Greece – From Athens To Megalopolis

THERE are two ways of making excursions in Greece. One is to take your purse and your staff and go forth as a solitary pilgrim. You need then a traveller’s equipment of modern Greek if you are to step out of the beaten track. It is an interesting way of penetrating the country and studying the life and customs of the people. The other method is that of a `reconnaissance in force.” I do not mean a Cook or Gaze excursion, a sort of travelling mob, but an organized band of Hellenists, each of whom is armed with special knowledge or animated by special interest. You may then have the advantage of agreeable companionship, of combined experience, knowledge and observation.

Our group of seven, self-styled “the heptarchy,” who had captured the Ionian Islands and descended upon Athens, had long since gone — or six of them —to Germany. It was fortunate that after this desertion I could avail myself of the kind invitation of Dr. Dorpfeld to join his band of archaeological pilgrims in a trip through the Peloponnesus.

Using the democratic Aristotelian term by which the modern Greeks describe a “person” or “individual,” I may say that this body was made up of twenty-seven “atoms,” and that they had come from Prussia, Austria, Bavaria, the Rhine Provinces, Italy, Dalmatia, Russia, Poland, Servia, Denmark, Massachusetts, Vermont, Georgia, and Ohio. The central magnet which, added to the charms of Greece, drew these twenty-seven atoms from two continents, was the personality of Dr. Dorpfeld. The babel of tongues found a peaceful resolution in the German language, especially when he spoke it. Nearly all the members of the party were classical professors, teachers, students, or curators of museums, but diplomacy was represented by the Servian minister. As a part of the journey was to be made by rail and by carriage, a few ladies accompanied us as far as Mycenae. The itinerary of the expedition covered thirteen days, from March 25 to April 6, and included all the most important points between Athens and Olympia.

The history of Greece is clearer when you have studied its geography and seen how natural boundaries of mountain or water perpetuated tribal divisions and furnished obstacles to political unity. The narrow isthmus which joins Attica and the Peloponnesus was a barrier or a highway according to the mood in which the ancients happened to look at it. It was a highway for the landsman and a barrier for the sailor. It permitted an easy passage of hostile troops, but as it was only three and a half to four miles wide it was not difficult to throw across it the Isthmian wall, which furnished a military barrier where nature had failed to build one. On the other hand, this narrow strip of land was a provoking barrier between the Corinthian and the Saronic gulfs; and if this ligament binding the peninsulas were cut, the divided waters would flow together and the Peloponnesus become an island. So the Greeks tried first to put up a wall of separation between the rival lands, and then to cut a canal to join the friendly waters. One of these projects was a measure of war, the other a measure of peace and commerce. The political union of Greece made the wall unnecessary; the development of its commerce and that of the world made the canal more desirable than ever.

As we crossed the Isthmus the train stopped first to let us see the remains of the old wall, and afterwards that we might see the new canal, then within a few weeks of completion. The wall, dating from remote times and subject to many restorations, here and there shows its sullen teeth. The canal from the fine bridge which the railroad has thrown across may be seen up and down its whole length, and furnishes an interesting illustration of how the past and the present are joined in Greece. More than seven-teen centuries ago, when Pausanias crossed this isthmus, he saw the marks of the first attempt to cut a canal. ” Whoever attempted ” he said, “to make the Peloponnesus an island died before the completion of a canal across the isthmus. The place where they began to dig is clearly seen, but they did not make much progress on account of the rock, and the Peloponnesus remains what it was by nature, —a peninsula.”

Periander, the tyrant of Corinth, who lived about six hundred years before Christ, is credited with first projecting a canal across the isthmus. In Roman times the attempt was made by the Emperor Nero, but abandoned probably on account of more warlike undertakings. Herodes Atticus continued the work which Nero began. The canal thus made was one hundred and fifty feet in width, about one hundred and twenty in depth, and three thousand feet long. For more than seventeen hundred years after the death of Herodes Atticus nothing more was done to fulfil the dream of the Corinthian tyrant. Then Greek and European capitalists organized to make it real. When the engineers made a new survey they found no better place on the isthmus for the canal than that chosen by Nero’s engineers. It saved much labor to clear out and utilize the old cut. Pausanias was wrong about the hardness of the rock; it was soft and gave no trouble. It was the sand at both ends letting in water that made work. Two thousand men and three immense excavators cut and moved 11,500,000 cubic metres of earth and rock. The canal is nearly four miles long. About three months after our visit the water was let in, and commercially, at least, the Peloponnesus was turned into an island. But what if the heirs of Nero and Nero’s engineers should send in a bill for making the first cut and claim a share in the dividends?

