For anyone who has had to go to Mykonos on their way to Delos, I’m sorry. Mykonos in the modern period has been blessed with Instagrammable vistas, from its white-painted walls with brightly coloured doors, to the overpriced meals, it is every social media influencer’s dream. However, when one is traveling to the nearby island of Delos, a brief stay in the tourist labyrinth awaits.
Thankfully my time in Mykonos, while conducting field work, was brief. To ensure we would be able to catch a ferry crossing to Delos, we planned a day and a half in this little seaside area. With ferry tickets and a frappe in hand, my colleague and travel buddy Ms King and I, set off to the sacred island of Delos!
Legendary birthplace of the ancient world’s deadliest twins, Apollo and Artemis, the island was a sacred site well into antiquity. A historically important trade hub for merchants crossing the Aegean, Delos was a crucial point for the exchange of ideas, art, goods and slaves. The island of Delos itself drew many cults from across the ancient world. Of particular interest to me were the several temples to Serapis and Isis located fairly high up the hill. These newcomers to Delos were part of the expanding religious landscape of the island in the Hellenistic period.
Delos’ sanctity was ensured during the Peloponnesian wars when under oracular guidance the island was required to divest itself of the dead. That is quite uncommon. As is the case now, communities are very connected to their dead. Disturbing graves and reburying the remains on another island seems extreme. Under the guidance of the Delphic Oracle, and just like Disneyland, all of your prayers could be answered; but you couldn’t die or give birth on Delos any longer.
Various leagues were created and centered here to deal with military and political threats, the Delian league during the Persian Wars, and the Nesiotic League during the wars of the Successors of Alexander the Great. It is at this point, during the 3rd century BCE that the island was in the hands of the Ptolemaic Empire and the influence of the Alexandrian kingdom, and its gods was most pronounced on the island.
With more temples to Egyptian gods in one city anywhere outside of Egypt, save Rome, Delos is an interesting location to try to understand the ways in which religious integration occurs and the role in which the urban landscape is a factor.
In 167/166 BCE Delos’ political fortunes changed with the growing influence and meddling in the Aegean of Rome, the island was handed over to the Athenians, who expelled the Delians. As a Roman free port, Delos benefited from the Italian aggression towards competitor cities, until an enemy of Rome sought to disrupt the Republic’s income by sacking the little holy island full of people making money from slaves. The Mithradatic Wars had two waves of destruction in Delos, coming to a head in 69 BCE.
No longer the safest outpost for ensuring Rome’s transportation of slaves and non-human trade goods, Rome made the southern Italian city of Puteoli the new port-de-jour. With that decline and depopulation Delos turned into a relic.
The temples of Isis and Serapis in Delos are built across several phases and interestingly took different forms while they thrived. One associating itself with a more ‘authentically’ Egyptian-style, and another with a more Hellenic-Alexandrian form, they co-existed though not always in perfect harmony.
It was a perfect day to explore this incredible UNESCO World Heritage site, and as I continue with my research, it is always an enriching experience to go to these spectacular sites with my research questions in mind. After a decade passing since my last time here, much remained the same, but due to increased interest in the cults of the Egyptian gods and their relationships with Hellenic and Italic deities, the deities I study tend to get highlighted! The archaeology museum was equally worth the trip to see, with excellent mosaics and gorgeous statues.
The last 12 months have been eventful, with a lot of life changing things on the horizon to be excited about. In a few short days, I will be heading off for a third (more lengthy) season in the Roman town of Aeclanum, (near modern Mirabella Eclano, Italy). The last year was incredibly formative for me, as I was privileged enough to work on developing materials with the site directors of Aeclanum from the University of Edinburgh and the Apolline Project for public outreach for the Open Day, as well as ongoing learning materials for children to engage with archaeology in schools.The opportunities to share this work are blooming into new areas for me professionally with a lot of creative directions to pursue.
