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The first traces of human presence in the territory of Sagalassos consist of hunting or flint producing campsites dating back to the Epipalaeolithic (ca. 12,000 BP). They belonged to hunter-gatherers who probably ventured from the coastal areas inland following the Kestros River (Aksu) in search for game and flint. At the beginning of the Holocene, during the late 9th millennium BC, climatic improvement resulted in the spreading of woodland in the region. The presence of woodland provided settlers practicing a mixed farming and hunter-gatherer economy ideal conditions for farming, animal breeding and hunting, which eventually resulted in the emergence of permanent settlements along the borders of Lake Burdur. Yet, farming and animal husbandry did not affect all communities simultaneously and groups of hunter-gatherers must have coexisted besides societies practicing farming, herding or both.
During the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age I-II farming settlements of the höyük type appeared in the region which indicates the development of territorial chiefdoms with fortified towns. Towards the end of the period, however, those settlements disappeared not to emerge again before the Late Bronze Age. At that time, around the 14th century BC, Indo-European Luwians migrated in the area and established the Arzawa federation. The territory of Sagalassos became a part of the Luwian sphere of influence, but was located along the much disputed border with the Hittite kingdom. It can therefore not be excluded that the classical name of the city goes back to the name of the mountain site of Salawassa which is mentioned in Hittite documents. In any case, the settlements of this period are fortified strongholds at high altitudes reflecting the unstable character of the period.
From the Early Iron Age onwards urban settlements gradually appeared in the region. The recently discovered urban settlement on the nearby hill of Tepe Düzen, for example, belongs to this period and might have been the predecessor of Sagalassos. The city first became part of the Phrygian kingdom (9th – early 7th century BC), then it was incorporated in the kingdom of the Lydians (early 7th – 546 BC) and finally in the Persian Empire (546 BC – 334 BC). Under Persian rule, when Greek influences spread from the Pamphylian coastal cities inland, Sagalassos became an urban site of the polis type.
The town controlled and exploited a large territory and was protected by a chain of visibly interconnected mountain fortresses. When Alexander the Great arrived in the region in 334 BC, Sagalassos seems to have become a regional centre which was equally influential as Selge and Termessos. In his account of Alexander’s campaign against the Persian king, the ancient historian Arrian of Nicomedia (ca. AD 87 – after AD 145/6) describes Sagalassos as “not a small city”. Arrian, who relied on 2nd century BC sources, tells how Selge concluded a pact with Alexander against Termessos and Sagalassos. Alexander first laid siege to Termessos, but when this city proved to be impregnable, the Macedonian king moved to Sagalassos. In the ensuing battle, the Sagalassians assisted by archers from Termessos took position on a flat, conical mountain in front of the city. Although they succeeded in repulsing the first Macedonian raid, they were eventually defeated and the town was sacked. Later, Sagalassos would be proud of its role in Alexander’s conquest of the region, depicting the battle on its city coins.
After its conquest, Pisidia changed hands many times among the successors of Alexander, being successively incorporated into the kingdom of Antigonos Monopthalmos (321-301 BC), perhaps that of Lysimachos of Thrace (301-281 BC), subsequently into the kingdom of the Seleucids of Syria (281-189 BC) and that of the Attalids of Pergamon (189-133 BC). Like the other cities of Pisidia, Sagalassos rapidly became Hellenised during this period as is testified by the use of Greek as the official language, the development of municipal institutions and the material culture. Rather than being imposed by the successors of Alexander the Great, this Hellenisation was the result of peer polity interaction among the cities of Pisidia.
In 129 BC, after the Attalids bequeathed their kingdom to Rome, most of Pisidia, including Sagalassos, became part of the Roman province of Asia. At least during the earlier part of the Roman domination Pisidia seems to have witnessed a short period of prosperity, during which many cities in the region erected town walls and political buildings. Among them figured the well-preserved council hall (bouleuterion) at Sagalassos. At the beginning of the 1st century BC, however, this period of prosperity came to an end with the outbreak of the Mithridatic wars (89-63 BC), the almost contemporaneous interruption of sea trade by piracy and the Roman system of contracting out tax collection to publicani who bled the province dry. During this period, occupation outside the city remained confined to smaller villages at high altitudes, in easily defendable positions.
