Letter of Octavian to Ephesus concerning Aphrodisias

Octavian requests the Ephesians to return a statue of Eros dedicated by his father Julius to Aphrodite in the city of Aphrodisias
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Imperial letter
Original Location/Place: 
Theatre of Aphrodisias, on the so-called “archive wall” (see commentary)
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
39 BCE to 38 BCE
Physical Characteristics: 
Column 3 of a large epigraphic monument containing documents confirming the privileged status and rights of Aphrodisias. The text is complete and only the name of Aphrodisias and the goddess Aphrodite were purposely erased, probably by Christians at a later stage
95.5 centimetres in width and 65.5 in length. Letters are, on average, 2 centimetres tall in lines one to four and 1.8 from line five to twenty
Roman, Greek
I.Aph2007. 8,31 [Reynolds, Aphrodisias and Rome, p. 101-103, document 12]
This letter addressed by Octavian to the Ephesians was not inscribed in the city by the Ionian coast but Aphrodisias, which is located in the inner Anatolian region of Caria. The text was carved on a wall of the theatre as part of a larger collection of letters mostly exchanged between the Aphrodisians and the Roman authorities. The so-called “archive-wall” (Reynolds, Aphrodisias and Rome, p. 33-143 cf. Jones, “Review”; and Kokkinia, “The Design”) contains documents from the end of the Republic to the mid-3rd century CE; including letters of, at least, Octavian, Trajan, Hadrian, Commodus, Septimius Severus and Caracalla, Severus Alexander, Gordian III, and perhaps Trajan Decius. The similarity in the letter forms and arrangement of this epigraphic monument indicates that it was prepared as a unitary project between the end of the 2nd and the mid-3rd centuries, most probably in the reign of Severus Alexander (222-235). All the documents bear relation to the privileges awarded by Rome to Aphrodisias and its citizens. In the year 39/8 BCE, the Senate decreed their status of “friend and ally of the Roman people” (amicus sociusque populi Romanorum = φίλη τε καὶ σύμμαχος τοῦ δήμου τοῦ Ῥωμαίων). The “archive-wall” starts with a relatively well-preserved copy of this Senatus Consultum de Aphrodisiensibus (I.Aph2007. 8,27; Reynolds, Aphrodisias and Rome, p. 63-91, document 8), which lists the broad range of benefits granted: e.g. special tax immunity, exemption from hosting Roman officials in the city’s territory, and asylum status to the sanctuary of Aphrodite. Both before and after this award, other contemporary documents memorialised on stone c. 200 years later show the particular involvement of Octavian in the process. His letter sent to the Ephesians belongs to this context.

This document opens up (lines 1-3) with formulas that are typical in the epistolary exchange between Roman authorities and local communities in the Greek East. First, it contains the name and titles of the sending official and the series of magistrates (ἄρχοντες/archontes), council (βουλή/boulē), and people (δῆμος/dēmos) to whom the letter is addressed (χαίρειν/chairein). Octavian appears as Αὐτοκράτωρ (Ιmperator) and Καῖσαρ (Caesar), and indicates his filial relation to Julius Caesar. All these elements provide a t.p.q. in 40 BCE. Second, he remarks that he is in good health with the army; very likely in the events following the Treaty of Misenum (39 BCE). From lines 5 to 15, the motive of his communication is explained and the administrative procedure disclosed. An ambassador called Solon, son of Demetrios, had come to him on behalf of Plarasa and Aphrodisias – old name of Aphrodisias prior to the simplified version used in the imperial period (Reynolds, “The Politeia of Plarasa and Aphrodisias”; Chaniotis, “Vom Erlebnis zum Mythos”) – and exposed the many toils to which the population had been exposed in the war against Labienus, including the seizure of public and private property. The staunch diplomatic activity of Solon during these episodes is known from another document of the “archive wall” (I.Aph2007. 8,25 l. 14-45). Regarding Labienus, the Roman general was a former supporter of Brutus and Cassius who flew to Parthia after the battle of Philippi and begun to ravage the cities of Asia Minor (Cassius Dio, Roman History XLVIII.24-26; Strabo, Geography XIV.660). As we are informed by a letter that Octavian sent to the Aphrodisians and Tacitus’s Annals, the city proved itself a loyal supporter of Rome in successfully defeating the rebel (I.Aph2007. 8.25; Tacitus, Annals III.62). Indeed, both the Senatus Consultum de Aphrodisiensibus and a decree of the triumvirs emphasise that such a risky loyalty had motivated the award of their privileged status (I.Aph2007. 8,27 l.16-28; 8,26); something that Octavian also reiterated to delegates from Samos asking for similar rewards (I.Aph2007. 8,32).

Following the account by the Aphrodisian ambassador, Octavian gave a commission (ἐντολή = mandatum to Mark Antony, who is described as σύναρχον/synarchon, i.e. a colleague in power according to the constitutional arrangements of the second triumvirate. The latter was in charge of the provinces in the eastern Mediterranean (Appian, Civil Wars V.65) and had to give back as much of the looted property as possible to the original owners. Such instructions contrast heavily with the chapter 24 of the Res Gestae when the already Augustus accuses Mark Antony of having plundered the temples of Asia Minor, the treasures of which he only managed to restore again after the battle of Actium.

