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HomeDetail of the facade of the Library of Celsus in ancient Ephesus

Detail of the facade of the Library of Celsus in ancient Ephesus

The Statue of “Arete Kelsou” in a niche on the reconstructed facade of the Library of Celsus.

The facade

The two-storey marble facade is 17 metres high (including the 9 stairs up to it) and 21 metres wide. It is extravagant in its architectural form, the building materials used and the elaborate sculptures, reliefs and dedicatory inscriptions which appear to have covered just about every square inch.

Most of the surfaces of the facade, apart from the columns, were decorated with reliefs of eagles, mythical scenes , patterns of stylized vegetation, including flowers, leaves and scrolling tendrils, as well as conventional motifs such as egg-and-dart, dentils and palmettes. A surprising number of the carved blocks have survived, although many are now in the Ephesos Museum, Vienna. The monolithic shafts of all eight columns were made of expensive purple-veined marble from central Phrygia.

As with many ancient marble buildings, the white stone has taken on a patina in hues of yellow, orange and brown over the centuries, and depending to the light, the library facade can appear the colour of honey or amber (see, for example, the Temple of Athena Nike in Athens).

At each side of the wide stairway up to the library was an equestrian statue of Celsus. The inscriptions on the front and one side of both statue bases list his most important official titles, such as consul and proconsul of Asia. The inscription of the left-hand (south) base is in Greek (IvE 5102), and that on the right in Latin. All the other inscriptions on the library facade are in Greek.

A row of four roofed porch areas (aediculae or tabernacles) project from the wall of the ground floor, each supported in front by two columns with composite capitals (a mixture of Ionic and Corinthian elements) and an entablature decorated with reliefs of eagles with outspread wings. This arrangement forms a colonnade immediately before the wall and entrances to the building.

The porch roofs in turn support the smaller Corinthian columns of three projecting roofed areas on the first floor. At each end of the upper storey is an extra column (supporting a pier) to match the number of columns on the ground floor.

Between the four lower porches are three doorways into the library itself, the central doorway is taller and wider than the other two. Above each doorway is a large window, with another window directly above it and the entablature of the ground floor.

At the back of each porch two pilasters with composite capitals, the same height as the columns, flank a niche in the wall, framed by two smaller pilasters. In each of the four niches stands a statue with a base inscribed with one of the virtues of Celsus

To the right of the niches were reliefs of fasces, a few of which have survived (see photo right). The fasces was a symbol of a Roman magistrate’s power in the form of a bundle of birch rods tied together with a red leather ribbon, with an axe blade projecting from the top. Both Celsus and his son Aquila were entitled to use this symbol since they had achieved the rank of consul.

On the roof of each lower porch stands an inscribed statue base, three of which supported a statue of Celsus, and the fourth a statue of Aquila. The statue in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum may have been one of the four.

It is thought that there were also statues of the nine muses somewhere in or around the library, as a statue of Melpomene, the patron of tragedy, was found outside the building.

The roofs of all seven porches have coffered (square panelled) ceilings. The pediments of the upper porches each has a tympanum decorated with a relief of a Gorgon’s head flanked by floral and spiral tendril motifs, and framed along the top by an egg and dart motif.

In order to create the optical illusion that the facade was even larger than it is, the height of the columns diminishes gradually from the centre to the ends of the building, and the lines of the facade itself have a slight curvature.

The use of the aedicula as an architectural device originally had religious significance: the Latin word aedicula is the diminutive of aedes, a temple building, as the Greek naiskos (ναΐσκος) is the diminutive of naos (ναός), temple. Images of such temples, or shrines, were used to frame scenes on ancient Greek and Roman reliefs, vases and other art objects depicting religious themes (see for example the “Ninnion Tablet” and a gold relief of Dionysus with a satyr).

The idea of adding colonnaded porches in the form of aediculae to the walls of buildings was developed and spread around the Graeco-Roman world from the time of the first emperors. The skene (scaenae frons, stage building) of the Great Theatre of Ephesus (enlarged circa 50 AD) featured aediculae, as did the Fountain of Trajan (Nymphaeum Traiani), also built by Tiberius Claudius Aristion and his wife around 104 AD, and the skene of the 2nd century Bouleuterion (Odeion).

A number of monumental public buildings in other places, particularly theatres, fountains, triumphal arches and thermae (baths), also had facades in the form of aediculae, for example the Odeion of Herodes Atticus in Athens (160-174 AD), the theatre in Aspendus (161-180 AD), the Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus in Olympia (around 150 AD), and the Nymphaeum (69-96 AD) and the North Gate of the South Agora of Miletus (120-130 AD).

Theatres were in a sense sacred spaces due their history and association with Dionysus, the nymphaeums featured statues of gods, the families of deified emperors or other heroized dignitaries, and even baths and gymnasia were the province of Hermes and other deities. It appears no accident that the family of Celsus appropriated such architectural language, as well as the reliefs of Dionysus and Apollo, to give divine weight to the library as his tomb and shrine. The facade can also be seen as a grand “Inszenierung”, a theatrical presentation.

The reliefs of mythical themes, particularly of Apollo, and the statues of the muses, apart from their direct religious connotations, are all illusions to literature and the arts fitting for a library. It is not known whether Celsus had a particular love of books, although as most high-ranking Roman citizens he would have received a good education, or why he chose to build a library here, rather than some other type of building. Some scholars have speculated that he may have been influenced by other learned persons, perhaps even historian Tacitus (circa 56-120 AD), who was at Ephesus as proconsul of Asia 112-113 AD. Another influence on his decision is thought to have been the establishment of the Bibliotheca Ulpia in Rome by Emperor Trajan in 114 AD.