Stability returned with the reign of the client king Amyntas of Galatia (39- 25 BC). During his reign, Sagalassos, which had become a pottery-producing centre since the middle of the 2nd century BC, began to serve a regional market. As a consequence, the town started to expand beyond its Hellenistic city walls. This urban expansion which continued in early Imperial times particularly took place in eastern direction and included the construction of the late Hellenistic Doric fountain house and new residential quarters on the eastern slopes of the town. The Doric temple to the north-west of the upper agora may go back to the same period. In 25 BC, Sagalassos once more joined the Roman Empire and later the town would be successively incorporated into the provinces of Asia, Galatia, Lycia and Pamphylia, and under Diocletian into Pisidia. The Pax Romana, the creation of several Roman colonies in the southern part of Galatia and the construction of a good road system by Augustus, of which the via Sebaste linking Pisidian Antioch with the Pamphylian ports crossed 42 miles of Sagalassian territory, brought Sagalassos unexpected opportunities.
The extremely fertile territory of Sagalassos with a surplus production of grain and olives, as well as the presence of excellent clay beds allowing an industrial production of high quality table ware (‘Sagalassos Red Slip Ware’), made the export of local products possible. Rapidly, the local landowning elite realised the economic potential of the new political situation and immediately embraced the Roman cause. The artisanal pottery workshops, using clays from the immediate environment of the city, where transformed into large-scale commercial enterprises producing and internationally exporting Sagalassos Red Slip Ware for at least six centuries. Cash crops such as grain and olives were widely cultivated in the territory of Sagalassos and a network of dependant farmsteads, villas, hamlets and villages provided the city with its primary subsistence. These favourable conditions held for centuries and under Roman Imperial rule Sagalassos became the metropolis of Pisidia.
In the course of the first three centuries of the Imperial period the urban area further expanded, more than doubling in size, while the city centre was refurbished with lavish public monuments. In early Imperial times, the upper agora was (re)paved, reoriented and surrounded by monuments dedicated to the local aristocracy (e.g. the North-West Heroon and the four honorific columns on the upper agora) and the Imperial family (e.g. arches and gateways), whereby the former was responsible for most of these transformations. By the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54) at the latest the members of some of these aristocratic families had become Roman citizens and now mainly financed honorific structures illustrating their ties with the Imperial family. Only a few decades later, the first local citizens obtained Roman knighthood, possibly after introducing the Imperial cult and the connected Klareian games.
A period of unprecedented building activity and prosperity started with the reign of Hadrian (AD 117-138) and continued into the early 3rd century. During this period, the local elite used the construction of monuments for the city and its inhabitants as a medium for self representation and social promotion. By assuming the role of benefactors (euergeteis), they could portray themselves next to the Imperial family and the gods. In this way, the elite supplied the city with major monuments from which the whole population could profit including at least four monumental nymphaea, a library and a macellum or food market. Before the end of the 2nd century, Sagalassos had its first senators and saw the completion of its largest monuments including the Roman baths, a theatre, and a shrine for the divine Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, which served the imperial cult of the koinon of Pisidia.
Even though the Roman Empire came into a crisis after the death of Alexander Severus in AD 235 with the rapid succession of soldier emperors causing violent political instability, South-West Anatolia and especially Pamphylia and Pisidia continued to flourish because of their strategic importance as an outpost for military interventions in the eastern Mediterranean. As a consequence, a large number of troops and the Roman fleet were stationed in Side in the course of the 3rd century AD. This offered economic possibilities to southern Pisidian cities which could earn from selling grain and supplies to the troops resulting in a building boom in those cities lasting throughout the century. Sagalassos, however, profited to a lesser degree from this new situation and building activity seems to have been replaced by the organisation of agones (games) carrying the names of their founders. The 4th century AD nevertheless saw a resumption of building activities, although these mainly comprised very elaborate repairs and embellishments, such as that of the Neon Library and that of the Roman Baths.
From the late 4th – early 5th century AD onward, signs become apparent of internal and external stress, gradually affecting the character of the town. Internal stress may have been provoked by the Christianisation of large parts of the population and the emergence of a restricted, powerful elite, while external stress was caused by the growing instability in the region.
