Mosaics and rare frescos discovered in Sepphoris, close to Jesus’ reported hometown of Nazareth, cast new light on Roman Galilee, where Jesus and his father, Joseph, are said to have worked.
The Roman city of Sepphoris that sat on a hill was always renowned for its beauty. First-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus hailed it as the “ornament of the Galille” (Ant. 18.2.1).
Now hundreds of fragments belonging to frescoes from the Roman period, have been discovered by a team of archaeologist excavating in Zippori National Park (ancient Sepphoris), just 6.5 km northwest of Nazareth, the town where Jesus was said to have been brought up.
After the death of Herod the Great, likely in 1 BC, the citizens of Sepphoris revolted against Rome, resulting in the destruction of their city. Herod’s son Antipas inherited Galilee and Peraea and selected the ruins of Sepphoris as the location of his new capital.
The city was rebuilt with Greco-Roman architectural veneer, decorated with colorful frescoes in geometric and floral patterns that now been brought to light by the archaeologist.
The newly discovered fragments, which contain figurative images, floral patterns and geometric motifs, shed light on Sepphoris, which was the nerve center for the governments control of Galilee and Pereas, until Antipas built Tiberias in about 21 AD to replace Sepphoris as the capital. However, the city remained an important urban center for the Jews of the Galilee during late Roman and Byzantine periods.
The frescoes decorated a monumental building that was erected in the early second century AD north of the decumanus, a colonnaded street that cut across the city from east to west and continued to the foot of the Acropolis. The building, whose function is not clear at this stage of excavation, spread over a wide area, and the nature of the artifacts discovered indicate that it was an important public building.
In the center of the building was a stone-paved courtyard and side portico decorated with stucco. West and north of the courtyard, several underground vaults were discovered. Some of these were used as water cisterns and were of high quality construction. The monumental building was built on the slope and the vaults were designed to allow the construction of the superstructure located on the level of the decumanus.
The monumental building was dismantled in the third century AD for reasons that are unclear, and was replaced by another public building, larger than its predecessor, parts of which were uncovered during this season. The monumental building’s walls were dismantled in antiquity and its building materials — stone and plaster, some colorful — were buried under the floors of a newly established Roman building on the same location. Hundreds of plaster fragments discovered during this excavation season were concentrated in one area, and it seems that they belong to one or several rooms from the previous building.
The patterns on the plaster fragments are varied and are decorated in many colors. Among them are geometric patterns (guilloche) and brightly colored wall panels. Other fragments contain floral motifs (light shaded paintings on red backgrounds or various colors on a white background).
Particularly important are the pieces which depict figures — the head of a lion, a horned animal (perhaps a bull?), a bird, a tiger’s hindquarters and more — usually on a black background. At least one fragment contains a depiction of a man bearing a club. Research on these pieces is in its early stages but it is already clear that at least one room in the building was decorated with figurative images, possibly depicting exotic animals and birds in various positions.
Sepphoris: A window into Roman Galilee
The traditional capital of the Galilee had always been Sepphoris and prior excavations have uncovered a huge and remarkable Hellenistic city. The theater and the mosaics have offered up evidence how Greco-Romanized the first-century city had become.
Although Antipater rebuilt Galilee’s ancient capital in a Greco-Roman architectural veneer, the population was mainly Jewish. However, mosaics discovered inside luxurious villas reveals that the Jews living there were heavily influenced by Greco-Roman culture and could probably speak Greek.
In one-villa archaeologist uncovered panels that framed a dining room depicting a drinking rivalry between Bacchus and Hercules. Bacchus (Dionysus) was the god of wine and drinking.
In another villa the archaeologist uncovered depicted a woman, now called “the Mona Lisa of the Galilee”
The city of thirty thousand was in full reconstruction during Jesus adolescence, and since it was no more then an hour´s walk from Nazareth, Jesus and his father; Joseph (who were tradesmen) may have worked there, just an hour’s walk from Nazareth.
The Gospels do not give us an answer. The Anchor Bible Dictionary notes, however, that “one logical route from Nazareth to Cana of Galilee ran through Sepphoris.” (John 2:1, 4:46) From Nazareth, the hill of Sepphoris can be seen, rising almost 400 feet [120 m] above the valley floor. Some believe that when Jesus gave the illustration that “a city cannot be hid when situated upon a mountain,” he possibly had this city in mind.
After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Sepphoris became the principal Jewish city in Galilee and later the site of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court. For a time, it flourished as a center of Jewish learning.
The construction of the Roman city of Sepphoris after the Great Revolt, in the late first century and the second century AD, is indicative of a change in the attitude of Galilean Jews toward Rome and its culture.
The new finds in Sepphoris contribute significantly to the research of Roman art in Israel. To date, excavators uncovered the walls of several public and private buildings from Roman Sepphoris (second and third centuries AD) which were decorated with colorful frescoes in geometric and floral patterns. This season’s finds are the first, only and earliest evidence of figurative images in wall paintings at the site. The finds date to the beginning of the second century AD. Parallels to these finds are virtually unknown at other Israeli sites of the same period.