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Chapter 24 | Table of Contents | Chapter 26

The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia
W. M. Ramsay

Chapter 25: Sardis: The City of Death

Sardis was one of the great cities of primitive history: in the Greek view it was long the greatest of all cities. At the beginning of record it stands forth prominently as the capital of a powerful empire. Its situation marks it out as a ruling city, according to the methods of early warfare and early kings; it was however more like a robber's stronghold than an abode of civilised men; and in a peaceful and civilised age its position was found inconvenient. In the Roman period it was almost like a city of the past, a relic of the period of barbaric warfare, which lived rather on its ancient prestige than on its suitability to present conditions.

The great plain of the Hermus is bounded on the south by the broad ridge of Mount Tmolus, which reaches from the main mass of the Central Anatolian plateau like an arm extended westwards towards the sea. In front of the mountains stretch a series of alluvial hills, making the transition from the level plain to the loftier ridge behind. On one of those hills stood Sardis. The hills in this neighbourhood are of such a character that under the influences of the atmosphere each assumes the form of a small elongated plateau having very steep sides, terminating towards the north in a sharp point, and on the south joined by a neck to the main mass of Tmolus. One of those small elevated plateaux formed the site of the original Sardis, an almost impregnable fortress already as it came from the hand of nature without any artificial fortification. Only a small city could be perched on the little plateau; but in the primitive time, when Sardis came into existence, cities were small.

It was actually inaccessible except at one point, viz., the neck of land on the south, which still offers the only approach. On all other sides the rock walls were smooth, nearly perpendicular, and absolutely unscalable even without a defender (except in rare conditions described in the sequel). The local myth expressed the facts in a religious form by saying that the ancient Lydian King, Meles, carried a lion, the symbol of Sardis and type of the oldest Lydian coins, round the whole city except at one point. The story is told by Herodotus, i., 84; but he (or a glossator) has given an incorrect explanation, to the effect that Meles thought it unnecessary to carry the lion round the southern side of the city, because there it was precipitous. The exact opposite was the case: the only approach to the old city must have been from the beginning and must always be on the south. The story is a popular explanation of the fact that the south alone was accessible and not precipitous.

This southern approach is far from being easy. It is a tedious and difficult climb at the present day, when the hill-sides are overgrown with thorns, and only a sheep-track exists in place of a path. Even when the summit was inhabited and a carefully made road led up to the southern gates, the approach must have been long and steep by a winding road, which could be defended with perfect ease. The plateau is fully 1,500 feet above the plain, from which its sides rise perpendicularly.

This small city on its lofty plateau was an ideal stronghold for a prince of primitive times. It was large enough for his needs; it could be easily fortified and defended at the only point where fortification or defence was needed. It was like a watch-tower overlooking the whole of the great plain. That primitive capital of the Hermus Valley seems to have been called, not Sardis (which was a plural noun), but Hyde; and it is mentioned by Homer under that name.

In this we part company from the guide whom usually we follow with such implicit confidence, Strabo. He considers that Sardis was founded later than the time of Homer, because it is not named by him. We must, however, consider Sardis as coeval with the beginnings of the Lydian kingdom, about 1,200 BC. It was the princely capital from the time that there began to be princes in Lydia. nature has made it the overseer of the Hermus Valley; and its foundation marked out its master for the headship first of that valley, and thereafter of the rest of Lydia, whose fate was dependent on the Hermus Valley.

As civilisation and government grew more complex, and commerce and society were organised on a greater scale, the lofty plateau proved too small for the capital of an empire; and a lower city was built on the west and north sides of the original city, and probably also on the east side. The old city was now used as an acropolis, and is so called by Herodotus. The new city was very distinctly separated from the old by the great difference of level and by the long, steep, and difficult approach at the southern end of the old city. Hence the double city was called by the plural noun, Sardeis, like Athenai and various others.

The lower city lay chiefly on the west side, in a glen between the acropolis-hill and the little river Pactolus, which flows northwards out of Mount Tmolus to join the Hermus. The wealth of the Lydian kings, ruling in Sardis, which arose from trade, a fertile territory carefully cultivated, and the commerce of the East, was explained in popular Greek legend as due to the golden sands of the Pactolus. Whether this was a pure fable, or only an exaggeration, must be left uncertain. There was no gold in the Pactolus during the Roman period, nor is there any now; but it is said to be possible that the river, having in earlier time traversed an auriferous area, might have cut for itself a path below the level of the gold-bearing rock, and thus ceased to bring down golden sand. No auriferous rock, however, is now known to exist in the mountains of Tmolus; though, of course, no proper search has been made in recent centuries.