Sagalassos became a bishopric in the course if the 4th century AD and was represented at the first council of Constantinople in AD 381. A growing number of followers of the new religion claimed a more prominent position in society. The ensuing tensions between Christians and pagans apparently led around AD 400 to the destruction of the recently restored Neon Library, whereas the gymnasium, to the east of the theatre, must have been completely dismantled by the municipal authorities shortly afterwards as a measure against the Greek pagan education or paideia. The rising power of the Church is further shown by the construction early in the 5th century of a first basilical church in the courtyard of the former council hall or bouleuterion. Apart from the rise in power of the church, Late Antiquity saw the emergence of a small but very powerful provincial aristocratic elite, called proteuontes. Their attachment to the city declined, as they became more concerned about displaying their private wealth through their estates spread out throughout the province and their palaces than to maintain the infrastructure and appearance of the city. The so-called Domestic Area, which is currently being excavated in the eastern part of Sagalassos, was one of such palaces. By the 6th century, an oligarchic group of clerics (bishop and clergy) and aristocrats (the proteuontes) yielded the real power in the late antique city replacing the elected municipal magistrates and council.
Signs of external stress also became apparent around AD 400, when the revolts of Ostrogothic mercenaries and the raids of the Isaurians made it necessary to build a new city wall. However, the construction of this wall, which largely followed the circuit of its partially dismantled Hellenistic predecessor, was still carried out with a sense of municipal pride. In addition, the city’s countryside remained very densely populated in the following century, although from the middle of the 5th century AD onwards the number of smaller settlements decreased in favour of larger and better protected villages located near water sources at higher altitudes. Contemporaneously with this evolution, an increase of a diversified type of agriculture is testified in the suburbs of the city, probably to cover the immediate needs of the city’s population.
Trying times for the city, in fact, really started around AD 500, when a first major blow to Sagalassos was dealt by a heavy earthquake. The earthquake caused major damage all over the town, but the inhabitants apparently were still numerous and wealthy enough to repair most of the damage in a monumental way. After a phase of restoration, however, encroachment upon former public space took place in increasing levels, resulting in smaller streets and subdivided porticoes. This subdivision of public and private space was a widespread phenomenon recognisable in most late antique cities and caused by changing administrative and economic conditions. Rather than reflecting urban decline, the encroachment of public space represents the ability of the communities to adapt to new social and political conditions of Late Antiquity. After the middle of the 6th century AD, however, the economic system began to disintegrate as a result of a combination of factors, but in part by the plague of AD 541/2 which wiped out nearly half of the population of Asia Minor. The reduction of the workforce caused food shortage, aggravated in the succeeding years by bad harvests. Large areas of the town were being abandoned, big mansions subdivided in smaller units, and more and more signs become apparent of a less luxurious lifestyle and a ruralisation of the town. On the territory of Sagalassos, the settlement pattern also drastically changed and the larger well defended villages were replaced by small hamlets and nomadic camps. The general economic malaise and continued warfare only intensified these processes. Finally, an earthquake around AD 590 almost completely levelled the town which by then was already largely abandoned.
After this event, there seems to be a hiatus in the occupation of the town, although the burial of the death continued to take place for some time in the earthquake debris near the former temple of Apollo Klarios, which by then had been transformed in a basilical church. For the most part, however, the former town was abandoned and the remainder of the local population resettled in the valley. Recent surveys increasingly suggest that the region was not depopulated, but that a more pastoral lifestyle, reflected in the pollen picture, and village life replaced classical city life. In the 10th – 11th century AD new settlements appeared within the Imperial city’s boundaries. One of these settlements, on the promontory of the temple of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, was fortified and belonged to the kastron-type, while the others were located around (restored) churches such as near the former temple of Apollo Klarios and on the Alexander’s hill. The occupation of these hamlets was followed in the 12th century by a mid-Byzantine fortress on the Alexander’s hill, which was ultimately destroyed by the Seljuks during the next century. By that time, however, the Seljuks had already built a public bath (hammam) and a caravanserai in nearby Ağlasun, which carried on the ancient name of the site.