Pausanias, cultural geographer of ancient Greece

The Greek historian Pausanias recounted the glories of ancient Greece, including the site of ancient Olympia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Untold stories recounting the glories of ancient Greece contain the name Pausanias, who lived in the second century AD. However, few appreciate the man behind these ancient chronicles, instead focusing on the subjects he portrayed in his works.

The historian was born around AD 110 into a Greek family who most likely lived in Lydia; he certainly knew the western coast of Asia Minor, but his travels extended well beyond the limits of Ionia.

Ancient Greece according to Pausanias
Description of Greece by Pausanias, held at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. Public domain

Before visiting Greece itself, he had been to Antioch, Joppa, Jerusalem, and even to the banks of the Jordan.

In Egypt, he had seen the pyramids. While at the temple of Ammon at Siwah, he was shown the hymn once sent to that shrine by Pindar. In Macedonia he seems to have seen the tomb said to be that of Orpheus at Libethra (modern Leivithra).

Passing through Italy, he visited some of the towns of Campania, as well as Rome. He is one of the first known to write about the ruins of Troy, Alexandria Troas and Mycenae.

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Description of Greece in ten invaluable books

Pausanias’ Description of Greeceor Periegesis (in Greek), comes in the form of ten books, each devoted to a part of Greece, with a strong emphasis on the glories of ancient Greece – despite living in a time of Roman rule over the region .

His many works are aimed at a Roman audience since the Romans wanted to know all about the glories of ancient Greece – and often adopt the Greek ways for themselves.

The project is more than topographical; it’s a cultural geography of ancient Greece – in a way, a snapshot taken in time to capture what was left of the heyday of classical Greece.

Pausanias often departs from his description of architectural and artistic objects to review the mythological and historical underpinnings of the society that produced them, giving us a much clearer picture of how mythology and culture are intertwined in the Greek landscape.

He begins his tour in Attica, where the city of Athens and its demes dominate the discussion.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus, still imposing after millennia. Credit: A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiSpacePhoto)CC BY-SA 3.0

He describes what he saw at the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, which of course still exists in the city although it has changed a great deal over the millennia.

“Before the entrance to the Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus, the Roman Emperor Hadrian dedicated the temple and the statue, one worth seeing, which in size exceeds all other statues except the Colossi of Rhodes and Rome, and is made of ivory and gold… before at the entrance, I say, stand statues of Hadrian, two in Thasian stone, two Egyptian”, says Pausanias.

“Before the pillars stand statues of bronze… The whole circumference of the enclosure is about four stadia, and they are full of statues; for each city dedicated a likeness to the Emperor Hadrian, and the Athenians surpassed them in dedicating, behind the temple, the remarkable colossus,” he adds.

Pausanias further explains that “within the enclosure are antiquities: a bronze Zeus, a temple of Cronus and Rhea, and an enclosure of the Earth nicknamed ‘Olympian’. Here the floor opens to the width of a cubit, and it is said that along this bed the water flowed after the flood which took place in the time of Deucalion, and that flour was thrown into it every year. of wheat mixed with honey.

The following books of Pausanias describe Corinthia, Laconia, Messinia, Elis, Achaia, Arcadia, Boetia, Phocis and Locris Ozolian (Λοκρῶν Ὀζόλων).

Sanctuary of Zeus in Dodona
The Oracle of Zeus at Dodona. Credit: Marcus Cyron Multi-license with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5 and earlier (2.0 and 1.0)

As a Greek man writing at the zenith of the Roman Empire, Pausanias found himself in a delicate cultural space, namely between the glories of the Greek past he was so keen to describe and the realities of a Greece now indebted to Rome. as the dominant country. imperial strength.

He was not technically a naturalist, although he commented on the physical aspects of the Greek landscape. He notices the pines on the sandy shore of Elis, the stags and boars in the oak woods of Phelloe, and the crows amid the giant oaks of Alalcomenae.

He says: “Among the curiosities of Thesprotia are a sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona and an oak tree sacred to the god. Near Cichyrus is a lake called Acherusia and a river called Acheron.

