Part of the theater found at the Hippos excavation site.Part of the theater found at the Hippos excavation site.Part of the theater found at the Hippos excavation site. (Photo: Dr. Michael Eisenberg)

What were Romans really doing in this theater? (Hint: not watching plays!)

The theater found in Hippos is believed to have been used for rituals rather than entertainment.

Between the 3rd century BCE and the 7th century AD, Hippos was an important Greco-Roman city that sat little more than a mile away from the Sea of Galilee in Northern Israel.

For the past 18 years, archaeologists have been conducting a large-scale excavation at the site where the city once stood. They have made several major discoveries, but one had eluded them; the lack of a theater perplexed them.

Now they've finally found it – and it's changing everything they thought they knew about the city and its inhabitants.

An aerial view of the Hippos excavation site in 2009.An aerial view of the Hippos excavation site. (Photo: Haifa University via Getty Images)

Found outside the city walls, the theater was believed to be used for pagan rituals rather than for entertainment purposes like many of the theaters in Roman cities of the time. Archaeologists based their theory on other major discoveries made in the vicinity of where the theater was found.

In 2015 they uncovered the unique bronze mask of the god Pan. And last year they located a monumental gate on which the mask must have been placed and a public bathhouse.

These findings led them to assume that the gate formed the entrance to a large compound, perhaps a ritual site devoted to Pan or the god of wine Dionysus, who were often worshiped together.

"All these findings suggest that this was a large sanctuary outside the city – something that completely changes what we knew about Hippos and the surrounding area until now," said Dr. Michael Eisenberg, who heads the Hippos Excavations Project and is a professor at the University of Haifa, on the Mediterranean coast of Israel.

"If our hypothesis is correct, it is quite possible that thousands of visitors to the theater came not to see the latest show in town, but to take part in rituals honoring one of the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon."

Workers at the excavation site, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee, found the theater outside the city walls.Workers at the excavation site, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee, found the theater outside the city walls. (Photo: Hippos-Sussita Excavations Project Facebook)

The reason the archaeologists were so puzzled by the absence of a theater in the first place was that, as Eisenberg said, it's "simply unthinkable" a Roman city during the period wouldn't have had one.

"Some researchers suggested that the small odeon we uncovered might have served as a substitute for the theater, given the small size of the city, but we knew that this was not the case," said Eisenberg. "Arthur Segal, a professor who headed the Hippos project for many years and is a leading expert on the subject of theaters in the Roman East, insisted that there must be a theater in the city."

Now they've found it, and it appears to have been worth the wait.

MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE:

Photos and SlideshowsPhotos and Slideshows

Related Topics: Architecture

comments powered by Disqus