Walls as art?

In Roman times added decoration was often considered desirable. At Antalya, the Arch of Hadrian, richly decorated and well restored, formed part of the Roman walls. At Perge, the imposing twin towers of the Hellenistic main entrance (or is it perhaps Augustan? Ward-Perkins 1981, 301) were "updated" by Plancia Magna (the daughter of the Governor of Bithynia) in AD 120-122. What she accomplished here may stand for all the "improving" aristocrats and officials of the later Empire. The inside walls were given added niches, the limestone blocks covered with marble veneer, and a two-tiered gateway (again decorated with statues) built following the axis, and now affording a "picturesque" approach to the main colonnaded street of the town. The statues paid for by Plancia have gone, but the iconographic scheme can be reconstructed from the inscriptions on their bases. Nor was this scheme considered sufficient, because there were embellishments outside the twin Hellenistic towers. The whole area outside the towers was made into a great courtyard (perhaps as early as Plancia's day), and a further city gateway constructed. Probably in the reign of Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) there was built in this courtyard a monumental gateway leading to the main baths; and the second (now outer) gateway further embellished using spolia when a new city wall was constructed in the fourth century.

Studying the plan of the final complex demonstrates attention to what we have already characterised as Baroque theatricality. The fourth-century visitor would enter through a constricting gateway flanked by a columnar facade, into a large triangular courtyard with the Hellenistic towers straight ahead, and the propylon (leading to the baths) to the left. To enter the city proper, the visitor would pass from the large courtyard into the small horseshoe shape of the smaller one, decorated with statues of gods, and of legendary heroes of Perge. And through Plancia's triple-doorwayed arch, decorated with statues of the Emperors, the long colonnaded street, marching up toward the acropolis, would now be seen. It is important to realise that such statues were not simply decorative: no longer of true religious import, such works were now used to express the heroic past of the city concerned, and to trumpet its intellectual and physical achievements - scholars, gymnasts, heroes, lawyers, emperors, and benefactors. As at Perge, so at Pergamum and Ephesus. As Hanfmann (1975, 66-7) writes, These sermons in stone [...] did preach a definite ideology. While official acknowledgment was made to the ruling power of Rome, the main theme was a classicizing attempt to extol the past glories of the Greek mythical world, of the city's history, and of the Greek literary education and culture [...] while enjoying the benefits of the organizing ability and the comforts of the Roman present.

Plancia was by no means the first (and certainly not the last - see Rome or Benevento) to beautify the main gate of a city and its environs. At Side the gate, flanked by square towers, had attached to it, toward the end of the second century AD, a semicircular courtyard, articulated with Corinthian pilasters and blind arcades, forming a similar - if smaller - kind of vestibule to that at Perge. Once through the constrained passage on the town side, the visitor was confronted by not one but two colonnaded streets. Since the two cities are close, we might expect an element of competition to have existed between them.

Spolia as an embellishment for later walls

At Perge, Plancia used earlier materials in her beautification programme - a practice which is common also in the construction of later buildings and walls. Indeed, much architectural and inscriptional evidence for the appearance and deeds of antique cities still lies exposed in later walls, with much more no doubt hidden. To what the traveller sees at ground level on the site, and in reconstructed buildings, must therefore be added the evidence of this material, good examples of which are to be found at Seljuk and at Nicea.

The upper fortress at Seljuk, overlooking the site of the Temple of Artemis, is but a few kilometres from Ephesus. Toward the west (i.e. toward the sea) and the north it is built largely with rubble and brick, except for the use of squared blocks in the 45-degree revetments between the towers; this is presumably to guard against mining. A considerable amount of antique material is to be seen in the east gate (i.e. facing the road), the arch of which is supported on antique blocks, and all along the west-facing wall. The antique-block revetments continue round onto the south wall, facing Seljuk itself, which also incorporates some antique and Byzantine blocks, including part of a figural relief, perhaps from a sarcophagus, a triglyph, and a frieze, However, this is executed in too desultory a fashion for any decorative purpose to have been intended. But if the upper fortress has sparse figured antiquities, as opposed to squared building blocks, this is not the case with the western curtain wall joining the upper to the lower fortress (the latter containing the Church of S. John): recently cleared of rubble, this is almost 100% antique blocks (several of them with inscriptions), and stands to an average height of 3.5 metres.


At Nicaea (SB2.1), with the exception of the stretch facing the lake (west), both sets of walls are marvellously complete, gates and all. Although they cannot compete with those of Constantinople for height or length, they are much more complete and - given the Istanbul traffic, and the clutter inside and outside - much easier and more pleasant to walk around. The later mediaeval outer wall is rubble-built, and about 2.5 metres average height when viewed from the inside. The main wall, begun in the late 3rd century (Foss 1986, 79ff. for details) with regular towers, mostly round, has both foundations and the first two or three visible courses of antique blocks. The main body of the wall is then made of tiles, with cement and rubble infill. A top course on the curtain walls joining the towers often survives, especially on the long eastern section, consists of dark marble blocks, sometimes used as ties across the wall's thickness, These are probably part of a later refurbishing - although the re-use of the same kind of blocks as vertical ties as well must mean that if this was refurbishing, it must have been very extensive (Foss 1986, 79ff.). From the north (Istanbul) gate, and heading west, three square towers and their curtain walling stand to their full height. They are completely faced on the outer side (and probably once on the the inner skin as well) with antique squared blocks. Because of this very solid construction, this stretch of wall still stands to its full height of at least eleven metres - whereas the east sections are crumbling apace. What is more, this particular section of walls and towers is constructed from creamy-white marble, in contrast to the much darker grey-blue blocks used elsewhere: is it fanciful to perceive the desire to create an effect on the side of the city facing Constantinople?

Many monuments must have been demolished to provide such a quantity of blocks: the theatre, large as it undoubtedly was, would have been an insufficient quarry for even a fraction of the periphery from the north to the south gates - a distance of some three kilometres, with regular towers as well. For example, the theatre would not have supplied enough columns, reused here both as horizontal wall-ties and also as decoration. Thus in the central one of the three square towers of the north wall, no fewer than 37 columns are used to decorate the upper storeys and, at the same time, to act as floor-joists. And although decorative friezes, inscriptions and tombstones are sometimes visible, the common practice of presenting partly-dressed surfaces to the outside would suggest that there are plenty more - but that these have been placed facing inwards so as to attain a nearly smooth and certainly grip-free outer surface.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Building for Splendour, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, The Architecture of Work & Leisure, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Funerary Art & Architecture, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey