Ancient Greece and the Classical World

An introduction to the landscapes and great monuments of Ancient Greece, the birthplace of western civilisation. The 'omphalos'. Where the story begins:

The Hellespont

Named after Helle, who fell from the Golden Ram (source of the famous golden fleece) as it flew towards Colchis, this narrow channel separating east from west has a history embracing gods, heroes and romantics reaching back through the legends of Ancient Greece to the dawn of civilisation.

[Above: Image -]

It is here that the Persian King Xerxes, in 480 BC, had a bridge of boats constructed to provide a crossing for his army to invade Ancient Greece. And where in 334 BC Alexander’s army crossed the straits in the opposite direction on its way to conquer western Asia.

Coin of Ancient Greece

And it is also the scene of the legendary story of Hero and Leander.

Leander, a young man from Abydus in Thracian Chersonesus, swam each night in order to join his lover, Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, who lived in a tower at Sestos on the opposite (European) bank.

Hero, whose beauty was such that it was said a meadow of roses appeared in her limbs when she moved, dazzled Leander from the moment of their first, wordless meeting - recreated by Christopher Marlowe in his poem Hero and Leander (left unfinished at his death, but completed by Chapman):

These lovers parleyed by the touch of hands;
True love is mute, and oft amazed stands.
Thus while dumb signs their yielding hearts entangled,
The air with sparks of living fire was spangled

Then, with words that ‘might rouse even a stone’ (Musaeus Grammaticus) Leander convinced Hero that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, scorned the worship of a virgin. He promised that for the sake of your love I will cross even the wild waves.

Thus the two become secret lovers, Leander’s nightly crossing of the Hellespont guided by a lamp lit by Hero at a window at the top of her tower – until one night the lamp was extinguished by the wind. In the darkness Leander lost his way and was drowned. On learning of his death, Hero threw herself from the tower in grief.

Byron visited sites of Ancient Greece

In May 1810, at the age of twenty-one and on his Grand Tour, Lord Byron (who as yet had gained neither fame, nor infamy) determined to swim the Hellespont – for glory, as Leander had swum for love. When, on his second attempt, he achieved the crossing, he was ecstatic, writing: “ I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do on any kind of glory, political, poetical, or rhetorical.”

He wrote a poem in celebration. Read Byron's poem here.

The later name for the Hellespont, the Dardanelles, is derived from Dardanus I, the son of Zeus (ruler of all the gods of Ancient Greece) and the nymph Electra, and ‘father’ of the house of Troy. The region (initially named Dardania) and its people later gained the additional name of ‘the Troad’ and ‘Trojans’ after Tros, the grandson of Dardanus.

The Trojans accrued great wealth and power from their proximity to the Hellepsont, which gave them complete control of the valuable trade route between the Aegean and Black Sea.

Tros' son Ilus founded a city on the plain, now more commonly called Troy, but which was named after him: Ilion or, in Latin, Ilium.


Ilus’ grandson, Priam, was king when the Greek ships crossed the ‘wine dark sea’ in pursuit of Helen:

Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upwards of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet.

[Christopher Logue War Music, after Homer].

The illustration below show Achilles dragging the body of Hector in front of the walls of Troy.

Achilles at Troy in battle of Ancient Greece

Mount Olympus

The ancient home of the prinicpal gods in the Greek pantheon, where the ‘Twelve Olympians’ of Ancient Greece - including Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Ares, Hermes, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo and Artemis - lived and feasted on ambrosia and nectar.

Olympus, home of the gods of Ancient Greece

‘The topmost peak of a many-peaked Olympus’, Mytikas, was first reached by a human being less than 100 years ago. Today, however, the trail is well marked and does not require mountaineering skills or equipment.

Delphi, omphalos of ancient greece

Delphi was revered throughout the world of Ancient Greece as the site of the omphalos stone, which marked the centre of the universe where two eagles, released by Zeus at different ends of the world, had met again after their flights across the skies.

[Image: Delphi, Tholos, by Arian Zwegers]

According to legend, the site was inhabited by the Earth Goddess "Gea", guarded by her child, the serpent Python. Apollo, the god of reason, slew the Python, and claimed the site as his own.

The name Delphi is taken from ‘Delphis’ (meaning dolphin in greek), the form in which Apollo returned after a period of self-imposed exile in atonement for slaying the Python.

Delphi, however, is best known as the site of the Delphic 'Sibyl', or Pythia, source of the famously cryptic prophecies. The often equally cryptic philosopher Heraclitus (ca.500 BC) stated: ‘The lord at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but gives a sign.’

From the entrance of the site, continuing up the slope almost to the temple itself, there are the remains of a large number of votive statues and treasuries erected by various city states of Ancient Greece. These were built to commemorate victories and to thank the oracle for advice.

Athens Treasury at oracle of Ancient Greece

The Treasury of Athens was built to commemorate the Athenians' victory at the Battle of Marathon. Previously the oracle had advised the Athenians to put their faith in their ‘wooden walls’; this they had interpreted as meaning their navy, and won a famous battle at Salamis.

Others, such as Croesus of Lydia, were not so fortunate in their interpretation. Consulting Delphi before attacking Persia, he received the answer "if you do, you will destroy a great empire." Croesus attacked, but was utterly routed – leading to the destruction of his own empire.

Plutarch records that inscribed over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were the words 'Gnothi Seauton', or 'know thyself'.

Athens and the Acropolis

[Above: The Parthenon, Athens, by Steve Swayne]

The major temples of the ‘high city’ (Acropolis) of Ancient Greece were constructed during the ‘Golden Age’ of Athens (460-430 BC), during which the Acropolis gained its final shape.

The Parthenon, constructed between 447-432 B.C. is the largest and most important of the monuments on the Acropolis. It was built to give thanks to Athena, the city's patron goddess, for the salvation of Athens and Ancient Greece in the Persian Wars.

The principal architect and sculptor of the Parthenon was Phidias, who also designed the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Caryatids dating from Ancient Greece

The Erechtheum offers the finest examples of the Ionic order that remain from the period of Ancient Greece. It is famous for its 'Porch of the Maidens' or caryatids - six columns sculpted in the shape of draped female figures that support the entablature of the southern portico.

A continuous frieze runs around the architrave of the smaller Temple of Athena Nike (or the Athena of Victory). This depicts the gods of Olympus and a battle scene between the armies of Ancient Greece and the Persians. The pediment was adorned with winged victories or Nike(s) created by Callimachus.

The Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion

Built in the Doric style in the 5th Century BC, The Temple of Poseidon sits high up on the southernmost tip of the Attiki peninsular, south of Athens.

Dedicated to the God of the Sea, the Temple offers stunning views over the Aegean, and marked for the sailors of Ancient Greece their first sighting of the homeland when returning from journeys. Byron visited the Temple - and carved his name on one of the columns.

Temple of Poseidon, Ancient Greece

See also Gods, Heroes and Romantics, a literary odyssey from Istanbul to Athens, including swimming the Hellespont, climbing Mt Olympus and visiting Troy, Meteora, and Delphi.

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