Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Temple Engineering

When we think about the ruins of Greece, we most often see the remnants of the famous temples – the Parthenon for example. The first temples were made out of wood, but the transition to stone began in the late seventh century B.C. Limestone was used first and then marble.

How were these stone temples built?

Primary sources for limestone and marble were Naxos and Paros; islands in the Aegean with quarries close to the sea. In the late sixth century, the Greeks began to work a marble quarry at Mt. Pentelikos. The map below shows the location of these quarries.

Blocks of stone were transported by boat and when the situation required, ox cart. To avoid the risk of damage the blocks would be trimmed to rough size and finished at the site. Stone shavings, resulting from the finish work, have been excavated from these sites.

Believe it or not, limestone columns were turned on a lathe as a single monolithic block. The last columns made this way were used in the temple of Aphaia on the island of Aigina in the early fifth century B.C. The monolithic column was then replaced with those built in sections called drums. The drums were held together with wooden dowels.

Stone pieces were finished at the building site with a claw chisel and hammer. They were then rubbed and polished to a smooth finish. Blocks were lifted into place using a block and tackle to get them close to a final position and then moved to final position with crowbars.

Surprisingly, Greek temple architecture was not innovative – meaning it was not able to adapt designs to new materials and overcome structural limitations. The basic temple design was vertical support of horizontal beams. Architrave blocks were supported at their ends by columns and the roofs were supported by wooden beams resting on the entablature. Column spacing could only be as large as the largest block on the architrave (4.5 meters in the Parthenon). Equally restricting are the wood beams which were limited by available timbers to about 12 meters.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Magnificent House of the Tiles

The archaic ruins at Lerna in Southern Greece were a stunning discovery in 1952 when John L. Caskey unearthed these oldest ruins in Greece. The centerpiece of the site is the House of Tiles, which is the oldest of of the five periods of ruins there. To put the age of this structure in perspective, let’s look at a Greek history chronology.

3000 ---------Greece settled by Neolithic tribes
2200 ---------House of Tiles constructed
2000 ---------Indo-European invasion. House of Tiles destroyed
2000-1600 ---Middle Helladic period
2000-1400 ---Minoan civilization in Crete
1600-1100 ---Mycenaean civilization in Greece
1200 ---------Dorian invasion
1100-750 ----Dark ages of Greece
750 ----------Rise of the Polis

Lerna was a town on the coast of the Aegean Sea south of Argos. The map below shows its location.

There is substantial myth to be found in Lerna. The town was home to the Lernaean Hydra, a water snake killed by Hercules. Lerna was also one of the entrances into the underworld and the ancient Lernaean Mysteries of Demeter were celebrated there.

The House of Tiles was constructed around 2200 B.C. as a mansion for a chieftain or possibly an administration building. The building was two stories high, made of yellow brick on a stone foundation, and the roof was covered with terra-cotta tiles. It was destroyed by fire and the site was never re-built possibly out of reverence for the significance of the structure.

The photograph above shows the ruins.

Photo courtesy of Heinz Schmitz.

A Strange Prophesy Fulfilled

Following the Battle of Salamis wreckage from sunken Persian ships was blown westward and washed up onto the Attican shoreline at a place Herodotus calls “Colias”.

The locals were amazed when they realized the debris fulfilled what had previously been a mysterious prophesy. A soothsayer named Lysistratus had years earlier predicted that someday “The Colian women will cook their food with oars”

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Battle of Salamis

The Battle of Salamis occurred in 480 B.C. when the Persian King Xerxes attempted to push south into the Peloponnese Peninsula. As I discussed in a previous article, the Spartans were hesitant to engage the Persians in a naval battle because they thought building a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth was the better way to protect themselves. The Athenian commander, Thermistocles, tricked the Spartans by sending a messenger, posing as a traitor, to tell the Persian a Greek attack was imminent. The Persians took the bait and moved up their timetable leaving the Spartans no time for withdrawal.

Thermistocles knew that the Persian fleet was much larger than his own (1200 ships to 400) so he decided to use geography to improve his chances. The Salamis Island occupies the center of the Saronic Sea near Athens. On the east side of Salamis sits a pointed peninsula called Cynosura. The waters north of this peninsula were quite narrow – too small for entire Persian fleet. Themistocles reasoned that his odds of winning would improve if he only had to fight a fraction of the Persian fleet.

He formed his fleet into a line and placed it running north to south against the eastern coast of Salamis Island. To oppose him the Persians were forced to create their own line on the Attican side of the bay. The Persians attacked early in a September morning but the battle quickly became a rout in favor of the Greeks. Many of the Persian ships were pushed back to Attica where they ran aground. Others, trying to escape to Phalerum (a bay near Athens) were cut off by an Aeginetan squadron and destroyed.

Xerxes observed the battle from Mount Aegaleos expecting to savor a great victory but instead he saw his commanders routed and his fleet destroyed. One of the few exploits to make him smile involved his female commander, Queen Artemisia. Pursued by an Athenian ship, she purposely rammed another Persian ship to make it appear she was Greek. The pursuers took the bait and broke off pursuit of her. When Xerxes heard about this, he remarked, “today our women are fighting like men and our men like women.”

