The city of Laodicea (Greek Laodikeia) on the Lycus (Laodicea ad Lycum), situated one mile south of the Lycus River in the Lycus Valley west of Colossae and south of Hierapolis, was established and fortified about 261 BC by the Seleucids under Antiochus II Theos. The ancient site is now south of Goncalї and north of Eskihisar, and archaeological investigations indicate that settlements had existed there since the beginnings of civilization in Anatolia, thousands of years ago. Previously named Rhoas, then Diospolis (city of Zeus), when the Seleucid king took control of the city, he changed the name to Laodicea (Pliny, Natural History). The name “Laodicea” is derived from the name of queen Laodice I, a noblewoman of Anatolia and wife of Antiochus II. Laodice I was a powerful and ruthless queen who was instrumental in the assassination of her rivals and in starting the Third Syrian War (Laodicean War). In the region of Phyrgia, Laodicea had suffered due to the Mithridatic War and was annexed by Rome in 133 BC; the Roman annexation of the city and the relocation of the main trade route through Asia minor, making Laodicea the site of a major crossroads, resulted in the city becoming one of the richest in the area by the 1st century BC (Appian, Mithridatic War; Strabo, Geography). Due to the exchange of goods, banking, the profitable black wool trade, an innovative medical school, and a shrine to the god Men, Laodicea profited and became one of the most prominent cities in Asia Province during the Roman period and was designated as a free city, allowing a measure of independence similar to the Decapolis (Cicero Epistulae ad Familiares ii. 1. 7, iii. 5; Strabo, Geography). The younger brother of the famous Roman intellectual and politician Marcus Cicero actually lived in Laodicea while serving as legate of the province in the 1st century BC. Built on a plateau between the smaller rivers of Asopus (west) and Caprus (east), Laodicea also prospered because of its agricultural potential and the marble available in the area. The Province of Asia was wealthier and more influential than most other areas of the Roman Empire, and Laodicea was no exception; in fact, 6 of the 7 cities written to in Revelation were Roman judicial centers, excluding only Thyatira (Murray, “The Urban Earthquake Imagery and Divine Judgement in John’s Apocalypse”; Pliny, Natural History). One wealthy citizen who had paid for many beautiful buildings to be constructed even designated 2000 talents to be given to the city at his death (Strabo, Geography). However, the people of Laodicea also valued learning, producing famous philosophers of the 1st centuries BC and AD such as Aenesidemus, Antiochus of Laodicea, Theiodas of Laodicea, who wrote and taught in the city and were associated with the school of Pyrrhonism and known as sceptics (Aenesidemus, Pyrrhoneia; Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers).
Covering about 5 square kilometers with magnificent buildings and shining marble, Laodicea had the structures of Roman and Hellenistic cities, planned on the Hippodamian grid system, with main north-south and east-west streets (Syria Street is the 900m long decumanus/east-west). These included a central marketplace/agora on Syria Street, bath complexes (cf. Q. Pomponius Flaccus benefactor of Laodicea inscription referring to the baths), fountains, a Nymphaeum which included a statue of the goddess Isis, temples (Temple A on Syria Street is tentatively Apollo, Artemis and Aphrodite as well as the imperial cult, built supposedly 2nd century, but there was an Imperial temple by 81 AD or so during the reign of Domitian according to Dio Cassius, Roman History), a “sacred precinct” in the north (sometimes called north agora, but had temple to Athena, temple to Zeus, and altars), monumental gates named Ephesus (triple gate with two towers, dedicated to Emperor Domitiain ca. 81-96 AD) and Syria (also reign of Domitian), a city council house (bouleuterion) which indicated a degree of independence from Rome, public latrines, a gymnasium (inscription of proconsul Antonius Gargilius and his wife Sabina dedicated to Hadrian so possibly 2nd century building), a water distribution system, the largest stadium in Asia minor, holding an estimated 25,000 spectators (285m by 70m, with a double U shape that allowed it to also function as an amphitheater, dedicated to Vespasian in 79 AD, and used for athletic games, gladiatorial contests, and probably arena executions), cemeteries, two theaters (built in the Hellenistic period a western seating 8,000 and a north theater of 12,000, perhaps expanded in the time of Nero), and statues of gods and goddesses such as Zeus, Hera, Dionysus, Aphrodite, and even Emperor Augustus (http://laodikeia.pau.edu.tr/Default.aspx;http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5823/).
