The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus: The History of an Ancient Wonder

Discover the history of one of the most famous tombs in the ancient world: the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.

Jan 14, 2023By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History

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There is a certain irony underpinning the list of monuments compiled by the ancient Greeks that are now known as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Pieced together from different textual sources, such as Diodorus Siculus’ Historical Library, written in the 1st century BCE, the wonders were understood to be theamata (θεάματα). In other words they were “sights”, or things worth seeing.


The irony is that it’s now impossible to see the vast majority of these wonders at all. The only one still standing is the Great Pyramid, while the Hanging Gardens of Babylon remain so elusive as to be almost mythic. Those monuments that were built closer to the Mediterranean epicenter of the Greek world have left historians, archaeologists, and modern tourists slightly more tangible proof of their former splendor. The most long-lived of all the traditional ancient wonders besides the Great Pyramid was the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Like the Pyramid at Giza, this vast edifice was also a tomb to a powerful dynast. It stood proudly on the Ionian coast for almost two millennia before succumbing to the ravages of time.


Before the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus: The Rise of King Mausolus

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Marble statue from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the so-called ‘Maussollos’, c.350 BCE, via British Museum


Although it was listed as a wonder of the ancient world by the ancient Greeks, the story of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus begins in the Persian Empire. At the turn of the 4th century BCE, the city of Halicarnassus was the main city in the kingdom of Caria. From the middle of the 6th century, the city had been a satrapy (i.e., a province) of the Achaemenid Empire. The Achaemenids were the dynasty of Persian rulers that included Cyrus the Great, Darius, and Xerxes, and which would be ended in 330 BCE when Darius III was slain trying to flee Alexander the Great’s victorious forces.


In 377 BCE, the de facto ruler of Caria, Hecatomnus of Milas, died. Hecatomnus had been the satrap (i.e., governor) of Caria for the Achaemenid king, Artaxerxes II, but he was also a powerful local dynast in his own right. The administrative structures of the Persian Empire often relied on the use of these prominent local figures rather than imposing new rulers. After his death in 377 BCE, power in Caria passed to Hecatomnus’ son, Mausolus. The new ruler would embark on an ambitious program to consolidate the primacy of his position by expanding both Caria’s influence in western Asia Minor, as well as by aggrandizing the city of Halicarnassus. It was from these efforts to create a city suitable for his pretensions that a wonder emerged that would endure for centuries: the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.

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Halicarnassus in the Ancient World

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View of the ancient theatre at Halicarnassus, via Wikimedia Commons


Thanks to geography, the city of Halicarnassus, located on the western coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), found itself at the center of tensions in the ancient world. The city, like so many in Anatolia, had close connections — political and cultural — with both the Greeks to the west and the Persians to the east. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence in the area, for instance, is Mycenaean, including tombs that date to between 1500 and 1200 BCE. Likewise, very early numismatic evidence has helped historians and archaeologists reach a broad consensus that the city was originally founded as a colony of Dorian Greeks.


According to the geographer Strabo, the city was founded by Anthes, the legendary son of Poseidon. However, after the city had been incorporated as part of Cyrus the Great’s Persian empire, the city found itself more closely allied with its new rulers. With its monarchical government, Halicarnassus remained loyal to the Persian Empire during the Ionian Revolt in 499 BCE. It was during the Persian Wars that followed that Artemisia, the ruler of the city, famously served as a naval commander at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, which the Greeks decisively won.


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Mosaic depicting Dionysus dancing with a panther, from a Roman villa at Halicarnassus, 4th century CE, via British Museum


The tensions between Greek and Persian influences continued through the Classical Age and into the Hellenistic, lasting beyond the reign of Mausolus. The city had passed into Alexander the Great’s control thanks to his benevolent treatment of Ada of Caria in 334 BCE. After she had surrendered the fortress of Alinda to the Macedonian king, Alexander returned the government of Caria to her, prompting her to adopt Alexander as her son. After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, the city — like much of his empire — was squabbled over by his various Successors. The city of Halicarnassus continued to be prominent into the Roman age, and in 58 BCE, it was annexed and became a part of the province of Asia.