The Greek canal-cutters are not the only modern engineers who have availed themselves of the labors of ancient builders. Why should any one cut a stone from a quarry when he can find one already cut in some old ruin? It is partly owing to this labor-saving philosophy that the only foundation stones left of the hoary old temple at Corinth are those which stand under its seven Doric columns. These tall monoliths could not be overturned except by machines. The stones beneath them thus furnish some hint of the plan of this ancient building, the sole monument of the glory of the ancient city, and next to the temple of Hera at Olympia, the oldest example of the Doric style in Greece. We have no means of telling for how many centuries the sturdy columns have stood on the plain. They were cut in one piece from the limestone rocks not far away and covered with a yellowish stucco. Even this covering gives us a hint of restoration ; the thick Roman stucco is easily distinguished from the thin layer used by the Greeks.

The traveller should go to Corinth with a copy of Pausanias in one pocket and the New Testament in the other. In these literary memorials he will find more to remind him of the brilliant, luxurious city than anything he sees on the plains. The description of Pausanias is minute, and encourages us to hope for good results from the excavations undertaken at Corinth by the American school.

The same friend who before my departure for Greece had said, ” Do not spend any time at Corfu,” had likewise said, ” Do not trouble yourself to go up Acro-Corinth.” I should invert his advice and would say, ” Do not fail to climb Acro-Corinth. If you do, you will miss one of the grandest views in all Greece.” Dispensing with a mule, I climbed the mountain and succeeded in getting within the eye of my camera an exact picture of the isthmus with the water lapping it on each side. The Corinthian Gulf, like a great inland lake, is spread out on one side, with the mountains of Boeotia and Phocis rising in a wall behind it, and, most imposing among them, snow-peaked Parnassus. To the east AEgina and Salamis are sleeping in the calm waters of the Saronic Gulf with their island satellites round them; to the south the mountains of Argolis ; and to the west those of Arcadia frame in the view. On days exceptionally clear, from Upper Corinth one may see Upper Athens forty-five miles away. The white houses of the new Corinth are set on the plain below, amid fields of red and green and dark olive groves. Many a fierce conflict, Greek with Greek, Greek with Roman, Turk or Venetian, has been fought on this citadel. As on the Acropolis of Athens, the debris of centuries is here beneath our feet.

Did Paul come up here? There is nothing in his letters to show it. But that he saw the temples and the idols, and that he had to deal with practical questions, such as eating meat offered in sacrifice to idols, his epistles plainly show. If the apostle could find here to-day little to recall the ancient pagan worship but the seven columns on the plain, he would find in the modern town but little to remind him of the church he planted. It is not likely when he wrote these two letters to the Corinthians that he thought they would be known in all Christendom, or that the thirteenth chapter of the first letter might well compare in elevation of sentiment and beauty of diction with any-thing in the range of literature.

Leaving Corinth we took the train to Nauplia and spent the night. The next morning we rose at five o’clock, and in six carriages drove from Nauplia to Epidaurus, renowned in ancient days as the sanctuary of AEsculapius, and containing a temple, sanitarium and other buildings. As a centre of miracle or faith healing, the place has a special interest. But our curiosity had been stimulated most of all to see the theatre, partly by its importance in modern discussion and partly from the enthusiasm of Pausanias in regard old traveller might envy us the opportunity we have had at Mycenm. The few paragraphs which he devoted to these hoary monuments, containing about all the world knew, contrast strongly with the volumes which describe the results of modern excavation. Pausanias stood above ground, but Schliemann went beneath. He showed us the advantage of deep digging; he unbuilt better than he knew.

Curious are the conjunctions and the oppositions of history which present themselves at Mycenae. Here is a form of architecture entirely different from that which we are accustomed to call Greek. There is no presage of the age of Pericles, but a curious suggestion of the Byzantine age which much later was to follow it. Those great beehive tombs seem in their ascending domes to be a prediction of St. Sophia and St. Peter. Yet structurally they affirm unrelenting opposition to the architecture they seem to predict. When we examine them we find that they are not arches, and are not built on vertical lines, but consist of horizontal circular courses of stone, each course projecting over that below it until they come together and are covered by a stone at the top. The tomb builders did not have the arch, but they were feeling after it, and it is remarkable by what simple means they reached the effect they sought.

