Exploring Hellenistic Sardis

By Paul Kosmin
September 9, 2014
The Temple of Artemis on the Sardis site, view looking east.

As we recently reported, summer is the high season for the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis, an excavation that began in 1958 and is co-sponsored by the Harvard Art Museums and Cornell University. Today we hear from Paul Kosmin, an assistant professor of the classics at Harvard, who tells us about the Hellenistic period of the city as well as his experience at the site this July.

For most of archaic and classical Greek history (from about the seventh to the fourth centuries BCE), the richest and most important city in the Aegean world was a non-Greek capital famed for its luxurious living, cavalry horses, and rivers of gold—Sardis. This political center of western Asia Minor functioned as the royal capital of the short-lived Lydian kingdom and the western provincial (or “satrapal”) center of the Persian Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great. The city in its Lydian and Persian periods is well known, both from lengthy accounts in the Histories of Herodotus and Thucydides and from a half-century of Harvard excavation at the site.

But the period of Greek dominance at Sardis—the two centuries between Alexander the Great’s conquest of the city in 334 BCE and its incorporation into the early Roman Empire in 133 BCE—is ripe for reinterpretation. This pivotal moment in the city’s history was the period when Sardis transformed itself into a true Hellenistic city, acquiring (no doubt with royal sponsorship) a vast stone temple to the goddess Artemis, a theater and gymnasium, and the institutions and status of a Greek polis. At the same time, in a double identity typical of this period of Greek monarchy, the city functioned as the western imperial center of the Seleucid Empire, the greatest of Alexander’s successor kingdoms, home to bureaucrats, royal archives, and Indian elephants.

This summer, a number of scholars from Harvard and other major universities in America and Europe launched the Hellenistic Sardis Project. This multidisciplinary research venture seeks to understand the city’s development in the Hellenistic age and to integrate Sardis into the political, social, and material histories of the region and era. We spent three productive days in July at Sardis, reading inscriptions, studying coins and artifacts, hashing out the problems of evidence and interpretation, and confronting the assumptions of our own particular disciplines. It was an exhilarating intellectual experience. We plan to return next year, with yet further questions and—it is hoped—at least a few answers!