I hope your Summer has been brilliant thus far.
For myself, I returned from Greece a couple of weeks ago and I am well into my bout of Aegean Blues.
But that’s ok, because I have a couple thousand pictures to gaze at and rich memories of historical outings to keep me inspired.
I hope you enjoyed the pictures on Instagram – if you haven’t seen them, you can do so by CLICKING HERE. I will, of course, continue to post more of them as time goes on.
Today however, I want to share with you my experience visiting a site I’ve longed to see for some time – the Pyramid of Hellinikon.
I’ve mentioned this site before, but now that I have actually been to it I want to give you my impressions before the sound of cicadas fades from my ears, and the memory of intense heat upon my skin cools into Canadian autumn.
In short, this site exceeded my expectations and fired my imagination.
It also nearly fired my physical body as we had arrived in Greece on the tail end of a heat wave that saw temperatures soar into the mid-forties Celsius!
So, after a night of wine and food beneath the stars at the southern tip of the Argolid peninsula, we set out early(ish) over the high peak of Mt. Didyma, down toward ancient Epidaurus, and across to that beautiful jewel-of-a-city, Nauplion.
Now, I know my way around the area pretty well, but let’s just say that finding the Pyramid of Hellinikon was not easy, even with Google Maps.
Our car meandered around the curve of the Argolic Gulf to Nea Keos, then to the far side where we turned northwest.
You might think that with a map, and seeing it on a screen, the place would be easy to find. However, the routes we had to follow were the shape of a Greek Key at best.
And it was HOT!
There was also very little signage, so we had to stop and ask a man who was out watering his grass. As an aside, I think he is the only man in Greece with a large patch of manicured lawn!
Anyway, the fellow simply pointed up the mountain in the direction we were already headed, so we continued on our path, climbing up, turning, climbing again in the shadow of terraces where orange and olive trees grew on the side of the mountain.
We came around a corner and there it was. A pyramid!
The site is just adjacent to a church in the village of Hellinikon. The funny thing is that it stands out like a sore thumb compared with the village houses and church, but it blends almost completely with the ancient landscape itself. By rights, we should have seen it from the road along the gulf below, it stands in such a prominent position.
I pulled the car into the shade of a single tree (hoping it could cool off in thirty-seven degrees in the shade), and got out.
I had to stop and stare at this place, for no pictures had prepared me for the sheer size and antiquity of it. I didn’t feel the sun or heat anymore. I only saw the pyramid, and at the back of my mind the words of Pausanias crept in…
On the way from Argos to Epidauria there is on the right a building made very like a pyramid, and on it in relief are wrought shields of the Argive shape. Here took place a fight for the throne between Proetus and Acrisius; the contest, they say, ended in a draw, and a reconciliation resulted afterwards, as neither could gain a decisive victory. The story is that they and their hosts were armed with shields, which were first used in this battle. For those that fell on either side was built here a common tomb, as they were fellow citizens and kinsmen. (Pausanias; Description of Greece 2.25)
If what Pausanias, writing in the second century A.D., said was true, then I was standing before a pretty well-intact monument of the Greek Heroic Age.
Even now, it sends shivers down my spine…
According to Pausanias, who wrote many hundreds of years later, this pyramid was believed to be a tomb or monument to the fallen Argive soldiers in the opposing armies of Proetus and Acrisius.
Now, Proetus and Acrisius were brothers, sons of Abas and Aglaea, and mythical kings of Argos. Proetus was king first but after many battles with Acrisius, and subsequent losses, went into exile. Acrisius became King of Argos, and this is the same Acrisius who banished his own daughter, Danae, to the sea, along with her infant son – you guessed it! – Perseus.
In truth, nobody is really certain of the age of this pyramid. There is no exact date for the battle between the legendary kings of Argos, Proetus and Acrisius. Another battle mentioned in the sources, in which a large number of Argive soldiers died, apparently took place in c.669 B.C.
It seems that as far as history and sources, the evidence is pretty misty. This is when archaeology and dating can help us a little.
From what I’ve read, the dating of the Hellinikon pyramid is highly controversial. On the one side we have the legend mentioned by Pausanias. Then, in 1937, excavations were undertaken by the American School at Athens in which they found pottery ranging from the proto-Helladic period to the Roman period. This shows the site was in use for some time, but what about dating?
There is a method of dating called thermoluminescence dating, and this was carried out on the pyramid of Hellinikon. Without going into too much detail about this, this method of dating measures the accumulated radiation in objects or sediment.
The team that carried this out, in addition to geophysical surveys, excavations, and a study of the masonry of the pyramid, dates the Hellinikon to the period of about 2000-2500 B.C.
That’s also about contemporary with the pyramids on the Giza plateau. It also falls more or less in the broad period of the Greek Heroic Age.
But this dating method has been highly criticized as inaccurate and sloppy, with one camp of academics taking shots at the group that undertook the study of the pyramid. Other groups believe the style of masonry sets the Hellinikon pyramid in the Classical period.
When I arrived at the site, however, I wasn’t so much concerned with academic theories or arguments. I was just captivated.
In Greece, history and mythology have a way of coming to life unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the sites, the landscape that has changed little since ancient times, or the fact that sites such as this are not encased, guarded or protected (for better or worse).
As I stood before the slanted cyclopean walls of this ancient structure I wondered not about the age of the structure, but more of its use. There are a very few pyramids in this part of Greece, and this one is the best preserved.
But what was it for?
I remembered reading that it was either a tomb or monument, as Pausanias suggests, or a sort of guardhouse.
I opened the gate of the rusty fence surrounding the pyramid and approached, scanning the rocks and shrubs for any snakes or scorpions before pressing on.
Maybe it was my overactive writer’s imagination, but this place seemed to be pervaded by a deep thrumming, as if an ancient drum were being beaten in the earth below. I wondered if the shades of the fallen Argive soldiers might still dwell in that place. Had their ashes been placed within?
I wandered around to the back which faced the plain of Argos far below and found that there was a doorway, an arched gallery leading into the pyramid, not unlike the galleria at ancient Tyrins.
First I decided to explore the outside, to get a better feel of the place before heading in.
It hit me as I turned around to see the view from the pyramid…
The entire plain of Argos was clearly visible from the pyramid! You could see every approach – from the South along the sea, from between the mountains to the southwest, from the North toward Argos itself, from the mound of ancient Tyrins to the East, and from the other side of the Argolic Gulf and Nauplio to the southeast.
Then I thought of the other use of this place as a guardhouse. It was perfect. The pyramid blended perfectly into the landscape when ‘seen’ from far below, and it provided a perfect view of the surrounding area, a place from which to spot any threat to Argos itself. Also, I wondered if the shape was better suited to that high and no doubt lonely, windswept place in Winter.
In truth, I can’t be sure either way. Was it a tomb or monument, or was it a guardhouse? Both uses have merits.
After looking around, I turned and went in.
From the rubble strewn about, and the discolouration of the stone around the entrance, it did seem like the pyramid had been sealed at one point, otherwise, one of the corners would have been flat.
I pictured a procession of priests or warriors carrying the urns containing the remains of their fallen comrades into the pyramid beneath the peaked gallery, or a soldier finishing his shift on watch outside and heading back into the pyramid to sleep or eat while another took over outside to watch the valley.
There was a high step at the end of the gallery, and then a door frame with grooves for hinges. I stood on this and looked down into a large square room.
This inner room of the pyramid was in good condition, and free of litter left by modern visitors. There were no stone shelves upon the cyclopean walls, just cracks and the odd, occasional circle cut into the stone. Below the door, there appeared to be a sort of broken basin or drain, but it was difficult to tell.
I stood in the middle of the room and turned around, noticing that it was much cooler and quieter inside the stone walls even though the roof is gone and it’s open to the sky.
