We are in the Judean lowland in the ancient settlement of Beit Guvrin, near Kibbutz Beit Guvrin and near the old city of Maresha. As with Maresha, Beit Guvrin is also located at a crossroads between the main cities of Judean mountains, Jerusalem and Hebron and the cities by the sea, those are Ashkelon and Gaza. In order to understand the historical context in the construction of the amphitheater which we will visit shortly – a brief historical review of Beit Guvrin:
In 40 BCE, after the Parthians destroy Maresha because of a conflict with Rome that is also linked to the conflict between Matthias Antigonus II, the last Hasmonean king, (Hasmoneans where a Jewish dynasty), and Herod the great. After Herod, under the backing of Rome, finally takes control of the region, the power shifts from Maresha to Beit Guvrin, while in parallel the Jewish population increases with time at Beit Guvrin.
A hundred years later, in the years of the great revolt between 66 and 70 CE, the settlement was severely damaged during Vespasian’s occupation of the city. Vespasian to be appointed shortly as the emperor of Rome, killed about 10,000 of the inhabitants of the place, and after the conquest and in light of the strategic location and the favorable conditions for parking troops, the Romans stationed a garrison in the city.
In the middle of the second century, after the Bar Kochba revolt, the city changed from a Jewish settlement to a Roman settlement with a diverse population. During this period, magnificent public buildings were built here, such as the amphitheater. Moving forward to the year 200, the emperor Lucius Septimius Severus granted Beit Guvrin the status of a polis. What does the status of a polis mean? It is a community that is linked to a geographical location that is political and autonomous.
The polis was a kind of “city-state” that provided for the communal needs of its inhabitants – defense, judgment, legislation, culture and religious worship, and in some cases also welfare and education services, although these services were rare in the ancient world as a service provided by the community or government. The new official name of the city was Eleutheropolis – the city of the freedom. The city had the largest area of control in comparison to all cities in the province.
During the Byzantine period the status of Eleutheropolis became even more important. It was an important Christian center; the bishop location was here and it was one of the five largest cities in the Land of Israel and also there was a large Jewish community here. The city also appears on the map of Madaba as a large city surrounded by a wall, with public buildings and churches.
From here the city started to experience a decline.
During the Arab period, Eleutheropolis declined from its greatness, and its name changed by the Arabs to “Beit Gobrin”.
In 1099, the Crusaders conquered the land of Israel. As part of their defense against enemy forces, the Crusaders built a number of fortresses, one of which is the Giblin Fortress in Guvrin.
We are in this impressive Roman amphitheater. The amphitheater is a kind of an amusement facility whose activity was accompanied by bloodshed for the enjoyment of the thousands of spectators. What are the different types of fighting that took place here? So, gladiator fights, which are professional fighters who fought each other, and the winners were rewarded with money and great honor. There was human-animal hunter combat, and also battles of prey animals during which humans, armed or naked, chained or free, were thrown into the arena.
Who watched these horror shows? They were especially liked by the soldiers of the Roman legions, and it seems that amphitheaters were built in cities near which units of the Roman army were stationed.
The amphitheater was part of the Roman culture. Other amphitheaters were found in Beit Shean, Caesarea and Nablus. The elliptical structure is on a flat area on which a huge vault was built in an oval shape. The facility here included 11 rows of seats, and a total space for 3,500 spectators.
Under the arena in the longitudinal and transverse axes, underground passages were discovered, which were designed to hide the prey animals under the surface of the arena, and to allow their rapid entry by means of inclined ramps. On the eastern side you can see a horizontal surface, this is the stand of honor, where the director of the games sat and commanded the course of events.
A similar stage was also in the western part of the facility, this part has been covered in recent years with modern seats for holding events and shows.
On the west side of the vault is an altar, which was probably used as a place of worship for the contestants before they entered the ring. What is interesting is that about 100 intact candles and several hundred candle fragments were found, including 2 fragments decorated with a menorah, the national symbol of the Jews in the Roman and Byzantine periods.
So yes, there were also Jewish gladiators. But not only professional fighters appeared in the amphitheater arena. Many of them were rebels, criminals or various slaves, and this was a way to pass their sentence. It is likely that there were also Jewish gladiators, who were perceived as opposing the Roman government, especially following the Bar Kochba revolt.
Many of the Jewish captives who survived the hard battles, found their cruel death here, when they were thrown helplessly towards the beasts of prey.
Most of the stone seats of the facility were taken during the Arab period, some were incorporated into secondary construction, and others were apparently thrown into the kilns, where they were burned in order to produce lime. The amphitheater in Beit Guvrin functioned until the second half of the fourth century.
Apparently, the facility was destroyed in the severe earthquake that struck the country in 363, and has not been restored since.
We’ve reached the end, and, as usual I have a question for you – what is the largest Roman Amphitheatre in the world and in which city it is located. The answer will appear at the end of the video.