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by W.M. Ramsay

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Chapter 22 | Table of Contents | Chapter 24

The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia
W. M. Ramsay

Chapter 23: Thyatira: Weakness Made Strong

Thyatira was situated in the mouth of a long vale which extends north and south connecting the Hermus and Caicos Valleys. Down the vale a stream flows south to join the Lycus (near whose left bank Thyatira was situated), one of the chief tributaries of the Hermus, while its northern end is divided by only a ridge of small elevation from the Caicos Valley. The valleys of the two rivers, Hermus and Caicos, stretch east and west, opening down from the edge of the great central plateau of Anatolia towards the Aegean Sea. Nature has marked out this road, a very easy path, for the tide of communication which in all civilised times must have been large between the one valley and the other. The railway traverses its whole length now: in ancient times one of the chief routes of Asia Minor traversed it.

Not merely did all communication and trade between those two great and rich valleys pass up and down the vale; but also, in certain periods and in certain conditions of the general economy of Asia Minor and the Aegean lands, a main artery of the Anatolian system of communication made use of it. The land-road connecting Constantinople with Smyrna and the southwestern regions of Asia Minor goes that way, and has been at some periods an important route. The Imperial Post-road took that course in Roman times. Above all, when Pergamum was the capital of Asia under the kings, that was the most important road in the whole country; and its importance as the one great route from Pergamum to the southeast (including all the vast regions of the central Anatolian plateau, Syria and the East generally) was proportionate to the importance which the official capital of the Province retained under the Roman administration.

In the middle of that vale, with a very slight rising ground to serve for a citadel or acropolis, Thyatira was built by Seleucus I, the founder of the Seleucid dynasty, whose vast realm, extending from the Hermus Valley to the Himalayas, was everywhere bounded loosely according to the varying strength of rival powers. The boundary at this northwestern extremity was determined at that period by the power of Lysimachus, who ruled parts of Thrace, Mysia and the coastlands as far south as Ephesus. For defence against him, a colony of Macedonian soldiers was planted at Thyatira between 300 and 282 BC. The situation chosen implies that the Caicos Valley belonged at that moment to Lysimachus. Now Philetaerus governed Pergamum and guarded the treasure of Lysimachus for many years, and during that time the whole Caicos Valley would naturally go along with Pergamum, while the Hermus Valley belonged to the Seleucid realm.

In 282 Philetaerus revolted and founded the Pergamenian kingdom. At first he was encouraged by Seleucus in order to weaken Lysimachus; but soon this bond of a common enmity was dissolved at the death of the enemy, and then Thyatira was a useful garrison to hold the road, first in the interest of the Seleucid kings and afterwards on the Pergamenian side. So long as the kings of Pergamum were masters of Thyatira they were safe from Seleucid attack; but if the Syrian kings possessed that key to the gate of the Caicos Valley, Pergamum was narrowed in its dominion and weakened in its defences. Thus, the relation between the two cities was necessarily a very close one. The condition of Thyatira was the best measure of the power of Pergamum.

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Figure 26: The hero of Thyatira

This historical sketch is necessary, in order to show the character of Thyatira and the place which it holds in history. It came into existence to be a garrison-city; and its importance to the two rival dynasties who alternately ruled it lay in its military strength. But no city has been given by nature less of the look or strength of a fortress than Thyatira. It lies in an open, smiling vale, bordered by gently sloping hills, of moderate elevation, but sufficient to overshadow the vale. It possesses no proper acropolis, and the whole impression which the situation gives is of weakness, subjection and dependence. The most careless and casual observer could never take Thyatira for a ruling city, or the capital of an Empire. It is essentially a handmaid city, built to serve an Empire by obstructing for a little the path of its enemies and so giving time for the concentration of its military strength.

The natural weakness of the position imposed all the more firmly on the kingdom whose frontier it guarded the necessity of attending to its military strength by careful fortification and by maintaining in it a trained and devoted garrison. The military spirit of the soldier-citizens had to be encouraged to the utmost. This tendency towards militarism must inevitably characterise Thyatira in all times of uncertainty and of possible warfare: the function of the city was to make a weak position strong, supply a defect, and guard against an ever-threatening danger.

