Biblical Archaeology Review 19:3, May/June 1993

Uncovering Herod’s Seaside Palace

By Barbara BurrellKathryn L. GleasonEhud Netzer

The great port city of Caesarea was born out of the genius of one man: Herod the Great (c. 73–4 B.C.E.). This Idumean politician, with the support of the rulers at Rome, rose to become king of Judea. On the site of a dilapidated town, he built a glorious new city, splendid in every detail—from its chief temple down to its sewer system. The effort took over a decade (from 22 to 10/9 B.C.E.), but Herod spared no expense in materials or in construction. He named the new city Caesarea as a politic compliment to the emperor under whose aegis he rose, Caesar Augustus. The ancient historian Josephus gives us the closest to a contemporary account:

“When Herod had observed that there was a place near the sea, formerly called Strato’s Tower, which was very well suited to be the site of a city, he set about making a magnificent plan and put up buildings all over the city, not of ordinary material but of white stone. He also adorned it with a very costly palace, with civic halls and—what was greatest of all and required the most labor—with a well-protected harbor, of the size of the Piraeus [of Athens], with landing-places and secondary anchorages inside … In a circle round the harbor there was a continuous line of dwellings constructed of the most polished stone, and in their midst was a mound on which stood a temple of Caesar, visible a great way off to those sailing into the harbor, which had a statue of Rome and also one of Caesar … Herod also built a theater of stone in the city, and on the south side of the harbor, farther back, an amphitheater large enough to hold a great crowd of people, and conveniently situated for a view of the sea.”1

The main points of this account have been borne out by ongoing exploration at the site of Caesarea itself.2 In a similar description of the city and its harbor, Josephus states that Herod “displayed here, as nowhere else, the innate grandeur of his character,” and that he “triumphed over nature … Notwithstanding the totally recalcitrant nature of the site, he grappled with the difficulties so successfully that the solidity of his masonry defied the sea, while its beauty was such as if no obstacle had existed.” Especially prominent in Josephus’ accounts is Herod’s “most magnificent palace.”3

Caesarea today is one of the most picturesque sites in Israel. Thousands of visitors wander within its Crusader walls, dine at restaurants amid the ruins, swim in the sea alongside the ancient aqueduct and enjoy concerts and shows in the restored Roman theater. Few leave the well-marked tourist paths, however, or climb down below the theater to the windswept sandstone promontory where fishermen cast their lines into the blue-green surf. There a secluded sandy beach has formed in the long rectangular basin of an ancient pool cut into the rocky outcrop. Children play among the welter of channels and indentations. Nothing as yet informs the sunbathers that they may be reclining around the pool of Herod the Great’s palace.

This ancient building, which we now call the Promontory Palace, was first excavated in 1976 by Ehud Netzer of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.4 Netzer returned to the site in 1990 and brought in a new American team led by Kathryn Gleason and Barbara Burrell under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. Its members are mainly student volunteers, though in 1992 they were joined by a contingent of Israeli workers, most of them new immigrants from Russia.5

The centerpiece and most obvious relic of the Promontory Palace is its great central pool. Nearly Olympic size, it measures 115 feet long and 59 feet wide and at least 8 feet deep. A square pedestal, probably for statuary, stands in its center. Water channels that lead into it from the shore indicate that the pool may once have been filled with fresh water from inland sources, even though the salt spray of the sea tossed all around it. On the three sides surrounded by the sea it was enclosed by colonnades. Rectangular cuttings between the columns may have held flower boxes, adding to the contradictory impression of a garden in the midst of the Mediterranean. Looking out over the pool from the east was a dining room whose floor was a multicolored mosaic; composed of small square tesserae, its design imitates the Roman opus sectile flooring of geometric shapes sawn from rare stone. Above it may have been a vaulted ceiling, and in the back wall an apse was filled with a semicircular fountain, which would have set off the place of the host during dinner parties. This main room was flanked by two side rooms of lesser pretensions, with black-bordered white mosaic floors containing less elaborate central panels.

Behind these main rooms was a series of smaller rooms. Two rooms were the size of modern-day pantries or closets, floored with a black-bordered white mosaic similar to that of the rooms on either side of the large dining room. Contrary to Josephus’ description, the walls were of local sandstone but were plastered and painted to give the polished effect of finer stone. Fragments of casseroles, storage pots and whole amphorae were abundant in the fill of these two rooms. Originally they had been designed on a grander scale, but later modifications made the rooms smaller and perhaps more functional. Spaces within them were blocked off and their broad doorways narrowed. It is possible that they were last used as service rooms. One edge revealed traces of an earlier and more luxurious marble floor, replaced by the mosaic. The many fragments of multicolored painted plaster also showed that some of the palace’s walls had originally been red and then were repainted plain white.

