BMCR 2022.02.10

Religion in Ephesos reconsidered: archaeology of spaces, structures, and objects

, , , , Religion in Ephesos reconsidered: archaeology of spaces, structures, and objects. Supplements to Novum Testamentum, vol. 177. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. xxiii, 289. ISBN 9789004401129 €129,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume grew out of two sessions at the 2014 international meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Vienna. Of its 13 papers, eight are revisions of conference papers or otherwise connected to either the session on “Ephesian temples: sacred sites and practices” or the one on “Domestic space and religion: Imperial and Late Antique Ephesos”.[1]

The book seeks to provide “a detailed recap in English” (p. 1) of the current state of archaeological research in Ephesos, from the perspective of religious practice in the Roman and Byzantine city. Christianity and the Christian Umwelt are a major concern, as befits a Novum Testamentum supplementary volume. The papers are preceded by a seven-and-a-half page introduction by Daniel Schowalter.[2] He summarizes every paper without drawing any overall conclusions other than that archaeological evidence can provide new insights and raise questions about received wisdom, although there are limits to what archaeology can do and the non-specialist should be careful. We are urged to reconsider our assumptions—always the proper thing to do; but what are the general reader’s assumptions about Ephesos, and why exactly should they be reconsidered?

The book is divided into three parts: structures, spaces, and objects. The distribution of the papers across the three sections does not always seem logical, so in discussing the papers I will shift some around. First “structures”. Ladstätter discusses the so-called imperial cult temple of Domitian. Late antique despoliation has spared so little of the temple and surrounding area that the architectural superstructures cannot be reconstructed, and dating is uncertain. Friesen’s designation (Steven J. Friesen, Twice Neokoros: Ephesus, Asia, and the Cult of the Flavian Imperial Family, Leiden 1993) of the main building as a temple to the Flavian dynasty can stand. Scattered neokorate inscriptions from Ephesos and the surrounding countryside might belong here. In the 5th c. nothing remained except the surrounding colonnades and a cryptoporticus. The temple was not replaced by a church, but by secular buildings, abandoned by the end of the 6th c. In an aside in the account of the cryptoporticus (p.27) it is stated that this may have been used for “religious activities such as processions. This hypothesis is supported by … finds … in particular, numerous lamps from the high imperial period.” One would have liked the author to elaborate on this. The Demeter fresco from the cryptoporticus (p.26, fig. 1.12) might be relevant.

Schulz discusses the so-called Serapeion: a temple for the Egyptian gods from the second half of the 2nd c. So much material remains in situ that a reconstruction is possible. Schulz’ detailed description ends in a plea for full-scale anastylosis. On the religious aspect there is very little. The presence of flowing water is said to be typical for the cult of the Egyptian gods— but Keil said as much in 1915, as Schulz acknowledges, and everybody since.[3] Also, “the passage from darkness to light as a basic element for all initiation rites” is linked to staircases within the exterior longitudinal walls which lead up from dark corridors to the sunlit roof. Schulz suggests that these staircases were for the use of “religious officials”, as they are narrow and very steep. This is all very hypothetical: that these were “service stairs” of a kind is acceptable, but what should we make of a complicated architectural feature meant for some kind of initiation rite for religious officials only?

Steuernagel takes a closer look at the Upper Agora (Staatsmarkt), which is supposedly based on an Augustan master plan. He shows, however, that the existence of such a plan is unlikely, considering the more complex history revealed by recent research, and he pleads for an ensemble that resulted from the efforts of pluralistic, competing factions, showing “hybrid Graeco-Roman identities” (pp. 104-105).

Zabrana studies the Artemision. The area around the main temple has remained largely unexplored, except for John Turtle Wood’s excavations in the 19th c. Zabrana interestingly shows how much we can learn by going back to Wood’s original reports to the British Museum (unpublished; cf. Izabella Donkow, ‘The Ephesus excavations 1863-1874, in the light of the Ottoman legislation on antiquities’, Anatolian Studies 54 (2004) 109-117; Lilli Zabrana, ‘Ausgrabungs- und Forschungsgeschichte des Artemisions’, in: eadem, Das Odeion im Artemision von Ephesos, Vienna 2018, 23-29). Of Wood’s discoveries nothing is now to be seen above ground. More recent trench archaeology confirms that in Roman days the sanctuary was a built-up area with many different structures that we cannot confidently label without further research.

