Wednesday, February 7, 2018


Gideon Avni, Guy Stiebel (ed.), Roman Jerusalem: A New Old City. Journal of Roman archaeology. Supplementary series, 105. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2017. Pp. 161. ISBN 9780991373093. $99.50.

Reviewed by Jan Willem Drijvers, University of Groningen (

Version at BMCR home site

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[Authors and titles are listed below.]

In 2017 a theater-like structure was found by archeologists of the Israel Antiquities Authority underneath Wilson's arch at the Western Wall of Jerusalem's Temple Mount (see this video). Its discovery confirms what archaeologists and historians had always surmised on the basis of historical sources: that Roman Jerusalem must have had a theater. The theater seems to have been part of the new urban outlay of Colonia Aelia Capitolina, i.e. the Roman colony that was founded at the site of Jerusalem in 130 CE by the emperor Hadrian, and was probably never finished supposedly due to the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136). The foundation of Aelia Capitolina ended the history of Jerusalem as a Jewish city and marked the completion of the process of Romanization that had started in 70 CE with the destruction of the Temple and the encampment of a Roman legion (Legio X Fretensis) soon afterwards.

We are poorly informed about Roman Jerusalem. Literary sources for the city's history in the second, third and early fourth century are not abundant, to say the least. The information provided by our main sources, Cassius Dio and Eusebius, is both fragmentary and contradictory. There are a few inscriptions and some numismatic material; the latter in particular testifies to the polytheistic character of the city in these centuries, as the study by Nicole Belayche testifies.1 Archaeological data are therefore of the greatest importance in learning more about Roman Jerusalem.

Large-scale archaeological research in Jerusalem only started after 1967, for obvious reasons. While Israeli archaeologists were primarily interested in the Jewish history of Jerusalem, the city's Roman history has begun to receive more attention over the last two to three decades. Many initial results were published in Hebrew, a language not accessible for most scholars in the world. This volume, therefore, is more than welcome; it makes recent archaeological data available to the international scholarly community, thereby adding considerably to our knowledge about the history, urban character and population of Aelia Capitolina/Roman Jerusalem.

The volume brings together thirteen contributions on a variety of topics concerning Roman Jerusalem. They are divided into four main themes: 1. The urban sphere; 2. The ritual sphere; 3. The military sphere; 4. The extramural sphere. The volume opens with a detailed map by Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah of the early-fourth-century city and its immediate surroundings, based on current archaeological data and information drawn from literary sources. Aside from the level of detail, the main difference with earlier plans is the location of the camp of Legio X, which occupied the entire summit of the southwestern hill of the city, including Mount Zion, without its southeastern slopes; on its northwestern and southwestern sides the boundary of the camp was marked by the remains of the Hasmonaean 'First Wall'. Hadrian's Aelia Capitolina was built next to the military camp; its general layout is still preserved in the plan of today's Jerusalem's Old City.

The section entitled 'The urban sphere' includes six contributions mostly dealing with the city's layout, apart from the paper by Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom which discusses pottery discovered in a dump in the city's eastern cardo (modern El-Wad Street). This colonnaded street along the Western Wall of the Temple Mount was one of Aelia's main streets, lined with shops and intersected by side-streets. It was built over earlier houses, paved with flagstones and probably formed the city's main thoroughfare. The pottery repertoire and production demonstrate a major shift in the city's population and a clear distinction between the Jewish population in Jerusalem and Judaea and the new Roman settlers. The contribution by Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah and Alexander Onn discusses the results of the excavations of a stretch of the eastern cardo 50 meters long and 24 meters wide. The finds date the construction to Hadrian's reign but also indicate that preparations must have started years before 130 CE, when Hadrian officially founded Aelia as Roman colony. This suggests that Hadrian must have planned the re-foundation of Jerusalem already early in his reign. In their contribution Amos Kloner and Rachel Bar-Nathan also discuss the eastern cardo based on earlier excavation reports. Over the years several test excavations were conducted in the last century at various points of the cardo. Pottery and stone vessels found as fill underneath the cardo date from the Iron Age, the Second Temple period, and the post-Jewish Revolt years up to the early second century CE (all catalogued in detail in the contribution), which is hence the terminus post quem for the construction and paving of the cardo. The authors also examine the issue of the southern extension of the street within the Old City; they date the northern part of this expansion to the second half of the second century, while in their opinion, the southern part of the extension was added in the third century. Some, however, prefer to date these extensions to the Byzantine period. An earlier date seems to be more suitable considering that just outside the Old City at the site of the modern Givati parking lot on the southeastern hill of ancient Jerusalem, a large peristyle building has been excavated, which is dated to the late third/early fourth century. Earlier archaeological research has demonstrated that there were other buildings in the area. This archaeological data in the area south of the Temple Mount are the topic of the contribution by Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets. They date the southward expansion of Aelia to ca. 300. The archaeological data point toward an insula following the grid of the northern part of the city. These data also make clear that the southern enlargement of the city suffered from large-scale destruction most probably as a result of the earthquake of 363. In his chapter, Oren Gutfeld discusses the intricate problem of the absence of archaeological remains from the second to the fourth centuries in what are now the Armenian and Jewish Quarters of the Old City. It seems that these areas were originally not part of the Hadrianic settlement. Major construction southward only started around 400 CE, according to Gutfeld, incorporating the southwestern hill and Mt. Zion into the fabric of the city. Although Aelia did not have walls until the fifth century, it did have city gates (of which only the Neapolis gate has survived) marking the regional roads and the city's arteries. The gates as well as monumental arches are examined by Gabriel Mazor. Arches such as the Ecce Homo arch and the Propylaeum arch on the city's forum adorned the city's colonnaded streets and seem to have been part of the original design of Aelia.

