Bithynia, Hadrian1900, Turkey

Late November 117 AD – Hadrian arrives in Nicaea (#Hadrian1900)

Around the end of November 117 AD, after crossing the plateau of central Bithynia, Hadrian arrived in Nicaea (modern Iznik), one of the most important towns of the Bithynian province. From Juliopolis, where he had stayed on November 11, (see previous post here) the imperial party marched west along the river Sangarius and entered Nicaea through its eastern gate.

Roman bridge over the Sangarius River near Nicaea. The Sangarius had its source in the Phrygian highlands and flowed north across the plateau to central Bithynia where it emptied into the Black Sea.

Nicaea was located on the eastern shore of Lake Ascania in a wide and fertile plain with plenty of natural resources. It was surrounded by a beautiful landscape and the Roman poet Catullus (Catul. 46.5) wrote that the nature of the region was inexhaustible and offered in abundance the finest fruits to anyone who cultivated the earth.

Lake Iznik, as seen from the town of Iznik.
The fertile plain around Lake Ascania with the city of Nicaea seen from the east.

The place is said to have been colonised by Bottiaeans from Central Macedonia who had named the city Helicore or Angore, but the first colony was subsequently destroyed by the Mysians. In the wake of Alexander’s death, Nicaea was rebuilt by the Macedonian king Antigonus I Monophthalmus who named the city Antigoneia after himself. Shortly thereafter in 301 BC, after the battle of Ipsus, Lysimachus conquered the city and changed its name into Nikaea, in honour of his wife. In the early 3rd century BC the area gained independence from the Seleucids and Nicaea came under the control of the local dynasty of the kings of Bithynia. Gradually the Romans extended their control in the region and in 74 BC the last Bithynian ruler bequeathed his province to Roman authority.

As Strabo records (Strab. 12.4), the town was built in the form of a square measuring 16 stadia in circumference (approx. 700 sq. km). All its streets intersected one another at right angles in accordance with the Hippodamian plan which is still visible in Iznik’s modern street system. Two main streets crossed the city and the extensions of those streets led to four gates visible from a fixed stone placed at the centre of the gymnasium which stood at the heart of the city.

Map of Nicaea.

The city prospered due of its location at the intersection of several east-west commercial roads leading to Byzantium, Ancyra in Galatia and into Phrygia. Under Roman rule, Nicaea enjoyed a period of expansion and prosperity and it was further fortified. The city was surrounded on all sides by walls 5 km long and 10 m high, and included 100 watchtowers and four main gates which provided the only entrances to the city. Today Nicaea’s walls are relatively well preserved but their current appearance is the product of more than a thousand years’ construction, reconstruction and modification. Presumably the Hellenistic walls described by Strabo were still standing in the early first century AD but very little remains of the pre-3rd century walls.

The city’s fortification wall with the top made out of spolia.

Nicaea was embellished under Augustus to the point of contending with Nicomedia for the seat of the provincial governor. During the Flavian period, four new monumental gates (north, east, west and south) were built from local marble and dedicated by a proconsul after AD 70. They honour Vespasian and his son Titus and “the first city of the province, Nicaea”. Each gate consisted of an arched main passage flanked by two rectangular minor gateways. They were embellished with statues in the niches on either side of the archway and perhaps over the gates as well. As part of the re-fortification project, the walls would later be raised and the gates would be completely rebuilt with a new brick superstructure and towers.

The Lefke Gate (eastern gate) seen from the inside with the Flavian arch integrated into Nicaea’s Byzantine fortifications. It marked the main road to Ancyra and Central Anatolia.
The Istanbul Gate (northern gate) seen from the outside with the Flavian arch integrated into Nicaea’s Byzantine fortifications. It marked the main road to Nicomedia and Byzantium/Constantinople.
Yenisehir Gate (the southern gate) with a Roman triumphal arch dating to the 1st century AD.

Pliny the Younger, governor of Pontus and Bithynia under Trajan, further enlarged the city and completed the construction of new buildings. During his term of office, he corresponded with Trajan to discuss the situation of Nicaea’s public works and gives a report of investments on unfinished buildings such as the theatre and the gymnasium.

The citizens of Nicaea, Sir, are building a theatre, which, though it is not yet finished, has already exhausted, as I am informed (for I have not examined the account myself), above ten millions of sesterces; and, what is worse, I fear to no purpose. For either from the foundation being laid in soft, marshy ground, or that the stone itself is light and crumbling, the walls are sinking, and cracked from top to bottom.

