A previously unknown governor of Judaea

Via Haaretz (beware incredible amounts of popups, popunders and other junk), an excellent article gives us the following information:

Divers find unexpected Roman inscription from the eve of Bar-Kochba Revolt – A statue base from 1,900 years ago found at Dor survived shellfish and seawater, and to the archaeologists’ shock, revealed a previously unknown governor of Judea.

An underwater survey conducted by divers off Tel Dor, on the Mediterranean Sea, yielded an astonishing find: a rare Roman inscription mentioning the province of Judea – and the name of a previously unknown Roman governor, who ruled the province shortly before the Bar-Kochba Revolt.

Historians had thought that based on Roman records, the leaders Rome imposed on its provinces were all known.

The rock with the 1,900-year-old inscription was exposed by a storm on the seabed at a depth of just 1.5 meters in the bay of Dor. The town had been a thriving port in Roman times that even minted its own coins, which proudly proclaimed the city to be “Ruler of the Seas”.

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Found by Haifa University archaeologists surveying the remains of the ancient Roman harbor at Dor in January 2016, the rock, 70 by 65 centimeters in size, was partly covered in sea creatures when it was found.

The statue base found on the seabed at Dor is only the second known mention of the province of Judea in Roman inscription. The other is the “Pontius Pilate stone” dating to around 100 years earlier. Discovered by archaeologists in 1961 at the ancient theater in Caesarea, it is a rare piece of solid evidence mentioning Pilate, prefect of Judea, by name.

The newly found inscription, carved on the stone in Greek, is missing a part, but is thought to have originally read: “The City of Dor honors Marcus Paccius, son of Publius, Silvanus Quintus Coredius Gallus Gargilius Antiquus, governor of the province of Judea, as well as […] of the province of Syria, and patron of the city of Dor.”

The name Gargilius Antiquus had been known from another inscription previously found in Dor – as the governor of a province whose name was missing from that inscription. So far, reconstructions have suggested either Syria or Syria-Palaestina as the province he was governing. Dr. Gil Gambash, head of the Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies, and Yasur-Landau were excited to read on the new inscription that Gargilius Antiquus was in fact the governor of Judea, shortly before the Bar Kochba Revolt.

The inscription outing Gargilius Antiquus was apparently the base of a statue, going by the tell-tale marks of small feet incretions on its top.

The putative statue has not been found, but it could plausibly have been of Gargilius Antiquus himself, who was not only the province’s governor but also a patron of Dor, as the inscription states.

During Israel’s War of Independence, in 1948, another statue base fragment was found at the east gate of the ancient city of Dor, with writing that reads: “Honored Marcus Paccius, son of Publius…Silvanus Quintus Coredius Gallus Gargilius Antiquus, imperial governor with Praetorian rank of the province Syria Palaestina”.

Clearly the Roman emperor, in this case Hadrian, had appointed Gargilius Antiquus as governor of the province of Judea, somewhere between 120 – 130 C.E. (perhaps around 123 C.E., succeeding Cosonius Gallus). …

(I was going to look up the other inscription, and compile the data; but I see that David E. Graves has already done this, with photographs and references, in his fine article here.)

This sort of discovery should be a constant reminder to us of a basic principle of archaeology.  Absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence.  We must never use lack of archaeological evidence as a reason to ignore literary evidence.  Only positive archaeological evidence may be used to confute an ancient mistake.

Our knowledge of the sequence of ancient officials is not comprehensive, however impressive it may look in a nice printed modern edition.

Many of these lists are compiled by guesswork.  We know how long a normal appointment would be; we have a number of people which seems about the right number in the right order; and there is suddenly “no room” for another one.

But in reality people are people.  Governors are called home unexpectedly for personal or political reasons, and a stand-in holds their post for an irregular period of time until another can be sent out.

It is a terrible anachronism to imagine the Roman empire as being like a modern state.  It was not.  Communications and travel were slow and difficult, as it was in Europe until comparatively recently.  Administration was loose.  Law could be, and was, enforced capriciously.  We can never say with confidence that such-and-such could never happen; only that with our limited knowledge, we do not think it accords with what we already know.

At this Christmas season, many of us will think of Luke 2:1-2:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)

How much ink has been spilt, to show that Luke – and hence the bible! – is wrong at this point; or, alternatively, that it is not.  The choice made, in this as other political or religious matters, depends in both cases all too often on the prejudices of those writing.

This stone, hoisted out of the sea, is a reminder that we know much, much less than we think we do.  Only one stone records Pontius Pilate’s governorship.  Only one stone records Gargilius Antiquus’ tenure.

Nothing is gained by pretending knowledge that we do not have; or arguing from what we do not know.  Five minutes in a time machine would undoubtedly shatter our preconceptions of the ancient world in a million ways.

When the data is contradictory, we may decide to discard bits of it, especially when it fits our modern eyes.  But this we must avoid.  Contradictory data from antiquity always, always means that we have a little window into a situation which is more complex than the sources that have reached us reveal.  Let us hold lightly to our theories.