Letters to the Churches of Asia - 29 - The City of Laodicea

Chapter 29: Laodicea: The City of Compromise

Revelation 3:14

Laodicea was founded by Antiochus II (261-246 BC). As a Seleucid foundation, it was probably similar to Thyatira in respect of constitution and law; but no information has been preserved. It was situated at a critical point in the road system of the country. The great road from the west (from Ephesus and from Miletus) ascends the Meander Valley due eastwards, until it enters "the Gate of Phrygia." In the Gate are a remarkable series of hot springs, and warm mud-baths, some in the bed of the Meander, others on its banks. "The scene before the traveller as he traverses the Gate is a suitable introduction to that Phrygian land, which always seemed to the Greeks something strange and unique."

Immediately above this point lies a much broader valley, in which Lydia, Phrygia, and Caria meet. The Meander comes into this valley from the north, breaking through a ridge of mountains by a gorge, which, though singularly beautiful in scenery, is useless as a roadway. The road goes on to the east up the glen of the Lycus, which here joins the Meander, and offers an easy roadway. The Lycus Glen is double, containing a lower and an upper glen. Laodicea is the city of the lower glen, Colossae of the upper. Due north of Laodicea, between the Lycus and the Meander, stands Hierapolis, in a very conspicuous situation, on a shelf below the northern mountains and above the valley, with a cascade of gleaming white cliffs below it, topped by the buildings, still wonderfully well preserved, of the old city.

The glen of the Lycus extends up like a funnel into the flank of the main plateau of Anatolia. Between the lower and the upper glen there is a step about 400 feet high, and again between the upper glen and the plateau there is another step of about 850 feet; but both can be surmounted easily by the road. The lower glen, also, slopes upwards, rising 250 feet; and the upper glen slopes much more rapidly, rising 550 feet. In this way the rise from the Meander Valley, 550 feet above the sea, to the plateau, 2,600 feet (an exceptionally low elevation), is achieved far more easily by this path than at any other point. Hence the Lycus Glen was always the most frequented path of trade from the interior to the west throughout ancient time.

Laodicea was placed as a guard and door-keeper on this road, near the foot of the Lycus Glen, where it opens on the main valley of the Meander. The hills that bound the glen on the south run up northwards to an apex, one side facing northwest, the other northeast; this apex lies between the river Lycus (the Wolf), and its large tributary the Kapros (the Boar), which comes in from the south and passes near the eastern gate: the Lycus is about three miles to the north of the city.

Laodicea was placed on the apex; and the great road from the coast to the inner country passed right through the middle of it, entering by the "Ephesian Gates" on the east. The city was nearly square, with the corners towards the cardinal points. One side, towards the southwest, was washed by the small river Asopus.

The hills rise not more than one hundred feet above the glen; but they spring sharply from the low and level ground in front; and, when crowned by the well-built fortifications of a Seleucid city, they must have presented a striking aspect towards the glen, and constituted an admirably strong line of defence. Laodicea was a very strong fortress, planted right on the line of the great road; but it had one serious weakness. It was entirely dependent for water-supply (except in so far as wells may have existed within the walls, of which there is now no trace) on an aqueduct conducted from springs about six miles to the south. The aqueduct was under the surface of the ground, but could hardly remain unknown to a besieging army or be guarded long against his attack. If the aqueduct was cut, the city was helpless; and this weakness ruined the character of the city as a strong fortress, and must have prevented the people from ever feeling secure when threatened with attack.

Planted on the better of the two entrances from the west to the Phrygian land, Laodicea might have been expected to be (like Philadelphia, which commanded the other) a missionary city charged at first with the task of spreading Greek civilisation and speech in barbarian Phrygia, and afterwards undertaking the duty of spreading Christianity in that country. It had, however, made little progress in Hellenising Phrygia. As has been sated before, Phrygia was the least Hellenised part in all the Province; as a whole, it still spoke the native tongue, and was little affected by Greek manners, in contrast with Eastern Lydia, which was entirely Greek-speaking and Hellenised (at least superficially). Why it was that Laodicea had failed and Philadelphia had succeeded in diffusing the Greek tongue in the districts immediately around, we have no means of judging. But such was the case.

Laodicea was a knot on the road-system. Not merely the great eastern highway and central route of the Roman Empire, as already described, but also the road from Pergamum and the Hermus Valley to Pisidia and Pamphylia passed through its gates; while a road from Eastern Caria, and at least one from Central and West Phrygia, met in the city. In such a situation it only needed peace to become a great commercial and financial centre. It was, as Strabo says, only a small city before the Roman time; but after Rome kept peace in the land, it grew rapidly. Cicero brought with him in 51 BC orders to be cashed in Laodicea, as the city of banking and exchange.

