Aphrodisias and the imperial temple of Ephesus under Domitian

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The free and autonomous city of Aphrodisias sets up a monument in Ephesus commemorating the grant of neokoria by Domitian
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Original Location/Place: 
Reused near the Church of St. John, Ephesus
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
On display inside the so-called Gate of the Persecution, Ephesus (Turkey)
89 CE to 90 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Not given

76 centimetres high and 50 centimetres wide

Roman, Greek

Die Inschriften von Ephesos no. 233


One single inscription can contain multiple layers of information. This is an illustrative example and our commentary will deal with three different aspects: Aphrodisias, Ephesus, and a temple dedicated to the Roman emperors at the end of the Flavian period.

Aphrodisias was a city located in the inner Anatolian region of Caria and became a staunch supporter of Rome’s expansion during the late Republican period. This is confirmed by documents concerned with the Mithridatic wars, and, especially the triumviral period (see Reynolds, Aphrodisias and Rome). After the defeat of Quintus Labienus and the Parthians, Octavian strove to reward Aphrodisias’s loyalty with the grant of “freedom.” A decree of the senate, or Senatus consultum, was drafted and the future Roman leader became the protector of a city that claimed to be its relative because of the kinship ties established between Aphrodite, Aeneas, and the Julian family. All these precedents and a privileged history of interaction with Rome are conveyed in our inscription, where the people of Aphrodisias claim to be “free (ἐλεύθερος/eleutheros) and autonomous (αὐτόνομος/autonomos) from the beginning by grace (χάρις/charis) of the Augusti.” All these advantageous distinctions became part of the titulature attached to the name of the city in the imperial period, and, in this case, also justify the addition of the denomination φιλοκαῖσαρ/philokaisar (“emperor-loving”, l. 6). From all these elements, we can observe that the proud memory of favours granted by Rome was maintained and celebrated almost a century later. The case of this inscription is even more remarkable because it was not discovered in Aphrodisias. This means that we are not dealing with a self-congratulatory message specifically addressed to local citizens. Instead, the reference to their privileged status became the way in which the city presented itself to other neighbouring communities.

The stone was found in a reused context in Ephesus. Representatives of Aphrodisias had come to the provincial capital to set up an epigraphic monument in a local temple, consecrated to the Roman Augusti and common to the whole of Asia (l. 9-11). This sequence refers to the particular organization of the imperial cult in the region since the beginning of Augustus’s Principate. In 29 BCE, Augustus authorised two temples; one dedicated to Rome and Julius Caesar by the Roman community residing in this commercial centre (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LI.20.6-7), and a second also dedicated to him by the Asian Greeks meeting at Pergamum. Tiberius allowed the Smyrnaeans to set up a third one (Tacitus, Annals IV.55-56), and many more multiplied during the rest of the imperial period under the promotion and supervision of the commonalty (or koinon) of Greek cities (see Price, Rituals and Power). The temple of Ephesus was to become one of those centres of imperial cult with a superior status, and, consequently, could be regarded as shared by all the inhabitants of Asia. The Aphrodisians are therefore acknowledging the triple nature – local, provincial, imperial – of this singular space in their inscribed text.

Despite its autonomous status, Aphrodisias was surrounded by communities belonging to the koinon of Asia. As a result, diplomatic relations were to be established in a context in which Ephesus played an extremely prominent role. Not surprisingly, lines 12 to 14 specify that the monument was partly motivated by Aphrodisias’s goodwill (εὔνοια/eunoia) towards this city. At the same time, the preceding clause records the “reverence” or “piety” (εὐσέβεια/eusebeia) towards the Augusti as another motive of this initiative. The monument was therefore considered an act of grace (χάρις/charis); so, on the one hand, the Aphrodisians were showing gratefulness to the Roman emperors – especially Augustus – who had favoured them and later became worshipped as gods. On the other hand, the city could present itself as generous towards a much more influential metropolis such as Ephesus, which had equally been favoured by imperial grants.

