Friday, June 22, 2012

From Lowly Slave to Wealthy Benefactor: The story of Zoilos of Aphrodisias

Today we visited Aphordisias. It is a Roman city located about one hour drive to the south of Laodicea. I am unsure of the exact distance between the two cities since I am not driving and don’t have a very accurate road map in front of me. But no matter how short the distance the travel time is lengthened by the mountains that stand in between. Yesterday I noted the high mountains that stand behind Laodicea and provided it with fresh, cold water from the winter snows. We crossed those mountains today on our way out of the Lycus valley to Aphrodisias. At times there were some steep drop-offs as we wound our way through the mountains.

Although Aphrodisias is not a biblical city I found it interesting because of the window it provides for us into the social structure of the Roman Empire. We can learn something about life and society in Roman times through the life of one C. Julius Zoilos who left behind a number of buildings to which he attached his name.

Zoilos’s story is an interesting one. Although he was born a native of Aphrodisis in the first century BCE, he did not stay. He became a slave owned by owned Julius Caesar. I am not sure how or why he became a slave, but he did spend much of his early life away from the city. At some point he was freed from slavery and gained the status of freedman and became a trusted agent of the next emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus.

Zoilos eventually returned to Aphrodisias in 40 BCE and became a very wealthy man. He played an important role in the life of the city. And to this day we remember Zoilos because his gifts to the city and his name displayed in several places.

This is the city’s theater that Zoilos donated to the city. His name was displayed in a dedicatory inscription over the entrance.

This is what remains of the agora (marketplace) for which he donated a portion of the funds.

And this is the temple to Aphrodite that he built for the city.

To honor and thank him when he died sometime after 28 BCE the city built a large mausoleum with a monument and set of friezes. The friezes depict Zoilos in very forms of dress performing different civic functions.

Zoilos’s life is the kind that we all like to read about it. He is the guy who made it up from the bottom and ended life on top. And his life in slavery adds the kind of twist to the story we all enjoy.

But we need to remember that his is the unusual life. For every Zoilos there were probably thousands of slaves who never lived as long as he did, never escaped slavery and never became wealthy members of an important Roman city. And we don’t remember their names today like we do Zoilos.

 I am reminded of another slave living not far to the north of Aphrodisias about 80 years later. While we know that this slave’s name was Onesimus and we remember him because of the letter Paul wrote on his behalf, we have no evidence for him becoming rich. We don’t even know the outcome of that letter. Did Philemon release him or not? It’s hard to say. And for every Onesimus there were thousands who never had anyone intercede on their behalf. Slavery was a horrible life for most and many are long forgotten.

But Zoilos stands as the story of that one who came up from slavery. And we are lucky to have evidence for his story so that we can see what it was like for the few who did make it out of slavery to a better life. He was a generous benefactor of his city and left behind a legacy that has been recovered for us through the archaeological process. 

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