Roman and Late Roman Period Questions
By Benjamin Gordon
The occupation of Shimron in the Roman and Byzantine periods is indicated by the survey data (Raban 1982; Feig 2007, 2009) and a few passing mentions in early Jewish sources, where it is referred to as a village named Simonias in Greek (Josephus, Life 115) and Simonia in Rabbinic Hebrew or Aramaic (PT Kilayim 2:8, 28b; PT Yebamot 12:6, 13a). The rabbis of the Palestinian Talmud show awareness that Simonia is the same place that was conquered by Joshua in biblical lore (PT Megillah 1:1, 1a; i.e., ושמרון סימונייה, “and Shimron is Simonia…”). The town in this period would have fallen within the cultural and economic sphere of Sepphoris, which is located 4.5 km to its northeast. Shimron’s economy probably benefitted from commercial traffic on the Legio-Sepphoris road, which runs by the site and was paved as part of a Roman imperial initiative of apparently the early 2nd century CE (Isaac and Roll 1982; Strange 2014). The permanent encampment in 138 CE of the Sixth Roman Legion at Legio, a short journey of 7 km south along the Legio-Sepphoris road, would have introduced a significant Roman presence into Shimron’s immediate vicinity, at least through to the departure of the legion from the area at some point after the early third century CE. Its proximity to Bet Shearim and Nazareth may have impacted the character of its religious communities as it continued to be settled in Late Antiquity.
In addition to the Roman- and Byzantine-period ceramics identified in site surveys and excavations, the remains of a colonnaded structure were found on the northwestern slopes of the mound and suggested by Guérin to be of an ancient church; and by Klein, Mazar, Sukenik, and Ilan to be of an ancient synagogue (Raban 1982; Ilan 1991, 226). Based on a personal correspondence with Moshe Dayan, Ilan reports that a decorative stone bearing a seven-branched candelabrum was removed at some point from the site and brought to Nahalal, its whereabouts unknown to Dayan at the time of the correspondence (ibid.). Ilan also mentions an elaborate stone lintel (1.8 m wide) carved with two large floral elements (30 cm wide) and incorporated into the entranceway of a rock-cut tomb on the northern slope of the mound; he suggests that it originated in the village synagogue. In addition to these remains, a substantial ashlar wall southwest of the mound, along the junction of the modern Zarzir–Nahalal road, was tentatively identified as relating to the above-mentioned Roman road (Feig 2007); and a floor and floor-bedding discovered on the southwestern reaches of the mound indicates the presence of a domestic area there (Feig 2009). In addition to clarifying the nature of these remains, archaeological work at the site can address the following research questions relevant to the region in the Roman and Byzantine periods:
- Regional Development under Royal Judean Auspices: The development of the harbor and port city of Caesarea by Herod the Great in the final decades of the first century BCE would have had a significant impact on the quantity of goods moving through the Jezreel Valley. Shipments heading to Sepphoris—a city that experienced pronounced growth in the Early Roman period—would have passed directly by Shimron as they entered the Nazareth hills and Sepphoris hinterland. Herod’s primary building project in this area of the country consisted of the founding of the settlement of cavalry veterans at Gaba-Hippeon (Josephus, Ant. 15.294). If that site is to be identified with Tel Shosh, some 3 km northwest of Legio, one can expect the main Caesarea-Sepphoris commercial thoroughfare to have passed through it and onward past Shimron in the Early Roman period (Tsafrir et al. 1994, 125–126). Herod or another Judean monarch, possibly among his Hasmonean predecessors, may have promoted the settlement of Judeans at Shimron to help secure the trade route and natural entrance point into the Galilee from the southwest. Leibner has charted in the Eastern Galilee a process of total Judaization under the Hasmoneans, with those early Jewish settlements tending to be situated on hilltops for strategic reasons; this phase was followed by steady demographic growth in the Herodian period, with ethnically Judean settlements filling the Eastern Galilee and no longer on sites presenting some strategic advantage (2009a, 329–49). Whether Shimron was developed as part of a larger regional strategy under royal Hasmonean or Herodian auspices or grew organically together with the rest of the Galilee can be addressed only with more information on the chronology, size, extent, and location of the Early Roman settlement at the site.
- A Western Military Frontier and Battle Site: For many foreign armies or trade caravans heading inland from the Mediterranean via the Jezreel in the Roman period, Shimron may have been the first ethnically Judean village encountered. This can explain why Josephus garrisoned his troops there in the early stages of the First Jewish War with Rome. As told in his autobiography (Life 114–117), Josephus resisted engaging the Romans on the plain below, where his infantry would have suffered a crushing defeat by the Roman cavalry. He ultimately succeeded in rebuffing the enemy “on his own ground’—presumably the heights on which the village was situated and where the Roman cavalry would have been of little effect. Combat on the hill may have left some remains on archaeological record, in which case Shimron will offer a rare western and relatively early parallel to other battle sites on the northern war front such as Gamla and Yodefat (Aviam 2004, 110–22).
