This is somewhat of a detour, but it’ll be a fun one…
William Shakespeare probably never actually set foot in many of the locations where his plays are set. Neither did most of his audience. People of that time didn’t have access to photos or video, and they may not have even seen illustrations or paintings of them. They simply wouldn’t have much idea what those settings were like because there was no way for them to know.
Even though he probably had not explored the Mediterranean, Shakespeare seems to have been fascinated with it. Many of his plays are set in Italy or Greece. The Comedy of Errors takes place entirely within the city of Ephesus, in what is now Turkey.
I won’t get into ALL the details, but this ancient city has a fascinating history. The area was inhabited as far back as the 10th century BC, during the Neolithic Age. It was colonized by Ionian migrants around the 10th century BC, and during the Bronze Age, the settlement was known as Abasa. According to legend, an Athenian prince named Androklos founded the city at the site where the oracle of Delphi prophesied he would.
Ephesus became the site of the Greek Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was at the time said by some to be the largest structure in the world, and it was destroyed and rebuilt three times before its final destruction in the third century AD.
It may be worth noting that Artemis was regarded as the goddess of childbirth and virginity – two topics that play into Errors. Artemis was also the goddess of the hunt, wild animals, the wilderness, and the moon. The many-breasted figurines and sculptures of Artemis represent fertility.
During the Archaic Period (750-460 BC), Ephesus was conquered, razed, rebuilt, and ruled by a series of tyrants. This era ended with the city under the rule of the Persians. In 498 BC, the Ionians rose up in revolt against their Persian governors for continuously raising taxes, which set off the Greco-Persian Wars. After many years of fighting they were able to drive the Persians out.
In 356 BC, the Temple of Artemis was burned down, according to local lore, by a lunatic named Herostratus. Shortly thereafter, Alexander the Great arrived in triumph from the war against the Persians. He offered to rebuild the temple with his own money, but the Ephesians refused, saying it would be unseemly for one god to build a temple to another.
When the Romans took over, they were not popular in this traditionally Greek city. Ephesus was one among many cities involved in the Asiatic Vespers in 88 BC, in which some 80,000 Romans and Roman sympathizers were murdered.
Emperor Augustus made Ephesus the capital of proconsular Asia in 27 BC, and the city prospered. Its population swelled to almost half a million, and Ephesus was said by Strabo to be second in size and import only to the city of Rome. The huge Library of Celsus was built during this time, as well as public bath complexes and the most advanced aqueduct of its time.
A great amphitheater simply known as The Theater was constructed. With a seating capacity of about 25,000, this theater is the largest outdoor theater known in the ancient world. Originally used only for plays, its stage eventually showed gladiatorial combats, and there is now archaeological evidence of a gladiators’ graveyard near the site.
The city remained important during the Byzantine era, but began a long, slow decline after being sacked by the Goths in 263 AD. By the time the Turks conquered in 1090, Ephesus was little more than a village. The Byzantines resumed control for a little over two centuries, but the Turks took it back in the early 1300’s. The town briefly flourished under these newest rulers, but then was taken over by the Anatolian Beys.
By Shakespeare’s time, Ephesus had lost all of its former glory and was completely abandoned. Its Roman ruins – the largest collection in the eastern Mediterranean – are now part of the modern town of Selçuk, Turkey.