This Ancient Greek Arsonist Set a Wonder of the World on Fire

This Ancient Greek Arsonist Set a Wonder of the World on Fire

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The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were famous even in antiquity, but not everyone loved gorgeous architectural marvels. Here's a tale of the ancient world's most infamous arsonist, who burned down one of the greatest buildings of the Mediterranean.

The Burning of the Temple

The burning of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in modern Turkey, which was first built in the sixth century B.C.E., happened on the same day Alexander the Great was born in 356 B.C.E. According to Plutarch, a guy named Hegesias the Magnesian quipped that Artemis (Diana for the Romans), goddess of childbirth, among other things, was too busy welcoming the future king of Macedon and much of the Mediterranean into the world to keep an eye on the temple.

The Ephesian priests, dubbed the Magi, took the destruction of the temple as a much bigger portent. "Looking upon the temple's disaster as a sign of further disaster, they ran about beating their faces and crying aloud that woe and great calamity for Asia had that day been born." Of course, that danger was baby Alexander, who would eventually brutally conquer most of Asia.

The Ultimate Punishment: Being Forgotten Forever!

The criminal responsible was a man named Herostratus. What made him commit such a heinous act? According to first-century author Valerius Maximus:

"Here is appetite for glory involving sacrilege. A man was found to plan the burning of the temple of Ephesian Diana so that through the destruction of this most beautiful building his name might be spread through the whole world. This madness he unveiled when put upon the rack."

In other words, after being tortured, Herostratus admitted he torched the temple for personal fame. Maximus added, "The Ephesians had wisely abolished the memory of the villain by decree, but Theopompus's eloquent genius included him in his history."

Herostratus was the most hated man around… so much so that a damnatio (meaning his memory was to be obliterated forever) was decreed! The second-century C.E. Roman writer Aulus Gellius noted that Herostratus was dubbed inlaudabilis, "namely, one who is worthy neither of mention nor remembrance, and is never to be named." It was decreed that "no one should ever mention the name of the man who had burned the temple of Diana at Ephesus."

If Herostratus's name and memory were banned, then how do we know about him? Most sources followed the rules and never mentioned his name, but Strabo disagreed. He was the first to break the rules in his Geography, stating the Ephesian temple was "set on fire by a certain Herostratus." The priest Aelian even associated Herostratus with atheists and enemies of the gods.

After Herostratus did his dastardly deed, the Ephesians didn't hesitate in resurrecting their holy spot. According to Strabo, "the citizens constructed one more magnificent." How'd they get the cash for such an extravagant building? Strabo said the tax collectors brought in "ornaments of the women, contributions from private property, and the money arising from the sale of pillars of the former temple" to pay for a new one. So the temple was even more awesome than before, all thanks to a firebug.

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