The first Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, died on this day, 19 August, AD 14. Occasioned by the 2005th anniversary of that event, this post is a brief follow-up to “Monuments to Dead Romans: The Şekerhane Köşkü,” featuring a probable Temple to the Deified Emperor Trajan (d. AD 117). Since that entry (first in a new occasional series) was posted on the most likely day of Trajan’s death, this one too is timed for the anniversary of the Emperor’s death.
Like Trajan after him, Caesar Augustus died on his way back
to Rome. His ashes were placed in the huge tomb Octavian (his given name)
prepared for himself already in 28 BC, before he even obtained the title
Augustus by which he is remembered.
It was a huge circular Mausoleum built of concrete and tufa reticulate (small
blocks of volcanic conglomerate in a diamond pattern, often as a form for the
concrete). The outer of six concentric structural walls measured 300 Roman feet
(c. 89m) in diameter, and the 40 Roman feet (c. 12m) high. The 2nd
and 3rd walls were consequtively higher and bonded with the outer,
making 25m thick ring. A single entrance on the south pierced the outer walls,
opening to a vaulted corridor around the 4th wall, through which 2
entrances led to another corridor around the 5th wall, with a single
entrance to the burial vault (for urns, as the Romans practiced cremation). The
ruined state of the building makes the superstructure details unclear and
several reconstructions have been imagined, most assuming a finished overall height
of 150 Roman feet (40-45m).
According to Strabo, the Mausoleum was the most impressive of local monuments, “which consists of a mound of earth raised upon a high foundation of white marble, situated near the river, and covered to the top with ever-green shrubs. Upon the summit is a bronze statue of Augustus Cæsar, and beneath the mound are the ashes of himself, his relatives, and friends” (Strabo 5.8.3). One would expect such an impressive monument would be remembered, respected, restored, and revered.
Sadly, that has not been the case. The Mausoleum was
converted into a fortress in the medieval period, destroyed in 1167, and robbed
for building stone. The building became an ornate garden in the 16th
century, an arena for bullfights in the 18th, a theater and circus
arena in the 19th, and a concert hall with 3,500 seats in the early
Thereafter the site fell into total neglect, became overgrown, and deteriorated
even after some attempt at clarifying it with a surrounding plaze by the
Fascist government in the late 1930s.
The original white limestone facing was robbed along with
other usable limestone within. Trees dominate the upper surface of the ring
defined by the outer walls today, perhaps simulating hinting at the appearance
described by Strabo (above). The site has been closed for some time, and
restorations were supposed (by one report) to be completed in April of this
year. At last check, the Mausoleum is still inaccessible, but Google Earth photos
give some hope of progress.
My advice: if you get to choose whether to have a month named
for you or have a fantastic monument . . . take the month.
month August was named in his honor—a non-physical and more enduring “monument.”
Bonus for footnote readers—because I never get to share this one in class
anymore: if you ever have to watch Disney’s Cinderella (original animated),
as I have with two daughters and then two granddaughters, you might notice that
when the new fat mouse is discovered, he gives his name as “Octavius.” But
Cinderella says, “we’ll call you ‘Gus’ for short.” How does Octavius become Gus?
Octavius = AuGUStus. This almost makes up for the annoying music.
 Most details from Amanda Claridge, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford: University Press, 1998), 181-84. BTW, this series is the most helpful and undersold of archaeological guides; the new edition of Rome is here.
I have always been fascinated by monuments or memorials to the deceased and the psychology behind them, as well as the physical structures themselves. This post is triggered in part by the most recent of the all-too-familiar temporary memorials that appear at scenes of horrific mass shootings in my own country. But not to dwell on that depressing and unfortunately ubiquitous topic, I hereby initiate an occasional series on monuments to long-dead Romans and other figures of antiquity.
Trajan excelled in his 19-year reign and was highly regarded
in life, death, and by Renaissance and early modern historians. Already having
made significant military conquests in Dacia, in AD 114 he set out for
campaigns on the eastern frontier. The problem there was agitation by the
Parthian Empire (originating in Persia—modern Iran—another connection of this
story with contemporary events!). Trajan was incredibly successful in his initial
campaign, taking the Parthian capital Ctesiphon and gaining a foothold on the
Persian Gulf. But reduced success and troubles elsewhere in the Empire caused
him to return towards Rome in 117.
Our main source for Trajan’s last days is Cassius Dio.
Already suffering in health, which he attributed to poison, the Emperor
suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. In early August he sailed
for Rome from Antioch. When Trajan’s health deteriorated the ship put in at the
nearest port, Selinus in Cilicia, where he “suddenly expired” (Cassius
Dio 68.33). Selinus was subsequently renamed Traianopolis in the Emperor’s
honor and memory. Details on the exact disposition of his body are not given,
but his “remains” were transported back to Seleucia, the port of Antioch, for
viewing by his successor, Hadrian, and then to Rome.
