Monuments to Dead Romans: The Şekerhane Köşkü (Pic Of The Day, 2019-08-08)

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.

Actually, a precursor to this theme appeared in my post “The Hazards of Tax Day,” which featured the Temple to the Deified Julius Caesar in Rome. Tonight’s subject is a presumed cenotaph for the Emperor Trajan, erected in the city of his death and at the spot of his probable cremation on or about this date (8 August) in AD 117.[1]

The structure known locally as Şekerhane Köşkü; very likely the platform for a temple of the Deified Emperor Trajan, who died in Selinus in AD 117 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-27).

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.

Interior of the Şekerhane Köşkü, likely the platform for a Temple to the Deified Emperor Trajan, who died in Selinus in AD 117 and was probably cremated in a structure incorporated in the building’s walls (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-24).

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.[2]

The Şekerhane Köşkü, with the foundation outlines of a temple-like structure on the recently-cleared roof; the door opening in the front and cut block exterior are modification of the platform during the Seljuk Period, when the building functioned as a hunting platform (aerial image by Tıröd Ğnihcnüh; © AncientDan.com).

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.[3]

Trajan’s Column in his forum at Rome (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-10).

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.

Next in the series: The Mausoleum of Augustus.


[1] Some sources place Trajan’s death a day earlier or later, on 7 or 9 August; e.g., Chris Scarre, Chronicle of the Roman Emperors (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995), lists 7 August as the date of death in the box at the beginning of the entry for Trajan (p. 90), but 9 August in the text (p. 97); therefore, I am taking the middle road in posting this on the evening of 8 August.  

[2] 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.

[3] Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified Trajan,” 62-64.

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