The cities of Asia were constantly vying with each other for power, prestige and and influence. Ephesus, Pergamon and Smyrna, for example, competed for the honour of becoming the Neokoros of Asia, the official centre of the Roman imperial cult for the province. Since the old provincial capital Pergamon had been famous for its library, perhaps the Ephesians were attempting to establish the new capital as a centre of learning as part of their competitive strategy.

“Arete Kelsou”

This statue is a copy; the original is in the Ephesos Mueum, Vienna.

Inv. No. ANSA I 852.

It is one of four female statues (all copies) which stand in niches on the ground floor, within the colonnade of the library’s facade, flanking each of the three doorways (see photos on previous page).

The statues which originally stood in these niches when the building was completed was a female personification of the virtues of Celsus , indicated by the Greek inscription on the bases naming them, for example, “Sophia Kelsou” (Wisdom of Celsus):

Sophia (σοφία) – wisdom;

Arete (ἀρετή) – excellence, moral virtue, diligence, valour;

Ennoia (εννοια) – forethought, thoughtfulness, consideration, moral understanding;

Episteme (Ἐπιστήμη) – knowledge, learning, erudition.

Modern interpretations and translations of the words for these qualities vary, as they were used differently by ancient authors of different periods, who were influenced by various philosophies and ways of thinking.

It has been pointed out that the nature of these virtues is related to literature and philosophy, and that both Arete and Sophia appear on the “Archelaos relief” of the Apotheosis of Homer. The reliefs of mythical scenes on the facade, only a few of which have survived, and statues of the nine muses also point to a literary element in the symbolism of the building’s sculptural composition as a whole.

The original statues of the virtues were destroyed along with the libray in 262-263 AD . They were later replaced by unrelated statues, including one of Hygeia, which are thought to be 2nd century AD copies of late Hellenistic originals. This means that they do not inform us about the depiction of such virtues in ancient art.

The Ennoia inscription is also an addition or alteration of late antiquity. The lettering is in a different style to the others, and actually states “Ennoia Philippou”, forethought of Philippos, whoever he may have been.

Statue of “Sophia Kelsou” (Σοφία Κέλσου) in the niche on the left (south)
of the facade of the library, and to the left of the left-hand doorway.
A Latin inscription, dated around 112-117 AD, on the side of the base of an equestrian statue
of Celsus, on the right (north) side of the stairway up to the library. It names Celsus as consul
and proconsul of Asia, and his son Aquila as consuland the maker of the statue

Publius Statienus Petronianus, also known as Julianus, the emperor-loving father
and supervisor of the sacrifices, was a fair and reliable market master. When he
was in office, the best bread cost four obols for fourteen ounces while normal
bread cost two obols for ten ounces. Satisfaction and sanctification.

Inscription IEph 3010. Circa 115 AD.

A relief of the mythical hero Bellerephon with the winged horse
Pegasus at the top of a pilaster on the facade of the library.
Other known reliefs of mythical themes in the sculptural programme of the library facade
include the gorgon Medusa (see below), Eros and Psyche, and scenes of the lives of Apollo
and Dionysus. There were also statues of the nine muses, one of which, Melpomene, the
patron of tragedy, was found outside the library.
Two columns supporting the roof the right-most porch of the library’s ground floor.
The composite capitals have corner scrolls (volutes) and egg-and-dart motifs typical of the Ionic order, as well as the stylized acanthus leaves of the Corinthian order. Each of the heavy entablatures which form the roofs of the porches has a coffered ceiling  and a frieze featuring an eagle with outspread wings. The decorative band of the entablatures continues along the entire length of the facade, dividing the two storeys of the facade; the parts of the frieze on the wall between each porch also have eagle reliefs (a total 7 eagles).

The Greek inscription along the bottom of this entablature is the abbreviated name of “Tiberius Claudius Aristion, 3 times three times Asiarch”. Aristion was the executor of Celsus’ will after the death of his son Aquila, and was resonsible for the completion of the library.


A coffered ceiling of one of the four roofed porches (known as aediculae or tabernacles)
projecting from the wall of the of the ground floor of the library facade. This ceiling is on
the right of the building. Each recessed panel has a sculpted rosette in the centre,
framed on all four sides by an egg-and-art motif.
Coffered ceilings had been a decorative feature of ancient Greek buildings
since before the Classical period. See a photo of coffering from the Propylaea
of the Athens Acropolis (437-432 BC)
A cast of one of three reliefs of the head of the Gorgon Medusa
on pediments at the top of the facade of the Library of Celsus.

The pediments of the upper porches each has a tympanum decorated with a relief of a Gorgoneion flanked by floral and spiral tendril motifs, and framed along the top by an egg and dart motif.

This Gorgoneion tympanum is on the left-hand (south) pediment. That it is a modern copy is made evident by the contrast to the original white marble fragment fitted into the pediment during the reconstruction of the facade in 1970-1978 . The fragmentary reliefs of the other two pediments appear to be original but less complete.

The original tympanum is now in the Ephesos Museum of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Inv. No. Antikensammlung, I 1632 (at present not on display).
Height 67 cm, width 172 cm, depth 63.5 cm.


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