As part of Octavian’s plan to intervene on behalf of the Aphrodisians, he decided to contact the city of Ephesus. There were reports that a golden statue of Eros allegedly dedicated by Julius Caesar to Aphrodite ended up in the famous temple of Artemis Ephesia. Octavian requests the local institutions to return the monument to the Aphrodisians by appealing to the Ephesian respect for private property and lawful claims. In lines 16-18, he insists on the convenience of this restoration by referring again to the fact that his father gave the offering to Aphrodite and not to Artemis; a goddess for whom a representation of Eros is not suitable. Finally, the last two lines (19-20) are even more clear in reminding the Ephesians of the particular good-disposition (πρόνοια/pronoia) of Octavian towards Aphrodisias which, on the one hand, prompted the recent grant of “such benefits” (εὐεργέτηκα/euergetēka) and, on the other, was supposed to be already well known in Asia Minor. Such benefits clearly refer to the special status of amicus sociusque Romanorum decreed by the Senate as explained above. This distinction was one of the ways in which Rome could reward their supporters and Aphrodisias is not a unique case in the Anatolian peninsula (e.g. Termessos in Pisidia). Privileges such as important tax and billeting exemptions could also promote the economic power and prestige of these settlements. Actually, Aphrodisias appears to have particularly benefitted from this situation on account of the spectacular archaeological remains still surviving at a site that had not been very ornamented during the Hellenistic age (Erim, Aphrodisias; Ratté, “The Founding of Aphrodisias”). As a result, it is not surprising to attest the strong defence of such advantageous rights by the local population during the imperial period. The carving of the “archive wall” is one of the most evident signs of this attitude.

The role played by the local sanctuary of Aphrodite in this process is even more interesting. As mentioned above, the Senatus Consultum included the grant of asylum, specifying that it should have the same “rights and religious sanctity which pertain to the temple or precinct of Artemis at Ephesos” (I.Aph2007. 8,27 l. 56-57; Rigsby, Asylia, p. 385-393, 428-432). Thanks to the letter sent by Octavian to the Ephesians, we know that the cult of Aphrodite in the Carian city was already significant enough as to attract the attention of Julius Caesar and the setting up of his Eros statue before 39/8 BCE (Brody, The Aphrodite of Aphrodisias, p. 5-7). This constitutes another example of the particular interest by members of the Julian family to establish a connection between the mother of Aeneas and their lineage (see Weinstock, Divus Julius, p. 4-18). It is undisputable that Octavian exploited this mythical past even further and, therefore, a city such as Aphrodisias had good chances to strengthen their kinship ties with the Romans (Jones, Kinship Diplomacy, p. 99-102). In our collection, we find additional examples of this reality such as the oath prepared in Cyprus – the native island of Aphrodite – under Tiberius and Illium. The case of the Aphrodisians is even better attested as we can confirm that the singular link between the city and the alleged descendants of Venus was still maintained and celebrated both at the beginning and end of the Roman imperial age. A representation of the flight from Troy appeared in one of the central blocks of a magnificent marble monument, the so-called Sebasteion, which extolled the conquests of Rome in the first half of the 1st century CE (Smith, “Myth and Allegory”, p.  97-98). In 198 CE, when Septimius Severus and Caracalla responded to a congratulatory embassy from Aphrodisias soon after their Parthian victory, the emperors remarked that this polis was “more closely related than others to the power of the Romans (Ῥωμαίων ἀρχή/Rômaiôn archê) because of [the goddess] who presides over the city” (I.Aph2007. 8,37 l. 4-5). Even more direct was the brief Trajan Decius (249-251 CE), who affirmed that Aphrodisias could keep its autonomy “because of the goddess for whom your city is named and because of your relationship with the Romans and loyalty to them” (I.Aph2007. 8,114 l. 8-10). Both testimonies consequently confirm that such a distinctive kinship connection survived well after Octavian or the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Indeed, it contributed to the spectacular urban development of an already privileged city, which was not only a friend and an ally, but also a relative to Rome and its empire.
Literary reference: 

Cassius Dio, Roman History XLVIII.24-26

Strabo, Geography XIV.660

Tacitus, Annals III.62

Appian, Civil Wars V.65

Res Gestae Divi Augusti XXIV

Bibliographical references: 

The founding of Aphrodisias

Ratté, Christopherarticle-in-a-bookAphrodisias Papers. 4: New Research on the City and its MonumentsRatté, Christopher, Smith, Robert R.R.7-36The founding of AphrodisiasPortsmouth, R.I.Journal of Roman Archaeology2008

Myth and Allegory in the Sebasteion

Smith, Robert R. R.article-in-a-bookAphrodisias Papers: Recent Work on Architecture and SculptureRoueché, Charlotte, Erim Kenan T.89‑100Myth and Allegory in the SebasteionAnn ArborJournal of Roman Archaeology1990

Divus Julius

Weinstock, StefanbookDivus Julius OxfordClarendon Press1971
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