Ancient Graffiti

Archaelogists seem to use the word graffiti in the same way that all of us do, to mean art that is made in a public place, usually without the sanction of city authorities. You can see quite a bit of graffiti etched into stone in the lower part of Ephesus. I suppose this is one way of figuring out that this part was not where the rich lived or cared too much about. The two main streets in this part are the Marble Way, connecting the library and the circus, and the Arcadian Way, leading to the docks.

The flagstones of the Marble Way show ruts of chariots, so making graffiti in the road here could get you knocked over. The fact that someone bothered to carve a foot and the faint outline of a woman into it (featured photo) means that they deemed it important. The building next to it was a Roman brothel, so this could have been a sign. The cross on the side wall of the road (photo below) seems to have been made over an older sign. There was an Egyptian temple here, so I wonder whether the Christian symbol was made to erase an older Egyptian symbol of an Ankh. This could be a territory marker. The photo of the circle with spokes comes from the Arcadian Way. I found this symbol in other ruins also, so this could possibly signify another cult. I wish I knew what it meant. Surely someone must have compiled a dictionary of Roman symbols. Otherwise there is an opportunity waiting for a historian.

In a city of about twenty to thirty thousand people, with a mass of sailors coming and going, why did we see so little graffiti? After all, the patricians did not seem to care too much about policing little acts of vandalism. Perhaps most graffiti was like today’s: painted or written. This would not have survived the millennia. Only the few etched into stone would not be washed away by half a million days of rain.

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Mosaic sidewalks

Laying a mosaic is not cheap. If you wanted a mosaic made today then you would have to pay enormously for the time that it takes skilled artists to create one. The labour-intensive art of mosaics would have taken the work of many slaves in Roman times. So it is a bit of a shock to find a long stretch of sidewalk on the street of Curetes in Ephesus which is covered in mosaics.

The road was open to chariots until the 4th century CE. So, if this is indeed a sidewalk, then the mosaics date from before that. They are not as elaborate as ones found in patrician houses. There are simple repeating motifs of flowers and leaves with scroll work around it. The sheer size of it is stunning, and it does speak of great wealth in terms of skilled man-hours. Even without the evidence of the buildings in this area, the sidewalk is a good reason to believe that this part of the city was where rich families lived. Was this the work of one public spirited family, or commissioned by the Boule, the governing council? I couldn’t find an answer.

Lower Ephesus

The geography of Ephesus is a means of separating the upper classes from the rest. Simply walk up the hill to find where the upper classes lived. Much of the reconstruction of Ephesus is concentrated here. The lower levels have not been explored much. I walked through the Tetragonos Agora (featured photo, looking at the southern hills). It originated from the 3rd century BCE, was made into its present shape during the reign of Augustus (early 1st century CE), new elements were added over centuries until an earthquake in the 4th century CE brought down everything. The subsequent rebuilding brought in elements from different parts of the city.

Above the eastern end is the Marble Way. I walked into galleries under it and saw beautiful excavated pieces stored there (one example above). I guess these galleries are now being used by archaeologists as temporary storage while the tremendous jigsaw puzzle of Ephesus is reassembled. Nero had founded a court in this spot in the middle of the 1st century CE. I wondered whether the rooms date from that time.

The lower part of Ephesus, as we see it today, is shaped by two streets. The Arcadian Way (photo above) runs from the Great Theater westwards to the port. The road is named after the 5th century Byzantine emperor Arkadios during whose reign it was given its present shape. The other is the Marble Way which runs above the Agora to the east, between the Celsus library and the Great Theater. Nero’s court of justice stood here before the earthquake, so the road probably dates from after the 4th century.

The Great Theater is one of the few structures being reconstructed in the lower part of Ephesus. It was first constructed at about the same time as the Tetragonos Agora, ie, in the 3rd century CE. It was rebuilt many times until it was the second largest theater in the Roman empire. The stage would have been backed by a two-storey structure called the Skene, which has not yet been reconstructed. One of the remarkable things that you can see in the photo is two women in bell bottomed pants. When did they become fashionable again?

