A short commentary on the Piraeus

The Piraeus was an ancient port-city constructed on the orders of Themistocles in 471 BC soon after the defeat of Xerxes and the second Persian invasion that ended in 279BC. Themistocles’ presence in its construction is evident from the map that points out two conjectural sites, the tomb of Themistocles (key number 7) and the Themistoclean wall that winds up the south east side of Akte Peninsula. The influence of Themistocles’ involvement in the creation of the Piraeus shown on the map is clearly shown by the two monuments with his name. Plato the Comic writes:

“By the seas’ margin, on the watery strand,

Thy monument, Themistocles, shall stand:

By this directed, to thy native shore

The merchant shall convey his freighted store;

And when our fleets are summoned to the fight,

Athens shall conquer with thy tomb in sight”[1]

Themistocles pressed the idea of using the wealth gained at the Laurium silver mines to build wooden ships to face the Persian fleet during the Second Persian War and the subsequent victory for the Greeks and Themistocles is shown by the two homages to Themistocles on the Piraeus. The historical significance of the Piraeus and Themistocles therefore is interwoven as his tomb is situated on the Piraeus but looks out to sea towards Salamis, the site where Themistocles made his name as the hero of Greece.

The site of the Piraeus is very well fortified as can be seen from various points on the map, including the Long Walls and the area’s natural contours and hills, historically significant in the founding of the site because of its defensibility and shelter for building and maintaining ships. The Long Walls were built in the mid-5th century BC and extended all the way around Athens as city walls and continued all the way back down to the Piraeus. The map showing the Long Walls and the Akte Peninsula bit to the south shows how fortified the Piraeus was. The south mountain even has its own wall around it to make it more impenetrable and this is historically significant because ‘As Thucydides remarks, Themistocles,

“was of the opinion that the Piraeus was more useful than the upper town, and he frequently urged the Athenians that if ever they were hard-pressed on land to go down to the Piraeus and resist all their enemies with their fleet’ (1.93.7)”[2]

There are two religious buildings pointed out on the map and are clustered on the Mounychia, a hill on the north-east side of the Piraeus. The religious buildings present are the theatre of Dionysus and sanctuaries to Artemis and Bendis. These religious buildings are historically significant because of their placement in a majoritavely port town and the inclusion of Bendis, a Thracian deity.[3] Bendis is a Thracian Goddess associated with Artemis and the moon which suggests an attempt by the Piraeans to be accommodating to other peoples who might stop at the Piraeus. Garland identifies that there may have been a further 16 other deities present over 200 years which further suggests that though the Piraeus was a port/extension of the main city of Athens, there was a religious element for those who lived there, suggesting that religion had a place in all forms and niches of Greek society.

[1]Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes”, ed. by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1876–79; Bartleby.com, 2011.

[2] Sitta von Reden “The Piraeus – a World Apart. Greece and Rome (Second Series)” (1995) pp 24-37.

[3] R. Garland “The Piraeus from the fifth to the first century B.C.”  London: Duckworth, 1987. pp. viii + 280, [34]

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