By Mike Willis

The New Testament speaks of two Caesarea’s. Caesarea Maritima is Caesarea along the coast; Caesarea Philippi is in the Golan Heights, about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee. This article discusses Caesarea along the coast.

Caesarea was formerly known as Strato’s Tower, a name derived from Abdashtart, the Sidonian king. Strato is the Greek form of the name borne by three Sidonian kings in the fourth century B.C. Caesar Augustus gave Strato’s Tower to Herod the Great early in his reign. Herod changed the name to Caesarea in honor of his benefactor. Herod the Great felt especially indebted to Octavian since he had taken the wrong side in Octavian’s war with Mark Anthony. After Octavian defeated Anthony at Actium in 31 B.C., Herod was allowed to continue to rule. To express his gratitude to Caesar, Herod changed the name of Strato’s Tower to Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus (Octavian). He rebuilt the city, fashioning it like major Roman cities.

One of the great cities of the ancient world, Caesarea was built in 12 years (22-10 B.C.) by Herod the Great in an attempt to equal the splendor and pomp of Athens. Caesarea soon became the largest city in Judea, a chief port, and the Roman administrative capital of Judea for almost 600 hundreds years.

Herod’s massive construction at Caesarea is impressive. He built a Roman theater (seated 4,000),  amphitheater, aqueduct (to bring fresh water to Caesarea from Shuni), and a harbor that gave ships protection from the winds and waves. In building this harbor, Herod used underwater cement to build a breaker to protect the ships. The wooden forms were filled with rubble held together by underwater mortar made of lime combined with possolana, a volcanic ash from central Italy. The harbour was destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 130.

The massacre of 20,000 Jews at Caesarea led to the First Jewish War (66-70 A.D.) and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem. The desecration of the Jewish synagogue at Caesarea was one of the contributory causes of the First Revolt.

In 306, the emperor Maximinus had Christians executed before him in the amphitheater that Herod had built. After the Crusades, Caesarea faded from history. Excavations after WWII located the city once more and a program of restoration was started. As an archaeological site it is dramatic, extensive, and accessible. Its ruins cover over 8000 acres (Schoville, Biblical Archaeology in Focus 337). Today one sees an area of superimposed walled cities — Herodian, Roman, and Byzantine — overlaid in part by the Gothic remains of a medieval Crusader fortress town. The ruins of a beach side aqueduct remain impressive.

Here are some archaeological remains at Caesarea:

1. Major buildings:

a. Temple to Augustus.

b. Theater.

c. Amphitheater.

d. Hippodrome which would seat 20,000 dating to the days of Hadrian (A.D. 130).

e. Synagogue. “In 1962 excavations at a Caesarean synagogue revealed part of a list of the twenty-four courses into which the Jerusalem priesthood was divided” (Schoville 341).

2. Two aqueducts were built to bring fresh water from 10 miles distant to the city.

3. Of particular interest is an archaeological find at Caesarea which was the first to mention the procurator Pontius Pilate who had his residence there. “In 1961 an extraordinary find was a stone that bore the three-line inscription: Tiberieum/ [Pon]tius Pilatus/ [Praef]lectus Iuda[eae] — ‘Tiberius [the Roman emperor of the period]/Pontius Pilate/ Prefect of Judea.’ This is the first archaeological evidence of Pilate, under whom Jesus was crucified. . .” (Schoville 341). A replica of the stone is at the theater, the original is in the Israel Museum.

Important Bible events that happened at Caesarea:

  • Philip preached there (Acts 8:40; 21:8).
  • Paul sailed from Caesarea on his way to Tarsus (Acts 9:30).
  • Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, was from Caesarea (Acts 10:1).
  • Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great who killed James, resided here. He was the one who was stricken of worms and died (Acts 12:20-23).
  • Paul landed in Caesarea after his second missionary journey (Acts 18:22).
  • Paul was on trial before Felix there (Acts 23:23-33).
  • Paul sailed from here on his way to Rome for trial (Acts 25:11).

Caesarea was also important in church history. Origen taught here. His Hexapla (6 translation Bible) was destroyed when the Muslims conquered the city. Eusebius wrote his Ecclesiastical History here.