But what were these walled avenues leading to the tomb? Were they filled up with earth when they were built or in some later age? Some of them are lined with immense stones from twenty to twenty-five feet in length, as if the builders exulted in feats of Cyclopean force. These blocks are at least three thousand years old, and nobody knows how much older, but the marks of the workman’s saw are still upon them, showing how old was the use of this instrument in cutting stone as well as wood. In opposition to the Doric column which tapers toward the top, the columns of the door to the tomb excavated by Mrs. Schliemann are curiously enough much thicker at the top than at the bottom. In the Parthenon and on the Propylaea at Athens we have noticed reminiscences of the wooden structure. It has been suggested that these top-heavy columns may also be a survival of the wooden structure, recalling the stake or post sharpened and driven into the ground.

The wall which surrounded the Acropolis at Mycenae is largely intact. The remains of a Greek temple prove how old was the civilization beneath it. This Greek temple may be dated about six hundred years before Christ, yet underneath the temple were huts of earlier dwellers, and underneath these was the ground plan of an ancient palace. But we must go to Troy to see how antiquity can be piled on antiquity. Deeply significant and interesting is the fact pointed out by Dr. Dorpfeld that the plan of the Greek temple was taken from that of the megaron or palace; the house of man thus prefigured the House of God. We took lunch under the Lion Gate. I was somewhat disappointed in the size of the headless beasts. They would have been more imposing, I have no doubt, if their leonine heads had been left on.

We must beware in these ruins of carrying too far relationships which may be coincident, not genetic; but details of resemblance in structure are often stronger proofs of historic cousinship than superficial aspects and resemblances. The resemblance to the Byzantine cupola is only external. Structurally and technically there was no historic relation between them. At Mycenea and Tiryns, however, there is one detail of structure which shows a distinct relationship to. Solomon’s Temple. We read in I Kings vi. 36 that the inner court was built with three rows of hewn stone and a row of cedar beams; that is, placed longitudinally on the stone. The accuracy of this statement was doubted, but at Mycenae we find walls built in the same way, courses of wooden beams between those of stone. Fierce fires at Mycenae consumed the wood and reduced to lime the stone that lay near it, and here and there pieces of charcoal in the ruins showed the wood itself. Dr. Dorpfeld has further remarked the general resemblance between the plan and proportion of Solomon’s Temple with the plans of buildings at Mycenae. When we remember that Hiram, king of Tyre, was summoned by Solomon to build his temple, we ask ourselves whether Phoenicia may not have furnished the bond of union in this interesting resemblance.

I cannot even enumerate the many questions which throng upon the visitor at Mycenae and Tiryns; for their adequate treatment, as well as for the manifold aspects of Mycenaean civilization, I refer the reader to the elaborate and fascinating treatise of Dr. Manatt.

While the Acropolis of Mycenm has been cut off by the action of the water from the surrounding hills Tiryns stands up like a small rocky island in the midst of a great plain. Dark cypresses contrast with the long fresh green levels, and Nauplia rises behind. In the ancient galleries built of enormous stone we have the same architecture as in the Mycenae tombs. As shepherds have lived in the so-called tomb of Agamemnon, so the sheep have found shelter in these galleries, and in passing through them have polished the hard stones against which they brushed till they are as smooth as glass. It was no slight puzzle at first to know why the ancient builders had so beautifully polished the lower courses of stone and left those above in the rough. But as the ram of Odysseus played a part in the cave of old Polyphemus, so his fellow-creatures have played their part in these Cyclopean galleries. The mice too, with the zeal of modern excavators, have brought out the earth which once lay between the horizontal layers of stone. Beyond this the great galleries have suffered little disturbance in the course of centuries. Emerging from them we had a beautiful vista of the plains below and the mountains beyond. As he went from stone to stone and explained the whole plan of the fortress, its towers and corridors, courts, propylaea, its palaces with their halls for men and for women, and its cistern and cellars, which furnished material for so many Homeric pictures, Dr. Dorpfeld seemed more enthusiastic than usual, especially when he spoke of the discovery made by Dr. Schliemann and himself of the remarkable kyanos frieze. These beautiful decorations showed us that Homer’s description of the palace of Alcinous was more fact than fancy. As you see the marks the great doors left on the pavement when they turned, you can imagine their Homeric creak and you may hear the thunderous clatter of hoofs and wheels resounding from the pavement as in the great Epic.

