History of Ancient Greece around Messinia

The far southwest of Greece is a fertile moutainous and wet region with a documented history of civilized societies coping with tyrannic invaders attacking from every direction.  The artifacts found in this area show the artistic and architectural skills of this area were unbelievably advanced far before the rest of the world.  The following list of sites can be used to show this point.

Temple of Epicurean Apollo

One great ancient site 80 km north of Kalamata is the Temple of Apollo at Bassae.  This temple would be a massive undertaking to design and construct with modern equipment.  It was built with hammers, chisels, horses, mules, rounded wild oak logs, cast iron cylinders, and tons of thick rope.  The details in the design surpass current architectural techniques in many ways because the designs included details that created optical illusions for the viewer of the temple.   For instance, the columns of the temple of Apollo have entasis.  In architecture, entasis is the application of a convex curve to a surface for aesthetic purposes.


The best known use of entasis is in certain orders of Classical columns that curve slightly as their diameter is decreased from the bottom upward.  It also may serve an engineering function regarding strength.  The word we apply to the design principle is used by the Roman architectural historian Vitruvius, and derives from the Greek word εντείνω (enteino), "to stretch tight".  Creating the illusion of greater strength and a perception of increased height is the objective in the application of entasis.

The temple of Apollo is unusual in that it has examples of all three of the classical orders used in ancient Greek architecture: DoricIonic, and Corinthian.  Doric columns form the peristyle while Ionic columns support the porch and Corinthian columns in the interior.  The Corinthian capital here is the earliest example of the order found to date.


This temple interior had a continuous Ionic frieze showing Athenians in battle with Amazons and the Lapiths engaged in battle with Centaurs.  This frieze's metopes were removed by Charles Robert Cockerell and taken to the British Museum in 1815.  (They are still in the British Museum's Gallery 16, near the Elgin Marbles.)  Cockerell decorated the walls of the Ashmolean Museum's Great Staircase and that of the Travellers Club with plaster casts of the same frieze.

"Re-discovery" and purchase by the British

The purchased Bassae Frieze has its own room at the British Museum.  The 23 slabs could be returned to this site they were taken from, or at least place copies of these slabs in their original location.


A foot fragment of a colossal statue found at Bassae was also purchased, and is also currently displayed at the British Museum.  The temple had been noticed by northern European thieves in November 1765, by the French architect J. Bocher, who was building villas at Zante and came upon it quite by accident; he recognized it from its site, but when he returned for a second look, he was murdered by Greeks feeling that foreigners should be removed if caught taking Greek national property after paying Ottoman occupied country rulers.   Charles Robert Cockerell and Carl Haller von Hallerstein, having secured sculptures at Aegina, hoped for more successes at Bassae in 1811; all Haller's careful drawings of the site were, also, lost at sea.

This archeological site was again explored in 1812 (with the permission of Veli Pasha, the Turkish occupation commander of the Peloponnese) by a group of British antiquaries who purchased all 23 slabs of the Ionic cella frieze, and transported these purchased slabs of art to Zante, along with other purchased sculptures.  Veli Pasha's claims on the finds were quenched with gold, and the purchased frieze was bought at auction by the British Museum in 1815.  This frieze's metopes were removed personally by Cockerell.  (They are still available to be seen in the British Museum's Gallery 16.)  The frieze sculptures were in Rome in 1814 and in the British Museum in 1820.  Additional visits resulted in further theft.  The first fully published excavation was not begun until 1836; it was carried out by Russian archaeologists, among which included the painter Karl Bryullov.  Perhaps the most striking discovery was the oldest Corinthian capital found to date.  The purchased artifacts are on display at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.

In 1902, a systematic excavation of the area was carried out by the Greek Archaeological Society of Athens under archaeologist Konstantinos Kourouniotis along with Konstantinos Romaios and Panagiotis Kavvadias. Further excavations were carried out in 1959, 1970 and from 1975–1979, under the direction of Nikolaos Gialouris.

