The broad pedestrian street Dimitrios Gounari is one of the liveliest areas in Thessaloniki, in the thick of the student quarter. Record shops, pizzerias, and bars line the street, while below street level down the middle are ruins. Dimitrios Gounari opens onto a large plaza – Navarinou. Amid the swirl of contemporary life, we’re now at the heart of Thessaloniki’s historic Roman center – the Galerian Complex.
This was once a place of opulent luxury and monumental structures. Imagine the citizens of Roman Thessaloniki strolling along the stoas and meeting to socialize in the opulent bath houses. They loved entertainment – right beside this was the hippodrome, which was 450 meters long and nearly 100 meters wide. It could hold a crowd of 15,000.
You can see a lot of the Palace of Galerius from above. But there’s so much to explore here – like the mosaics and the polychrome marble inlaid floors in particular – that it’s worth going in. There are many surprising and delightful details. The information on site is also thorough.
The Palace of Galerius recently underwent a restoration of seven years. It only reopened to the public in 2018, so you;re in luck.
The Monumental Constructions of the Galerian Complex
You’ll need to use a little imagination to conjure Roman Thessaloniki, as little remains of most of these monumental structures. They were tremendous. To imagine the monumental scale of the buildings of the Galerian Complex, use the Rotonda for your reference. Many of these buildings had ceilings of a similar height. But there are many, many traces of opulent detail – particularly of floor mosaics and marble inlaid floors. These have a tremendous variety of motifs – mostly geometrical. Many of them are extremely complex, featuring interlocking designs and tromp l’oeil illusions of three dimensions.
Embelish on these details, and an image of the grandeur of Roman Thessaloniki will take shape before you. This was an opulent and monumental city
Here’s what what to see
It’s not hard to see how it got its name – the walls are intact all around to reveal a great room with an intricate shaped room. It is clearly an octagon, but with the addition of semicircular niches on seven of the sides, with one side as the entrance. The niche in the north, across from the entrance, is larger than the others. The Octagon – of 875 square meters – was originally intended as a throne room or the formal audience hall of the Galerian Palace. However, it was unfinished when Galerius died. And, much like the Rotonda, it never fulfilled its intended use.
The octagon was converted into a Christian church before it was finished, and was likely completed in the first half of the 4th century. Try to imagine it with a tremendously high ceiling.
With a ceiling of 29 meters, very nearly like that of the Rotonda, this was a dramatic space. The walls were covered in colored marble. Panels in the center has elaborate inlaid decorations of vegetal and geometric motifs (the technique is called opus sectile, or marble incrustation).
Portions of the original floors survive. There is a variety of complex geometric patterns. These are made of various colors of marble, granotem, and stone – 12 identifiable types. They were sourced from all over Greece, the islands, and Egypt. The floors give some idea of the splendor.
The splendid church fell to an earthquake in the 7th century. Its ruins remained in use as a reservoir until the 14th century. It was finally rediscovered in only 1950.
The Apsidal Hall
The apsidal hall was shaped like a basilica – a rectangular space adjoining a rounded space – the apse. This is thought to have been a triclinum – a place for ceremonial banquets and other events for the Emperor and his court. A triclinum wa a room with couches on three sides.
It was an opulent room, with multi-colored floors of inlaid marble. The walls had marble and also frescoes, to the height of the doors. Above these there was mosaic, with latin inscriptions.
The name basiclica can cause confusion. This was not a church but the official audience chamber. It had the shape of a basilica, with a apse on one end. It was an enormous hall, with interior dimensions of 24 x 67 meters, and a roof 30 meters high. The entrance was to the north, with the apse t the south. Two openings in the western wall gave access to the palace. Like the Octagon and the Asidal Hall, the decoration was opulent.
The Central Building Complex and Roman Villas
The Central building complex was made up of 11 rooms around three sides of a courtyard, which had a fountain at its center. However, excavations of 1998 and 2002 revealed buildings from a century or two earlier. Fantastic sections of mosaic, both geometric and figurative, remain in situ. There are also portions of frescoes – one of hare, and one in imitation of marble.
The covered walkways also have outstanding mosaics. The west stoa in particular features geometric motifs that skillfully give the appearance of being three-dimensional.
Sections of the Roman Baths, with much of the walls, are still visible. These were an important feature of public life. The bath was a place for recreation and socializing, and the citizens of Roman Thessaloniki did both in style. The reception room had different colors of marble on the walls and floors.
Bathing entailed a whole procedure, with a frigidarium (cold water), a tepidarium (warm water), and a caldarium (hot water). There was an octagonal room with a 6-sided warm bath. The ruins of the baths – including the caldarium – continue under the apartment buildings of Navarinou Square.
There are some ruins of the Hippodrome behind the church. To see them, walk down the pedestrian street Dimitriou Gounari, cross Tsimiski, and keep walking towards the sea. Just before you get to the next street, there will be a church on your left. Circle around to the left and you’ll see large fragments of wall. You’ll be able to make out the monumental scale, especially if you look at the information on site, with a drawing that shows the size of the Hippodrome superimposed on today’s Thessaloniki.
Fun and Games
As you walk around the ruins of the Galerian Complex, look out for worn blocks of marble with patterns scratched into them. These are ancient board games. The sociable Romans were fond of them. If you want to try your hand at these ancient games, you can get them at Seikilo – these makers of ancient instruments have also recreated historic Roman games.
As you leave the complex, you’ll hear the sound of dice and of tiles on backgammon boards at the cafes around the square. Thessaloniki is still a very sociable city.