Laid-back Thessaloniki rests on the most cosmopolitan pedigree in Greece, and the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki tells the whole story.
The ruins of the palace and Imperial complex of Galerius share the main pedestrian center with the cafes and all night fast food of the students’ quarter. Kamara, his triumphal arch is everyone’s favorite meeting point before a night out. We bring our pic-nic baskets and bottles of wine to the lawns Ancient Agora to listen to bands and watch movies among the ruins. Two of the Mosques of the Ottoman era- the oldest (the 15th C Alaja Imaret) and the newest (the 1898 Geni Tami) have exhibits and installations and art events throughout the year. Old factories have become concert halls and old warehouses are now museums of photography and contemporary art. The past is so incorporated into our daily life you would almost think we don’t even need an official museum of archaeology to tie it all together.
But we have an Archaeological Museum, and it’s fabulous. Thessaloniki’s petite, manageable Museum of Archaeology is crammed with finds from the rich areas right outside the museum. You can go in knowing little, and leave knowing a great deal, thanks to a logical layout and signage with full and fascinating explanations. The public and the private come together to give us a vivid picture of Ancient life.
The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki- Introduction to an Imperial City
The Roman empire was vast, necessitating a tetrarchy, with Diocletian ruling the East, Marcus Aurelius the West, and their respective junior emperors, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus.
We see the (very large) Imperial glory in the Museum’s outer room.
Sacred and Spiritual Life in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki
The first gallery introduces us to the spiritual life of the 1st C AD. If you have ever been in an Orthodox church and seen the Tamas on a miraculous icon, it will be familiar-
The Sacred Meets the Secular
The division of the sacred and the secular was less defined than in our world today. The Pythian games were held in honor of Apollo every four years. People flocked to the city to see not just athletic and musical competitions, but also gladiators, and combat with wild beasts.
Later on, in the 4th C AD, the Hippodrome was built, integrated into the Galerian complex. It held 15,000 people, coming to see the same sorts of spectacles. Gladiator and wild beast combats were popular, but also expensive to put on. These were nearly exclusively for the Imperial cult, this itself- the worship of an Emperor as deity- showing the same seamless blending of the sacred and secular.
The mood of decadence and reverence continues. One of my favorite objects in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki is this-
That’s Dionysus embracing a satyr. What’s that coming from the top of his head? This is a Trapezophoron- a table support. It dates from the time around the Pythian games.
Evocative table supports such as these have not gone entirely out of fashion:
Of the twelve Gods of Olympus worshiped in Thessaloniki, Asclepius and Dionysus were especially popular- both had tribes named after them. In the case of Dionysus, also a neighborhood-
Our picture of the first centuries AD in Thessaloniki is filling out now, and it is not a dull one. There were banquets at tables with the tackiest most fabulous table-legs you can imagine. Brutal games attended by thousands sw much blood shed. Processions of Phalluses sometimes filled the streets.
Not all public gatherings were as sensational though- there is also a magnificent 2nd C AD Odeion, still almost entirely intact, at the west end of the Roman marketplace. The aristocracy would gather here for performances of theater and music, and for poetry readings. Statues of the muses, and of a wealthy patroness, decorated the Odeon
The Richness of Domestic Life: Displays in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki
The picture becomes fuller still with the displays of private and domestic life. Thessaloniki had a great mosaic workshop- floors of wealthy homes and baths were often decorated with mosaics-
We read of their diet. The Romans favored spices and sauces. The aristocracy dined notably well- fish and shellfish, venison, rabbit, pheasant, and chestnuts, almonds, pomegranates, and figs. At symposia, gatherings of urban elite exchanged ideas. They listened to the flute and the kithara. The flute was also used to give pace to the strokes of rowers and the marching of soldiers. Detailed mosaics survive, but sadly no paintings. Walls were covered with frescoes. Their colors survive on fragments and on other objects:
We even know they smelled nice, from accounts of “myropoles” (merchants of fragrance) and from the beautiful perfume vials found in tombs. Ladies wore hair combs and diadems. They kept make-up in small pots. Cura dabeit faciem- “care boosts beauty” (Ovid, The Art of Love) heads museum’s display.
An hour or two will give you an intimate glimpse of the rich and intricate life in our beautiful city of the first centuries AD. You will leave with some understanding of how they celebrated, what they did for recreation, how they dined, what they thought was beautiful, and most importantly, what mattered to them. You may find, as I did, that (excepting maybe the combat with wild beasts and processions with phalluses), it is a very familiar world.
The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki is open seven days a week, from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm in summer, and 8:00 am – 4:00 pm in winter. Consult the museum’s site for complete details abut opening times, admission fees, and special exhibitions and events.