Spaces next. Sokolicek considers the Magnesian Gate. The paper starts with a number of truisms. A wall and a gate are, or can be, liminal, in a religious, legal, political, and cultural sense, but gates are also “a conduit between city and country” (p. 108), and “markers of how to proceed into an urban area” (p. 113). Happily, Sokolicek proceeds to a proper and thorough discussion of the procession from the Artemision to the theatre, and the famous inscription of C. Vibius Salutaris (Die Inschriften von Ephesos no. 27) that regulates it in great detail. Sokolicek suggests possibly Roman religious elements in the Salutaris procession.

Steskal looks at the so-called “mortuary landscape” around Ephesos: survey archaeology has identified at least 90 hectares of burial land. In the imperial period, we find mainly plastered stone burial houses, constructed in the 2nd c. and re-used again and again, and which are quite uniform. Steskal argues that status is expressed in the funerary ritual (pp. 130-131), while in actual burial an (unrealistic) egalitarian ideal is maintained. He interestingly hypothesizes about the social mechanisms behind this.

Thür starts with the house of C. Fl. Furius Aptus, unit 6 of Terrace House (Hanghaus) 2, which has been recognized for over 30 years as the meeting place of a Dionysiac association, and seeks to position it within a sacred landscape. She gives a good overview of all kinds of evidence for the presence of Dionysus and Dionysiac cult in Ephesos. The theatre and its direct surroundings are an area associated with Dionysiac worship, and Thür suggests that we have something of a “Dionysus quarter” here.

Thomas presents the results of coring and of geophysical surveys that have helped to locate the harbour and the Roman development alongside it into an extensive emporion. She argues that this will aid us in putting on the map, literally, the “invisible Christians” of the first two centuries CE. She describes Paul as a “peripheral character” (p. 188), and by extension other Christians as well, who must have been more at home in the liminal area of the emporion than in Ephesos proper. I can readily believe her, but her promise to create a spatial and kinetic landscape as Pauline Christians experienced it is rather far from fulfilment.

In third position: Objects. Pillinger writes about the Cave of St Paul. Part of that cave, the so-called Larger Cave, contains over 300 graffiti, dipinti and “other inscriptions”, as yet unpublished, that show it to have been a place of pilgrimage, continuously from Antiquity to the present. Under a layer of whitewash were found up to five layers of frescoes dating from the 3rd to the 12th c. (but the paper is not very clear about which frescoes belong to which centuries): biblical scenes, Christ, Mary with the infant Jesus, saints, and a 5th-c. fresco of Paul with Thekla and Theokleia. Pillinger adduces parallels for the Paul and Thekla iconography; the depiction of Theokleia is unique. The cave is likely to have been a cave church; its dedication is unclear, but it could have been dedicated to Thekla, as have other cave churches.

Pülz looks at Christian symbols such as incised crosses. We find these in Ephesian public space as well as in private dwellings in the late antique lower city. We also encounter many small objects decorated with crosses, images of saints, and so on, and inscriptions with biblical quotations. Pülz suggests that many of these symbols are apotropaic; he also states that the presence of Christian objects is influenced by many factors (“personal belief” is just one, along with fashion, preferences, availability, cost, etc., p. 86). Both statements seem to undermine somewhat his conclusion that Christian iconography permeates late antique Ephesos: how Christian exactly is that so-called “Christian iconography”?

Kirbihler discusses ruler cults in Ephesos and supposes a development from Hellenistic royal cults to the cult of Roma and of popular proconsuls in Republican days to the imperial cult. He argues convincingly that the imperial cult, traditionally thought to have been instituted in 29 BCE, reached Ephesos a decade before, because there is already attested a cult for Divus Julius. Kirbihler gives a thorough overview of the epigraphy down to the late 3rd c.

