Landscape and Destiny in Asia Minor

Frazer Brown, Australian National University, 2011

Frazer Brown wrote the following essay on 'The effect of Landscape and Setting on the Socio-Political and Cultural History of Cities in Ancient Asia Minor.' He has also contributed The Persian Wars and The Achievements of August Caesar to Clio.
Landscape can play a very important role in the social, political and cultural history of a city or a people. In order to understand how landscape can affect these things, it is important to understand the landscape itself. From these points of reference, an argument can be drawn, which can lead to a better grasp of the impact of landscape on history. Some of the important factors of landscape are the elevation and level of mountainous landscape in the vicinity, the presence or absence of rivers and oceans, and the coastal landscape, if there is one. The main points of interest, due to various limitations, will be on the military, commercial, and cultural advantages or disadvantages given to the sites by their landscapes. The effects of different dominant cultures will also, to some extent, be revealed to have played a part in the course of the sites’ histories. Three ancient cities will be explored, Smyrna, half way up the western coast of Anatolia, Halikarnassos, situated on the south western corner of Anatolia, and Pergamon, inland approximately between Smyrna at the sea of Marmara (the Propontis).


Map from Cook, J. M., Old Smyrna, 1948-1951

Throughout its history, Smyrna has had at least three sites.[1] While the sites differed in some respects, there were some common factors between them due to the almost identical location of each city.[2] The common factors are the more important aspect of the site. The first and most noticeable element of the landscape is the Gulf of Smyrna. All iterations of Smyrna were on the coast within this Gulf. The coast line of the gulf is riddled with small harbours and bays, providing numerous harbouring opportunities for ships of many sizes. The landmass enclosing the western side of the gulf is a peninsula which provides a great deal of shelter for the waters of the harbour.[3] The gulf provides excellent anchorage, as can be seen from the modern use with quite large, mostly commercial ships. This brings us to the second major feature of the area: the Hermus River and its associated valley. The Hermus flows past Sardis and into the Gulf of Smyrna, [4] making it a useful tool for easy trade with the interior by boat. It also allows for troop and information movement between the interior and the Aegean. The Hermus flows through the Hermus Valley, which provided a direct land route up to Sardis, alongside more than enough water to feed an army on the march if necessary. The final two aspects of the landscape of the area are the mountains and the acropolis. The mountains sit behind the city, closing the city in on the coast. This provides some defence from land attacks from the rear, and provides high points from which to look out on both land and sea. The sea, in ancient times, came right up to the acropolis,[5] which protected it on one side from land attacks, yet made it somewhat vulnerable to any naval attacks that may have managed to get through the gulf. The walls built around Old Smyrna clearly indicate that the town faced attack from both land and sea.[6]

The first way in which the landscape and setting of Smyrna affected its history is by its founding.[7] It is reasonable to believe that Ancient Greeks had some set of ideal features in mind when it came to choosing a site for a city; a good acropolis is fairly standard, as is proximity to the sea, or a river. Akurgal explains that the Aeolian Greeks settling on the coast of Asia Minor in the 10th century BC,[8] for the most part, chose peninsular sites or small islands close to the coast.[9] Presumably this is because, the Greeks being a coastal people familiar with sailing found that by boat was the most effective means of travelling from the Greek peninsula to the coast of Asia Minor. Having arrived, small islands and peninsulas would have proven to be easily captured, if necessary, and easily defensible. As well as this, many of the sites occupied would presumably have had a good, or at least passable, harbour. Smyrna most definitely had a good harbour, with its narrow mouth and sheltered waters. Another way to look at this is that, even though there was originally a city there, later inhabitants, invaders like the Ionians,[10] and rebuilders like the Romans,[11] saw enough value in the location and in the city to make use of it. This is good evidence for the benefits of the site.