However, he tells it all as he sees it with a bit of insult here and there, saying, “There is also Cocytus, a most disagreeable stream.” I believe that it was because Homer had seen these places that he endeavored in his poems to describe the regions of Hades, and gave the rivers there the names of those of Thesprotia.

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Pausanias even mentions the natural wealth of Greece, including the wild strawberries of Helicon, the date palms of Aulis and the olive oil of Tithorea, even noting its animals, such as the tortoises of Arcadia and the ” white blackbirds” by Cyllène. .

The chronicler brings history to life when he says that the Phocian War coincided with a man winning a race at the Olympics. He comments that “in the tenth year after the taking of the sanctuary Philip put an end to the war, which was called both the Phocian War and the Sacred War, the year in which Theophilus was archon at Athens, which was the first of the Hundred and Eighth Olympiad at which Polycles of Cyrene won the race on foot.

Placing them firmly in the rich cultural history of the country, he then recounts: “The cities of Phocis were captured and razed to the ground. Their history was Lilaea, Hyampolis, Anticyra, Parapotamii, Panopeus and Daulis. These cities once stood out, mostly because of Homer’s poetry.

Even in the most rural corners of Greece, he is fascinated by all kinds of representations of deities, sacred relics and many other sacred and mysterious objects.

He notes the ruins of the House of Pindar and the statues of Hesiod, Arion, Thamyris and Orpheus in the Grove of the Muses on Helicon, as well as the portraits of Corinne at Tanagra and of Polybius in the cities of Arcadia .

One of Pausanias’ modern editors, Christian Habicht, said, “In general he prefers the old to the new, the sacred to the profane; there is much more to classical Greek art than to contemporary Greek art, more to temples, altars and images of gods, than to public buildings and statues of politicians.

“Certain magnificent and towering structures, such as the Stoa of King Attalus in the Athenian Agora (reconstructed by Homer Thompson) or the Exedra of Herodes Atticus at Olympia are not even mentioned,” Habicht commented on the basis of observations.

Wonders of nature in Greece also recorded by Pausanius

Unlike a simple travel guide, in Periegesis Pausanias stops at many places in the country for a brief excursion to an ancient ritual point or to recount a myth in a genre that would not become popular again until the beginning of the 19th century.

Pausanias loves the digressions on the marvels of nature, the signs which announce the approach of an earthquake, the phenomena of the tides, the frozen seas of the north, and the midday sun which, at the summer solstice, does not casts no shadow over Syene (Aswan). As scientists know, observing the midday sun at this exact location allowed the great scientist Eratosthenes to determine the circumference of the earth.

If he never doubts the existence of divinities and heroes, the cultural geographer sometimes criticizes the myths and legends concerning them. His descriptions of monuments of art are simple and unadorned, but above all, their accuracy is confirmed by the extant remains that can often be seen today.

Pausanias is perfectly candid in his admissions of ignorance in his works. When he quotes a second-hand book, he takes care to say so. It is an invaluable aid to the modern reader, who may be troubled by the fantastical observations and occasional fabrications of ancient writers.

His life’s work, however, left only faint traces in Greece for many centuries after his death. “It has not been read”, relates Habicht, and adds that “there is not a single mention of the author, not a single quotation from him, not a whisper before Stephanus Byzantium in the sixth century , and only two or three references to it throughout the Middle Ages”.

The only manuscripts of Pausanias are three 15th-century copies, full of errors and lacunae, all of which seem to depend on a single manuscript that has survived to be copied. Niccolò Niccoli had this archetype in Florence in 1418. On his death in 1437 it went to the library of San Marco, Florence. Part of the manuscript is kept at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.

Until 20th-century archaeologists realized that Pausanias was a reliable guide to the sites they excavated, the traveling chronicler had been largely dismissed by 19th- and early-20th-century classics.

Modern archaeological research, however, has tended to substantiate Pausanias in his many descriptions which have gone on to form an invaluable cultural record of the glories of ancient Greece and his beloved country.


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