In the 1st century, residents used coins which named the city Laodicea, certain magistrates, and depicted pagan gods and goddesses such as Apollo, Isis, Zeus, Athena, Men, Asklepios, Dionysus, Aphrodite, illustrating the prominent “free” status of the city and their dedication to pagan deities.
The more unique features of Laodicea in the Roman period were the famous medical school, textile houses, and a complex water system, all alluded to in the letter to Laodicea found in Revelation (Revelation 3:14). Worship of the ancient Phrygian god Men had persisted in Laodicea, and the school of medicine which emerged there was connected to the temple of Men. Based on teachings from the experiments and theories of the 4th and 3rd century BC physician Herophilos of Chalcedon, who conducted anatomical and dissection experiments on hundreds of live prisoners in his quest to advance science, the medical school at Laodicea knew much about anatomy, including the eye (Galen, On Anatomical Procedures; Celsus, De Medicina; Tertullian, On the Soul). Excavations at the site have also uncovered medical equipment that corroborates the references from antiquity about a school of medicine. Two of the doctors from Laodicea, Zeuxis and Alexander Philalethes, were so famous and highly regarded that their names are found on coins issued by the city. The medical school there was known throughout the Empire and especially famous for ophthalmology, including an eye salve which is mentioned by multiple ancient sources (Strabo, Geography). In the medical works of the 2nd century AD physician Galen of Pergamon, he described an eye medicine made from a Phrygian stone, probably broken down into a powder or made into a clay, and the eye “salve” John mentions in connection with Laodicea is the same word used by Galen and other medical texts of antiquity (Revelation 3:18; Liddell and Scott, A Greek English Lexicon). The textile industry, and particularly wool, is evidenced by the discovery of buildings used to dye wool and from inscriptions. An inscription found at the north theater named traders and craftsmen, one of which was “The Most August Guild of the Wool Washers.” The black wool and dyed wool for which the city was famous would have been seen as an obvious contrast to the reference in Revelation about clothing themselves with white garments (Jeffers, Greco-Roman World; Revelation 3:18). In the letter found in the book of Revelation, the people of Laodicea were called wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked, and then advised to buy gold to become rich, white garments to clothe themselves, and eye salve to anoint their eyes (Revelation 3:17-18). Therefore, this criticism and advice conveyed a spiritual message by utilizing what Laodicea was famous for in the world—trade, banking, medicine, and textiles. The church at Laodicea is also accused of being neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm in their spiritual life (Revelation 3:15-16). This spiritual insight used a historical reality by comparing the water of Laodicea to the hot springs of nearby Hierapolis and the cold mountain water of nearby Colossae. Unlike those nearby cities, Laodicea did not have a hot spring or a cold mountain water source, but instead an aqueduct piped in water saturated with minerals from springs about 8 kilometers away using a double pressurized pipeline. This water was so concentrated with minerals that the Roman engineers designed removable caps on the aqueduct pipes so they could be cleared of mineral deposits (John McRay, Archaeology and The New Testament). By the time this water reached Laodicea, it was lukewarm and full of mineral deposits, which probably made it unpleasant to drink. However, this water was apparently so prized to Laodicea that anyone who tried to divert any of it or use it for agriculture would be fined, anyone who damaged a water pipe would be fined (5,000 denarius/close to a year’s wages for entry level agriculture, scribes, and teachers), and city officials who allowed free use of the water would be fined even more (Nymphaeum inscription of governor Aulus Vicirius Matrialis, dedicated to Emperor Trajan ca. 114 AD).
The city also had a community of Jews, and then Christians, demonstrated by archaeological remains such as inscriptions and symbols, and ancient textual sources. In the 1st century BC and AD, a community of Jews in Laodicea is known from Roman sources. In the 1st century BC, Flaccus confiscated about 20 lbs of gold (over $360,000 today), which was being sent annually to Jerusalem for the Temple (Cicero, Pro Flacco). In the 1st century AD, a community of observant Jews was known in Laodicea according to a letter sent by the city to a Roman magistrate named Gaius Rubellius, mentioning the Sabbath and sacred rituals (Josephus, Antiquities). Although no synagogue has yet been found, one probably existed in the city.
