Temple of Artemis at Ephesus: The History of an Architectural Marvel

An act of wondrous devotion: the history of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, an ancient architectural marvel.

Apr 4, 2023By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History

temple of artemis ephesus


According to Plutarch’s Life of Alexander the Great, there was a rumor that the famous Macedonian king was partially responsible for the destruction of one of the ancient world’s most famous architectural wonders. However, unlike Alexander’s deliberate destruction of Persepolis in Persia, this time it was an accident. Around 3,000 kilometers to the west of the Persian capital, on the day of Alexander’s birth, the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus burned down. Plutarch’s ancient biography of Alexander records the pithy remark of Hegesias of Magnesia, a none-too-popular historian from the 2nd century BCE. According to Hegesias, the vast sanctuary on the Ionian coast had fallen to the flames because the goddess herself had been unable to provide protection, so busy was she in bringing Alexander the Great into the world!


As preposterous as it is, Hegesias’ remark is nevertheless a useful way of beginning to understand the significance of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in the ancient world. This vast sanctuary to the goddess was one of the canonical Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. These marvels represented a celebration of architectural prowess in the ancient world. However, the bulk of the list is Hellenistic in origin, like the Colossus at Rhodes and the Pharos at Alexandria, testifying to the spread of Greek cultural interests around the wider Mediterranean world. Much like the Colossus, the Temple at Ephesus was a vast monument to Hellenistic piety. Discover the history of this wondrous celebration of the importance of the goddess Artemis which has reverberated through the centuries.


Ancient Devotion: The Early History of Artemis at Ephesus

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Athenian red-figured plate with central figure typically identified as an Amazon, attributed to Epiktetos, ca.520-510 BCE, via the British Museum


The site at which the future wonder of the ancient world would be erected at Ephesus, located on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor (near the modern town of Selçuk), had long been associated with devotion. A sacred site — known as a temenos — appears to have been established at Ephesus for as long as anyone in the ancient world could remember. Pausanias, the second-century CE geographer, even suggested that it was older than the sacred site at Didyma. Also located on the Ionian coast, Didyma was famous for its oracular shrine and was associated with Apollo, the brother of Artemis, who was worshipped at Ephesus. The site was seemingly so ancient as to be steeped in myth and legend. The Hellenistic poet Callimachus, who was active in 3rd century BCE Alexandria, attributed the worship of Artemis at Ephesus to the Amazons, the legendary warrior women.


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Statue of Diana-Artemis from Italy, late 1st century BCE / early 1st century CE, via Musee du Louvre


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Myth, legend, and speculation aside, modern archaeological discoveries have indicated that the ancients were correct in suggesting this was a very old sacred space. The site was occupied at least as early as the Bronze Age. A temple was first built on this site in the latter part of the 8th century BCE, although this structure was some way off the wonder that would later be erected here. This earliest temple was, however, still innovative. It was likely to have been one of the first peripteral Greek temples, meaning that it was surrounded by columns on all sides. This early temple would be destroyed by a flood in the 7th century BCE. From out of the destruction, a wonder would rise…


Knowledge and Faith: Ephesus in the Ancient World

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Portrait of Heraclitus, by René Boyvin, 1566, via Rijksmuseum


Ephesus was one of the most prominent cities in antiquity. It had been founded on the site of an even-older settlement by Greek colonists in around the 10th century BCE. According to myth, the city was founded by an Athenian prince, Androklos, although other sources attribute the city’s foundation to an Amazonian queen. Regardless, in time Ephesus and the cities that were established by Greek migrations to the Ionian coast, including Miletus, would band together as the Ionian league. In the 6th century BCE, the city was conquered by King Croesus, who would have an important role in the restoration of the Temple of Artemis. Later conquered by the Achaemenid Empire, the Ephesians revolted at the start of the 5th century BCE. Now that the city was involved in the broader political affairs of the Greeks, it was also dragged into their wars, siding first with Athens during the Peloponnesian War, before later switching to the Spartan cause.


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Eustache Le Sueur, Saint Paul Preaching at Ephesus, 1649, via National Gallery


Later, under Roman rule, Ephesus would enjoy a spectacular rise to prominence. Alongside the city’s status as a place of worship, it would flower as a provincial capital and as a center of learning and culture. Evidence for this can still be seen among the ruins of the ancient city today. These include the Library of Celsus. Built in circa 125 CE during the reign of Hadrian, the library commemorated Tiberius Julius Celsus, a former governor, and likely once held over 10,000 scrolls. The library has an ornate façade, reminiscent of a Classical theatre, and these were decorated with statues. The city had a long tradition of education and intellect, however: it was the home of the philosopher Heraclitus in the 5th century BCE. Heraclitus was famous for the concept of impermanence: “no man ever steps in the same river twice”. Ephesus was also an important center in the history of early Christianity. The Apostle Paul lived in the city during the 1st century CE, and he would later write the Epistle to the Ephesians after he had been imprisoned at Rome. Ephesus is also one of the seven cities that feature in the Book of Revelations, an indication of the Christian faith’s strength in the city.


The Goddess: Ephesian Artemis and Her Cult

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Statue of the Ephesian Artemis, 2nd century CE, via the Israel Museum Je


Many of the cities on the west coast of Asia Minor displayed the evidence of their position at a cultural meeting point. A rich religious diversity was one of the hallmarks of this cultural fluidity, and this is clear from the worship of Artemis at Ephesus. Artemis, the sister of Apollo, was the Greek goddess of the hunt and often depicted with her bow and accompanied by a stag. She was also the goddess of wild animals, forests, and, rather contradictorily, of both chastity and childbirth. The earliest temenos that was established for the worship of the goddess at Ephesus may have been linked to the belief that her birthplace was nearby, on Delos (which was also sacred to Apollo).


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Youth with an Effigy of Diana of Ephesus, Salvator Rosa, ca. 1656-57, via Los Angeles County Museum of Art


The cult that developed at Ephesus displays several clear influences from the east, including features normally associated with goddesses such as Isis and Cybele. On coins minted by the city, the statue of Artemis is depicted wearing a mural crown (i.e. the city’s walls). This is an attribute shared with Cybele, who was also viewed as a protector of cities. These specificities, such as her representation as being covered round objects, often understood to be eggs (linked to her role as a fertility deity) or breasts, ensure that this goddess is referred to specifically as the Artemis Ephesia, or the Ephesian Artemis. Because the Romans simply adopted the worship of the goddess as part of their typical religious syncretism, it is also common to find the goddess referred to as Diana Ephesia (Diana was the Roman equivalent of Artemis).


Rising from the Ashes: Rebuilding the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

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The Building of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Hendrick van Cleve III, 16th century, via Wikimedia Commons


After the destruction of the first temple of Artemis at Ephesus, it was not long before others came looking to resurrect the worship of the goddess at this site. A second temple was sponsored by Croesus, the Lydian King of notorious wealth, with work beginning from roughly the mid-6th century BCE. Archaeologists have uncovered a column drum from the site, which bears the inscription “dedicated by Croesus”. Strikingly, this appears to corroborate Herodotus’ account that the king was actively involved at Ephesus. The work funded by the king was of a level not yet seen in the ancient world. Croesus employed the services of the Cretan architect Chersiphron and his son, Metagenes. The structure they oversaw the erection of was a barely believable scale. Measuring 115 metres in length and 46 metres across, it was —reputedly — the first Greek temple to have been built entirely of marble. A new cult statue was also housed within the temple. Replacing the earlier, more archaic form, this dark-wood icon was sculpted by Endaeus according to Pliny the Elder.