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Figure 27: Caracalla adoring the God of Thyatira

The religion of an ancient city always summed up its character in brief. The Thyatiran religion is obscure, and our chief authority lies in the coins of the city. A hero Tyrimnos represents the Thyatiran conception of the city's function in the world. He goes forth on horseback with the battle-axe over his shoulder, the fit representative of a military colony, to conquer, and to dash his enemies in pieces. How far he may have a Macedonian origin, as brought with them by the first Macedonian soldiers who were settled there, remains doubtful; but his aspect in art is entirely that of a common Anatolian heroic figure, as shown in Figure 26.

This hero Tyrimnos is closely related in nature to the tutelary god of Thyatira, whose full titles are recorded in inscriptions: he was styled Propolis because he had his temple in front of the city, Propator as the divine ancestor (doubtless both of the city as a whole and specially of some leading family or families), Helios the sun-god, Pythian Tyrimnaean Apollo, a strange mixture of Hellenic and Anatolian names. This god is never named on the coins, so far as published; but he often appears as a type on them, a standing figure, wearing only a cloak (chlamys) fastened with a brooch round his neck, carrying a battle axe over one shoulder, and holding forth in his right hand a laurel-branch, which symbolises his purifying power. This elaborate and highly composite impersonation of the Divine nature, with so many names and such diversity of character, seems to have been produced by a syncretism of different religious ideas in the evolution of the city. Examples are given in Figures 27, 28.

Thyatira was certainly inhabited before the time of Seleucus. The site is so favourable that it must become a centre of population from the beginning of history in the valley. But it was made a city by Seleucus with a great accession of population. Previously it had been a mere Anatolian village round a central temple. The foundation of the garrison city was not without effect on the religion of the locality. It was inevitable that the newcomers should worship the god whose power in the country had been proved by the experience of generations; but they brought with them also their own religious ideas, and these ideas necessarily affected their conception of the nature of this god whom they found at home in the land and whose power they respected and trusted. Tyrimnos, whatever his origin may have been, was the heroic embodiment of the spirit of the garrison city; and the Anatolian god of the locality took into himself some of the nature of the hero, as Helios Tyrimnaios Pythios Apollo, a conception at once Anatolian, military, and Hellenic. The god united in himself the character of all sections of the population, so that all might find in him their own nature and the satisfaction of their own religious cravings.

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Figure 28: The Emperor and the god of Thyatira supporting with joined hands the Imperial Trimnean Pythian Games

He stands for his city in alliance-coins with Pergamum; and frequently a female figure, wearing a turreted crown (the accepted representation of the genius of any fortified city), holds him forth on her extended right hand (as on Figure 27), thus intimating that Thyatira was devoted to the service of this god. In Figure 28 the Emperor Elagabalus, in the dress of a Roman general, is shown with his right hand in that of Apollo Tyrimnaios, supporting between them an urn, over which is the name "Pythia." The urn is the regular symbol of those gymnastic and other competitive sports in which the Hellenic cities delighted; and the name inscribed above shows that the Thyatiran games were modelled upon the Pythian games of Greece. Between the Emperor and the god is an altar flaming with the sacrifice. The coin was, indubitably, struck in gratitude for some favour granted by the Emperor in connection with those games in Thyatira. What the favour was can be determined with great probability.

The union of the Emperor and the god in supporting these games is the symbolic fashion of intimating, in a way adapted for the surface of a coin, that the Emperor and the god were united in the honour of the festival, that is to say, the festival was no longer celebrated in honour of the god alone, but included both Emperor and god. In other words Elagabalus sanctioned the addition of the honourable title Augustan to the old Tyrimnaean festival. During the third century the feast and the games regularly bear the double title, an example of the closer relation between the Imperial and the popular religion in Asia under the later Empire.

Seleucus I, the founder of Thyatira, is mentioned by Josephus as having shown special favour to the Jews and made them citizens in the cities which he founded in Asia. The probability that he settled a body of Jews in Thyatira must therefore be admitted, for he knew well that soldiers alone could not make a city (see chapter 11). Beyond this it is not possible to go with certainty; but some slight indications are known of the presence of Jews in Thyatira. Lydia the Thyatiran in Philippi was "God-fearing," i.e., she had come within the circle of influence of the Synagogue. Professor E. Schurer in a very interesting paper has suggested the possibility that the sanctuary of Sambethe the Oriental (Chaldean, or Hebrew, or Persian) Sibyl in the Chaldean's precinct before the city of Thyatira might have been formed under Hebrew influence: according to this suggestion the sanctuary would have arisen in an attempted syncretism of Jewish and pagan religious ideas. But this remains as yet a mere tantalising possibility.