After looking around and taking more photos, I made my way back outside to look at those wonderful walls once more and take in the view from that commanding position.
I stood there beneath the full heat of Helios’ orb in the heavens, the cicadas having reached fever pitch now, and lizards skittering away at my footfalls to hide in the shadowy cracks of rubble from the pyramid.
I had never been to a place like this before, and I doubt that I will again, for the Pyramid of Hellinikon is truly unique. True, it’s nowhere near as grand as other pyramids, but it made me feel directly linked to that ancient land and the events that had (or may have) taken place there.
As I took one last look from the wall of the pyramid to the valley, the roads disappeared far below and the air was filled with the sounds of battle, of warriors in bronze and leather, the charge of horses and cry of eagles.
You can’t help but see the past through romantic lenses in a place like this, and that’s ok. It makes it exciting.
I didn’t know if the shades of dead Argives were standing beside me then, but I do know that while at the Pyramid of Hellinikon, I did not feel alone.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of the Pyramid of Hellinikon. If you ever find yourself near Argos or Nauplio, you should definitely check it out.
If you want to see the rough video clips I took on the site, I’ve put them all together below in a short YouTube video…
In the comments below, be sure to share your thoughts on this pyramid. Was it a guardhouse, a tomb or war memorial, or was it something else?
Thank you for reading!
Legend has it that Leto, the beautiful Titaness, travelled the world over as her belly swelled with the offspring of cloud-gathering Zeus. No town or village, forest or mountain fastness would welcome her with the great goddess Hera pursuing her to the ends of the earth. Rest upon land was forbidden to the expectant mother who fled her tormentors from the great forests of Hyperborea to the salt sea. When Leto’s time was near, an island with no roots welcomed her.
…so far roamed Leto in travail with the god who shoots afar, to see if any land would be willing to make a dwelling for her son. But they greatly trembled and feared, and none, not even the richest of them, dared receive Phoebus, until queenly Leto set foot on Delos… (Homeric Hymn 3 to Apollo)
There are many sacred places in the world, places that have been the centre of worship for ages. They are places where history and myth vibrate together, where they can be felt, and touched.
The Aegean island of Delos is such a place.
This post isn’t a history lesson. It’s more of a visual journey, something for your senses to enjoy.
At the eye of the group of islands known as the Cyclades, this little island was a centre of religion, inspiration, and trade for millennia. Empires went to war over control over this small place just five kilometers long and thirteen-hundred meters wide.
Delos has been occupied, as far as we know, since the third millennium B.C. As the midway point between the Greek mainland, the western Aegean islands, and the Ionian coast, it was the perfect stopping point for ship-bound traders.
However, the main reason for the popularity of Delos, for its sanctity, was that it was believed to be the birthplace of two of the most important gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons – Apollo and Artemis.
To reach Delos today you must take a boat from the nearby Cycladic island of Mykonos. It is a choppy ride and not for those without sea legs. The Cyclades are in a windy part of the Aegean. However, the short odyssey to get there is well worth it. Once you come out of the waves and into the Delos Strait between the island of Rhenea and Delos itself, the waters welcome the visitor and Delos appears like a hazy jewel in a brilliant turquoise sea.
Delos is not just another archaeological site to be seen hurriedly through the lens of a camera. For those open to it, as soon as you set your foot on the path from the ancient ‘Commercial Harbour’ to the upper town, you know this place is different. This is a place to be felt with all your senses.
Apollo’s sun beats down with intense heat, and the hot Aegean winds wrap themselves about you at every turn. The voices of the past are loud indeed, be they of priests or pilgrims, merchants or charioteers, theatre patrons or performers, the rich or poor. Everyone came to Delos for all manner of reasons, for thousands of years.
To preserve the purity of the place in ancient times, it was forbidden for anyone to be born or to die on Delos. Those who were involved in either of these acts were sent across the strait to Rhenea to do so. As the birthplace of important gods, this was taken very seriously.
…the pains of birth seized Leto, and she longed to bring forth; so she cast her arms about a palm tree and kneeled on the soft meadow while the earth laughed for joy beneath. Then the child leaped forth to the light, and all the goddesses washed you purely and cleanly with sweet water, and swathed you in a white garment of fine texture, new-woven, and fastened a golden band about you. (Hymn to Delian Apollo)
The usual visitor might be led directly to the small museum on-site where several artefacts are on display. Others feel themselves pulled in the direction of the place that made Delos famous. The Sacred Lake, where Leto is said to have laboured for nine days when giving birth to Apollo and Artemis, is still there with its magnificent palm swaying in the sea breeze. The lake is drained now, and the palm is a distant ancestor of the original, but it is still a marvel to stand in a place revered for ages. On a nearby hill, the nine Delian lions stand guard over the birthplace of the gods, ever watchful.
Delos was not just a quiet place for religious reflection. Indeed, it was very busy and at one point had a population of about 25,000 people. It was covered with sanctuaries and temples, monumental gates and colossal statues, stoas, shops, homes, theatres, stadia and agora. And above it all was mount Cynthus, 112 meters high, where the Archaic Temple of Zeus looked down over the birthplace of his son and all the mortals coming to do them homage.
If you stroll about the island you will be greeted by something new around each corner; a different view of the sea, ancient homes with some of the most beautiful mosaics ever found open to the sky, the ruins of a once-beautiful theatre, or even something as simple as a stretch of marble paving slabs from whose cracks red, purple and yellow flowers sprout to paint the scene.
Delos was a meeting place of many deities, not only Apollo and Artemis. There were also temples to Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Hera and many others of the Greek Pantheon. On the Island of Delos there were also sanctuaries to Syrian, Egyptian and Phoenician deities. Near the stadium area, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a Jewish Synagogue. All were welcome to make offerings, worship, work and trade on this tiny rock-of-an-island which, by the 1st century B.C., was one of the great commercial centres of the world.
As one walks around the site today, it is not necessarily the voices of trade and craftspeople at their daily work that one is reminded of.
The shops have long since closed their shutters and turned to dust. The treasuries have been looted, and subsequently crumbled. Grass and wild flowers sprout from between the paving slabs of the Sacred Way where asps warm themselves beneath the rays of Apollo’s light.
In truth, it’s difficult to describe in words the feeling one gets while cutting a meandering path among these ancient ruins. Delos is a place of light and colour and ancient beauty, an omphalos of the Aegean to which travellers have been drawn for ages.
For myself, there is an overwhelming sense of awe and absolute peace that creeps over me whenever I visit this place. It’s not always an easy task to shut out the groups of tourist hoards that descend upon this unassuming rock by the boatload. However, if you can manage the journey there, to break away from the masses, you will be treated to an experience in which you will delight in myriad shades of blue and pristine white, hot Aegean breezes and the loving light of the sun.
Most of all, you will stand still and wonder at the sight of a swaying palm, that one spot on the island where gods were said to have been born, and which earned this place called Delos renown for all time.
…queenly Leto set foot on Delos and uttered winged words and asked her… “Delos, if you would be willing to be the abode of my son “Phoebus Apollo and make him a rich temple –; for no other will touch you, as you will find: and I think you will never be rich in oxen and sheep, nor bear vintage nor yet produce plants abundantly. But if you have the temple of far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you hecatombs and gather here, and incessant savour of rich sacrifice will always arise, and you will feed those who dwell in you from the hand of strangers…
(Hymn to Delian Apollo)
A picture is indeed worth a thousand words, so, if you would like to see more, just continue scrolling down to continue the visual Odyssey.
Thank you for reading…
To Delos in another light, other than the parched, tourist-packed summer landscape we are familiar with, check out the beautifully shot video below, directed by Andonis Theocharis Kioukas. In this video, you see Delos in the fullness of spring, quiet, green, with myriad colours bursting from among the ruins.
