The History of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was one of the seven classical Wonders of the World.  While several prominent Greek writers made lists of the greatest sites to be seen, it is the list of Antipater of Sidon, written around 140 BC, that defines the traditional wonders of the ancient world.  Of the seven, Antipater considered the Artemision, or the Temple of Artemis, to be the greatest.  He meant, however, the great temple built at the command of Croesus, and that temple had been destroyed more than 200 years earlier.  That temple was neither the first nor the last to stand upon its grounds, but it left a profound impression in the short time it stood.

Situated on the western coast of what is now Turkey, the city of Ephesus was older even than its legend maintained: it had not merely been built around 1000 BC, but several centuries before that, in the Mycenaean age.  The land on which the Artemision was built had been dedicated as a site of worship fairly early; by 800 BC, a temple of recognizably Greek form stood upon this land.  This temple was dedicated simply to the “Lady of Ephesus,” a patron goddess who appears to have fertility attributes.  Flooding toppled this temple, but it was soon replaced.

The latter temple also fell, this time as a result of war.  About 550 BC, King Croesus led his Lydians in the conquest of Ephesus.  As its new ruler, Croesus subsequently undertook the reconstruction of the city’s great temple.  Moreover, by this point the Lady of Ephesus was viewed as an aspect of the Olympian goddess Artemis, and so much effort and many resources were spent in creating what was considered by contemporaries to be the grandest of all Greek temples.  More than mere piety was likely at work; in part, he probably wished to outshine the Temple of Hera recently built on Samos.

The construction of the Artemision was said to last for 120 years.  Croesus himself was involved for only the first few years of it; he was deposed by the Persians when they conquered Asia Minor.  Interestingly, Ephesus distinguished themselves among the Ionian Greek cities by welcoming the Persians.  Ephesus became the home of the regional satrap.  Official indulgence by the Persians probably had much to do with the progress of this enterprise, which was quite expensive and involved efforts from all over the Greek world; for example, in a late phase of construction, the greatest sculptors of Greece were encouraged to compete over the statues used to adorn the temple.  Among the sculptors in this effort was Phidias, the leader of the team overseeing the construction of the Parthenon at Athens, and his effort earned only the second place.

Superficially, the Artemision would have resembled the Parthenon.  Uniquely, its roof was open above the cella, or inner sanctum, where the statue of Artemis was housed.  This detail would only be noticed by someone inside the cella, however, or on the roof.  It was also much bigger than the Parthenon, with a total area roughly three times as large.  It was estimated at around 360 feet long by 165 or 170 feet wide.  Similarly, the use of sculpture to adorn the temple involved larger and more elaborate creations than even the Parthenon in its time.  All construction was in marble, but gold and silver were applied to some surfaces.  Trees and wildlife were encouraged in the area around the temple, so as to better honor this nature goddess.

The temple was finished around 430 BC, but its days of glory were to be short.  In 356 BC, it was set ablaze by a man who only did it to become a part of history.  The Ephesians attempted to keep his name quiet, but somehow this information got out; later historians tell us that the man’s name was Herostratus.

When Alexander the Great conquered Asia Minor (still held by the Persians until then), he talked about reconstruction.  Not wanting their beloved temple to be a mere footnote in the glorious campaigns of Alexander the Great, however, the Ephesians declined, appealing to his vanity as an excuse.  Instead, a new temple was raised later.  This one endured for nearly six hundred years, but overall it was a more modest effort than the Artemision commissioned by Croesus.  It was sacked by the Goths in 262 AD.  After the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, much of the marble remaining on the site was carried away for use in new buildings, including the Church of Hagia Sophia.

The location of the Artemision was identified in 1869, and archaeologists have since learned much about the succession of temples there, but there is little for the visitor to see apart from a field of broken marbles, left over from the final temple.  Several intact sections of column were raised by archaeologists into a single pillar, offering a ghostly reminder of the lost temple.  Even in its heyday in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, however, that temple was but a shadow of the grand edifice that was deemed by Antipater the greatest of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Pollard, Justin.  Wonders of the Ancient World: Antiquity’s Greatest Feats of Design and Engineering.  Quercus, 2008.
Rodgers, Nigel.  Everyday Life in Ancient Greece: People and Places.  Hermes House, 2010.
Stierlin, Henri.  Greece: From Mycenae to the Parthenon.  Taschen, 2001.


© 2011, 2013.  All rights reserved.