“..And I, stepping from this skin, Of old bandages, boredoms, old faces,
Step up to you from the black car of Lethe, Pure as a baby.”
Sylvia Plath, Ariel, November 1962
It’s unthinkable, although not impossible, to knowingly bypass antiquity when it comes to Greece. Whether it’s a quick visit or an extended trip, the country’s core heritage remains abundantly on display, beckoning visitors to a trip through time and history.
There are fascinating stories behind each location – although part of the allure is often lost as a result of the industrial scale of Greek tourism. This is true especially for major sites, always so overcrowded by tourists to the point where their important history loses some of its impact. This is understandable, to a certain extent : a site such as the Acropolis summarises Classical Antiquity for most, being the most remarkable monument of the Golden Age of Athens. But this story is a relatively short 200 year episode within a historic continuum that spans 5 millennia. And if so much can be said and seen about that episode alone, imagine the abundance of locations, stories and eras one can experience in Greece without having to queue together with thousands of other tourists to see those popular monuments everyone’s always after.
This thought prompted me to begin recording some of the least known ancient landmarks of the country. Some of those were nothing but hearsay and legends to me at first : Unmarked and neglected, their stories nearly forgotten – except for the few dedicated people who remain determined to keep these alive in our collective memory. I had to do some investigation to get there, was pleasantly rewarded by their discovery. Some other landmarks were more universally known, but particular stories relating to those remained obscure and in the fringes of the more popularised narratives. However, the new contexts I discovered were astonishing, and immensely satisfying when experienced in such original locations. A veil has been lifted, and Lethe, the spirit of Oblivion is dispelled from those forgotten places and stories.
Interested to experience these themes for yourself after reading on? Join me on location in my Forgotten Greece tour !
Miracles of Engineering
All this revolved in my mind as I was driving past the olive and orange groves lining a tiny back road in Greece, heading for the hamlet of Floisvos outside Corinth. I was after a site that’s not even marked on the map yet. A relatively new find, only briefly mentioned in local newspapers and the occasional blog post since it emerged a few years back. It’s a magnificent Roman Villa and Baths complex that was recently discovered under a local farmer’s field. Once I reach the village, I am greeted by Mr K. Metaxas, the president of the community and head of the local cultural association. He was worked without pause since the discovery in 1996, engaging the authorities and facilitating the important archaeological work that has been achieved since. But it’s not enough. Progress has been slow ever since, and subject to frequent interruptions, meaning that the dig at Floisvos remains in an unfinished condition. The 2008 financial crisis that’s still gripping Greece is certain to blame, but also perhaps the country’s different priorities when it comes to the excavation of new sites : There’s a lot still buried underneath in Greece, and only so many resources to allocate. The majority of these resources go towards the maintenance and expansion of established sites, or to exceptional major finds such as the recently discovered Amphipolis Tomb in Macedonia. It is a massive memorial tomb, probably dedicated to Hephaestion, a close friend of Alexander the Great. Any find that has to do with the ancient kingdom of Macedon carries a certain geopolitical significance that makes it a priority. But this situation isn’t very helpful for other sites awaiting excavation.
Indeed, I find the Villa still semi-dug, covered in fluttering tarpaulins and dusty plastic sheets. But in my bewildered eyes, this is a complete, and significant find : there are 24 rooms in the villa and another 6 in the adjacent baths. As I walk through the corridors, the scale of this luxurious complex emerges : it probably belonged to a wealthy and important Roman. Possibly a landowner, merchant or administrator connected to Thermae, a nearby Roman-era town famous for its natural springs (today’s Loutraki). The majority of items unearthed are from between the 3rd and the 5th century AD. Coins, lamps, statues, and wonderful mosaics have been discovered, some of it still remaining on site. Pillars made of rare-looking green veined marble lying around toppled. There’s a luxurious private bathing space clad in marble tiles, and with its ingenious drainage system intact. It is a wonderful yet unknown and forgotten site, and so I am literally enjoying a private viewing of its many marvels.
But you would be wrong to think that this wonderful villa is all there is.
