views updated




Identification. The Peloponnesos is a large peninsula linked to the Greek mainland by the narrow isthmus of Corinth, cut through by the Corinth Canal in 1892-1893. Its name means "Island of Pelops" (progenitor of the Atreids, of whom Agamemnon and Menelaus of Trojan War fame are the best known). In medieval times it was known as "the Morea" (mulberry tree), either because the peninsula's shape vaguely resembles a mulberry leaf or because it was once the center of a silk industry and abounded with mulberry trees. With an area of 21,379 square kilometers it accounts for just over 16 percent of the total area of modern Greece and comprises 7 nomes: Achaea, Arcadia, Argolis, Corinth, Elis, Laconia, and Messenia. These are further divided into 21 eparchies, 36 municipalities, 1,315 communes or villages, and 2,573 localities or hamlets.

Location. The Peloponnesos is the southernmost extremity of the Greek mainland. Virtually surrounded by water, no point in the peninsula is more than 50 kilometers from the coast. In the north it is bounded by the Gulf of Corinth, in the east by the Aegean Sea, in the south by the Mediterranean and Sea of Crete, and in the west by the Ionian Sea. Cape Tenaro (also known as Matapan) is the southernmost point of mainland Europe after Tarifa, Spain. Most of the Peloponnesos is mountainous or hilly with small coastal plains around Corinth, Argos, Patras, and Messenia. An upland plain surrounds Tripoli and farther south a smaller flatland lies about Sparta. A chain of mountains, the southern extension of the European Alps, cuts through the peninsula. Prominent peaks include Mount Tayegetos (2,407 meters) above Sparta and Mount Kyllini (2,376 meters) and Mount Aroania (2,341 meters) in the north, all of which are snowcapped half the year. The Alfios, Peneus, and Maritsa are the largest rivers, but none are navigable. There are no lakes of any consequence. The climate of the Peloponnesos is Mediterranean with long hot summers and short wet winters, although there are significant differences between lowland and highland areas and it is difficult to generalize. In the winter temperatures drop well below freezing in the highlands and snowfalls can be heavy, but along the coasts snow rarely falls and temperatures are mild, averaging 10° C in January and 25° C in July compared to 5° C and 24° C for the highlands. Annual precipitation averages 60 centimeters on the coast and 80 centimeters inland.

