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Sepphoris

Sepphoris was the "ornament of all Galilee." 
September, 2001

By James F. Strange
University of South Florida   

    Sepphoris was a major site in the first century BC. The city stood virtually in the geographic center of lower Galilee hardly five miles north of Nazareth. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century CE, relates that Ptolemy Lathrys of Egypt besieged the city unsuccessfully on a Sabbath. The fact that Ptolemy attacked on a Sabbath implies that he already knew that the city was Jewish. Ptolemy struck the city in his war with the Jewish King Alexander Jannaeus. The fact that he laid siege-which was unsuccessful-suggests that Sepphoris was already walled. This attack took place shortly after the accession of Alexander in 106 BCE. 

    By 63 BCE Sepphoris and all Galilee were under the severe rule of Rome. About 55 BCE Gabinius, proconsul in Syria, located one of the Roman Synedria or Councils in Sepphoris. This was the only one for Galilee. There were probably Roman officials installed in the city at this time.

    Sepphoris suffered from the destruction caused by the civil war between Herod the Great and his archrival Matthias Antigonus. Herod took Sepphoris after Antigonus abandoned it during a snowstorm. The city remained in Herodian hands up to his own death about 4 BCE. However, the city suffered its most serious blow of all when Judah ben Hezekiah led certain citizens of Sepphoris in revolt when Herod died. Varus, governor of Syria, responded promptly and destroyed the city, leaving the siege and destruction to a friend named Crispus and his son, whose name we do not know. Later, the city passed to the hegemony of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Antipas ordered that it be rebuilt as his showcase. 

    Flavius Josephus described the rebuilt Sepphoris as the "ornament of all Galilee," which suggests that this small city was beautifully laid out and rebuilt under Herod Antipas. Josephus also claims that Sepphoris was the "strongest city in Galilee," an observation of a military man and, therefore, to be taken seriously.

    Excavations in Sepphoris tend to confirm these lofty words of Josephus. Sepphoris was laid out in a grid or blocks with streets paved with crushed limestone. A Roman theater stood partially cut into the hillside. Citizens of Sepphoris could repair to the theatre for an evening’s entertainment, probably of mimes, light comedy, or other fashionable amusements. Ordinary residences and elegant mansions stood here and there within the city blocks. 

    Since Sepphoris was built on a hill, it was visible for miles. This may be the city that Jesus spoke of when he said, "A city set on a hill cannot be hidden."

    Sepphoris had its markets, two in number. They were termed the "upper market" and the "lower market." We do not know precisely which commodities were sold in either market, but we know that the locals could purchase wheat and barley, olives, grapes, wine, fresh fish, greens, onions, and other foodstuffs within the city walls. One could also buy ceramic pots and pans, glass bottles and beakers, metal objects, jewelry, and bronze fittings. Weavers and clothing merchants were busy in the city. Because of the clothing industry, there were probably dyers and fullers aplenty. Other market items included figs, pomegranates, olives, flax, pickled and dried fish, herbs, greens, cattle, and sheep and goat products. One could also find finished products such as basketry, furniture, breads, and perfumes. 

    Daily life included those who lived within the city walls but who farmed outside the walls in the city territory. These people raised crops, tended fruit trees and vineyards, and harvested nuts. Their produce was to be found not only within Sepphoris, but in other towns and villages of Galilee where traveling salesmen sold them. For that reason, donkey caravans would appear at the city gates of Sepphoris weekly. Some of them brought wares and gossip from nearby towns, such as Tiberias or Araba. Others came from southern Syria or Judea and came with news from afar. They returned to their cities of origin with the products of Sepphoris.

    Citizens of Sepphoris worked for the government, that is, for Herod Antipas, as well as for themselves. We read of the archives and treasury of Sepphoris, of its armory, its banks, and of its public structures. A civil basilica of the first century has been revealed to the archaeologist’s spade. It stood at the intersection of the Cardo maximus and a decumanus, or the two main streets of the city. It featured brilliantly painted plaster on its rooms, offices upstairs, and white mosaic floors.

    The citizens of Sepphoris shared in the common culture of the Galilee. There is reason to believe that the social structure was organized more or less by wealth and by position of birth. At the apex of the social structure were to be found the elites (the "rich" of the New Testament), many of whom were Herod’s retainers. We also find absentee landlords, owners of estates, major importers/exporters, Chief Tax Collectors, and judges.

