In 550 BC, in Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, ground was broken on one of the wonders of the ancient world. The first stones were laid for the enormous and staggeringly beautiful Temple of Artemis.
This was not the first temple to Artemis on this site, but the construction which was to replace the earlier destroyed Bronze Age site would be much grander, bigger and more impressive. The first temple built entirely of marble, it was sponsored by the famously rich Croesus: we can be sure no expense was spared.
Strictly speaking, this second temple was not the canonical “Wonder of the Ancient World”: that title is properly assigned to the third temple built on this sight. What happened to the second temple of Artemis is a story of fame at any cost, violence and vandalism, and above all irony.
The Temple and Herostratus
We know the location of the temple, and archaeological finds from this period show that it was rich in patronage indeed. Thousands of artifacts including jewels, valuable metals and beautiful works of art have been found in the ruins.
It would seem that everyone from kings to commoners visited the great new temple. Unfortunately, so did a man named Herostratus, about whom we know very little. He may have been a slave but he was certainly of a lower class, and probably not Ephesian.
Herostratus gazed upon the miraculous temple, with its soaring marble columns and high spanning roof, filled with votive offerings and sacred to the goddess of the hunt herself. Truly, he must have thought, this building is a marvel. I bet they will remember me if I set fire to it.
And so Herostratus, in a mindless and meaningless act of arson, set fire to the roof of the temple. The flames easily caught in the wooden underpinnings and the temple soon became a conflagration as the fire burned out of control.
Herostratus was immediately caught and tortured to find out the reasons for his vandalism. All he would say was that he sought fame at any cost, and the term herostratic fame has since been applied to this mindless need for attention.
Ironically, one of the first things the authorities did when they found perpetrator and understood his reasoning for the destruction was to publish a “damnatio memoriae” whereby any mention of the name Herostratus was explicitly forbidden. They also executed him, for good measure.
It is only through a mention in the works of the ancient historian Theopompus, who was not a Ephesian and may not have been aware of the ban, that we know his name today. Strabo, another later historian, also mentions him.
To pile irony on irony, it is the name of Herostratus we remember today. Those who sentenced him, judged him and punished him have all been forgotten, but Herostratus, great arsonist of the Temple of Artemis, endures.
Top Image: Modern reconstruction of the (third) Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Source: Zee Prime / CC BY-SA 3.0.
By Joseph Green