Sports and Politics

It seems appropriate to talk about ancient sports and politics during the cricket world cup. We saw a spirited team like Afghanistan’s coming close to beating India’s, and England’s going down to Sri Lanka’s. I would say cricket is more than a game, but Neville Cardus has said it before. I am sure that in the 4th century BCE, when the city center was planned, the placement of the Bouleuterion, the city council, next to the Agora (the marketplace) was deliberate. We walked into the perfectly preserved chamber (featured photo) and looked around the tiered seats. It didn’t require much imagination to complete the building in one’s mind, and there was a signboard put up very helpfully by the archaeology department of the Goethe University of Frankfurt to help you, in case you needed it.

The city would have held less than five thousand people, and six hundred and forty of them could sit in this chamber. That would possibly be close to one representative per family. The governance of the city was pretty democratic, it would seem. This was the place where Bias, the renowned lawyer of Ionian Greece, would have given his speeches.

The pieces of stone at the corner of the street between the Bouleuterion and the Agora, decorated with lion’s heads, apparently marked the basins of water where sportsmen would wash themselves after coming down from the arenas a little further up. This reminded me of cricket clubs playing in Azad Maidan, in front of Mumbai’s High Court. Again, little imagination is needed to conjure up visions of a lively city center: the crowds in the markets around the Agora, the bigwigs at the Bouleuterion, and the young men washing up after games. All the different ways in which families would try to out do each other were close at hand.

We walked down the street slowly. Next to the Bouleuterion is the Prytaneion, where the elected members of the government sat. Between the two, a group of archaeologists has assembled a massive pediment. This is the pediment of the temple to Athena Polias which stands higher up. For a while I was fooled into believing that this was the place where the temple stood. Only when The Family read some of the signboards carefully did we have our epiphany. Of course the temple had to be on the highest part of this city built on a slope.

Further along the pine shaded street is the Alexandrion, a building where Alexander is thought to have lived in during the siege of nearby Miletus. What is more definitely established is that this later became a shrine to him. A web page on Turkish archaeology told us that the marble statue of Alexander which stood here can now be seen in Berlin

Very close to this was a evocative place: a sanctuary to Demeter and her daughter Persephone. This is supposed to be one of the oldest places of worship in Priene. The myth of Demeter and Persephone encapsulates the experience of farming and growing food, so this is entirely believable. The sacrificial pit into which the blood of animals were poured is now a silent and restful place. We stood in this area and looked out at the surrounding land: calm and still full of farms after so many millennia. It was time for us to walk up one of the avenues to the acropolis.

The Odeon on Pion

Ephesus was a port city, and as the sea receded, the city kept moving in chase. The ruins that we saw near Selçuk were of the last rebuilding of the city in the 4th century BCE. There are two entrances to the site: one from below the hill, the other from above. We parked below so that we could walk back downhill when we were tired. But the civic core of the city was at the top, on the hill which was called Pion. We walked slowly up the colonnaded street of the Curetes, and almost at the top, one of the last restored buildings was the structure called the Odeon (on feast days, when it served as a theater) or Bouleuterion (when it served as the meeting place of the Bouleia, the Senate). The featured photo is a view from the street.

It was uncovered in the initial archaeological digs made by J. T. Wood in the mid-19th century CE. Much is known about it, since many epigraphs were found from the structure. I couldn’t believe it when I read that some of the epigraphs were lost after being dug out! No visitor here sees the large 12 cm high letters on a marble sheet which proclaim that the building was dedicated by Publius Vedius Antoninus and his wife Flavia Papiane in the year that we would call 144 CE, because many of the fragments are in the British Museum. Modern estimates of the population of the city run between 20,000 and 35,000. The Vedius family would easily have been in the 0.1% of the most wealthy people in the city which was by then proclaimed to be the capital of Asia by the Roman emperor.

We walked up to what would have been the stage, and saw a school tour occupying seats in the amphitheater. They unfurled a banner with the name of their school and there was much laughter as a teacher took a photo. The amphitheater would have faced a two story high stage. The outer walls have carvings of bulls’ heads on them, which you can see in the photo above. It is believed that Vedius renovated a structure which was already more than a hundred years old. There is a lot of information about the family and the public works they did. There is peripheral evidence that the works were not always received gratefully by the city. But I could not find the source of the family’s wealth. Then, as now, the 0.1% would have been discreet about such matters.