On the outskirts of the Turkish city Gazipaşa are the ruins of Selinus/Traianopolis, and on the landward outskirts of them stands a lonely structure known locally as the Şekerhane Köşkü, which refers to the building’s use as a hunting platform for elites during the Seljuk Period. Early western explorers of the area identified it as having a sepulchral function and likely built as a cenotaph (a tomb structure without the honored person’s actual remains) for Trajan. Trajan was the only personality of his magnitude known to have died there and a memorial to him is a logical outcome although the written sources do not mention such. The roof of the edifice was covered in soil and produced wheat and other crops that were grown around it. This layer was cleared in the early 2000s revealing the foundation outlines of a temple-like structure with a place for a cult statue. These and other details now make it likely that the building was not a cenotaph but rather a platform for a temple to the deified Emperor Trajan.
Coins issued in Selinus from the late 2nd-mid 3rd centuries featured a temple to Trajan on the reverse. There is no other suitable candidate for this temple in the extant remains apart from the Şekerhane Köşkü. Further, there are striking parallels to coins featuring the Temple of the Deified Julius Caesar (mentioned above) in Rome, which was situated at the spot of Caesar’s cremation. One of the walls of the Şekerhane Köşkü incorporates an earlier square structure, arguably the cremation pit where Trajan’s corpse was burned—an essential step in Apotheosis (elevation to divine status) for both Caesar and Trajan.
The Emperor’s ashes were eventually transported to Rome
where they were placed in a special chamber at the base of Trajan’s Column, a
magnificent and still-standing 30 meter (98 ft) high column depicting the
Emperor and his troops during the Dacian wars and showing painstaking detail of
the Roman army in action. Trajan’s Column anchors one end of the extensive
Forum of Trajan, the last of the Imperial Fora in Rome.
In addition to physical monuments, Trajan’s legacy includes other
honors. He was universally lauded by contemporary writers and posthumously declared
by the Senate optimus princeps, “the best ruler.” He was considered by
some Christian theologians to be a “virtuous pagan,” and Dante depicts him in
Jupiter’s Heaven in The Divine Comedy. Modern historians have sometimes
questioned Trajan’s accomplishments, and his successor Hadrian (who did
relinquish Trajan’s gains against Persia) now gets better press.
 This argument is effectively made by Michael Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified Trajan,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 10 (Sept 2016): 56-68 [this is a special issue also titled Ex Terra Scientia: Papers in Honor of David Soren, eds. R.H Wilkinson and P.P. Creasman]. For the nerds that read footnotes: I actually obtained this issue recently for a current research project and was pleased to find this article there. Ironically, Michael Hoff (the author) had graciously received my research colleague and I at his impressive excavation site within an hour of our most recent visit to the Trajan Temple site.
Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified
While scanning for high ground from which to get a better overview pic of the Belevi Monument, my adventure companions and I noticed something odd about the adjacent hilltop. It had a very uniform dome-like summit, as would be expected for a man-made tumulus . . . but tumuli generally are built up on flat ground rather than on top of a natural hill. Yet, it seemed that a ring wall surrounded the uniform summit . . . or was that a natural rock outcropping? Zooming in with photographic technology made it obvious: we had to climb the hill, heat and limited time notwithstanding.
A quick review of resources indicated just enough water for the anticipated rigor of the climb and to avoid a time-killing return to the vehicle. Up we went.
Sure enough, a wall surrounded the summit; so well-built that we wondered if it could be modern. But clambering up the last steep bit to the base, we could see that it was ancient and of elegant quality. Climbing over the wall would be difficult and of uncertain gain at that point (on the E side), so we split up and walked around the circuit.
Tumuli are built so as to obscure the entrance for tombs contained therein, so we were not hopeful. But Shane, who went clockwise, found a tunnel opening on the south, enclosed and originally concealed by the circuit wall but now accessible.
Finding an entrance was very exciting but unexpected. As the Belevi Monument did not require underground exploration equipment, we were without proper lights and, in my case, a good camera for unlit tight spaces. Still, the tunnel beckoned and in we went.
The tunnel was constructed, apparently, by cutting down from above and then lining the passage thus made with masonry and roofing it over with large cut slabs before debris was piled and rounded above. This nearly straight and level passage led for about 20 yards (18.3 m) to an anteroom space and two successive burial chambers—the second at approximately the center of the tumulus. Unfortunately, the sides and roof of the tunnel were coated in a greasy black soot, which evidently came from a burned tire. What moron would lug a tire up this hill and then torch it in the tunnel? This can only be explained by Rule One.
