In first, imperial Roman legionary camp uncovered near Megiddo
Unique find offers first opportunity to understand how the Roman military was organized in the eastern empire

In first, imperial Roman legionary camp uncovered near Megiddo

Archaeologists unearth remains of 2,000-year-old Galilee garrison of Sixth Legion Ferrata, where 5,000 men kept order at time of Bar Kochba Revolt — the only permanent Roman military camp ever discovered in region

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Remains of a Roman street from Legio, a military camp from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, next to Megiddo (courtesy)
Remains of a Roman street from Legio, a military camp from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, next to Megiddo (courtesy)

The remains of an imperial Roman legionary camp — the only one of its kind ever to be excavated in Israel or in the entirety of the Eastern Empire from the second and third centuries CE — have come to light at a dig near Megiddo, archaeologists said this week.

Legio, a Roman site situated next to Tel Megiddo in northern Israel, served as the headquarters of the Sixth Legion Ferrata — the Ironclad — in the years following the Jewish Revolt, and would have helped keep order in the Galilee during the Bar Kochba Revolt in 132-135 CE.

“It’s a very, very exciting find,” Yotam Tepper, co-director of the excavation and a field archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority specializing in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, said in a phone interview Monday.

The dig, now in its second season, was conducted by the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research with support from Israel Antiquities Authority as part of the Jezreel Valley Regional Project.

In the century following the Jewish Revolt in 66-70 CE, Rome garrisoned two imperial legions in Palestine to keep order, one in Jerusalem and a second in the Galilee. Until recently, the location of the castrum — Latin for a permanent military camp — housing the Sixth Legion was uncertain.

The erstwhile presence of a Roman legio was preserved in the name of an Arabic village nearby — Lajjun. But surveys and aerial studies of the site by Tepper in recent years pointed to the presence of a Roman military structure, and during the first season in 2013 the team found the first evidence of the military camp.

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This season’s excavations have unearthed large numbers of ceramic roofing tiles marked with the sign of the Sixth Ironclad Legion, clay pipes, sewer channels and several buildings, all of which attest to the high level of planning at the site.

“We’re talking about a large camp, an imperial camp, one of about 5,000 soldiers, about 300 meters by 500 meters (984 feet by 1,640 feet),” Tepper said. “These are things we wouldn’t have been able to say [about the site] two years ago.”

This month’s excavations at Legio have also yielded remains of some of the camp’s main streets and a large building — possibly a praetorium, a grand residence belonging to the commander of the fortress.

Tepper said the team had unearthed “a type of building which apparently was at the center of the camp and may have functioned as the commander’s house.”

The number of Roman military camps of this type found in the eastern half of the Roman Empire “is zero,” said Matthew J. Adams, head of the Albright Institute and co-director of the dig: “Our entire understanding about Roman military architecture, and especially Roman legionary bases for this particular period… comes from the western empire — Germany, Britain and Gaul.”

Remains of other Roman military installations, like the siege camp at Masada, were temporary, and of a smaller scale than the Megiddo castrum.

Roman legionaries from carving found in Glanum, southern France (CC BY-SA Ursus, Wikimedia Commons)
Roman legionaries from carving found in Glanum, southern France (CC BY-SA Ursus, Wikimedia Commons)

The new finds contribute to a better understanding of Roman military architecture and engineering, and are “rare and unique in the Roman East,” said Tepper, Adams and Jonathan David, deputy director of the JVRP, in a statement.

“In the aftermath of the first revolt, you had the beginnings of a lot of emigration of the Jewish population of Judea northward,” Adams explained. “The Galilee was increasingly the center of Jewish activity.”

In light of the bloody first century revolt which took Rome four years to crush, “probably one of the reasons that they brought the legion here at all was to garrison this unruly population,” Adams said.

Megiddo sits at a historic crossroads connecting the coastal road and the main highway running inland toward the Sea of Galilee and Damascus.

“Control of the Galilee can very much be had from this particular location, as it had been for centuries, that’s why Tel Megiddo is here from the Bronze Age onwards, ” he said.

The legionary fortress would have also served as “point zero” for development of Roman roads, aqueducts and other infrastructure in the Galilee during the second and third centuries, Tepper said. The location may have been chosen for its strategic position, as well as the presence of large sources of year-round water in the vicinity.

Legio served not only to protect but to project Roman power.

Adams noted that whereas the first Jewish revolt against Rome in the first century CE was waged in the Galilee and farther south in Judea, the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132 CE mostly took place in the hills near Jerusalem and comparatively less in the north.

“Considering the fact that the first revolt had a lot of its origins in the northern half of the country, it’s surprising that during the Bar Kochba Revolt the Galilee did not seem to be involved. And that’s probably because the Roman legion was here,” he said.

“This is the first time we had the opportunity to understand how the Roman military was organized, in terms of their settlement especially, in the eastern empire,” Adams said.

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