Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sparta Photo Album

The link below will take you to a Sparta Photo Album.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Thucydides on Sparta

"If the city of the Lacedaemonians were deserted, and the shrines and foundations of buildings preserved, I think that after the passage of considerable time there would eventually be widespread doubt that their power measured up to their reputation. Since the city is not unified or furnished with elaborate shrines or public buildings but settled in villages the old Hellenic way, it would be considered inferior to those it has under its control."

I read that the olive trees on the Spartan Acropolis were planted to prevent significant erosion to the site.
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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reflections on a Visit to Ancient Sparta

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was disappointed that the ruins of ancient Sparta were unidentifiable, and that drove me to try and make more sense of what was there and understand its part in the history of Spartan culture.

To accomplish this we have to start with the realization that the area now referred to as ancient Sparta is really its Acropolis and nothing else. The remainder of Sparta was spread out over four villages and all traces of those villages are gone. Over time the Acropolis itself took on the role of a citadel: more important to those controlling Sparta than it was to the Spartans themselves.

Sparta had no walls (by design) until 318 B.C. when she had become a second rate power and the principles of Lycurgus were no longer being followed. That year marked 458 years since the first Olympic Games, traditionally thought of as the time of Lycurgus and the blossoming of the new Spartan society. Classical Sparta had lasted nearly half a millennium. Remnants of the walls of 318 can be seen at the north side of the Acropolis.

There are also two other sets of ruins extant and dated after 318: Roman and Byzantine. Rome began to exert suzerainty on Sparta beginning in the late third century B.C. and invaded the city in 188 B.C. That year, the Spartan walls were torn down. Eight years later the Romans allowed them to be re-built. Rome continued to control Sparta until the collapse of the Western Empire, and the emergence of the Byzantine world.

The amphitheater at the Spartan acropolis was built by the Romans in 50 B.C. and there are also Roman walls around the hilltop. Lower down and covering a larger area are Byzantine walls in ruins. Both of these sets of walls protected a citadel that was post-Spartan.

There are only two ancient Spartan structures that have been uncovered: the Temple of Athena Chalkioikos, located on the Acropolis and The Temple of Artemis Orthia located east of the Acropolis near the Eurotos River. Chalkioikos was constructed no later than 500 B.C, because artifacts from that time have been found in the ruins.

Marble statue of a helmed hoplite (5th century...Image via Wikipedia

Among them is the sculpture thought to be Leonidas.

The temple gets its name from the bronze sheets that covered the interior walls.

The Sanctuary of Artemis celebrates the cult of Orthia, common to the villages who made up Sparta. It was built in 570 B.C. and excavated around 1910.

We can see why a visit to modern Sparta is less satisfying than one would hope because there is not much left of ancient Sparta to experience. One has to be content to stand on Spartan ground and see what the Spartans saw when they owned this land – the mountains, the valley, and the sky.
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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Acropolis Photo Album

The link below will take you to an Acropolis photo album.

The Acropolis

Monday, September 20, 2010

Day 13 - Thermopylae

"Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie."

Those words are packed with emotion for all who know or care what happened at Thermopylae, arguably the most famous battle in history.

Thermopylae sits 11 kilometers south of Lamia, Greece, which lies some 200 kilometers north of Athens. That means the 300 marched about 400 kilometers from Sparta before they arrived at the Hot Gates.
Thermopylae means hot gates in Greek and refers to the three hot springs at the battle site. They are called gates because the pass narrows near them, so they are ideal for a military defense.

I wasn't sure how I'd feel as we approached the site. I'd seen all the pictures (everyone takes the same ones) and read all the stories. Needless to say, I didn't need an sign to tell me where to go.

As you travel north on Route 1, you come to an exit sign for Thermopylae. The ramp becomes a road dedicated to providing access to the battle site, looping back to the main road after a mile or so.

You first look for Leonidas on the north side of the road. He stands on top of a wall depicting the battle. Below his feet is the immortal saying, "come and get them". There are two statues flanking him: Eurotas (the river of Sparta and Taygetos (the mountain of Sparta). The wall faces south so you spin around to find Kolonos Hill, which is immediately across the road. Without a sign you wouldn't be able to find it because its obscured by trees.

Crossing the road, you take the path up the hill to the plaque containing the quote cited at the beginning of the post. To read the plaque you look west toward the Persian camp. Above your left shoulder is the pass traversed by the traitor Ephialtes and the immortals.