As with The World of Children of Apollo, this blog series will take a look at many of the people and places that the series protagonist, Lucius Metellus Anguis, encounters throughout his journey.
So, let’s step back in time to the early 3rd century A.D., and explore the first place Lucius comes to in Book II.
The ruins of Leptis Magna are located at what is now Khoms, a site by the Mediterranean Sea at the northwestern corner of Libya. As a Roman city and archaeological site, it is not really familiar to the average person. Mainly academics have studied it, and excavated its wealth of cultural treasures.
It was founded around 1000 B.C. by Berbers and Phoenicians. Later, Carthage held sway over the polis until that great civilization finally succumbed to the Roman war machine at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C.
It was during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) that the city was officially incorporated into the Empire’s province of Africa Proconsularis. In A.D. 110, the Emperor Trajan (c. A.D. 98-117) made Leptis Magna a colonia, an official settlement for retired men of the Legions and Roman citizens. From then on, the city experienced a period of growth and success, making it the third largest city of Roman North Africa after Carthage and Alexandria.
It had a theatre that was built during the reign of Augustus (27 B.C. – A.D. 14), and one of the most flourishing North African markets of its day. In Leptis Magna, you could buy slaves, exotic animals, olive oil from the rich estates that surrounded the city, garum (Romans’ favourite fish sauce), salted fish, ivory, precious gems, spices, etc. etc. etc.
There was also a forum, the heart of every city, which had a curia, a basilica, a Temple of Liber Pater, a Temple of Hercules, and a Temple of Rome and Augustus.
Finally, what’s a Roman city without a bath complex? In A.D. 126, on his tour of the Empire, Emperor Hadrian had a huge bath complex with a palaestra (exercise field or hall) built for the city. It certainly seemed like the emperors paid attention to this hot, wind-kissed settlement on the south side of the Middle Sea.
But the real heyday for Leptis Magna came when her own favoured son, Lucius Septimius Severus, became Emperor (A.D. 193-211). It was through this half-Punic (Carthaginian), and half-Roman ruler that the city truly felt the warmth of the sun on its face.
Septimius Severus did what most rulers will do for their favourite cities – he gave it infrastructure, and he gave it beauty. Give a city these two things and it will attract population, trade, and the Empire’s attention.
Around A.D. 203 the imperial family and court descended on Leptis Magna; the Emperor had returned home and there were festivals, banquets, and the unveiling or dedication of monuments.
The ruins that have been uncovered in Leptis Magna reveal an ancient city that was wealthy, efficient, and enjoying the good life.
Among the things that Severus built in Leptis Magna were a new harbour and docks, complete with a lighthouse, warehouses and a Temple of Jupiter. For a city involved heavily in trade, this was a big bonus.
Leading from the docks to the nymphaeum (a monument, spring, or fountain dedicated to the Nymphs), Severus ordered the building of a long colonnaded street that was sixty-five feet wide.
He added many new public buildings too, including a large basilica which was decorated with red granite columns with white marble capitals. And even though Leptis Magna already possessed a forum, Severus built a new one that was graced with the enormous Medusa heads that remain to this day.
One of the most interesting pieces of new architecture that appeared in the city during Severus’ reign was the four-sided Arch of Severus. Its design was something new, the friezes and political and religious scenes displaying an artistic style that had not been seen before.
It must have felt like a true ‘Golden Age’ to the citizens of Leptis Magna.
You can imagine the palpable excitement among the people in the streets as the Emperor, Empress and their sons disembarked from their ship in the harbour and processed to their palace. The entourage would have been enormous, as well as the force of Praetorians who would have followed the Emperor. After all, Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, was also a son of Leptis Magna.
It is in the midst of all this excitement, among all these powerful and wealthy people, that Lucius Metellus Anguis’ journey in Killing the Hydra begins.
There is a lot going on in the world, and many dangers lurking in the shadows about Lucius.
He will have to tread very carefully indeed…
Thank you for reading!
In the meantime, here are a few more stunning photos of the magnificent artwork discovered at Leptis Magna:
This is the final post in The World of Heart of Fire blog series.
I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it.
Writing Heart of Fire has been a tremendous journey into the world of Ancient Greece. Yes, I am an historian and I already knew much of the material, but I still learned a great deal.
The intense, and in-depth, research, some of which you have read about in this ten-part blog series, made me excited to get stuck in every day. A lot of people, after an intensive struggle to write a paper or book, are fed up with their subject afterward, but that is not the case for me.
In writing this story, and meeting the historical characters of Kyniska, Xenophon, Agesilaus, and Plato, in closely studying their world, I have fallen even more in love with the ancient world. I developed an even deeper appreciation of it than I had before.
In creating the character of Stefanos of Argos, and watching him develop of his own accord as the story progressed (yes, that does happen!), I felt that I was able to understand the nuances of Ancient Greece, and to feel a deeper connection to the past that goes beyond the cerebral or academic.
I’ve come to realized that in some ways we are very different from the ancient Greeks. However, it seems to me that there are more ways in which we have a lot in common.
Sport and the ancient Olympics are the perfect example of this.
We all toil at something, every day of our lives. Few of us achieve glory in our chosen pursuits, but those who do, those who dedicate themselves to a skill, who sacrifice everything else in order to reach such heights of glory, it is they who are set apart.
In writing, and finishing, Heart of Fire, I certainly feel that I have toiled as hard as I could in this endeavour. My ponos has indeed been great.
There is another Ancient Greek idea that applies here, that comes after the great effort that effects victory. It is called Mochthos.
Mochthos is the ancient word for ‘relief from exertion’.
My moment of mochthos will come when I return soon to ancient Olympia. I have been there many times before, but this time will be different, for I will see it in a new light – the stadium, the ruins of the palaestra and gymnasium, the Altis, and the temples of Zeus and Hera… all of it.
For me, Olympia has exploded with life.
When I next walk the sacred grounds of the Altis, I’ll be thinking about the Olympians who competed this summer and in the years to come.
They deserve our thoughts, for to reach the heights of prowess that they do to get to the Games, they have indeed sacrificed.
I always feel a thrill when I see modern Olympians on the podium, see them experience the fruit of their toils, their many sacrifices.
It is possible that they may have been shunned by loved ones or friends for their intense dedication and focus. It can be a supremely lonely experience to pursue your dreams.
Whatever their situation, Olympic competitors deserve our respect, and just as in Ancient Greece, their country of origin should matter little to us.
Yes, we count the medals for our respective countries, but what really matters is that each man and woman at the Games has likely been to hell and back to get there.
When I see the victors on the podium, when I witness the agony and the ecstasy of Olympic competition, I can honestly say that I have tears in my eyes.
Perhaps you do too? Perhaps the ancient Greeks did as well, for in each individual victor, they knew they were witnessing the Gods’ grace.
It’s been so for thousands of years, and it all started with a single footrace.
It is humbling and inspiring to think about.
Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics is out now, and I hope that I have done justice to the ancient Games and the athletes whose images graced the Altis in ages past.
A Mercenary… A Spartan Princess… And Olympic Glory…
When Stefanos, an Argive mercenary, returns home from the wars raging across the Greek world, his life’s path is changed by his dying father’s last wish – that he win in the Olympic Games.
As Stefanos sets out on a road to redemption to atone for the life of violence he has led, his life is turned upside down by Kyniska, a Spartan princess destined to make Olympic history.
In a world of prejudice and hate, can the two lovers from enemy city-states gain the Gods’ favour and claim Olympic immortality? Or are they destined for humiliation and defeat?
Remember… There can be no victory without sacrifice.
Be sure to keep an eye out for some short videos I will be shooting at ancient Olympia in the places where Heart of Fire takes place. I’m excited to share this wonderful story with you!
