A group of archaeologists have been hard at work close to a modern-day Turkish city called Denizli. And no, their efforts didn’t include checking out the area’s many renowned spa hotels. You see, these experts chose to focus on what had once been a central location of the Roman Empire. It’s a site that has, in fact, delivered some wondrous archaeological finds in the past. And in 2019 this diligent team were able to unveil yet another truly impressive new discovery.
This is perhaps surprising because, according to reports, historical digs have been staged in the area on and off since the 19th century. The region had been home to the ancient city of Laodicea, after all, and this had been part of the Roman province Phrygia. This city had been sited at a key point in a vital trading network, in fact, so it became quite affluent.
Because of the area’s significance in Roman times, then, archaeologists have identified Laodicea as an important place of study. And more structured investigations reportedly started taking place in the city from 2002 onwards. So, in the years since, experts have drafted a new map of the site and have attempted to spell out the significance of the various finds they have unearthed.
Yet it’s been claimed that a particular discovery first reported in 2019 is the most significant of the most recent finds. And the experts who uncovered this ancient treasure were part of the Excavation Committee of the Ancient City of Laodicea. The team were also headed up by Celal Şimşek from Denizli’s Pamukkale University.
Şimşek was notably pleased with what he and his colleagues had discovered when he subsequently described their new find to the public. But to understand why, one must first get a sense of Laodicea as it had existed under Roman rule. It’s particularly important to know a bit more about one pre-eminent Roman emperor, too.
You see, the city of Laodicea supposedly first emerged as an ancient Greek town known as Diospolis, meaning “City of Zeus.” The area then got the name Rhodas before – some time around the 3rd century B.C. – Seleucus Antiochus II supposedly established a city in the area. And that’s when he apparently named it after his spouse Laodice.
So, during its earliest days, Laodicea was an area that reportedly wasn’t considered particularly significant. Relatively quickly, though, the city started to attain a certain degree of affluence, and by 188 B.C. it had become a part of the Kingdom of Pergamon. Then, from 133 B.C. onwards, the Romans took control of the site.
Yet from 88 B.C. to 63 B.C., the Roman Republic was engaged in the Mithridatic Wars. These were a series of three, armed conflicts in which Rome battled the Kingdom of Pontus. And Laodicea was apparently a victim of these hostilities. Yet the city seemingly managed to swiftly bounce back.
That’s probably because Laodicea’s wealth derived from its geographical position as a trading post on the way to Asia. So as the Roman Republic reached its end, and the Roman Empire first emerged, the city took advantage. It rapidly grew to become a vital center of economic activity, in fact, and at all times a great deal of money and goods would be passing through.
Yet one geological disadvantage was that the region in which Laodicea was based was prone to earthquakes. In fact, one particularly significant event around the year 60 A.D. is said to have totally wiped out the center. But it seems that those who lived there had insisted on building the city up once more – and without the help of the Roman Empire.
Using their own finances, then, the city dwellers reportedly reconstructed Laodicea in an even more grandiose manner than before. Its more distinguished residents apparently funded the building of temples, theaters and other communal facilities, too. And eventually, Rome agreed to let Laodicea be designated a free city – meaning that it was broadly permitted to manage its own affairs.
Throughout the time of the Roman Empire, then, Laodicea was clearly a city of great importance. And its prominence also seems to have lasted well into the Byzantine Empire. The site prospered throughout the reigns of a number of Byzantine leaders, in fact. But Laodicea is said to have finally been ruined by Turkish and Mongol assaults during the Middle Ages.
Throughout its long period of distinction during the Roman era, though, Laodicea saw many leaders come and go. But there was one in particular who seemed to be a notably important figure to the one-time pivotal city. This was the emperor Trajan, who reigned between 98 and 117 A.D.
Trajan can actually be seen to have been an especially significant figure within the history of the Roman Empire, too. The predominant reason for this is because he led the empire during the period of its most major expansion. When Trajan died in 117 A.D., in fact, Rome’s global territory had arguably reached its zenith.
Who was Trajan? Well, Trajan had been brought into the world in Italica – a place located near the contemporary Spanish city of Seville. He grew up to serve as a senior commander in the Roman Army, making something of a name for himself in the process. And on January 27, 98 A.D., Trajan ascended to the throne of the empire.
Under Trajan’s rule, too, the actual city of ancient Rome was subject to significant development. After all, a number of monuments constructed in this time remain standing today – including Trajan’s Column and Trajan’s Market. But the emperor’s most important impact was in relation to Roman territorial growth.
At the beginning of his time as emperor, you see, Trajan took over Nabataea – straddling parts of what is now Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – and established a new province called Arabia Petraea. He later also gained control of Dacia, a region which is today within the borders of Serbia and Romania. This was a key acquisition, thanks to the high levels of gold found there.
Emperor Trajan also later waged war against the Parthian Empire of ancient Iran. He and his forces were ultimately victorious, too, with the Romans emerging with control of Mesopotamia and Armenia. And as a consequence of these military successes, the Roman Empire expanded to the largest extent it would ever achieve.
In his lifetime, in fact, Trajan was accorded the official title of optimus princeps, which meant “the best ruler.” But in the middle of 117 A.D. he was stricken by illness while aboard a ship. He later died in the town of Selinus on August 8 that year. He was 63 years of age.
Yet while Trajan was obviously an important figure throughout the entire Roman Empire, he also had specific links to the city of Laodicea. Some sources have even claimed that the emperor directed vast sums of money into the place. And this act apparently did not go unacknowledged by the people living there.
