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Pausanias, the 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 people appreciate the man behind these ancient chronicles, focusing instead on the subjects he portrayed in his works.

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

Ancient Greece according to Pausanias
Pausanias’ Description of Greece, 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 River 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 appears to have seen the tomb said to be that of Orpheus in Libethra (modern Leivithra).

Crossing over to Italy, he visited some of the cities of Campania, as well as Rome. He is one of the first known to write of seeing the ruins of Troy, Alexandria Troas, and Mycenae.

Description of ancient Greece in ten books of inestimable value

Pausanias’ Description of Greece, or Periegesis (in Greek), is in the form of ten books, each dedicated to some portion of Greece, with a heavy emphasis on the glories of ancient Greece— although he lived at a time of Roman domination of the area.

His many works are geared toward a Roman audience since Romans wanted to know everything about the glories of ancient Greece—and many times adopt Greek ways for themselves.

The project is more than topographical; it is a cultural geography of ancient Greece—in a way, a snapshot taken in time to capture what was left of the height of Classical Greece.

Pausanias often digresses 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 interwoven into 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 · WikiPhotoSpace)CC BY-SA 3.0

He describes what he saw at Athens’ Temple of Olympian Zeus, which is, of course, still extant in the city although greatly changed over the millennia.

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

“Before the pillars stand bronze statues…The whole circumference of the precincts is about four stades, and they are full of statues; for every city has dedicated a likeness of the emperor Hadrian, and the Athenians have surpassed them in dedicating, behind the temple, the remarkable colossus,” he adds.

Pausanias further explains that “Within the precincts are antiquities: a bronze Zeus, a temple of Cronus and Rhea and an enclosure of Earth surnamed ‘Olympian.’ Here the floor opens to the width of a cubit, and they say that along this bed flowed off the water after the deluge that occurred in the time of Deucalion, and into it they cast every year wheat meal mixed with honey.”

Pausanias’ subsequent books describe Corinthia, Laconia, Messenia, Elis, Achaea, Arcadia, Boetia, Phocis, and Ozolian Locris (Λοκρῶν Ὀζόλων).

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

As a Greek man writing at the zenith of the Roman empire, Pausanias was in an awkward cultural space, namely between the glories of the Greek past he was so keen to describe and the realities of a Greece that was now beholden to Rome as a dominant imperial force.

He was not technically a naturalist, although he commented on the physical aspects of the Greek landscape. He notices the pine trees on the sandy coast of Elis, the deer, and the wild boars in the oak woods of Phelloe, and the crows amid the giant oak trees of Alalcomenae.

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

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

Chronicler records name of footrace winner in 108th Olympiad

Pausanias even touches on the natural bounty of Greece, including the wild strawberries of Helicon, the date palms of Aulis, and the olive oil of Tithorea, even remarking on its animals, such as the tortoises of Arcadia and the “white blackbirds” of Cyllene.

The chronicler makes history come alive when he says that the Phocian War was concurrent with a man who won a race in the Olympics. He comments that “In the tenth year after the seizure of the sanctuary, Philip put an end to the war, which was called both the Phocian War and the Sacred War, in the year when Theophilus was archon at Athens, which was the first of the hundred and eighth Olympiad at which Polycles of Cyrene was victorious in the foot-race.”

Placing them firmly into the rich cultural history of the country, he then relates “The cities of Phocis were captured and razed to the ground. The tale of them was Lilaea, Hyampolis, Anticyra, Parapotamii, Panopeus and Daulis. These cities were distinguished in days of old, especially because of the poetry of Homer.”

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

He makes a note on 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 Corinna at Tanagra and of Polybius in the cities of Arcadia.

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

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

ancient Olympia temple, Greece
Ancient Olympia. Credit: /Wikimedia Commons/

Wonders of nature in Greece also recorded by Pausanias

Unlike a mere travel guide, in Periegesis Pausanias stops in many places around the nation for a brief excursus on a point of ancient ritual or to tell a myth in a genre that would not become popular again until the early nineteenth century.

Pausanias is fond of digressions on the wonders of nature, the signs that herald the approach of an earthquake, the phenomena of the tides, the ice-bound seas of the north, and the noonday sun that at the summer solstice, casts no shadow at Syene (Aswan). As scientists know, the observation of the noonday sun at this very place enabled the great scientist Eratosthenes to determine the circumference of the earth.

While he never doubts the existence of the deities and heroes, the cultural geographer sometimes criticizes the myths and legends relating to them. His descriptions of monuments of art are plain and unadorned, but crucially, their accuracy is confirmed by the extant remains that one can often see today.

Pausanias is perfectly frank in his confessions of ignorance in his works. When he quotes a book at second hand he takes pains to say so. This is an invaluable aid to the modern reader, who can become troubled by the fantastic 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 was not read,” Habicht relates, and adds that “there is not a single mention of the author, not a single quotation from it, not a whisper before Stephanus Byzantius in the sixth century, and only two or three references to it throughout the Middle Ages.”

The only manuscripts of Pausanias are three fifteenth-century copies, full of errors and lacunae, which all appear to depend on a single manuscript that survived to be copied. Niccolò Niccoli had this archetype in Florence in 1418. At his death in 1437, it went to the library of San Marco, Florence. A part of the manuscript is held at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.

Until twentieth-century archaeologists realized that Pausanias was a reliable guide to the sites they were excavating, the peripatetic chronicler had been largely dismissed by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century classicists.

Modern archaeological research, however, has tended to vindicate 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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