Demography. By far the majority of the Peloponnesos's residents are ethnic Greeks, and although there are some Minorities, most have assimilated. Most conspicuous are the Tsiganes or Gypsies, who have lived in Greece and other parts of Europe for hundreds of years. In the Peloponnesos, as in other parts of Greece, these people lead a seminomadic existence, traveling about in small pickup trucks trading livestock, selling baskets, caning chairs, sharpening knives, repairing pots, telling fortunes, and begging. There are also Vlach shepherds, whose native language is related to Romanian, and Arvanites (Albanians), who live mainly in the east. Despite Slavic incursions in the early centuries of the Christian era and a relatively large number of Slavic place-names (especially in the south), attempts to identify a Slavic minority in the modern Peloponnesos have failed. The present Population of the Peloponnesos is about one million, of which half is rural and the other half urban or semiurban. Overall the population has remained more or less stable for the past thirty years, but there has been a major shift of people from the countryside to the towns and cities of Greece, particularly greater Athens/Piraeus. This movement, along with a limited international migration, continues, but it is much abated from the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. Major urban centers in the Peloponnesos include Patras, the third-largest city in Greece and an important port with a population of approximately 175,000, Kalamata with about 50,000, Corinth with 25,000, and another half-dozen cities with populations over 10,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Virtually all Peloponnesians speak modern Greek, and it is the exclusive language of instruction in all schools. There are distinct regional accents on the Peninsula, but no true dialects survive as a principal vehicle of communication. On the other hand, Vlachs and Arvanites frequently use their respective languages among themselves in everyday discourse, although they are fluent in modern Greek as well. A dialect of Greek known as Tsakonian (with ancient roots) was spoken in parts of Laconia, but there are few who remember it today. Likewise, a Maniat dialect disappeared about the same time and, although some older Maniats know a few words of it, the dialect is not spoken by any of them on a regular basis.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological excavations have established the presence of Paleolithic occupation in the Peloponnesos, and at least one site, Franchthi Cave in the southeast Argolis, has yielded remains of more or less continuous occupation from the Paleolithic through the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. During the ensuing Bronze Age the Peloponnesos was the center of the spectacular Mycenaean civilization, which derives its name from the site of Mycenae (near Nauplia), home of Agamemnon, chief of the Greek forces in Homer's account of the Trojan War. The site was excavated about 100 years ago by Heinrich Schliemann, the pioneering German archaeologist who earlier had located and excavated the site of ancient Troy in western Turkey. Sparta, in the southern central Peloponnesos, was the kingdom of Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon and husband of Helen, whose abduction by Paris, son of Troy's King Priam, touched off the Trojan War. Ruins from these and other Mycenaean settlements in the Peloponnesos have been extensively excavated. The Peloponnesians entered a dark age following the collapse of Mycenaean civilization around 1100 b.c. and only became significant again in classical times when Sparta rose as a great power, Controlling much of the peninsula and eventually challenging Athens. The resulting Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.) ended in victory for the Spartans, but little came of it. Later Corinth gained ascendancy over the region, but soon, like the rest of Greece, the Peloponnesos fell under the sway of the Romans. In a.d. 51-52 Saint Paul lived and preached in Corinth and gradually, in the following decades and centuries, the Peloponnesians were converted to Christianity. During the first millennium of the Christian era the region was out of the limelight. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, it was subjected to barbarian invasions from the north and a general decline of economy and culture. Later it came under the Control of the Byzantines and regained its productivity. In the thirteenth century the Franks took over much of the peninsula and for the next six centuries it was controlled alternately by the Franks, Byzantines, Venetians, and Turks. In March 1821 Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the banner of freedom at the Aghia Lavra monastery near Kalavryta, thus beginning the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Turks. Many of the important battles of the revolution, including the decisive Battle of Navarino in 1827, were fought in the Peloponnesos and the region contributed more than its share of revolutionary leaders, among them Theodore Kolokotronis and Petrobey Mavromichalis. When independence was achieved in 1830 the Peloponnesians comprised the bulk of the new Greek state, since only a fraction of modern-day Greece was included in the earliest liberated area. The capital was established at Nauplia in 1831 but moved to Athens three years later. It took several decades to integrate all the inhabitants of the Peloponnesos into the new state, and there were pockets of resistance, comprised of citizens who viewed the new state as no better than the Ottomans. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century the Region was solidly part of the modern Greek state. The Peloponnesos was once again the scene of fierce fighting in the Greek Civil War of the 1940s, particularly in the period that followed the departure of the German and Italian occupying forces after World War II.

Today cultural relations in the Peloponnesos are stable. There is little animosity between the various segments of the population, nor between the Peloponnesians and other Greeks. Special mention should be made, however, of Mani, a region in the central southernmost part of the peninsula. Its boundaries are a bit vague, but it comprises most of the central peninsula lying south of a line drawn from Kalamata to Gytheion. It is a repository of some traditional culture and is often viewed as a stronghold of individuality and Independence. During the last years of Ottoman rule it was never effectively subdued and often defied the Turkish overlords.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. As in the past, the economy of the Peloponnesos is largely agricultural and pastoral. There has been some industrialization around the city of Patras, but most Peloponnesian cities have prospered more from agriculture than manufacturing. Until World War II the majority of agriculture was at subsistence level, but in the past three or four decades there has been a shift to more specialized commercial production of grapes, olives, citrus and other fruits, and cereal grains. Pastoralism is still a very significant economic activity in the region, and the Peloponnesos contributes far more than its share of meat and animal products to the national economy. Traditionally much of the herding in the Peloponnesos was transhumant, with shepherds from the highlands descending during the winter months to coastal and other lowland areas. Today transhumance has all but disappeared, and most shepherds remain in one place year-round. Sheep and goats are herded on a fairly large scale and there are also some cattle and pig farms. Other components of the economy include small manufacturing, fishing, the merchant marine, and tourism, this last enterprise being seasonal but a substantial factor in the region's economy nonetheless.