Thank you for reading, and whatever your own noble toils, may the Gods smile on you!
If you missed any of the posts on the ancient Olympic Games, CLICK HERE to read the full, ten-part blog series of The World of Heart of Fire!
If Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics sounds like a story you enjoy, you can download the e-book or get the paperback from Amazon, Kobo, Create Space and Apple iBooks/iTunes. Just CLICK HERE.
The ancient Olympics took place where the rivers Kladeos and Alpheios met, on a lush green plain flanked by ancient hills.
There has been human activity, and worship of the gods here for ages, long before the Olympic Games, but the ancient Olympiad is the reason we know this sort of paradise.
At least that is what it feels like to me when I visit the site. To me, ancient Olympia is a place of peace, a place for thought and feeling where one can still hear the roar of the crowds and the chanting of priests in worship of Zeus, Hera and others.
The site today is riddled with ruins, with column drums and statue bases surrounded by blooming flowers in spring, and dry grasses in high summer.
However, it is important to remember that ancient Olympia is a living entity. While it has been a sanctuary for ancient traditions from the days of Gods and Titans, it has also been a place of constant change.
One might even say that ancient Olympia was the Greek world in microcosm.
When one visits the site today, there are many remains of monuments and structures that were not there for the 396 B.C. Olympiad, when Heart of Fire takes place.
The remains of hostels, the south bath house, the Echo Colonnade running along the entire east side of the Altis, and the Exedra of Herodes Atticus were yet to be built. The area of the great gymnasium of Olympia, the massive square of the Leonidaion and its pool, or the round Tholos built by Philip and Alexander of Macedon, known as the Philippeion, were only thoughts in time.
Many of the monumental remains that we see so clearly today were simply not there in 396 B.C.
At the dawn of the fourth century, however, ancient Olympia was thriving. Though many future structures had yet to come into being, many had already been there for over a hundred years.
It goes without saying that the great stadium and hippodrome of Olympia existed in 396 B.C., as did the Archaic temples of Zeus and Hera in the Altis, the religious heart of the Olympic sanctuary, where much of Heart of Fire takes place.
In writing Heart of Fire, I wanted to make the setting for the story as accurate as possible for the time period, so it was important to weed out the Hellenistic and Roman additions to the sanctuary.
Today, we enter the sanctuary from the North, along the later gymnasium, but in the ancient world, the main entrance to the sanctuary was through the south stoa which faced the line of the Alpheios River.
Behind that was the Bouleuterion, the administrative and ceremonial offices of the Hellanodikai, the official judges of ancient Olympia. It was here that the athletes and coaches took their Olympic oath before a statue of Zeus Horkios (Zeus of Oaths), and sacrificed a wild boar.
All of the religious ceremonies at ancient Olympia were overseen by the Theokoloi, the priests of Olympia, who lived in the Theokoleon, which was located to the West of the Temple of Zeus and the sacred olive grove where crowns were cut. To the northwest of the Theokoleon were the ancient baths and a swimming pool, and to the South of the Theokoleon was the workshop of Pheidias, the sculptor who crafted the chryselephantine statue of Olympian Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
Today, the remains of Pheidias’ workshop are well-intact. Beside this workshop was the house of the Phaidryntai, those whose sacred duty it was to maintain the statue of Zeus built by Pheidias.
The Altis was the inner sanctuary of ancient Olympia, the sacred heart of the place where the Temple of Zeus rose out of the ground, the pediments illustrating the race of Pelops and Oinomaus, and a battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs overseen by Apollo, the first legendary victor in the Games.
Located between the remains of the temples of Zeus and Hera was the Pelopion, the burial mound of the hero Pelops, which stood beside the Great Altar of Zeus, a cone-shaped mound that was built up over time with the bones and ashes of ages of offerings to the King of the Gods.
Overlooking the Altis was the Hill of Kronos, and at its base stood the treasuries of various city-states, structures shaped like small temples where offerings were made by those cities, and where citizens of those cities could stay or gather. Before these were the Zanes. These were the statues of Zeus made from fines levied upon those who committed sacrilege and broke the rules of Olympia.
At the northwest corner of the Altis was the Prytaneion. This was the place where the eternal Olympic flame burned at the altar of the Goddess Hestia, and where banquets were given to honour Olympic victors.
As you can see, in 396 B.C. there were many buildings at ancient Olympia. The Altis would have been packed with epinikion statuary, bronze statues erected by Olympic victors as was their right, as well as sixty-nine altars where priests, attendees, and competitors honoured the gods.
After the temples of Zeus and Hera, which now dominate the Altis, most visitors today are drawn to the stadium which stretches out like a sleeping giant on the northeast side.
At one point in time, the vault of the Krypte, the tunnel leading to the stadium, was roofed, similarly so at Nemea. But in 396 B.C. there was no roof over the Krypte.
The length of an ancient Greek stade, the measurement that gives us the word ‘stadium’, was about two hundred meters. So, the stade race, the original Olympic sprint, was the two hundred meters.
When you step out of the Krypte and onto the dirt of the stadium, it’s quite awe-inspiring to stare down to the other end from the stone starting line which is still there. Through the heat haze you can just see the far end, and on either side the embankments, where over 40,000 Greeks watched the Olympiad, provide a smooth outline. In the middle of the embankment is the area where the Hellanodikai sat, as well as a spot of the Priestess of Demeter Chamayne, the only woman permitted to watch the Games.
It is easy to be tricked into thinking the scene in this serene setting was similar to what it was like in 396 B.C. But nothing could be further from the truth.
It would have been extremely noisy, and smelly with the stink of man-sweat everywhere. One might liken it to a football match today with the various city-state factions being seated together in different sections of the stadium.
Despite a reverence for the gods that most would have shared at Olympia, the Mastigophoroi, the whip-bearing police force of Olympia, must have been busy, especially during the games of 396 B.C. when everyone was still licking their wounds and nursing their bitterness after the Peloponnesian War.
The Tethrippon, the great four-horse chariot race, is central to the story of Heart of Fire, and this event, as well as the two-horse chariot race, the Synoris, would have taken place in the hippodrome of Olympia.
The hippodrome of Olympia, one of the largest in ancient Greece, was located at the southeast corner of the Olympic sanctuary, along the banks of the Alpheios River. Sadly, the remains of the hippodrome have not been excavated, and a large portion of it has apparently been swept away by the river.
Odd to think of considering that this was a venue for one of the main events of the Olympics, with space for over a hundred thousand spectators. When you gaze across the field in the direction of the hippodrome today, you will not hear the thunder of hooves of the cries of thousands of Greeks, but rather the constant whirr of cicadas, and the flutter of songbirds’ wings among the dry grass. For me, as an author, it was a lot of fun to write about the chariot event of the Olympiad of 396 B.C., an event that made Olympic history.
I hope to be posting short videos giving a tour of the sanctuary of ancient Olympia, and the sites that play a role in Heart of Fire, so stay tuned for those.
The next post in The World of Heart of Fire blog series will look at religion in the Olympic Games.
Thank you for reading!
It’s no secret that I love history, and I suspect that if you are reading this blog or my books, you love history too.
This morning I was on my usual commute, herded into the cattle car, surrounded by myriad long faces, when I started to day dream. This time of year, I day dream a lot more, my mind clawing at the distant past, trying to find a way to immerse myself in the comfort of history.
What can I say? I’m a history geek through and through.
The truth is that when this hectic, modern world gets me down, I do indeed find solace in the past. I need to grasp at that thread in the labyrinth to get back to my place of balance.
So, I thought I would share some of the ways in which I connect with and get excited about history. I will do these things not only to immerse myself in history, but also to fire my creativity and imagination so that I am ready to get stuck into the next story.