Preservation of the Temple of Apollo

The temple's remoteness (Pausanias is the only ancient traveller whose remarks on Bassae have survived) has worked to its advantage for its preservation.  Other, more accessible temples were damaged or destroyed by war or preserved only by conversion to Christian uses; the Temple of Apollo escaped both these fates.  Due to its distance from metropolitan areas, it also has less of a problem with acid rain, which quickly dissolves limestone and damages marble carvings.

Conservation work is currently being carried out under the supervision of the Committee for the Conservation of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios of the Greek Ministry of Culture, based in Athens.

The Homeric village of Ithome 

The summit of Mount Ithome, which is flat, in the Bronze Age, had a temple dedicated to Zeus Ithomatas (Zeus of Ithome) built there.  It was torn down and rebuilt as a Christian church and monastery in the early 14th century, to re-use the intricately cut stone.  In the 17th century, this monastery of Panagia Voulkanou, or Moni Voulkanou, was closed by the ottoman ruler, except for a caretaker, and soon became known as the Old Monastery.  The new monastery was constructed on the lower east slope of Eva.  It was a staging point in the Greek War of Independence, and also houses a noted library containing ancient manuscripts.


The classical town of Ithome was on the lower west flank of Mount Ithome, which forms a bowl in the side of the mountain. The location was selected as the site for the city of Messene (not the same as the modern city of Messini) when it was rebuilt by Epaminondas in 369 BC.  Excavations there in recent decades have uncovered evidence of older settlements going back to the stone age (over 10000 years ago, to possibly 600000 years ago) when various species of elephant, wooly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), and wooly mammoth (Mammoths primigenius) were common in this area, as well as other Pleistocene fauna.  A nearby open-cast coal mine, on what was long ago the shore of a shallow lake, has yielded stratified stone artifacts in association with a nearly complete skeleton of Elephas antiquus.  


The location of Messene is marked by massive city walls that include the east side of the ridge, where they protect the ancient zig-zagging road to the summit, the top of the ridge, a wide area around the bowl and end against the mountain on the north, an approximately rectangular circuit.  The mountain itself protects the east side.  These defense structures were restored, not constructed, by Epaminondas.  This is an amazing feat of ancient engineering and construction, a hint of the type of civilization present in this area long before Greece existed.

Within the lower part of this wide circuit are the ruins of the ancient city. About 300 metres (980 feet) up the slope is the modern little village of Mavromati, occupying a small portion of the ancient city.  It is a subdivision of the municipality of Messene.  Mavromati is built around the key feature of the city, one which made its large size possible, a large surface spring flowing out of the mountain through a hole in the rocks.  A klepsydra, or "spring catchment," has been maintained as a village watering place. That is it is ancient is shown by the ancient system of channels constructed from it to the ancient urban area below. Mavromati is at 419 metres (1,375 feet), thus Messene was essentially at 119 metres (390 feet) and Mount Ithome loomed at 681 metres (2,234 feet) over it.

As the most defensible point in the surrounding territory, Ithome was the center of the Messenian resistance to Sparta during the Messenian Wars in the 7th and 6th centuries BC.  Ithome was also the center of the Helot revolt in 465 BC after a significant earthquake in Sparta.  This revolt is the Third Messenian War.

Marathusa 1

The oldest known archaeological site in Greece, this association of lithic artifacts were recently found with elephant remains, with obvious cut marks on the elephant bones, indicating that this was an elephant butchering site.  Preliminary results suggest a Middle Pleistocene age (roughly between 300 and 600 thousand years before present).  The researchers found stone tools, which the early hunters used to cut the bones.  "That makes Megalopolis the only site in the Balkans where we have evidence of an elephant being butchered in the early Paleolithic," says Professor Katerina Harvati of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (HEP) at the University of Tübingen.

The region is one of the most likely routes for human migration into Europe and also likely acted as a refugium for fauna, flora and human populations during glacial periods.

"Despite this crucial geographic position, Paleoanthropological and Paleolithic research has been under-represented in the region due to a traditional focus on later prehistory and Classical times.  As a result, very little information exists on the Lower Paleolithic of Greece.  Marathousa 1 is of paramount importance for the understanding of human dispersal patterns into Europe, as well as the adaptations and behavior of early humans in the region," says Harvati.