My first dig
Ten years ago, before I knew what I wanted to with my life, I applied for the opportunity to work on a three-month salvage excavation in Poros, Kefalonia. This excavation was organised in collaboration with Simon Fraser University and the Ephorate in Kefalonia. One family in Poros, the Metaxas family, made an incredible impact on my time there. They were strong advocates for this dig, working with the local government to see that the archaeological site was excavated before it was robbed or destroyed once it became apparent that there were tombs located there.
It was a project born out of a local passion with an aim to start documenting and publishing the rich history of the area, which had been under occasional excavation for decades with very little making it into the public record. By the time of our arrival, there was evidence of looting, so speed was of the essence and the local archaeologists worked with a ragtag bunch of undergrads to excavate and document the human remains and small finds.
The scientific processes are the same for a salvage dig as a normal one, but the elements that are the focus of the excavation tend to be revealed and in peril, so acting quickly and documenting as much as possible is the priority. Our team worked on the excavation during the day and in the evenings would have classroom time and readings, even the odd Greek lessons. Even on the rainy days where the schedule entailed 8 hours of pottery washing, it was still brilliant to be part of.
The antiquity of the necropolis was evidenced through artefacts which represented multi-period usage on the site for burials, an ancient garbage dump (large amounts of broken pottery and animal bones), and fluted columns and architectural blocks from some unidentified building structure.
Excavation in Pronnoi
The excavation work was productive for getting the half-exposed burials out in time before the winter rains began to set in, though occasionally, flash rainstorms would flood the side of the mountain with us on it. The pithoi were interesting tomb-types that were repurposed from containers for bulk storage of grains or other items to a burial container. Once the ceramic vessel was broken up, a body was interred in a flexed or crouched position, and grave goods were added. The vessel was placed around them with fill, but could be accessed again, if another body was to be added to the burial at a later date.
The status of the publication of the finds from the dig is unknown to me, so to avoid getting in trouble, I have made a few artistic renderings of some of the standout artefacts:
Gorgon head, amber.
Corinthian, silver coin.
Lyre player, pottery sherd.
From atop the hill we excavated the necropolis, you could see across the valley with stunning views inland and out to the sea. Putting myself in someone’s sandals from 2,500 years ago and looking out across the same seas they did was a moving experience. Having studied Humanities texts and Art History prepared me in a large way for I was able to see how much more I need to understand before the study of Archaeology or Ancient History. Linking this site in my mind to the Homeric kings and events from the Iliad and Odyssey was only natural, since it was on our reading list, but the chronology of the material culture certainly aided the visualizing of the Bronze Age culture.
Searching for Bronze Age HeroesThe antiquity and long habitation of the region was visible in another area, Tzanata, 3 km east of Poros in the Eleios-Pronnoi municipal region, which had a preserved tholos tomb, or ‘beehive tomb’. This type of tomb has a dome-shaped chamber (like a beehive cut in half), an entrance passage (dromos) and a doorway (stomion) covered with 1-3 lintel blocks. These monumental structures would be buried underground, though accessible, as there could be multiple burials over long periods of time.
The nearby environs of Poros were home to a Bronze Age tholos tomb, which has been dated to around 1400 BCE. This tomb, excavated by Lazaros Kolonas in 1991, contained several sequential burials that could suggest a common lineage.
While significantly smaller than the most famous tholos tombs of Mycenae, it certainly showed comparable architectural features and represented elite participation in the monumental funerary building of the Bronze Age Mediterranean. Finds in the archaeological museum of Argostoli (temporarily closed) reveal golden grave goods from the Mycenaean cultural influence. Included in these finds were carved gemstones a seal that has been interpreted as ‘royal’ were discovered in the tomb. The proximity to Pylos, among other Bronze Age kingdoms of the area, provide parallels chronologically for local elites of Pronnoi having a similar kind of rule over the area by virtue of using similar funerary cultural practices. However, little is known of this site as the excavation reports remain (I believe) unpublished. If further work has been done on this site, it would open up a lot of interesting questions about the position of Kefalonia within Bronze Age trade and indeed, later into the Classical period.