Here are my Top 10:
#10 – Listen to Period Music
I always write to soundtrack music, but listening to music or interpretations of music from the ancient or medieval worlds is a different sort of experience.
While the music is playing, I may flip through a book, have a glass of wine, or just close my eyes and let my mind wander, imagining myself in an ancient agora, or walking the lonely halls of a castle.
There are a lot of great period music groups out there, one of my favourite medieval ones being the Ensemble Claude Gervaise, their album, Douce Dame Jolie in particular.
There are fewer ancient music groups, but lately I did come across a wonderful album called Musical Instruments of Ancient Greece by the Petros Tabouris Ensemble. I played this during a dinner in which we made some ancient dishes and it really added to the atmosphere. If you have access to Hoopla through your public library system, that is where I found it.
#9 – Maps
I love maps, and I use them frequently in my research and writing as they help me to better visualize the world and period in which I am working.
My favourite maps are the Ordnance Survey maps from Britain. This are military grade maps that give a wonderful level of detail, and the series of historical Ordnance Survey maps are the best for writing historical fiction, or simply exploring the past.
My go-to historical map is the Ordnance Survey map of Roman Britain. I used this a great deal in research in past years, but also when writing the upcoming Warriors of Epona (Eagles and Dragons Book III).
#8 – Primary Sources
When getting stuck into the past, you can only get so far on secondary sources, sources written by modern or later scholars about past ages.
If you really want to get a feel for a certain period in history, to hear things from the ‘horse’s mouth’ so to speak, then primary sources are key.
Most people are not able to read ancient Greek or Latin, so it’s lucky that almost everything is available in translation. Two series I like are the Loeb Classical Library, which is now available on-line, and the much more affordable Penguin classics range which you can find in most bookstores.
Both of these are fine and can really immerse you in the ancient and medieval worlds.
The problem with some classical or medieval texts is that they can go on sometimes, depending on the author.
I remember reading Froissart’s Chronicles on the Hundred Years War a while ago and being bored by the never-ending lists of nobles. So, for a modern reader, some of these sources can be a bit tedious. But not all of them are boring and, in fact, a great many are quite entertaining.
If you don’t want to pay for some of these primary sources, you can find a lot of them on the Project Gutenberg website, and the Perseus Digital Library.
#7 – Documentaries
I’ve written before about how I love to watch documentaries in a previous post called ‘Roaming the Past’.
There are so many great documentaries available on YouTube that with the touch of a couple buttons, you can be off on a grand adventure with some of the leading historians of the day.
The thing I like about documentaries is that they are the next best thing to actually going to a site. The presenters often go to places that are not accessible to the average person.
If they are well-done, documentaries are a wonderful way to unwind, to learn, and to escape into the past from the comfort of your own home.
I always get pumped about history after watching a good documentary!
#6 – Big Non-Fiction Books
When it comes historical landscapes, ancient ruins, or castles, a picture definitely speaks a thousand words.
That’s why I love to sit down on a quiet Sunday morning, or after a stressful day at work, and peruse the large, full-colour pages of some of my favourite coffee table books.
I have several of these mighty tomes at home and they can always be relied upon to help me escape into history.
From a book on the Parthenon and ancient Athens, to ancient Rome, the castles of Britain, world archaeology, Egypt, and the travels of Alexander the Great, every time I heft one of these titans I’m guaranteed to get lost for a while in the best possible sense.
#5 – Visiting Museums
What better place to get in touch with different periods of history than in your local house of the Muses.
If you live in a big city, chances are you have access to a museum with a decent collection. Two of my favourites are the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, and the British Museum, entry to the latter being free!
You may also have a small, local history museum near you that could be of interest, so be sure to check it out.
Museums are a great way of connecting with people of the past, of getting close to the normal everyday objects that our ancestors used. These can add the texture to the greater historical picture we are imagining.
#4 – Living History Displays
When it comes to people dressed up in historical costume and swinging swords around, most of you may think of mad Renaissance festival goers with bad accents, and supremely laughable movies like The Knights of Badassdom or All’s Faire in Love (both are on Netflix).
These sorts of flicks can be fun, but they are not the living history displays I’m referring to.
If you want to really get into history, you should go and attend a display of one of the many living history, or re-enactor groups near you.
The people who take part in living history displays are not only die-hard history fans, but also serious researchers who have helped to further our knowledge of the past alongside our academic brethren.
Living history re-enactors use ancient and medieval methods and tools to create weapons and utensils, fabrics, horse-harness and all the other everyday implements of the past. They bring famous battles to life, and put on displays that show us how, for instance, Roman siege engines work.
For many people who have been bored by history through textbooks in school, living history re-enactments can be a welcome breath of fresh air that awakens a love of the past.
No matter what historical period you’re interested in, there is certainly a group of re-enactors that fits the bill. Ask around and see what is going on in your area, especially during the summer months.
Many of these groups put on displays at historic sites like Hadrian’s Wall. You can ask some questions, swing a sword, and maybe even try on some armour!
#3 – Watch Movies
Whenever any historical movie comes out, there is never any shortage of complaints on-line about the accuracy, or lack thereof, of the film.
And it is true that most historical movies do not depict the history exactly as it was. Of course not! They are telling a story and they have to work within the confines of their medium, and of their particular budget.
But I love watching movies that take place in an historical setting, even if it is rife with errors. It gets me excited about history. Period.
I’ve said before that Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves was the movie that really turned me on to studying history. People laugh at me for that (and that’s ok!), but I say that that movie started me reading everything I could get my hands on about the 12th century, warfare, and the Middle Ages. And in reading further, I found out how things really were. The movie made me want to learn more about history.
Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not!
So, if watching movies is something that you love and enjoy, ignore the critics and just go for it, whether you’re watching 300, Kingdom of Heaven, Troy, Pompeii, Gladiator, or any other period flick. It doesn’t matter, so long as the setting is historical, you are bound to get switched on.
#2 – Read Historical Fiction
Now I may be biased here, but I read a lot of historical fiction, almost exclusively.
Setting my bias aside, however, I truly believe that historical fiction, if done well, can both entertain and educate. It can move people’s hearts and minds, and give them an in-depth look at the past, the people, places, ways of thinking, and ways of living.
I really do believe that historical fiction should be on the curriculum for history classes at every level. It brings history to life in a more accessible way than non-fiction text-books, and in a deeper way than any film.
The reader is put smack dab into the history of the period the book is about. The reader can get lost, immersed in the history for as long as they want to read, or until the book ends.
Historical fiction, in a way, paints a more complete picture of the past, and is not constrained by any budget, or medium.
In writing historical fiction, or historical fantasy, anything goes, and there are no limits to the places a reader can be taken.
Finally, my number one activity for getting excited about history…
#1 – Site Visits and Travel
I think I fell in love absolutely with history the first time I set foot inside a real castle. I believe it was Warwick Castle in England.
I can remember walking around, not only impressed by the sheer scale of the place, but mesmerized by the battlements, the towers, the rooms filled with armour.
Most of all I was amazed by the lives people actually led in the past.
Visiting an archaeological site, a castle, a ruin, or an ancient landscape, however big or small, is unlike any other experience.
I’m a firm believer that travel is the best education, and site visits are the perfect way to put you in touch with history and the people of the past.
I’ve written about the sites I’ve visited a lot on this blog, most recently ancient Argos, Epidaurus, and Nemea, but I remember every time I have visited an historic site. The experiences are burned in my memory.
Every time, I felt like I connected with the people who inhabited that place and age, that I gained a fuller understanding of them. I touched the altars where they worshiped their gods, smelled the air they smelled, heard the way the wind caressed the wall about their dwellings or as it rushed through their forests.