One of the most noticeable ways in which the landscape affected Smyrna was in its economics. Its environment made it an incredibly valuable position for trading, as it provided a safe and sheltered middle ground between the Aegean Sea and the Asian inland cities. In fact, its position is so good for this, that in the early 19th century, there were trade caravans that began in Smyrna and travelled east.Ramsay tells us that "...from the sixth century onwards it was the only important harbour for inland caravan-trade on the west coast of Asia occupied the one indispensable situation."[12] The town is still a trade centre, and as we know, humans love money. Its excellence as a commercial site is perhaps part of the reason that so many conflicts have been fought over the town of Smyrna. A relevant example of this conflict is to be found in the wars between the Lydians and the Ionian Greeks in which Gyges and then Alyattes of Lydia attacked the town. Gyges was unsuccessful, but Alyattes managed to reduce the city,[13] thus forcing the inhabitants back to a village way of life until the city’s refounding by Alexander.[14] Akurgal records archaeological evidence that strongly supports Herodotus’ references[15] to the attack of Miletos, Smyrna, Kolophon and Priene by Gyges, Alyattes and Ardys.[16] After recovering from these crushing defeats and the ensuing loss of land and subject peoples, the Anatolian Greeks began to build up trade networks and send out colonies.[17]

With the ability to trade effectively between two cultures came the likelihood of increased multiculturalism and tolerance. There is also evidence both archaeological and other of this multiculturalism, with Lydian and Carian objects being found in Smyrna, and with Greek-styled objects bearing inscriptions in the Carian language, as well as less tangible ideas, like the origin of the word tyrannos being Lydian, and the Ionians learning to strike coinage from the Lydians.[18] Examples of the spread of culture through trade can be found throughout history, with perhaps one of the largest examples being Orientalism in the British Empire. With the spread of British trade connections, the British people became more and more interested in the exotic ways of their subjects and allies in the Ottoman Empire, Asia, and Africa. Multiculturalism has enormous bearing on the ways in which religion and local custom worked, as the tendency was to join aspects of each religion together, as is known to have happened in places like Halikarnassos,[19] and at Ephesos, with the Artemision that fused Artemis and Cybele together, and as the Romans were particularly fond of doing.


Plan of Halicarnassus from Bean & Cook, 'The Halicarnassus Peninsula'.

Unlike Smyrna, Halikarnassos is situated on a peninsula. At the south western corner of Turkey, it is close to the islands of Rhodes and Cos. The location of the site is certain; scholars have reached agreement on the location based on the presence of two ‘horns’ on the southern coast of the peninsula.[20] The easternmost horn is quite protrusive, while the westernmost one is much shorter. These two horns form a harbour at the front of the city. The western horn has a naturally occurring fountain, and later held a Turkish arsenal.[21] The eastern horn, also known as the island of Zephyria[22] held the castle of the Knights of St. John. Zephyria had originally been an island, which had become attached to the mainland. Later on, the joining isthmus had been severed again by Queen Artemisia with a canal, in order to form a secret harbour.[23] This ‘secret harbour’ assisted her in her defeat of a Rhodian naval attempt on the town in the 350s BC.[24] The main harbour rests within the Ceramic gulf, which faces south, while the smaller, secret harbour is cut out of Zephyria.[25] The city itself is shaped much like a theatre,[26] with a relatively constant slope away from the water, and a regular curve that remains mostly uniform to the top of the slope. A large wall ran right around the city and its associated plain along the crests or available ridges and hills that surrounded the hinterland, stopping at the arsenal on the western spit, and at the Riselik River on the west. The walls that remain are believed to be the same walls built by Mausolus when the city became the capital of Caria.[27]

Halikarnassos, in terms of defensibility, is in a very good position. The hills in the area behind the city, when coupled with substantial walls, made for an excellent defence from attacks by land, as is demonstrated by the difficulty with which Alexander captured the city at the beginning of his campaign.[28] The island of Arkonnesus, which blocks it off except for two small passages makes its harbour an easily defensible one, and the secret harbour underneath what is now the Castle of Bodrum makes it an exceptionally good naval harbour, with the ability to hide completely, or at least disguise the number of, a fleet. The very fact that it is enclosed by two promontories and shut in by Arkonnesus, would make it a relatively sheltered harbour, giving a lot of leeway to oar-propelled ships trying to defend the harbour. The promontories themselves, as land based defensive structures, are quite useful; they are rocky and it would be easy to make them difficult to approach by land, and it is nearly, if not completely impossible, to access them from sea due to their rocky nature. An excellent demonstration of this is the fact that the Turks put a military arsenal on the western spit, named Salmacis. This tells us quite clearly that summit of this promontory was a highly defensible position, for the Turkish army could surely have found another location if this particular one was not viable.