More about this renovation, and the date of the palace as a whole, was evident just to the north of the service rooms. Here an early staircase had been replaced. The remodelers had stripped it of its facing of fine stone, leaving only rough foundation stones; they also took the flooring blocks from the landing at its base. When we dug in the area of those removed blocks in 1992, we found a cache of fine red-ware pottery and unbroken lamps that have been preliminarily dated to late in Herod’s reign or early in the reign of his successors. This early a date for the palace’s first renovation is our best evidence yet that the palace was built as early as 22–10/9 B.C.E., along with the rest of Herod’s Caesarea.

In the area just south of the service rooms was a hot room (caldarium) for a Roman-style bath. Its floor was raised on round columns of brick to form a hypocaust, or under-floor heating system, with its furnace on the east side. Within the soft, silty deposit of the furnace for the caldarium were hundreds of artifacts. Careful sifting produced fragments of glass vessels, windowpane, two bronze rings and the rim of a bronze vessel, faience, ceramic oil lamps, some unbroken bowls and remarkable fineware pottery. Many were imported types not normally found at archaeological sites in Israel.

If this is Herod’s palace, we can color in this archaeological sketch by looking at some other palaces Herod built for himself elsewhere in his kingdom.6 Again, their lost glories are most richly portrayed by Josephus, who described Herod’s palace in Jerusalem in awestruck tones:

“Adjoining … was the king’s palace, baffling all description: indeed, in extravagance and equipment no building surpassed it. It was completely enclosed within a wall thirty cubits high, broken at equal distances by ornamental towers, and contained immense banqueting halls and bedchambers for a hundred guests. The interior fittings are indescribable—the variety of the stones (for species rare in every other country were here collected in abundance), ceilings wonderful both for the length of the beams and the splendor of their surface decoration, the host of apartments with their infinite varieties of design, all amply furnished, while most of the objects in each of them were of silver or gold. All around were many circular cloisters, leading one into another, the columns in each being different, and their open courts all verdant; there were groves of various trees intersected by long walks, which were bordered by deep canals, and ponds everywhere studded with bronze figures, through which the water was discharged, and around the streams were numerous cotes for tame pigeons.”7

This palace was destroyed and modern buildings (relatively speaking) of Jerusalem now cover its remains. Gold and silver, fine furniture and bronze statuary are rarely left for the archaeologist to find in any case, which makes Josephus’ description of them all the more valuable. But Herod was a prolific builder, and several of his other masterworks have been revealed by archaeologists.

Perhaps the most famous of these is his palace complex at Masada. Its frescoed halls cling to three daringly engineered terraces poised on the edge of the breathtaking northern cliff of the mountain fortress.8 Above, on the waterless rock, are swimming pools. At Herodium, on the edge of the Judean desert, Herod took a natural hill and reshaped it into a cone whose “crater” was a towered palace/fortress.9 Below it lay a royal compound with gardens and a pool large enough for boating. Likewise, Herod extended the winter palace of the earlier Hasmonean kings at Jericho10 to straddle the stream of the Wadi Qelt; one could then stroll from the main wing of the palace with its bath, gardens and reception halls across a bridge to a hanging garden, a swimming pool and on to a pavilion atop an artificial mound.

At each of these palaces, Herod almost rejoiced in the peculiarities of the site, triumphing over its disadvantages with masterful engineering. The designs of reception and dining areas especially flout nature; guests were to be impressed or, if possible, astounded. Thus has architecture become a statement of political power. The Promontory Palace at Caesarea, with its freshwater pool and peristyle garden surrounded on three sides by the breakers of the sea, fits into Herod’s style as does no other building yet found at the site.

After Herod’s death his kingdom eventually became a Roman province (in 6 C.E.), with Caesarea as its main port and administrative capital. A passing mention in Acts 23:35 tells us what then became of Herod’s palace: When accusations were made against Paul in Jerusalem and he appealed for trial as a Roman citizen, he was sent to “Herod’s praetorium” in Caesarea. The palace had become the praetorium, or official residence, of the Roman governor.

Even the most fragmentary written document can sometimes make the archaeological picture come together, which is why our most exciting discovery of the 1990 season was six inscriptions written on a pair of column-shaped pedestals. We were not the only ones to be excited either—the find was reported in newspapers in Israel and the United States and even on Israeli television.11

The two columns of bluish marble were found lying on their sides in a corner at the southern edge of the Promontory Palace that had been cut out of rock. They lay on a broken and burned hypocaust floor, probably from a caldarium built to replace the one mentioned earlier, and dating from the late third or early fourth century C.E. The inscriptions themselves date from the second century to as late as the early fourth century C.E. and shed new light on the history of post-Herodian Caesarea.