To stand on the top of Hadrian’s Wall I had an inkling of what it was like for a Roman soldier on the edge of the Empire. I’ve walked beneath the Lion Gate of Mycenae on my way to an audience with King Agamemnon, heard the battle cries of 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, and gazed across African olive groves to the Sahara from the arches of a remote desert amphitheatre.
Until virtual or augmented reality are perfected, there is no better way to connect with the past than standing where ancient people stood, seeing what they say, touching what they touched.
The problem with this is the cost of travel. I don’t travel nearly as much as I would like. But, if you can manage to save to go to a place of history that you’ve always wanted to visit, the memories of that journey will sustain you for a long time and give you a much greater understanding of the past.
I hope that you’ve found this interesting, and that it had perhaps given you some new ideas about how to connect and get excited about history in the chaos of modern life.
How do you like to connect with and get excited about history?
Is it something on the list above, or do you have your own preferred activity?
Let us know in the comments below. There are always new adventures waiting for us!
Thank you for reading.
I meet a lot of people on-line as an author, historian, and blogger. The great thing about it is that sometimes you get to meet people with whom you click right away, people who have the same interests, similar experiences, and the same hunger to learn more about the world, and about history.
Today, I’m pleased to post a guest blog by just such a person.
Caterina and I met on-line (was it Twitter?) when I was posting about Tunisia and the Roman sites there which are part of the setting for Children of Apollo, and Killing the Hydra.
When she told me that she used to live in Tunisia, as well as in Italy, I asked her if she could write a post about her experiences that I could share with all of you.
So, without further ado, over to Caterina to talk about what it was like to live abroad, and how that shaped her imagination, art, and interests as a young child.
Adam was kind enough to invite me to share how living abroad at a young age influenced my writing and shaped my life over the years. As a child, I lived in Tunisia for two and a half years. My family frequently traveled around the country. I also had the pleasure of visiting Algeria. My time in North Africa significantly shaped my academic and personal interests. Tunisia is the place where I fell in love with Antiquity, North African history, and Middle Eastern culture. I study all three in my academic pursuits.
One of the first places my parents took me in Tunisia was Carthage. The ruins, especially the large columns of carved stone, fascinated me. At the time, I wondered who exactly were these people living in stone houses? Seeing elaborate mosaics in the remains of the baths and villas, I concluded they all had to be amazing artists. Each new twist and turn through the site prompted more questions. What was life like for the Carthaginians and Romans? What would the children who once lived there say if I could speak to them? What games did they play? The adults seemed so focused on banqueting and bathing, which were totally boring subjects to a young child.
I met my first archaeologist at Carthage. He took a few minutes out of his day to show me what he was doing, explain the finds, and answer some of the crazy questions that my five year old self had in addition to those of my parents and a few others who went with us. I can still vividly recall his face and the patient way he’d smile and elaborate on life in Antiquity. I thought he had the coolest job. At that point I was hooked by the past and longed to explore it further. Who wouldn’t like a job that allowed you to play outside in the dirt and discover such wondrous things? It was like recess all of the time! Little did I know how hard that work is nor how meticulous an archaeologist or historian needs to be when excavating or developing the narrative of a people that lived long ago. I passed Roman ruins in the city every day on the bus ride to school and swimming lessons afterwards. We frequently took field trips to the remains of Roman sites and El Djem (a Roman amphitheater in the area). I would stare out the bus window daydreaming about what it would be like to sit in the stands watching men fight lions and each other. Would the crowd be loud? Would the men all wear decorated armor and carry swords on their sides? Did the women faint or cry from the gore or their favorite fighter dying? Needless to say, I had a very Hollywood vision of Roman life. The thirst to learn more about Roman North Africa and the mighty empire began in those years spent in Tunisia. It has been unquenchable since. After hitting my early thirties, I decided I needed to formalize my education in the fields I enjoyed so much and began the journey of becoming a trained historian and cultural heritage professional.
An important piece of culture frequently taken for granted or overlooked by the average joe is food. Food history fascinates me. Studying food from both a commodities and cultural perspective gives us unique insight into a region, the development of trade, and social practices of various civilizations. Food is a fantastic historical subject if one is searching to form connections between the past and today. There are many dishes and drinks like wine, coffee, or tea that significantly shape a region economically, socially, and from an identity perspective. I subtly sprinkle traditional meals and beverages in any novel of mine you pick up. As my characters dine and move on their various adventures, dinners and drinks frequently reflect the location they are in. In my travels, you can routinely find me eating local dishes off the beaten path. My passion for food arose out of childhood trips to Tunisian vineyards, markets and cafes. My mother emphasized it was important that I tried everything on my plate anytime an invite came to go to someone’s house or we went somewhere new. I remember watching her learn to cook local meals along with a wide variety of Middle Eastern and French dishes due to the many nationalities that made up our circle of friends abroad. I am guilty of being drawn to any restaurant offering tagines, couscous, shwarema, and other North African delicacies. One of the first dishes I learned to cook as a child was a lamb, vegetable and couscous stew. It is definitely one of my go to comfort foods when I am feeling down. Fresh mint tea is a treat anytime of the year. Pomegranates, blood oranges, figs, almonds, and tangerines are some of my favorite snacks after discovering them in Tunisia.
My fiction writing contains more than just the gastronomical flavorings of North Africa. Locations like Dougga, Carthage, and Hippo appear in storylines. There is something incredibly romantic about the places bordering the Mediterranean that fuels my imagination. One particular event I attended stands out in my mind as the most captivating culturally in all of my Tunisian and Algeria adventures, The Douz Festival. The races, celebrations, and traditions one witnesses traveling to the Saharan extravaganza further reeled me into the world of the Bedouin and Berber. The Douz Festival is an annual celebration of the harvesting of the dates and the nomadic way of life. Many Arab, Bedouin, and Berber clans come together to compete in horse and camel racing, trick riding, and overall merriment. The festival was so different from any circus or fair I attended in the states. The excitement in the air each day was contagious. Camels moved faster than I thought they could in intense matches. My pulse raced watching Arabians decked out in traditional saddles and bridles fly down the desert track. My heart was stolen by one of the trick riders one night. He rode a black horse whose saddle and bridle were decorated in red, green, white and black plumes. I was transfixed in place watching him stand in the saddle as his horse cantered past along with performing other amazing feats. If there was such a thing as a knight or fearsome desert warrior, it certainly had to be him. When he finished his act, he rode over to my family and spoke with us. Allowing me to pet his horse and the smile he offered before riding off had me completely smitten with my first crush on a stranger. No doubt my parents would laugh if I told them for a few years afterward, I wanted to marry a desert prince with a black stallion. From that day forward, I wanted to learn to ride like him and the others we saw at the festival. My parents knew a riding instructor in the US and three years later I learned to ride and vault. Needless to say time reshapes our perspective on romance, but I have never forgotten my Tunisian Horseman. Phantoms of him, a love for horses, and the euphoria of desert life intermingle in a few of the tales I craft. All three of these left their lasting mark on me.
Perhaps the two most precious gifts North Africa bestowed on me consist of language and a willingness to be open to new things. In school, it was mandatory we study French, Arabic and English. Not many American children receive the opportunity to start working with three languages in elementary school. By the time we left Tunisia, I had a fluency and working level well above my age in all three. It was strange to come stateside and not use the French or Arabic any longer. I periodically revive my French and Arabic as they do fade without use. My studies with them provided a foundation to learn Italian and Latin later on in college. One day I hope to add Greek, Berber (Tuareg or Tamazight), and Turkish to my list of languages.
