In about the year 18 AD, during the reign of Herod Antipas in Galilee, the tetrarch began construction on a new city and capital situated on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. This city, Tiberias, was built and named in honor of the current Emperor, Tiberius, and populated with the poor, soldiers, settlers from outside the area, and the wealthy who were more friendly to Hellenism and Rome (Josephus, Antiquities 18.36-38). In order to make the appearance of Tiberias grand, and to aid its economic strength, Antipas built houses for and gave land to the poor who were relocated to the city, so effectually there would be no poor people in Tiberias. Previously, the capital city of Antipas had been located at Sepphoris, in the hills to the west, and while this remained the largest city in Galilee, its status as principal place in Galilee was replaced by Tiberias (Josephus, Life 37-38; Kokkinos, The Herodian Dynasty). Oddly, this city was built on land that a graveyard had previously occupied, in violation of purity laws in Judaism, but apparently it was such a prime location that Antipas was willing to go against tradition and risk offending a segment of the population of Galilee. Due to this building location, those observant of Judaism probably did not relocate to the city. However, there were synagogues in the city, and fragments of stone vessels and ritual baths have been found, demonstrating that at least part of the population practiced Judaism to some degree, although they also likely adopted facets of Hellenism. Agrippa I, brother-in-law to Antipas, appears to have been appointed the agoranomos (market overseer) of Tiberias for a few years around 30 AD, according to an inscribed weight found at the city and the records of Josephus (Stein, “Gaius Julius, an Agoranomos from Tiberias”). This was a political stepping stone on the way to ruling the area for the future King Agrippa I, who had been granted Roman citizenship and a Roman name connected to the emperors.
Tiberias was comparable to other Hellenistic and Roman style cities throughout the Empire in regard to its layout, buildings, and government. It was allowed to mint its own coinage, elect an archon and committee of 10 along with a city council of 600, and was recognized as distinct from the rest of the Galilee region even during the First Judean Revolt when it sided with Rome and was spared (Josephus, Wars 3.446-461). The city had a grid layout of streets intersecting at 90 degree angles, and the typical Roman north-south cardo and east-west decumanus maximus (the main north-south and east-west streets in Roman cities), connecting it to Sepphoris and Caesarea Maritima in the west, Scythopolis and Jerusalem in the south, and eventually all the way to Syria Province in the north. Similar to many Roman cities of the region, no city wall was built when Tiberias was founded. This was probably done for both economic and political reasons, saving time and resources and assuring that the city could not fortify itself against the Romans in the case of rebellion. Eventually, however, during the reign of Septimius Severus around 200 AD, a wall was constructed. Buildings in 1st century AD Tiberias included a stadium, a synagogue, Roman baths, a marketplace, a harbor, a mint, a theater, two towers, and a palace (Josephus, Wars 3.539; Life 65-68, 85, 277; Hirschfeld and Galor, “New Excavations in Tiberias”; Hirschfeld, “Excavations at Tiberias Reveal Remains of a Church and Possibly Theatre”; Zangenberg, “Archaeological News from the Galilee). Based on the surface area of the city, the population was probably around 40,000 people. The mint, an important marker of economic and political power, stamped coins with “Herod Tetrarch” and the name of the city enveloped in a wreath (Meyers and Chancey, From Alexander to Constantine). The theater, situated at the base of Mount Berenice, would have seated about 5,000 people. Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, was based here during the ministry of Jesus (Matthew 14:1; Mark 6:14; Luke 3:1). The palace of Herod Antipas, built in the style of a Roman villa, including an imported marble floor and decorated columns, appears to have been the definition of luxury (Luke 7:25). The request for the execution of John came at a birthday party for Antipas, which seems to have been held at this palace in Tiberias. The city was probably also the location of the beheading of John the Baptizer, although he had been imprisoned earlier at Machaerus (Matthew 14:6-11; Josephus, Antiquities, 18.119). The city of Tiberias is only mentioned once in the Gospels, and Jesus may have avoided visiting the city to elude the grasp of Antipas, who had imprisoned and executed John the Baptizer, and was on the hunt for Jesus in order to see Him perform miracles (John 6:23; Luke 13:31-35, 23:8).