Suffice it to say, my time spent in Poros, Kefalonia, was fundamental in shaping the direction of my studies and career plans. While I have not been back since 2008, the richness in history, the warmth of the community and beauty of the island is still deeply felt. I am making plans to return and investigate the current findings of the area and reunite with the incredible people who made it such a memorable experience for me.
There is something breathtaking about the shores, mountains and harbours around Lesbos. Mithymna is a gem of a town, with all the fine features you hope for as a tourist destination, but a significant amount of history is embedded in every corner. As one of the largest Greek islands, and the nearest to Turkey, there is a remarkable amount of cultural fusion and warmth that shaped my experience of living in Mithymna (Μήθυμνα / Molyvos) for several months, some years ago.
While being housed during the spring months in Mithymna, I explored the winding cobblestone streets, photographed dangling flowering plants and occasionally sampled the vibrant restaurant scene at the harbour.
These elements, along with adorable roaming stray cats and dogs (some of whom we adopted), formed idyllic scenes that made it a beautiful and tranquil location to study some Byzantine History and Reception Studies (in effect, the study of modern interpretations of the ancient world) during my undergraduate degree.
What a draw for a historian!Like many ancient city centres, Mithymna has a foundation story whose characters possessed the very names of the location – in this case, Mithymna (daughter of a mythical son of the god Helios) who was married to the personification of Lesbos. Hard to prove, so I’ll take the Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World’s word for it.
The history of Mithymna is actually the stuff of legends, literally. The Bronze Age warrior Achilles was said to have breached the fortifications of Mithymna due to the amorous machinations of King Peisidikis’s daughter.
The city fell to the Achaeans, as the events of the Illiad take place not far away across the water (you can see Turkey from the shores of Mithymna).
Mithymna had been an important location in the Classical period as it was caught between the Athenians, their ally, and the Spartans throughout the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE). To and fro, the balance of power shifted from Athens to Sparta, and back again throughout the war; and smaller allied cities were caught in the fight, or served as proxies for the conflict. Mithymna and Mytilene had a solid rivalry throughout this conflict and beyond, which I will go into when I post about Mytilene. But for the time being, some dark business went down during this three decades long war, and Mithymna and Mytilene had some serious issues to work out afterwards.
Remaining significant throughout the Hellenistic period, Mithymna played politics as it was captured by Macedonian forces and Persians, with tyrants ousting and aligning themselves with the conflicting superpowers when they gained control of the island cities. With the division of Alexander’s brief empire by his successors, King Lysimachus and later Ptolemy would control the island. With the influence of the Ptolemaic ruler, my academic obsession, the cults of Isis and Sarapis were introduced and worshiped.
Which brings us neatly to the Roman period.
Sprinting through so much history, I can barely touch on how many fascinating moments in ancient history in which Mithymna has played a part, but one of the elements which leaves a physical trace, which I was thrilled to see, was the Roman archaeological remains dispersed throughout the city.The formal alliance between Rome and Mithymna was dated by an epigraphic source to 129 BCE. The Roman poets and writers spent many words to describe the quality and superiority of Mithymnian wines.
While staying in Mithymna, I was fortunate enough to meet a local archaeologist who gave us a small tour of the closed excavation.
At that point, they had a great deal of pottery and many interesting rubbish dumps from the Roman period. It appeared that they were producing pottery, and likely distributing the wines in vessels made at this centre.With the political upheaval in the 5th century AD of the western half of the Roman empire, Lesbos fell into the orbit of political authority from the Byzantine power-base of the eastern empire. This orientation affected the flavour and practices on the island as Christianity became the prevalent belief system and religious power throughout the empire. Thank you for reading my blog!
While out for a wander this January in Athens, I was reading the placard next to the wonderfully restored Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The placard mentioned that the great second-century Athenian benefactor, Herodes Atticus, had built it in honour of his beloved Regilla. How touching!