Learning to interact with an international community, sampling a variety of cuisines, and seeing the various lifestyles from living in modern cities, Bedouin tents, or underground homes in Matmata (think Luke Skywalker’s house in Star Wars) helped me start to appreciate and embrace diversity at a young age. This exposure continues to help me approach topics and people from a more curious and open perspective versus a judgmental one. Undoubtedly, North Africa firmly rooted my willingness to try just about anything once.
Caterina is passionate about history, music, romance, old languages, and travel. She regularly intertwines these subjects in her writing. She holds a degree in Music Management with a minor in Vocal Performance from Old Dominion University in Virginia and a second B.A. in History with a minor in Italian from the University of Texas San Antonio. Ever a glutton for punishment and a believer in life long learning, Caterina is completing a M.A. in Public History from Texas State University. She was fortunate enough to receive awards that enabled her to study abroad in Urbino, Italy and Chester, England. She took full advantage of these opportunities to explore Italy, Jersey, England, Scotland, and Wales; conducting boots on the ground research for her coursework and literary works. While she is a fan of all history, her heart resides in Antiquity. She enjoys studying time periods up through the Renaissance. Modern history is just not as fun as gladiators, emperors, caliphs, queens, knights and kings. An obsession with cappuccino and Greek coffee started her down a path of researching commodities and gastronomy history in her free time.
When not traveling or studying, Caterina finds time to sing classical music, act, write, paint and fence. She is always up for trying something new so the list of hobbies is ever expanding.
Caterina is a social media junkie who enjoys meeting new folks. If you would like to contact her or learn more about her and future works, you can find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and on her Blog.
A big ‘Thank You’ to Caterina for taking the time to write this wonderful post for us and, for myself, digging up all the great memories I have of my own visit to Tunisia and the Sahara. Don’t forget to connect with her so you can stay apprised of her historical research, and future travels.
Also, be sure to check out her novel, Mark of the Night, to see how her experiences have affected her fantastic storytelling!
Cheers, and thank you for reading!
As I write this, a lot of my North American readers are getting buried in snow. It’s definitely winter!
So, I thought that this week it might be nice to counter the cold with a post about a site visit on one of the hottest days I experienced last summer in Greece.
I’m talking about my visit to the ancient theatre of Argos.
Until my first visit to the Peloponnese years ago, my only knowledge of Argos came from the movie, Clash of the Titans.
I can hear Harry Hamlin saying it now – “I am Perseus, heir to the kingdom of Argos.”
I loved that movie, so whenever I heard of Argos I pictured a city punished by Zeus for Acrisius’ blasphemy, turned to ruin by an earthquake and tidal wave caused by the Kraken.
Clash of the Titans had a huge impact on my imagination. Great storytelling!
Despite that, for years I had driven past Argos (an easy place to get lost in!), and seen the signs to the ancient theatre, but never stopped to explore.
It took some research for Heart of Fire to make me plan a trip to the archaeological site, and I’m so glad that I did!
On a day when the temperature soared slightly over 40 degrees Celsius, we set out from where we were staying in the southern Argolid peninsula, over the mountain switchbacks, and along the road from ancient Epidaurus to Nauplio. From Nauplio and the shadow of the Palamidi castle, our car whined along, past the ancient citadel of Tiryns, and then on to the city of Argos at the top of the Argolic Gulf.
Once in the city, we promptly got lost.
No matter how many signs we saw for the ancient theatre, it seemed that we kept missing one important turn, and so we found ourselves in the farmers’ fields to the south of the city, among irrigation canals and orange groves.
A friendly Russian mechanic finally gave us some convoluted instructions, in Greek, with a lot of pointing, and eventually we found our way there.
We parked our car in the shade of a side street, alongside the ancient agora, crossed the road, and checked in at the entrance.
Due to funding restrictions, there were no site plans available at the time, but that was all right as the person working there said there were placards around the site.
The best part was that we had the entire archaeological site to ourselves!
Before I get into the site visit itself, I would be remiss if I did not touch on the history of Argos.
Argos is believed to be the first town of any sort in Greece, or the surrounding geographical regions. It has been inhabited since the prehistoric age. It was a great centre during the Mycenaean age, along with Mycenae itself, and Tiryns nearby.
It its rise to power, Argos assimilated some of its smaller neighbours such as Tiryns, Mycenae, and Nemea, site of the Nemean Games. Argos was one of the foremost cities of Greece during the Classical period, as well as during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, until about A.D. 395 when it went into decline.
It was nearer to the Argonic gulf in ancient times, just as Tiryns was, but due to the silting up of the land, it now lies a short distance to the north of the seashore.
The peak of Argos’ power was said to have been in the 7th century B.C. during the reign of King Pheidon, the latter credited by some with the development of hoplite battle tactics in the Peloponnese.
From the 7th to 5th centuries B.C., Argos came into conflict with that mighty martial power to the south, Sparta. During that time, the two city states fought for domination of the Argolid peninsula.
During the Persian wars, Argos decided not to fight the Persians alongside their fellow Greeks, and so became a bit of an outcast. Then, during the Peloponnesian War, it was a somewhat ineffective ally of Athens against their old rival, Sparta.
But Argos thrived during the Roman period too. In addition to being a centre for pottery production and the tanning of leather, Argos was a leader in bronze work. It was here that a noted school of bronze sculpting was established.
When that famous philhellene emperor, Hadrian, came into power, he showed this ancient Greek city much favour, and, among several building projects in Argos, he gave the city an aqueduct and baths, or thermae.
I didn’t actually know what to expect from the site of the theatre in Argos when we parked our car. After all, I’d already been to Epidaurus, and that is pretty tough to match.
However, when we passed through the pine-shaded gates into the blinding light of the site itself, I knew it was going to be fantastic.
As you step down the stairs into the archaeological site, you are staring directly down an ancient street with walls rising up on either side in the faded white, grey and red of antiquity.
The sun beat down on us with an intensity I’ve seldom experienced. The cicadas even sounded tired, their little hearts (if they have one?) probably near to bursting for all their song. We stopped here and there to look at some chipped and worn ornamentation, the gravel of the path crunching beneath our feet, sending lizards scampering into the ancient cracks and crevices.
I tried to imagine what the place would have looked like in its golden age, the walls and buildings of the neighbouring baths and other buildings rising high above the street level, perhaps some torches jutting out from the walls to light the way as the crowds were funneled into the theatre itself.
The theatre of Argos is a beautiful monster.
It was the largest theatre in ancient Greece, with a seating capacity of 20,000 spectators!
From a distance, it looks like any other theatre, but when you are up close and personal with it, you feel like a fly on the back of the Cretan Bull.
It has 81 rows of seats that rise up steeply from the round orchestra, one of only two such orchestras in ancient Greece, the other being at Epidaurus. The amazing thing about the theatre of Argos is that it’s carved directly into the rock of the Larisa which overlooks the city of Argos.
Behind the orchestra are the proscenion and scene, buildings that served as the stage and backdrop. I stood on the stage overlooking the orchestra and just took it all in.
What a sight!
The present theatre was built in the 3rd century B.C. and was used to host the musical and dramatic contests of the Nemean Games in honour of Hera, the patron goddess of this ancient city.
Once I had taken in the view from below, I began to walk up to the top of the seats.
I really started to cook here, the sun beating down on the stone increasing in intensity. But I couldn’t resist going to the top. It is actually quite steep, and the seating is nowhere near in as good a condition as Epidaurus.
However, it is well worth the trek, for when you reach the top, the view is amazing.
From the top of the theatre, with pine and towering cypress trees flanking me, I stared down the rows of seats to the stage, beyond to the ancient agora of Argos, just across the street, and the into the distance over the modern town to see the brilliant blue of the Argolic Gulf, and the mound of ancient Tiryns, just visible through the heat haze, like a thing out of legend.
I don’t remember how long I stood there, but it wasn’t until my arms started to sizzle that I thought perhaps I should head back to my party waiting in the shade of a pine tree at the bottom.
