Asia Minor, Bithynia, Hadrian1900, Turkey

January AD 118 – Hadrian inaugurates the new year in Nicomedia (#Hadrian1900)


One thousand nine hundred years ago, Hadrian most likely celebrated the new year (year 871 Ab urbe condita) in Nicomedia, the capital of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in worth-west Asia Minor. After a short stay in Nicaea (see previous post here), Hadrian and his army continued to march towards Byzantium along the Gulf of Nicomedia. Hadrian inaugurated the year 118 as consul for the second time (COS II) and appointed as ordinary consul his great-nephew Pedanius Fuscus, who is assumed to have initially been regarded as Hadrian’s heir.

Bridge built by Justinian on the Nicaea-Nicomedia road.

Nicomedia was one of the most important port cities in the ancient Mediterranean. It was founded around 264 BC by King Nicomedes I of Bithynia on the site of the ruined Greek colony of Olbia, a Megarian city founded in the 8th century BC. It was built across several hills rising from the Gulf and was urbanised in accordance with the Hellenistic model. Nicomedia enjoyed an advantageous position on the land between two important cities, Byzantium and Nicaea, and major sea routes between Europe and Asia, as well as the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It served as the capital of the kingdom of Bithynia and later of the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus, with Nicaea as its rival. Under Diocletian, Nicomedia became the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. The importance of Nicomedia was also due to its marble quarries, and the marble trade centred in Nicomedia was famous throughout the whole region.

Nicomedia on the Peutinger Table.

Despite several destructive earthquakes, its strategic location made the city a significant trading, military and artistic centre throughout the ages. In 29 BC, the emperor Augustus allowed the Bithynians to build a temple to himself and to the goddess Roma (Dio Cass. 51.20.7), making Nicomedia the imperial cultic centre of the province. Temples dedicated to Demeter, Isis, Zeus and Magna Mater are also attested in ancient written sources.

At the time of Hadrian’s visit, the province of Bythinia-Ponthus had been governed by proconsuls for 150 years. It was formed when the last Bithynian ruler bequeathed his province to Roman authority during the late Roman Republic. The Romans then joined the former kingdoms of Bithynia (made a province by Rome 74 BC) and Pontus (annexed to Bithynia 63 BC) to form a single province.

During the reign of Trajan, the Roman writer Pliny the Younger was assigned to the province as governor and stayed in Bythinia for two years. While in office, he corresponded with the Emperor to discuss the situation in Nicomedia. In his letters, he mentioned several public buildings of the city, such as a senate house, an aqueduct, a forum, and a temple of Cybele and spoke of a great fire, during which the place suffered much. He also reported on the Nicomedian aqueduct, a project in which the city had invested but was left unfinished (Ep. 10.37).

Pliny to Trajan: Sire, the people of Nicomedia spent 3,229,000 sesterces upon an aqueduct, which was left in an unfinished state, and I may say in ruin, and they also levied taxes to the extent of 2,000,000 sesterces for a second one. This, too, has been abandoned, and to get a water supply those who have wasted these vast sums must go to a new expense. I have visited a splendid clear spring, from which it seems to me the supply ought to be brought to the town [and have formed a scheme that seems practicable].

Trajan to Pliny: Steps must certainly be taken to provide Nicomedia with a water supply; and I have full confidence you will undertake the duty with all due care. But I profess it is also part of your diligent duty to find out who is to blame for the waste of such sums of money by the people of Nicomedia on their aqueducts, and whether or no there has been any serving of private interests in this beginning and then abandoning of [public] works. See that you bring to my knowledge whatever you find out.

The remains of Nicomedia’s aqueduct in the outskirts of Izmit.

The 4th-century writer and teacher of rhetoric Libanius spoke of Nicomedia as “the city of Demeter” and catalogued the city’s magnificent buildings destroyed by the earthquake of AD 358. Other buildings included large baths, a nymphaeon, a theatre, gymmasia, numerous fountains, a circus and an agora.

What city was more beautiful? Its public buildings were splendid, its private contiguous, rising from the lowest parts to the citadel, like the branches of a cypress, one house above another, watered by rivulets and surrounded by gardens. Its council-chambers, its schools of oratory, the multitude of its temples, the magnificence of its baths, and the commodiousness of its harbour I have seen, but cannot describe. Libanius

Reconstruction of ancient Nicomedia, done by Onur Şahna, taken from Çalık Ross A., Ancient Izmit, 2007.

