The city of Caesarea was one of the most important cities in Israel during the time of Christ and the first few centuries of the early church. It was the home of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert (Acts 10:1) and of Philip the evangelist (Acts 8:40). Herod Agrippa was smitten by an angel of the Lord at Caesarea (Acts 12:21-23) and the apostle Paul visited the city on many occasions (Acts 9:30; 23:23-35).
The name Caesarea Maritima was unknown in ancient times -- it was usually known as Caesarea of Palestine. Caesarea Maritima means Caesarea by the sea -- it is a name given in modern times to separate this city from Caesarea Philippi. The city was named Caesarea by Herod the Great, in honor of his patron, Caesar Augustus.
A Phoenician city, Strato's Tower, had already existed as a port here centuries before. Between 22 and 9 B.C., Herod the Great built the city and a great harbor. "Herod spared nothing in his elaborate designs for the port facilities -- a major engineering feat at the time -- as well as for the city, which included palaces, temples, a theater, a marketplace, a hippodrome, and water and sewage systems. When it was completed 12 years later, only Jerusalem outshone the splendor of Caesarea. Its population under Herod grew to around l00,000, larger than that of Jerusalem; the city was spread over some 164 acres." (Caroline Haberfeld, Fodor's Israel, p. 199).
When Judea was ruled by the Romans, the prefects or governors resided in Caesarea. "The Romans annexed Judaea in 6 B.C., and made Caesarea the headquarters of the provincial governor and his administration. Of these governors Pontius Pilate was one. At first the province was known as Judaea, later Palestina." (Grenville, The Holy Land, p. 135).
The Jews and Greek-speaking population repeatedly clashed, with hostilities exploding in the Jewish revolt of 66 A.D. -- the pagans massacred most of the Jewish population. The first Jewish rebellion was squelched by Vespasian and it was in this city that the Roman legions proclaimed him emperor in 69 A.D. A year later Vespasian's son, Titus, captured and destroyed Jerusalem. After 70 A.D., Caesarea became a Roman colony and the local Roman capital of Palestine for nearly 600 years.
Caesarea continued to be of commercial importance until after the Crusades -- it was from here that the Polos set out in the 13th century for their travels to the court of the Great Khan of the Mongols in far-off Peking (Beijing, China).
Archaeologists began work on Caesarea Maritima in 1873 and the work continues even today. "Although the total excavation work may seem minimal -- the overall area of the ancient city was 8,000 acres and only 5 have been dug -- architectural and artifactual discoveries have been voluminous." (Rousseau and Arav, Jesus and His World, p. 31).
"It is almost impossible to imagine the splendor of the city and harbor, where the less noble building material was white limestone. Mosaic sidewalks, with long rows of columns, led from the city to the theater. Thousands of columns standing in parallel rows along the main streets formed majestic promenades throughout the city. More than 1,300 column fragments were found on the bottom of the harbor alone. They were made of marble imported from Italy and Egypt; columns of pink granite came from Aswan. Large slabs covered streets and sidewalks. Maritime trade was extensive: large warehouses facing the harbor contained amphorae of garum (a sauce made of decaying herrings seasoned with spices, which was much liked by the Romans), wine, olive oil, fruit syrups, and nails. The presence of Chinese porcelain attests to the geographical reach of Herod's commercial activities." (Jesus and His World, p. 33).
Among the remains at Caesarea you will find a Roman theater which could seat 4500 spectators. Through the years this theater has been remolded and rebuilt several times. In 1962 the "Pontius Pilate Stone" was discovered, which provides tangible evidence of Pilate's presence in Judea in Jesus' time and gives clarification of his title -- prefect (see: Matt. 27:2, 24; Mark 15:1, 5, 15, 44; Luke 3:1; 13:1; 23:12, 52; John 18:29, 33; 19:8-19, 38; Acts 3:13; 4:27; 13:28). "Just inside the theater's main gate is proof that one of the Roman rulers who resided here was Pontius Pilate governor of Judea when Jesus was crucified. It is the only archaeological evidence of the governor's presence in Palestine. The fragmented Latin inscription on a mounted plaque, a replica of the original in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, is believed to say that 'Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judaea, built and dedicated the Tiberieum [probably a temple or shrine dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius] to the Divine Augustus.'" (Haberfeld, Fodor's Israel, p. 200).
Another notable site at Caesarea is the Herodian Harbor, Sebastos. "The 1st-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus glowingly described the wonders of Sebastos and compared it to Athens's port of Piraeus; once the underwater ruins were explored, it became clear that what had been long dismissed by many historians as hyperbole was as Josephus described it. Its construction was an unprecedented challenge; never before had such a large artificial harbor been built. There was a total absence of islands or bays as natural protection, furthermore, work was hindered by bad weather. During preliminary underwater digs in 1978, archaeologists were stunned to discover concrete blocks near the breakwater offshore, an indication of the highly sophisticated use of hydraulic concrete, which hardens underwater. Though historians knew that the Romans had developed such techniques, before the discoveries at Caesarea, hydraulic concrete was never known to have been used on such a massive scale. The main ingredient in the concrete, volcanic ash, was probably imported from Mt. Vesuvius in Italy; it is likely that the wooden forms were, too." (Haberfeld, Fodor's Israel, p. 201). This port was devastated by an earthquake in 130 A.D.
There are no natural sources of water at Caesarea and the demand for water during the Roman occupation was considerable. The Roman legions built an aqueduct to bring water from the foothills of Mt. Carmel, about eight miles away. A channel four miles long was cut through natural rock and for the remaining four miles water was piped into an aqueduct.
With this brief background let us look at a few New Testament events which took place at Caesarea.
An angel of God told Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, to send for Peter who was living 30 miles away at Joppa (Acts 10:1-5). As Peter traveled north from Joppa into Caesarea he would have had to pass by the Roman theater which was located on the south end of town.
It was in this great theater that Herod Agrippa was smitten by an angel of the Lord (Acts 12:20-23). As you read the following quote from Flavius Josephus, try to keep in mind the proximity of Tyre and Sidon to Caesarea.
"Now, when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato's Tower; and there he exhibited shows in honor of Caesar, upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival, a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another (though not for his good), that he was a god; and they added, 'Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.' Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery." (Josephus, Antiq. 19.8.2). According to Josephus, Herod did not die immediately -- he suffered for five days.
The apostle Paul visited Caesarea on many occasions. When the brethren found that the Hellenists sought to kill Paul "they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him out to Tarsus" (Acts 9:30). This city was also Paul's port of landing on his return from his second and third journeys (Acts 18:22; 21:7-8).
Claudius Lysias sent Paul to Caesarea with the protection of 70 horsemen-along with 200 soldiers and another 200 spearmen who went as far as Antipatris (Acts 23:23-35). In Caesarea Paul gave his defense speech before Felix (Acts 24:10-21) and during his two year imprisonment he preached to Felix and Drusilla (Acts 24:22-27) and later to King Agrippa (Acts 26:1-32). When questioned by Festus, he appealed his case unto Caesar (Acts 25:10-12) and set sail for Italy from here (Acts 27:1-3ff).