Hellenistic Splendour

Hellenism is a term given to the civilizations of the successor states to the areas conquered by Alexander the Great. They are notable for their brilliance, richness and interest in the visual arts. Because of the range of Alexander's conquests, Hellenism is a phenomenon much more widespread than previous styles. Any textbook will provide details of the richness, effects of light and shade and theatricality of Hellenistic art, architecture and town planning - ideas which lasted well into late Antiquity (Bowerstock 1990). Such theatricality is indeed a hallmark of Hellenistic architecture and urbanism and of the Roman productions influenced by them. It is to be seen in all "levels" - so to speak - of architectural design, from the first calculating placement of a building or group of buildings to attain the greatest effect, and from the busy splendour of the materials used, and their often enormous size, through to a predilection for abundant sculptural decoration. Thus, in comparison to the classical period, the materials used are more varied, richer in texture and colouring, and often more costly. The buildings are generally larger (although there are of course some very large classical and archaic structures), and their relative placing more dynamically arranged: more thought seems to be given to the overall effect of groupings and, relatively speaking, much more money is expended upon prestigious schemes for public use than had usually been the case in earlier centuries. If we were able to make sense of Troy (and few of us can) when we clamber around the mangled mound, we would find no imposing public spaces; even those of classical Athens or Corinth are scarcely in the same class as the great set pieces of Hellenistic or Roman Ephesus or Pergamum. On site, we may need to look carefully at the buildings, in order to get the full "message". The Gymnasium at Sardis has a splendidly festive facade - but it would not have escaped the attention of the ancient visitor that the large columns (some 15 metres in height) are actually monoliths - and, what is more, monoliths with serpentine cannellation! Not to appreciate the sheer effort involved in turning such monsters on a horizontal lathe is to fail to understand part of the effect the architects were intent on creating.

Hellenistic splendour can be very florid indeed; Seton Lloyd remarks of the Hellenistic Artemesion at Ephesus that none of the many reconstructions of this building [...] has ever quite succeeded in avoiding a suggestion of vulgarity (Lloyd 1989, 159). Beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder; and perhaps one trained on earlier centuries finds the Hellenistic manner as disturbing as one schooled in the Renaissance might find the Baroque, which is itself partly inspired by Hellenistic and Roman manners. Nevertheless extravagance and theatricality do have an important role to play in projecting the image of a city, and they are particularly in evidence in the E. Mediterranean, N. Africa, and Turkey (Lyttleton 1974 for an analysis).

The Romans and the Splendour of the Greeks

If the Hellenistic Greeks set out to impress the visitor to their cities, then they certainly succeeded beyond all measure with the Romans. We are past the days when Roman art was considered to be but a pale and vulgar imitation of Greek art, for the art and architecture of the Romans are now studied in their own right. For our present purposes, the Greek (and especially the Hellenistic) love of splendour had two effects on the Romans. First, they wanted as much of it as possible for Italy and for their cities abroad; and second, they sought to surpass Greek art wherever possible. The Roman adoption and adaptation of Greek and Hellenistic art (in earlier times, through Etruscan example) are beyond the scope of this book (Pollitt 1986, 150-63: Rome as a center of Hellenistic art); but it also bears emphasizing not merely that the Romans "caught art" (as it were) from the Greeks, but also how impressed they were not only by Greece, but also by Turkey, especially what they saw at Pergamum.

Roman admiration for their predecessors in Asia Minor meant that the traffic in artistic and architectural forms was not from Rome to Asia, as it generally was from Rome to North Africa or to Gaul or Spain, but the reverse. Some Roman forms, such as the amphitheatre or the basilica, did badly in the East. As Waelkens puts it (1989, 88), Asia Minor was not a mere recipient of Western notions of design, but the creator of a new repertory, which was to be inherited by Byzantine architects and thus spread all over the eastern Mediterranean. Consequently, the bequeathing by Pergamum's Attalus III of his kingdom to Rome in 133 BC is one of the most important events in the history of ancient art, because it forges a "proprietorial" link between an old power and a new one, enriching not only the latter's art by exposing her artists to some great models but also augmenting her thirst for and connoisseurship of the productions of Hellenism.

Roman art: international art

The Romans accomplished their aims in several ways. Their "internationalism" in art and architecture entailed their using the best craftsmen, and they usually imported them along with their materials: the Romans therefore employed Greeks, just as the Western Middle Ages and indeed the Arabs were to do. As part of this process, they turned marble quarrying into an international industry, thinking nothing of carting enormous quantities of marble from Turkish, Algerian or Egyptian quarries as far as Rome. This is all the more interesting because Italy has her own fine and varied supplies of marbles, which were also used in large quantities. The Romans, who did not really catch the "marble disease" until near the end of the Republic, went for imported materials because they were fashionable, not because they were necessary: perhaps an item must be unnecessary in order to be fashionable? In the Greek and Hellenistic cities of Turkey, they had before them the taunting example of their "elders and betters": what better locations for proposing the triumph of Roman art and architecture, where it could vie with its antecedents and models?

Although a luxury trade, enormous quantities of marble were required, and processes were therefore streamlined throughout: the whole industry, from column lengths and girths to decorated sarcophagi, dealt as far as possible in modular units, mass produced. Roughed out in the quarries to lessen the weight, but with leverage and lifting bosses included, the blocks would be transported and then finished off on site. There is evidence that the trade expanded greatly during the 2nd century AD, and was accompanied by an apparent "trade push". Most sites will contain unfinished materials, from architectural decoration, columns and capitals (Didyma) to sarcophagi (Ephesus, in front of the Library of Celsus). Occasionally, the columns never even got erected: they still lie with protective bands at one or both ends, which can be cut back into mouldings. Sometimes, indeed, it seems as if sarcophagi were perfectly acceptable in roughed-out form: there are so many in this state in the Roman necropolis at Hierapolis that it would be unwise to suggest that every family was too poverty-stricken to get them finished; indeed, it has been suggested (Waelkens 1988, 140) that local craftsmen took up the fashion, and produced deliberately "unfinished" vessels.

So popular were some of the products of Asia Minor that we find them all over the Roman world. Indeed, just as it was Hellenism which gave the Romans the taste for Greek art, so it was the quarries of Greece and Asia Minor which provided them with the example of a marble industry. Until the late Republic, we find great numbers of imported marbles in Italy - even in the city of Luni, near to what were to become the most famous quarries of the Peninsula (Dolci 1988). We can therefore say that "home production" was dependent on further developing a taste for "oriental luxury", so that it is the demand which precedes the supply.


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