    In a much larger middle stratum of Galilean society in general and of Sepphoris in particular one found the following: the professional scribe, the teacher, the lawyer, the hand worker, mason, carpenter, or cooper, the small shop keeper, the family farmer, the banker or money-changer, fisherman (on Lake Tiberias), tax collectors, foremen, the money lender, the master of a household, the manager of a household or steward, the ironsmith, coppersmith, silversmith, or goldsmith. To these one may add from other sources, whose status we do not know, the caravaneer, peddler, charcoal maker, lime maker, tanner, leather-worker, soldier, healer, exorcist, physician, herbalist, and actors and entertainers.

    At the bottom of the social structure in terms of wealth and birth, as well as in terms of historical circumstances, one found tenant farmers, day workers, agricultural workers, reapers, guards for prisons, shepherds for sheep and goats, slave children, slaves, beggars, thieves, lepers, the poor or jobless, prostitutes, and the rebel or bandit.

    Josephus became the Jewish general who prosecuted the war against Rome in the Galilee and in Golanitis. By his own testimony, he found the citizens of Sepphoris fearful of their fellow Galileans because of the city’s friendship with the Romans and because of their agreement with Cestius Gallus, Legate of Syria. His archenemy was a confrère, a certain John of Gishcala. John lead the cities of Sepphoris, Tiberias, Gischala (in Upper Galilee), and Gamala in Golanitis in revolt against Josephus. Later by various stratagems he regained all four of these cities including Sepphoris, had them plundered, then restored the plunder to their citizens. By so doing he taught them a lesson but also earned their good will (or so he said). According to the details in his autobiography, Josephus actually took Sepphoris twice by force. One of these took place in the marketplace of Sepphoris. In the second attack the men of the city ran together into the citadel, which tells us that there was a small fortress in the upper city.

    The citizens of Sepphoris met the Roman general Vespasian, who had landed at Ptolemais-Acco on the coast in 66 CE and requested help in protecting themselves from their Jewish neighbors. The surrounding towns did not sympathize with the Sepphoreans, who refused to wage war against Rome. Vespasian immediately saw that their overtures of peace could be put to good use. Consequently, Vespasian sent 1,000 cavalry and 6,000 infantrymen to Sepphoris under the Tribune Placidius. These foot soldiers billeted at Sepphoris and cavalrymen camped nearby not only changed the character of the city, but they also protected Josephus himself in a frontal attack by his countrymen. 

    Ordinary citizens of Sepphoris could see the results of their love of peace on the coins of their city. For example, the earliest coins of Sepphoris from the time of Nero (67-68 CE) do not exhibit the head of Nero, but they honor Vespasian and Nero. The first type of coin shows two cornucopiae on the obverse with a caduceus between them. The inscription reads "In the time of Vespasian, City of Peace (Eirenopolis), Neronias Sepphoris." The name "Neronias" is an honorary name of the city taken from the name of Nero Caesar. On the reverse one reads within a wreath, "Year 14 (68/9 CE), Nero Claudius Caesar." The second type shows a large "SC" on the front, typical of Roman coinage, and the legend in Greek, in which again Sepphoris is honored as a "city of peace."

    We glean more information about life at Sepphoris from the rabbis. In the Mishnah, the rabbis knew of an "old fort" at Sepphoris. They also remembered an archive in the city, an institution we have seen mentioned in Josephus. The rabbis also mention that their forefathers once held public office, which apparently means that there was an old government which was replaced by the time of writing (about 200 CE). 

    The rabbis spoke of two aqueducts that flowed from springs at Abel three Roman miles to the east. Archaeological survey and excavation have confirmed this. Furthermore citizens could count on water even in times of drought, for a huge underground reservoir has been found connected to these aqueducts. The reservoir was cut into bedrock more than one Roman mile to the east. 

    The most Roman of all public institutions was the Roman bath. The rabbis mention that a Sepphorean hired a bathhouse from his fellow for twelve gold pieces per year. Thus private bathhouses were known, and some of them were in Jewish hands. None of the first century bathhouses have yet been found, but later structures for public bathing are well attested.

    Sepphoris must have had its synagogues in the first century, but so far none of them have been found. Remains of two synagogues of the fifth and sixth centuries AD are known. On the other hand, the Jewish texts mention "synagogues" at Sepphoris, including the "synagogue of the Babylonians" and the "synagogue of the Gophnites." (Gophna is a village in Judea.)

    Archaeology tends to confirm that Sepphoris was largely Jewish. Beneath the floors of most of the houses so far excavated at Sepphoris, one finds Jewish ritual baths or miqvaoth. These were cut into bedrock: one small pool with steps leading down to the pool and its water. The whole was plastered to make it watertight.\

    Sepphoris was known to the Roman world from the second century CE by its Roman name, Diocaesarea.

James F. Strange is a distinguished Professor at the University of South Florida