Within a couple of kilometres from the Roman ruins, another important site lies abandoned. It’s the remains of the ancient Diolkos, the stone paved trackway that allowed boats and goods to be dragged overland across the Isthmus of Corinth throughout antiquity. Its another astonishing discovery, a testament to Greek ingenuity and their dedication to taming nature. The Diolkos trackway is estimated to have already been in use for centuries, by the time Nero, the infamous Roman emperor, first attempted to dig a canal across the isthmus – and that’s already 2000 years ago now ! The Diolkos itself, as well as the significant remains of Nero’s effort have been excavated in the 1960s. However, they were unfortunately abandoned soon after, and today seem forgotten, and even endangered. Soil erosion, environmental pollution, but above all neglect is damaging the Diolkos site beyond repair, with parts of it gradually disappearing into the waters of the Isthmus, back into oblivion. The presence of Lethe is stronger here. Perhaps sacrifices have to be made.
The Christian Outlaws of Methoni
I am now heading to the south of the Peloponnese towards Methoni, its westernmost tip. This is familiar territory : I’ve spent my entire childhood around these parts, and have visited its many nooks and crannies extensively over the years. Today, however, I am out to visit a place shrouded in mystery, and previously unknown to me. The forgotten catacombs of Saint Onoufrios is a well hidden early-Christian burial and religious site. It’s so obscure, in fact, that none of the locals I’ve asked about it were aware of its existence, and some of them have lived in the area for several decades !! I managed, however, to triangulate an approximate location based on the few records and descriptions I found, and with this, I set out for an afternoon search.
I finally reach the catacombs after some trekking on the goat trails zig-zagging the slopes of the hills outside Methoni. I realise I must have driven past this site countless of times, but indeed had no idea of its existence. At the end of a trail, and well hidden from sight until you are literally upon them, the forgotten remains of the catacombs are an amazing sight. They are dated between the 3rd and 4th century AD, a period of intensive persecution for Christians, primarily and alongside followers of other faiths that didn’t adhere to the Roman Empire’s state religious practices. There has been a long, and well documented history of Christian persecution in Roman times. But the last, and perhaps most severe persecutions took place in the last decades of the Roman Empire. This was shortly before the split between Western and Eastern Empire, and the ultimate adoption of Christianity as the formal state religion in the East. Under emperor Diocletian, a great persecution took place between 303 and 313, where suspected Christians found themselves summarily indicted, stripped of privileges and offices, and condemned to imprisonment or forced labour. They were then given a choice to sacrifice to the old gods, or face corporeal punishment, and even death. Many Christians suffered mutilation, were burned at the stake, or condemned to the macabre practice of Damnatio Ad Bestias : the public execution by lions and other wild beasts in a Roman arena.
The origins of using a catacomb as a burial and religious site is associated with the Christian faith and its various trials during Roman times. In the Greco-Roman belief system, the bodies of the deceased were considered as polluting agents, responsible for miasma : the fouling of breathable air, assumed to be a herald for disease. This belief, combined with the rapid growth of Roman towns, meant that burial sites were placed strictly outside city limits. And as the Roman world experienced ever increasing urbanisation, cremation emerged as a more practical solution, and eventually became widely accepted as the empire’s foremost funerary practice. However, Early Christians rejected cremation, since the complete destruction of a body by fire directly contravened their belief in physical resurrection (in fact, both the miasma theory and the Christian world’s aversion to cremation survived until Victorian times). Resulting from these conditions, a new solution would emerge to tackle the issue of Christian funerals : the excavation of secret, underground burial sites outside city limits. Those catacombs, as they were called, became sprawling systems of underground taphic chambers, and usually doubled as hidden sites where Christian rites could be practised in secrecy in times of religious persecution.