Here's what Herodotus had to say about the end of the battle. "This conflict continued until those who had gone with Ephialtes came up; and when the Hellenes learned that these had come, from that moment the nature of the combat was changed; for they retired backwards to the narrow part of the way, and having passed by the wall they went and placed themselves upon the hillock, all in a body together except only the Thebans: now this hillock is in the entrance, where now the stone lion is placed for Leonidas. On this spot while defending themselves with daggers, that is those who still had them left, and also with hands and with teeth, they were overwhelmed by the missiles of the Barbarians, some of these having followed directly after them and destroyed the fence of the wall, while others had come round and stood about them on all sides."

I look up to the left and imagine the Persian archers by the hundreds on the hill above me. What chance would I have with a couple hundred of my colleagues?

All that remained of my visit was the middle gate which sits just west of where the Phocian Wall stood. One has to imagine the scene since there are no current landmarks near the gate. The water is hot (spa temperature) and flows quickly out of a mill race into the stream below. It comes out of the mountain side so as you approach you face the shear elevation.

There is no sound except the falling water. When you move away from the gate and the sound dies away, you're left alone with the murmur of the soft breeze.

Standing here, it's easy to apply a little imagination and take yourself back 2,490 years -- same mountains, same pass, Hot Gates flowing. I think of the men who fought and died here and how their immortality is a beacon for all mankind.
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Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Oracle at Delphi Photo Album

The link below will take you to a photo album of the Oracle at Delphi.

The Oracle at Delphi
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Friday, September 17, 2010

Straights Of Messina Photo Album

The following link will take you to a photo album of our passage through the Straits of Messina on September 2nd.

The Straits of Messina

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Day 12 - Sparta

The Peloponnese is mountainous, its center filled in the north with all manner of peaks -- a huge spine which tapers off into the Parnon Range to the southeast like a lizard's tail.

As you begin the trip down from Corinth, the elevation increases steadily until you approach Tripoli, which sits on a plateau. The wheat fields of the north have now given way to pasture land and olive groves.

You're only 30 kilometers from Sparta when the Taygetos begin to rise from the background. Higher and higher they push as your drop down into the valley of Sparta until the impression is complete. The elevation of Sparta is 600 feet. The Taygetos tops are at 6,000 feet.

The modern Sparta looks similar to other Greek cities, full of square uninteresting concrete apartments, but its location sits inside the boundary of the ancient one which existed as the union of four separate villages.

At the northern edge of the city stands the statue of Leonidas. Using him as a guide, you drive around the soccer field to reach the ancient Spartan Acropolis.

There is no ticket window, bookshop, or refreshment stand at the entrance -- you just move along to discover what's there.

Almost immediately the wrong emotion works its way to the surface. You pass by ancient walls and portions of structures unmarked, wondering why this should be. Does no one care? Is Sparta gone save its story in history books? Maybe that's the way it should be because the gods have determined that no one of this age can be trusted to tell the story. Maybe the Spartan ghosts are the only ones to explain what's there.

The site is now an olive orchard and there must be 8,000 of them, one for every Spartan warrior. I feel a soft breeze which touches the olive leaves, making them whisper in unison. It's those Spartan ghosts telling their tales of battle. No other sound competes: no car horn, dog bark, or child's laugh to interrupt the message. Only the whispers.

The ruins are mostly post-Spartan: some Byzantine walls, built by people who needed walls to protect them. A Roman amphitheater is recognizable but it's new -- 50 B.C.

As you stand at the highest point and look around, you understand that Sparta was an idea as much as a culture. The culture exists only in what was written down while the idea is eternal -- that people can unite for a common purpose to become stronger than the individual. That unified strength can overcome the pursuit of wealth and popularity, which can destroy all that man has accomplished.
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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Hot Gates - September 10, 2010

The link below will point you to a video I made last week of the Middle Gate, closest of the three Hot Gates to the Battle of Thermopylae. It lies about one half mile west of Kolonos Hill, where the Spartans were attacked by arrows in their final defense.

I put my hand in the water and judge it to be 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit - about the same as a hot tub.
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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Day 11 - The Acropolis

I'm going to sound like a broken record before my trip is over, but I have to say that NO picture of the ancient sites of Greece fairly depicts the grandeur and scale of the real experience.

Let me use the Acropolis as an example. I've seen enough pictures of it to know the structures and the basic configuration, but what you don't get photos is the scale and three dimensional reference.