The Historians’ Home: Halicarnassus, Herodotus, and Dionysius

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Title page to an edition of Herodotus’ Histories Book 9, by François van Bleyswyck after Hieronymus van der My, 1686-1746, via British Museum


Today, the ancient city of Halicarnassus has mostly been occupied by Bodrum, a popular holiday destination. Tourists come from all over the world to enjoy the azure blue waters of the Aegean, the Mediterranean climate, and the scattered archaeological remains of the ancient city. However, the city’s association with history is much stronger than simply the archaeological remains. Halicarnassus was the birthplace of the ‘Father of History’, Herodotus. Born in Halicarnassus in the early 5th century BCE, Herodotus had abandoned his city because Lygdamis II, Artemisia I’s grandson, had ordered the execution of his relative, the poet Panyassis.


Although many elements of his Histories appear dubious (stories of tales of giant gold-digging ants from India might have been one reason for Plutarch’s later scathing criticisms…), Herodotus’ work presents an important narrative of the ancient Greek world in the 5th century BCE. In particular, his work covers the events of the Persian Wars, and it is from him that modern historians can learn about events at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea.


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Romulus and Remus, by Wenceslaus Hollar after Giulio Romano, 1652, via Metropolitan Museum of Art


Herodotus was not the only famous historian from the ancient world to have hailed from Halicarnassus. The city was also the birthplace of Dionysius, a historian and teacher of rhetoric who was active during the late 1st century BCE. Born in around 60 BCE, Dionysius lived through the traumas of the Roman Civil Wars, which, spurred on by the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, would end with the end of the Republic and the reign of Augustus as the first emperor. The most important of Dionysius’ works to have survived is the Roman Antiquities. This work narrates the history of Rome from its mythical beginnings with Romulus and Remus, through to the first Punic War (264-241 BCE). It is invaluable as a source for the history of early Rome, alongside works such as Livy’s ad Urbe Condita.


Building an Ancient Wonder: The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

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Le mausolée, by Jacques Picart, c. 1660, via British Museum


As part of their efforts to turn Halicarnassus into one of the most magnificent cities in the ancient Mediterranean, Mausolus (and his wife, Artemisia) also looked to expand the territory under their control. This went hand-in-hand with the levying of high taxes and the use of marble and artwork to glorify the city. Beyond the city walls, they extended their dominion around the southwestern coast of Anatolia. Part of this involved the annexation of the territory of Lycia. This was significant because it brought Mausolus into direct contact with the monumental tombs characteristic of the region, such as the tombs at Xanthos, including the Nereid Monument, now located in the British Museum, and the Payava tomb. These monumental sepulchers would have a profound influence on Mausolus’ lasting historical legacy — the mausoleum.


Given the extraordinary dimensions of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, it is highly probable that the structure was planned — and probably began — well before Mausolus’ death. Renowned artists from the Greek world were invited to Halicarnassus to contribute to the tomb. These included Scopas, the man who had supervised the rebuilding of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus (another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, not to be confused with the temple of Artemis at Corfu).


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Detail of the Amazon frieze from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, showing conflict between three Greeks and two Amazons, via British Museum


The tomb itself was erected on a hill overlooking the city of Halicarnassus. The structure was positioned within an enclosed courtyard, at the center of which the Mausoleum sat atop a great stone platform. Visitors to the Mausoleum would have needed to ascend a monumental staircase, flanked on each side by marble lions. The platform itself was decorated with statues of gods and goddesses from the Classical world. The tomb itself, in the center of this stone platform, was a great marble edifice.


Tapering at the summit, the Mausoleum reached a height of 45m. The structure was richly decorated with bas-reliefs and other sculptural works. These are described by Pliny the Elder, who notes that it was the artistic merit of these works — and not the Mausoleum’s colossal size — that made it a wonder of the ancient world. The reliefs were narrative in character, depicting a range of mythological scenes, including a Centauromachy (the battle between centaurs and lapiths) and the Amazonomachy (the battle between the Greeks and the Amazons). Often, these subjects were used as allegories for the conflict between east and west. Thus, they were apt on a monument that was the jewel in the crown of a city that had embodied this tension.