Detail of the niches – 2016
The theatre was built after 160 AD, out of local stone and a roof of expensive Lebanese cedar. What is immediately striking is that despite Herodes’ noble Greek ancestry, the theatre he commissioned was particularly Roman.
The stone wall backdrop which enclosed the theatre was of a Roman conception of theatre, not a Greek one. As in all theatre spaces in the ancient world, those of a privileged position were seated up front, with everyone else further away from the stage.
This seemingly small adaptation in theatre design – a Roman interpretation of Greek culture – was emblematic of the way Romans interacted with the Greek world. Something like a patronising mixture of appreciation and the desire to improve on their creations.When I returned home, I began looking into who this beloved woman was and the story behind the dapper-looking Greek who commissioned this glorious theatre on the south-west slope of the Acropolis. The answers to these questions were pretty surprising!
Herodes Atticus was of noble descent and of consular rank. Tracing his heritage to the half-sister of Cimon, a famous Athenian statesman, and of course to Theseus (the hero) and (sure, why not?) Zeus. Interestingly, his family was rife with incest, which luckily he managed to avoid.
Bust of Herodes Atticus – wikipedia
His close relationship with the ‘Good Emperors’ carried through serving Hadrian as a prefect in the Province of Asia, then Antoninus Pius as tutor to his sons (later emperors themselves) Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. So respected and trusted was Herodes that he was given the wealthy and powerful relative of Empress Faustina the Elder, Regilla, as his bride. The family that Regilla came from was very well connected. Her dowry was impressive and family brought her significant power.
Facing north – 2008
When they resettled in Greece, Regilla was part of the upper echelon of the Greek elite and welcomed into service as a priestess to Tyche and Demeter Chamyne (in Olympia). Another example of the 1% getting everything, right? Actually, yes. She was not only able to participate in very important sacred rites, as a priestess of Demeter Chamyne, she was the ONLY woman allowed at the Olympic Games.
Regilla, in her own name (not that of her male family members, which would have been the norm for powerful women to make dedications) paid to have a nymphaeum at Olympia with a bull statue which bore her dedication.
Dedication bull by Regilla – Wikicommons
The niches in her nymphaeum were typical of Hellenistic benefactor statecraft. The families and notable descendants of the emperors Antoninus Pius and Hadrian were represented, as were their wives and children. Regilla commissioned an impressive statement of dynasty and royal patronage placed beside busts of herself, Herodes, and their ancestors and children.
All of this looks like a pretty clear juxtaposition of power, perhaps making an ideological correlation to suggest that her dynasty was of the Emperors of Greece. In all ways they acted in the historic ways in which the Hellenistic kings had; and with the intimate support of the Roman emperors, there was no external military threat for them to worry about.
View of Olympia – 2008
The statesmen, scholar and benefactor followed in the footsteps of the Hellenistic kings before him, sponsoring public works and art all over the Greek world. Following a similar pattern of linking one’s ancestry to divinity, and bestowing generous and beautiful civic structures, Herodes Atticus fits well into the tested and true history of benefactors and the City of Athens. A non-exhaustive list of some of the building projects they engaged in were aqueducts, baths, theatres and stadiums throughout Greece.
All this sounds well and good, but why the titillating title?
Engraving by Piranesi of the supposed tomb / monument to Regilla – Wikipedia art commons
Though the busy couple traveled throughout Greece and Herodes received many honours, as did Regilla, something quite dark happened; Regilla was heavily pregnant when she was kicked to death in her stomach. Very Nero-esqe. What followed is described in Sarah B. Pomeroy’s ‘The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity’. Regilla’s brother brought suit in Rome, where Herodes’ acquittal was influenced by his former student, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Following this, Herodes commissioned many building projects in his wife’s name.
Flipping through my “Oxford Archaeology of Greece”, Herodes’ name continues to pop up all over the country.
