The Peloponnese is one of the most fascinating regions of all Greece. This is the place where history, myths and legends mingle: it’s where Paris abducted Helen (mythology), and where the first Olympic games were held (history), and where ancient tragedies were performed (Epidaurus). We meet here the Mycenaens – Homer’s Agamemnon, and the protagonists Orestes and Clytemnestra, whose fates are detailed in Aeschylus’ Orestes. And no ancient people so capture the collective imagination like the Spartans.
The most significant sacred and athletic site of Greece, this is where the Olympic games were held every four years in honor of Zeus. This lush and beautiful site, located at the foot of Mt. Kronios, where the rivers Alpheios and Kladeos meet, has a magical energy and was long a sacred site. The earliest finds indicate sanctuaries and pre-historic cults. More findings attest to the site’s importance throughout the eras – the neolithic era, the bronze age, the geometric period.
In 776 BC, a sacred truce was initiated by Iphitos, the King of Elis, Lykourgos of Sparta, and Kleosthenes of Pisa, in order to hold the Olympic games in honor of Zeus. Many monumental buildings were constructed during this era – the archaic period – including the bouleuterion, the temple of Hera, and the first stadium. The grand temple of Zeus was added during the classical era (5th century BC), along with more structures.
As to the Olympic Games themselves, they were held here for the last time at the end of the 4th century AD, before an edict prohibiting Pagan festivals.
The Asklepion of Epidaurus also counts among the most fascinating sites of the Ancient World. The Askleppion takes its name from Ascleppius the healer, son of Apollo, said to be born at Epidaurus. A sanctuary and a healing center were built here. Patients came from all over Greece and Asia Minor seeking his help. They would sleep here, and Apollo would appear to them in their dreams. These dreams would be interpreted by the sanctuary’s priests, and the course of healing would be determined.
Games and festivities in honor of Apollo and Asklepius were held every four years. There was a stadium, and a theater. The theater of Epidaurus, built in the 4th century BC, is a wonder. It held thousands, and the acoustics were – and are – superb, with the voices of actors reaching the highest rows. There is a festival at Epidaurus each summer, where you can experience the works of the great dramatists of the ancient world in this historic setting, for an amazing connection with the past.
The Mycenaens captured the imagination of Homer and they capture our imagination still. The Mycenaen King who set sail for Troy in the Iliad may be a myth, but a tomb here is nonetheless called the Tomb of Agamemnon. A war with Troy transcends myth, and is supported through excavations.
In fact it was the Iliad and the world where myth and reality converge that led the archaeologist Schliemann here.
The late Bronze Age Mycenaens were the first distinctively Greek civilization of mainland Greece.They were pre-dated by the Minoans, and rose to prominence in trade after the Minoans of Crete were wiped out (owing to the eruption of the volcano of Thera).
The Argolid, a grand citadel overlooking the valley of Argos and controlling the access to the isthmus of Corinth, is where you will see the Lions’ Gate – an iconic sight so called for the relief sculptures of two lions over the entrance.The walls themselves are monumental, called the Cyclopean walls as the stones are so massive they could have been placed by the mythical giant himself. The treasury of Atreus – the great tomb – is named for King Atreus, father of Agamemnon. Although as mythological as his son, his was the name that came to Schliemann when he discovered the tomb.
Mycenae has a markedly different mood from the sites of classical Greece. It is a fascinating experience.
Both unexpectedly grand and relatively unknown in equal measure, Ancient Messene is a fantastic place to imagine the world of Ancient Greece. This late 4th century city – built after Athens – has been left marvelously intact.It is also extensive, encompassing an agora, large theater, sanctuaries,a fountain house, a stadium, fortifications, and funerary monuments. Findings from the vast excavation are housed in the museum of Ancient Messene.
Ancient Messene was built by Epaminondas, the general of Thebes, after finally liberating Messene from the rule of Sparta.This is why the city was so well-fortified, to defend it against possible attacks from the Spartans. The city was surrounded by 9 kilometers of walls – 7 to 9 meters tall.
General Epaminondas had envisioned an independent Peloponnese with three fortified cities, of which Messene was one. The other two were Megalipoli and Manitnea of Arcadia. As to the Messenians themselves, they had created communities in exile, in North Africa and in Sicily. The city’s fate was left then to them.
In addition to the fantastic monuments themselves, you will be able to admire the whole city plan. This city was designed by the great architect and urban planner of Ancient Greece – Hippodamus. The vision of Hippodamus – one the modern world continues to embrace – was based on a logical grid plan with well-defined public spaces in a central space, surrounded by grids of residential areas.
Ancient Sparta is much better known for their prowess in war for what they left behind. The military powerhouse of Ancient Greece, they eschewed luxury. It is from them, after all, that we have the adjective “spartan”.
Unlike the other famous cities of Ancient Greece with their monumental civic and sacred structures and their impressive fortifications, Ancient Sparta was more of a collection of villages. Owing to their military might, they needed no fortifications themselves. The villages were built over six small hills, the largest of which – at 25 m high – served as the Acropolis. Here was the Temple of Athena Chalkioikos, the principal monument. The theater, built in the 1st century BC, was a huge structure of marble and limestone, with a colonnade. There are also ruins of a stoa (arcade), theater, and the “circular building of unknown destination,” also called the round building. On the west side of the Eurotas river is the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia.
Ancient Sparta has such a strong hold on our imaginations – the sites, although more spare than some of the others, are well worth a visit.