Two prehistoric settlement mounds near the Roman theater mark the earliest habitation of the site at Aphrodisias, in the sixth or fifth millennium BCE. In spite of its long occupation, Aphrodisias remained a small village until the second century BCE, the date of the earliest coins and inscriptions recording the name of the city.
In the late first century BCE, Aphrodisias came under the personal protection of the Roman emperor Augustus, and a long period of growth and good fortune ensued. The first several centuries CE were especially prosperous, and most of the surviving buildings of the city date to this period. In the fourth century, Aphrodisias became the capital of the Roman province of Caria.
The continued vitality of the city in later antiquity is evident from the reconstruction of the Temple of Aphrodite as a Christian Basilica in the late fifth century. In the troubled times of the late sixth and early seventh centuries, Aphrodisias was reduced once again to the size of a village; it survived until the fourteenth century, when the site was finally abandoned.
The site has been known to European travelers since the 18th century, and limited excavations were carried out by French and Italian teams in the early 1900s. In addition to its standing monuments, the site proved to be very rich in epigraphic and sculptural finds. Numerous inscriptions are built into the ancient city walls, and the finds from the French excavations, directed by Paul Gaudin, included a number of very well preserved portrait statues, which were brought to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The Italian excavations also unearthed an important series of architectural sculptures (a long frieze of masks joined by garlands), now on display in the Izmir Archaeological Museum.