The name of the Roman emperor Maximinus Thrax, who ruled from 235 to 238 CE, was deciphered for the first time on a milestone which was used to mark ancient Roman roads, according to the latest study of the area of ancient Sussita (Hippos) carried out by researchers from the University of Haifa.
This is the first inscription that researchers have been able identify on the milestones marking the road from Susita east of the Sea of Galilee to Banias (Panias, named after the god Pan) in the southern Golan Heights.
According to Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, who heads the excavations at Susita, “Since the road itself was built in a much earlier period, the name of the emperor seems to indicate extensive renovations that were carried out under his rule. These were years in which the Roman Empire was in a decline and extensive construction work of this kind, especially in the border areas, were becoming more and more rare.”
The ancient city of Sussita has been excavated for the past 20 years by scientists from the Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa. This enables the Nature and Parks Authority to develop the Sussita National Park during these months for public visits.
Sussita was the major city in the Golan area, and the researchers wanted to learn about the relations between the city and its agricultural hinterland—the surrounding villages during the Roman and Byzantine periods.
In recent years, the research has been extended from the city’s boundaries to the Sussita area in the center and especially the south of the Golan Heights. As part of this expansion, Dr. Eisenberg, Dr. Michael Azaband and research student Adam Pazout wanted to examine a milestone that ended up in a garden belonging to a resident of moshav Ramot in the western Golan Heights.
Milestones were placed alongside the roads at fixed distances of one Roman mile from one another – about 1,480 meters (0.9 modern miles), or 1,000 double steps. In the case of Sussita, the Milestones were placed along the Roman road east of the Kinneret shore, which stretched from Sussita to Banias in the northern Golan Heights.
Over the years a number of milestones were found on this road, but only one of them contained evidence of writings, which the same researchers have not been able to decipher – until now. The person who came to their aid was Dr. Gregor Stab, from the University of Cologne in Germany, who is an expert on ancient Greek inscription analysis, and was able to identify the name of Emperor Maximinus Thrax. In addition to his name, the name of his son and his list of titles also appear in the inscription.
“Over the years, researchers have tried advanced and sophisticated methods of 3D scans, which were unsuccessful,” said the researchers, explaining that “when we returned to a more traditional method, namely of creating a copy by pressuring paper against the basalt stone, we succeeded in reading” the ancient carved text.
Since the road was built many years before the emperor’s time, the researchers assume that the name of Maximinus Thrax suggests extensive renovation work that was carried out during his rule.
The Milestone served not only to indicate the distances and to instill a sense of security, but mainly for propaganda purposes. The Roman government demonstrated its control through those Roman-built main traffic arteries, according to Dr. Eisenberg, who said the message of the milestones to the passersby was: “You are safe under our protection, but do not forget that you are under the wings of the Roman Empire.”
Another finding uncovered this year is a small citadel, also outside the gates of Sussita, at an observation point where it controls the road, west of the town of Mevo Hama in the southern Golan Heights.
According to Dr. Eisenberg, this strategic location did not escape the attention of the modern Syrians, who established a military position there, over the ancient remains, prior to the Six-Day War. After exposing the remains, the researchers discovered a complex that was built firmly on basalt foundations, measuring 20 by 15 meters (60 by 45 ft.), with a large, adjacent courtyard. In the center of the building stands a tower that over the years evolved into a 6th century CE Byzantine farm or monastery.
The researchers also found traces of a colorful mosaic floor, a basement and remains of local farming. In one room they excavated a huge oven, about six feet in diameter.
“Its exceptional size suggests it was apparently intended to serve a large group of diners and raise the question of whether a convent existed here, or maybe they sold here goods to passersby and to the merchants riding on the Roman road at the foot of the fortress,” the researchers said.