Life in Ancient Ephesus
DESIRABLE. Likely that is what many people thought about life in ancient Ephesus in Asia Minor. In fact, that city’s Greek name probably meant just that—desirable.
Visitors of today may find it hard to imagine that Ephesus ever was a desirable city. All that they see there are moldering ruins. So, tourists may well ask, “Could anyone have enjoyed life in ancient Ephesus?”
A TEEMING METROPOLIS
Ephesus once had at least an estimated 225,000 inhabitants. The city was important from both commercial and religious standpoints. Wealth abounded, although not every resident was prosperous.
The location of Ephesus contributed to its importance. Situated near the mouth of the Cayster River on the western coast of Asia Minor, it lay nearly opposite the island of Samos. Perhaps you can better fix its location in mind by noting that the ruins of Ephesus are some thirty-five miles (56 kilometers) southeast of Izmir, Turkey.
Ephesus had an artificial harbor that was kept open by dredging. With the passing of years, however, silt deposits apparently choked it, so that the site now is several miles inland. Nevertheless, in the city’s heyday, the largest seagoing vessels could be seen in its harbor. Moreover, Ephesus lay astride the main trade route between Rome and the East. By sea it was connected with Rome, and by land routes with much of Asia. So, many goods could be bought in the city’s shops and markets.
The founding of Ephesus is shrouded in legend. Eventually, though, Ionian Greeks settled there. The Lydians took the city in 560 before the Common Era, but only three years later the Persians were in control. It came under Macedonian domination in the days of Alexander the Great. Years thereafter, Attalus III, king of Pergamos (Pergamum), bequeathed Ephesus to Rome, along with the rest of his kingdom. In 190 B.C.E. the Roman province of Asia was established, with Pergamum as its capital and Ephesus eventually as the principal city.
A WALK THROUGH THE CITY
Shall we now take a look at some of the sights of ancient Ephesus? The agora, or marketplace, was a rectangular colonnaded area entered through gateways. It was surrounded by chambers and halls. Nearby was the library of Celsus, probably dating from the second century of the Common Era. This structure was built with columns, as well as an outer and an inner wall. The two walls protected the library’s papyrus documents from deterioration due to humidity.
In the heart of the city was the stadium, rebuilt during Roman Emperor Nero’s reign (54-68 C.E.). Likely, this was the scene of athletic events, and perhaps of gladiatorial combats.
Another notable site was the theater, the remains of which are situated on a slope of Mount Pion. About 495 feet (150 meters) in diameter, the theater had a facade decorated with pillars, niches and fine statues. Marble seats radiated upward from the stage to the number of sixty-six rows. Some 25,000 persons could be seated here, and the acoustic properties were excellent. Even today, in the theater’s ruined state, words spoken in a low voice at the stage’s location can be heard in the top row.
In front of the theater was the “Arkadiane,” a thirty-six-foot-wide (eleven-meter-wide) marble-paved street running to the harbor. On each side, this avenue was flanked by colonnades, with shops and storerooms behind them. A mammoth gateway was at each end of the street. Impressive indeed! But even more so was its temple.
THE TEMPLE OF ARTEMIS
This famed structure was one of the so-called ‘Seven Wonders of the World.’ The temple of Artemis (or, Diana) had been rebuilt according to the plan of an earlier Ionic temple said to have been burned in 356 B.C.E. by Herostratus. Erected on a platform about 239 feet (72 meters) wide by 418 feet (127 meters) long, the temple of Artemis had an approximate width of 164 feet (49 meters) and a length of 343 feet (104 meters). It was a cedar, cypress and marble building of brilliant color, with white marble roof tiles. Reportedly, instead of mortar, gold was used between the joints of the marble blocks. The inner sanctuary was about 70 feet (21 meters) wide and 105 feet (32 meters) long and is thought to have been open to the sky. Possibly, a statue of Artemis stood behind the large altar.
Artemis of the Ephesians, as her representations indicate, was a fertility goddess with many breasts. Both the Holy Scriptures and an ancient inscription identify Ephesus as the “temple keeper of the great Artemis.” (Acts 19:35) So sacred was her temple considered to be that treasures were placed there without fear of thievery. Even foreign monarchs and peoples deposited money in the temple, and these funds were loaned. Hence, a banking enterprise was linked with this edifice. Also, criminals were able to find asylum within an area extending some 600 feet (180 meters) outward around the temple, though the distance varied at different periods. Therefore, a village of thieves, murderers and other lawbreakers sprang up around this ‘wonder of the world.’
Nevertheless, pilgrims flocked to the temple of Artemis, even as multitudes go to Rome and Mecca today. Why, during the month of Artemision (March-April), hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over Asia Minor crowded into the city! A notable feature of the festivities was a jubilant religious procession during which an image of Artemis was paraded about. One can just imagine her devotees carrying a statue of the goddess and crying out “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Compare Acts 19:34.) Incidentally, the archaeologist’s spade has turned up coins bearing representations of the temple of Artemis with her image inside.