The Marathousa 1 excavation is conducted by Dr. E. Panagopoulou (Ephorate of Paleoanthropology and Speleology) in collaboration with Professor K. Harvati (Paleoanthropology, University of Tübingen) within the framework of the ERC StG project 'PaGE' ('Paleoanthropology at the Gates of Europe: Human Evolution in the Southern Balkans') awarded to Professor Harvati.  PaGE aims to help close the research gap in southeastern European Paleoanthropology.


Castle of Kalamata

A castle with a rich history on a rocky hill at the NW side of the city of Kalamata.  An ancient acropolis existed on the hill far before the Trojan war, around 1500BC, and later a Byzantine fortress, but the ruins we observe today are the remains of the castle that was rebuilt there in the beginning of the 13th century, during the Frankish occupation.

In the 6th century AD., a church was built in the castle devoted to Virgin Mary. An icon of Virgin Mary in the church became famous as 'Kalomata' (meaning 'beautiful eyes').  This later evolved to 'Kalamata' which became the name of the church, the castle and the city.

The ancient acropolis on the rock was founded by the figure of mythology Faris from Argos.  The city was named Farai or Fares and is mentioned in Iliad as one of the seven cities that Agamemnon offered to Achilles to ease his anger.  Fares never became an important city in the ancient world unlike other neighboring cities such as Messini.  Archaeological excavations have proved that the city was on the hill and not in the surrounding area.  In early and middle Byzantine periods the place was inhabited and, certainly, fortified.


The recent growth started with the Frankish occupation. After the 4th Crusade and the Fall of Constantinople, Peloponnese and Kalamata was conquered by Frank knights. When Geoffroi de Villehardouin I became the ruler of the Principality of Achaea (1205-1218), he rebuilt the ruined castle and made it the seat of the feud of Kalamata.  His son Guillaume II de Villehardouinwho later became the most notable ruler of the Principality (1246-1278) was born in the castle of Kalamata.

The Franks held Kalamata until 1410 when the city became part of the Byzantine Despotate of Mystras.  Before that, it was captured briefly by a band of Slav peasants in 1293 and by the Turks in 1396.  From 1381 the area was under the control of the knights of the Company of Navarra who had the support of the House of Anzou and the kingdom of Napoli.

In 1459 the castle and the city were captured by the Ottoman Turks under the leadership of Mohamed the Conqueror.

In 1464 the castle was taken by the Venetians.  They left in 1540.

The Venetians came back in 1685 under general Morozini. The Turks were unable to defend the castle against the Venetian artillery and evacuated it after destroying it.  This time, the Venetians made some major repairs and additions to the castle.  In 1715 the Turks came back.  During the 18th century, although the city of Kalamata expanded, the castle was gradually abandoned and ruined.

Kalamata was liberated in 23 March 1821, in the first act of the Greek War of Independence.

Ancient Messini

Hours   8am-8pm            http://www.ancientmessene.gr            27240 51201  

The remains of this vast ancient city are as extensive as those of Olympia and Epidavros, yet Ancient Messini receives only a small fraction of their visitors. Picturesquely situated on a hillside below the village of Mavromati and still undergoing excavation, the site comprises a large theatre, marketplace, a vast Sanctuary of Asclepius and the most intact and impressive of all ancient Greek stadiums.

Ancient Messini was founded in 371 BC after the Theban general Epaminondas defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra, freeing the Messinians from almost 350 years of Spartan rule.  Built on the site of an earlier stronghold, the new Messinian capital was one of a string of defensive positions designed to keep watch over Sparta.  Epaminondas himself helped to plan the fortifications, which were based on a massive wall that stretched 9km around the surrounding ridges and completely enclosed the town.

Apart from its defensive potential, Ancient Messini was also favoured by the gods.  According to local myth, Zeus was born here – not Crete – and raised by the nymphs Neda and Ithomi, who bathed him in the same spring that gives the modern village its name.

The first construction you come across is the large amphitheatre, reconstructed for contemporary use.  The path leads past the Fountain of Arsinoe building, which supplied the ancient city with water.  The extensive columned remains next to it are the agorawith the treasury in its southwest corner.  The Greek general Philopoemen was held prisoner by the Messinians here in 183 BC and dispatched to the other world with poison.

