Sebasteion: Architecture

Restored Plan | State Plan

The Sebasteion, excavated in 1979-81, was a grandiose temple complex dedicated to Aphrodite and the Julio-Claudian emperors and was decorated with a lavish sculptural program of which much survives.
The Building
The Sebasteion is located to the east of the city center, opposite the North Agora, on the eastern side of a main north-south street that ran past the Tetrapylon to the Theater. Its long and narrow plan, set at an angle to the street and grid system, is to be explained by the presence of large, pre-existing residential establishments excavated to the northeast and to the southwest of the complex. That is, the building had to be fitted into an awkward city space.

The complex is composed of four distinct architectural elements: a Propylon at the west, two long buildings to the north and south that frame a paved sanctuary or processional space (14 m. wide and 90 m. long),and a Temple at the east end, the focus of the whole layout. Two (related) leading local families paid for the complex. One family paid for the Propylon and the North Building, the other for the South Building and the Temple. Construction of the complex, which was interrupted by a major earthquake, took two generations: work was begun in the reign of Tiberius, c. A.D. 20, and brought to completion early in the reign of Nero, c. A.D. 60.

The Propylon was a two-storeyed columnar screen with projecting aediculae that connected the North and South Buildings to give the complex a continuous monumental facade facing onto the street. The gate carried a series of Julio-Claudian portrait statues, as well as statues of Aeneas and Aphrodite Prometor--in her role as "Foremother"of the Roman emperors.

Inside, in the street-like sanctuary space, the North and South Buildings rose with three-storeyed engaged marble facades to a height of twelve meters. These facades consisted of superimposed Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders, with relief decoration in the upper two storeys, and each thus presented a closed marble "picture wall" to the sanctuary street. The purpose of the buildings behind was simply to support the thin marble facades. The buildings are divided behind into chambers (ca. 5 x 5 meters) that are constructed of rough masonry and have earth floors whose remains do not indicate any real use or function until the Late Roman period (when there is evidence of commercial and manufacturing activity). While close in overall dimensions and effect, the North and South Buildings have marked differences, both in architectural design and in their relief program, that no doubt reflect the split sponsorship of the project.
Little remains of the Temple which was probably dismantled sometime in the Late Roman period. It was set up high on a platform, on the axis of the complex, and set back from the east ends of the‘ North and South Buildings. The layout of the temple and sanctuary thus closely resembles that of the Forum of Caesar in Rome in which the temple was also dedicated to Aphrodite/Venus in her role as Prometor/Genetrix of the Julian dynasty. Enough remains of the architecture to be sure that it was a Roman-inspired podium prostyle temple of the Corinthian order, with six columns across the front and a wide cella behind. Its inscribed architrave included a dedication to Tiberius and Livia.

While the axial-symmetrical plan of the complex resembles that of the imperial fora, and in particular that of Caesar, which may have been its direct inspiration, it probably functioned rather differently. Rather than a closed sanctuary space, the plan was open at both ends (the Propylon had no actual gates and the Temple is not connected in any way with the North and South Buildings) and allowed free access through the complex in both directions. In other words, instead of being solely a sanctuary entered and exited through the Propylon, the complex also functioned, outside cult occasions, as a highly-decorated, monumental city avenue which carried people both east into the city center and west into the surrounding residential districts around and behind the Temple. This wider civic as well as religious function helps to explain the lavish relief program with which the North and South Buildings were decorated.

The Sebasteion, excavated in 1979-81, was a grandiose temple complex dedicated to Aphrodite and the Julio-Claudian emperors. Its construction stretched over two generations, from ca. A.D. 20 to 60, from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero. The complex was paid for by two of the leading Aphrodisian families. Leading to a Corinthian temple, a narrow processional way (90 X 14 m) was flanked by two portico-like buildings, each three-storied (12 m high), with superimposed Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders, and decorated with a long series of figured marble reliefs. More than seventy of the 190 reliefs that the project required were recovered in the excavation. They featured Roman emperors, Greek myths, and a series of personified ethne or 'nations' of Augustus' world empire, from the Ethiopians of Africa to the Callaeci of western Spain. This remarkable series of reliefs is unique in content, preservation, and extent.

Sculptures of Sebasteion