The history of Thyatira is a blank. Its fate in the many centuries of fighting between Mohammedans (Arabs first, then Turks) and Christians must have been a sad one. It is one of those cities whose situation exposes them to destruction by every conqueror, and yet compels their restoration after every siege and sack. It lies right in the track of invasion: it blocks the way and must be captured by an invader; it guards the passage to a rich district, and hence it must be defended to the last, and so provoke the barbarity of the assailant: but it could never be made a really strong fortress in ancient warfare, so as to resist successfully. Yet the successful assailant must in his turn refortify the city, if he wants to hold the country. He must make it the guardian of his gate; he must make it a garrison city. Its situation defines its history; but the history has not been recorded.

The same local conditions which ensured for Thyatira so unfortunate a fate in unsettled times favoured its prosperity in a period of profound peace. The garrison city could never be a large one, for a multitude of inhabitants devoted to the arts of peace would seriously detract from its military strength. But in the long peace of the Roman Empire Thyatira ceased to be a mere military city, though the historical memory and the military character of the municipal religion still persisted. The city grew large and wealthy. It was a centre of communication. Vast numbers passed through it. It commanded a rich and fertile vale. Many of the conditions of a great trading city were united there.

This period of great prosperity and increase was only beginning when the Seven Letters were written. Thyatira was still a small city, retaining strong memories of its military origin, and yet with fortifications decayed and dismantled in the long freedom from terror of attack, which had lasted since 189 BC. Yet the Roman peace had at first brought no prosperity, only oppression and extortion. When the Empire at last was inaugurated, prosperity returned to Asia (see chapter 10); and Thyatira soon began to take advantage of its favourable situation for trade, though it was not till the second century after Christ that the full effect became manifest.

The coinage of Thyatira is a good index of the character of the city. As a military colony, in its earlier stage of existence, it struck various classes of coins, including cistophori. This coinage came to an end before 150 BC; for the military importance of Thyatira lay in its position as a frontier city; and that ceased after 189 BC. It was not until the last years of the reign of Claudius, 50-54 AD, that it began again to issue coins. They gradually became more numerous; and in the latter part of the second century, and in the third century, the coinage of Thyatira was on a great scale, indicating prosperity and wealth in the city.

It is therefore not surprising that more trade-guilds are known in Thyatira than in any other Asian city. The inscriptions, though not specially numerous, mention the following: wool-workers, linen-workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leather-workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave-dealers and bronze-smiths. The dealers in garments and the salve-dealers would have a good market in a road-centre. Garments were sold ready made, being all loose and free; and from the mention of dealers in outer garments we may infer the existence of special trades and guilds for other classes of garments. The woman of Thyatira, a seller of purple, named Lydia, who was so hospitable to St. Paul and his company at Philippi (Acts 16:14), belonged doubtless to one of those guilds: she sold not simply purple cloth but purple garments, and had emigrated to push the trade in Thyatiran manufactures in the Macedonian city. The purple in which she dealt cannot be regarded as made with the usual dye, for that was obtained from a shell-fish found chiefly on the Phoenician and the Spartan coasts. The colour in which Lydia dealt must have been a product of the Thyatiran region; and Monsieur Clerc, in his work on the city, suggests what is at once seen plainly to be true, that the well-known Turkey-red was the colour which is meant. This bright red is obtained from madder-root, which grows abundantly in those regions. It is well known that the ancient names of colours were used with great laxity and freedom; and the name purple, being established and fashionable, was used for several colours which to us seem essentially diverse from one another.

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Figure 29: The Thyatiran bronzesmith

A special interest attaches to Figure 29. The divine smith, Hephaestus, dressed as a workman, is here seated at an anvil (represented only by a small pillar), holding in his left hand a pair of forceps, and giving the finishing blow with his hammer to a helmet, for which the goddess of war, Pallas Athene, is holding out her hand. Considering that a guild of bronze-smiths is mentioned at Thyatira, we cannot doubt that this coin commemorates the peculiar importance for the welfare of Thyatira of the bronze-workers' handicraft; and we must infer that bronze work was carried to a high state of perfection in the city.

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