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Nysa on the Maeander: An introduction to its History and Coinage.

Nysa was founded on the hillside of a mountain met by the ancients as Mesogis. The area is populated with trees nowadays, mainly pines. Geographically it was a carian city although very close to the border of Caria with Lydia. The Meander River runs close to it, in the valley, reason because the city is usually named "Nysa on the Maeander".

Photo 1.- Ruins of a porticated stoa in the Agora of Nysa.

Photo 2.- Another view of the porticated stoa.


Strabo points out that the first name of the city was Athymbra, which received from its founder, the Spartan Athymbros. This one had two brothers: Hydrelos and Athymbrados that also founded two cities in the same area. Since the three new settlements had very few inhabitants and were unable to develop properly despite their efforts, it was decided to reunite the inhabitants of the three in Athymbra, practice known in the Greek world as synecism. This gave rise to a city with greater capacity for expansion that effectively was able to consolidate and prosper. His tutelary god was Dionysius.


Photo 3.- General view of the caveas of the nisean theater (second half 1st Cent BC).

Photo 4.- Detail of the cavea seats.


Athymbra would be re-founded by the Seleucid monarch Antiochus I (281-261 BCE) with the name of his wife, Nysa. The great interest by the city of this sovereign and his predecessor, Seleucus I, can be intuited in the letter that both addressed to the athymbrianoi in 281 BC. The refoundation of the city would take place not long after, reigning already Antiochus alone. The names Athymbra and Nysa would coexist during most of the third century BCE, imposing the latter towards the turn of the century.


Photo 5.- The Bouleterion of Nysa (2nd Cent. AD).

Photo 6.- Panoramic view of the Bouleterion caveas.

Little is known about the Hellenistic and Roman periods of the city since it is scarcely mentioned in the ancient texts. Most of the present knowledge comes from archaeological and numismatic sources. Only Strabo (65 BCE - 23 AD) devoted some more than a brief mention to Nysa: certainly he knew well the city in which completed part of his youth studies. This is the text of Strabo:


“Nysa is situated near Mt. Mesogis, for the most part lying upon its slopes; and it is a double city, so to speak, for it is divided by a torrential stream that forms a gorge, which at one place has a bridge over it, joining the two cities, and at another is adorned with an amphitheatre, with a hidden underground passage for the torrential waters. Near the theatre are two heights, below one of which is the gymnasium of youths; and below the other is the market-place and the gymnasium for older persons. The plain lies to the south of the city, as it does to the south of Tralleis.” (Geographia, XIV, 1, 43).


This description, collected in his famous work "Geographia", fits almost perfectly with what can be observed nowadays, twenty centuries later. In fact, there are clearly observed the deep ravines dug by the furious seasonal torrent named Eudon in the ancient texts, dividing the land into two large separate spaces: the two cities to which the Greek geographer alludes. Also there are distinguishable the ruins, in better or worse state, of the different urban structures indicated in the text as well as the remainings of some buildings erected after Strabo´s time.


Photo 7.- The Library of Nysa (built circa AD 130).

Photo 8.- Detail of the interior of the library.


The site of Nysa, very close to the great commercial route that, headed by Ephesus linked the coast of the Aegean with the interior of Anatolia and, beyond, with the near east, the Mesopotamian lands and the interior of Asia, had to provide multiple options of enrichment to the city. The presence of abundant fertile land in the surrounding plain, generously irrigated by the waters of the river Meander, also contributed positively to its development. It can therefore be said that during the Seleucid and Attalid periods Nysa prospered to a great extent, goodness which would continue under Roman rule (from 133 BC). A reliable evidence of this prosperity is the long serie of cistophoric tetradrachms struck in Nysa between this last year and 67 BC, whose high quality of coinage points to a very solid economy. Morphologically they are identical to those of Pergamon (mystic cista, garland, snakes, etc.), including the name (or initial) of the corresponding monetary magistrate and substituting the pergamene mint mark by the local one: NUSA or NUCA (NYSA). The coins of figure 1 constitute two excellent specimens of this coinage.

Figure 1.- Cistophoric Tetradrachms coined in Nysa during the period 133-67 BC.

At the end of 1st century BC Nysa was a rich and educated city whose wealth was employed both in the construction of superb public buildings and in the support of a famous academic institution specializing in the study of the Homeric texts and of Greek epic poetry in general. This institution had its own school of scholarship, among which we can mention to the rhetorician Aristodemus the Young, the instructor of Strabo, and his equally named cousin who did the same with Pompey the great in his youth.

Photo 9.- The Stadium of Nysa (Caveas).


The city rises its zenith in the second century AD, acquiring its landscape a certainly high urban development, with nothing to envy the great majority of the important cities of the Roman Empire. This splendor would continue to a great extent during the following century, not beginning to decline until the beginning of the fourth century, as did the rest of Asia Minor cities. It was a long period of feverish commercial activity whose memory has come down to us in the form of a large series of coin issues. Bronzes in their entirety with the exception of the cistophors mentioned above, these coinage cover from the last third of the 2nd century BC to the reign of Emperor Gallienus in the middle of the third century AD. Its iconography is in concordance with that of neighboring cities: imperial busts on the obverse and religious motifs on the reverse as well as agricultural and commemorative elements. The style is reasonably cared for and its moderate scarcity indicates that these coins were minted in significant volumes. In figure 2 we can contemplate four different nisean coins.


Let's describe them a bit:


Figure 2.- Bronze coins minted in Nysa (2nd century BC to 2nd AD).


The first (top-left) is an AE12 coined in the late years of the second century BC. It is a stylistically very Greek issue, of an autonomous type, in which homage is paid to the tutelary deities of the city. Thus, we see Dionysius, who was said to have been educated by the Muses in Nysa herself, standing on the reverse, and the busts of Hades and his wife Kore (Pluto and Persephone for the Romans) on the obverse, deities who were worshiped in a shrine located 3 kilometers to the west of Nysa.


The exemplar above to the right is an AE18 in which the busts of Claudius and Agrippina the Minor appear on the obverse and the Hades-Kore pair on the reverse, represented at the time when Hades kidnaps Kore and takes her to his underground world in a chariot (biga). This motif of reverse will be repeated several times in the later reigns, being considered the most representative of nisean numismatics.


The third coin (down - left) is an AE17 from the time of Antoninus Pius and shows the famous turreted head of the goddess Fortune (Tyche) on the obverse and a bunch of spikes on the reverse alluding to the feracity of the region ruled by Nysa.


Finally, the fourth piece (bottom-right) is a large AE35 of strongly imperial type, in which Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus appear shaking hands in the obverse and the god Men, the main divinity of the anatolian pantheon -that is, not a greek deity-, on the reverse.


Photo 10.- The Plateia (main street) of Nysa.


Little is known of Nysa's becoming in the late imperial and Byzantine centuries beyond that it was a suffragan episcopal diocese of the metropolitan of Ephesus and the names of six of his bishops, being Theodotus active in 431, the earliest and Michael, in 879, the most recently. Since the episcopal diocese lasted in time, it can be affirmed that the city maintained a certain vitality during centuries. The existence of some fragments of city-wall of indeterminate Byzantine chronology suggests an attempt by Constantinople to secure the city or at least part of it. Archaeological excavations mark the beginning of the end of the city in the thirteenth century on the occasion of the Seljuk conquest of the territory and the founding of Sultanhisar, a few kilometers to the south, where the population of the dying Nysa will begin to move. The coup de grace will come in 1402: date of the sacking of the city by the timurid troops of Tamerlane, followed by its definitive abandonment.

Photo 11.- Ruins of shops in the agora of Nysa.

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