Its strength as a military position is demonstrated by a number of events: Alexander’s siege of Halikarnassos in 334BC,[29] Artemisia’s defence of the city against the Rhodian fleet in the 350s BC, and the presence of The Knights of St. John in the 15th century AD.[30] Another testament to its strength is that Mausolus relocated his capital to Halikarnassos in the 6th century BC. The difficulty which Alexander met in taking Halikarnassos and the ease with which Artemisia defeated the Rhodians stand as excellent testaments to the site’s defensive capabilities. There is no reason to doubt Vitruvius’ claim[31] that Mausolus was aware of the benefits of Halikarnassos as the new site for the capital of Caria. Newton tells us that Mylasa, the old capital, was esteemed in antiquity as being an ill chosen site, and he quotes Aristotle’s story regarding the event in which Mausolus convince the Mylasans to give him a large amount of money for a public work, then claimed that a divinity had forbidden him from doing this work, and spent the money on Halikarnassos instead.[32] Given the obvious advantages that Halikarnassos has over Mylasa, it seems that we can dismiss the thought that Mausolus was being whimsical or egotistical. The importance of the city to Alexander in his Persian campaign adds to this idea: he knew that, in order for him to topple the Persian Empire with his army, he had to remove the Persians’ control of the sea. Halikarnassos was one of the port towns that he attacked with this end in mind.[33]

Being situated on the corner of a landmass with access to both the Aegean and the rest of the Mediterranean, one would be inclined to assume that much sea-trade traffic went through the city on its way between Greece and the Levant area.[34] However, this was never the case, as Rhodes was a slightly better and much more convenient port for the same route. As a result, no major trade occurred in Halikarnassos, though it is safe to assume that trading vessels would have left Halikarnassos for Rhodes, and that there would have been internal market-style trade as well. Another aspect of its landscape that may have made it a viable trade route, is the rivers that flowed in the hinterland; a strong and defensible port coupled with waterways into the interior would make for a strong economic opportunity, like at Smyrna. This, however, was also not the case. These rivers, according to Newton, were the result of seasonal torrential rain, and thus only ran for parts of the year. They would not have been deep enough for vessels either.[35] Excluding all these concrete geographical barriers, the proximity of Smyrna would also have served as a barrier to trade between Greece and the interior of Asia Minor, as it was such a well placed site for this purpose, and had acted in that role for a very long time. In short, Halikarnassos may have been adequately equipped for sea trade, albeit without any outstanding features befitting for land based trade. Nevertheless, Halikarnassos was never an important trade city. However, being the capital of Caria, a region controlled by the very wealthy Hekatomnid family meant that Halikarnassos probably did not need to be a big trading town; there was enough wealth in the town anyway, by sheer virtue of the presence of the rulers. For a ruler, the military functions of the harbour may have been much more important.


Map of Pergamon in R.E. Wycherley, 'Hellenistic Cities'

Unlike the towns already discussed, the city of Pergamon is situated not on the coast, but at the summit of a large hill, 350 metres high. The surface at the top of this hill is incredibly uneven and has very steep inclines in many places. There are no springs at the top of the hill, but the river Caicus runs near the hill. Strabo describes the shape of the hill as resembling a pine cone,[36] the assumption would be that the hill had a round base and a very sharp point, but in fact it resembles a pine cone lying on its side, and thus has no single pointy pinnacle. The top of the hill was densely populated, and is thickly covered with houses[37] , monuments, and fortifications. At the bottom of the mountain there is, today, a city called Bergama, the river Caicus, and fertile fields “...about the best in Mysia” useful for agriculture.[38] There would have been people living down here, and the Asklepion was also situated near the foot of the hill. The Askelpion was a healing sanctuary and shrine to Akslepios. It was built around a naturally occurring spring which supposedly provided healing waters. This spring had no outlet at the summit of Pergamon, however, only at the Asklepion.