The Acropolis is visible from anywhere in Athens. Impressively lit with spotlights, it becomes a beacon for travel around the city at night. If you're lost, you can look at the Acropolis and orient yourself because the Parthenon faces east to west. It's the compass of Athens!

The elevation of the site is stunning. I had a preconceived notion that the walls rise from the street level, when, in fact, they start a couple hundred feet above street level.

After the cab dropped us off, we walked up a curving pathway to the ticket office. From there you continue up the incline to the Propylaean Gate. The gate itself is being reconstructed and there are wooden steps over a section where the original steps are missing.

As you reach the floor of the site, the Parthenon makes an immediate impression because of its size and scale. The Erechtheion by comparison is much smaller.

There is a construction crane in the middle of the Parthenon being used for re-building and repairs, so its tough to get a photograph without the modern technology. One can see in the structure where new mable has replaced or been added. The new mable is impressively integrated. On the west side of the site sit pieces of the original structures in piles (a marble junkyard) -- scrolled Doric capitals with no home. Part of the re-building attempts to correct previous repairs which were done with iron rods. The rods rusted, causing the marble to crack. The rods are being replaced with titanium.

The view from the Acropolis is one of a kind -- the agora to the north and the city surrounding it all.

We walked through the agora and also visited the Theater of Dionysus, which sits adjacent to the south wall of the Acropolis. I imagined the great plays being performed and the audience of 17,000 hanging on each scene. What a history!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Day 6 - The Oracle

It's a thirty minute twenty-one hundred foot white-knuckle bus ride from the town of Itea on the Gulf of Corinth up to Delphi. You pass through one of the largest olive groves in the world and find yourself struck by the arid climate -- not a drop of water to be seen. Dry creekbeds remind of past rains and the people appear to be inside hiding from the 90 degree heat.

In Delphi, the shops are open because everyone knows there's a cruise ship in port, but the restaurants are empty in early afternoon (Greeks have lunch at 3pm). We step off the bus in town and walk a kilometer to the Oracle, which is hidden behind a bend in the road so that pirates from twenty-seven hundred years ago could not observe it from the sea.

One is immediately impressed by the topography -- to the left of the road the Oracle rises steeply and to the right the gorge of Pleistos Valley drops off preceptisely a thousand feet or so. You climb the zig-zag path by the (new) Roman columns, past the Athenian Treasury, and on to the Temple. Its six columns point to the sky like arrows pointing at Zeus. Above the Temple is the amphitheater and above it the stadium where the Pythian Games were held. The site takes your breath away as you contemplate the Greeks trekking in from the four corners of their country to seek the Oracle's advice.

Why here? Zeus sent out two eagles to find the center (navel) of the earth and they came together here. There is actually a navel stone on the site designating the center of the earth.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Day 5 - The Straights of Messina

Traveling through the Straights of Messina is an interesting experience.

Approaching from the north, you pass the active volcano on Stromboli (a rock jutting out of the Tyrrenian Sea). The straights itself, is only 3.1km wide, and ships have to use a pilot to navigate through. Of course the area was settled by the Greeks as part of Magna Graecia. Syracusa on the Sicilan side and Reggio (Roman Rhegium, Greek Rhegion) on the Italian side. The Greeks originally settled Messina as Zancle (scythe), because of the shape of its natural harbor.

The Romans didin't pay much attention to Sicily until they began to reach beyond Latina. This expansion coincided with Greek and Carthiginian disagreements over control of Sicily. Ultimately, Rome was dragged into the first Punic War when they took the side of the Mammertines in Messina who had come under the control of a Carthaginian garrison. Three kilometers from Italy was too close for the Romans to tolerate, and the Senate eventully decided to oppose Carthage.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Day 4 -- Crusing the Tyrrenian Sea

Three days in Rome and now on a ship bound for Delphi.

Visited the Roman Forum and Colesseum Monday. Both are much changed since I was last there. Fifteen Euros to enter the Colesseum and it was packed. The cats have been replaced by people.

The Forum is quite different with a lot of digging going on. I had forgotten the change in grade between the Arch of Titus and the flat area in front of the Rostra. Must be 50 feet lower. Villa of Caligula now excavated at the northwest corner of the Palatine Hill. The Curia is a museum. There are lots of nice photo positions from the Palatine down onto the Forum, but the Hill remains a mystery because very little is identified there.