The “Theater” at the Herodium

On a recent trip to Israel, we had a chance to visit the Herodium, the famous “volcanic-shaped” mound that is located about 7.6 miles south of Jerusalem and 3.5 miles southeast of Bethlehem.

The extensive excavations carried out by Ehud Netzer have been continued in recent years. In addition, before and during the pandemic, many restorations have been made and newly excavated areas have been prepared to receive visitors. One such area is the “theater.”

View of the north slope of the Herodium.

In the image above, note the modern building on the slope of the Herodium that has three tall windows. This building protects the “Royal Box” and the theater is located just below it. See the following diagram.

A model looking southeast showing the structures on the northern slope of the Herodium.

There have been a number of interesting developments at the Herodium since I last visited the site. One of them was that the “theater” (I think odeum is a better term—given its small size) has been reconstructed.

View looking down at the partially reconstructed “Royal Theater” at the Herodium.

Herod built his small theater (possibly better called an “odeum?”) on the northern slope of the Herodium.  It had a stage (skene) with semicircular rows of seating (cavea) facing it and entrances at both the top and bottom of the structure.  The upper and lower sections of seating are separated by a wider horizontal aisle (diazoma), and three staircases connected them. A total of thirteen rows of stone seats accommodated an audience of about three hundred.

The theater was discovered in 2008 and a “Royal Box” with secco and stucco decorations featured in it. A modern building was constructed to protect these precious finds and for many years we could peek into the building and take photos of some of the frescos—but the building was not open to the public.

View of the small theater (odeum) at the Herodium—before the more recent restoration.

This picture was taken from the stage (skene) area of the theater.  The semi-circular orchestra area is in the lower portion of the image.

In the center of the image, the semicircular rows of seating (cavea) are visible—before the recent reconstruction. A total of thirteen rows of stone seats accommodated an audience of about three hundred.

Above the cavea is a modern building with three large windows.  This building protects the well-preserved remnants of the Royal Reception Hall.  This was a two-story structure that overlooked the theater.  The Royal Box was decorated with stucco reliefs and colorful wall paintings. The theater and room were probably redecorated in anticipation of the visit of Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’s right-hand man, in 15 or 14 BC.

On this visit, it was great to be able to enter the restored “Royal Box.”

View looking into the central room of the interior of the “Royal Chambers of the “Royal Theater” at the Herodium.

Here in the Royal Box the king could host his guests and offer them refreshments before or during the performances.

This central room was decorated with plaster reliefs and colorful wall paintings.  The theater and room were probably redecorated in anticipation of the visit of Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’s right-hand man, in 15 or 14 BC.  The walls have evidence of at least two layers of frescos.

The walls have three longitudinal registers.  The walls of the Royal Room were decorated with wall paintings in the secco technique [painting on dry plaster] and stuccowork.  

The bottom register was decorated with lively-colored frescos with “margins” that imitate Herodian masonry.

The middle register was divided vertically by stuccowork pilasters and decorated with painted ‘hanging pictures’ that were suspended by imaginary ‘strings’ and ‘nails.’  The pictures imitate windows with open shutters affording views of imaginary landscapes.  These scenes evidently stressed the achievements of Augustus and Marcus Agrippa—for example, the victory at the Battle of Actium, the conquest of Egypt, etc. 

The upper register was composed of stucco reliefs.

A wall fragment/painting from the middle register of the Royal Box of the theater at the Herodium. Now in the Israel Museum.

This fresco, actually a “secco,” depicts a naval battle with two ships with sails billowing the wind.  On the deck are soldiers armed with shields and spears.  “The painting may represent the victory at Actium and possibly the beginning of Augustus’s rule following the conquest of Egypt.  The choice of theme supports the possibility that the royal Room was decorated in anticipation of the visit of Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’s second–­in–­command, in 15 BCE, since he was the general responsible for the victory.”

“The walls of the Royal Room were decorated with wall paintings in the secco technique [painting on dry plaster] and stuccowork.  They were divided vertically by stuccowork pilasters and decorated with painted ‘hanging pictures’ that were suspended by imaginary ‘strings’ and ‘nails.’  The pictures imitate windows with open shutters affording views of imaginary landscapes.” (From the descriptions of the paintings in the Israel Museum.)

A wall fragment/painting from the Royal Box of the theater at the Herodium.

“In this painting the artist depicts a sea view along with a bull, trees, a temple, a palm tree, and a boat, recalling sacred scenes from the time of Augustus while also alluding to the conquest of Egypt.”

Audio/visual presentation in the “Royal Box.”

One of the new features that we were treated to was a 9-minute audio/visual presentation on the construction, usage, and destruction of the “Royal Box.” It was time well spent.

For additional images of the theater and Royal Box see Here.

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3 responses to “The “Theater” at the Herodium

  1. What a great of pictures and descriptions! Thanks, Carl!

  2. Wh

  3. Nice photos and description. I had the pleasure of revisiting this site this summer.

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