On my way back I took the Marble Way above the Agora. The Family had noticed interesting graffiti along this road, which we wanted to photograph. Now we noticed that the stone has been worn away in places by wheels of chariots. The road that we, and other tourists, took was used in the Byzantine era by wheeled traffic. On one side of the road we noticed a colonnaded sidewalk for the use of ancient walkers. This part has not been restored.

There is a low wall on the side of the road which overlooks the Agora. Part of the wall just consists of old pieces of sculptured stone piled up. We looked at the pieces. Some of them look like they served as the capitals of pillars. Could they be the remnants of Nero’s court? Or were they found in many places, and merely been piled here while people search for the part of the jigsaw into which they will fit?

A ghost of a gate

Old buildings and ruins are full of ghosts of people, and the shadows they leave behind. They are too insubstantial to be seen without the help of specialists: archaeologists and historians. The ghost of the Hercules Gate of Ephesus was one such. All that we see of Ephesus today is a ghost story, painstakingly put together by archaeologists over the most recent century and a half. The beginnings of this reconstruction are themselves history.

As we walked up the street of the Curetes we came across these pillars which narrowed its width by half. The fellow carved on the pillars, wearing the skin of a lion, is Hercules with the skin of the Nemean lion, which he killed as the first of his twelve labours. The carving has been identified as being from the second sentury CE. It is thought that the columns were brought here in the 4th century CE, when wheeled traffic was forbidden on this street. It looks slightly nicer than the steel bollards which serve this function on streets today.

Heraclitus of Ephesus believed that everything flows (panta rhei). It is specially true of the stones that make up cities. The pillars of the Hercules Gate were found not too far from where they now stand. But some believe that there was a pediment above it. The relief of Nike which stands a little uphill from the pillars is sometimes said to form the possible completion of the gate. This seems to be a very popular background for posts on WeChat. We admired it from some distance, before finding a little window of opportunity to dash in and photograph it between changes of groups of tourists who wanted it as a background for their selfies and each-otheries.

Curetes Street

The Family and I walked up the street of the Curetes in Ephesus together, looking at the same things. I read my guide book at times, and read out interesting pieces to her. She listened to the audio guide and paraphrased parts for me. But our photos are often different. All of the Ephesus that we see today is reconstructed painstakingly by several generations of archaeologists. The discipline has changed during this time: from imperial plunder to careful reconstruction. This shows in the difference between the reconstruction of various buildings along the way. The Bouleuterion was plundered for foreign museums and has not been reconstructed, but the Temple of Hadrian has been reconstructed using modern methods. The partial renovation of a fountain on the road shows the nature of the slow solution of a jigsaw puzzle, as pieces are dug up at different times.

The colonnaded streets of Ephesus were remarkable. A degree of planning and enforcement must have gone into maintaining a straight road with buildings set back from it at a fixed distance from the edge. The construction of the Hercules Gate, which broke the original plan, also shows evidence that these plans could be revised. The buildings along the road were public structures erected by rich families. So it is quite possible that the Boule, the council of these families, was engaged in civic planning and enforcement. However, situating the public latrines adjacent to the Scholastica bath shows that ordinary people could not be excluded from the process of planning.

While we were taking some of these photos, I overheard a guide telling a group about the dynamics of the Roman empire. I tailed the group to get the whole, very interesting, argument. According to the guide, the economy of the Roman empire was based on slave labour, and, since slaves could be freed and become citizens, this drove the need to expand the empire to obtain more slaves. After Hadrian’s rule in the 1st century CE, slaves began to be granted more rights. This last incarnation of Ephesus would have been a city with many citizens, and even more slaves. As we walked among the throngs of ordinary tourists in the afternoon and saw preparations for a special iftari dinner in the square in front of the Celsus library, I was struck by the fact that the distinction between the 0.1% and the hoi polloi has persisted over millennia.

Scholastic socialization

We took a little zag off Curetes street in the ruined city of Ephesus and suddenly we were in a little maze of paths which were part of a public bath from the 4th century CE. Right next to the entrance, in a niche by itself is the headless statue (featured photo) of the person who’s said to have refurbished this old 1st century CE building into a bath: a lady called Scholastica. We wandered through the changing room (the apodyterium), the unheated room (frigidarium), the warm room (tepidarium), glanced at the pool and the hot room (caldarium).