This is likely how the secret catacombs of Saint Onoufrios came to being. Later, during medieval times – possibly during the Venetian rule of Methoni between the 13th and 15th century – it is presumed that the catacombs were used as a limestone quarry. The easily carved porous limestone has been gradually quarried away to be used as construction material, resulting in much of the exposed state of the burial complex today. There are oral records of the catacombs used as a skete, and local priests performing holy mass on the site until the early 20th century. Then sometime in the 1940’s, local shepherds used the catacombs as a sheep pen for wintering their herd, lighting fires and carving inscriptions. This unfortunately seems to have damaged the elaborate Christian frescoes further, adding to the damage suffered by exposure. In the 1960s, the site has been properly researched and recorded by the Greek Department of Archaeology, but it’s not formally open to the public at this time. This means that I am again alone in this preview, an enjoyable feeling of privacy that cannot compare to my hurried, crowded visits in similar places in Rome or Paris.
The Arcadian Gate and the Fall of Sparta
It’s hard to get used to this feeling of intimacy. And looking for more, I am now heading inland from Methoni, and bypass the mountains towards Ancient Messene. This has always been one of my favourite ancient sites, an entire classical era city-state with a forum, temples, shrines, theatre and stadium in great state of preservation. It’s a well organised, and less crowded ancient site that amazes the visitor.
But my favourite part is outside the touristy ancient city proper. A few kilometres before you reach Ancient Messene, you encounter the imposing Arcadian Gate and city walls, built out of local limestone blocks in the 3rd century BC. I literally drive through the gate, following the same route that existed since antiquity, and park in the fields next to it. The existing chronology makes the walls of Messene contemporary with some of the older segments of the Great Wall of China, and at 7 to 9 meters high, apparently as tall too. The massive round gatehouse has two entrances on either side, and still looks formidable. The level of fortifications is imposing : 4 centuries after their construction, their epic character is confirmed by the traveller and historian Pausanias, who writes (2nd century AD) : “…and around Messene there’s a circular wall made of stone, improved with towers and ramparts. I haven’t seen for myself the walls of Babylon or Susa, not heard of anyone else who has. But I have seen the impressive fortifications of Amvrossos, Byzantium and Rhodes, and this one in Messene is much stronger”. This smart comparison to some of the most impressive fortifications of its time can give us a sense of the scale and importance of the walls of Ancient Messene.
But why did a minor city like Messene require such impenetrable fortifications? The answer is in its proximity to a once terrifying enemy : Sparta, the formidable military city-state of antiquity that dominated the region a century earlier. The Spartans rose to power by subjugating or displacing the inhabitants of the region. But centuries later, Sparta’s power waned after being defeated at Leuctra and Mantinea, by an alliance of rivals, ex-slaves and displaced locals. The victors built and fortified Ancient Messene and another two cities as a buffer, to literally wall Sparta in, and prevent it’s re-emergence. The quality and size of these walls are testament to the mortal danger they sought to contain. This is another free roaming site, and I am there on my own, climbing on the ancient towers and ramparts and enjoying the astonishing views of the valley beyond.
The search for the Third Rome
A fair drive south from the walls of Messene, there’s another favourite of mine : the abandoned medieval city of Mystras. This is a well visited UNESCO Heritage site, but the sheer size and scale of it means that encounters inside its walls are sparse, making each visit there feel special, personal. Its quite often that I’ve found myself alone among the ruins, as I like it, without a living soul in sight. Perched on the high cliffs of mount Taygetos, the sprawling city became the location of the desperate final years of the Byzantine Empire after the fall of its last emperor Constantine XI Paleologos in his capital Constantinople. That’s right, the empire didn’t cease to exist in 1453, at least in principle. The independent Bishopric of Moreas , jointly ruled by two of the emperor’s brothers, Thomas and Demetrios, held on for another 7 years. They were the last surviving male members of the Paleologos dynasty, and history recorded them both as incompetent. Their constant bickering and selfishness meant that they were unavailable to help their brother in his final defence of Constantinople. Demetrios was probably the worse : He was the fifth son in the male line of succession, and fraught with jealousy for his brothers, coupled with a constant anxiety over threats to his life. His scheming and ambition saw him collude with the Ottomans to jointly launch an early attack on Constantinople in 1442, and to stage another coup d’etat a few years later. He was sent away to Mystras, where he was given joint rulership of the Bishopric with his younger brother Thomas – presumably to keep him and his machinations removed as far away from the capital as possible.
