Caesarea Maritima was built in the late first century B.C.E. by Herod the Great, king of Judaea, on the site of a deserted Hellenistic coastal town called Straton's Tower, between Dor and Joppa. It was his administrative capital and its harbor was a source of prosperity. Both city and harbor—Sebastos (the Greek word for Augustus)—were named after Caesar Augustus, Herod's patron in Rome; a temple dedicated to the worship of Augustus and Rome was built on a hilltop overlooking the harbor and the entire city.
According to Flavius Josephus (War 1.408–15; Antiquities 15.331–41), the streets were laid in a grid pattern. For his own dwelling Herod built a palatial complex (basileia). He also erected there a stone theater, and an “amphitheater” (U-shaped, not oval) for athletic contests, chariot races, and gladiatorial combats. There were also marketplaces and dwellings and an elaborate sewer system that ran beneath the streets. The large, deep-water harbor was protected by a breakwater and provided with a wide mole, anchorages, and other facilities. Dwellings and other structures encircled the harbor and the temple hill. An impressive aqueduct supplied water for the city, and continued to be used with additions and modifications for several centuries. The work was completed within twelve years (22–10/9 B.C.E.). All the structures mentioned by Josephus were uncovered in archaeological excavations at the site.
Under Roman rule Caesarea was the capital of Provincia Iudaea, later named Syria Palaestina. It was the largest and most populated city of this province. Herod's palace (called praetorium in Acts 23:35), extending over two terraces, became the residence of the Roman governor. Paul was detained there for two years (58–60 C.E.), before being dispatched to Rome. According to Christian tradition, the evangelist Luke was among those who had served him in the Caesarea prison. Later, during the third and early fourth centuries, Christian martyrs were imprisoned and interrogated there. In 71 or 72 C.E. Caesarea became a Roman colony. In 77/78 C.E. another praetorium was built for the financial procurator; this also was uncovered in the archaeological excavations. In the Late Roman/Byzantine period, following the administrative reforms of Diocletian and Constantine, the praetorium of the Roman governor was abandoned, and that of the financial procurator became the palace of the Byzantine governor.
Caesarea Maritima was a cosmopolitan city of mixed population including Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles of Greek and Syrian stock. Christianity took hold early in Caesarea. According to Acts, Philip the evangelist preached there (Acts 8:40) and Cornelius, the centurion of the Italian regiment in the city, was baptized together with his household by Simon Peter, thus becoming the first Gentile converts (Acts 10:1–2, 24–48). Cornelius's house was a house church for the small Christian congregation. The same is true for the house of Philip and his four virgin daughters; Paul and his associates resided there on their way to Jerusalem (Acts 21:8).
The Jewish community in Caeserea was almost annihilated during the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 CE) and the violent assaults that preceded it. But during the second century it revived, and throughout the third and early fourth centuries Caesarea was the seat of a Jewish academy led by Rabbis Oshayah and Abbahu. A Christian academy was founded there by Origen in the early third century, which was later led by Pamphilus and Eusebius. The Christian community suffered martyrdom in the persecutions under Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian. Their status changed under Constantine, and gradually they constituted the majority of the population. But the Christianization of the urban space seems to have been a slow process: the prominent temple of Rome and Augustus, first dilapidated, was converted into a vast octagonal church only ca. 500 C.E. Several other chapels and churches are mentioned in the Acts and Miracles of Saint Anastasius the Persian (martyred 627 C.E.).
Caesarea preserved its prestige as a center of Christian theology, rhetoric, and law down to the sixth century. Procopius of Caesarea, the famous historian at the courts of Belisarius and Justinian, was its most renowned author (although his writing was done far away from his city of origin).
The Samaritans were another vital component in Caesarean society, representing the lucrative peasantry of the fertile agricultural hinterland of the city—the Sharon plain and the hilly country of Samaria. Their presence is well attested in archaeological finds such as inscriptions, oil-lamps, and amulets. A basilical structure built in the sixth century over the eastern part of the former palace of the Roman governor seems to have been a Samaritan synagogue.
Caesarea fell to Muslim hands in 640/41, after a seven-year siege. Under Muslim rule it shrank in size. Later it was captured by the Crusaders, and at their defeat it was not occupied again until modern times.
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