Acanthus Frieze in Roman Architecture

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The library of Celsus, Ephesus, Anatolia, Turkey, completed in 117 C.E.
(Click on the image to see an enlargement.)

The next acanthus frieze I want to show, is found in the Library of Celsus which was completed in 135 C.E. (some sites give 117 C.E. as the completion date.) It wasn't easy to find this frieze in the midst of so much other decoration. The use of acanthus frieze of this type here seems to be very limited, however there is acanthoid decoration in a wide variety of forms in this building.

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acanthus frieze

Enlarged decorative detail of the Library of Celsus, acanthus frieze with egg and dart above, bead and reel below

After looking at many many photos of this building, and the vast amount of decorative detailing, I realized that I needed to know more about Roman Architecture, certainly the Temple of Minerva is less ornate. This prompted me to delve deeper into the history of this building. While there seemed a lack of information available for the Temple of Minerva, the Library of Celsus has it's own page on wikipedia, here is an excerpt:

The library of Celsus is an ancient Roman building in Ephesus, Anatolia, now part of Selšuk, Turkey. It was built in honor of the Roman Senator Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus (completed in 135 AD?) by Celsus' son, Gaius Julius Aquila (consul, 110 AD). Celsus had been consul in 92 AD, governor of Asia in 115 AD, and a wealthy and popular local citizen. He was a native of nearby Sardis and amongst the earliest men of purely Greek origin[4] to become a consul in the Roman Empire and is honored both as a Greek and a Roman on the library itself. Celsus paid for the construction of the library with his own personal wealth. The library was built to store 12,000 scrolls and to serve as a monumental tomb for Celsus. Celsus is buried in a sarcophagus beneath the library, in the main entrance[1] which is both a crypt containing his sarcophagus and a sepulchral monument to him.[7] It was unusual to be buried within a library or even within city limits, so this was a special honor for Celsus.


It was built in Ephesus,[when?] in territory that was traditionally Greek to the core. The building is important as one of few remaining examples of an ancient Roman-influenced library. It also shows that public libraries were built not only in Rome itself but throughout the Roman Empire.
The interior of the library and all its books were destroyed by fire in the devastating earthquake that struck the city in 262. Only the facade survived. About 400 AD, the library was transformed into a Nymphaeum. The facade was completely destroyed by a later earthquake, likely in the late Byzantine period.
In a massive restoration which is considered to be very true to the historic building, the front fašade was rebuilt during the 1960's and 1970's and now serves as a prime example of Roman public architecture. The Library of Celsus may serve as a model for other, less well preserved, libraries elsewhere in the Empire, for it is possible that literary collections were housed in other Roman cities for the benefit of students as well as traveling Romans. Such libraries may also have housed collections of local documents of interest if they were not destroyed during the Roman conquest. The edifice is a single hall that faces east toward the morning sun, as Vitruvius advised, to benefit early risers. The library is built on a platform, with nine steps the full width of the building leading up to three front entrances. The center entrance is larger than the two flanking ones, and all are adorned with windows above them. Flanking the entrances are four pairs of Ionic columns elevated on pedestals. A set of Corinthian columns stands directly above the first set, adding to the height of the building. The pairs of columns on the second level frame the windows as the columns on the first level frame the doors, and they also create niches that would have housed statues. It is thought there may have been a third set of columns, but today there are only two registers of columns.
This type of facade with inset frames and niches for statues is similar to that found in ancient Greek theaters (the stage building behind the orchestra, or skene) and is thus characterized as "scenographic".
The building's other sides are irrelevant architecturally because the library was flanked by buildings. The inside of the building, not fully restored, was a single rectangular room (measuring 17x11ám) with a central apse framed by a large arch at the far wall. A statue of Celsus or of Athena, goddess of truth, stood in the apse[10], and Celsus' tomb lay directly below in a vaulted chamber. Along the other three sides were rectangular recesses that held cupboards and shelves for the 12,000 scrolls. Celsus was said to have left a legacy of 25,000 denarii to pay for the library's reading material.
The second and third levels could be reached via a set of stairs built into the walls to add support to the building and had similar niches for scrolls. The ceiling was flat, and there may have been a central square oculus to provide more light. The style of the library, with its ornate, balanced, well-planned fašade, reflects the Greek influence on Roman architecture. The building materials, brick, concrete, and mortared rubble, signify the new materials that came into use in the Roman Empire around the 2nd century BC.

Well after reading that, the wheels really did start turning. There was a third level? How could they do it? Even the second level seems kind of miraculous, how could they lift pillars weighing more than 30 tons up to the height of a 10 story building? Maybe the third story is just a legend, the author does not give us a reference to his source of that information. While in his description, the author states:

"Flanking the entrances are four pairs of Ionic columns elevated on pedestals. A set of Corinthian columns stands directly above the first set..."


Comparative Diagram 1 - The three principal classical orders of ancient Greek and Roman architecture.

In Comparative Diagram 1, I have reproduced an illustration of the various Orders, (for a more detailed illustration see the Architecture Plate found in the 1728 Cyclopaedia of Ephraham Chambers, the standard reference for almost any book on Classic Architecture, (click here to see this plate)). Study carefully the orders and you will discover that the four pairs of columns flanking the entrance are not Ionic. They appear to be a rare, possibly unique Composite form, while the columns are also unusual in the fact that none are fluted.


Capital found on the four pairs of columns flanking the entrance.

While columns without flutes are not completely rare, the capitals used here appear to be very rare. I have spent a lot of time researching this to try to find another capital with this kind of decoration. In Comparative Diagram 2, we find a selection of capitals that illustrate the evolution of the Corinthian capital from its supposed Greek beginnings through to the Roman elaborations.

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Comparative Diagram 2, Evolution of the Corinthian Capital.
(from: Cyclopedia of Architecture, Carpentry, and Building : a general reference work (1912) by American Technical Society)

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(Click on this diagram to see an enlargement.)

Someone is bound to point out the Tower of the Winds example as being similar and fortunately I have found a rare photo of 5 capitals, that are now found at the Tower of the Winds site, 4 of which may be considered of this type, but are anyway very different, all appear to be without volutes, all show a single row of acanthus leaf, and none appear to have a double row of palm leaves as per our library example. The capitals found on the Library columns placed immediately above the entrance pairs appear to be a more conventional Corinthian type however as they are all badly broken. On the next page we will look at more Tower of Winds Corinthian examples as I think they may be very important in our search for the beginnings of the acanthus frieze.

tower capitals

The tower's columns bore capitals of a design now known as "Tower of the Winds Corinthian,"
although they lack the volutes ordinarily found in Corinthian capitals.

photo from the web pages of Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America.

Note: a possibly more accurate description of the Library History can be forund on this page. It states that:

"In 92 A.D. , Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus was a consul in Rome, and was in charge of all public buildings. Between either 105-106 or 106-107 A.D. he was the proconsul (governor) of the Asian province, the capital of which was Ephesus, when he died in 114 A.D. at the age of seventy his son Tiberius Julius Aquila, built the library as a heroon (mausoleum) for his father. It is assumed that the construction of the library was completed in 117.

The remains indicate that the interior of the library was not two-storeyed and that there was a balcony with railing in front of the niches, located where the second storey should have been.

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