Defeated, Xerxes chose to withdraw his main army from Greece and leave a small force to winter there. Those troops lead by Mardonius camped at Boetia, far enough from Athens to allow its citizens to return to their ruined city.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Greek – Persian Wars

The Persian invasion of Greece can be summarized as follows:

Persian King Darius I sought to punish the Greeks for their part in the Ionian revolt.

He sends an invasion force which subjugates Thrace and Macedonia in 492 B.C. but the Persian fleet is destroyed in a storm and the army forced to withdraw.

A second expedition in 490 sets up the Battle of Marathon where the Persians are defeated.

In 480, Darius’ son Xerxes invades again, clearing the way to Attica by defeating the Greeks at Thermopylae in 480.

Xerxes sacks Athens and is planning an invasion of the Peloponnese when he is defeated at the naval battle at Salamis.

Xerxes retreats from Greece for good after the Battle of Plataea in 479.

The invasion of 480 included the sack of Athens. Unprepared to resist the invading force, the Greeks abandoned the city and headed south to save themselves. A token non-official force remained on the Acropolis. As our friend Herodotus tells us, “The Persians found Athens abandoned except for a few people in the temple of Athene Polias – temple stewards and needy folk.”

They tried to resist the Persian troops by rolling boulders down the slope of the Acropolis, but were eventually overrun when an unguarded section was the slope was successfully scaled. The following day the Persians looted the Acropolis of its treasures and destroyed most of the sacred buildings. The rebuilding of the site was completed sixty years later during the Peloponnesian War.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Warships of the Greek Navy

The primary warship of the Greek navy during the classical period was the Trireme – its name derived from the three rows of oars used for propulsion. The first documented use of this craft was 525 B.C. in a battle between Persia and Egypt. The trireme proved to be superior to its predecessor, the penteconter, which had fifty oarsmen.

The drawing below shows how the trireme rowers were positioned.

As you can imagine, practice was essential to produce a coordinated movement and avoid oar strikes.

The Trireme was about 110 feet long and made out of softwoods (pine and fir) to minimize weight so that it could be carried by 140 men. The softwoods absorbed water causing the ships to lose speed, so they had to be brought ashore for maintenance periodically. The ship’s crew was about 200 Greek citizens (no slaves), made up of one hundred and seventy rowers, twenty or so hoplites, and ten officers. The ships had a main sail and foresail so improve speed during windy conditions. The ship could make four knots with half the crew resting or eight knots at maximum speed.

The triremes had a pointed prow which was designed to ram other ships and disable them. Battle tactics included ramming from behind or passing close to break the enemy’s oars. Boarding was an option but not often used until later because the marine contingent was too small. Usually the masts were taken down before battle to avoid a target for grappling hooks.

Cross section drawing coutesy of Eric Gaba.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Greeks, Americans, and Political Factions

As you’ve noticed I have been reading about ancient Greek drama. I was interested in the transition from serious drama to comedy that occurred in the time of Aristophanes, and the chapter on the subject mentioned Aristophanes political views. The following description comes from H.J. Rose, The Handbook of Greek Literature:

“Aristophanes was a supporter of the old Conservative party in Athens. That is to say he was opposed to extreme democracy and to the Peloponnesian War. Not advocating peace at any price but supporting whatever steps were necessary to avoid war. He took this position as a traditional Athenian who as a member of the land holding class, saw little gain from imperial expansion and overseas trade and much to lose if Attica was invaded by the Spartans. The opposite group, containing those who were more staunchly democratic, were artisans and tradesmen who saw a benefit from the demand for goods that war would bring. Rowers would be needed for the navy, the poor would be absorbed into the service, and be paid.”

So what we see here is a left wing of hawks and a right wing of doves. Interesting to compare it to the United States where the left wing are doves and the right wing hawks. What is the difference?

In our country Democrats favor the people and Republicans favor business. Generally speaking the Democrats worry about what can be done domestically to improve the lives of the public. That focus is more important to them than foreign policy which is complicated and takes money away from domestic needs. The Republicans favor a strong foreign policy because it protects their business interests -- more important to them than the needs of the people.

The key difference between Greece and the United States is that the Greeks, as an agrarian society, could do well producing for domestic consumption. In our world economy that doesn’t work. Wages are highest in the United States, so to be competitive we have to produce goods elsewhere. That production is protected by a strong foreign policy.

Of course the Greeks would laugh at the irony of the recent efforts of the “party of the people” which is moving away from the democracy they espouse to a bureaucratic government of regulation and control. If this goes far enough the we’ll end up less of a democracy than we are today – perhaps an oligarchy of the Congress.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Theater of Dionysus Athens II

The drawing below depicts the structure of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens. The action occurs in the orchestra; a platform were the actors stood during performances. Since the Dionysian festival was religious in nature, an altar was located in the center of the orchestra for sacrifices.
The Skene (original meaning “tent”) was a large wooden wall used for the backdrop. It could also be decorated as part of the set. The Skene was a substantial structure because it had to incorporate a lifting apparatus to be used to suspend actors in the air. In the case of one play, the entire chorus went to visit Zeus and “flew” to Mount Olympus. There were two (or three) openings cut in the Skene connected to long ramps called Parodos. These ramps were used for entrances and exits for the actors.

