Streets and their Embellishments

Main streets were often treated as carefully as the monuments they contained, and would be designed where possible to provide a focus for them, as happens in the Street of the Kuretes at Ephesus, which frames the Library of Celsus. I emphasize main streets, because side-streets in many cities would often be no more than passages, often with flights of steps, and sometimes scarcely broad enough for two people to pass in comfort. This is especially the case on hilly sites, where the flatter ground was reserved for the main streets or the agora and market. Nor did the size of the street necessarily reflect the quality of the dwellings to which it led: at Ephesus, for example, the recently uncovered "Western Insula", off the Street of the Kuretes, five fine peristyle houses (all of which had running water, and many of the rooms have frescoes and mosaics) have now been uncovered - but they are all approached by an inconspicuous alleyway, and a steep one at that. Of course, what appears a disparity to modern eyes was not so in classical times, when private houses might well be imposing within, but would give little indication of this from the outside - a tradition still to be found in (for example) North Africa and the Middle East, and well known from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Embellishment was not necessarily all that it seemed. For although public streets would be properly appointed with marble and stone, some houses, as they have decayed, have revealed the shortcuts used to keep down the cost of their construction. As at Pompeii, so at Kadarinda (SB3.5), many people made do with columns built up from terracotta sections, and then plastered with, no doubt, marble-dust plaster to make the finished result look like the real thing at a fraction of the cost.

Curiously - in view, that is, of the Hellenistic predilection for theatricality - the colonnaded street is a Roman and not an earlier device, possibly first used at Palmyra, in Syria, in the later 1stC AD. Sardis, with a date of about 20 AD, appears to offer the earliest datable example. Instead, earlier centuries used the stoa, or free-standing portico, to give effects of light and shade to their architectural designs. It therefore seems sensible to suggest that the colonnaded street developed out of the stoa; and partly also, perhaps, out of the thrifty use of available space, with the upper stories of houses jutting forward, supported on columns or pillars to make a walkway beneath, as in mediaeval Bologna. It is also likely that the colonnaded street, backed by shops, took over from the agora or market square for shopping.

Stoas and streets

However, there are three crucial differences between a stoa and a Roman street. The stoa was occasionally used in multiples to form a kind of basilica. Again, although it could be used on its own, and frequently was, it tended to be employed for one or several sides of a square; it invariably had a straight facade and a pitched roof; and finally, it had to be built on level ground. Its monumentality was therefore a trifle inflexible (although it could be useful in multi-storey format to cope with sloping sites, as at Pergamum). The colonnaded street, on the other hand, could curve sharply or smoothly from side to side, or elegantly descend a hill, as does the Street of the Kuretes at Ephesus; could be interrupted by cross-roads or fountains, as at Side (8); could employ ornamental motifs much more festive than anything seen in the staid stoa - and could still act as a shady walkway with shops behind, as the stoa had done. Its flexibility assured its continuing popularity: at Sardis, sometime in the 4th to 6th centuries, a completely new colonnaded street was built, approached by a monumental gateway, and backed by shops (Foss 1976, 21-2). And with the rise of the colonnaded street, what is more, the stoa form itself became outdated: the Romans replaced it with the basilica, again a more flexible format offering far broader possibilities for extravagant decoration, including statues in niches and on pedestals, fountains, and other "eye catchers". Bernini's St. Peter's Square in Rome rehearses many of these features, surely from his study of classical colonnades.

Colonnaded streets

There are very grand examples of colonnaded streets at Diocaesarea, Ephesus (the Arkadiane from the Harbour), Side, or approaching the Asklepieion at Pergamum; or at Pompeiopolis, where little else now remains (17). At Perge, Plancia Magna's reworking of the main gate formed as it were a vestibule to the grand vistas of colonnades. These take the form of a kilometre-long main "spine" to the city, and a cross street near to the slopes of the acropolis (which has no visible classical or Hellenistic monuments, but many water cisterns) which bisects the other nearly at right angles. Shop frontages still being visible toward the acropolis, both these were presumably the main shopping streets of the town. They were supplied with water by broad water courses which, interrupted by occasional settling tanks, flow down the centre of each street (SB6.3) - a device which inspired imitation much more recently in nearby Antalya, where a main boulevard employs the same device.

