Chapter 3

Building for Splendour

Embellishing the Site

The Greeks and the Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean did not invent monumental architecture by any means, the impulse for which goes as far back as the megalith builders, not forgetting the Egyptians and the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent; but they popularised in classical times for the West the idea of the city beautiful - that is, of an aesthetic grouping of public buildings within a city, which would offer a message of sophistication and good taste to the visitor. The operative word is public, for the interesting buildings were those of religion, of civic affairs, and of amusement; the houses of ordinary people were of little interest and, given their political horizons, so was palace architecture between the Dark Ages and Hellenistic times. It is for this reason that we can read Pausanias' Guide to Greece just like a modern guide-book: he is interested in splendour, and in high-quality works of art, rather than in giving a complete pen-portrait (warts and all) of the cities he visits.

However, no matter what their level of prosperity, not all civilizations have desired to build for splendour rather than for mere convenience or even efficiency; and in those that have done so, the desire waxes and wanes down the centuries. Frequently this seems to happen according to political rather than economic - not to mention aesthetic - imperatives. We should therefore remember that we cannot automatically assume economic prosperity when we find fine buildings, whether classical temples or Christian churches: for their existence can simply indicate a grading of priorities different from our own. Thus the existence of the Pyramids does not prove (or even suggest) anything about the "Gross Domestic Product" of Egypt under the Pharaohs, any more than the fine buildings at Ephesus in themselves confirm a booming economy. At Halicarnassus, an examination of the Mausoleum and its sparing use of good quality marble, as well as of various hints in the ancient authors, leads Hornblower (1982, 302-4) to underline this very point: there is no direct connection between architectural magnificence and either population size or prosperity.

What we can tell from grandiose architecture, however, by tracing its state of repair and restoration through the ages, is just what a burden such monuments could become in an age of decline (see below, page 000, the chapter on Decline). We can also suspect (a suspicion corroborated from literary evidence) that many cities had great difficulty finishing, let alone maintaining, many of the splendid buildings they had begun. Governors, writes Foss (1979, 25), had the habit of starting some lavish monument, which would then be left unfinished when their term expired. Their successors, equally zealous for glory, would begin a new monument of their own, leaving previous undertakings unfinished. The emperors constantly complained that the governors were allowing cities to fall into ruin and failing to see to the construction of such necessary but unglamorous buildings as stables and warehouses in their pursuit of fame. Characteristically, since so far from the seat of chief authority, the governors took little notice, thereby illustrating the importance of appearance over substance. These attitudes are common in some of the frequently self-serving inscriptions of late Antiquity, where the words rebuilt or renewed are often stretched beyond any semblance of meaning.

The Seven Wonders of the World

One of the best illustrations of the ancient love of splendour, and of its nature, is their making of lists of individual marvels, a pastime since at least the 2nd century BC. The Seven Wonders of the World forms the best known - but far from the only - list which has included, for example, the Pergamum Altar (Radt 1988, 9). The usual list consists of (1) the Pyramids; (2) the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; (3) the Statue of Zeus at Olympia; (4) the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, which Pliny saw and described (Natural History XXXVI.95) as a true testimony to the magnificence of Greece; (5) the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus; (6) the Colossus of Rhodes; and (7) the Lighthouse at Alexandria. The Greek/Hellenistic ones (all but 1 & 2) date from the late 5th century BC through to the late 3rd BC, and three of these (4, 5, 6) are near to the coast of southern Turkey. Crudely, we might say that all these monuments are in the list because of their great size and enormous cost. Difficulty overcome is an additional criterion in the case of the Temple of Artemis (the swampy site) and the Colossus of Rhodes (its height), whilst artistic value singles out the Statue of Zeus at Olympia and the Mausoleum, each of whose four sides was given to a famous sculptor to decorate.

An important element in all the Wonders is sheer gigantic size: the statues are colossal, the temples and tombs of unheard-of dimensions. Nothing in the classical Greek period was that big: but gigantism, which the Egyptians had so liked, was enthusiastically adopted by the Hellenistic Kingdoms and thence to the Romans. This happened because Asia Minor was probably far more prosperous than mainland Greece by the fourth century. The effects of this passion may be seen everywhere in Turkey, from theatres and temples to statues and mausolea.

The city as a work of art

What is more, in many instances the city itself was indeed conspicuously designed as a work of art. The monuments would be arranged in the manner of a stage set, the better to impress the visitor by their aggregated effect. Special devices were used to achieve effects, such as the passge from a narrow street into an open square; the colonnade to combine shade with magnificence; and the propylon - a type of monumental gateway known to the Greeks since the Bronze Age (Carpenter 1970). This would usually consist of a stepped podium with columns supporting a decorated (and perhaps inscribed) entablature. The format is perhaps best known from the monumental approach to the Acropolis at Athens, but the same device is used in Turkey. The propylon to the Athena Complex at Pergamum, taken to Berlin earlier this century, was especially splendid, with two storeys and a bas-relief decorating the balustrae of the balcony. At Aphrodisias, the propylaea giving acess to the agora have recently been re-erected (SB3.1), and represent the acme of that frothy grandeur that the architects of the Italian Baroque so much admired.

At Ephesus, for example, there is little attempt to impress to landward: a city located in Antiquity on the sea (which has now receded), travellers came into her great harbour and, as at Miletus, the monuments are arranged to either side of the colonnanded street, the Arkadiane, from the harbour, with the great theatre, set into its hill, as a visual back-stop (6). Equally, citizens seated in the upper ranges of the theatre could admire a wide panorama, including the harbour, source of the city's wealth. The aim was that, even before the visitor was close enough to read any inscriptions or admire the sculpture, the architecture should "speak". As Fellows remarked (1852, 25) of Pergamum, I required no guide; the stupendous ruins proclaimed their builders, and the situation told who selected it. Or Theodore II Lascaris, the future Emperor, who visited the site in the 13th century: It is full everywhere of the majesty of the Hellenic spirit, and the vestiges of their wisdom: the city itself demonstrates this in its disdain for us, mere latecomers to the greatness of its ancestral glory (cited in Stoneman 1987B, 19). Or Lord Kinross, who proclaims that Pergamum is a mountain transformed into a monument (Kinross 1955, 119).

Both Greeks and Romans, like later generations, would therefore have accepted that architecture could be symbolic - the carrier of meaning, although the meanings it was required to bear changed over time. One of these meanings was no doubt the prestige associated with the heroic past: thus Green (1990, 566) calls the Roman rush to acquire things Greek and Hellenistic the mass market in nostalgia.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Town Planning, 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