The Roman Theater ruins at Caesarea sit on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea. The theater could seat about 4000 spectators. Caesarea was Herod the Great’s tribute to Roman culture, and it became the commercial capital of Judaea. The theater was one a masterpiece to Herod and is still in use today. The hippodrome onsite was the epicenter of this Rome-away-from-Rome. Here, in 10 BCE, Herod dedicated his new city with a competitive sports festival intended to rival the Olympics.
Herod’s legacy to Judaea, a city admired by the entire civilized world, was to become a focal point of the animosity between Jews and Gentiles, and it was here in the sports stadium that those tensions often erupted.
Undoubtedly the most painful event that this stadium witnessed is the one that is retold every year during the Yom Kippur Musaf service called aseret harugei malchut (the ten who were killed for the Divine kingdom). During the 2nd century CE, the 10 greatest rabbis of the generation were publicly tortured to death by the Romans for their refusal to give up teaching Torah.
King Herod is not a good character in the Bible. Herod appears in the Gospel of Matthew, which describes an event known as the Massacre of Innocents. According to this account, after the birth of Jesus, some Magi from the East visited Herod to inquire the whereabouts of “the one having been born king of the Jews”, because they had seen his star in the east and wanted to pay him homage. Herod, as King of the Jews, was alarmed at the prospect of a new king.
Herod assembled the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the “Anointed One” to be born. They answered, in Bethlehem, citing Micah 5:2. Herod then sent the magi to Bethlehem, instructing them to search for the child and, after they had found him, to “report to me, so that I too may go and worship him”. However, after they had found Jesus, they were warned in a dream not to report back to Herod. Similarly, Joseph was warned in a dream that Herod intended to kill Jesus, so he and his family fled to Egypt. When Herod realized he had been outwitted, he gave orders to kill all boys of the age of two and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity. Joseph and his family stayed in Egypt until Herod’s death, then moved to Nazareth in Galilee to avoid living under Herod’s son Archelaus.
Most modern biographers of Herod, and probably a majority of biblical scholars, dismiss Matthew’s story as a literary device. According to contemporary historians, Herod the Great “is perhaps the only figure in ancient Jewish history who has been loathed equally by Jewish and Christian posterity”, depicted both from Jews and Christians as a tyrant and bloodthirsty ruler. However, he was also praised for his work, being considered the greatest builder in Jewish history. In fact, what is left of his building ventures are now popular tourist attractions in the Middle East, which many have come to cherish as both a historical and religious area.
We toured the entire site and as you sit on the stone steps you can picture the chariot races and ancient events taking place in this stadium site.