With Zimmermann’s paper we return to Terrace House 2, an insula with seven peristyle houses. Domestic religion is attested by painted and sculpted images, niches for statuettes, altars, and thymiateria (incense burners). There is apotropaic imagery, domestic shrines with different gods and the agathos daimon, and possibly instances of ancestor worship. Also thrown in by the author are sacrificial deposits underneath walls and thresholds, but these, I think, belong in a somewhat different category. What Zimmermann shows is the wide variety of domestic religion in Ephesos, which is not at all standardised, in contrast to the lararia in Pompeii.

Rathmayer zooms in on the terracotta figurines from Terrace Houses 1 and 2. She concludes that, although there are toys, decorative objects and what she called “collectibles”, the majority testify to domestic worship. It could be.

There are some decent maps and plans, as separate plates and as figures throughout the text (but the legends are printed in a very small font). The papers are excellently illustrated, largely in full colour. There is a subject index and index of place names.

As might be seen from my comments above, this collection of papers is above all an overview of recent archaeological work and some epigraphy, often in considerable archaeological detail, especially when discussing architectural features. The papers are by specialists who know what they are talking about and they provide extensive documentation. It is, however, rather disappointing as an account of “religion in Ephesos reconsidered” in the light of recent research “from the perspective of religious practice in the Roman and Byzantine city”. We are never told what the new insights or revisionist ideas promised in the introduction exactly are, so we have to figure that out for ourselves. However, some papers hardly say anything about religious practice at all, and others discuss it rather tangentially. The non-specialist addressed in the introduction may be left somewhat bewildered, wondering what he should have learned.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Daniel Schowalter, Pp.1–8
Part 1: Structures
1 The So-Called Imperial Cult Temple for Domitian in Ephesos, Sabine Ladstätter, Pp.11–40
2 The So-called Serapeion in Ephesos: First Results of the Building Research, Thekla Schulz, Pp.41–61
3 Thekla in the Cave of St. Paul at Ephesos, Renate Johanna Pillinger, Pp.62–72
4 Selected Evidence of Christian Residents in Late Antique Ephesos, Andreas Pülz, Pp.73–89
Part 2: Spaces
5 The Upper Agora at Ephesos: an Imperial Forum?, Dirk Steuernagel, Pp.93–107
6 The Magnesian Gate of Ephesos, Alexander Sokolicek, Pp.108–122
7 Mortuary Landscape and Group Identity in Roman Ephesos, Martin Steskal, Pp.123–134
8 Sacred Space for Dionysos in Ephesos and the House of C. Fl. Furius Aptus, Hilke Thür, Pp.135–157
9 The Artemision in the Roman Era: New Results of Research within the Sanctuary of Artemis, Lilli Zabrana, Pp.158–170
10 Invisible ‘Christians’ in the Ephesian Landscape: Using Geophysical Surveys to De-Center Paul, Christine M. Thomas, Pp.171–191
Part 3: Objects
11 Ruler Cults and Imperial Cults at Ephesos: First Century BCE to Third Century CE, François Kirbihler, Pp.195–210
12 Archaeological Evidence for Private Worship and Domestic Religion in Terrace House 2 at Ephesos, Norbert Zimmermann, Pp.211–229
13 The Meaning and Use of Terracotta Figurines in the Terrace Houses in Ephesos, Elisabeth Rathmayr, Pp.230–251
Back Matter
Subject Index
Index of Place Names


[1] One author (Pillinger) was present at the conference, but in quite a different session (the paper here derives from a 2011 conference on St Thekla), and four (Kirbihler, Schulz, Sokolocek and Steskal) did not contribute at the conference at all; these five undoubtedly were invited to join the eight others in this volume because of their intimate knowledge of Ephesos and the Ephesos excavations (somewhat perversely, the “notes on contributors” do not mention the extensive work they have done in and on Ephesos).

[2] The three co-editors double as authors of individual papers, except for Steven Friesen, who is not otherwise represented in this volume – which is somewhat strange considering his expertise when it comes to Ephesos (he was at the 2014 conference, but in a different context). Why he did not contribute as an author, or what his actual contribution as an editor was, is not explained.

[3] Josef Keil, ‘Ephesische Funde und Beobachtungen,’ ÖJh 18 (1915) 279–286. Cf. Robert Wild, Water in the Cultic Worship of Isis and Sarapis, Leiden 1981, still the main reference.