Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Monday, April 25, 2011

Ancient Kythera

Kythera was magical as always, and this time I learned a little more about Kythera’s ancient past, particularly her ties to Lacedeamon. In this and the next entry, I will provide the highlights of my findings.
The island of Kythera sits off the southwest tip of Cape Malea on the Peloponnese and has been inhibited for millennia. Historical reference to Kythera goes back at least as far as the Iliad, and the archeological evidence suggests a thriving Minoan metropolis existed here about 2000 BC. According to legend, Kytheria was the first place in the Greek world where the goddess Aphrodite was worshiped. Except for brief periods of occupation by the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War, Kythera was an integral part of Lacedaemon for approximately 500 years, from roughly 600 to 100 BC.

The first evidence of Lacedaemonian settlement on Kythera was discovered less than 20 years ago, and money for extensive archeological research has not been made available. However, in 2010, archaeologist Aris Tsaravopoulos from Greece’s 26th Ephorate of Classical and Prehistoric Antiquities carried out a limited project with a team of twenty international, amateur volunteers supported by the local community and Bishop Seraphim, Kythera’s Metropoliti. These digs suggest that the role and influence of Sparta on the island was more significant than previously believed.

Although only able to (literally) scratch the surface during the one month of work in 2010, Tsaravopoulos is confident of finding additional artifacts and foundations which will undoubtedly enable more comprehensive conclusions if excavations continue. Tsaravopoulos found sponsors and volunteers for at least one more summer project, scheduled for July 2011. Unfortunately, Mr. Tsaravopoulos was not on Kythera during my stay, but I spoke with him by phone and his son was able to show me the site of a city dating from the Lacedaemonian period and answer a number of questions.

The classical capital of Kythera was a walled city perched on a steep hill just west and inland from the site of the old Minoan port of Skandeia. It housed about one thousand inhabitants and remained occupied from roughly 600 BC to 100 AD. Although the city would have been predominantly perioikoi in character, Tsaravopoulos believes there was a Spartiate garrison stationed in the city at least during the Peloponnesian war.

The city contained an agora and a number of temples and civic buildings. Initial digging, which uncovered only the youngest layer of the ancient city spanning the hundred years before and after the birth of Christ, revealed pottery, tiles, and coins, mostly from the Roman period. However, impressive Doric pillars from a late 7th/early 6th century temple to the Dioskouroi were incorporated into a Byzantine church built on the site in 1290, giving testimony to strong Spartan influence at the time of the city’s founding.

Outside the capital city, there are indications of a Laconian watch-tower on a hill north of the capital. The site provides a good view to the north and, when weather conditions permit, to the Straits of Malea and the Peloponnese (Laconia) beyond. Also visible from the city or the watch-tower are two tiny islands, the Dragonara. The larger of these, Megali Dragonara is the site of a temple to Poseidon. A large number of offerings from the 5th century have been found here, and Tsaravopoulos believes that sailors routinely put in to the sanctuary either to entreat or thank Poseidon for safe passage around the dreaded Cape Malea.

In addition, a sanctuary dedicated to Asclepios (Aiglapios in Laconian dialect) has been identified, but nothing to Aphrodite yet. According to the younger Tsaravopoulos, a large number of valuable offerings were found at the site of a major Minoan temple to an unidentified deity, and he believes this may be the source of the legend about an Aphrodite temple.

Mr. Tsaravopoulos also found a number of interesting objects in a grotto in the next bay north of ancient Skandeia, which he believes suggest the tactics used by Nicias to seize Kythera in 424 BC during the Peloponnesian War. Mr. Tsaravopoulos believes two Athenian vessels put ashore at night near the port of Skandeia, over powered the men at the watch tower and sent a signal to the rest of the Athenian fleet laying offshore. (Thucydides gives the size of the expeditionary force at 10 ships and 2,000 hoplites.) In the morning, the Lacedaemonian garrison, seeing only two Athenian ships on the beach below the city, came down from their fortress to attack the apparently weak invading force. Meanwhile, however, the full Athenian force had landed at the beach to the north (modern day Diakofti), hidden from view at shore level by a large hill. While the Lacedemonians were attacking the two ships at the foot of their city, the full Athenian force came over the hill and attacked them in the rear, presumably wiping them out.

Unfortunately, Mr. Tsaravopoulo said he did not yet have sufficient evidence to publish this thesis. It is not, however, completely inconsistent with Thucydides. According to the latter, the attacking Athenians found “all the inhabitants draw up ready to meet them. Battle was joined, and for some time the people of Kythera stood firm, but finally they were routed and took refuge in the upper city. Afterwards they came to terms with Nicias….” (Thucydides, 4:54) Thucydides was clearly not present at the capture of Kythera and he may not have known how the Athenians lured a strong fighting force down from their fortifications in the upper city into the port. He appears only to have heard (or reported on) the second phase of the encounter, after the full force of Athenians arrived to find the Lacedaemons were in the port and in full fighting order, ready to meet them. Certainly, accounts agree that the battle took place in the port, rather than in the fortress. If the Spartan garrison was slaughtered in the battle and only perioikoi escaped to the fortress, this would explain further why Nicias was willing to come to terms with them as he did.

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