The site has many things to offer to prospective inhabitants, some of them more general than others. The site lacks any naval capability, and has no features which make it an exemplary site for land based trade. However, in military terms, the site is a very good one; it commands an extraordinary view of the plain in which it is situated, assuming clear weather, it is also very difficult to ascend to the summit, making it easily defensible should an enemy make it that far. This second factor, of course, can be a negative factor just as easily as a positive one. It makes it very difficult for the inhabitants of the city to ascend to the citadel in times of need for retreat; it also makes it difficult to get resources to the citadel. There was no hope for agriculture on the top of the hill, as it was far too rocky and crowded. There was, as has been mentioned, no spring, and thus water had to be carried by some means to the summit. The magnificent buildings needed materials with which to be built, and as the hill is made of andesite, these materials had to be carried up as well. One general benefit of the site, from the perspective of the Hellenistic Attalid dynasty that held it for so long, is that it is magnificent both to look at, and to look from. This can only help inspire wonder in subjects and passers-by alike. For the Attalids, this was possibly a reasonably important factor.

The Attalids managed to find ways around most, if not all of the downsides to the site. Possibly the most pressing issue was the difficulty surrounding the water supply. Fortunately, however, the Hellenistic period had seen vast improvements on hydraulic technology. The siphon had been put into use to bring water from hills to the north to the summit of the Pergamene citadel.[39] The other major hurdle was the difficult terrain on the summit. The steepness of some areas and sheer unevenness of others made building either very large buildings or large quantities of smaller buildings very difficult. Unlike earlier Greeks, who were "...of necessity more economical in their methods, and had avoided by the careful choice of naturally suitable sites... [and] the need for expensive substructures in such buildings as theatres and stadia.”[40] , the Pergamenes utilised extensive and expensive terracing to make large level areas for the construction of magnificent buildings like the Altar of Zeus and the Pergamon Library. They also made great usage of naturally occurring quirks of the landscape, such as the naturally occurring theatre shape, into which they built, unsurprisingly, a theatre. These expensive buildings, and the huge amount of labour required to construct them are an excellent demonstration of the wealth and power of the Attalid dynasty and the extravagance of Hellenistic culture in general.

Pergamon should be considered a cultural city more than anything else. Given that, like Halikarnassos, it was home to the ruling dynasty of the relevant period and region, there was evidently enough wealth and power held in the city to negate the need for serious trade, and to control the location of violent action so that it would not impact on the city. After Attalus VI died and bequeathed his Kingdom of Pergamon to Rome, it became a Roman province, and thus had Roman military prowess to protect it. More than just a cultural city however, Pergamon could be considered a cultural capital, much like Athens of the 5th century. It engaged in wholesale export of Hellenistic art and architecture, with its influence being felt in the surrounding small, towns, larger places in the vicinity, like Rhodes and Miletos, and as far afield as Delphi and Athens.[41] Pergamon not only influenced the style of these cities’ architecture, but in some cases even provided labour and some materials. This influence seems to have begun in the late 4th to early 3rd century BC, at the beginning of the Hellenistic period, as this was the period in which it became the capital of the kingdom of Lysimachus, and then the Attalid Kingdom of Pergamon. The mere presence of the temple of Trajan built on the acropolis, and to a greater extent, its magnificence and size, demonstrates that it was still an influential city in the beginning of the 2nd century AD. In terms of intellectual culture, Pergamon was also a leader, with their library containing two hundred thousand scrolls during the first century BC.[42] It was also home to some notable intellectuals as well, including Galen and Oribasius,[43] among others. Eunapius tells us that Pergamon was so famed for its intellectual activity that the Emperor Julian desired to be taught there in the 4th century AD.[44]

The site was most likely originally chosen for its defensibility, being essentially the archetypal Greek acropolis. The spring would also have played an important role in the selection of the site, as it provided a good place around which to build a religious centre. Sites with remarkable natural phenomena, like Hierapolis with its hot springs and Plutonion, or Delphi’s volcanic fissures, attract many people, especially if such a site is equipped with a religious institution of some sort. In this way the healing centre at Pergamon would have been able to attract many people, and then extract their money from them. It seems that the city came into existence sometime around the end of the fourth century, this is because the acropolis would have been either completely beyond the scope of Classical Greek architecture to build on, or just undesirable, not to mention the fact that it was too far inland for the Ionian Greeks. We are told that it was Lysimachus’ treasure trove,[45] and later was held by the Attalids, but no mention is made in this source of its history before that point. Following Alexander’s death it became part of the new kingdom of Lysimachus, and following that, the capital of its own kingdom under the Attalid dynasty, also of Macedonian ancestry. At this point it began to come to fruition as Hellenism took off, with the siphon being installed in the 3rd century, and most of the monuments being constructed under the earlier Attalids. As mentioned, following Attalus VI’s death, Pergamon and its associated kingdom were willed to the Roman state and its people, at which point it became the capital of the province of Asia. It continued to be a city of importance until, according to Foss, it suffered a blow in the late 3rd century AD, from which it never recovered.[46] While the city went into a decline in terms of wealth, it would seem from Eunapius’ account of Julian[47] that it remained an intellectually active city.[48]

