The unsung heroes of marble

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus, breathtaking in its restored form.

Imagine covering your entire kitchen with marble and relishing the smooth polished sheen. Now imagine covering an entire city with marble, sparkling a blazing white under the sun. Now realize this notion 2000 years ago in ancient Rome. A remarkable spectacle indeed it was for the ancient Romans, but not so perhaps for their slaves.

The craftsmanship on the ceiling was gorgeous and the most intricate of the city.

My obsession with the Greek & Roman ancient world began in childhood. The grade 7 seniors had presented an unbelievably energetic play about Alexander’s historic battle with Porous on the banks of the river Jhehlum. Upon entering grade seven our class cajoled the history teacher we wanted to prepare something similar to that epic Alexander play. Our topic was Greek mythology. The class dissected each god, deity and goddess and prepared skits on them. They were the most fantastical legends of their might and strength. My fascination always remained unquenched and just grew more and more. Then to consolidate my wonder, came the Disney film Hercules, of course I became a diehard fan of Greek mythology.

A closeup of the marble columns, releifs and statues all a work of labour and toil.

Fast forward 18 years and got an opportunity twice to visit Ephesus, the capital of Asia minor Roman empire (now in modern day Turkey). But in its reality travelling back in time to ancient Rome was not that fantastic an experience as I had read though. There was something sinister about the ruins. There was a certain energy there of cruelty, brutality, bloodshed and tyranny.

It came as a realization that the ancient Rome I was seeing was the one belonging to the elite only. The structures now dilapidated and moss infected were those of the royalty and emperors, for the emperor, from the emperor, of the emperor. The slaves and majority of the population mostly peasants and artisans living in the outskirts of the bright white marble city, had long been erased by time.

The archways leading to the agora and the gymnasium.

The experience was intense. Its times like these when a person learns a harsh lesson from history that travel becomes more profound, deep and impactful on the mind, heart and spirit. It was a world meant exclusively for male artistocracy. women had no rights, no say in anything. They were just meant for procreation and recreation, brothels were common and desirable. The tour guide informed that the men of Ephesus were very happy when their wives went for shopping in the agora, because as they were busy selecting items, the men would use a tunnel to reach the brothel and utilize the ladies long shopping hours to their carnal benefit. The tour guide also told us that life expectancy in ancient Rome was 30 years, anyone could poison anyone. Servants would poison and themselves get poisoned. It was common place.

The temple of Hadrian. Without modern tools, it is hard to imagine how many slaves worked on it.

The magnanimity of the Roman capital is indescribable. Every step of the path visible today is covered with marble and broken pillars and columns reliefs are scattered everywhere. At every other step you see intricate designs and patterns of columns decorating the city. The statues of gods and goddesses, scholars, emperors and governors are plentiful. A walk through the entire city depicts a non ending craftsmanship in marble with the sarcophagi are bearing meticulously carved designs.

The theatre was gigantic to say the least. The fact that it was all covered in marble like the rest of the city brings a majestic image in the mind. The pathway from the entrance to the exit of the city infront of the theatre to the ancient sea port is all lined with marble columns. The inscriptions in Latin carved in such precision as if a computer generated the font shows the skill of the labourers. Probably hundreds upon hundreds of slaves built this city.

I took a panoramic view of the huge theare.

Remember that history is written by the victorious and elite and I am sure no slave was allowed to write any uncommissioned documents. The aristocracy, military elite and royalty did their best to carve their recognition and tales of accomplishments into the solid marble rock, with history pages glimmering with their statues, their accounts and reforms. What is missing there is the actual people who built the city with their blood and lives. The ones who time forgot, the skilled artisans, unaccepted, unaccounted for, erased, especially in their own times.

The city fountain if i recall correctly. The marble shines under the blazing sun as it once did when carved here.

. But somehow when you see the city from the depths of your heart and not your mind, you see all of those prodigal craftsmen, the labourers, the workers, the artisans, under appreciated, under paid and underfed toiling in the sun, working on a relentless hard rock carving their talent such that time has preserved it for us to witness even two thousand years later.

Possibly a tomb of a noble woman.

Without modern tools, heavy machines for cutting and transporting the rock from quarries would be a herculean task, and without the god literally descending from the sky to help the slaves, the workers were brutally toiled into a barbaric life of suffering.

The goddess of victory Nike and the god of healing Hermes, revered by the Greeks and Romans and diligently carved by the sculptors also just became fanciful icons of legend and bygone tales. The whimsical idea of the might of the gods of Greece turned out to be nothing but mere mythology. The temples in the city particularly the temple of Artemis nearby was used to heavily tax all entering the city no matter how poor they were as a “homage” to the goddess which ended up in the purses of the high gentry. The slaves died by the thousands probably since the city clearly depicts a luxurious environment with terrace houses having intricate mosaic desgins. Similar to Hierapolis (see post), Ephesus also faced a heavy clash of ideaologies with the advent of Christianity and the nearby cave presents itself as a plausible location for the Seven Sleepers of Biblical origin, as the early Christian converts fleeing persecution. Christianity gained popularity in the oppressed lower class which at that time constituted the majority of the population of the city.

Whatever the lives of the real slave “heroes “of Greece and Rome outside the battle field, building the ancient world’s most extaordinary cities was, we can never know for sure but their legacy continues in the artwork which was left by them for us to appreciate forever.

If you get a chance do visit the anicent ruins of Ephesus, keeping in mind the lives lost in building this astounding marble city.

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