Hadrian listens to Hymns in the Theatre of Ephesus

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Hadrian visits Ephesus and the city prepares a performance of hymns sung by the local ephebes.
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Original Location/Place: 
Exedra on the Harbour street
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Not given by the editor
124 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Plate of the plinth. The left side is broken
105 centimetres in height, 150 centimetres in width, and 25 centimetres thick. Letters are 4 centimetres tall.
Roman, Greek

Die Inschriften von Ephesos IV.1145 [SEG 17.504]


Hadrian is renowned for his many travels across the provinces of the Roman empire and his philhellenism. Traces of such journeys are abundant in the numismatic and epigraphic corpora. However, there are not too many testimonies illustrating what the emperor actually did when he stayed in the cities. This inscription from Ephesus sheds light on the impact of such visits and the way in which local communities in the eastern Mediterranean might react.

Even if fragmentary, this marble plate recorded a memorable event for the history of the Ionian city and provincial capital Ephesus. None of the elements included provides us with a secure dating. The local officials mentioned (see below) can only be placed in the first second quarter of the 2nd century CE. Therefore, the best chronological information is to be found in lines 2 and 3. It is said that the actions commemorated in the inscription took place when Hadrian “stayed in the city” (ἐπιδημήσας/epidêmêsas). The problem with this remark is that the emperor is known to have visited Ephesus twice: 124 and 129 CE (see Halfmann, Itinera, p. 191, 193). Only the absence of Olympios in Hadrian’s titulature – a title bestowed in Athens between the end of 128 and beginning of 129 – would favour a connection with the first visit.

Hadrian started this journey in the northern part of Asia, with Cyzicus being particularly privileged (see Birley, Hadrian, 162-164). A keen fan of hunting, the emperor descended to the forests of Mysia where he founded the city of Hadrianoutherai (HA, Hadrian XX.13) and authorised the rebranding of Stratonicea as Hadrianopolis (see Boatwright, Hadrian and the Cities, p. 184-190). The next significant stop was Smyrna, where the sophist Polemo took credit for having persuaded Hadrian to abandon his preference for Ephesus (Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists I.21), see I.Smyrna 697 and Quet, “Lesophiste”). Indeed, a new Olympic festival was inaugurated in the city and the emperor granted the coveted status of neocorate (or temple-warden) for the second time (see Burell, Neokoroi, p. 42-48). These precedents are important for understanding Ephesus’s reaction to the imperial visit. As the last polis of the province that the emperor visited before departing to the Aegean islands, the local institutions were aware of the many awards already granted to neighbouring communities. Among these, the advancement of Smyrna was particularly worrying because of the fierce competition for regional pre-eminency between these two cities and Pergamum (see Heller, Les bêtises, p. 217-221). For example, the provincial capital only reached the first neokoria under Domitian. The Ephesians needed to amaze Hadrian in order to regain his favours and, hence, their superior status.

The performance of hymns (ὕμνησαν/hymnêsan) in the theatre recorded in line 5 would belong to these impressive activities. The piece was delivered by the local ephebes, that is the group of young citizens receiving both cultural and athletic education in the city supervised by the ἐφήβαρχος/ephêbarchos (see Chankowski, L’Éphébie Hellénistique, and Kennell, Ephebeia). From the reign of Claudius through an edict of the governor Paullus Fabius Persicus, the ephebes were in charge of the hymns because they did not require payment “and their age, status, and aptitude for learning equipped them for such a service.” Ephesus also had to ensure that “they performed the role with care and due attention as befits those who hymn the divine house” [D. Braund’s trans.]. There was therefore a centenary tradition behind the city’s singing on behalf of the emperor, a practice also attested in Pergamum (IGRR 4.353,1679), and, for this reason, they were selected to display their expertise before Hadrian. Line 5 of our inscription emphasises that the emperor listened to the performance in the theatre. This means that the imperial visit did not consist in a hasty passage but rather in a longer stay in which such strategies of persuasion could be effective. The choice of the theatre by the Ephesians was neither accidental. In Greek poleis, theatres represented not solely stages of entertainment but also spaces of civic interaction and political life where the assembly, for example, could meet as reported in Paul’s visit (Acts 19:33-41). From the reign of Trajan and through the Salutaris’s foundation, we also know that this large venue accommodating more than 20.000 spectators was decorated with images representing both Hellenistic ancestry and Roman power. Such elements could certainly appeal the Graeculus (“Greekling”) emperor Hadrian (HA, Hadrian I.5; Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus XIV.2).