We know that in 71 C.E. (soon after the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem, effectively ending the First Jewish Revolt), the honor of being an official Roman colony was bestowed on Caesarea.12 In 135 C.E. (the year in which the Romans crushed the Second Jewish Revolt, also known as the Bar-Kokhba revolt, after its leader) the entire province was renamed Syria-Palaestina instead of Judea to obliterate any connection with its Jewish past. Caesarea flourished down through the Byzantine era; this ended in 614 C.E. when the city was conquered by a Persian army. It was retaken by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius in 627–628 C.E. and was then besieged by Arab armies who finally took it in 640 or 641 C.E.13

Each of the new columns from Caesarea has three inscriptions, and of these six documents, five are in Latin, one in Greek. The earliest inscription on column 1, in Latin, honors a previously unknown governor (his official title: legatus Augusti pro praetore) of the province; his name was Decimus Seius Seneca. The inscribed column with the inscription was set up by two prominent citizens of Caesarea, Sextus Cornelius Taurinus and his son Cornelius Quintianus, sometime between 135 and 212 C.E.

Column 2, in contrast, was first inscribed in Greek. The inscription honors Titus Flavius Maximus, a philosopher and the patron of Varius Seleucus, curator of ships of the colony of Caesarea. This inscription thus dates to after 71 C.E., when Caesarea enjoyed the prestige of becoming an official Roman colony, and provides us with the name of an official of the great harbor at Caesarea.

During the reign of the Roman emperor Probus (276–282 C.E.), both columns got new inscriptions in his honor. Column 1 was actually turned upside down; its dedicator was Acilius Cleobulus, some of whose career is known from other inscriptions but who was not previously known to have been governor (now termed praeses) of this province.

Column 2 was rotated instead of being turned upside down as was column 1. It too was dedicated to Probus as strongest over all previous emperors, but by a different praeses than Cleobulus.

For the third inscription, column 1 was rotated and column 2 turned upside down. On them were matching inscriptions to the two junior rulers (Constantius Chlorus and Galerius [293–305 C.E.]) of the tetrarchy whose senior emperor was Diocletian. The praeses who dedicated both inscriptions was named Aufidius Priscus. His name was also recently found on the gate of a fort at Yotvata near Eilat; this indicates that the province, now named simply Palaestina in our inscription, had been expanded south into the Negev by this time.14

Caesarea has produced other columnar pedestals, several inscribed and reinscribed like these, but none with so many inscriptions of actual governors of the province. It would be natural for such inscriptions to be set up in some official yet public locale, such as (but not limited to) the praetorium at Caesarea, formerly Herod’s palace.

The two columnar pedestals with inscriptions probably only came together as a pair at the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century C.E., when their last inscriptions to Galerius and Constantius were carved. The burnt floor on which they were found and the burnt mosaic floors of the two rooms on either side of the dining room indicate that the Promontory Palace came to a violent end—probably at the hands of the Persians or Arabs in the seventh century C.E. The former centers of government no doubt came in for especially harsh treatment. Their ruin would serve as a symbol of the death of the old order.

Today it is hard to visualize these sparse ruins on the promontory as a splendid palace. It is just as hard to visualize Caesarea as a whole, a grid-planned city that extended far beyond the well-restored walls of the Crusader fortress that now dominate the site. Most of the ancient streets and monuments lie unnoticed beneath sand and green fields.

With the cooperation of the Israel National Park Service, our team undertook two additional projects to help conserve the ruins and to assist visitors in understanding them. A Byzantine street, excavated in the 1950s, is an attractive but little-known stop at Caesarea. Its marble pavement, mosaic inscriptions and monumental marble and porphyry statues were obscured by weeds, awkwardly placed security fences and the erosion of old excavation balks. In 1990 our team removed the modern intrusions, shored up eroding balks and cleaned pavements and walls to prepare the site for further preservation by a conservator.

In 1990 and again in 1992, to help visitors understand and appreciate Caesarea as a city, students enrolled in Kathryn Gleason’s graduate landscape architecture course designed projects that would allow better access to and a clearer interpretation of various points of interest on the site. After excavating during the morning, the group would spend each afternoon studying, drawing and making new plans for the landscape of such areas as the aqueduct system, the Roman walls and gates, the hippodrome, various neighborhoods of the city and the shoreline within the original city walls. At the end of each season, the students brought these individual designs together to present a single master plan for an archaeological park at Caesarea.

Herod’s mark on Caesarea was strong and distinctive. As we explore the Promontory Palace we can better understand his genius and that of his city, defiant of natural limitations yet enduring. Our first seasons of excavation have just begun to enlighten us on palace and city alike, and we look forward to further discoveries on our return to Caesarea.