The Family and I suddenly realized that this was a Turkish Hamam from a time before there was Turkey. The chattering classes of Ephesus would arrive, along with their attendants, and proceed to be massaged and bathed as they socialized. Must have been quite a nice investment for Scholastica. This structure was discovered in a dig in 1926. I found a little hole in the floor through which one could see part of the earthen pipes through which steam circulated. Did men and women bathe together? A long article that I found presents evidence for and against. It is interesting to read this article along with one on sexual relations during the Roman empire.

The library of Celsus

The Family took the high road and I took the low road, quite literally, to the library of Celsus, the centerpiece of the reconstruction of Ephesus. As a result, I walked through an ancient gateway and was surprised by crowds before I realized that I was in front of the library. The Family had a good view of the reconstructed facade before coming down to the square in front of the library. It was the first of Ramazan, and tables were being laid out, possibly for an Iftar dinner for the big brass of Selçuk, We joined the crowd of visitors gaping at the facade which had been reconstructed during the 1970s. Bits and pieces of it had been excavated over the years and taken to museums in Vienna and Istanbul, so the reconstruction had to use the remaining pieces and fill in the rest with reproductions. The result looks glorious, as you can see in the featured photo.

There was a single large room behind the facade, with a semicircular niche in the far wall. Below this is the burial chamber of Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaenus, the Proconsul of Ephesus in 92 CE, the first Greek to hold such a post. The library was built by his son in his memory over the crypt. From the room you can see that the building material included bricks, rubble, dressed stone as well as marble. I was using an audio-guide which told me that there are two interesting things about this structure. The first was that in Roman times people were not generally allowed to be buried in the city, so the existence of the crypt was a mark of singular honour. The second was that this was the third largest library in the empire, after Alexandria and Pergamon. I was struck by the fact that such a large room, and its upper floor, together held only thirty shelves, each of which could hold only 400 scrolls. In the times before printing, the number of books was remarkably small.


The facade is elaborate, with beautiful double rows of marble columns framing three entrances. Between then in four niches stand the (reproductions) of four statues: Sophia Celsus (representing wisdom and learning, whose name gives rise to the word philosophy), Arete Celsus (representing the fulfilment of learning), and headless statues of Ennoia Phillipi (who represents thinking and understanding), and Episteme Celsus (representing provable knowledge). These are categories of knowledge which had been discussed and debated by many philosophers by the 2nd century CE when the library was built.

From the evidence of the decorations in the portico of this building it seems that the family of Polemaenus was superlatively rich. There are complete epigraphs on the facade which have been studied quite extensively. A little search brought me to extensive modern historical literature on the career of Celsus. He was born in Sardis, into a rich family, studied law, did military service in Alexandria in the legion commanded by Vespasian (who soon became emperor). Then in quick succession Celsus became a senator, a judge (Praetor) in Rome, an imperial Legate in Cappadocia, Bythina and Cilicia, then a Consul, a Curator (responsible for the finance and organization of imperial building projects in Rome), and finally Proconsul of Asia.

The library burnt down in 262 CE. In the intervening years Ephesus, the capital of Roman Asia, was a bustling cosmopolitan port city. There is evidence of early Christians living here (including the apostles Paul and John), an Egyptian quarter with temples of the ancient Egyptian gods, and, from the evidence of a menorah carved into the steps of the library, clearly also an orthodox Jewish population. The Mediterranean was a diverse place two thousand years ago.

The unfashionable end of town

Far off towards the receding sea, a set of warehouses in Ephesus was converted to a church, probably in the 2nd century CE. That’s what archaeologists seem to believe lies below the ruins of what could be one of Christianity’s most important churches. The very long nave that one sees today was later called St. Mary’s church. If this was unfashionable in the 2nd century, it apparently remains so in the 21st. The Family and I met only a young Japanese trio examining these ruins. Signboards had pointed us along a path which brought us to the very impressive apse of the church.