For the average resident, then, life in ancient Ephesus was busy. Aside from everyday pursuits, he would probably be absorbed in the religious processions. He might be witnessing spectacles in the stadium. Or, perhaps the man and his whole family would spend hours at the theater. They might dabble in occult practices, too, as Ephesus was widely known for magical arts. In fact, Greek and Roman writers referred to books or rolls containing magical formulas as “Ephesian writings.”
CHRISTIANITY COMES TO EPHESUS
Now, suppose we center our attention on the first century C.E. Things were going to change for some residents of Ephesus. It was probably in 52 C.E. that the Christian apostle Paul came to the city with Aquila and Priscilla and began to preach in the Jewish synagogue. Paul soon left, but he returned to Ephesus later, likely in the winter of 52/53 C.E. This time the apostle taught in the synagogue for three months. Opposition arose and he directed those who had become believers to the school auditorium of Tyrannus, where the apostle spoke daily for two years. The result? We are told in Scripture: “All those inhabiting the district of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”—Acts 18:18-21; 19:1-10.
Paul’s ministry was accompanied by miraculous healings and the expelling of demons. Many Ephesians became believers in Jehovah God and Jesus Christ. Furthermore, an unsuccessful attempt at exorcism by the seven sons of Sceva stirred up considerable interest, and former practicers of magic embraced true worship, burning their books.—Acts 19:11-20.
Since many Ephesians forsook the worship of Artemis, Demetrius the silversmith really got excited. He and his fellow craftsmen were realizing “no little gain” from making “silver shrines of Artemis.” Demetrius told his fellow workers that Paul’s preaching threatened their occupation and also endangered the worship of the goddess. Those men surely did not want the apostle to continue making Christian disciples and cutting down their business. Why, all those pilgrims might start going elsewhere! That glorious temple and the goddess herself might be esteemed as nothing. Then what would happen to the business of making “silver shrines of Artemis”?—Acts 19:23-27.
At any rate, Demetrius succeeded in throwing the city into an uproar. This culminated in a two-hour riot at the theater. After quieting the disorderly mob, the city recorder asked: “Men of Ephesus, who really is there of mankind that does not know that the city of the Ephesians is the temple keeper of the great Artemis and of the image that fell from heaven?” So, the Ephesians thought that they possessed an image of Artemis that had a heavenly origin. Some theorize that what ‘fell from heaven’ was a meteorite, thereafter fashioned into virtual human form and treated reverentially.—Acts 19:28-41.
Be that as it may, Christianity had made its mark in Ephesus. After the riot, Paul left the city. But a Christian congregation came into being there. Later, from Miletus the apostle summoned the overseers of the Ephesus congregation. Among other things, he was able to point to the fact that “night and day” he “did not quit admonishing each one with tears” for “three years,” evidently using a round figure for the time he spent in Ephesus.—Acts 20:1, 17-38; compare Acts 19:8-10.
It is interesting that the apostle Paul asked the Christians of Corinth: “If, like men, I have fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, of what good is it to me?” (1 Cor. 15:32) Paul could have been referring to conflicts with brutish men opposed to his preaching work in that city. But if his words are to be taken literally, perhaps he had to defend himself against literal wild animals and was miraculously delivered by Jehovah in the very stadium unearthed at ancient Ephesus.—Compare 1 Corinthians 4:9; 2 Corinthians 1:8-10; 11:23-27.
THE CITY’S LATER YEARS
About 60-61 C.E., during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, he wrote a divinely inspired letter to Ephesian Christians. In it the apostle stressed the importance of spiritual riches, giving very beneficial counsel for persons living in this fabulously wealthy city. (Eph. 1:7, 15-18; 2:6, 7; 3:8, 14-16) Ephesus was noted also for its immorality. So Paul appropriately warned against taking delight in discussing fornication and engaging in obscene jesting. (Eph. 5:3-5) Since demonistic practices were rampant in the city, Paul gave excellent counsel on resisting wicked spirit forces. (Eph. 6:10-20) Naturally, the apostle’s godly admonition benefits those applying it in life today, especially if they live in an environment like that of ancient Ephesus.
As the years wore on, Christians in Ephesus faithfully endured much suffering for righteousness’ sake. But the glorified Jesus Christ found that by the end of the first century C.E. some members of the congregation there had lost the consuming love that they once had for Jehovah God.—Rev. 2:1-6.
During the rule of Antoninus Pius (138-161 C.E.) a large part of Ephesus was rebuilt. About 262 C.E., however, the Goths ravaged the city, and the great temple of Artemis was destroyed. With the city’s historical significance gone, little can be said about Ephesus in later times, except that it changed hands often. For instance, the Turks took it in 1308 and built a town at nearby Ayassoluk. Both fell to the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem during the fourteenth century. Little by little, the once resplendent city—“desirable” Ephesus—was abandoned, leaving in its ruins only a hint of the city’s former grandeur.
[Map on page 365]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Temple of Artemis