BMCR 2020.09.35

Aelia Capitolina – Jerusalem in the Roman period: in light of archaeological research

, Aelia Capitolina - Jerusalem in the Roman period: in light of archaeological research. Mnemosyne, supplements, 432. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019. xxv, 244 p.. ISBN 9789004407336. €106,00.

Literary sources about Roman Jerusalem are scarce and provide little useful information for reconstructing the history of the city from the second to fifth century. Additional information is provided by epigraphic evidence and numismatic material, but archaeological data are without a doubt the most important source for a better understanding of Roman Jerusalem.

In the last decades the Israel Antiquities Authority has exhibited a growing interest in the archaeology of the Roman period of Jerusalem and our knowledge has increased considerably because of IAA excavations both in the old city of Jerusalem and in its immediate vicinity. Since the results of the excavations are increasingly published in English in addition to Hebrew, they are reaching a wider scholarly audience. A few years ago, the Journal of Roman Archaeology published a volume about Roman Jerusalem in its supplementary series including thirteen contributions,[1] presenting new and insightful material. Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah was one of the main contributors to that volume and (co)author of a number of papers. Now she has published a monograph which presents a comprehensive survey of all archaeological remains available to date from the Old City and its environs that are useful for reconstructing the development of Roman Jerusalem. The focus of the volume is the urban layout of the city as well as the relationship of the city to its hinterland. While scholars in general tend to distinguish between the Roman period of the city (i.e. the time until the Christianization of the city in c. 324 CE) and the Byzantine era (i.e. 324-636 CE), Weksler-Bdolah takes a different chronological approach by discussing the period from the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 CE to the early decades of the fifth century when the city seems to have reached its maximum size and was surrounded by a wall.

The book sets off with a useful introductory chapter sketching the chronological and historical framework, the available literary sources and the history of research. The next chapter concerns a thorough discussion of the military camp of the Legio X Fretensis. After the destruction of Jewish Jerusalem in 70 CE this legion was stationed in in the city and stayed there until probably the end of the third century when it was moved to Eilat on the Red Sea. The legion was omnipresent in Jerusalem and must have dominated urban life to a great extent, including construction and engineering work as appears from the many stamp impressions on bricks, roof tiles and ceramic pipes, building inscriptions, and motifs associated with the legion on coins. Weksler-Bdolah’s focus, however, is on the site, layout and size of the camp, which is not easy to establish considering the scarcity of the archaeological remains of the camp. Like most authors before her, Weksler-Bdolah locates the camp on the summit of the city’s southwestern hill—the site of the Upper City and Herod’s palace of the Second Temple period; this is indeed the most likely location. Based on the analysis of the scant archaeological remains she makes a convincing argument for the demarcation lines of the camp which differ somewhat from earlier interpretations (Figure 12). The military camp was connected to the Temple Mount by the so-called Great Causeway, suggesting possibly that the site was still of importance for religious reasons. According to Weksler-Bdolah, the Temple Mount may have housed the Capitolium as mentioned in Cassius Dio (66.6.1), although his information is not commonly accepted by scholars, and it may have held a sanctuary for the imperial cult as well. The status of the Temple Mount in Roman Jerusalem is highly uncertain considering that there are contradictory literary sources about possible sanctuaries and it is impossible to perform excavations on the spot. In addition, the Temple Mount as highest point of the city was strategically important, which may explain its interest for the Roman army.

An important new phase in Jerusalem’s history is its establishment as Colonia Aelia Capitolina by the emperor Hadrian, the archaeological vestiges of which are comprehensively discussed in chapter 3. The date of the renaming and refoundation is an issue of scholarly debate: was it before or after the Bar Kokhba rising of 132-135 CE? Based on numismatic and epigraphic evidence, Weksler-Bdolah argues convincingly that the foundation of Jerusalem as a Roman colony should be connected to Hadrian’s visit to the city in 129/130 CE. The re-founded city had an orthographic layout, and a large part of the chapter is devoted to the archaeological remains of the main thoroughfares (the western and eastern cardo and the decumanus) as well as of secondary streets. In this chapter Weksler-Bdolah also discusses the free-standing city gates (the city was surrounded by a wall only in the beginning of the fifth century), plazas, public and private buildings. Considering the fact that Aelia had a pagan population and the city had a variety of polytheistic cults, as testified by numismatic and epigraphic evidence, the archaeological evidence for pagan sanctuaries is remarkably scarce. Based on predominantly literary evidence there may have been a Capitolium temple on the Temple Mount, a temple of Aphrodite/Venus—probably to be identified with Tyche according to Weksler-Bdolah—on Aelia’s forum, and a sanctuary for Serapis/Asclepius near the Pool of Bethesda.

Aelia changed character again in the fourth century, gradually becoming a Christian city, as examined in chapter 4. Weksler-Bdolah suggests that the earthquake of 19 May 363 CE catalysed a change in the urban landscape tied to the rapid Christianization of the city. Still, only two churches dated to the fourth century are testified: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church on Mount Zion. Christianization occurred especially in the near vicinity of the city (e.g. the Mount of Olives) where monasteries and churches were founded. The city expanded to the south—the author discusses the remains of a residential area south of the Temple Mount—but the large site of the former military camp probably remained unoccupied. Fourth century Aelia had a mixed population of pagans and Christians; Greek became the main language, as we see from inscriptions, although Latin and Aramaic were also spoken.

Weksler-Bdolah devotes considerable attention to Aelia’s rural hinterland in chapter 7, discussing imperial roads, military outposts and workshops along these roads, as well as settlements and residential buildings (Roman villas), and road stations, thereby making clear that Aelia was well-connected to the outside world. Other chapters deal with Aelia’s water supply (cisterns, pools, and aqueducts) and the cemeteries outside the city.

This volume offers a very useful overview of the development and transformation of the urban landscape of Roman Jerusalem between 70 CE and c. 400 CE based on its archaeological remains. Questions remain, such as the function of the Temple Mount in the cityscape, and the relative absence of archaeological data for urban dwellings and pagan sanctuaries. Nevertheless, the archaeological vestiges laid bare in the last decades have added significantly to our knowledge of Roman Jerusalem and it is to be expected that in the future that knowledge will increase with new finds.

Weksler-Bdolah has done a wonderful job in sketching a clear picture of the development of Jerusalem’s/Aelia’s topography and landscape. The many figures and especially the beautifully produced colored maps make that picture even more vibrant.


[1] Gideon Avni, Guy Stiebel (eds.), Roman Jerusalem: A New Old City, JRA Suppl. 105, Portsmouth RI, 2017. For a review, see BMCR 2018.02.15.