His contributions to the architectural landscape of Roman-controlled Greece were impressive and varied. It seems to me, and other writers on the subject, that the building programme that followed her death looks like a guilty man playing the penitent to clear his name. Further, Herodes’ building projects with Regilla were exemplary of a desire to build their dynasty and be viewed through the same lensesas the Hellenistic kings once had, by leaving their mark through public benefaction all over the Greece.
The Hellenistic period, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the period of time between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE (pictured below) and the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. This is a complex and nuanced period of time, with a previously unseen exchange of ideas, peoples and goods between the kingdoms of the Mediterranean. Rather than write a grueling chapter, I will say a few things briefly for now, and jump into this period more as I go along.
Fundamental to understanding why there were kings, and other powerful men and women building monuments and civic buildings in Greece, specifically in Athens, is discussing how benefaction worked in the ancient world. Hellenistic kings sought to be perceived by their Greek subjects as benefactors of their cities, for which Greek citizens gave them honours. This reciprocal transaction of inscriptions and proclamations of honours for benefactions, or more symbolic rewards, established the legitimacy that the kings needed, and in turn continued the cultural autonomy of the Greek citizens.
In tangible terms, this could take the form of a king, say Eumenes II of Pergamon, building a massive stoa (covered walkway/shopping arcade) for the leisure and enjoyment of Athenians. Eumenes II, in return, is possibly given an inscription and official proclamation that his patronage of Athens is appreciated, and they acknowledge him as a powerful ally and friend of the Greeks. Seems like an uneven exchange, does it not?
A defining feature of the period was the ongoing warfare and rivalry between the Hellenistic kings. Their kingdoms were composed of the partitioning of Alexander the Great’s spear-won territories. The problem that these generals of Alexander faced was that they were not princes or kings in their own right. Sure, they could claim a connection to the famous world conqueror and construct their reputation and dynasties, but there was nothing inherent in being a descendant of a Macedonian general that would necessarily dissuade the Greeks to revolt against them.
In fact, quite the opposite. The Greeks had fought against the encroaching Macedonian power as it had grown following the end of the Peloponnesian wars in 430 BCE. Even Alexander and his father, Phillip II, had to walk a fine line on occasion when dealing with the Greeks. The relationship of benefaction, illustrated by the stoas, on the surface appears as other empires doing homage to Athens, forms part of an intersection between the idea of Greek independence and the reality of their domination by the Macedonians and later Romans. The careful negotiation of power between the new rulers and their subjects was facilitated by the perception of mutual benefit.
Stoa of Eumenes
Eumenes II (who ruled from 197 – 159 BCE.) had a contentious reign, with plots against his life (as was typical). At one point, a rumor spread about his untimely death, and his brother Attalos II, was hailed as king of Pergamon and married his brothers widow. Once the truth was revealed that Eumenes was still alive, rather than causing a civil war, Attalos abdicated and returned his new wife back to his borther. Amazingly, they carried on as before until Eumenes’ eventual death when his brother once more took the reigns of empire, married his brothers widow again, and held up his promise to pass on the kingdom to his brother’s son upon his death. This could be the least toxic Hellenistic dynasty in history.
Built on the south slope of the Acropolis, between the Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, this stoa was a decadent promenade and one of the most costly benefactions which the Athenians received from a king of Pergamon. It is likely this stoa was designed by the same architect as that of Attalos II.
As in all things, location is key. The stoa served the Athenians going to the theatre, as a respite from the sun.
Stoa of Attalos
Attalos II of Pergamon (rule from 159 – 138 BCE.), who commissioned its construction, was the inheritor to the Attalid dynasty. Remember all that preamble about the reciprocal behavior of Hellenistic kings? To understand why half of the buildings and statues that we see in Athens are even there, you have to understand why non-Greeks spent the money and time to put them there. The Atallids were building their empire from the collapse of the Lysimachian empire. Where Lysmachus’ empire had created legitimacy in the wake and division of Alexander the Greats’ conquered lands through aggressive military exploits, marrying royal heirs and alliances with the other successor kings, once his territories were conquered, what remained was divided.