Beyond is the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the spiritual centre that lay at the heart of the ancient city, consisting of a rectangular courtyard fringed with Corinthian columns.  This extensive complex was centred on a Doric temple that once housed a golden statue of Ithomi.  The modern awning west of the temple protects the artemision, where fragments of an enormous statue of Artemis Orthia were found.  The structures to the east of the asclepion include the ekklesiasterion, which looks like a small amphitheatre but once acted as an assembly hall.  Nearby are the remains of a Roman villa, with a steel roof protecting the mosaic remains.

Head downhill to the large stadium, which is surrounded by a forest of columns.  You can see where the Romans closed off part of the athletics

 track, turning it into a gladiator arena.  On the left-hand side, near the arena, are the VIP seats – the ones with backs and with lion paws for legs.  On the right-hand side, near the intact gate of the enormous gymnasium, are round holes in stone slabs – ingenious Roman public toilets positioned over a now dry stream.

Temple of Pan

Mt. Nomia, Arcadia

Pausanias wrote in his Description of Greece 8. 38. 10 the following about the Temple of Pan:
"On the right of Lykosoura [in Arkadia] are the mountains called Nomia, and on them is a sanctuary of Pan Nomios; the place they name Melpeia, saying that here Pan discovered the music of the pipes.  It is very obvious conjecture that the name of the Nomia Mountains derived from the pasturings (nomia) of Pan, but the Arkadians themselves derive the name from a Nymphe."



Fear makes folks build city walls and fortification.  Not the case in Sparta (spelling is similar to Sparti, in Greek).  At the height of their power, Greece's legendary warriors triumphed over Athens and the rest of Greece in the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 BC).  However, the decisive defeat by the Thebans in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC was the beginning of the fall of Sparta, which was followed by successive subjugation by the Macedonians, Romans, Goths, Turks, and Slavs.


The town was refounded in AD 1834 on the orders of King Otto.  Mindful of history, Otto and his court felt that since Athens was to be rebuilt to reflect its former glory, so too should Sparta.  He didn't succeed, though a few ruins attest to its ancient pre-eminence.   Most visitors pass through on their way to and from the Byzantine glories of Mystras, just above Sparti.


The acropolis and agora made up the religious and administrative centre (8th century BC until the Roman period) of ancient Sparta.  The area was restored to a formal site with paths and detailed signs.  There's an ancient theatre, Sanctuary of Athena Halkioitou, stoas, the 'round building', and church remains.

On the north side of the present-day town of Sparta are remains of the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia.  To get here, head to the King Leonidas statue (that proudly hefts his sword and shield).  West of here, signs point the way to the acropolis.  From the main cobbled road, paths head through olive groves.  A highlight is the ancient theatre (2nd or 3rd century BC).  The main road leads north to the acropolis, passing the Byzantine Church of Christ the Savior, on the way to the 6000 BC Sanctuary of Athena Halkioitou on a small hill.  The most important finds in the town’s archaeological museum were unearthed here.  

Sparta’s archaeological museum hosts artefacts from Sparta’s illustrious past, many unlabelled and most without any protective covering.  Look for the votive sickle of the kind that Spartan boys dedicated to Artemis Orthia.  There are also reliefs featuring Eleni and Menelaus (and with Paris), bronze and lead votive figurines, heads and torsos of various deities, a statue thought to be King Leonidas, votive terracotta masks and grave stelae.  Fine mosaics from Hellenistic and Roman Sparta are also on show. 

A beautifully designed olive oil museum in Sparta initiates you into the mysteries of the olive, from its initial appearance in the Mediterranean in 60,000 BC to the present day.  Learn about its immense importance in millennia of Greek life.  Immerse yourself in olive oil's many uses (medicine-making, cooking, fuel, ritual, perfume-making).  Check out the magnificent reconstructions of olive presses in the courtyard, ranging from prehistoric to Byzantine.  Finally, marvel at the minute working models (press the button) that demonstrate changes in pressing technology.

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