The site, apparently, was closing, and so I had a quick look at the remains of the sanctuary of Aphrodite to the right of the theatre, where a smaller Odeon was located, and then the Roman baths opposite.
The ruins of the latter are worth a look too, and you can see marble floor and wall panels, the remains of columns, and some of the rooms of the Roman thermae. You can imagine the water dripping as you walk through there, the sound of conversation, the slap of masseurs’ hands on the backs of their clients. Just be careful where you walk, for snakes hide the shady corners, and there are some big drops if you spend more time looking through your camera lens than you should.
Before leaving the site behind, I had to do one last thing: test the acoustics of the theatre.
Since we had the place to ourselves, I didn’t quite mind doing so. It’s a little difficult to hear the echo of my voice in this video, but, even though the theatre is ruined, and the lines broken in many spots, you can just hear how my voice travels up to the top when I turn to face the theatre. The acoustics of this place blew me away.
When I started talking in the direction of the seats, it was like I was holding a megaphone. I could hear my voice travelling up the rows of seats all the way to the top to disappear into the wild growth beyond.
If my untrained voice projected so well in that place, I can imagine what a trained actor’s would do.
With the site manager waving to us that it was time to go, I reluctantly turned my back on this ancient marvel, and walked back up the street.
Before exiting, I turned for one last glimpse of the theatre, grateful that we had taken the time to stop.
As we were leaving, we asked the site manager if we could visit the agora across the street, but he shook his head and told us that, due to budget cuts, all the sites were closing for the day. It was only 2:00 pm. He also told us that he had just heard Greece was going to have to sell some of its archaeological sites due to pressure from creditors.
I certainly hoped that was not true, for it would be a tragedy if the country lost control and care of such magnificent sites at the ancient theatre of Argos.
We thanked him, wished him well, and told him we would definitely be back to see the agora on another trip.
I was happy we visited, not only for the chance to see the site, but also to fuel the story for Heart of Fire, one of the protagonists of the story being an Argive mercenary. I needed to get a sense of the place where he grew up, the place he had left behind.
And I did.
Back in the car, we found the road to Nauplio once more and headed there for a stop at one of the seaside cafes and gelato at our favourite gelateria, Antica Gelateria di Roma.
After all, it’s isn’t only archaeological sites that warrant a return visit. Especially when it’s over 40 degrees!
Thank you for reading.
It’s been a couple of months now since my trip to Greece, and I have finally managed to get through all (almost all) 4000+ pictures and videos from the trip. All I can say is, thank the gods for digital photography!
I promised to give you a tour of some of the sites that I visited on this trip, and so I thought I would start with ancient Epidaurus. If you missed the earlier post on the wonderful ceramic workshop in ancient Epidaurus, CLICK HERE.
This is the first in a two-part blog series on Epidaurus. Today we are going to take a brief look at the ancient theatre.
I’ve been to this site several times in the past, but I never tire of it. Some places are like that, I suppose. You can visit them again and again, and each time you do you get a different perspective that adds to your overall impression of the site.
The theatre of Epidaurus is like that.
For the history-lover in me, going there is like visiting a wise old friend. We greet each other, sit back in the sunshine, reminisce and contemplate the world before us.
There is something comforting about going back to familiar places.
It had been almost ten years since my last visit to the theatre, and so I was looking forward to seeing it again. As we drove up and over the mountain range that separates the southern Argolid from Epidaurus, hot wind blowing through our open windows as the car whined up steep slopes and around precipitous hairpins, I wondered how much the site might have changed.
It was the middle of the day as we drove up to the main entrance, the temperature knocking on 42 degrees Celsius (about 107 Farenheit). Needless to say, the lot was near empty but for a few rental cars and a tour bus.
I guess I’m one of the few who would drag their friends and family out to an archaeological site at the hottest time of day.
I parked our car in the shade of one of the many pine trees at the fringes of the lot and we got out, loaded with water, a snack, and the camera equipment.
As it turned out, there had been some major changes at the site. As we left the parking lot, we passed a massive snack bar with an outdoor café where exhausted, sweaty tourists sat beneath parasols slurping ices and bitter-sweet frappés.
We walked down the familiar path to main entrance, followed by the usual stray dogs who ignored the lounging cats amongst the flower beds of bitter laurels. We pressed on past the empty restaurants, dodging the waiters’ friendly ‘Yes Pleases’ until we reached the new ticket booth.
Tickets in hand, we marched through the new, automated admittance gates that scanned our stubs, and we were in.
I was glad to see that there were not many tourists, as on previous visits you could barely move.
When you enter the archaeological site from the ticket booths, you find the museum on your right, its wall lined with marble blocks covered in votive inscriptions from the sanctuary of Askeplios (more on that in Part II).
I don’t know why, but every time we visit this site we are always drawn to the theatre first. Perhaps it is more familiar, simpler than the archaeological site of the sanctuary opposite? You walk up the steep stone steps beneath scented pine trees and then, there it is!
The theatre lies in the blinding sunlight all limestone and marble, rising up in perfect symmetry before you with the mountains beyond.
It’s always a shock to stand there and see it for the first time, this perfect titan, an ancient stage beneath a clear blue sky where the works of Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles and so many more have entertained the masses and provoked thought in the minds of ancients for well over two thousand years.
In ancient times, one’s view from this vantage would have been blocked by the stage building, or scaena, but as it is today, you have a perfect view over the ruins of that building’s foundations.
The theatre of Epidaurus is considered the best-constructed and most elegant theatre of the ancient world. It was built in the 4th century B.C by the sculptor and architect, Polykleitos the Younger, who also designed the Tholos in the sanctuary.
The theatre sat 14,000 spectators, and every one of them could see the stage and hear every momentous word that was spoken.
What I enjoyed about this particular visit to the theatre was the fact that, because there were no crowds, I was able to stand at the centre of the stage (the orchestra), and drop a coin so that my family and friends could hear it where they sat at the top row.
Then I spoke…
My voice was so loud in my ears, I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was on a microphone, my voice amplified like I had never heard it before. But there were no electronics, just an ancient perfection of design that has set the standard for ages.
After that, I climbed up the long central isle to the top row to join everyone and sit down. It’s a long way up, but the top provides the perfect vantage point of the sanctuary and landscape surrounding Epidaurus.
We sat there, listening to the cicadas, taking in the view, and enjoying the dry, pine-scented air.
I thought back to the performances I’ve seen there in years past. Over ten years ago, I saw Gerard Dépardieu perform in Oedipus Rex, and Isabella Rossellini in Persephone, both adaptations of the ancient tales by Igor Stravinsky. It was amazing to watch such wonderful actors giving a performance there, and it was obvious too that they were enjoying the space, the tradition they were taking part in.
The last play I saw at Epidaurus was a performance of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a comedy in which the women of Greece withhold sex from all the men in order to put an end to the Peloponnesian War. One thing is for sure, the National Theatre of Athens, which has been putting on these performances since 1954, puts on a great production.
When you see a play at Epidaurus, the audience is also participating in an ancient tradition. How many people have gone before us, sat in those seats, laughed and wept at the drama being played out before them?
It’s difficult not to think about that when you sit in the seats of Epidaurus. Whether you are basking in the hot rays of the Mediterranean sun, or waiting for a play to begin as the sun goes down and the stars appear, Perseus and Gemini twinkling in the sky above, one thing is certain – you will never forget the moments that you spend there.
Next week, in Part II of this blog series, we’ll venture away from the theatre for a brief visit to the museum, and then on into the peace and quiet of the Sanctuary of Asklepios, a place of miracles and ancient healing.
Thank you for reading!
If you want to see a bit more of the theatre of Epidaurus, below is a short video: