Tourists eager to envision the glories of the Roman Empire can take in the ruins of the Colosseum or the Forum in the Italian capital. Those searching for remnants of the empire’s Eastern hub, Constantinople, can visit Istanbul, where the Column of Constantine still stands, erected by the emperor in 330 A.D. But what’s left of the original seat of the Eastern Roman Empire from 286 to 324, often described as a magnificent urban landscape?
For centuries it was lost, until a devastating earthquake in 1999 leveled much of Izmit, Turkey, the industrial city that had grown up around it. From the rubble, pieces of Nicomedia emerged. For the past 20 years researchers, mainly from the Kocaeli Museum, have been carefully excavating the site in the Çukurbağ district of modern Izmit, piecing part of the ancient city back together and preserving it for future generations. Among those committed scholars is Tuna Şare-Ağtürk, the Hilles Bush Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study whose current book project documents the treasures unearthed at what some originally considered nothing more than a pile of ancient marble trash.
“This find is so important, not only for our field — for archaeology and the classics — but for the world cultural heritage,” said Şare-Ağtürk, an associate professor of archaeology and art history at Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University in Turkey and director of the Çukurbağ Archaeological Project since 2013. Despite the challenges posed by an urban excavation, including looting and a narrow dig site surrounded by modern buildings, Şare-Ağtürk and her team have helped uncover a set of monumental stairs and a lavish imperial palace decorated with statues and intricate reliefs. The complex was built by the Emperor Diocletian (244–311 A.D.), who famously introduced the division of power among Roman rulers — initially the diarchy or “rule of two” and later the tetrarchy or “rule of four” — a savvy political move that stabilized an empire plagued by civil wars and imperial turmoil.
“This is the most extensive archeological discovery ever found about this lost capital, ancient Nicomedia,” said Şare-Ağtürk, “and all of these representations on the reliefs shed new light on the sociopolitical history of the city.
Much of Şare-Ağtürk’s work has involved recovering, analyzing, and restoring the 72 monumental marble relief blocks that adorned the complex. Taken together they form a 50-meter-long frieze panel filled “with an astonishing combination of mythological, imperial, and agonistic representations.” Many of the reliefs document life in the ancient city and depict theatrical performances, games, and regal events, as well as a triumphant procession featuring Roman victors and their captives. They also shine a light on Diocletian’s political prowess.