Just as Bernini's colonnade would have been pointless without a focus, so at Perge the main street is given a visual "back stop" by the acropolis at the one end end, and by Plancia's city gate complex at the other. Here a splendid monumental fountain (18), is fed (presumably) by cisterns on the acropolis. Whether these could keep the water channels supplied even in the summer is difficult to say - but we can surely assume that the copious run-off water, instead of being wasted, was used to feed the baths which are also located down by the main gate. Other cities used the same device. At Diocaesarea, the temple to the tutelary deity of the city, the Tychaion, provides the back-stop for the colonnaded main street, and would have been visible framed through the city gateway at the latter's eastern end. As at Ephesus, honorific statues on pedestals would probably have lined such colonnades.


If the colonnade was one way of articulating streets, terracing was another. On many sites this cannot be avoided. We have seen how unemotionally such terracing can be treated (Priene) and, conversely, how other sites (Pergamum, Alinda) create with it a symphony of magnificence. The Romans, learning no doubt from Pergamum, arranged Ephesus to profit from the fall of the land - not just the houses off the Street of the Kuretes, but the temples as well. The temple of Domitian is raised high above the State Agora, facing the council-chamber; supported on vaulted substructures decorated by "caryatids" of barbarians, it was probably approached from street-level by a flight of steps at the top of which the visitor would find the altar in front, a colossal statue of the Emperor behind, and the temple to the right (cf. Bammer 1985, 123-5). From its terrace, this temple to the Emperor-cult is therefore visible from the market place and the harbour, as well as from the top of the Kuretes Street: thus the Emperor-God both protects and dominates his city. Today, with nothing of the temple surviving (too high to get silted, and therefore easy prey for the robbers?), the terrace is a good vantage point from which to survey the whole of the site. Herakleia under Latmos (SB2.2) is another good example of a terraced site, standing between the mountain and what was once the sea (now Lake Bafa). Stretching from the shore, the visitor would look past temples (including the Temple of Athena perched dramatically on a rocky outcrop) toward the agora with its well-preserved market (26), the bouleuterion and the baths - the whole framed in the walls of Lysimachus (c. 287 BC) marching up the hillsides.

Sculptural decoration

An effective addition to the street "appeal" was provided by the increased prominence given in the Roman period to sculptural decoration, sometimes in bas-relief, but often in three dimensions, and at life-size or greater. Such statues might decorate a colonnade, as mentioned above; or they would be set within a yet more impressive architectural framework, which might be extensive and multi-storeyed. The people depicted might be gods or goddesses, kings or emperors, mythological figures, or prominent local citizens or heroes. So effective was such a combination of architecture and sculpture (perhaps because it could fit any dimensions by repetition, and any pocket by being more or less sumptuously constructed or decorated) that we soon find that it may fulfil several purposes as well. That is, essentially the same format - known as the Asiatic aedicular facade - is to be found decorating monumental fountains, gates and triumphal arches, the frons scenae of theatres, and public squares.

In other words, the aedicular facade is a town planning device - and one which will prove most popular in Italy and throughout the Roman Empire. At Ephesus, for example, we see it used in the Library of Celsus (c. 125 AD), a magnificent structure on its own, but also one which is carefully placed as a visual backstop where the Street of the Kuretes takes a bend to the right. Without the Library's two-storey facade, the eye could wander down toward the sea, instead of being suitably controlled and hence directed by the architecture. Naturally, then, the Library was one of the first structures to undergo reconstruction; and it is a highlight of every visitor's memories of Ephesus for doing precisely what its builders intended for it - namely to focus the planning of that section of the city.


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