Herod supported Mark Antony against Augustus in the Roman civil war. When Augustus was victorius at the battle of Actium (31 B.C.), Herod convinced Augustus that he was loyal to him. Herod, who already ruled Judea, was granted authority over Galilee and Iturea.
“In turn, Herod ingratiated himself to Augustus by building monuments and temples in the emperor’s honor. Temples dedicated to the emperor in the early Roman period (20 B.C.E.–120 C.E.) were part of an empire-wide phenomenon known as “the emperor cult.” This Roman imperial institution played a pivotal role in spreading imperial propaganda and encouraging allegiance to the emperor, who was portrayed as a god, or imbued with the spirit of a deity. (Overman, Olive, and Nelson,“Discovering Herod’s Shrine to Augustus.” BAR 29:02).
Herod erected three temples to Augustus: (1) Caesarea Maritima; (2) Samaria, which he named Sebaste, Greek for the Latin Augustus; (3) Near Paneion (Caesarea Philippi; Banias] at the fountain of the Jordan (JW 1:404).
So when he had conducted Caesar to the sea, and was returned home, he built him a most beautiful temple, of the whitest stone, in Zenodorus’ country, near the place called Panion. This is a very fine cave in a mountain, under which there is a great cavity in the earth, and the cavern is abrupt, and prodigiously deep, and full of a still water; over it hangs a vast mountain; and under the caverns arise the springs of the river Jordan. Herod adorned this place, which was already a very remarkable one, still further by the erection of this temple, which he dedicated to Caesar. (Ant 15:363-364)
We are concerned here with the third temple near Panion (Paneion). We know the same site as Caesarea Philippi because the city was built by Herod Philip and named to honor Caesar and himself. Excavators at Caesarea have identified a structure there, at the entrance of the cave, as the temple to Augustus. Other scholars suggest that this is part of a monumental entrance to the cave of Pan.
Josephus’ expression “near the place called Panion” [Banias, later Caesarea Philippi] indicates a place closer to the Pan temples. However, the Greek term used in Matthew 16:13 (meros) can be translated district, region, or geographical area.
In the drawing below we see an artistic reconstruction of the Pan temenos at Panias (Banyas). The Temple to Augustus is the building on the left that backs up to the cave.
Reconstruction of the Pan temenos at Panias. From Archaeological Sites in Israel, published by the Israel Information Center, Jerusalem, 1998.
Archaeologists from Macalester College and Carthage College, working since 1999, have suggested that the third temple was built at Omrit, about three miles southwest of Banias on a bluff overlooking the Hula Valley from the east. If this is correct, then this may be the site of Caesarea Philippi (Mt. 16:13; Mk. 8:27).
Currently the site of Omrit is practically impossible to reach by car, but you can reach the area and then walk to the excavation.
View of the site of Omrit from the south. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.
If we look West from Omrit we have a good view of the northern end of the Hula Valley.
A view NW to the Hula Valley from Omrit. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.
According to the excavators, a total of three ornate Roman temples were built at Omrit over a period of about 120 years. The steps we see below belong to the third temple erected near the end of the first century A.D.
Temple steps at Omrit. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.
The photo below looks below the ground level to the earlier temples or monumental buildings that are now covered to protect them.
The earlier temples at Omrit. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.
A brochure, Omrit A Unique Archaeological Site in the Upper Galilee, is available in PDF here. Note that it presents the viewpoint of the excavators that this is the site of Herod’s Augusteum (p. 5).
In “Debate: Where Was Herod’s Temple to Augustus” BAR 29:05 (Sept./Oct. 2003), Andrea Berlin argues that Banias is still the best candidate for the Augustan temple. Overman, Olive, and Nelson reply and reaffirm their preference for Omrit.
A third suggestions is made by the late Ehud Netzer that an opus reticulatum (latice-type stone work) building at Banias is the site of Herod’s temple to Augustus. This site is about 100 yards west of the Cave of Pan.
Carl Rasmussen calls Omrit his favorite site in Israel here.