Our inscription describes the Ephesians as a “neocorate city” in line 13. This νεωκορία/neôkoria referred to the title that Roman emperors could grant to cities with remarkable temples of the imperial cult (see Burrell, Neokoroi). It became a sign of distinction, and communities competing for regional pre-eminency bitterly fought for it (see Heller, Les bêtises). In Asia, this contest initially focused on the biggest provincial centres: Pergamum, Smyrna, and naturally Ephesus. Even if it is not clear when the Asian capital started to use the title, we know that Domitian approved a neocorate grant connected with the completion of a new temple of the imperial cult during his reign. Our inscription refers to this process.

Aphrodisias was not alone in celebrating the Ephesian achievement. There are remains of at least eleven other communities that travelled to the capital of Asia and set up epigraphic monuments. Some of them, such as Aizanoi came from the eastern limits of the province, whereas Klazomenai and Teos lay closer along the Ionian shores. The people of Hyrkanis in Lydia mentioned their Macedonian heritage in their titulature, and Stratonicea referred to its free status exactly as Aphrodisias did (see Friesen, Twice Neokoros, p. 29-49). It is also interesting to note that these city delegations did not all arrive at the same time, as three different Roman governors are attested in the dating formulas: M. Fulvius Gillio in the majority of cases, including Aphrodisias (l. 4-5; 89/90 CE, see PIR2 F 543), Ti. Cl. Aristio (88/9 CE), and L. Lucius Ocrea (90/1 CE). At any rate, all these documents are fundamental for attesting the perseverance of signs of local identity in the epigraphic representation of different communities during the imperial period. Likewise, they confirm the concurrent existence of networks of strong regional interconnection in the province of Asia. In fact, when the grant of the neokoria title expanded even further in the Greek East, common ceremonies of sacrifice (or συνθυσία/synthysia) became standard, and both inscriptions and coins normally commemorated the event extensively (see Weiss, “Festgesandtschaften”).

The blend of local, provincial, and Roman imperial motives would be evident for any bystander who either contemplated the new temple or witnessed the arrival of the Aphrodisian delegation. This audience could see that Aphrodisias was proud of their special favour with the emperors, which was heavily advertised as a sign of distinction. The Ephesians could also be pleased thanks to a religious complex of regional prominence that attracted neighbours, was partly supervised by local officials such as the priest Aphiston (l. 5-18), and hosted one of the principal centres of the imperial cult led by a high-priest (l. 19: ἀρχιερεύς/archiereus). In its quest for such positive consequences, Ephesus was also demonstrating alliance to Roman emperors who now had a conspicuous space of worship close to one of the city’s entrances. Remains of this so-called “temple of the Augusti” still show today its former magnificence, and the long-lasting mark of Rome’s hegemony (see Scherrer, Ephesus, p. 92). Indeed, the imperial cult did not depend on the decisions and favours of a single emperor. Domitian, who had granted the neokoria and rewarded the new magnificent construction, suffered the condemnation of his memory or damnatio memoriae when Nerva succeeded (Suetonius, Domitian 23; Cassius Dio, Roman History LXVIII.1). His name had to be erased from public monuments and the inscription deposited by Aphrodisias in Ephesus underwent this transformation, as shown in lines 1 to 3. Not only was Domitian’s titulature eliminated, but even substituted by the positive remembrance of the divine fame of his father Vespasian. In such a way, the triple positive commemoration of Aphrodisias’s freedom, good-will to the Ephesians, and reverence to the Roman emperors could survive.  

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Aphrodisias and the imperial temple of Ephesus under Domitian
Author(s) of this publication: Aitor Blanco Pérez
Publishing date: Fri, 06/08/2018 - 10:46
URL: https://www.judaism-and-rome.org/aphrodisias-and-imperial-temple-ephesus-under-domitian
Visited: Tue, 02/27/2024 - 05:46

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