Ephesus, Antinous, and Guide Stories

You don’t need a guide to visit the wonderfully preserved Roman ruins of Ephesus, but it helps.  The sight lacks much signage and is overwhelmed with tourist.  Having someone to guide us through the crowds, and ensure that we didn’t miss anything, made our day there special.  Our guide, Dicle* was deeply knowledgeable about Ephesus and able to situate all that we were seeing in Roman history.  Thankfully she was willing to tell us the “guide stories” of Ephesus while admitting that they were, just that, stories.

All guides in Turkey must take a series of rigorous tests to become licensed tour guides.  They all know the history of the site, and they’re all pretty professional.  But ancient history is full of gaps and uncomfortable facts.  There is much about life in roman times we do not know, and there is much else which is can lead to uncomfortable conversations about freedom, sexuality and more.  Some guides choose to fill these gaps with legends and stories, or change the facts to make their guests more comfortable.  Others, like Dilce, will give you the guide story, while also telling you the full story, or admitting that we just do not know what really occurred.

The Ephesus Latrines

At Ephesus, the classic guide stories involve the public latrines.  Guides will tell you all kinds of stories about the toilets – the more scatological the better.  Slaves kept the seats warm for their masters!  Romans cleaned themselves with sponges on sticks!  Etc, etc.  Very few, if any, of the stories told by the guides at the latrines are substantiated by scholarship, but that doesn’t meant make them any less entertaining or popular with the tourist who flock to the site by the busload to have their picture taken sitting on an ancient crapper.

The Temple of Hadrian

More fascinating to me is the story (or stories) told about the carving at the center of the entry way to the temple of Hadrian.  Built sometime before 138 A.D., the temple honors the Emperor Hadrian, who visited Ephesus in 128 A.D.  It is decorated with frescos of mythical founding of Ephesus, and on the second arch, the depiction of a human head.  If you ask most of the guides at Ephesus, they’ll tell you this is medusa, but according the Dicle, a more likely theory is that it is Antinous, Hadrian’s presumed lover.

Antinous as a god

Hadrian, was they say the “tourist emperor”.  He traveled throughout the Roman Empire, building a wall here, an arch there.**  With him for much of those travels was Antinous, a Greek man who was, almost surely, Hadrian’s lover.  Antinous drowned during a visit to Egypt in 130 A.D.  After his death, Hadrian was inconsolable.  He commissioned statute after statute to honor Antinous, he created a city in his honor and, eventually, he had him deified.  Including Antinous on the arch of a building meant to glorify Hadrian would have surely curried favor with the grief stricken emperor.

We don’t know who, exactly is supposed to be represented on that arch, Antinous as the model for the human head on the temple makes more sense to me than Medusa, and according to Delice, some scholars agree, however, some scholars do not agree, seeing the figure as too feminine to be Antinous.  The ambiguity remains, but many guides continue to tell their clients without question that the head is medusa, avoiding the uncomfortable fact that one of the greatest of the roman emperors was gay, and that this great Roman city may have been willing to honor his dead lover in a place of such prominence.


*If you are going to Ephesus I would highly recommend Dilce.  Get in touch and I will give you her contact information.

** Hadrian was a great fan of Greek philosophy and culture, he was also a terrible enemy to the Jews, banning the study of Torah, and putting down the Bar Kokhba revolt.

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