Ephesus took care of selecting not only the group of young performers but also the emperor’s hosts. While the president of the gymnasium, T. Flavius Potamon, is not attested elsewhere and his titles φιλόπατρις/philopatris (“fartherland-loving”) and φιλοσέβαστος/philosebastos (“emperor-loving”) are frequent among the public officers of the city, the appearance of Severus (l. 6) and Ti. Claudius Trophimos (l. 11) can be further explored. As for the former, the beginning of his name is lost and two candidates have been proposed: Rupilius Severus (PIR2 R 217) and Catilius Severus (PIR2 C 558). With either identification, there is a senatorial (συγκλητικός/synklêtikos) descendant acting as priest (ἱερατεύων/hierateuôn), wearing golden garments (ἐχρυσοφόρησε/echrysophorêse), and presenting the ephebes to take part, possibly, in a sacrifice at the temple (ἱερόν/hieron) of Artemis. Such ceremonies would have been intended to entice a Roman emperor particularly fond of ancient religious ceremonies and Panhellenic worship (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXIX.11, 16; HA, Hadrian XIII). The cult of Artemis Ephesia was famous in the Graeco-Roman world (see Rogers, The Mysteries of Artemis), and the sanctuary was likewise considered “the jewel of Asia” and one of the wonders of Antiquity (see Karwiese, Gross ist die Artemis). With regard to Trophimos, he was the son of Ti. Claudius Aristion, a well attested personality of Asia (PIR2C 788), who acted as one of the first priests of the temple of the imperial cult when Domitian granted the neokoria to Ephesus.

Through this combination of distinguished and talented citizens, Ephesus most likely managed to positively attract Hadrian’s attention. It is indeed not accidental that the emperor started his second visit to Asia from this city as shown by the letter written in recommendation of his sea-captain Erastus. Hadrian also appears to have confirmed the privileges of the Artemisia and the import of Egyptian corn at a latter stage. Reciprocally, the Ephesians renamed one of the local tribes as Ἁδριανή/Hadrianê (I.Eph. 2050, 2083g, 4331), dedicated one of their temples to Hadrian (I.Eph. 212, 921), and celebrated two festivals named Hadrianeia and Hadrianeia Olympics (see Knibbe, “Ephesos vom Beginn”, p. 785 and Bowie, "Hadrien et Éphèse"). Even the coveted second neokoria was achieved (Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 66-70). Such developments may not have happened after a first unsuccessful visit and show the importance of being able to directly display alliance, loyalty, and antiquity before the emperor (cf. SEG 51.641). For all these reasons, this document is fundamental for contextualising the reception of imperial journeys in the provinces, including those in the Levant that may have led to the Jewish revolts under Trajan and Hadrian.

Bibliographical references: 
Bowie, Ewen L., Hadrien et Éphèse, in Les voyages des empereurs dans l'Orient romain. Époque antonine et sévérienne (ed. Antony Hostein, Sophie Lalanne; Paris: Editions Errance, 2012), 263-296
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Hadrian listens to Hymns in the Theatre of Ephesus
Author(s) of this publication: Aitor Blanco Pérez
Publishing date: Fri, 12/15/2017 - 13:00
URL: https://www.judaism-and-rome.org/hadrian-listens-hymns-theatre-ephesus
Visited: Tue, 02/27/2024 - 04:03

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