Temple of Artemis at Ephesus


Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus located on the western coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) was built in the 6th century BCE, and such was its tremendous size, double the dimensions of other Greek temples including the Parthenon, that it was soon regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Destroyed by a deliberate fire in the 4th century BCE and then rebuilt, the great Ionic temple survived until Late Antiquity and the Gothic invasion of c. 267 CE. Once again rebuilt, in 401 CE it was torn down for the last time by a Christian mob. Today only the foundations and a solitary column stand as a reminder of the site where once stood the greatest temple in the ancient Mediterranean.

Artemis & Ephesus

Ephesus (or Ephesos) was a Greek colony on the eastern coast of Asia Minor founded in the 8th century BCE, although there had been Greek settlers in the area from c. 1200 BCE. The Greek goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans) was particularly important to the Ephesians, indeed her birthplace was considered by them as nearby Ortygia (for other Greeks it was Delos). Artemis was the goddess of chastity, hunting, wild animals, forests, childbirth, and fertility.

The goddess’ cult at Ephesus included eastern elements (borrowed from goddesses such as IsisCybele, and the “Mistress of the Animals”), as did her representation in art, with surviving statues, unlike elsewhere in Greece, being covered in eggs as symbols of her role as a fertility goddess. Hence, the goddess worshipped at Ephesus is often referred to as Artemis Ephesia.


The city had an up and down relationship with the neighboring kingdom of Lydia, resisting many attacks but at the same absorbing some cultural elements. The Lydian king Croesus (r. 560-546 BCE) conquered Ephesus between 560 and 550 BCE, and then funded the construction of new buildings, including a great new temple to Artemis or, as the Greek historian Herodotus put it, he “dedicated many columns” (Histories, 1.92). An interesting archaeological find at the site was a column drum carrying the inscription ‘dedicated by Croesus’.

There had already been several versions of the temple over the centuries at Ephesus, and Herodotus describes the Ephesians tying a rope 1243 meters (4081 ft) long between the old temple and the city in a desperate and as it turned out futile hope that their dedication of the entire city to Artemis would save them from the Lydians

The Temple

The magnificent new Ionic temple was supervised by, according to the 1st-century CE Roman writer Pliny the Elder, the master architect Chersiphron of Knossos while Strabo, the Greek geographer (c. 64 BCE – c. 24 CE), reports that credit should go to both Chersiphron and his son Metagenes. However, both figures may have actually lived in the 8th century BCE and so been involved in the very first version of the temple. Nevertheless, a treatise on the temple written in the mid-6th century BCE is attributed to Chersiphron and Metagenes. Vitruvius, the 1st-century BCE Roman architect and writer, has the project begun by the former pair and completed by Paeonius of Ephesus.

Begun c. 550 BCE, the marble temple would take 120 years to complete, and like its predecessors, it was dedicated to Artemis and so was sometimes referred to as the Artemisium (or Artemision). Like most temples to the goddess in the Greek world, it was located a short distance from the city as Artemis was thought to preside over boundaries (physical or otherwise), wild vegetation, animals, and nature in general.

According to Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (36.97), the temple measured 129.5 meters (425 ft) in length and was 68.6 meters (225 ft) wide, almost double the size of the 5th-century BCE Parthenon at Athens (69.5 x 30.9 m). It had 127 columns which were 18.3 meters (60 ft) high and 1.2 meters (4 ft) in diameter. The columns were arranged in a double row on all four sides, eight or nine on the short sides and 20 or 21 on the long sides. Those columns on the facades were decorated with relief figures from Greek mythology.

The decorative frieze of the temple carried scenes involving Amazons, who were, in Greek mythology, supposed to have sought shelter at Ephesus from Hercules. The architrave blocks above the columns are estimated to have weighed 24 tons each, and the feat of engineering that put them in place led to the Ephesians believing it was the work of Artemis herself. According to Vitruvius in his On Architecture (2.9.13), the cult statue of Artemis which stood within the temple (and for which the whole project was actually started) was made of cedar wood.


The foundations of the temple have received some attention, first by Pliny the Elder who praises the engineer and sculptor Theodorus of Samos for preparing them on marshy ground and thus mitigating the effect of earthquakes. Pliny also notes that alternate layers of sheepskins and packed charcoal were used to provide the necessary stability to support the massive weight of the structures about to be built on top.

Excavations at the site in 1870 CE did indeed reveal that the foundations of the temple were composed of layers of a soft mortar substance and charcoal. Layers of marble chips and charcoal have also been discovered in 20th century CE excavations, but neither explorations have found evidence of sheepskins.

Destruction & Rebuilding

In the 4th century BCE, the temple partially funded by Croesus was destroyed by a fire deliberately started by a man called Herostratus, who became one of history’s most infamous arsonists, his sole ambition in committing the crime. According to the Greek writer Plutarch (c. 45-125 CE) in his biography of Alexander the Great, the great Macedonian leader was born on the very same day that the Temple of Artemis brunt down, around 21 July 356 BCE (the 6th day of Hecatombaeon). Remembering that Artemis was the goddess of childbirth, Plutarch noted:

It was this coincidence which inspired Hegesias of Magnesia to utter a joke which was flat enough to have put the fire out: he said it was no wonder the temple of Artemis was destroyed since the goddess was busy attending to the birth of Alexander. But those of the Magi who were then at Ephesus interpreted the destruction of the temple as the portent of a far greater disaster, and they ran through the city beating their faces and crying out that that day had brought forth a great scourge and calamity for Asia.

Despite these dire predictions, the temple was rebuilt on the same spot and following the same design as the original, even better according to Strabo (Geography, 14.1.21). Excavations, though, have revealed the Hellenistic temple was slightly smaller than its predecessor, measuring some 105 x 55 meters (344 x 180 ft) with columns 17.65 meters (58 ft) high. In addition, the new version was placed on a higher base to make the temple more imposing. The architect in charge was either Kheirocrates or Deinocrates, according to Vitruvius.

Strabo also notes that Alexander, visiting Ephesus in 334 BCE, offered to pay the expenses of the ongoing construction of Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, if his name appeared on an inscription on the finished temple. The Ephesians refused the offer, one unnamed man declaring that it was not correct for one god to present gifts to another god, and instead, the Ephesians paid for it themselves by having a collection of the citizens’ personal jewelry.

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