Sighting down the nave I saw a baptismal font, and a door a long way off. The original church was probably rebuilt for the Third Ecumenical Council, called in 431 CE by the Byzantine emperor, to settle a fine doctrinal point. My audio guide told me that opinion came down in favour of the view that Jesus was simultaneously man and god (but this simplification could possibly have gotten me killed 1500 years ago). As a result, Mary would be called the mother of god, Theotokos in Greek. This also laid the seed of the doctrinal dispute with Islam which, when it rose about two centuries later, recognized Jesus only as a prophet. Long before that, the church was rebuilt into a grand basilica 260 meters long, and probably renamed after Mary. Over the years one part or the other of the grand church would collapse, and worship would shift to an intact part.

I walked down the long nave and past the standing doorway, and the columns which would have been just outside the old basilica. The grand looking apse which I’d entered looked really far away. There was another council held in Ephesus later to decide upon even more subtle questions arising out of such reasoning, but its conclusions were negated by later church doctrine, and led to centuries of schisms and strife. I wasn’t about to delve further into these abstruse questions. I marveled at the extremely thick brick walls and wondered how high a roof must have been held up by walls of such thickness. I couldn’t find an estimate.

There were other ruins around the church which were covered with grass and weeds. Now, in the middle of spring poppies had sprung up everywhere: pink poppies. I don’t remember having seen this colour of poppies before. The eastern Mediterranean is the original home of poppies, so it is possible that there is more variety here than anywhere else in the world. I wondered whether differences in the colours of petals are due to pigments or some other genetic changes, or due to the soil the plant grows in. I found later that poppy petals contain higher concentration of pigments than most other flowers, and that microscopic structures on the petals strongly influence the colours that we see. But whether these effects are controlled by genes or the environment is something I haven’t managed to track down. The world has so many mysteries!

The emperor comes back

The Roman emperor Hadrian was an inveterate traveler, and visited Ephesus at least twice, once in 124 CE and again in 129 CE. The carefully restored structure on the street of Curetes, which you can see in the featured photo, is said to commemorate this visit and is now called the Temple of Hadrian. The open-fronted porch with its four columns and arched entrance leads, through an inner door, into the inner chamber where, it is thought, that a statue of Hadrian once stood. An epigraph found here says that the temple was built by Publius Quintilius Galeria in 138 CE and dedicated to Hadrian, Artemis of Ephesus, and the people of the city by the Asiarch Publius Vedius Antoninus Sabinus.

The reason that this building is so carefully reconstructed is that it was disinterred in 1956, after the Turkish government passed laws against removal of archaeological remains from the country. The Austrian Archaeological Institute was involved in uncovering the structure, as well as the restoration work which ended in 2014. The keystone of the arch at the entrance is decorated with a carving of Tyche, goddess of fortune and prosperity. She is crowned with the walls of the city, in a style that dates from the high Hellenic period, but apparently popular during the era of the Roman empire.

Above the inner door is a semicircular relief featuring a woman who is now called Medusa, surrounded by scrolls and Acanthus leaves. The same leaves decorate the capital of the columns at the front. The four empty pedestals in front of the temple (see the featured photo) would have held statues of four emperors, going by the names carved on the bases. These statues have not been found yet. The structure was refurbished in the 4th century to honour the emperor Theodosius, and the reliefs along the walls were built at that time. On the day I was there, the structure was cordoned off, so I could not get a good look at them. The originals are in the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk.

I could use my camera to take a close look at two of the four panels. In the one you see above, there is an altar at the center. The figure to the left, in Roman military clothing, probably depicts an emperor. The winged figure of Victory (Nike) stands behind him. To the right are figures from mythology. The first one could be Theseus and the bearded figure next to him is Hercules. Four Amazons are shown running from Hercules. The founding myth of the city is that it was built by Amazons, but the story being told here somehow implies that they were driven away.

On the other side of the so-called Medusa was another equally enigmatic relief. Amazons are again shown in flight. This time they are probably fleeing from a figure identified with Dionysius, behind whom stands a Satyr, in front of a figure seated on a small elephant, with a dancing Menead bringing up the rear. I didn’t get a good view of the side panels. One showed the other founding myth of Ephesus: Androclus killing a boar where the city was built. The fourth apparently shows the Christian Theodosius, who banned the worship of the old gods, with some of the banned entities. On my next visit I must go to the museum in Selçuk to see the originals.

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.