As the capital of the great kingdom of Lydia, Sardis had a history marked by frequent wars. In it the whole policy of a warlike kingdom was focused. To fight against Lydia was to fight against Sardis. The master of Sardis was the master of Lydia. Thus in early centuries Sardis stood forth pre-eminent in the view of the Greek cities as the Oriental enemy on whose action their fate depended. They were most of them involved in war with Sardis, and fell one by one beneath its power. It was the great, the wealthy, the impregnable city, against which none could strive and prevail. In the immemorial contest between Asia and Europe, it represented Asia, and the Greek colonies of the coastlands stood for Europe. Sardis was the one great enemy of the Ionian cities: it learned from them, taught them, and conquered them all in succession. Among an impressionable people like the Greeks, such a reputation lived long; and Sardis was to their mind fully justified in inscribing on its coins the proud title, "Sardis the First Metropolis of Asia, and of Lydia, and of Hellenism," as in Figure 9, chapter 11. The Hellenism which found its metropolis in Sardis was not the ancient Greek spirit, but the new form which the Greek spirit had taken in its attempt to conquer Asia, profoundly modifying Asia, and itself profoundly modified in the process. Hellenism in this sense was not a racial fact, but a general type of aspiration and aims, implying a certain freedom in development of the individual consciousness and in social and political organisation. The term summed up the character of "the Hellenes in Asia," i.e., the Hellenised population of Asia.

The destruction of the powerful kingdom, and the capture of the impregnable city, by a hitherto hardly known and utterly despised enemy, was announced to the Greek cities soon after the middle of the sixth century BC. The news came almost without preparation, and was all the more impressive on that account. To the student of the past it seems still to echo through history, as one of the most startling and astonishing reverses of all time. To the Greeks it was unique in character and effect. It was known that the Lydian king had consulted the Delphic Apollo before he entered on the war, and that he had begun operations with full confidence of victory, relying on the promise of the god. The Greek mind loved to dwell on this topic, and elaborated it with creative fancy, so that the truth is almost hidden under the embellishing details in the pages of Herodotus. But all the details have only the effect (as was their intention) of making more clear and impressive the moral lesson. To avoid over-confidence in self, to guard against pride and arrogance, not to despise one's enemy, to bear always in mind the slipperiness and deceitfulness of fortune--such was the greatest part of true wisdom, as the Greeks understood it; and nowhere could the lesson be found written in plainer and larger letters than in the fall of Sardis.

According to the story as thus worked up by Greek imagination, Croesus the king had been vainly warned by the wise Greek, Solon the law-giver, when he visited Sardis, to beware of self-satisfaction and to regard no man as really happy, until the end of life had set him free from the danger of a sudden reverse. In preparing for his last war, Croesus employed all possible precaution; he was thoroughly on his guard against any possible error; and he took the gods themselves as his counsellors and helpers. He had tried and tested all the principal prophetic centres of the Greek world; and the Delphic Oracle alone had passed the test, and won his confidence.

He then asked about the war against Cyrus, which he had in mind; and he heard with delight that, if he crossed the Halys, he would destroy a mighty Empire. He crossed the Halys, and received a crushing defeat. But it was only a first army that had met this disaster. He returned to prepare a greater army for the ensuing year. Cyrus followed him up with disconcerting rapidity; and besieged him in Sardis, before any new levies were ready. The great king, safe in his impregnable fortress, regarded this as an incident annoying in itself, but only the beginning of destruction for the rash enemy. The armies of Lydia were being massed to crush the insolent invader, who should be ground between the perpendicular rocks of the acropolis and the gathering Lydian hosts. Such was the calculation of Croesus, when he retired one evening to rest: he was wakened to find that the enemy was master of the acropolis and that all was lost.

The rock of the acropolis is a coarse and friable conglomerate, which melts away gradually under the influences of the atmosphere. It always preserves an almost perpendicular face, but at times an oblique crack develops in the rock-wall, and permits a bold climber to work his way up. Such a weak point betrayed Sardis.

According to the popular tale this weak point existed from the beginning of history n Sardis, because, when the divine consecration and encompassing of the new fortress had been made at its foundation, this point had been omitted; thus the tale would imply that the weak point was known to the defenders and through mere obstinate folly left unguarded by them. But such a legend is usually a growth after the fact. The crumbling character of the rock on which the upper city of Sardis stood shows what the real facts must have been. In the course of time a weakness had developed at one point. Through want of proper care in surveying and repairing the fortifications, this weakness had remained unobserved and unknown to the defenders; but the assailants, scrutinising every inch of the walls of the great fortress in search of an opportunity, noticed it and availed themselves of it to climb up, one at a time. On such a lofty hill, rising fully 1,500 feet above the plain, whose sides are, and must from their nature always have been, steep and straight and practically perpendicular, a child could guard against an army; even a small stone dropped on the head of the most skilful mountain-climber, would inevitably hurl him down. An attack made by this path could succeed only if the assailants climbed up entirely unobserved; and they could not escape observation unless they made the attempt by night. Hence, even though this be unrecorded, a night attack must have been the way by which Cyrus entered Sardis. He came upon the great city "like a thief in the night."

