Ancient culture and revelry revealed in new finds

Archaeological dig in Gush Etzion reveals Herod’s private theater, restored at Herodion.

Goddess of Fortune 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Goddess of Fortune 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Summertime and the living is easy – or at least it was a couple of thousand years ago, judging by two finds revealed by archeologists this week.
On the eastern shores of Lake Kinneret, a fresco of Tyche, the Greek goddess of fortune, was uncovered along with a figure of a maenad, one of the companions of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, while in Gush Etzion a royal box has been restored at King Herod’s private theater at Herodion National Park.
RELATED:Excavation uncovers evidence supporting mosaic Jerusalem mapByzantine bathhouse found near Sderot
The box, situated at the center of the theater’s upper section, used to be fully open to the stage and offered the best seats in the building, reserved for the king and his guests.
The excavation of the box was conducted by Prof. Ehud Netzer, under the auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Institute of Archaeology.
Netzer was immediately struck by an intricate pattern of wall paintings and plaster moldings in a style unusual for Israeli art at that time.
“There should be no doubt whatsoever that the box was decorated by Italian artists, sent to Herod probably by Marcus Agrippa who, before he visited the region in 15-10 BCE, had met with Herod on the famous Greek island of Lesbos; 15 BCE is also our dating of the theater, which, of course, is not coincidental,” Netzer told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Herod’s fascination with Italian art went hand in hand with his love for the lavish lifestyle it symbolized, Netzer said.
Though Herod was born a Jew, he came from the tribe of Edomites, who were forced to convert under the Maccabees around 130 BCE.
“Herod therefore was kosher, but not too kosher,” Netzer laughed, adding that “Herod’s compromise of the Jewish Law can be seen in his decoration of the royal box, which contains scenes of the countryside, the Nile River, a large boat with sails, but also trees, animals and human beings. Since Herodion was built in the countryside, I presume that Herod’s guests were of the liberal sort.”
The data accumulated during the excavations indicate that the theater was used for less than 10 years.
“It surprised us to discover that the glory of this impressive building, which must have cost Herod a fortune, was in the end short-lived,” Netzer said. “It seems to have been deliberately destroyed shortly before Herod’s death [in 4 BCE] in order to preserve the conic shape of the artificial hill that surrounds it. It is also quite possible that Herod did not want anyone to enjoy the theater after his death, but that remains a pure speculation.”
The Israel Museum in Jerusalem is restoring the site, which should be reopened to the public next year.
Netzer revealed to the Post that the royal box was actually discovered in 2008 together with the theater, but that the Hebrew University needed to find a sponsor who would make sure that a special protective structure is put around the room to ensure its preservation for future generations.
The Tyche fresco find announced by the University of Haifa is believed to date to the beginning of the Byzantine period, between the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.
According to Greek mythology, maenads were “groupies” who followed Dionysus while dancing furiously and carrying a thyrsus, a phallic device that symbolizes sexuality and fertility.
Prof. Arthur Segal and Dr.
Michael Eisenberg of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa said that although the private residence where the finds were dug up existed during the Byzantine period, when Christianity was adopted and wiped out idol worship, remnants of such beliefs remained.
The residence is believed to have belonged to one of the city’s elites. Excavators came across an inner courtyard with a fountain inside, and next to the fountain they found the fresco of Tyche, who they believe was revered by the city as their goddess of fortune.
Shortly thereafter, they uncovered the maenad nearby.
The Sussita excavations have been carried out for the past 11 years within the Sussita National Park, and are being assisted by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.