The Attalid dynasts needed to create some quick and culturally relevant links to power to legitmise their rule. The centre of their power base was the great Turkish city of Pergamon.
Built between 159 – 138 BCE., the stoa of Attalos II was a high end shopping centre. The two-storied collonaded stoa has two architectural orders: the ‘Doric order’ was used for the exterior colonnade, and the ‘Ionic order’ was used for the interior colonnade. As with other Hellensitic building projects of the time, the stoa was a very large and elaborate – a statement piece.
Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus
Considered to be the first theatre in the world, it was used to honour the god of wine, revelry and theatre, Dionysus. Prior to anyone getting on with the show, a jaunty sacrifice of a bull was needed to kick off proceedings and purify the theatre. The festival of the Dionysia was celebrated here, with some of the biggest names in Classical literature of the age: Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Aeschylus.
That is incredible to me is that you can actually stand in the spot where some of the most famous plays in literature were performed, in the shadow of the Acropolis. Tradition has it that the first tragedy was performed at the Dionysia by actor-playwright Thespis (Thespis- thespian…see what they did there?) in the early 530s BCE.There were several phases of the Theatre of Dionysus, commencing with wooden seating in the 6th century BCE. The theatre is currently in pretty rough shape, though reconstruction work was completed between 2009 – 2015. The main problem, as with most buildings from antiquity, was that much of the stone was pilfered and used in other buildings nearby, or possibly carried off to be burned down in lime kilns.
The Theatre of Dionysus held significance for the Athenians’ sense of identity and history. The famous plays, still studied by students today, were a popular feature on this stage, even several hundred years after the initial opening night.
The presence of the past was notable, even during the Roman period of control over Athens, and this theatre is an interesting case study of a ‘classical nostalgia’ which everyone since the Romans has been guilty of when considering Athens. It has been suggested by scholars that the dearth of new material in the Hellenistic and Roman period in Athens, coupled with the frequent re-staging of the greats by Aechylus and Euripides, can be interpreted as savvy business decisions by elites to invest money in revivals of Athenian theatre for which benefactors could be certain of quality and popular acclaim. Rather than making the riskier financial decision to invest in the support of new plays, which perhaps cut too closely to home (really reflecting the loss of autonomy felt by Greeks), instead the attention was focused on a golden age where their independence was trumpeted and powerful.
The Monument of Lysikrates
Built around 333/334 BCE, this interesting dedicatory monument speaks to a time which is perhaps difficult for us in the modern era to imagine. A time when, wealthy patrons could put on an impressive show for the citizens of Athens, and through their sponsorship of plays, compete against other wealthy elites for honours. Awarded to the choregos, who was responsible for the training and sponsoring of the chorus in dramatic contests held in the Dinonysia, this is the only existing example of remaining in Athens today. Sculptures like this, would have been crowned with a bronze tripod which no longer survives. The limestone podium is topped with a cylindrical tholos of Pentelic marble, and six Corinthian columns which are topped by eight acanthus leaves.
Apparently, the Corinthian capital was used for the first time on the exterior of decorative structure or building. It would not be until three hundred years later until the Corinthian ‘order’ became a recurring order in Rome. This type of column capital would go on to become the preeminent Roman capital type. The change of the governance of the Mediterranean would shift, favouring the rising strength of Italy. The Roman period of Athens follows similar pathways towards controlling Greeks through benefactions
and building projects.
The perception and goodwill of the public would be an ongoing preoccupation of the elites and leaders in Greece and Italy moving forward.
View of the Propylaea and the Temple of Athena Nike from the Pynx – 2008
Beginning with the crown jewel of experiences in Athens, let’s talk about the Acropolis. This focal point, at the centre of the city, is as impressive at night as it is during the day. With a mixture of gleaming marble and scaffolding, the conservation and reconstruction on the Acropolis is visible at a great distance and illustrates a multi-generational project.