Social, cultural and political history of a city is directly affected by the landscape of that city. Geography and geology play a huge part in determining what can and cannot happen in a particular area. For instance, cities with good harbours and a protected rear, but with poor soil quality, are much more likely to engage in large scale trade than small isolated places in a fertile valley hidden in the mountains. Equally, some sites that are equipped with very good harbours, but are perhaps not located in the best position for trade, will be more likely to engage in naval warfare. Some sites, regardless of how good their situation, will, by virtue of the spirit of the times and the wealth in the rulers’ pockets, will be inclined to become cultural or intellectual centres. Some prime examples are Smyrna, Halikarnassos, and Pergamon. Halikarnassos and Smyrna were both easily defensible sites with strong harbours, but only Smyrna became an influential commercial centre. Due to the proximity of Rhodes to Halikarnassos, Halikarnassos was restricted to being a naval town, albeit one of great strength and wealth. Pergamon, whilst easily defended from land based attacks, and having fertile and abundant fields for agriculture, did not really have anything else going for it in terms of landscape, its main advantage was with the culture and wealth of the ruler of the city, these made it into a flourishing intellectual hotbed and centre of Hellenistic culture.

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Aelius Aristides trans. Behr, Charles A., The Complete works E.J. Brill , Leiden, 1981-1986

Arrian, ed. Radice, Betty, The Campaigns of Alexander, penguin, Middlesex, England, 1971.

Eunapius trans. Wright, Wilmer cave, Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, accessed at: on 8/3/2011

Herodotos, The Histories, Penguin, Middlesex, England, 1972.

Pausanias, ed. Radice, Betty, Guide to Greece: Volume 1, Penguin, Middlesex, England, 1971.

Pausanias, ed. Radice, Betty, Guide to Greece: Volume 2, Penguin, Middlesex, England, 1971.

Plutarch, ed. Radice, Betty, The Age of Alexander, Penguin, Middlesex, England, 1973.

Aelius Aristides ed. Behr, Charles A, The Complete Works vol.2, E.J.Brill, Leiden, Netherlands, 1981.

Plutarch, makers of Rome etc etc

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Vitruvius Pollio, ed. Morgan, Morris Hicky, The Ten Books on Architecture, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1914. Accessed:

Akurgal, Ekrem, The Early Period and the Golden Age of Ionia, American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 66, no.4 (pp. 369-379), Archaeological Institute of America, 1962, accessed at: on 18/11/2010 19:15

Bean, G. E., Cook J. M., W. H. P, The Halicarnassus Peninsula, The Annual of the British School at Athens, Vol. 50 (pp. 85-171), British School at Athens, 1955 accessed at: on: 07/12/2010 19:21

Foss,Clive, Archaeology and the "Twenty Cities" of Byzantine Asia, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Autumn, 1977), pp. 469-486, Archaeological Institute of America Accessed at on 04/03/2011

Gagné, Renaud, What Is the Pride of Halicarnassus?, Classical Antiquity, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 1-33, University of California Press, 2006, accessed at: on 06/12/2010 23:21.

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Leake, William Martin, Journal of a Tour in Asia Minor, Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim, New York, 1976.

Newton,C.T., A History of Discoveries at Halicarnassus, Cnidus, and Branchidae, Day and Son, Lithographers to the Queen, London, 1862.