Nicomedia was the home of the intellectual Arrian (Lucius Flavius Arrianus), who was to be Hadrian’s lifelong friend. Like Latinius Alexander, who generously facilitated Hadrian’s passage and his army at Ancyra (see post here), Arrian, as a local dignitary, may have played a similar role in his city. Arrian was a Stoic philosopher and a student of Epictetus at Nicopolis in Epirus, where the pair probably met. About 12 years younger than Hadrian, Arrian shared many of Hadrian’s passions, notably a love of mysticism.

An earthquake would strike the province three years after Hadrian’s visit, and Nicomedia would sustain much damage. Hadrian would take a major part in funding the rebuilding of the city. This event would be depicted on coins with the personified figure of Nicomedia kneeling before the emperor, who would be honoured as Restitutor Nicomediae (restorer of Nicomedia). Nicomedia would also adopt the name of Hadriane and honoured Hadrian as saviour and benefactor. More earthquakes would strike the city under Antoninus Pius and Commodus, but the most devastating for the city would be the earthquake of AD 358.

Sestertius of Hadrian of the “restitutor type” with the legend RESTITVTORI NICOMEDIAE on the reverse. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Several other Roman emperors would later visit and winter there with their army during campaigns in the east. From the beginning of the 3rd century onwards, Nicomedia would become a military base for the army with a garrison and a fleet of ships stationed in its harbour. Eastern campaigns were to play an important role in Nicomedia’s economic and political life.

The Kocaeli Archaeology and Ethnography Museum.

There has not been any systematic archaeological excavation conducted in Izmit as ancient Nicomedia lies buried under the modern settlement, now Turkey’s most important industrial centre. However, archaeological surveys and rescue excavations have been carried out since 2000. These surveys, conducted by Kocaeli University, reveal new information about the history and economy of Nicomedia.

Marble statues representing the seasons. From right to left: Summer, Winter and Fall. 2nd or 3rd century AD.

During works to remove the debris of collapsed buildings after the massive Marmara earthquake of August 1999, a number of historical artefacts were found underground in the city’s Çukurbağ district. The finds from Çukurbağ consist of polychromic reliefs and sculptures of the Roman period depicting scenes of daily life, military battles, gladiator games, chariot races and theatrical performances, and mythological figures such as Hercules, Athena and Nike. A striking aspect of the Çukurbağ sculptures is their well-preserved and lively painted colours, a rare example in Roman art (read more here).

Two of the Çukurbağ reliefs discovered in 2001: the left one shows the goddess Roma, Nike and Roman officials in a processional scene.
The excavation site at Çukurbağ today, following the demolition of a modern building. The place is believed to have been Diocletian’s palace.

Building blocks and column stones were also found during construction works in the earthquake zone. Among them, a remarkable three-metre-tall headless statue of Hercules was found in 2001. Builders who discovered the headless Hercules treated it as garbage for fear that their construction work would be stopped by local authorities. Fortunately, that is precisely what happened, and the statue is now under protection and on display at the Kocaeli Archaeological Museum. In addition, excavation works conducted in 2016 have revealed 17-step stairs of a Roman temple (read more here).

Headless statues of Hercules and Athena found in Izmit.

Along the contours of Nicomedia’s hilly site, stretches of the northern city walls (with Byzantine and Turkish restorations and additions) can still be seen. They were with rows of brick alternating with rows of stone.

The interior city walls of Nicomedia.

The remains of a 10-meter-high tower locally known as Saint Barbara Tower are at the northeastern limit of the walls.

The remains of a high tower along the northern city walls.

From Nicomedia, Hadrian would continue to march towards Byzantium, where he would spend part of the winter of AD 118 before heading to Dacia to deal with troubles on the Danube frontier and to conduct negotiations with the king of the Roxolani.

Ancient bridge (with later modifications) along the Nicomedia – Byzantium route.

Meanwhile, in Rome, the Arval Brethren made New Year’s vows for the good health of the Emperor (January 3, AD 118).

Sources & references:

  • A. Birley, Hadrian, the Restless Emperor, Londres-New York 1997. pp. 85.
  • The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites: NICOMEDIA NW Turkey
  • Güney, H. 2012. The resources and economy of Roman Nicomedia. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Exeter.
  • Libanius: “On Nicomedia, destroyed by an earthquake” (link)
  • Tuna Şare Ağtürk, Painted reliefs from Nicomedia: life of a Roman capital city in colour (link)

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