The rebuilding of the Parthenon began after the expulsion of the Ottomans, and the cause of its ruinous state might surprise you. We have all heard the story of how the Ottomans stored munitions in the Parthenon, which exploded and was the cause of the destruction in the late 17th century, I assume. A less frequently repeated aspect of the story was that while the Venetians were bombarding the Ottomans in their encampment within the Parthenon, they had barricaded themselves on the Acropolis with 200 of their women and children. The Venetians fired at the Parthenon, then a thousand-year-old Christian church, and killed hundreds of non-combatants. Arguably, the Ottomans did not destroy the Parthenon, it was Christian Europeans. And thus it remained in a ruined state until the 1830’s when the restoration programme began.
Why Was it Built?
The explosion which left a scar on this famous Greek symbol, interestingly, was not the first time such a disaster was unleashed on the Acropolis.
The growing power and development of Greek cities in the 490s B.C.E. allowed them a significant degree of self-determinism. While Ionian Greeks were under the rule of the Great Kings of Persia, the Athenians were working in a burgeoning democracy, the Spartans had dual kings, Thebes and Megara were ruled by oligarchies. It should be said that, most Greek cities of this period were governed by oligarchies, and the experiment of limited democracy which the Athenians were operating under was the exception, not the norm.
Once the Ionian Greek cities came into conflict with the Persian Empire, after rising up against the tyrants placed in charge of these cities by the Persian king, a rebellion spread. This led to a series of battles which would culminate in the burning of Athens before the Persians would be ousted (for a time) at the Battle of Marathon.
Column drums from a building before the Persian invasion, were later integrated into the north-facing side of the Acropolis.
King Darius’ death in 488 B.C.E. led to his son, Xerxes’ (yes, the one from 300) invasion of Greece in a George Bush-style attempt to ‘finish what his dad started’ manoeuvre which was equally unsuccessful. This led to several incredibly famous battles at Thermopylae and Salamis, which are still in being re-imagined in our modern era.
A depiction of one of the triremes used in these battles, Acropolis Museum – 2016
An incredible cultural florescence occurred in the years following the Persians eventual defeat. The Athenians expanded their imperial reach during these 50 years of peace between the Greek city-states. The Athenians had amassed an impressive navy through the taxes which each member of the Delian League (the allied city-states) paid to maintain and develop their navy, “should the Persians strike again”. The colonies and subject people of the Athenians also provided revenue streams to the state. The leadership of Athens was in a good position to start spending some of their wealth on crafting the image of how they wanted the world to view them. Through an impressive architectural campaign under Pericles, Athens began to invest in portraying itself as the natural leader of the Greeks.
Modern historians have called this the ‘Periclean building programme’, as it was organised and led by Pericles, who was the most prominent statesman in Athens during the period between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. The whole point of the Periclean building programme was to make a statement focusing on Athens’ new position in the geopolitics of the Mediterranean. Pericles, his chief architects Callicrates and Ictinus, and the famous sculptor Phidias, were the dream team which gave us the innovative and impressive buildings we see today.
The Temple of Athena Nike
The newly restored Temple of Athena Nike – 2016
The construction of the Temple of Athena Nike was completed around 420 B.C.E. (possibly directly) atop of the previous temple to Athena, destroyed by the Persians in the second invasion led by Xerxes.
This impressive temple stood proudly at the entrance, a bold statement to honour of the city’s namesake and of the power the Athenians sought to rebuild.
Entrance to the Propylaea – 2016
This structure was the monumental and imposing gateway into the Acropolis. It had dual purposes in restricting access to the sacred spaces as well as protecting the state treasury held within.
Above, you can see the areas of modern materials added in the conservation of the Propylaea. Modern techniques and approaches no longer attempt to hide the reconstruction, rather they discretely blend the new materials into the damaged ancient structure/objects, but use a different shade.