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  1. ^ Aelius Aristides describes three sites for us. Oration XVII.4
  2. ^ Strabo gives the distance between Old and New Smyrna as 20 Stadia (14.1.37)
  3. ^ See map at foot of document. The map does not show enough detail to see the small harbours, but it shows most of the gulf. The peninsular landmass begins at Klazomenai on the west and points north. See also Aelius Aristides XVII.22
  4. ^ OCD p997
  5. ^ Aristides XVII.10
  6. ^ Akurgal, Ekrem, The Early Period and the Golden Age of Ionia, American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 66, no.4 (pp. 369-379), Archaeological Institute of America, 1962, accessed at: on 18/11/2010 19:15, p371
  7. ^ There are numerous stories of people founding Smyrna, including Theseus (Arist. XX.5), Alexander the Great (Pausanias, 7.5.1, Arist. XX.5), and the Roman People (Arist. XX.5).
  8. ^ Akurgal, p369
  9. ^ Akurgal, p371
  10. ^ According to numerous sources (Hdt. 1.14-15, Pausanias, 7.5.1), the Ionian Kolophonians fled from Kolophon following its destruction by Gyges. They settled in Smyrna alongside the Aeolian Greeks who lived there, and eventually held an uprising which displaced the Aeolians. Smyrna became an Ionian city.
  11. ^ Aristides XX.9
  12. ^ Ramsay, Letters to the seven churches, p 265, quoted in Hasluck, F. W., The Rise of Modern Smyrna, p1
  13. ^ Herodotos 1.14-15
  14. ^ Aristides, Oration XX.5
  15. ^ Hdt. 1.14-15
  16. ^ Akurgal, p373
  17. ^ Loc. Cit.
  18. ^ Op. Cit. p374
  19. ^ Gagné, Renaud, What Is the Pride of Halicarnassus?, Classical Antiquity, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 1-33, University of California Press, 2006, accessed at: on 06/12/2010 23:21, p9
  20. ^ Bean, G. E., Cook J. M., W. H. P, The Halikarnassos Peninsula, The Annual of the British School at Athens, Vol. 50 (pp. 85-171), British School at Athens, 1955 accessed at: on: 07/12/2010 19:21 , p87, Newton,C.T., A History of Discoveries at Halicarnassus, Cnidus, and Branchidae, Day and Son, Lithographers to the Queen, London, 1862.
  21. ^ Bean, Cook & W. H. P., p89
  22. ^ or Zephyrion
  23. ^ Vitruvius, 2.8.14
  24. ^ Bean, Cook & W. H. P., p87
  25. ^ See the map at the foot of the document for exact shape.
  26. ^ Vitruvius, 2.8.11
  27. ^ Newton, p39
  28. ^ Arrian, 1.20
  29. ^ Arrian 1.20-24
  30. ^ Newton p52
  31. ^ Vitruvius, 2.8.11
  32. ^ Newton, p38
  33. ^ Arrian 1.20-24, Plutarch, Alexander, 17
  34. ^ Vitruvius states at 2.8.11 that Mausolus saw the value of Halikarnassos as a trade centre, but here he is mistaken. That said, there is nothing wrong with Halikarnassos as a trade centre other than its proximity to Rhodes.
  35. ^ Newton, p278
  36. ^ Strabo, 13.4
  37. ^ According to Foss, these houses are a much later addition, and were built in and around the ancient buildings, though the builders did retain some of the monuments and public buildings to continue in their original purposes. Foss, p480
  38. ^ Strabo 13.4
  39. ^ Wycherley, R. E., Hellenistic Cities, The Town Planning Review, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Oct., 1951), pp. 177-205, Liverpool University Press, Accessed at on 02/03/2011, pp198-99. Wycherley does not use the term siphon, but without mechanical pumps, this is the only possible explanation. The siphon at Lyons works in the same manner as the Pergamene siphon.
  40. ^ Wycherley, p196
  41. ^ Wycherley, p200
  42. ^ Plutarch, Antony, 58
  43. ^ Eunapius, vitae sophistrarum, 151
  44. ^ Eunapius, v.s, 63
  45. ^ Strabo 13.4
  46. ^ Foss, Clive, Archaeology and the "Twenty Cities" of Byzantine Asia, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Autumn, 1977), pp. 469-486, Archaeological Institute of America Accessed at on 04/03/2011, p479
  47. ^ Eunapius, v.s, 63
  48. ^ Eunapius, v.s, , 463, Foss, p 480