Antonia’s fortress was built by Herod the Great in 34 BC, as part of his fairly significant expansion of the temple and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Situated on the northwest corner of the expanded temple mount esplanade, the fortress later became the headquarters of Pontius Pilate. Pilate is of course the Roman Prefect (Governor of the Roman province of Judea) who tried Jesus and ultimately approved His crucifixion. (See Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19)
By the way, I’ve always been a little confused at who all these Roman officials were in Jesus’ day and life. Let me take a quick second to try to clear up my own confusion, and perhaps you’ll find it beneficial as well. Rome made the region we now know as the State of Israel a province in 63 BC, following the Third Mithridatic War. After the war ended General Pompeius Magnus (also known as Pompey the Great) remained to secure the area. Subsequently, Herod the Great was installed as a “client king” over the region, called the Judaea Province. A client kingdom is a “term used to describe the subordination of one state to a more powerful state in international affairs” (Wikipedia). We might also call this a satellite, puppet, or vassal state. In Jesus’ day, this was called the Herodian Kingdom.
So, Pompey conquered the region in 63 BC. Herod the Great became king of Israel under Roman rule in 37 or 36 BC (there’s some dispute), and ruled until 4 BC when he died, ostensibly of natural causes. And here’s an interesting (read: sick) tidbit…
From the Wikipedia: Josephus Flavius (a prominent secular historian) records that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn his death, that he commanded a large group of distinguished men to come to Jericho, and he gave order that they should be killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place. Fortunately for them, Herod’s son Archilaus and sister Salome did not carry out this wish. Wild!
Anyway, Pompey conquers in 63 BC. Herod the Great rules from 37ish BC to 4 BC, establishing the Herodian Dynasty. When he died, the kingdom was divided among his three sons:
- Herod Archelaus received the largest part of the kingdom of Judaea including Jerusalem and the bulk of what we currently know as the State of Israel. He also retained the title of “king”. His only real reference in scripture is in the dream Joseph had in Matthew 2, in which an angel warned him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt because Herod (the Great) was going to have all the children killed. Joseph ultimately returned to Galilee instead of Judaea to avoid Herod Archelaus, who was known to be as ruthless as his father.
- Herod Antipas became the Tetrarch of Galilee and a small slice of the territory beyond the Jordan River. This is the “Herod” we read about throughout the gospels in connection with Jesus’ life and death.
- Herod Philip II because the Tetrarch of much of what we now know as Jordan. This is the Philip who built Caesarea Philippi, and whose wife Salome so delighted Herod Antipas with her dancing (and whatever else) that he had John the Baptist killed in Matthew 14.
Here’s a map of the region from Wikipedia:
Herod the Great was king. His sons became Tetrarchs, which were like joint-lesser-kings. And Pilate was a Prefect or Governor for Rome in Judaea. Governors were responsible for taxation and financial management, they were the province’s chief judge, and they commanded the military forces within the province. In the Roman world, there two primary types of provinces:
- Imperial, over which the Emporer ruled directly
- Senatorial, over which the Roman Senate appointed governors
There were also equestrian provinces, which were “smaller, but potentially difficult provinces” (Wikipedia) that required special attention. These were typically newly-conquered provinces or places where the natives were particularly restless. Judaea was one of these provices. According to legend, Pontius Pilate was a particularly cruel, intractible man, so it makes sense that the Emporer or the local King (Herod) would appoint him over the Jews, because they were routinely rebelling and causing all manner of trouble for Rome.
So, it’s into this environment that Jesus was brought before Pilate in the fortress we explored today. Of course, that ancient building was completely gone, replaced by busy markets in the Muslim quarter. But we were able to go down under the city into what I would call “catacombs”. These were the foundations of the original Antonio’s fortress.
The foundations were the classic Roman arch architecture, which was used throughout Herod the Great’s design of the expanded temple mount esplanade. The arch was designed according to the fundamental principle of “compressive stresses”, which made it extremely strong, even when supporting extreme weight. In fact, our tour guide went out of his way more than once to talk about how these arches got stronger the more weight you put on top of them. I’ll have to research that more; maybe my phsycist brother will shed some light for us.
Anyway, we saw the arches that formed the foundation of the fortress, and the huge storerooms and cisterns which resulted. Some was original, some wasn’t. We even saw an etching in the concrete that was an ancient Roman game, I think called “Four Kings”. This is thought to possibly the game the soldiers were playing when they “cast lots for Jesus’ clothes” in John 19, for example.