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Israel road to riches is Roman
By Richard Giedroyc
April 20, 2017

A proverbial road to riches has been recently discovered in Israel. An ancient Roman road that pre-dates the nearby modern Highway 375 and Israel Trail was discovered by archaeologists in February, according to a recent announcement made by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The road is near Beit Shemesh and was encountered while a water pipeline to Jerusalem was being laid. The unearthed section of the road is six meters wide and is about 1.5 kilometers long. The ancient road was uncovered by the Mei Shemesh water corporation. Several coins have been found that are helping to date the road.

Irina Zilberbod is director of the IAA excavation. According to Zilberbod, “The road that we discovered, which passed along a route similar to Highway 375 today, was up to 18 feet wide, continued for a distance of approximately one mile, and was apparently meant to link the Roman settlement that existed in the vicinity of Beit Natif with the main highway, known as the Emperor’s Road.”

Zilberbod continued, “That road was, in fact, a main artery that connected the large settlements of Eleutheropolis [Bet Guvrin] and Yerushalayim [Jerusalem]. The construction of the Emperor’s Road is thought to have taken place at the time of Emperor Hadrian’s visit to the country, just before or during the time of the Bar Kochba revolt, 62 years after Churban Bayis Sheni. The presence of a milestone [a stone marking distances] bearing the name of the Emperor Hadrian, which was discovered in the past, close to the road, reinforces this hypothesis.”

Several coins have been excavated from along the road. These include a coin of King Agrippa I dating from 41 B.C.E. minted in Jerusalem, a coin (presumably a bronze lepta) of Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate dating from 29 C.E., a Year 2 or 67 C.E. coin from the First Revolt and an Umayyad period coin (about 638 C.E. to 750 C.E.). Although Zilberbod did not make any conclusions from the discovery of these coins, they would suggest that the road was in use throughout at least an 800-year period.

The Hasmonean rule of Judaea ended in 63 B.C.E. with the Roman conquest of Judaea by Pompeii “the Great.” Prior to that time most roads in Judaea were nothing more than improvised trails. The Romans built a network of national and international roads for both military and commercial purposes throughout their empire. Their road-building was extended into Roman Judaea, where the Emperor’s Road was likely used to bring grains, oil and wine to market. This would involve transporting goods, but it would also involve the use of coins as money.

The improvements made to this road at the time it would have been re-named as the Emperor’s Road were likely made about or after 130 C.E. This is the period when the Emperor Hadrian visited Judaea while suppressing the Second or Bar Kochba Revolt of 132 to 136 C.E.

Zilberbod said the milestone on which Hadrian’s name appears is evidence backing this hypothesis.

Some coins of Agrippa I would not have been that different from those of Pontius Pilate and for that reason may have continued to circulate alongside the coins of the Roman prefect. All of Agrippa’s coinage was composed of bronze. Many are portrait coins; however, the coin encountered along the roadway is a prutah on which a canopy appears on one side and barley on the other. These coins aren’t that different from those of the Roman prefects that followed.

The Year 29 prutah of Pontius Pilate depicts a littus on the obverse, with the date expressed as “LIZ” on the reverse. Pilate likely chose a littus on purpose as an insult to the Jewish religion. A lituus was a wooden staff pagan priests would raise towards the heavens during a ceremony when they would be invoking their gods. Pilate is the only individual on whose coins a littus appears. This coin was found wedged between two of the stones making up the road.

The Year 2 First Revolt coin is a bronze prutah on which an amphora with two handles appears on the obverse, with a vine leaf on the reverse. First Revolt coins known to have been struck dated Year 2 include silver shekels, silver half shekels, the bronze prutah and its half. Many of the prutah coins were struck outside Jerusalem by local Jewish military groups at what may have been traveling or makeshift mints.

No specific identification of the Umayyad coin was available at the time this article was being written, but the coin is a silver dirham. Contemporary Umayyad coins were in the form of gold dinars and silver dirhams.

Israel Antiquities Authority district archaeologist for Yehudah Amit Shadman said, “The ancient road passed close to the Israel National Trail and we believe that it will spark interest among hikers. The Israel Antiquities Authority and Mei Shemesh Corporation have agreed that the road will be conserved in situ, for the public’s benefit.”

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