This city is also rebuilding, upon a far more enlarged plan, the gymnasium, which was burnt down before my arrival in the province. They have already been at some (and, I rather fear, a fruitless), expense. The structure is not only irregular and ill-proportioned, but the present architect (who, it must be owned, is a rival to the person who was first employed) asserts that the walls, although twenty-two feet in thickness, are not strong enough to support the superstructure, as the interstices are filled up with quarry stones, and the walls are not overlaid with brickwork. Plin. Epist. 10.39

The theatre’s construction had began shortly before Pliny’s inspection of the Bithynian cities and despite his suggestion that it should be demolished, the completion of the building was fulfilled as requested by Trajan. Located on the southern west part of the city between the lake and Yenişehir Gate, the theatre was built largely on vaulted substructures in opus caementicium and was faced with marble. It measured 85 by 55 m and belonged to the Hellenistic type, although it had undergone several alterations. Over the centuries the theatre became an open air quarry. Its stones were used as construction materials especially in the restoration of the city walls during the Byzantine and Ottoman period.

The Roman Theatre of Nicaea built during the reign of Trajan. Archaeological excavations have revealed that a church, palace, Ottoman ceramic workshops and tile kilns were constructed within it. The theatre is still being excavated.
The vaulted substructures of the theatre.

Nicaea would be hit by a large earthquake around 120 AD, three years after Hadrian’s first visit to the city. The earthquake would cause widespread destruction and the Emperor would contribute to the city’s reconstruction. He would give it new colonnaded streets, a market, and would repair the city walls on a much more massive scale.

After an earthquake had happened, Nicomedia lay in ruins, and many things were overturned in the city of Nicaea: for the reconstruction of which, Hadrian generously gave funds from the public treasury. Jerome, Chronicle 180

In honour of his benefactions and his visit in 124 AD, Nicaea’s northern and southern gates would be rededicated to Hadrian.

When the late walling around the gate was cleared away, a long dedication to Hadrian on both sides of its architrave was revealed.

Other monuments are documented by historical sources and inscriptions: a Sanctuary of the goddess Roma and of Caesar (built under Augustus), an Apolloneion, an aqueduct, and churches and a palace erected by Justinian who would take particular interest in the city (Procop. De aed. 5.3). The coins from the time of Marcus Aurelius commemorates a number of other monuments including temples of Asclepius, Dionysos, and Tyche. The city fought a long race with Nicomedia for the seat of the provincial governor. Both cities strove to outdo the other in the magnificence of their architecture and it was this frenetic activity which Pliny reported to Trajan in his letters.

Nicaea would be later renowned for the First Ecumenical Council convened by the Roman emperor Constantine in 325 AD in an attempt to unify the Church. Another important council would be held at Nicea in 787 AD to deal with the iconoclastic controversy. This would be known as the Second Council of Nicea and the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

The Haghia Sophia cathedrale, the site of the Second Council of Nicaea. It was originally a basilica built in the middle of the city in the 6th century by Justinian with three aisles that underwent repeated restoration until the 14th century.

Outside Nicaea on the ancient road to Nicomedia, rises the funeral monument of Gaius Cassius Philieus, a wealthy Nicaean landowner who died aged 83. The obelisk, triangular in section, is 12 m tall and is placed on a rectangular base. This extravagant obelisk-like funeral monument was probably a family grave. It is believed to have been built in the 1st or 2nd century AD and to have been surmounted by an eagle or a Victory.

The Beştaş Obelisk located in the middle of an olive orchard, 5 kilometres away from Iznik.

In 1990 a beautiful relief of Hercules was uncovered in an ancient stone quarry known as Deliktas just outside of Iznik. The relief is life-size and is placed inside a niche cut into the rock. However the details were left untreated and the surface was not polished showing that it was left unfinished. It is believed that the relief was carved to protect the quarry workers. The magnificent structures of Nicaea were built with marbles cut from this quarry which continues to operate today. The relief was declared a protected area by the Council of Monuments but unfortunately has suffered damage due to the agricultural activity in the area.

Unfinished relief of Hercules carved into a stone block in a quarry outside of Nicaea.

Host to four civilizations, capital to three of them, Iznik is a city that receives visitors thanks to its historical and natural beauty. At the time of my visit (October 2017), many areas in Iznik were under restorative construction in an attempt to enter the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Iznik Museum was closed for restoration, streets were being repaved and some sites, such as the Roman theatre and the Istanbul gate were inaccessible. There is also a project to turn the basilica where the First Council of Nicaea was held into an underwater museum. The remains of the building, discovered by aerial photography in 2014, are currently underwater 20 meters away from the lake’s shores and inaccessible to the public (read more here).

From Nicaea Hadrian would continue to travel towards Nicomedia and Byzantium where he would spend part of the winter of 117-118 AD, before heading to Dacia to deal with the Roxolani tribe.

Nicaea and Nicomedia on the Tabula Peutingeriana.

Sources & references:

  • The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites: NICAEA (Iznik)
  • Stefanidou, Vera (2003). “Nicaea (Antiquity)”. Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Asia Minor. Foundation of the Hellenic World.
  • J. M. Madsen, Eager to be Roman: Greek Response to Roman Rule in Pontus and Bithynia. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013

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