The shared ownership of Moreas was an uneasy exercise for the two youngest brothers, who remained vassals to the Sultan after the conquest of Constantinople. In the aftermath of the fall, they faced a huge revolt in Moreas : 30.000 Albanians rose against the brothers to challenge their crumbling imperial authority. They were soon joined by members of the Kantakouzenos family : they were descendants of an older dynasty of emperors, and harboured their own ambition to restore their legitimacy as successors to the now vacant Byzantine throne. But also Giovanni Asen Zaccaria, the bastard son of the last Latin Prince of Achaia rose in revolt at the same time, claiming his own right to rule in Moreas. Facing unfavourable odds, the cowardly brothers seek intervention from their overlord, the Ottoman Sultan – jointly versus the revolters, but privately also against each other. Mehmed II will help them subdue the revolt, and try to conciliate the brothers, but their fatal ambition is impossible to contain.
A full blown civil war between erupts between the brothers. In a last, desperate bid to maintain his legitimacy, Thomas turns to the Pope and the Genoese for help, who willingly send in military support. By 1460 Demetrios is finally defeated and flees Moreas to the court of the Ottoman Sultan, where he is seeking further aid to re-establish himself as the sole ruler of Moreas. He offers the hand of his only child, his daughter Helena to Mehmed II in exchange. But the Sultan’s patience over the constant bickering of his vassals has finally run out. He decides to change his mind over maintaining the status-quo, and instead invades Moreas, extinguishing this last vestige of the Byzantine Empire forever… Intrigue, politics and infighting always characterised Byzantine politics, but to me, these last 7 years of the empire accurately depict the disastrous scale of these practices, as well as the selfish, catastrophic stupidity of the last Princes of Byzantium.
So what happened to the heirs to the Byzantine Empire and their descendants? Well Demetrius was ultimately stripped of all his privileges and authority by the Sultan, and died as a monk in Edirne at 1470. His daughter Helena, became hostage to Mehmed II, and reportedly joined his harem, where she died childless, also in 1470. What a coincidence. Thomas escaped in Rome, where he was widely accepted and recognised as the rightful heir to the Byzantine throne by Western Christian rulers. His two sons, Andreas and Manuel, squandered any remaining family wealth trying to continue living a princely lifestyle, eventually giving up their claims too. Andreas died penniless without descendants, after having sold his rights to the Byzantine throne again and again to a number of European monarchs, including Charles VIII of France, and Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Manuel attempted a surprise return to Constantinople, where he sold his own right to the Byzantine throne to Mehmed II in exchange for an estate and a pension. His children died off or converted to Islam.
The ultimate, and most interesting claimant was Thomas Paleologos’ youngest daughter, Zoe – the last Princess of Byzantium. After her father’s escape from Moreas, the Papacy harboured the Byzantine imperial family in exile. They hoped to use them as a means to reunite the Orthodox and Catholic Christian faith, or to legitimise a future Western Christian crusade against the Ottomans. Under the auspices and encouragement of the Pope, Zoe was reared like a true Byzantine Princess, and eventually married off to Ivan the III, Grand Prince of Moscow. She thus became grandmother to Ivan the Terrible, the very first Czar of Russia, who formally established the Byzantine double-headed eagle as Russia’s new emblem. And so Russia became the first state to lay claim to the title of Third Rome : the spiritual, religious, and rightful successor to Byzantium. They were not alone in doing so, of course. Throughout the 15th century, we can witness across Europe the adoption of the Roman-Byzantine emblem by any number of other claimants to the title of Third Rome, no doubt as result of the pan-European fire sale of the imperial heritage by the last Paleologi. What a miserable end to a 1000 year empire !!
So much history, so many legends. And so many sites and monuments to rediscover through their unique stories ! Greece is an unlimited source of intriguing locations.
All photos © explorabilia, except where stated otherwise
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