It was also a manufacturing centre. There was produced in the valley a valuable sort of wool, soft in texture and glossy black in colour, which was widely esteemed. This wool was woven into garments of several kinds for home use and export trade. Small and cheap upper garments, called himatia, two kinds of birros (another sort of upper garment), one of native style and one in imitation of the manufactures of the Nervii, a tribe in French Flanders, and also tunics of several kinds, were made in Laodicea; and one species of the tunics, called trimita, was so famous that the city is styled Trimitaria in the lists of the Council of Chalcedon, AD 451, and in some other late documents.

It is pointed out elsewhere that this kind of glossy black wool, as well as the glossy violet-dark wool produced at Colossae, was probably attained by some system of breeding and crossing. The glossy black fleeces have now entirely disappeared; but they were known in comparatively recent times. Pococke in the eighteenth century saw a great many black sheep; but Chandler in the early part of the nineteenth saw only a few black and glossy fleeces. The present writer has seen some black-fleeced sheep, but the wool was not distinguished by the gloss which the ancients praised and prized so much. Certain systems of breeding animals, and improving them by careful selection and crossing with different stocks, were known to the native Anatolian population in early times: the rules were a matter of religious prescription, and guarded by religious awe, like almost every useful art in that primitive period. But the system has now been lost.

Between Laodicea and the "Gate of Phrygia" lay a famous temple, the home of the Phrygian god Men Karou, the Carian Men. This was the original god of the valley. His temple was the centre of society and administration, intercourse and trade, as well as of religion,--or, rather, that primitive religion was a system of performing those duties and purposes in the orderly way that the god approved and taught--for the valley in which the Lycus and the Meander meet. A market was held under the protection of his sacred name, beside or in his own precinct, at which the people of the valley met and traded with strangers from a distance; and this market continued to meet weekly in the same place until about fifty years ago, when it was moved two or three miles north to the new village called Serai-Keui.

In connection with this temple there grew up a famous school of medicine. The school seems to have had its seat at Laodicea, and not at the temple (which was about thirteen miles west of Laodicea and in the territory of the city Attoudda); and the names of the leading physicians of the school in the time of Augustus are mentioned on Laodicean coins. These coins bear as type either the serpent-encircled staff of Asklepios (Figure 10, chapter 14) or the figure of Zeus (Figure 35). The Zeus who was worshipped at Laodicea was the Hellenised form of the old native god. Men had been the king and father of his people. When the new seat of Hellenic civilisation and speech was founded in the valley, the people continued to worship the god whose power was known to be supreme in the district, but they imparted to him something of their own character and identified him with their own god Zeus. Thus in Sardis and elsewhere the native god became Zeus Lydios, "the Zeus whom the Lydians worship"; and the same impersonation in outward appearance was worshipped at Laodicea (Figure 35), though with a different name in place of Lydios. The Laodicean god was sometimes called Aseis, perhaps a Semitic word meaning "powerful." If that be so, it would imply that a body of settlers from Syria were brought into the new city at its foundation, and that they had imparted an element of their own character to the god who was worshipped in common by the citizens generally.

 God of Laodicea

Figure 35: The God of Laodicea

This Laodicean school of physicians followed the teaching "of Herophilos (330-250 BC), who, on the principle that compound diseases require compound medicines, began that strange system of heterogeneous mixtures, some of which have only lately been expelled from our own Pharmacopoeia."

The only medicine which is expressly quoted as Laodicean seems to be an ointment for strengthening the ears made from the spice nard; Galen mentions it as having been originally prepared only in Laodicea, though by the second century after Christ it was made in other cities. But a medicine for the eyes is also described as Phrygian: Galen describes it as having the form of a tabloid made from the Phrygian stone, while Aristotle speaks of it as Phrygian powder; the two are probably identical, Aristotle describes the powder to which the tabloids were reduced when they were to be applied to the eye. There can be no doubt that this Phrygian powder came through Laodicea into general use among the Greeks. Laodicea was the one famous medical centre in Phrygia; and to the Greeks "Phrygian" often stood in place of "Laodicean"; thus, for example, the famous orator of the second century, Polemon of Laodicea was called simply "the Phrygian." The Phrygian stone was exported after a time to all parts of the Greek and Roman world; and as the powder had now become common, and was prepared in all the medical centres, Galen does not mention it as being made in any special place; but Laodicea was probably the oldest home of its use, so far as the Greeks knew.

