The Romans, in the 1st century BCE, conquered much of the known world from the Greeks; in Israel, the Roman era is generally considered to span the 1st through 4th centuries CE. The time of the Romans was an important period in the evolution of Judaism, as well as the birth of Christianity in Israel. In Jewish history, the Romans are infamous as the destroyers of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
Tours to Israel could be based entirely around visiting the extensive Roman ruins, especially in Jerusalem. The emperor Herod the Great (74 – 4 BCE) embarked on a program to reconstruct the holy Temple, which had suffered damage from constant invasions over the years. The current Western Wall, which draws hundreds of thousands of worshippers each year, was restored as part of Herod’s effort, and the Second Temple is often referred to as “Herod’s Temple.” Underground, the original Herodian wall has been excavated and visitors can tour the ancient ruins. Herod was also responsible for building the fortress at Masada, which later became the tragic site of a mass suicide of Jewish rebels who chose death rather than capture by the Romans.
The Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Visitor Center reconstruct life in Herodian times, including a painstaking restoration of the original Roman street and the excavations at the Southern Wall. Inside the Davidson Visitor Center is a three-dimensional Second Temple experience, enabling the visitor to step back in time and walk the ancient streets. Another intriguing relic from Herodian times is the Northern Gate of Aelia Capitolina. The gate was constructed in the 16th century, but excavations revealed an intact 2nd century Roman gate lying beneath it. The gate was likely built by Emperor Hadrian to mark the northern boundary of Aelia Capitolina, the pagan village established in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Recently, the discovery of a two-story Roman mansion in theCity of David, outside the Old City walls, has caused a stir in the archaeological community which previously believed Roman settlement was contained only within the walls.
Mt. Herodium houses the tomb of Herod himself. Decorated urns, used to hold ashes, were found at the site, along with pieces of an intricately designed sarcophagus. Archaeologists conjectured that the sarcophagus was broken into pieces deliberately, likely by the Jews during the Great Revolt.
In the North
The city of Caesarea, built by Herod in honor of the Emperor Octavian Caesar, boasts one of Israel’s most fascinating archaeological parks, including a Roman amphitheater which is still in use today.
Tiberias, located on the shores of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), was named after the Roman emperor Tiberius, and contains many Roman artifacts, including the Severus Synagogue, or Hammat Tiberias Synagogue, dating from the 4th century.
Christian Sites of Interest
In addition to playing an important role in the early evolution of rabbinic Judaism, Tiberias was a center of early Christianity, and many churches were erected in the area. A unique archaeological find is a Roman boat from the Sea of Galilee, known as the Jesus Boat. The boat, discovered in the 1980s, was dated to the 1st century, and seems to have been used for fishing and transportation. The boat is on display at the Yigal Allon Museum on Kibbutz Ginosar.
Capernaum, an ancient city near Tiberias, houses the remnants of a synagogue from the 1st century BCE, possibly a synagogue mentioned in the Christian Gospels. The House of St. Peter is another Roman relic located in Capernaum. The cities of Bethsaida and Korazim have also undergone recent excavations that shed new light on the Roman era. Tourists on Israel tours will not want to miss these important sites.
Further south, Beit Guvrin National Park is a fascinating network of caves, and houses a Roman amphitheater, though the main attraction may be the cooling relief the caves provide after a hot day of site-seeing!
The Roman era has a particularly poignant connection to Israel and adds a new dimension to any Israel travel guide. Take a tour of Israel; see some new sites and some familiar ones, through the eyes of those who inhabited these lands centuries ago.