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Fragmentary horse from the colossal quadriga of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassos, c. 350 BCE, via British Museum


At the top of the Mausoleum, proudly displayed on the pyramidal roof, there was a quadriga. This is a four-horse chariot, often associated with the Triumphal procession in ancient Rome. The quadriga on the Mausoleum was pulled by four massive marble horses (which survive in fragmentary form).


Artemisia and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

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Marble statue from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the so-called ‘Artemisia, c.350 BCE, via British Museum


Given that Mausolus himself is believed to have died in 353 BCE, it is highly likely that responsibility for the completion of his colossal tomb fell to his successors. Although Artemisia II, his wife, only survived for around two years after the death of her husband, her story is well worth telling. Both the sister and spouse of Mausolus (incestuous marriages for dynastic purposes were not uncommon in the Hellenistic world), Artemisia was a powerful figure within the Hecatomnid dynasty.


While she was cautious in following Mausolus’ example in keeping the Achaemenids onside, she pursued her own ambitions in relation to the wider Greek world. Famously, she was responsible for outwitting the Rhodians with a false harbor. The island had reputedly balked at the idea of being ruled by a female monarch, but soon learned their lesson when their duped sailors were slaughtered. Vitruvius, the Roman architect, even claimed that another magnificent monument — known as the Abaton — was built by Artemisia to commemorate her conquest of the island.


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Artemisia Prepares to Drink the Ashes of her Husband, Mausolus, attributed to Franceso Furini, c. 1630, via Yale Art Gallery


However, it was for the grief that she felt at the death of her husband that Artemisia is most famous. Obviously, this was most plainly manifest in her efforts to continue the construction of the Mausoleum to perpetuate the legacy of her husband, and it was she who invited the most renowned Greek artists to decorate the monument. Other cultural practitioners were invited to celebrate the memory of Mausolus, as Artemisia invited rhetoricians to come and proclaim their praise for the former king.


A story emerged that the distraught queen had mixed her husband’s ashes into her daily drink as she mourned him. Almost certainly a fabrication and meant to demonstrate the extremes of feminine behavior (such stories are common in Roman historiography, for instance), it was nevertheless popular among artists from the Renaissance onwards. Depicting Artemisia with either a cup or urn, painters have sought to explore the nature of grief using the stricken Carian queen.


The Wondrous Legacy of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus

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Marble head of a lion from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, 350 BCE, via the British Museum


Apart from the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was the most long-lived of all the traditional wonders of the ancient world. Alexander the Great’s conquest in the fourth century BCE did not touch it, nor did the Roman annexation of Asia Minor. The turbulences of the Middle Ages also did not bring about the ruin of the ancient wonder.


Eustathius of Thessalonica, a scholar in the Byzantine Empire and the Archbishop of Thessalonica during the 12th century (famous for his account of that city’s sack by the Normans), described the Mausoleum as still being worthy of wonder in his day. Material from the Mausoleum was recycled by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem in their construction of the fortress at Bodrum. It is likely that an earthquake in the 14th century had inflicted significant damage on the structure, although some of the sculptural pieces were salvaged and displayed in Bodrum Castle.


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Mausolaeum (The Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus), by Philip Galle, after Maerten van Heemskerck, 1572, via National Gallery of Art


However, there remains an argument that the legacy of the Mausoleum can almost match that of the Great Pyramid. The architectural blueprint offered by Mausolus’ monumental tomb has been mimicked around the world throughout the centuries. Some have even suggested that the Carian dynast’s sepulcher inspired the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome. Many cities in the US today also testify to the legacy of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, not least the Masonic House of the Temple in Washington DC, which gives an excellent idea of the form of the ancient structure.


Perhaps the greatest legacy, though, was linguistic. Such was the splendor of Mausolus and Artemisia’s vast tomb that its name became the eponym for all stately tombs around the world. As the second-century geographer, Pausanias noted, “the tomb at Halicarnassus was made for Mausolus, king of the city, and it is of such vast size, and so notable for all its ornament, that the Romans in their great admiration of it call remarkable tombs in their country “Mausolea.” Now, we all know what a Mausoleum is. As a way of preserving the memory of Mausolus, the Mausoleum has been an enduring success.

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK-based independent researcher with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explore the representation of imperial status during the reigns of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the ancient world. He is currently writing his first book.