The Paraskenia was a roofed building which housed the dressing rooms and costumes for the actors. Next to the public seating was a roofed building called the Odeon of Pericles which provided shelter in case of inclement weather.

I looked at the many pictures of the Theater on the internet and few if any depict it as it was during the time of Pericles. Some show a Skene constructed out of stone, others a stage. These either represent later versions of the original theater or a reconstruction under the period of the Roman occupation.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Theater of Dionysus Athens I

The picture below locates the Theater of Dionysus near the Acropolis in Athens. Most of the structures on the Acropolis were destroyed during the Persian invasion in 480 B.C. Construction of a new Parthenon was begun after the war but not completed until 431.

The Theater of Dionysus was located on the southeast side of the Acropolis. Destroyed at least twice, the current remains are part of a Roman reconstruction. To its right is the Odeon of Pericles, a roofed structure designed for rehearsals and to shelter the public in case of inclement weather. The theater supposedly held as many as 17,000.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Greek Tragedy As Intellectual Expression

We’ve been talking about the intellectual accomplishments of the ancient Greeks and unique contribution they made to the history of mankind. This creative capability existed in both the Dorian and Ionian races because we know that Sparta made a contribution to the arts before its militaristic political system cut off artistic expression. Still the majority of the output occurred in Athens where the people’s sense of freedom combined with the wonder they felt about life produced a wellspring for creativity.

Tragic drama is an interesting facet of the Greek cultural contribution because the body of work is monumental. Indeed, as scholars rate the great dramatic playwrights of all time, three out of the top four were Greeks from the golden age of Athens – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

The drama plays began as a part of the Festival of Dionysus in the sixth century B.C. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, inspirer of madness and ecstasy, and the god of theater. He was celebrated in a rural Dionysia in late fall and a city Dionysia in March. The Greeks loved to dance and sing so a festival honoring the wine god would certainly be a wonderful pretext for merriment. The Dionysia was a merging of religion and joy like no other. The first day of the festival featured a grand parade ending at the Theater of Dionysus. Included in the procession were sacrificial animals, sons of those who died in battle, and the political leadership of Athens.

On the second day, the schedule of dramatic plays was announced and judges were selected by lot. Three playwrights put on three of their own dramatic plays along with one satyr play. The satyr play featured a mythology-based plot in a burlesque style probably designed to be a break for the audience after the intensity of the dramas.

The dramas were designed to teach the public the important virtues of life, validate the political system of Athens, and criticize its enemies. All the public was invited including the poor who were given money to buy their tickets. Many times the comment has been made that the drama plays were more democratic than the democracy of Athens because the plots included groups, like women and slaves, who had no rights in the political system.

The plays were very structured: in meter with a specific format to the dialog. Each play featured a chorus that sang or provided an external view of the action. The number of actors was limited to three and they wore masks. There was also a chorus included which took the role of an external observer of the action.

Once a dramas were concluded, the judges voted and the winners were announced. Of the three giants of Greek drama, Aeschylus wrote 70-90 plays of which seven survive. All seven won first prize at the Dionysia. Sophocles wrote 123 plays of which seven survive. He won twenty-four times and never finished lower than second. Euripides wrote 91 plays of which eighteen survive. Euripides won first prize four times.

Aeschylus was considered the father of Greek drama. As a religious man and philosopher, his plays were more rough in structure as he developed the model. Sophocles brought the form to its highest level in terms of structure and balance between the story and the moral. Euripides, impatient with what came before him and overtly emotional, brought the inner thoughts and anxieties of his characters into his plays. His works represent a drop off in the traditional form. After Euripides, drama declined and it was replaced by comedy, most notably that of Aristophanes.

The great period of Greek drama spanned the period from 472 B.C, when Aeschylus’ The Persians was performed, to 401, when Sophocles Oedipus of Colonus was performed posthumously. The form had been created, reached perfection, and died in a century. Because art reflects the mood of a culture, the end of classical drama in Greece is not surprising when one considers the impact of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). Perhaps the Greeks found their dramas too depressing and needed comedies to help them deal with the occupation of the Spartans.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Dorians and Ionians

According to historians, the ancient Greek people were made up of Dorians and Ionians; tribes who migrated from the north into Greece during the Mycenaean Era. The Peloponnese was Dorian while the Attica Peninsula and the western coast of Asia Minor were populated by Ionians. Dorians had their own dialect of Greek and observed their own festival-laden calendar.

Most people who know a little Greek history are familiar with the Dorian and Ionic columns of Greek Architecture.

The Greeks used these designations to relate each type to its ancient race, although it is not clear whether there was any connection. Doric columns were used in mainland Greece and Sicily: Ionic in western Asia Minor. The most famous Greek temple, The Parthenon, is constructed in the Doric style.

The Doric order is older and more simple than the Ionic. The use of a Metope (square block of stone between Triglyphs) may have been part of a transition from wooden buildings which the space occupied by the Metope was the opening between two roof beams.