So when Celal Şimşek and his colleagues announced in 2019 that they’d found something reflective of Trajan’s status within Laodicea, it shouldn’t perhaps have been too surprising. What might have been a shock, however, was the sheer scale of this tribute. That’s because they’d uncovered a statue of the emperor thought to be unparalleled in its scale.
The statue of Trajan had actually been extracted in fragments from underneath an age-old water feature. Experts then pieced these elements together to restore the work to something approaching its original state. And by the time the reconstruction was complete, the finished sculpture measured almost 10 feet tall.
The imposing sculpture of Trajan presents its subject in his military attire. The emperor is seen covered in protective armor, in fact, with a robe fastened to his left shoulder and gathered around one arm. He’s also depicted as wearing a chiton, which is similar to the traditional kilt worn by the Scottish.
In addition to this, an adversary is shown recoiling from Trajan with his hands tied behind his back. And the emperor is portrayed with his right hand skyward, giving a clear visual indication of supremacy. The detail on the work is such that, up close, you can reportedly even make out etchings on Trajan’s armor.
Şimşek detailed these engravings to the Hürriyet Daily News towards the end of March 2019. “The images on the armor can be observed very clearly,” the lead archaeologist of the excavation said. “On the upper part of the armor, there is the thunder of Jupiter, the celestial god of thunder.”
“Medusa is located right in the middle of the chest, which is important because it shows the emperor’s frightening side,” Şimşek continued. “There are two reciprocal griffins, which are the symbol of the god Apollo.” If you’re not up to speed on your legendary creatures, griffins are mythical beasts said to have been part lion and part eagle.
Şimşek elaborated on the possible significance of Apollo’s inclusion upon the Trajan armor as well. “We see Apollo as the god that protected the fine arts,” he explained to the Hürriyet Daily News. “With this, what comes to mind is that the emperor did protect fine arts at his time.”
The archaeologist also revealed that the statue was actually uncovered together with a significant inscription. This lettering apparently detailed the so-called Water Law, said to have been one of the most essential rules of Roman society. As we know, after all, the civilization was innovative in terms of its water systems – but these needed to be regulated.
So while a series of pipes transported water throughout many Roman urban centers, it was vital that citizens didn’t divert the flow for their own individual benefit. If things had ever slipped out of control, you see, the whole sewer system would have ceased to function properly. The Water Law, therefore, sought to maintain order.
The Water Law also dictated that those who tampered with the sewer system would be fined substantially. In Laodicea, for instance, people apprehended for contaminating the water supply or impairing the pipes would have had to cough up as much as 12,500 denarii. This would have been a hugely punitive sum at the time.
A specific passage of the Water Law sets out the prohibitions related to the water supply. “It is forbidden to use the city water for free or grant it to private individuals,” the law states, when translated into English. “Nobody who has farms close to the water channels can use this water for agriculture.”
Interestingly, the statue of Trajan discovered by Şimşek and his team actually bears imagery referencing the Water Law. “There is a water can in the middle,” the lead archaeologist told the Hürriyet Daily News. “The griffins stretched their front legs towards the water bowl. Given the Water Law, it shows that he was an emperor who brought waterway to Laodicea with arches and pipes made of travertine.”
Şimşek also explained that Trajan is thought to have made a contribution of some 30,000 denarii toward Laodicea’s water system. This, the archaeologist claimed, would have been equivalent to over $50,000 today. Consequently, Şimşek theorized, the people of the city constructed the great statue in Trajan’s image and positioned it near a water fountain.
According to Şimşek, too, the sculpture was fashioned with such precision that its creator is likely to have directly used Trajan as a model. “It must have been made by an artist who saw the emperor in person,” he told the Hürriyet Daily News. “The portrait features on his face are really intricate and detailed.”
Amazingly, the statue was reportedly excavated from beneath the water fountain in no fewer than 356 different fragments. The sculpture had supposedly split in this way after an earthquake had struck the city, leaving the work buried in the ground. Yet in spite of this damage, the large statue was successfully reconstituted by the experts.
The sculpture is actually thought to date back 1,906 years to the year 113 A.D. And if this dating is accurate, it means that the work was finished only four years shy of Trajan’s passing. Yet despite its great age, the statue has held up remarkably well through the centuries.
But as previously mentioned, the statue is only one recent addition to the vast number of finds that have been uncovered within the vicinity of contemporary Denizli. Over the years, in fact, specialists have excavated many artefacts and constructions. These have included sarcophagi, temples, baths and a stadium – to name just a few.
Elsewhere, too, an ancient aqueduct that begins some miles distant of the city has been revealed. It’s thought that this would have fed water into a series of complex pipes and distributed the life-giving liquid throughout Laodicea. Given the waterway’s present form, though, it’s suspected that the aqueduct had been wrecked as the result of an earthquake.
If you’re interested, however, many of the ancient ruins of Laodicea can actually be visited by tourists. In fact, finances partly contributed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism have ensured that many remains have been appropriately repaired and put on show. And Şimşek hopes the recently uncovered statue of Trajan will encourage still more people to visit the area.
“Perhaps people from all over the world will come and see this work here,” Şimşek told the Hürriyet Daily News, after the announcement of his team’s find. “This statue is important in this aspect. Indeed, in terms of both proportion and portrait, we are truly happy to find this statue of the emperor.”