So, blackened by the tire fire residue, we arrived at the burial chambers. The first is approximately square with fine stone walls featuring “crown molding” along the tops. The roof is formed by four large blocks laid across the corners as though a second tier of wall masonry was rotated 45 degrees. The effect is somewhat like the recessed ceilings popular in recent American home construction. While it is very interesting in appearance (and hard to photograph) its structural function relieves pressure on the thus-reduced roof space.
A problem in tumuli, pyramids, cairns, and other big piles over chambers is the resulting pressure on the roof slabs of the latter. The same problem occurs for any spanned space with significant structural loads. The arch is the most common way of dealing with this from the Roman period on.
Another technique is found in the innermost burial chamber of the Belevi Tumulus, which is smaller and more rectangular. It has a “corbelled arch” roof, in which each successive course of masonry is slightly inset to the center. In this inner chamber, a hole in the roof gave access to a relieving chamber above. From it a small tunnel led to another relieving chamber over the outer burial chamber. Relieving chambers are another way of “relieving” roof pressure, as they are slightly smaller and help transfer to the load to the walls rather than the roof of the chamber below. The most famous relieving chambers are those in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Such chambers are usually not visible and provide potential hiding places for treasure. It is likely that the holes giving access to the relieving chambers at Belevi were created by treasure hunters, whether ancient or modern.
Access to the relieving chambers through the hole in the center of the inner chamber roof was a challenge—imagine the scene in Moana, where she escapes the cave through such a hole! For us it was only possible by boosting, using each others’ shoulders as a ladder, and wriggling through the tight hole (I split open an elbow and resolved to lose some girth). Given the coating of black tire tar, we did not emerge as deftly or cleanly as Moana. Getting back down was a tad more exciting still. In case anyone wonders, there was no physical treasure, but the exploration itself was a priceless enriching Adventure.1
The Belevi Tumulus (38.0142° N, 27.4675° E)
True enrichment only comes with learning, so it was incumbent upon the Adventurers to research the site. As it happens, the tumulus was known already in the 19th century and sporadically investigated by Austrian and German archaeologists between 1933 and 1971.2 The date of the tumulus remains uncertain, but the early Hellenistic period seems the most probable. Thus, it is roughly contemporary or slightly earlier than the Belevi Monument below.
A nice quarry from which stones for the tumulus’ construction were taken can be seen near the entrance passage. Great skill went into the design of the circuit wall, as the stones of lower courses have grooves on their upper surface into which bosses on the bottom of the higher courses fit. This feature prevented outward collapse from the force of the tumulus bulk inside and above the wall—another engineering marvel of this well-constructed tomb!3
A scatter of squared blocks on the summit of the mound suggest a monument stood there, high above the local terrain. But to whom? There is no sarcophagus or inscription to identify the owner. Clearly a person of some import, they remain unknown and without even the speculations that accompany the occupant of the Belevi Monument over which their final resting place silently looms.
Thanks for reading!
1 Shane McInnis, so enthralled by the experience, made a pronouncement claiming the tumulus as his own.
2 See (in German), Sandor Kasper, “Tumulus von Belevi,” Archäologischer Anzeiger (1975): 223-32.
3 See (in English!), George L. Bean, Aegean Turkey 2d ed. (London: Benn, 1979), 149-50.
This is the first true post in my series “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour,” for which one should read my introduction. As noted there, I selected my first site to continue the theme of the introduction and serve as an exemplar of the kind of places I want to feature.
The Background: potentially boring, but necessary to connect to the aforementioned theme
One of the curious things about the Seven Wonders of the ancient world is that, except for the Pyramid(s) of Egypt, all are essentially or completely gone. The sites of most are reasonably well established; but even where vestiges remain, they hardly hint at the structure’s former splendor . . . and certainly do not evoke wonder. This is especially ironic in the case of the one Wonder (apart from the Great Pyramid) that was built to preserve and amplify the memory of a single person: the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. An uninformed modern consideration of the name might create the assumption that this Wonder was a funeral building for some dude named Halicarnassus. That would be fake news.
Actually, Halicarnassus (Greek: Ἁλικαρνᾱσσός) was an ancient Greek city (modern Bodrum) in Caria (SW Turkey). It became the capital of a quasi-independent fourth-century bc kingdom under Mausolus, who was the dude. Mausolus was a “dynast,” nominally the satrap of the region under the Persian king, but with hereditary royal power. He built up his realm, and apparently his ego, through political savy and occasional rebellion. At his death, his sister, wife, and successor Artemisia oversaw construction of his huge and elaborate funerary monument. The structure came to be known—as typically, with the Hellenistic Greek suffix –εῖον—as the Μαυσωλεῖον (“[the shrine] of Mausolus”), normalized through Latin as The Mausoleum. It became the epitome of, and thus the actual word for, an elaborate funeral structure. The irony for Mausolus is that everyone knows his name as a term for a memorial building, but hardly anyone remembers the man. And his monument is no longer there—it was reduced to construction material by the Knights Hospitaller to fortify the castle of St. Peter in Bodrum harbor in the 15th century.
