Marble and beautification

The weight of the Greek and Hellenistic past might thus have been one of Augustus' reasons for beautifying Rome, which had previously lacked the trappings which befited the dignity of its empire, as Suetonius says (The Divine Augustus XXVIII, 3ff.), so that his boast to have "left in marble that which he found made of brick" was quite justified. In essence, what Augustus did was to turn a private "vice" (against which Pliny rails in his Natural History: 36.6-7; 36.48-9; 36.109 etc) into a public virtue. As Fant has it (1988, 149), In the late Republic marble was associated with luxury, luxury was the public marker of wealth, and wealth was power [...] Marble made a particularly appropriate symbol of wealth because it was expensive, imported, and unnecessary. Marble was used not only for sculpture but also for wall and floor cladding (africano, for example, was quite useless for statues); so what Augustus did was to make his city look like a Hellenistic one by a liberal use of marble. By the second century AD, marble was being used in Asia Minor on a truly lavish scale - partly, of course, because Turkey is rich in deposits of different kinds of marble. And as Ward-Perkins makes clear (1981, 296), the architectural ornament of Roman Asia Minor was firmly rooted in hellenistic practice: Asia Minor learned its tastes from its own soil, egged on by Roman tastes borrowed from the Hellenistic kingdoms. At the same time, it must be pointed out that Augustus could make his city look like solid marble because he used veneer over concreted rubble. In Turkey, the same core is often faced with traditional materials (small stones, volcanic basalt) as well as with brick and marble. However, this Roman practice of veneering rubble walls means that some sites look unattractive or even forbidding, because their veneers have been stripped and their plaster fallen away: Anamurium is one such. If the large holes at the interstices of building blocks are where robbers went after the metals used to join them together, then smaller sets of regular holes (such as on the walls of the Harbour Baths at Ephesus) were drilled for pegs to hold sumptuous wall veneers in place - veneers both easy and light to cart away.

This concept of luxurious art, and even of its main materials, as an important arm of the propaganda of the state - state art - has a long life. It is no coincidence that it is those mediaeval and later figures most influenced by the classical past (Charlemagne, Donatello, Michelangelo, Rubens) who make use of state art and its propaganda value. Although by no means the first, Pericles' beautification of Athens provides the most blatant example of the political use of art, especially since he diverted (as his enemies complained) the money which was contributed under necessity for the war effort, gilding our city and embellishing it, like some pretentious woman bedecked in precious stones, with images and thousand-talent temples (Plutarch, Life of Pericles 12-13). If we calculate how many warships might be bought for the price of one Parthenon, or the likelihood of a modern modern nation diverting part of the defence budget to build a concert hall, then Pericles' actions are as unusual as they are audacious. We know about Pericles' "publicity drive" from various sources; other monuments in the classical world must have been built under similar conditions of what today we might delicately call the virement of funds, but we are badly informed about them - although we are much more knowledgeable about the general thirst for cultural supremacy, such as the rampant cultural profiteering and looting by the Romans in Greek lands.

Taste for the colossal

Turkey developed early a tradition of building enormous temples, most of which far exceeded the dimensions of the Parthenon, and many of which much antedate it. In the Greek period, the only comparable monuments are in Sicily, at Agrigento and Selinunte (Baalbek in very much later). In Turkey, as well as the Heraion of Samos, there were the temples to Artemis at Ephesos, Sardis and Magnesia on the Maeander, and also the Temples of Apollo at Claros, and at Didyma - the great Didymaion itself, with a podium of well over 100 metres in length. What is more, there is strong inferential evidence in the very dimensions of at least one building that it was built in competition with a nearby rival. Although different measurement points give different results, it is surely no coincidence that the Hellenistic Didymaion (much larger than its archaic predecessor, and begun about 330 BC) has very nearly the same dimensions as the Artemesion at Ephesus - 107.75 x 48.55 metres for the former, as against 107.11 x 50.48 metres for the latter, measuring from the axes of the corner columns (Fontenrose 1988, 35). One might call the race "neck and neck" - for different points of measurement show the Artemesion has a larger area of stylobate, whereas the walls of the Didymaion within the colonnade enclose a greater area.

The same competitive mentality between city states can be clearly seen in the rebuilding or finishing of some of the monuments of Turkey, so grand that they could not be finished even within a few generations. The Hellenistic Didymaion is the best example, for it was never completely finished, work proceeding in spurts interspersed with long periods of inactivity for well over five hundred years. For reasons of prestige Caligula wished to complete it and, as Dio Cassius relates (59.28.1), chose Miletus, Didyma's mother city, giving as his reason that Artemis had already taken Ephesus, Augustus had taken Pergamon, and Tiberius had taken Smyrna, but in truth because he wanted to appropriate to himself the large and beautiful temple which the Milesians had built for Apollo. Although Dio apparently got the story wrong (Fontenrose 1988, 22), the atmosphere of rivalry he conjures up is convincing.

The problem with such state art is that it is so grand that only Emperors or the most wealthy of private citizens - people of the calibre of Herodes Atticus, the very wealthy Athenian rhetorician - can afford to make a contribution to it. This leaves large projects, whether of building or maintenance, dangerously exposed over time, not only to political whim but also to funding problems and to a change in political direction. False starts, long delays, dismantlings and rebuildings make of sanctuaries like Didyma a mish-mash of periods and styles. And naturally, when political imperatives changed during Late Antiquity, the money had to go on the army and fortresses rather than on beautification - from which we might conclude that too much grandeur can indeed be dangerous, for it saps the resources of any declining city. Such colossal constructions (which are also to be seen in Sicily) brought new structural problems as well (Coulton 1977, 74-86).

If art and architecture are important status symbols, and directed as such for political reasons by the ruling elite, then we must realise that both are integral parts of ancient civilization rather than, as seems to be the case today, embarrassing afterthoughts which are decorative rather than meaningful. For the ancients, then, splendour would not have been viewed as mere extravagance, but rather as a necessary vehicle for conveying a message of power. That their monuments survive, albeit in ruins, is some index of their success.


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