It is right, however, to add that the account that we have given of the way in which Sardis was captured differs from the current opinion in one point. The usual view is that Cyrus entered Sardis by the isthmus or neck on the south. That was the natural and necessary path in ordinary use; the only road and gateway were there; and inevitably the defence of the city was based on a careful guard and strong fortification at the solitary approach. The enemy was expected to attack there; but the point of the tale is that the ascent was made on a side where no guard was ever stationed, because that side was believed to be inaccessible. The misapprehension is as old as the time of Herodotus (or rather of some old Greek glossator, who has interposed a false explanation in the otherwise clear narrative). The character of the rock shows that this opinion--current already among the Greeks--is founded on a confusion between the one regular approach, where alone attack was expected and guarded against, and the accidental, unobserved, unguarded weak point, which had developed through the disintegration of the rock.

There can be no doubt that the isthmus, as being the solitary regular approach, must always have been the most strongly fortified part. At present the plateau is said not to be accessible at any other point except where the isthmus touches it; but there are several chinks and clefts leading up the north and west faces, and it is probable that by one of them a bold and practised climber could make his way up. These clefts vary in character from century to century as the surface disintegrates; and all of them would always be regarded by the ordinary peaceful and unathletic oriental citizen as inaccessible. But from time to time sometimes one, sometimes another, would offer a chance to a daring mountaineer. By such an approach it must have been that Cyrus captured the city.

History repeated itself. The same thing happened about 320 years later, when Antiochus the Great captured Sardis through the exploit of Lagoras (who had learned surefootedness on the precipitous mountains of his native Crete). Once more the garrison in careless confidence were content to guard the one known approach, and left the rest of the circuit unguarded, under the belief that it could not be scaled.

The Sardian religion was the fullest expression of the character and spirit of the city; but it has not yet been properly understood. The coins show several remarkable scenes of a religious kind, evidently of purely local origin and different from any subjects otherwise known in hieratic mythology; but they remain unexplained and unintelligible. The explanation of them, if it could be discovered, would probably illuminate the peculiar character of the local religion; but in the meantime, although various other deities besides Cybele and Kora-Persephone appear on the coins, and although abundant archaeological details might be described, no unifying idea can be detected, which might show how the Sardians had modified, and put their own individual character into, the general Anatolian religious forms.

The general Anatolian temper of religion is summarised in the following words (taken from the Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia, i., p. 87): "Its essence lies in the adoration of the life of Nature--that life subject apparently to death, yet never dying but reproducing itself in new forms, different and yet the same. This perpetual self-identity under varying forms, this annihilation of death through the power of self-reproduction, was the object of an enthusiastic worship, characterised by remarkable self-abandonment and immersion in the divine, by a mixture of obscene symbolism and sublime truths, by negation of the moral distinctions and family ties that exist in a more developed society, but do not exist in the free life of Nature. The mystery of self-reproduction, of eternal unity amid temporary diversity, is the key to explain all the repulsive legends and ceremonies that cluster round that worship, and all the manifold manifestations or diverse embodiments of the ultimate single divine life that are carved on the rocks of Asia Minor."

The patron deity of the city was Cybele, two columns of whose temple still protrude from the ground near the banks of the Pactolus. She was a goddess of the regular Anatolian type; and her general character is well known.

But the specialised character of the Sardian goddess Cybele, the qualities and attributes which she gathered from the local conditions and from the ideas and manners of the population, are unknown, and can hardly even be guessed at for lack of evidence. To the Greek mind the Sardian Cybele seemed more like the Maiden Proserpine than the Mother Demeter; and the coins of the city often show scenes from the myth of Proserpine. For example, the reverse of the coin in Figure 9, chapter 11, shows the familiar scene of Pluto carrying off Proserpine on his four-horse car.

The strange and uncouth idol, under whose form the goddess was worshipped, often appears on coins; and in alliance-coins Sardis is often symbolised by this grotesque figure, whose half-human appearance is quite of the Anatolian type. Thus Figure 30 shows an "alliance" or religious agreement between Ephesus, represented by Artemis in her usual idol with her stags at her side, and Sardis, symbolised by the curious veiled image of her own goddess (whom numismatists usually call in Hellenising style Kora or Persephone).