How were these buildings roofed? While there are those who contend for an inclined roof, Dr. Dorpfeld believes that they were flat, and covered with earth supported by heavy timbers, which, as has been intimated in a previous chapter, may account for the heavy style of Doric architecture if derived from the wooden structure. No trace of a tile has been found at Tiryns.

Our visit to Argos was short; we had only time for a casual view of the theatre and a rapid ascent of the acropolis Larisa. I stepped for a few minutes into a school in the town and heard boys recite from Xenophon, which they did with considerable ease. At the Heraeon, the great sanctuary of Argolis, the students of the American Archaeological School who had worked with great industry were exulting over the new treasures they had found.

At Mantinea we were on another battlefield, but it was a field of civil war, and had less interest for me than Marathon when Greece was facing the hosts of Persia. A few traces of the theatre are left. The clouds nestled down on the sides of the distant mountains and the sun shone on the snow-white peaks so much whiter than the muffling clouds below.

We had spent the first two nights of our trip at Nauplia, from which excursions are conveniently made to Mycenae, the Heraeon, and Tiryns and Argos. Two nights were spent at Tripolis, from which we drove to Mantinea, Tegea, and back. Leaving Tripolis, by carriage we had a beautiful drive over the hills to Megalopolis, the iris blooming brilliantly by the way. We stopped at a khan and had a lunch of black bread and cheese. When Nicholas, my driver, told me he did not smoke I took his photograph at once. He could say his Lord’s Prayer and believed in baptism, but when I asked him what would be-come of the unbaptized Turks he shook his head and said, ” I don’t know.”

Our interest in Megalopolis was whetted by a controversy concerning the stage in the Greek theatre. The excavation of that great theatre is due to the energy and skill of the British Archaeological School, then under the charge of Mr. Ernest Gardner. The British School had clung to the statement of Vitruvius that a stage ten or twelve feet high and eight feet broad was used in the Greek theatre. The excavation of the orchestra at Megalopolis a few years ago was watched with the greatest interest to see if any stage could be found intact. In the course of their digging the English came upon five steps on the side of the orchestra opposite the auditorium, where a stage, if any existed, would naturally be found. The stone steps led up to what was apparently a platform. The full width of the platform was not excavated, but it was evidently at least eight feet in breadth. Nothing was more natural than that Director Gardner and his associates should conclude they had found a stage. The news was received with the greatest interest by archaeologists all over the world. At last it seemed as if Dr. Dorpfeld’s radical theory had been effectively refuted, and the accuracy of the Roman architect vindicated. When the plans of the excavations were shown to Dr. Dorpfeld he examined them closely and said: ” Gentlemen, if you examine carefully this platform which you think is a stage, you will find, I think, the marks where columns have stood. What you think is a stage I take to be a stylobate.” When the English resumed their work at Megalopolis the following year, the so-called stage was examined. Sure enough, there were the marks of columns. They had found not a stage, but a portico to a great building mentioned by Pausanias, the Thersilion. The satisfaction of the English School in uncovering this great building partly atoned for the disappointment in not having found a stage to support the statement of Vitruvius.

A close study of the ruins at Megalopolis suggests that an older theatre existed, and that the Thersilion was built about the same time. There were no seats in either of them ; one was covered and the other uncovered, and the orchestral circle lay between them. Two steps led up from the orchestra to the Thersilion, which was built on an incline. The portico served as a skene for the actors. In later times the theatre and the Thersilion were rebuilt. The level of the orchestra was lowered, and three steps were put beneath the two already existing. This is the explanation of the five steps at Megalopolis which have no relation to a stage. In still later times the theatre, which was of enormous size, became too large for the audience, and a proskenion was built in the orchestra to reduce its size.

It is a double tribute to the general accuracy of Pausanias and the penetration of Curtius that the plan of Megalopolis made by the latter based on Pausanias has been proved by the excavations to be substantially correct.