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Herod's Theater in Jerusalem - A Wooden Structure

Was Herod's theater such a monumental structure? If it were a monumental structure in the urban center, could it disappear without trace or mention in Josephus' long and detailed description of the city.

By Joseph Patrich
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
August 2004

In year 28 BCE, Herod introduced a novelty in Jerusalem: Greek drama and Dionysiac music. A special structure was erected for these performances - a theater. This was a part of a larger enterprise: games in honor of his Roman patron Caesar Augustus, that included also athletic contests, chariot races, and gladiatorial combats, and hunting shows in the Roman style, to be celebrated periodically. The circumstances of this enterprise and the rebellious reaction of the Jews are narrated in detail by Flavius Josephus (Ant. XV.8.1 - 268-81): "…. In the first place, he appointed solemn games to be celebrated every fifth year, in honor of Caesar, and built a theater at Jerusalem, as also a very great amphitheater in the plain. Both of them were indeed costly works, but opposite to the Jewish customs; for we have had no such shows delivered down to us as fit to be used or exhibited by us; yet did he celebrate these games every five years, in the most solemn and splendid manner. He also made proclamation to the neighboring countries, and called men together out of every nation. … So the principal persons that were the most eminent in these sorts of exercises were gotten together, for there were very great rewards for victory proposed, not only to those that performed their exercises naked, but to those that played the musicians also, and were called Thymelici (a guild of professional actors and musicians. Such guilds were known in the Hellenistic world, primarily with regard to the Dionysos cult and the Hellenistic royal cults); and he spared no ains to induce all persons, the most famous for such exercises, to come to this contest for victory…. He also imitated every thing, though never so costly or magnificent, in other nations, out of an ambition that he might give most public demonstration of his grandeur. Inscriptions also of the great actions of Caesar, and trophies of those nations which he had conquered in his wars, and all made of the purest gold and silver, encompassed the theater itself; nor was there any thing that could be subservient to his design, whether it were precious garments, or precious stones set in order, which was not also exposed to sight in these games…. And truly foreigners were greatly surprised and delighted at the vastness of the expenses here exhibited, and at the great dangers that were here seen; but to natural Jews, this was no better than a dissolution of those customs for which they had so great a veneration. It appeared also no better than an instance of barefaced impiety, to throw men to wild beasts, for the affording delight to the spectators; and it appeared an instance of no less impiety, to change their own laws for such foreign exercises: but, above all the rest, the trophies gave most distaste to the Jews; for as they imagined them to be images, included within the armor that hung round about them, they were sorely displeased at them, because it was not the custom of their country to pay honors to such images.

Nor was Herod unacquainted with the disturbance they were under; and as he thought it unseasonable to use violence with them, so he spake to some of them by way of consolation, and in order to free them from that superstitious fear they were under; yet could not he satisfy them, but they cried out with one accord, out of their great uneasiness at the offenses they thought he had been guilty of, that although they should think of bearing all the rest yet would they never bear images of men in their city, meaning the trophies, because this was disagreeable to the laws of their country. Now when Herod saw them in such a disorder, and that they would not easily change their resolution unless they received satisfaction in this point, he called to him the most eminent men among them, and brought them upon the theater, and showed them the trophies, and asked them what sort of things they took these trophies to be; and when they cried out that they were the images of men, he gave order that they should be stripped of these outward ornaments which were about them, and showed them the naked pieces of wood; which pieces of wood, now without any ornament, became matter of great sport and laughter to them, because they had before always had the ornaments of images themselves in derision.

When therefore Herod had thus got clear of the multitude, and had dissipated the vehemency of passion under which they had been, the greatest part of the people were disposed to change their conduct, and not to be displeased at him any longer; but still some of them continued in their displeasure against him, for his introduction of new customs, and esteemed the violation of the laws of their country as likely to be the origin of very great mischiefs to them, so that they deemed it an instance of piety rather to hazard themselves [to be put to death], than to seem as if they took no notice of Herod, who, upon the change he had made in their government, introduced such customs, and that in a violent manner, which they had never been used to before, as indeed in pretense a king, but in reality one that showed himself an enemy to their whole nation; on which account ten men that were citizens [of Jerusalem] conspired together against him, and sware to one another to undergo any dangers in the attempt, and took daggers with them under their garments [for the purpose of killing Herod]. Now there was a certain blind man among those conspirators who had thus sworn to one another, on account of the indignation he had against what he heard to have been done; he was not indeed able to afford the rest any assistance in the undertaking, but was ready to undergo any suffering with them, if so be they should come to any harm, insomuch that he became a very great encourager of the rest of the undertakers.

