Cryptic Golan milestone found to be monument to low-born Roman emperor’s reign

Cryptic Golan milestone found to be monument to low-born Roman emperor’s reign

Discovered in a Moshav Ramot garden, once-indecipherable 1,800-year-old road marker near Sea of Galilee offers proof of the brief 3rd-century rule of Maximinus Thrax

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Haifa University researchers inspect the Roman milestone at Moshav Ramot bearing the name of Emperor Maximinus Thrax. (Susita Excavation/Haifa University)
Haifa University researchers inspect the Roman milestone at Moshav Ramot bearing the name of Emperor Maximinus Thrax. (Susita Excavation/Haifa University)

A Roman-era milestone found in the garden of a Moshav Ramot resident is proof of the brief reign of a commoner who would be king. According to a Haifa University press release, the name of Roman Emperor Maximinus Thrax was deciphered last month from a Greek inscription, chiseled into a large cylindrical milestone some 1,800 years ago, that defied understanding for decades.

The massive stone markers were placed every 1.5 kilometers, a little under a mile, along the 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) of Roman roads laid in Israel. This new milestone is one of three that were rediscovered in 2018 at Moshav Ramot, a small agricultural community in the Golan Heights that lies upon a 2,000-year-old Roman road leading from the ancient city of Sussita (Hippos) toward the Golan.

After several years during which the milestone served as a garden ornament following the 1967 Six Day War and numerous attempts to decipher the inscription — including high-tech 3-D imaging of the stone — the name of Maximinus Thrax was discerned by Dr. Gregor Staab from Cologne University using old school methods: paper rubbings. Because of the uneven surface of the basalt milestone, the inscription was crude at best and it took months of work to decipher, said Dr. Michael Eisenberg, a director of the Sussita-Hippos Excavations Project.

Staab, a Greek epigrapher, is a relatively new addition to a team of archaeologists working on a 20-year ongoing excavation of the ancient city of Sussita (Hippos), on the eastern border of the Sea of Galilee. The large-scale research project aims to examine the life of the Roman/Byzantine era city as well as its interactions — agricultural and otherwise — with the surrounding villages.

Haifa University researcher Dr. Michael Eisenberg inspects the Roman milestone at Moshav Ramot bearing the name of Emperor Maximinus Thrax. (Susita Excavation/Haifa University)

Through the use of new mapping algorithms, Haifa University archaeologists Eisenberg, Dr. Mechael (Mickey) Osband, and research assistant Adam Pazout decided to make a search of Moshav Ramot for evidence of a Roman road in the area. The milestone, said the archaeologists in a press release, would have been placed along the road leading from Sussita to the Banias in the Golan.

The discovery of the inscription citing the name of Maximinus Thrax is significant in that it paints a clearer picture of the Roman roadway of the final days of the empire, said Eisenberg in conversation with The Times of Israel, and adds a deeper layer to understanding the region.

“The milestone gives us some data concerning movements, transportation and connections between the city and the surrounding settlements,” said Eisenberg.

The deciphered inscription of the Moshav Ramot milstone bearing the name of Emperor Maximinus Thrax. (Sussita Excavation/Haifa University)

At its core, the milestone did not only serve as a signpost, said Eisenberg, but also as tangible evidence of the empire’s stability during a time of internal strife. “Principally, the milestone was used as propaganda,” he said.

“The Roman administration demonstrated its control through the main traffic arteries under the auspices of the past and present imperial rulers, through the formula: ‘You are safe under our protection, but do not forget that it is only under the Roman empire’s wings,'” said Eisenberg in the press release.

Marble portrait of Maximinus Thrax, who ruled the Roman Empire in 235–238 CE. (public domain via wikipedia)

Born to a lowborn family in circa 173, Maximinus is described by Roman historians as a “barbarian” and even a leader of bandits prior to his military service. From a common soldier, he rose through the ranks and eventually came to lead the famed Legio IV Italica. Eventually the elite Praetorian Guard elected him emperor in 235 CE, which was confirmed by the Senate.

But his rule did not last long. In 238, the “Year of the Six Emperors,” while marching on tumultuous Rome his troops deserted him and he and his son were assassinated by a rogue unit; their heads paraded on poles.

Before his far-away gruesome death, Maximinus was immortalized on a milestone used as a marker on an existing road that perhaps underwent renovations during his reign. Unusually, the marker was found north of the Sea of Galilee, according to a press release from Haifa University.

“Since the road itself was built in a much earlier period, the name of the emperor is apparently indicative of extensive renovations that took place during that period, when the Roman Empire was in decline and extensive construction works of this sort become increasingly rare,” said Eisenberg in the release.

Aerial view of the Sussita excavations. (Sussita Excavation/Haifa University)

According to the 1983 article “The Roman Road System in Judea” by archaeologist Prof. Israel Roll, over 40 highways and about 1,500 kilometers of Roman roadway were laid out in the province of Judaea extending north of Beersheba, between the mid-1st to mid-4th centuries. “The road network may be considered the most construction project of the imperial administration of Judaea,” wrote Roll. He added that the growth of Roman Palestina was a result of the roadway’s construction, and not vice versa.

Since 1970, researchers working with The Israel Milestone Committee (IMC) have attempted to “carry out a systematic survey of all the extant remains related to roads, in order to provide a comprehensive picture of the Roman road network in Israel,” according to the IMC website.

According to the website, exploration of the Roman road-network began with a mapping project in the 1870s completed by the Palestinian Exploration Fund. The committee’s work continues, including a digitalization of all milestone inscriptions. Eisenberg lauded the IMC’s continued work and this new Maximinus inscription will soon likewise join the digital archive.

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