A monumental gate and dedicatory inscription in Latin are among the finds unearthed at the vast Roman military encampment discovered at Legio, near Tel Megiddo in northern Israel. The huge gate led to the principia, or headquarters.
The existence of the camp categorically proves the assumption, which had been based on multiple sources, that ancient Rome maintained a massive military presence in the Galilee some 1,900 years ago.
The camp at Legio (also known as Lajjun) dates to the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. Today covered by crops, then it was home to the famous Sixth Legion.
The Legio camp is the only full-scale imperial Roman legionary base found so far in the eastern empire, Matthew J. Adams, director of the W.F. Albright Institute and co-director of the dig, told Haaretz.
Camps of the sort are familiar from the western empire, and given the extent of local Roman presence, other major bases are likely to eventually be found in the east.
For example, a full-scale Roman Legion was known to have been based in Aelia Capitolina, the colony Emperor Hadrian had built on the ruins of Jerusalem following the city’s destruction in 70 C.E. However, that legion’s base hasn’t been found, at least yet.
The base that has been found, at Legio, was about 300 by 500 meters in area and housed the Legio VI Ferrata, a.k.a. the “Ironclads,” a.k.a. the Roman Sixth Legion.
The legion’s task was to secure Rome’s hold over Syria-Palaestina, guard vital imperial roads, and maintain order in the region. It was probably also involved in quelling Jewish uprisings, such as the fateful Bar-Kokhba Revolt that began in 132 C.E. and would end three years later, in categorical Roman victory.
Meanwhile, the camp by Tel Megiddo, which has been explored from 2014 to 2017 by Dr. Yotam Tepper of Haifa University and the Israel Antiquities Authority, sheds light on how the Roman army organized its affairs in the east as well.
The bloody history of the Ironclad Legion
The entire might of Rome was based on its legions. These were independent units, each a complete army in itself, rather than a specialized portion of a greater force.
Sometimes legions fought together, merging their resources and strength under a central command, as when four legions combined under Titus for the siege of Jerusalem, 70 C.E. to crush the Jewish rebels once and for all. But usually each legion stood alone with its individual commission of duty.
The number of legions serving Rome varied at different times, from 25 or less to as many as 33. Likewise, the number of soldiers comprising the legion fluctuated from about 4,000 to 6,000. In the second and third centuries C.E., the force usually numbered 5,000.
In the Levant that long ago, around 1,900 years, cities with 5,000 people would be considered large.
As for this region specifically, by the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 C.E.), two imperial legions were stationed in the consular province of Judea: the Legio X Fretensis in Aelia Capitolina, and Legio VI Ferrata in the Galilee – the so-called “Ironclad” Legion.
“The Sixth Roman Legion Ferrata had a great and bloody history going back to the days when Julius Caesar first recruited it in northern Italy,” says Barry Strauss, professor of History and Classics at Cornell University. “The legion fought in some of Caesar’s most famous battles in what are today France, Greece and Turkey, including the victory that Caesar immortalized with the words, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.'”
Originally stationed in Syria, the Ironclad Region had served under Marcus Antonius. Commonly known as Marc Antony, the Roman general was famed for military exploits and his close relationship with Julius Caesar, following whose death he ruled Rome as part of a trimvurate, with Caesar’s adopted son Octavian and another general, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.
Octavian took over command of the Ironclads after the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E. For his part, Antony was also famed for marrying Emperor Octavian’s sister Octavia but was especially famed for committing adultery with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. He would die in 30 B.C.E.
In any case, the legion had moved from Syria to the Legio base well before the Bar-Kokhba revolt in 132 C.E. Legio is quite near the Jewish-Samaritan village of Kefar ‘Othnay, where an excavation conducted by Tepper, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, revealed the earliest Christian prayer hall in the Holy Land (dating to the early third century C.E.), and perhaps in the entire region.
The prayer hall may well have served early converts to Christianity among the Roman centurions, Tepper says. This Sixth Legion also fought for Septimius Severus, the winner in the civil war of 193 C.E., who would rule as Roman emperor from that year to 211.
By the time Constantine took power in 306 C.E., the legion had been relocated to what is today, Jordan. But wherever it was based, it was sent to serve as needed: from road-building duty in North Africa to fighting in various eastern campaigns in Armenia and Mesopotamia, says Strauss. But before that, through much of the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E., the fearsome Legio VI Ferrata was stationed in Judea.
Consulting the Sacred Eagle
The 2017 summer excavation season unearthed the monumental gate to the military base headquarters, the so-called principia. The principia was the heart of the Roman military base, a huge complex some 100 meters by 100 meters. Grand in size and in design, it had a huge colonnaded façade as well as a grand colonnade inside. “The principia was not just the legionary commander’s headquarters; it was also the legion’s shrine. It included an open courtyard that housed a sanctuary for the legion’s standards, the revered symbol of the unit,” Strauss told Haaretz.
The sacred eagle of the legion, which was venerated during daily activities, was held in a room in the back center. When a commander or a priest was performing aguere, i.e., consulting the birds, hoping for omens in preparation for battle, all was performed in the principia. How the birds’ vocalizations were interpreted is not clear. The principia was also the site of the treasury, the armory, and was where the scribes worked.
In front of the gate, the archaeologists found a stone mark, a typical decoration on the the principia façade – and a dedicatory inscription. “The inscription contains several names, all with the name Flavius in them,” Teppers says, adding that the inscription is badly damaged and broken, and is still undergoing investigation – which doesn’t stop us from speculating that inscription could have been erected to mark the building’s construction. It could be listing camp commanders, or celebrating heroes of the Sixth Legion, Adams suggests.
Latrines yield golden nuggets
Another remarkable find was the discovery of the military headquarters’ latrines, which, whatever else they had held, were rich in material. Mainly, in the sewers underneath the latrine, the excavators found numerous Roman coins, as well as glass, pottery and animal bones. No, they had not been excreted. “This is where much of the garbage of the camp inevitably ended up,” Adams explains.
Over 200 Roman coins dating to the 2nd and 3rd century C.E. have been unearthed in the dig. The excavators also found a man-made cave dug inside the Legio base. Inside it, they found a Roman cooking pot with the remains of a cremated individual, probably a soldier. “Cremation burials in cooking pots were a common practice among Roman soldiers at that time. We found this kind of burial all around the site,” Tepper told Haaretz.
Finding one’s final resting place in a cooking pot was not atypical of Roman burial practices at other Roman military sites, in Israel and around the Mediterranean, Tepper added. Excavations in previous seasons, in 2013 and 2015, unearthed large numbers of ceramic roofing tiles bearing the mark of the Sixth Ironclad Legion, and even some bearing the footprints from the legendary legionnaires’ sandals.
The archaeologists also found fragments of scale armor, hollow headed nails that had been attached to the soldiers’ sandals, clay pipes, sewer channels, and several buildings, all of which attest to the high level of planning at the site.
Its end was well planned too. Towards the end of the 3rd century C.E., during the reign of Diocletian, the Ironclad Legion was redeployed to the eastern frontier and the base was decommissioned and dismantled.