Industrial Arts. Largely in decline, industrial arts are mostly debased mass-production enterprises aimed at the tourist trade.

Trade. The economy is largely a cash economy, fully integrated into the Greek national economy and increasingly Internationalized through Greece's membership in the European Community. There are still regional markets and fairs, but they play only a minor role in the overall economy.

Division of Labor. The traditional division of labor whereby women are associated with the house and domestic work while men work outside the home is breaking down in the modern Peloponnesos. Perhaps 30 to 40 percent of all women in the region now have employment outside the home, and rural women have always worked in the fields and orchards alongside the men. Nevertheless, women continue to shoulder the burden of domestic chores, as men rarely contribute in this area.

Land Tenure. Greece has a long tradition of small private land holdings, particularly in the Peloponnesos. There have been few large estates since Greek independence and the expulsion of the Ottoman Turks more than 150 years ago, and even the church has not been a significant landowner in Modern times despite the substantial holdings of a few monasteries. A major problem in the past was extensive fragmentation of land because of inheritance laws and dowry practices. With massive out-migration from villages in recent years there has been some consolidation of holdings, and land sales are far more common than in the past. Much poor and marginal land, once cultivated out of necessity, now lies fallow.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. As in the rest of Greece, kinship in the Peloponnesos is bilateral with loosely defined (often patricentric) kindreds being the most significant unit beyond the nuclear Family, although there are vestiges of patrilineal clans in Mani and a definite patricentric bias to most kinship reckoning in general. Kinship terminology is symmetrical and virtually identical to the Eskimo system. Fictive kinship, created through marriage and baptismal sponsorship, is a very Important means of uniting people and often serves as the basis for economic, political, and social relations outside the true family.

Marriage. Marriage is a prime goal of virtually every Greek, and those who do not marry are looked down upon and pitied. In the Peloponnesos arranged marriage has largely given way to a more open system, although the traditional practice was never very severe and individuals were rarely forced into matches against their will. Nevertheless, arranged marriages sometimes united temperamentally incompatible individuals, and although couples rarely divorced or separated, they often lived virtually separate lives under the same roof. The majority of men and women marry young, averaging 27 for males and 22 for females, slightly older than in the Recent past. In the villages postmarital residence is usually Viri-local, with couples settling in the husband's village but in a house of their own rather than in his parents' home. Patrilocal residence is still found, but it occurs most often as a temporary arrangement until the couple can establish their own household. Postmarital residence in towns and cities is neolocal, but it often has an uxorilocal slant in that a couple is apt to end up in the neighborhood of the bride's family, Especially if she has provided a house or apartment as part of her dowry (a standard practice today).

Domestic Unit. The ideal domestic unit is the nuclear family: husband, wife, and unmarried offspring. However, it is not uncommon, both in rural and in urban areas, to find one or two other individuals in the household, usually a widowed parent of the husband or wife.

Inheritance. By custom and law in Greece, inheritance is partible, bilateral, and equivalentthat is, all children receive equal portions of the estate. The difference is that females traditionally receive their portions in the form of dowries at the time of marriage while males often have to wait for the death of one or both parents to receive their shares, although they may get usufruct rights to land before that time.

Socialization. Socialization takes place mostly within the family, although schools and other formal institutions play an increasingly important role in this regard. For young men, military service, universally compulsory, tends to be an Important (and sometimes traumatic) experience that removes them from the indulgent and coddled environment of the family and exposes them to discipline and many new influences.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In rural areas social life is remarkably classless and egalitarian. There are often differences in Material circumstances among villagers, but they are rarely very great and tend to be less important than reputation and behavior as indicators of social position. One's family situation is also important. A person who makes a good marriage and has well-behaved, successful children (preferably sons) is more respected than a well-to-do individual with no spouse or children. In the towns and cities distinctions are more pronounced and generally depend on one's occupation as well as wealth. Those with some education and nonmanual jobs are usually viewed as superior to workers. Professionals stand at the top of the social order and are usually accorded a great deal of deference. Doctors and lawyers are also usually well compensated for their work.

Political Organization. As citizens of the Greek republic, the inhabitants of the Peloponnesos participate fully in democratic political life, electing representatives to parliament, local mayors, and village council members. Although it once was considered a royalist stronghold, and even today it often is identified with the Right, the Peloponnesos has no real Political identity. All political parties are represented and all are active in the region.

Social Control. Members of a national police force maintain control in villages and cities. They are always assigned to regions far away from their homes to minimize possible conflicts of interest. Criminal and civil matters are handled by an extensive system of district, regional, and national courts, which are supplemented by justices of the peace who often travel to villages to mediate disputes. Minor disputes over livestock and crops are usually handled locally by an agrofylakas (field warden), although inhabitants have full recourse to formai courts for any matter, serious or trivial.

Conflict. Vendettas and clan feuds, common in Mani during the eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries, have long disappeared and peace reigns in the area. The region suffered terribly during the Axis occupation of World War IImany starved and thousands were killed. In the village of Kalavryta all the males over a certain age, some 1,400 in all, were executed en masse in reprisal for attacks on German soldiers by guerrillas, and many other villages suffered similar punishments. Civil war broke out following the departure of the occupying forces and thousands more were killed, but since then there has been no major conflict in the Peloponnesos.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Virtually all the inhabitants of the Peloponnesos are Orthodox Christians. Parts of the region were Christianized as early as a.d. 51 when Saint Paul lived and preached in Corinth. Nevertheless, certain "pagan" (pre-Christian) practices are still a part of local worship and festivals. Saints' days are celebrated along with the various Christian holidays, major and minor. Easter is the most important celebration followed by Christmas and the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin on 15 August. Patras has the largest pre-Lenten carnival in Greece and smaller celebrations take place in every village and town. Village priests preside over local religious affairs, conducting regular services, weddings, baptisms, and funerals. There is a large bishopric at Patras and several others elsewhere as well as numerous monasteries scattered about the peninsula.

Arts. Most traditional arts are rapidly disappearing or are already gone from the Peloponnesos. The region has produced some famous painters of icons and religious frescos in the past, but there is no particular tradition there today. Nor is much left of the traditional music for which the peninsula was once famous, although occasionally one finds an old musician tucked away in a remote village. In Mani and several other places the women still sing the famous mirologia, traditional funeral dirges, although even this seems to be a dying art. The Kalamatiano, a dance named after the city of Kalamata, where it presumably originated, is one of the most popular folk dances among Greeks everywhere.

Medicine. Modern scientific and traditional folk medicine are practiced side by side in many parts of the Peloponnesos. A law requiring all Greek doctors to spend up to 18 months in rural areas ensures that every citizen has some access to modern medical care, but folk practices persist and rural People especially often rely on home cures and local bonesetters. In theory, medical care is socialized, but under-the-table payments are common, especially for surgery. Overall the people of the region are healthy and have a high life expectancy and low rates of infant mortality.

Death and Afterlife. The dead are buried within 24 hours of dying and funerals tend to be (next to marriage) the most important rites of passage celebrated in Greece. Memorial services are held at intervals of 6 days, 9 days, 40 days, and one year after death. Relatives can (and frequently do) organize additional services. Three years after interment the bones are exhumed and placed in a box, which is usually stored in a church crypt. Cemeteries are generally well maintained and frequently visited, although in depopulated Villages they are likely to be run-down and neglected. Greek Orthodox doctrine stipulates that there is an afterlife; many people appear to believe this, but others clearly do not.


Dimen, Muriel, and Ernestine Friedl, eds. (1976). Regional Variation in Modern Greece and Cyprus: Toward a Perspective on the Ethnography of Greece. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 268. New York.

Fermor, Patrick Leigh (1958). Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. London: John Murray.

Liddel, Robert (1958). The Morea. London: Jonathan Cape.

McDonald, William A., and George R. Rapp, eds. (1972). The Minnesota Messenia Expedition: Reconstructing a Bronze Age Regional Environment. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

National Statistical Service of Greece (1988). Statistical Yearbook of Greece, 1987. Athens: National Statistical Service of Greece.