- Processes of Hellenization and Judaization: Shimron’s orientation westward toward the Jezreel and the coastal cities beyond the Carmel Ridge presents a different set of cultural factors and opportunities for interaction than those present in the eastern frontier of the region, where the nearby Decapolis league loomed large (Edwards 2007; Chancey 2014), and where there has been no shortage of recent archaeological investigation relevant to the Roman and Byzantine periods (e.g., Magdala, Huqoq, Kinneret, Hamam). New focus on this frontier can help shift the center of gravity in Roman Galilean studies from the region’s eastern half to its western. The recently launched University of Haifa project at Bet Shearim (Adi Erlich, director) is an additional component of the effort and will offer an important site for comparison. Does the material culture of its inhabitants fit the standard repertoire of the classic Galilean village—with its common Kefar Henanya and Shikhin wares, Jewish ritual baths, stone vessels, and taboo on swine consumption (Meyers and Chancey 2012, 135–38; Berlin 2014)—or does it present a more hybrid and culturally heterogeneous picture, explainable perhaps by its location on the margins of Jewish Galilee and its relative proximity to the Mediterranean coast?
- Economic Integration in the Roman Period: One can expect the economy and society of Roman Shimron to have largely existed within Sepphoris’s sphere of influence, though the village’s residents may have had more interaction on a daily basis with garrisoned Roman troops or veterans who settled locally near the camp at Legio. The town would have been particularly attractive to agriculturalists interested in developing larger operations revolving around monoculture. In a rabbinic discussion in the Palestinian Talmud involving the juxtaposition of different kinds of fields, the Valley of Simonia (בקעת סימוניא) is mentioned because it is unusually broad and flat (PT Kilayim 2:8, 28b). This rabbinic name for the Jezreel Valley is intriguing, for it suggests that Shimron’s farmers cultivated a significant if not dominant portion of the fields on the adjacent plain. Safrai (1994) has pointed to evidence of a rabbinic nostalgia for the more traditional subsistence strategies based around polycropping and household self-sufficiency—a nostalgia explainable by the slow infiltration of more integrated and large-scale economic systems into the region. Shimron’s local industry may have been at the forefront of these modernizing developments.
- Early Jewish Communal Life: Indeed, the best known Talmudic reference to the village suggests there once was an affluent Jewish community at Shimron. The reference comes in the humorous story of Rabbi Levi bar Sisi, who was sent to Shimron by his teacher, the great Rabbi Judah I, after the Jewish community of the town sought out a new rabbi and prayer-leader (PT Yebamot 12:6, 13a; with a parallel account in Genesis Rabbah 81:2; Levine 2005, 383, 436, 490). The community built for Levi bar Sisi a “great stage and seated him on it”; yet once in place the new rabbi found himself unable to answer even basic questions on matters of Jewish law and folklore. When summoned back to the bewildered Rabbi Judah I, bar Sisi related his stage fright to the affluence of the community over which he now presided: “They made a great stage and seated me on it,” he told the great rabbi, “and my spirit was exalted” (וטפח רוחי עלי; “my mind fermented on me” would be another translation). One can surmise that Shimron, with its proximity to the fertile fields of the Jezreel and to the Legio-Sepphoris road, would have had access to considerable economic resources and was as plausible a setting as any for this cautionary tale on extravagance. If the tale is any indication, there would have been at least one synagogue in the Roman-period village, and likely an impressively constructed one at that. Its remains may already have been identified in several early surveys of the site as mentioned above.
- Early Christian Communal Life: Yet in design terms the structure identified in those surveys could just as easily have been a church, and by Late Antiquity the Christian community at Shimron may have outnumbered its Jewish one. The nearby town of Bethlehem-of-Galilee (just 2 km to the northwest), for example, exhibits a finely built church, monastery, and inn, none of which merited that site a single mention in Christian sources of the Byzantine period. Shimron too may hide similarly extravagant early Christian architecture under its topsoil, despite the fact that its presence on the historical record of the period is limited to the rabbinic source material. Though the northwestern reaches of the Galilee contained the largest concentration of Christian communities in the Byzantine period, the Jezreel was far removed from the Jewish population centers of the Golan and Eastern Galilee (Aviam 2004, 9–21; Meyers and Chancey 2012, 174–202). Shimron could likely have had an active and robust Christian community in the Byzantine period or have been a stop along a pilgrimage route that included Nazareth.
- Economy and Crisis in Byzantine Galilee: The Gallus Revolt of 351 CE and the earthquake of 363 CE are often drawn upon by scholars as anchors for explaining processes of change and decline at sites across the region. The tendency has been called into question by Magness (2009; cf. Leibner 2009b). The debate revolves around the dating of the later types of Kefar Hananya and other ceramic wares based on their appearance in archaeological contexts alongside coins of the 4th century CE. Such coins have proven to be unreliable anchors given their continued circulation well into the 5th century CE if not beyond. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the 5th century is a relatively poorly understood period in terms of material culture. Further excavation at sites such as Shimron, with known settlement crossing the Roman and Byzantine eras, can help refine not only the relevant typologies in question but also our understanding of the broader societal impact of the crises of the mid-fourth century onto the centuries that followed.
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