In 2008, the Propylaea and the Temple of Nike were heavily scaffolded during my visits. As you can see in the bottom left corner, there is still work being done on the columns of the Propylaea, but it has come a long way from my first encounter in 2001, or the subsequent trips. These incredible buildings offer a tantalizing greeting to any visitor, and I was thrilled and impressed to see them so nearly complete!
Fifteen years ago I went on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe.
It was my first time leaving North America for the wider world, with the best company in the world: my mum and big sister. Long before I became the avid, capable travel planner I am today, I had a great teacher in my mum.
Theatre of Dionysus – 2016
Interested as we were in European history, it was trekking among the ruins and sketching my first real views of Greek temples, stones and statues which would influence the path my life would take thereafter. Athens was the last stop on our month-long trip, but left a resounding impact on my life.
In Greece, I began the process of ruining my life in North America for myself. I fell in love, and knew that whatever it took, I would make my way back and find a way to the columns, capitals and carvings of the Mediterranean.
Greece in particular holds a special place for me. I’ve done my most comprehensive traveling there, trying to see for myself the places I have read about. It is an understatement to say that it’s a place brimming with history, since you find traces of the past basically everywhere.
View of the Acropolis from the Areopagus – 2016
There is a lot of agency in creating the past. We choose to highlight aspects, or periods, which mean something to us, or do so to imbue these places or periods with meaning. It is important, when considering the presentation of the past, we remain aware that at some point a choice was made about what to present on an archaeological site, and how to present it.
Creating a Historical Narrative:
The archaeological monuments we see before us today are only skeletons of times past, and most notably often illustrating one particular phase of site use. There have been many discussions in the last few decades about the way archaeologists, governments and historians construct and present an image of the past.
For instance, you may not be aware that there was a Byzantine period which saw a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary built right into the Parthenon, which was turned into a mosque! Or a period which saw the Propylaea become part of the Ducal Palace. Not to mention the Erechtheion being turned into the Ottoman governor’s private Harem.
None of these phases are represented any longer on the site. In fact, archaeologists dug so far down on the Acropolis there is bedrock exposed, which is slick to walk on and would not have been the stuff and muck under a Classical Athenians’ feet.
Ottoman period building near Monastiraki station, one of the few visible reminders of the 400 year occupation – 2008
What does all this mean?
From 1833 onwards, following the expulsion of Ottoman rule from Greece, the interest in the cultural florescence of the “Classical Period” of Greece would direct the new freedom the Greeks felt. Perhaps, it was appropriate to hearken back to a period following the expulsion of the Persians, after living so long under the rule of the inheritors of the Persian Empire.
With an interest in archaeology, the new leadership of Greece under Otto, Prince of Bavaria, focused the gaze on the Classical period architecture to develop a new sense of Greek identity, officially making Athens the capital of Greece. His initiatives for conservation and restoration attempted to look back to a period of self-determination and incredible inventiveness which had so set them apart in the ancient world.
A 19th Century painting depicts the presence of a minaret on the Ottoman building, illustrative of the romantic notions brought by travelers who admired the ruins, and wrote poetry about them in the din of the moon….as one does.
Unfortunately, the 19th century interest in presenting the period of ‘Classical Athens’ required the removal of structures from other periods. This has left a disjointed archaeological impression and historical representation. We know from sketches and paintings made by gentleman travellers in the 1800’s how the landscape has been changed. Those other phases of history have been deconstructed and left unspoken in many areas.
Early Photograph of ‘Classical’ elements of Athens
When viewing archaeological monuments and cities like Athens, it is worth remembering that the image you are presented reflects a moment in time and often is meant to symbolize how the people in power wanted to signify their rule. King Otto wanted to be seen as a liberator from the occupation by the Ottomans. Following a long established practice (especially in Athens), which we will look at in the Hellenistic and Roman posts upcoming, Otto focused on rebuilding and patronizing a period of history which saw the Greeks as leaders in Mediterranean politics and culture. None of what we see today is by accident.