of the importance for Christians generally to be aware of the history of our religion. Especially in a post-modern, individualistic, naîve, and skeptical day and age, one in which “if it is true for you doesn’t mean it needs to be true for me,” history can afford Christians a point of common ground. Not that everyone agrees on historical approaches or conclusions–far from it. But at least we can use history as a starting point for talking about ultimate issues.

For example, Caesarea and its significance for Christianity would seem to be a great starting point to discuss this skeptic’s view that “Jesus never existed.” While the article proves that he’s done some fundamentally sound research, and has raised some important questions, he certainly hasn’t proven his point; and even an elementary reading of the essay shows that he’s moved more by his own bias than a true examination of the historical record.

In conclusion, let’s not give up reading the Bible. But let’s also remember that the Bible was written in an historical context which deserves to be known, understood, and celebrated. Our faith will be richer, and more compelling to share with others who have not yet professed their faith in the Savior who, in history, on the third day, actually rose from the dead.

Appendix: Other resources for those interested in learning more:

  1. a bibliography (very extensive) from the archives of Brown University’s The Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, on Herod
  2. An article in the Chicago Tribune:  (which cites the NYT as the original source)
  3. Sebastos’ meaning
  4. a short and succinct article from 1997 Grollier Encyclopedia