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.
This week, I wanted to leave behind the sad and depressing subject of the destruction of heritage to write about a site steeped in myth and legend – Tiryns.
“In the south-eastern corner of the plain of Argos, on the west and lowest and flattest of those rocky heights which here form a group, and rise like islands from the marshy plain, at a distance of 8 stadia, or about 1500 m. from the Gulf of Argos, lay the prehistoric citadel of Tiryns, now called Palaeocastron.” (Heinrich Schliemann; Tiryns; 1885)
I visited the site with family during the summer of 2002. It was a scorcher of a day and the cicadas were whirring full force by 9 a.m. Luckily, the heat meant that the place was devoid of visitors – the perfect time to explore.
Tiryns is one of those sites that you likely know about if you’ve studied classics, mythology or archaeology. Most people haven’t heard about it. It lies in the broad Argive plain, a fenced-in circuit wall along the road between Nafplio and Argos itself, surrounded by orange and olive groves.
At first glance, there is no hint that Tiryns was one of the major Mycenaean power centres of the Bronze Age. The cyclopean walls are big, impressive, but there have been times when I drove by and didn’t even notice it. Perhaps that was due to the madness of driving in Greece.
When we got out of the car, the hot wind whipped across the plain to envelope us and, once we paid our entrance fee at the small kiosk, it seemed to sweep us up the ramp to the citadel, and back in time.
Tiryns is a place of myth and legend. It’s been inhabited since the 7th millennium B.C., but by the Hellenistic and Roman periods, it was already in the death throes of a swift decline. Pausanius visited as a tourist in the 2nd century A.D.
“Going on from here [from Argos to Epidauros] and turning to the right, you come to the ruins of Tiryns… The wall, which is the only part of the ruins still remaining, is a work of the Cyclopes made of unwrought stones, each stone being so big that a pair of mules could not move the smallest from its place to the slightest degree. Long ago small stones were so inserted that each of them binds the large blocks firmly together.” (Pausanias; Description of Greece)
I’ve spoken before about the feel of a place of great antiquity. Tiryns is a truly ancient place.
In mythology, it was founded by Proitos, the brother of Akrisios, King of Argos and father of Danae, the mother of Perseus.
It was said that the walls of Tiryns were built by the Thracian Cyclopes of the ‘bellyhands’ clan before they built the walls of Mycenae and Argos. This is why this style is called ‘cyclopean walls’. They were known as the ‘bellyhands’ because that clan of the Cyclopes were said to have made their living through manual labour.
It would have been a feat of tremendous strength to say the least, as each stone weighs several tons.
The association with Perseus is indirect as he acquired Tiryns after he killed his grandfather, Akrisios, but before he established Mycenae.
One of the most important mythological associations with Tiryns, however, is with Herakles, son of Zeus and Alkmene. The latter was the granddaughter of Perseus.
Let us go back to the time when Eurystheus was king of Mycenae, Tiryns and Argos (Note: Eurystheus was not a king of Athens, as portrayed in the recent film, Hercules.)
According to Apollodorus:
“Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal.”(Apollodorus; Book II)
After Hera drove Herakles mad, causing him to kill his own children, the Oracle at Delphi told the hero that he needed to serve King Eurystheus to atone for his horrible actions.
Herakles settled in Tiryns. His twelve tasks, or Labours, for Eurystheus are legendary and have been depicted in art for centuries throughout the ancient world. You can read a previous post about the triumphs of Herakles HERE.
Admittedly, when I visited Tiryns I had no idea of its associations with Perseus or Herakles. For me, a lot of research is sparked after visiting a site, and as a result, a follow-up visit is certainly in order.
The citadel of Tiryns is about 28 metres high, 280 meters long, and it was built in three stages. In the 12th century B.C. it was destroyed by earthquake and fire but remained an important centre until the 7th century B.C. when it was a cult centre for the worship of Hera, Athena, and Herakles.
The Late Bronze Age (1600-1050 B.C.) was the height of Tiryns’ existence. It’s during this time that the cyclopean walls and most of the fortifications were built.
Today, as in the Bronze Age, one approaches the citadel on the east side. To get to the upper citadel, which was the location of the great megaron and palace, you must walk up a massive ramp that is 47 metres long and 4.70 metres wide. This would have led to the main wooden gates.
Once past the gates, you walk along what was a corridor that led to the Great Gate which was flanked by a tall tower. The Great Gate was almost the size of the famous Lion Gate of Mycenae, and would have proved an imposing structure.
When I was walking along the ramp, looking up at the remains of the massive walls and the tower, I could imagine warriors in bronze, with boar’s tusk helmets, looking down on me, with spears or bows in hand.
Even though the citadel contained a luxurious palace and baths, this would not have been an easy fortress to storm.
Once you attain the top, you find yourself on a level area looking out over the site – the upper, middle and lower citadels.
There is not much left in the way of intact walls when it comes to the palace but you can see the outlines of the many rooms, especially the courtyards and the great megaron where the King of Tiryns held court and had his throne on a raised platform overlooking the central hearth.
Imagine Herakles approaching Eurystheus to ask him what his next labour was to be, in this room. This was the heart of the palace. Other rooms would have included residences, a second megaron and even a bath, the floor of which is made up of a huge monolith.
I was a bit dazed, standing there in the heat, looking on the remains of this site with awe. It’s so very old and the ruins only hint at what was a luxurious, but defensible, palace. And that was just the upper citadel.
The middle citadel, 2 m lower, provided access to the defences and may even have contained a pottery kiln. The lower citadel, which is also surrounded by walls, may have been used as a refuge for the people of Tiryns town on the west side, in times of need.
At one point, when I was looking about the gravelly surface of the court, I spotted tiny bits of pottery. Of course, I bent down to get a closer look and picked up a shard with three black lines painted across it. Before I could contemplate the age of this piece, a loud whistle blew and a site person seemingly emerged from the rocks like an asp hiding from the midday sun. “No touching!” I heard, in heavily accented English.
Good thing she didn’t have a spear or bow.
After leaving the upper citadel, we walked down some steps to what is my favourite part of the site – the east galaria.
This beautiful arched tunnel is still intact, and with the sun shining from above, it was suffused with soft light. I immediately imagined a Mycenaean queen strolling between the light and shadow of this place, or a determined king on his way to a war council, his cloak flapping behind him, bronze-clad guards in his wake.
Such is the power of a site like this to fire the imagination.
Back to the present.
It’s funny, but whenever I find myself fed up with cold winter days where I live, I think back to that scorched but brilliant day at Tiryns, and smile. I feel warmth again. I enjoy the glint of the sun radiating off of the stone, and its sparkle far out in the Gulf of Argos.
This ancient citadel is a welcoming place where history and myth are entwined, comfortable allies. I certainly hope my path leads me there again one day soon.
Thank you for reading.