The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Sunday, September 09, 2012

My Life in Ruins, Part 4: Sparta, Mycenae, & Corinth

It's been a while but back to my nerdly trip to Greece. Over the next 3 days, I visited Sparta, Mycenae, and Corinth on a beautiful drive that included the Mediterranean coast, the olive groves of Kalamata, and the mountains that form the heart of the Peloponnese. This would bring me full-circle back to Athens for my flight to the island of Santorini.

Sparta is located in a valley between two mountains and various highlands, affording it natural defenses that protected it from ever being invaded.

Sparta was a very unique city-state in its day. They built a culture that was entirely focused on military readiness. Every new baby born was bathed in wine and examined by soldiers. If the infant appeared weak, it was killed or sold as a slave. At 7 years old, children became property of the state; boys were taken from their families and received harsh training for military life that included beatings and being sent alone into the wilderness to survive. They were fed “just enough to never be too full while also having a taste of what it is not to have enough”. Girls were also trained in fighting; not as harshly as the boys but in the belief that strong women produced strong babies.

One tale told in ancient Sparta was about a boy who caught a fox. When some soldiers approached, he hid it under his shirt. As the soldiers questioned him, he allowed the fox to chew into his stomach rather than confess, showing no sign of pain in his body or face. This was the Spartan way. Soldiers were famously told “Come home with your shield, or on it”—meaning victorious or dead. It was this attitude that led the 300 Spartan soldiers to take on hundreds of thousands of invading Persians at Thermopylae.

On the plus side, this earned them a reputation for being the best and fiercest fighters in all of Greece. The boys were also trained in reading, writing, music, and dancing, and women had considerably more rights in Sparta than anywhere else in ancient Greece. But the remains of ancient Sparta do not include the same intricate architecture and great works of art one finds in places like Athens because they did not focus on art and architecture. In fact, the Spartans despised the Athenians, who they perceived as “wallowing in luxuries”. This simple perspective is why we call simple things “Spartan” to this very day. Sparta was also known as “Lacedaemon” which has led to the word “laconic” for the same reason—Spartans were encouraged to answer questions with as few words as possible.

The remnants of ancient Sparta lie on a hillside outside the modern city, surrounded by beautiful olive groves.

The museum at Sparta is, well, Spartan—very small with few items, the most famous being this bust of a hoplite called “The Bust of Leonidas”.

In the town of Sparta there is also another famous modern statue of Leonidas with the inscription “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” (“come and get them”), his famous reply to the Persian request for the Spartans’ weapons:

My hotel here was actually in Mystras, the Byzantine town next to Sparta. My hotel room had a lovely view of orange groves—and the room had just been used by Liam Neeson (or maybe it was Ralph Feinnes? Well it was one of them—I’ve always confuse them since the both appeared in “Schindler’s List”).

Mycenae figures prominently in Greek mythology; the extent to which that mythology is based on actual historical events is debatable—like much of ancient Greek history it is so steeped in legend that separating fact from fiction can be challenging. But it was definitely an important center in the very early days of Greek civilization; in fact, the period of Greek history from 1600 BC to 1100 BC is called “The Mycenaean Period”. The remains of this once mighty citadel are centered on an acropolis (hill) that was surrounded by great walls and surmounted by the royal palace.

The most famous remnant is called The Lion Gate, the main entrance through the city walls.

In Greek legend, this is where the conflict leading up to the Trojan War began. Two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes, were feuding over the throne of Mycenae. Claiming to make peace, Atreus invited Thyestes to dine with him. After Thyestes ate the feast, Atreus revealed that the food was actually Thyestes’ own sons, whom Atreus murdered and cooked! Thyestes threw up and cursed Atreus and all his descendants. Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Menelaus married Helen—the most beautiful woman in the world—but Paris took her off to Troy. Of course Menelaus (who was king of Sparta) got his brother and the armies of Mycenae to help wage war on Troy and win her back…and the rest is a combination of history and legend (including the stories of the Trojan War, Electra, Orestes, Achilles, and Odysseus). But I digress…

The so-called “Treasury of Atreus” is a tholos, a beehive-like tomb built into a hillside. These are unique to the area and contained treasures that are now in museums (including the “Mask of Agamemnon” that I showed you back in Athens!)

Looking straight up at the beehive ceiling inside:

Corinth was once a fabulously wealthy city, owing to its strategic trading location on the Isthmus of Corinth. The display of this wealth led them to create the fancy Corinthian order of classical architecture (which is a real thing, unlike “Corinthian leather”, which was a marketing term invented by Chrysler for leather that was actually made in Newark and sold by Ricardo Montalban!). It was even considered for the capitol of the modern Greek state instead of Athens. Unfortunately the city is in an area prone to earthquakes, which have repeatedly destroyed it (one of them also killed 45,000 people). The ruins are dominated by the Temple of Apollo:

A random stray black dog decided to follow me throughout my explorations. I nicknamed him “Argos” after Odysseus’ dog (nerd alert!)

Having finished my travels on the mainland, I spent the night near Corinth and headed back to the airport in Athens for my flight to the island of Santorini…

Next up…the unbelievable beauty of Santorini. BUT BEFORE WE GO…A FEW PARTING SHOTS!

This pickup truck full of people on the highway seemed suspicious...

And of course, some classy black-and-white shots.

Next stop, Santorini!


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