Jews were an important element in the population of this district in the Graeco-Roman age. In 62 BC the Roman governor of Asia refused to permit the contributions, which were regularly sent by the Asian Jews to Jerusalem, to go out of the country; and he seized the money that had been collected, over twenty pound weight of gold at Laodicea and a hundred pounds at Apameia of Phrygia. Such amounts prove that Laodicea was the centre of a district in which a large, and Apameia of one in which a very large, Jewish population dwelt. According to the calculation of M. Th. Reinach, the gold seized at Laodicea would amount to 15,000 silver drachms; and as the annual tax was two drachms, this implies a population of 7,500 adult Jewish freemen in the district (to which must be added women and children).

Of the Jews in Laodicea itself no memorial is preserved in the few inscriptions that have survived; but at Hierapolis they are several times mentioned, and the Hierapolitan Jews may be taken as occupying a similar position to the Laodicean. There were Jews in Laodicean, which was such an important centre for financial transactions (Josephus, Ant., xiv., 10, 20); but there is no evidence whether they were citizens or mere resident strangers (see chapter 12). If they were citizens, they must have been one element in the population planted in the city by Antiochus. Thus we can detect in the original Laodicea the following elements, some Greek or Macedonian colonists, probably some Syrians and also some Jews, in addition to the native Phrygian, Carian and Lydian population of the district.

To these there were added later some new classes of citizens, introduced by Eumenes II or by Attalus II. When Phrygia was given to Eumenes by the Romans, in 189 BC, it was soon found to be necessary to strengthen the loyalty of the Seleucid colonies by introducing into them bodies of new citizens devoted to the Pergamenian interests. It is known that a Tribe Attalis was instituted in Laodicea; and we must infer that it contained some or all of those new Pergamenian settlers, who were enrolled in one or more Tribes. These later colonists were probably in part Thracian and other mercenaries in the service of the Pergamenian kings. Thus Laodicea and the Lycus Valley generally had a very mixed population. No better example could be found of the mixed Graeco-Asiatic cities described in chapter 11.

The Jews at Hierapolis were organised in trade-guilds, the purple-dyers, the carpet-makers, and perhaps others. These guilds were recognised by the city, so that money could be left to them by will. "The Congregation of the Jews" was empowered to prosecute persons who had violated the sanctity of a Jewish tomb, and to receive fines from them on conviction; and it had its own public office, "the Archives of the Jews," in which copies of legal documents executed by or for Jews were deposited. These rights seem to imply that there was a body of Jewish citizens of Hierapolis.

The Jews of Hierapolis were settled there by one of the Graeco-Asiatic kings, for their congregation is in one inscription called "the Settlement or Katoikia of the Jews," and the term Katoikoi was appropriated specially to the colonists planted by those kings in their new foundations.

Hierapolis seems to have preserved its pre-Hellenic character as a Lydian city, in which there were no Tribes, but only the freer grouping by Trade-guilds. The feasts of Unleavened Bread and of Pentecost are mentioned in inscriptions; and by a quaint and characteristic mixture of Greek and Jewish customs, money is left to the two Jewish guilds (naturally, by Jews), the interest of which is to be distributed annually on those feasts.

Laodicean Jews may be estimated on the analogy of the Hierapolitan Jews (chapter 12).

Laodicea was, of course, a centre of the Imperial religion, and received the Temple-Wardenship under Commodus, AD 180-191. Its wide trading connection is attested by many "alliance-coins," in company with Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, most of the neighbouring cities (except Colossae, which was too humble), and some distant cities like Nikomedia and Perinthus. As a specimen Figure 36 shows an agreement between Smyrna and Laodicea: the latter being represented by its god Zeus, while Smyrna is represented by Zeus Akraios who sits with sceptre in left hand, holding out on his right the goddess Victory.

Alliance of Ledicea and Smyrna

Figure 36: The alliance of Laodicea and Smyrna

There is no city whose spirit and nature are more difficult to describe than Laodicea. There are no extremes, and hardly any very strongly marked features. But in this even balance lies its peculiar character. Those were the qualities that contributed to make it essentially the successful trading city, the city of bankers and finance, which could adapt itself to the needs and wishes of others, ever pliable and accommodating, full of the spirit of compromise.

The Lycus Valley, in a larger sense, is a deep cleft between two lofty mountain ridges. On the south are Salbakos and Kadmos, both slightly over 8,000 feet above the sea; on the north is a lower ridge over 5,000 feet in height. The ridges converge towards the east, and in the apex lies the ascent to the plateau already described. Thus the valley is triangular, the base being the opening on the Meander Valley. Low hills occupy the southern half of this greater valley; these hills are drained by the Kapros and the Asopus; and Laodicea stands on their northern apex, about half-way between the two mountain-ridges. It is the only one of the Seven Cities in which no relation is discernible between the natural features that surround it and its part and place in history.