Peloponnesus, Epidaurus & Olympia
The Isthmus of Corinth
We now pass to another equally important archeological center, the Peloponnesus- the southern peninsula of Greece. The Isthmus of Corinth once connected the Peloponnesus to Greece proper and derived its name from the large and prosperous ancient city of Corinth. This narrow strip of land which separated the Ionian Sea from the Aegean gave Corinth one of its chief sources of income. In ancient times ships were hauled from one sea to the other over a narrow, greased tramway and the shipowners had to pay a toll to the city as well as duties. They preferred to pay any price rather than make the long and dangerous voyage around the Cape of Meleas.
Corinth. The city of love
Because of the vast wealth that accumulated from the revenues and from the thriving commerce, Corinth became one of the most beautiful and fashionable cities in ancient Greece. Among the architectural masterpieces that were created at the high of Corinth’s splendor were the temple to Apollo and the celebrated temple to Aphrodite, goddess of Love which was built near the sea.
Thousands of hierodules or temple slaves of the goddess offered their caresses to the sailors and merchants who spent their money lavishly. All this money went into the offers of the temple. We must explain here that this was not immoral in the modern sense of the world because it was justified as a religious obligation to the goddess and differed greatly in purpose. Many of the priestesses aside from their great beauty, were famous for their wide learning and their delicate and refined manners. The philosophers and artists of the ancient world found in them the companionship and inspiration that they could not find in the women of their society who were confined to the cared and responsibilities of the household.
Women and political life
Many of these women were so exceptional that they played a very important role in the political life of their times. An outstanding example is Aspasia, a highly accomplished woman from Miletus, who became the companion and guiding star of Pericles.
Plutarch tells us that Socrates and other brilliant men of the age gathered at her home to discuss questions of rhetoric, philosophy and practical life with her and brought their wives that they, too, might benefit by the conversation. The repeated severe earthquakes have left very few ruins of ancient Corinth. On the hill of Acrocorinth, we find ruins of every period in Hellenic history from the Mycenean Age to the revolution of 1821. Three arched doorways lead to the ruins of the temples, sanctuaries, reservoirs, fortresses and towers. From the highest point of this famous rock we have one of the most magnificent views imaginable.
Argos, Mycenae and Tiryns
Argos, Mycenae and Tiryns, a little further to the south, were thriving centers of culture during the later Minoan or Mycenaean Age about 1600 B.C. These centers in time developed into city states and the inhabitants, who were seafaring people, made voyages to many far-off places and were greatly influenced by the higher type of culture they found in the more advanced centers such as Crete. They built their cities on hilltops and fortified them with huge masonry walls which must have reached as high as sixty feet. The lower part of the walls were of Cyclopean Masonry i.e. huge, slightly dresses stones which weigh as much as ten tons each.
People of our times are greatly puzzled as to how the ancients managed to lift them and to pile them on top of each other. They also built palaces and tombs for their chieftains or kings. Their religion included the worship of the dead and the tombs that have been found were full of all the articles civilized people need in their daily life-furniture cooking utensils, military equipment, as well as ornaments of gold silver and precious stones.
On the Acropolis at Tiryns and at Mycenae, we find the ruins of the gigantic walls and of the palace. At Mycenae the type of Masonry is very advanced- the ashlar type. The entrance to the famous dome-shaped “beehive” tombs of the royal family of the Astride is guarded by the famous Gate of the Lions and has a long, wide corridor of approach with a dome about 48 feet in diameter and in height. From the findings on the various tombs the archeologists have been able to give us a very vivid picture of the culture of this era.
At Epidaurus we have another place of great archeological importance. This was the place where the ancients had built a temple to Asclepius, the physician, the god of Medicine and Healing. Temples to him were erected in many places in Greece (one, as we have seen, is in the Acropolis) but this was the most famed and it served as a prototype for the temples to Asclepius that were erected throughout the land. The countless inscriptions found here include prescriptions for medicines that are still used by doctors today.
Here we again find the stoae for the hundreds of sick people that came from everywhere to be cured and the indispensable spring for bathing the sick. We also find the stadium for the physical recreation and exercise and the theater for amusement. The theater here is the largest and best preserved in all Greece. Hippocrates of Cos, the celebrated physician, began his medical studies here as a priest to Asclepius. In times, the temples assumed scientific importance and became hospitals where maladies of every type were treated.
Last buy perhaps the most famous of all the places in Peloponnesus, is Olympia. The Olympian Games added to the glory of ancient Greece and have contributed in many ways to the development of modern civilization. The Greeks believed in “a sound mind in a healthy body” and one of their main endeavors was to provide in every city a place where the citizens could have systematic physical training.
Contests were held at various places – most important of these was Olympia – and to be a victor at the Games held there and to be awarded the wreath of wild olive or bay which was the prize, was one of the greatest honors a youth could hope for. The citizens would break down part of the city wall to make a triumphant entrance for the hero. This also implied that a city that could raise such men did not have the need for fortifications.
The states would case all warfare and a sacred truce would be in force during the duration of the games. Thus, the spirit of racial unity was fostered, and the opportunity was given to cultivate friendship between the people of the various states.
Magnificent religious festivals were held, and sacrifices were offered to the gods before the games began. The committee that had charge of the games and that made the final decisions and awarded the prizes was famous for its unbiased judgement.
Olympia lies in an immense forest of wild olive trees. From these trees, the branches for the wreathless were cut.
Here, as at Delphi, a visit to the local museum helps to give one a complete idea of the splendor of Olympia that one surmises from seeing the ruins of the temples, that alters and various other structures. It is especially moving to see the stadium which was the largest in Greece and the Hippodrome where the Romαn Emperor, Νero once took part in the agones or contests and where he was crowned a victor, though he stumbles and fell- such was the political degeneration of the Greeks at that time!
The Olympic games were both an intellectual and an artistic inspiration for here, as at Delphi, the athletes were perfect models for the great sculptors of the times and the poets composed triumphal songs in honor of the visitors. The museum contains such priceless treasures as the Hermes of Praxiteles, the Nike or Victory of Peakons and so many other masterpieces. Most of them were found in the sacred precincts of the Altis.
The most splendid of all was the gold and ivory statue of Zeus by Phidias which was about 40 feet high. We know of it only by the descriptions that have come down to us. Even the most critical spectator was amazed at the perfection of this statue and the Greeks considered it a great misfortune if they could not see it at least once in their lifetime.
Illustrated edition dedicated to the Grecian Civilazation.
Year V. Period III. Supplements 18-25
Dir. Z. A. Macatounis- Athens 1949
Pesmazoglou St. 1a
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