Archaeologists unearth 2,000-year-old Roman Legion outpost that controlled Jewish uprisings
Rome had its hands full in Palestine in the 1 st and 2 nd centuries AD with two Jewish uprisings against Roman rule. The establishment of a Roman Legion outpost in the Galilee may have prevented the 2 nd century revolt from spreading to the north. That Roman camp, the only one of its kind known in the eastern Roman Empire, is now under excavation.
The site, called Legio, is near Tel Megiddo in what is now northern Israel. It was the headquarters of the Sixth Legion Ferrata (‘Ironclad’) after the Jewish Revolt of 66-67 AD and probably kept public order during the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135 AD in Galilee.
The Times of Israel online reports that Roman rulers stationed two legions in Palestine to keep order, including the one being excavated near Tel Megiddo. The other was in Jerusalem. The location of the permanent military encampment housing the Sixth Legion was unknown until recently, though its name of Legio was memorialized in the name of the nearby Arabic village of Lajjun.
Tell Megiddo, the site of the Roman outpost ( Wikimedia Commons )
In recent years dig co-director Yotam Tepper and his team from the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, and the Israel Antiquities Authority did aerial studies and ground surveys in the area that indicated a Roman military structure. In 2013 the team confirmed the presence of the military camp.
“We’re talking about a large camp, an imperial camp, one of about 5,000 soldiers, about 300 meters by 500 meters (984 feet by 1,640 feet),” Tepper told The Times. “These are things we wouldn’t have been able to say [about the site] two years ago.”
Ancient carving of Roman soldiers on the base of Theodosius I's obelisk in Constantinople (c. 390). The troops belong to a regiment of palatini as they are here detailed to guard the emperor ( Wikimedia Commons )
So far this season archaeologists have excavated a large building that may have been the commander's residence, ceramic roofing tiles with the legion's mark, sewer channels with clay pipes and several buildings. All the construction points to a deliberate, carefully planned outpost.
Though other Roman encampments have been found in the Eastern Empire, all so far, such as the siege camp at Masada in Israel, had been temporary Roman outposts.
Matthew J. Adams of the Albright Institute and co-director of the dig said, “Our entire understanding about Roman military architecture, and especially Roman legionary bases for this particular period… comes from the western empire — Germany, Britain and Gaul.”
The Romans had a situation on their hands in the first century AD with what Adams called an “unruly population” that took four years to control after the uprising began. The Roman military camp was at the strategic crossroads of Tel Megiddo that connected the Sea of Galilee and Damascus to the main highway and coastal road. “Control of the Galilee can very much be had from this particular location, as it had been for centuries, that’s why Tel Megiddo is here from the Bronze Age onwards,” Adams said.
The ruins of Tel Megiddo ( Wikimedia Commons )
“In the aftermath of the first revolt, you had the beginnings of a lot of emigration of the Jewish population of Judea northward,” Adams told The Times. “The Galilee was increasingly the center of Jewish activity. Probably one of the reasons that they brought the legion here at all was to garrison this unruly population.”
The fort may also have been an outpost for construction of Roman infrastructure, including aqueducts and roads in the 2 nd and 3 rd centuries AD. There were plentiful sources of water in the area, another strategic consideration.
It is probably no accident that the first Jewish Revolt against Roman rule was fought in the Galilee and farther south in Judea, Adams said, while the later Bar Kochba Revolt was not fought much in the vicinity of Legio but rather more south, near Jerusalem.
“Considering the fact that the first revolt had a lot of its origins in the northern half of the country, it’s surprising that during the Bar Kochba Revolt the Galilee did not seem to be involved. And that’s probably because the Roman legion was here,” he said. “This is the first time we had the opportunity to understand how the Roman military was organized, in terms of their settlement especially, in the eastern empire.”
In a statement to The Times of Israel, the archaeological team said the excavations at Legio have helped bring a better understanding of Roman military engineering and architecture. They called the finds “rare and unique in the Roman East.”
Featured image: The remnants of a Roman street in Legio, a permanent Roman military outpost in Palestine (Photo by Jezreel Valley Regional Project)
By Mark Miller