The Sardian goddess was the mother of her people. She dwelt with nature, in the mountains of Tmolus and in the low ground by the sacred lake of Koloe, on the north side of the Hermus. Here by the lake was the principal necropolis of Sardis, at a distance of six or eight miles from the city, across a broad river--a remarkable fact, which points to some ancient historical relation between Sardis and Koloe (implying perhaps that the people of Koloe had been moved to found the original city of Sardis). Here the people of the goddess returned at death to lie close to the wild sedge-encircled home of the mother who bore them.

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Figure 30: The alliance of Ephesus and Sardis

The lion, as type of the oldest, Lydian coins, was certainly adopted, because it was the favourite animal and the symbol of the Sardian goddess. The Anatolian goddess, when envisaged in the form of Cybele, was regularly associated with a pair of lions or a single lion.

Healing power was everywhere attributed to the local embodiment of the divine idea, but in Sardis it was with exceptional emphasis magnified into the power of restoring life to the dead. It was, doubtless, associated specially with certain hot springs, situated about two miles from Sardis in the front hills of Tmolus, which are still much used and famous for their curative effect. As the hot springs are the plain manifestation of the divine subterranean power, the god of the underworld plays a considerable part in the religious legend of the district. He appeared to claim and carry off as his bride the patron-goddess of the city, in the form of Kora-Persephone, as she was gathering the golden flower, the flower of Zeus, in the meadows near the springs; the games celebrated in her honour were called Chrysanthia; and it may be confidently inferred that crowns of the flower called by that name were worn by her worshipers. The name of "Zeus's flower" also is mentioned on the coins.

Zeus Lydios is often named on Sardian coins, embodying the claim of the city to stand for the whole country of Lydia as its capital. He is represented exactly like the god of Laodicea (Figure 35, chapter 29), a standing figure, wearing a tunic and an over-garment, resting his left hand on the sceptre, and holding forth the eagle on his right hand.

Sardis suffered greatly from an earthquake in AD 17, and was treated with special liberality by the Emperor Tiberius: he remitted all its taxation for five years, and gave it a donation of ten million sesterces (about 400,000 pounds). In Figure 31, taken from a coin struck by the grateful city, the veiled genius of Sardis is shown kneeling on one knee in supplication before the Emperor, who is dressed in the toga, the garb of peace, and graciously stretches forth his hand towards her. The coin bears the name of Caesareian Sardis: for the city took the epithet in honour of the Imperial benefactor and retained it on coins for quite a year after his death, and in inscriptions for as long as ten or fifteen years after his death.

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Figure 31: Caesarean Sardis--suppliant to the Emperor Tiberius

The reverse of the same coin shows the Imperial mother, the deified Empress Livia, sitting like a goddess after the fashion of Demeter, holding in her left hand three corn-ears, the gift of the goddess to mankind, and resting her right hand high on the sceptre. This type is a good example of the tendency to fuse the Imperial religion with the local worship, and to regard the Imperial gods as manifestations and incarnations on earth of the divine figure worshipped in the district. Livia here appears in the character of Demeter, a Hellenised form of the Anatolian goddess.

The assumption of the epitaph Caesareia was doubtless connected with the erection of a temple in honour of Tiberius and Livia, as the divine pair in the common form of the mother goddess and her god-son. But there is no reason to think that this was a Provincial temple (which would carry with it for the city the title of Temple-Warden). It was only a Sardian temple, and seems to have been suffered to fall into decay soon after the death of the Imperial god.

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Figure 32: The Empress Livia as the goddess who gives corn and plenty to Sardis

It is plain that the greatness of Sardis under the Roman rule was rotted in past history, not in present conditions. The acropolis ceased during that period to be the true city; it was inconvenient and useless; and it was doubtless regarded as a historical and archaeological monument, rather than a really important part of the living city. Apart from the acropolis there is nothing in the situation of Sardis to make it a great centre of society, and it has long ceased to be inhabited. The chief town of the district is now Salikli, about five miles to the east, in a similar position at the foot of Tmolus, but more conveniently situated for travellers and trade.

Thus, when the Seven Letters were written, Sardis was a city of the past, which had no future before it. Its greatness was connected with a barbarous and half-organised state of society, and could not survive permanently in a more civilised age. Sardis must inevitably decay. Only when civilisation was swept out of the Hermus Valley in fire and bloodshed by the destroying Turks, and the age of barbarism was reintroduced, did Sardis again become an advantageous site. The acropolis was restored as a fortress of the kind suited for that long period of uncertainty and war which ended in the complete triumph of Mohammedanism and the practical extermination of the Christian population (save at Philadelphia and Magnesia) throughout the Hermus Valley.

Sardis occupied a high position in the Byzantine hierarchy. It was the capital of the Province Lydia, instituted about AD 295, and the Bishop of Sardis was Metropolitan and Archbishop of Lydia, and sixth in order of dignity of all the bishops, whether Asiatic or European, that were subject to the Patriarch of Constantinople.

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