Like the other cities in the Lycus Valley, the Gospel was probably brought to Laodicea by Epaphras (Colossians 1:7). Paul may have never personally visited Laodicea, although he mentions the church there and a letter to the church at Laodicea (Colossians 2:1, 4:16). In Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, he stated that they should read “the” letter from Laodicea, not “his” letter to Laodicea, and the possibility exists that Epaphras, as a leader of the church in the Lycus Valley, wrote the letter to Laodiceans (Anderson, “Who Wrote the Epistle from Laodicea?”). A tenuous hypothesis has even been proposed that the original letter to the Laodiceans was the Epistle of Hebrews, although Apostolic authorship of New Testament books and the audience of Hebrews makes this untenable. This Letter to the Laodiceans, however, has apparently not survived from antiquity, as no fragment of it or quotation of it has been discovered. The heretic Marcion in the 2nd century thought it was the letter to the Ephesians, but no one else agreed. As early as the 2nd century, Church writings mention a Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans, but the particular letter known at the time, surviving in Latin, was considered a forgery and not the authentic letter that Paul mentioned (Muratorian Canon; Tertullian, Against Marcion; Theodore of Mopsuestia; Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men). A few Greek manuscripts of 1 Timothy even end with the words: “Written at Laodicea, metropolis of Phrygia,” although the most likely scenario is that Paul wrote 1 Timothy from Rome, and that Paul never personally visited Laodicea.
Recently, a 4th century Byzantine church, from the time of Constantine, with a baptismal pool, frescos, and a dedicatory inscription intact was discovered. An inscription from Laodicea, erected by a freed slave, was dedicated to Marcus Sestius Philemon his former master (John McRay, Archaeology and The New Testament). Although this was probably not the same Philemon of the Epistle, it does demonstrate that the name was in use in the area during the Roman period, that people held slaves, and that some of them freed their slaves, as may have been the case with the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon (Philemon 1-16). Additionally, excavations have found that houses were used as the meeting place of the church in the Roman period, just as is stated in early Christian writings and in particular about the church at Laodicea meeting in the house of Nympha/Nymphas (Colossians 4:15; one located adjacent to north theater). Nympha hosted the church at Laodicea in her house, or Nymphas (the spelling is the same male/female) hosted the church in his house, depending on the reading of the pronoun which varies in the ancient manuscripts (Colossians 4:15; Majority/Byzantine text “his”, Vaticanus “hers”, Sinaiticus “their”). However, according to the Apostolic Constitutions, Archippus was succeeded by a certain Nymphas as bishop of Laodicea, suggesting that this person in Laodicea was a man. In nearby Hierapolis, Philip the Apostle and his prophetess daughters lived, and perhaps Philip was the leader and host of the church there (Acts 21:9). In conflict with paganism and often meeting in private homes or even in secret, the Church often faced persecution and the constant dangers of syncretism. When Epaphras took the Gospel to the Lycus Valley and Paul wrote to the Colossians, the predominant religion in Laodicea would have been the typical Greek and Roman gods, and in particular Zeus. However, by the time of John writing Revelation, the Imperial Cult had been present in Laodicea for at least 10 years, as the Imperial Cult and a temple to the Emperor came about during the reign of Domitian in about 81 AD (“The Imperial Cult in the Pauline Cities of Asia Minor and Greece”). Soon after the life of John, the bishop of Laodicea, Sagaris, was martyred in the 2nd century (Polycrates of Ephesus, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History). Also in the next generation of Church leaders in the 2nd century, the nearby city of Hierapolis was home to Papias and Claudius Apolinarius.
Laodicea was probably damaged by an earthquake in 27 BC, possibly in 17 AD and 47 AD, and a very destructive one in about 60 AD (Guidoboni, Catalogue of Ancient Earthquakes in the Mediterranean). However, through their wealth and persistence, the city continued to be repaired and expanded, and it flourished. Along with the rest of the Lycus Valley, Laodicea suffered from the massive earthquake of 60 AD, probably just before Paul wrote to Colossae and instructed the letter to be shared with Laodicea, but their wealth allowed them to rebuild the city even without the usual assistance from Rome (Tacitus, Annals). The city was finally abandoned in the time of Emperor Focas about 610 AD, near the end of the Byzantine period, due to another devastating earthquake. Ancient artwork from Laodicea depicting a rooster was carried on through the centuries and now is used as the symbol of nearby modern Denizli.