When they had taken this resolution, and that by common consent, they went into the theater, hoping that, in the first place, Herod himself could not escape them, as they should fall upon him so unexpectedly; and supposing, however, that if they missed him, they should kill a great many of those that were about him; and this resolution they took, though they should die for it, in order to suggest to the king what injuries he had done to the multitude. These conspirators, therefore, standing thus prepared beforehand, went about their design with great alacrity; but there was one of those spies of Herod, that were appointed for such purposes, to fish out and inform him of any conspiracies that should be made against him, who found out the whole affair, and told the king of it, as he was about to go into the theater…." (tr. W. Whiston 1895).

Where was this theater? Several sites were suggested in the past for the location of the theater, both outside and inside the Herodian city walls. Archaeological excavations had yielded so far no clue for its precise site. In the given topography of Jerusalem, it makes sense to assume that the theater was located at the head of one of the valleys with the seats resting against the hillside, rather than on a flat area on top of the hills. The amount of building material for such a structure would have been considerably less than that needed for a theater built on a plain, and its remains would be less, accordingly. In face of this reality, some scholars had suggested that the Herodian theater was dismantled, disappearing from the urban landscape, due to lack of interest in its show in the Jewish city after Herod's time, and even that Flavius Josephus' words concerning the theater are a conventional description of a Roman city, a literary genre for describing a typical Roman city with a variety of public buildings, but this seems to be a far-fetched hypothesis. It is true that in many cases a Roman theater, being a monumental structure (especially when built on a flat ground, which seemingly was not the case in Jerusalem), can be recognized at a site even before excavations are carried out there, but was Herod's theater such a monumental structure? If it were a monumental structure in the urban center, could it disappear without trace or mention in Josephus' long and detailed description of the city (War I.21.1; V.5.1-4, ibid. 5.8), or in passages rich with topographical information about many of the monuments of the city in connection with events that took place during the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem? It seems that the theater - a structure that a priori is suitable for service as a fortification, had by then already disappeared from the urban landscape. It is doubtful whether it survived the days of Herod. Thus, it would be easier to understand such a situation if it were not a monumental structure, but an impermanent wooden structure.

Wooden theaters and amphitheaters were very common in Rome during the late Republic, and even during the early Empire. This was the early stage in the development of the Roman theater, mentioned in any book on the history of the Roman theater. The first permanent theater in Rome was built by Pompey in 55 B.C.E., but in the beginning its stage house was still of wood, and its erection aroused a protest among orthodox circles. According to Vitruvius (On Architecture, V.5.7; written in 16-13 BCE), Rome's public theaters in his time - the age of Augustus and Herod - were of wood. The attitude of the Romans to stone theaters - permanent structures - was different from that of the Greeks. Tacitus said that formerly, in earlier times, people watched the shows standing, so that they might not spend entire days in idleness. But even when seats were already permitted, at the end of the 3rd century B.C.E., it was prohibited that the auditorium be of stone, and at the end of the shows and festival the structure was dismantled. The structure of the stage houses in the occasional theaters could be monumental, including columns and marble revetments, wall mosaics, and paintings, but these too were temporary structures that were dismantled at the end of the festivals. The second stone theater to be built in Rome, that of Balbus, was constructed only in 13 B.C.E. The theater of Marcelus, begun by Julius Caesar, was completed by Augustus in 11 B.C.E., being thus the third stone theater in the city. The last wooden theater documented in Rome was erected by Augustus near the Tiber for Latin shows in the framework of the ludi saeculares (17 BCE) on the tenth anniversary of the Principate. Wooden seats were common in Roman amphitheaters as well.

Photo of a Frieze of weapons.

This Roman architectural reality indicates that in the period under discussion, the time of Herod, the construction of a stone theater was the exception, needing an explicit indication. Most Roman theaters were still of wood. On this background we can properly understand why in Ant. XV. 9.6-341 it was found appropriate to praise Herod by noting that the theater he had erected in Caesarea was of stone. This might sound strange, unless the theater erected by Herod 18 years earlier, in Jerusalem, was not of stone but of wood. Another indication that such indeed was the case can be found in the description of the decoration of the Jerusalem theater cited above (pertaining seemingly to the scaenae frons). These were trophies of gold and silver, apparently shields and bounty stands on which body armor, made as a decorative envelop set on wooden skeletons, was hung. These motifs were among the most popular throughout the Augustan empire. Were it a stone theater, one would expect the decorations to be in stone relief, and not as an envelop over a wooden skeleton.

The transformation evident in the structure of the Herodian theaters during the period of ca. 18 years that elapsed between the construction of the wooden theater in Jerusalem and the stone theater in Caesarea reflect a similar transformation that had occurred in Rome. The change is expressed by Vitruvius, who gives detailed specifications for the construction of an elaborate stone theater at a time when most theaters in Rome were still of wood. We are dealing with a period of dynamic development in this domain of architecture, both in Rome and in Herodian architecture.[1]


[1] For a full presentation of the arguments see: J. Patrich, "Herod's Theater in Jerusalem - a new proposal," Israel Exploration Journal 52 (2002), pp. 231-239.