The beautiful ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias, still partly excavated, is one of Turkey’s most important archaeological sites of the late Hellenistic and Roman periods. The city was located in Caria in Asia Minor, on a plateau 600 meters above sea level. Today, it lies near Geyre village, some 80 kilometres west of Denizli.
This one city I have taken for my own out of all Asia. Octavian, c. 38 BC.
The city was founded in the 2nd century BC on the site of a rural sanctuary of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. It was named after Aphrodite, who had her unique cult image, the Aphrodite of Aphrodisias, and became the city’s patron goddess.
In the 1st century BC, Aphrodisias came under the protection of Augustus following the return to the city of Zoilos, an Aphrodisian who the Roman emperor had made a free man. Zoilos had become very wealthy when he returned to Aphrodisias in 40 BC, initiating a period of prosperity and growth. He was responsible for the architectural planning of many of Aphrodisias’s civic centres and its early monumental projects. The ruins that remain today reflect this period of wealth which lasted until the 6th century. They include a Temple of Aphrodite, a theatre, a large Agora with its associated Bouleuterion (council house), a bath complex and a stadium.
A nearby marble quarry provided the ancient city with a supply of high-quality white and blue marble, and a school of sculptors flourished in Aphrodisias and rose to prominence under Hadrian. Aphrodisian signatures have been found on sculptures in Italy and Greece, notably on the Centaurs discovered at Hadrian’s Villa.
Hadrian visited Aphrodisias on one of his journeys to the Greek East. The city’s council had baths constructed as a memorial of his visit. They were built on the Roman model, with a series of parallel vaulted halls. Directly in front of the entrance on the north side was a marble pool ornamented with statues and large pillars at the corners.
The parallel vaulted rooms were, in order, the apodyterium (changing room), the frigidarium (cold baths), the tepidarium (warm baths) and the caldarium (hot baths). The lower walls of these halls, still standing, were built out of huge limestone blocks and faced with marble. The vaults (no longer surviving) were made from the mortared rubble plastered on the underside. The floors were lined with marble.
The first excavations at the Hadrianic Baths were undertaken in the year 1904 by the French engineer, amateur archaeologist and collector Paul Gaudin. A portion of the works unearthed during this excavation was moved to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, while some were removed from the country without permission. A marble torso, part of the Old Fisherman’s statue discovered there, was sold to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum by Gaudin’s heirs (while the head was found only in 1989 and remained in Aphrodisias). Today, the Old Fisherman’s torso is displayed in the Altes Museum, Berlin.
The baths were richly decorated with sculptures, including mythological statues depicting Trojan themes around the pool and architectural decoration of the highest quality in the palaestra and the front portico.
The bath complex was carefully maintained throughout antiquity and was still functioning in the 6th century AD when it continued to attract wealthy sponsorship for its redecoration. The complex was both a bathing facility and a museum of marble statuary.
The statue group (image above) depicts the hero Achilles supporting the Amazon queen with whom he has fatally wounded and fallen in love. The stab wound under her right breast was carefully carved and painted.
The long-lived Hadrianic Baths provide an unparalleled opportunity to examine the evolution of statuary decoration in imperial bath complexes over time.
A major conservation project in the Hadrianic Baths began in 2010 under the auspices of New York University and the Institute of Fine Arts. Work has been focused mainly on the rooms with hypocausts, and the walls were restored. Sadly a large part of the baths was fenced when I visited the site last month, and all the vaulted rooms were inaccessible. The images below show some of the rooms of the bath complex after conservation in 2013 (source).
Sources: IFA Excavations at Aphrodisias / Aphrodisias School of Archaeology – University of Oxford / Aphrodisias 2013 – A report on the archaeological field season (pdf)