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Marble column drum from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, perhaps showing Alcestis between Thanatos (Death) and Hermes, with Persphone (seated) and Hades, ca. 340-320 BCE, via British Museum


This second phase of the Temple of Artemis was burned, as noted above, in 356, at roughly the same time as the birth of Alexander the Great. Several sources claim the temple’s destruction was not the fault of the distracted goddess, however. Rather, it was a vain glorious attempt by a certain Herostratus. Allegedly, he had sought to commit a crime so great that his name would live on in infamy. To his credit, in this he was — in a way — successful. Today, we have the term herostratic fame, which is fame won through crime and destruction; the Temple of Artemis thus joins the paradise-like gardens in Babylon and the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus in leaving a linguistic legacy.


Although Alexander the Great himself offered to fund for the rebuiling of the temple in later years, the Ephesians tactfully declined. Instead, over time and at their own expense, they erected a third temple. Greater in size once again, it was this third phase that cemented the status of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. According to Pausanias, the Greek geographer of the Roman Empire, it surpassed all other buildings among men.


Emperors and Goths: Ephesus in the Roman Empire

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Silver tridrachm (cistophorus) with obverse portrait of Claudius, laureate, and of Agrippina draped, with obverse image of cult status of Diana of Ephesus, 51 CE, via British Museum


Like many others, Ephesus’ political future in the Hellenistic period was wracked by instability. The death of Alexander the Great without naming a successor meant that his vast empire was squabbled over by his former generals. In the end, much of this fighting would prove futile, as vast swathes of the territory was conquered by the Romans. Ephesus, as part of the kingdom of Pergamon (ruled by the Attalid dynasty), came under Roman rule in 129 BCE. The city’s early relationship with Rome was fractious, even siding with Mithridates during the First Mirthridatic War in the early 1st century BCE, and enduring severe punishments from the dictator, Sulla, when Roman control was re-established.


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View of the remains of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus, via Wikimedia


However, with the rise of the emperors at Rome, Ephesus would enjoy a flowering. Augustus, the first emperor, made the city the main city of the province of Asia (instead of Pergamon), and the city enjoyed a boon, becoming incredibly prosperous and developing as a cultural center. It would eventually become one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire. As typified by the Library of Celsus, as well as the vast theatre erected in the city, Ephesus enjoyed a cultural flowering under Roman rule. This persisted beyond the third century, a period characterized by crisis. Although the city and temple was ravaged by Goths in the 260s, it was able to recover. In part, this was thanks to the efforts of Constantine, who instigated restorative work in the city, including the erection of new baths. Evidence for the city’s continued importance into the Byzantine period is presented by the continued intervention of the emperors: in the 6th century, Justinian ordered the construction of the Basilica of Saint John, an apostle who is particularly closely associated with Ephesus.


Temple of Artemis at Ephesus: Rediscovering One of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World 

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The Temple of Diana [Artemis] at Ephesus, Philip Galle, after Maerten van Heemskerck, 1572, via British Museum


The third phase of the Temple of Artemis survived for several centuries and features prominently in Roman and later accounts of the city. It is suggested by the third century historian, Jordanes, that it was burnt by a Gothic raid in 268 CE, but the extent of the damage is hard to establish with surety. It seems, however, that it was the empire’s conversion to Christianity that sounded the death knell for the former wonder. Upon its destruction, much of the material from the temple was taken to be repurposed in new civic structures. In fact, certain legends even suggest that some of the columns from the temple were taken to be used in the Hagia Sophia at Constantinople although this is surely apocryphal. It was not until the 19th century that a British expedition established the location of the temple.


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View of the temple’s site in the 21st century, via Wikimedia


Today, all that remains of the once wondrous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus are its foundations. A single, rather mournful column rises up over them. A composite structure, made from disparate remains, it is – in its own way – a fitting memorial to the ancient temple. When we think of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, minds jump instantly to a wondrous structure, which it surely was. However, to think of it as a singular would be to do a misjustice to rich, complex history of the monument and the wider city. Rather like the column that marks the spot today, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was itself a composite; an act of supreme architectural devotion, pieced together over the centuries, reassembled from destruction, and an amalgamation of disparate beliefs and cults.

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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.