But this post is not about The Mausoleum.1 It is about a similar, smaller, and actually preserved funerary monument some 110 kilometers to the north, not far from ancient Ephesus. It was apparently the second-largest tomb structure in Asia Minor—after The Mausoleum—and thus easily overlooked in compendia of Wonders.
The Belevi Monument
The Belevi Monument, so-called for its proximity to Belevi, a town near Selçuk (ancient Ephesus), is today a hulking mass of cut bedrock, fallen stone masonry, and heaps of marble decorative fragments. Its dilapidated state notwithstanding, the monument remains an impressive sight and ranks as a wondrous site in my book (if you haven’t read the introductory post for this series, do so now for that dichotomy!).
As there are no surviving inscriptions, opinions on the date of the monument rest on analysis of stylistic details of the decorative remains. Most favor a Hellenistic date of the third century bc, and suggest the occupant of the tomb must have been an important ruler after Alexander the Great. The Seleucid king Antiochus II is an intriguing possibility, given that he died in Ephesus in 246 BC. While his body would normally be returned to Syria for burial, political conditions of the day may have prompted burial near Ephesus. His wife Laodice, under suspicion of having poisoned him, also may have felt motivated to make an extravagant show of burying and memorializing Antiochus II. Others suggested a date in the 4th century, during Persian domination,2 in which case a nameless local nabob lay there. The most recent study claims that pottery suggests a date in the early 3rd century,3 perhaps too early for Antiochus II.
In the final analysis, we cannot be sure who occupied this now most-fabulous, but relatively unappreciated, ancient tomb of Asia Minor. I cannot help but find more irony in that fact. But that is one of the things that makes the site intriguing.
The Site (38.0147° N, 27.4722° E)
The Belevi Monument is visible, if you know where to look, from the O-31 Izmir-Aydin Otoyol (Turkey has fantastic limited-access motorways). But to visit the site, one must exit at the Belevi interchange, drive through the town, cross under the O-31, turn through a tunnel back under the O-31 and arrive via a decent gravel road. The ruins are obvious and are surrounded by a rather effective fence. Before 2015, the gate was generally open but the site is now apparently closed and the official gate locked. There is another somewhat-official access (not involving climbing the fence!) which I used on my two most recent visits.
The monument itself is impressive for a tomb in its sheer bulk. The central rock block, created by cutting away the hillside, is almost 30 meters square and over 11 meters high. It was faced with marble blocks on a stepped base with a Doric frieze at the top—from which numerous triglyphs lie strewn about. The facing covered and concealed the burial chamber, cut in the central core opposite the remaining hill face.
Above the solid block core was a built (faux-burial?) chamber surrounded by a marble colonnade and topped by pairs of winged lions and urns. The roof was probably pyramidal in shape, but this is not certain. Some of the winged lions and the sarcophagus from the burial chamber are in the Selçuk museum, but a myriad of column, capital, frieze, and other decorative fragments remain scattered about the site for inspection.
Stepped base on the W side
Detail of stepped base on N side of Belevi Monument
It is possible, but rather precarious and probably imprudent, to climb to the top of the ruins. Folks apparently have been doing so for some time, however, as there is an ancient mancala (game) board carved into the highest remaining masonry stone on the NE corner. Mancala (and other game) boards can be found on ancient ruins and streets around the eastern Mediterranean, but this one has perhaps the best setting of any I have seen.
A Digital Sight on a Site You Must Check Out:
Owing to the proximity of the hill from which the base was cut away and some large trees just opposite the burial chamber, the Belevi Monument is surprisingly difficult to photograph from the ground, so the following may compensate for my attempts.
I serendipitously stumbled upon a spectacular 3D photogrammetric model of the Belevi Monument ruins by a group in Istanbul. Presumably they used drone-produced pictures for this, as evidenced by the problematic trees and lack of detail of the burial chamber. In any case, it is awesome. If you look carefully and use my pic as a guide, you can even see the mancala board on the top stone at the NE corner! Go here to see it: https://www.oddviz.com/portfolio/the-belevi-mausoleum/.
While looking around for better photo angles in June 2016, my companions and I noticed an odd shape on top of the adjacent hill . . . and, of course, decided to investigate (if it involves a steep uphill climb in the heat, it must be good, right?). What we found will be the subject of a follow-up post—next time, on “You Won’t Get This on the Bus Tour!”