The second part of the volume (The ritual sphere) has two fascinating contributions; the one focused on the viaduct leading from the city up to the Temple Mount by Alexander Onn and Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, and the other by Perez Reuven about a decorated beam removed from the al-Aqsa Mosque during renovations in the 1930s. The beam of cypress wood is 12.5 meters long and based on its decoration is dated by Reuven to the second or third century; it originally was part of an architrave of a monumental building in Roman Jerusalem. Reuven hypothesizes that it may have been part of a temple on the Temple Mount, which brings us to the debate about the presence of a temple to Jupiter on the site of the destroyed Jewish Temple and the fate of the Temple Mount. The contribution on the viaduct adds to this discussion. This causeway consists of two rows of arches; the northern row dates from shortly after 70 CE and connected the military camp of the Legio X Fretensis with the Temple Mount, while the southern row probably dates from Hadrianic times. The authors suggest that the Temple Mount was an integral component of Aelia Capitolina and served in its civil and religious life. What its function exactly was, however, remains uncertain.

The third section (The military sphere) examines which emperor bestowed the honorific title Antoniniana on the Legio X Fretensis. Based on a study of epigraphic evidence, stamped brick and tiles, Avnar Ecker proposes that Caracalla probably gave the title to the legion. One of the most fascinating contributions in the volume is by Jon Seligman. He discusses the issue of the site of the military camp, which according to communis opinio was located on the southwestern hill, but for which there is very little archaeological evidence. Moreover, Seligman disputes that Roman Jerusalem was a classical city and argues that because of the lack of archaeological evidence for urban dwellings, the poor epigraphic tradition, the underdevelopment of the city's hinterland and the simple characteristics of burial practices that do not match a prosperous Roman urban center but rather a village of rural character, the civilian city of Roman Jerusalem of the second and third century was largely a fiction. Despite its splendid colonnaded streets, its monumental arches and city gates, the city was devoid of people and its population was not larger than that of a sizable village. Only with the Christianization of the city in the fourth century did the city begin to expand in terms of population and surface area.

The fourth and last section considers Roman Jerusalem outside the walls ("The extramural sphere"). The contribution by Gideon Avni on burial practices argues that the burial grounds of Aelia Capitolina were small in area and display little diversity. From the mid-second century the main burial grounds were located north of Aelia. Apart from cremation burials, there were two main types of graves: simple cist graves and small rock-cut burial caves. The transformation in burial customs as well as the grave goods indicate that Roman Jerusalem had another population as before: a pagan populace of non-local origin. The coming of the tenth legion to Jerusalem and the subsequent 'Romanization' of the city had its impact on the surrounding area, as becomes clear from the chapter by Amos Kloner, Eitan Klein and Boaz Zissu. Apart from Jewish settlements, archaeological data also point to new settlement patterns suiting Roman needs. Especially after the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 CE) the demographic situation in Aelia's hinterland (territorium) changed: the number of Jews declined considerably – possibly because of Hadrian's decree that prohibited Jews from living in Jerusalem and its territory but also because of the destruction of Jewish settlements – as they were replaced by people from elsewhere, indicated for instance by pagan sanctuaries in Aelia's vicinity.

The studies in this volume are valuable contributions to the knowledge of Aelia Capitolina/Roman Jerusalem. Questions, however, remain. What was the function of the Temple Mount within Aelia's urban framework? Did it still have a religious function and was there a temple for Jupiter as mentioned by Cassius Dio? Besides the absence of urban dwellings apart from the southeastern corner, what about the scarcity of archaeological evidence for pagan sanctuaries, even though numismatic evidence suggests a rich polytheistic life in Aelia? Nevertheless, the volume offers important new insights, such as the beginning of preparations for Aelia even years before its official foundation in 130, or that notwithstanding its monumental outlay and its magnificent buildings, Roman Jerusalem seems not to have become the success that was envisaged. In the second and third centuries it was a backwater city with a tiny population consisting predominantly of officers and soldiers of the Legio X Fretensis, veterans from elsewhere and people probably in some way associated with the military. Only in the fourth century did Aelia began to develop due to its rapid Christianization, which attracted people from all over the Roman empire and beyond for a variety of reasons.

Authors and titles

Gideon Avni and Guy D. Stiebel, Preface & Acknowledgements
Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, A plan of Jerusalem (Aelia Capitolina) in the 4th c. A.D.
The urban sphere
Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah and Alexander Onn, Colonnaded streets in Aelia Capitolina: new evidence from the eastern cardo
Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom, Table ware and lamps from Roman Jerusalem: selected from the eastern cardo dump
Oren Gutfeld, From Aelia Capitolina to Hagia Polis Hierosalima: changes in the urban layout of Jerusalem
Amos Kloner and Rachel Bar-Nathan, The eastern cardo of Aelia Capitolina
Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets, The southward expansion of Aelia Capitolina in the Late Roman period
Gabriel Mazor, Monumental arches and city gates in Aelia Capitolina: an urban appraisal
The ritual sphere
Alexander Onn and Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, The Temple Mount at the time of Aelia Capitolina: new evidence from "the giant viaduct"
Perez Reuven, A decorated beam of the Roman period on the Temple Mount
The military sphere
Jon Seligman, 'Absence of evidence'or 'Evidence of absence': where was civilian Aelia Capitolina, and was Jerusalem the site of the legionary camp?
Anver Ecker, Who gave the title Antoniniana to Legio X Fretensis?
The extramural sphere
Gideon Avni, The necropoleis of Aelia Capitolina: burial practices, ethnicity, and the city limits
Amos Kloner, Eitan Klein and Boaz Zissu, The rural hinterland (territorium) of Aelia Capitolina


1.  Nicole Belayche, Iudaea Palaestina, The pagan cults in Roman Palestine (second to fourth century), Tübingen 2001.

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