The Greek travel writer Pausanias (c. 150–c. 180) lived and wrote in the middle of the second century. His most famous work is the Periegesis tes Hellados, or Description of Greece, a guide to important sites and historic places of ancient Greece. Since Pausanias wrote only about five hundred years after the great flourishing of classical Greek culture, since he was a careful recorder of what he saw, and since he was fascinated with ancient ruins and folk customs, he provided later scholars with an invaluable resource for understanding Greek life at the height of the Roman empire. "Even today," wrote a contributor to World Eras, "it is possible to take his work as a useful guide to the archaeological sites in the various parts of Greece."
Little is known about Pausanias himself, or even about his background. Traditionally he was said to be a native of the city of Magnesia ad Sipylum in Lydia, part of western Asia Minor (now Turkey). Even the dates of his birth and death are unknown, but the Description of Greece has been dated to approximately 150 A.D. In the ten volumes of the Description Pausanias refers frequently to the monuments and celebrations of Greek culture created by the Roman emperor Hadrian (reigned 117–138). No event after 176 appears in the Description, so classical scholars have generally assigned Pausanias' most active period to the years surrounding 150–the middle of the second century.
The Description was probably designed for tourists of Greek ancestry—probably people like Pausanias himself, born in Asia but proud of their Greek heritage—whose enthusiasm for their ancestral homeland had been inflamed by the pro–Greek policies of Hadrian. The Description was organized by areas surrounding the ancient poleis, or city–states. Pausanias' work was virtually unique because it approached Greece and its history not in chronological order (taking events in the order in which they happened) but geographically. The ruins and monuments Pausanias encountered served as pointers for tourists, allowing them to place themselves in space. But they also served as keys that allowed Pausanias to unlock the great events and artists of Greek history and culture for his audience. This may explain why the traveler omitted parts of Greece in his itinerary. The ten volumes of the Description concentrate most heavily on classical sites in Athens, Sparta, Delphi (which housed an important shrine and oracle dedicated to the god Apollo), and Olympus, the site of the great Olympian games—the areas that would have been most familiar to Greek tourists at the time (as they still are today).
Sources of Attic History
Pausanias in his work treated the sites of ancient Greece almost exactly the same way as modern tour guides would do. In his first book, for instance—the guide to the province of Attica, the area dominated by Athens—he takes the reader from the point of arrival into the city through the main gate. He begins by describing the entrance to the port of Athens, the Peiraeus, giving a description of the geography surrounding the port and pointing out sites of interest. These ranged from religious temples and public monuments to places of importance in Greek history. "When you have rounded the promontory," he stated in the Description of Greece, "you see a harbor and a temple to Athena of Sunium on the peak of the promontory. Farther on is Laurium, where once the Athenians had silver mines, and a small uninhabited island called the Island of Patroclus. For a fortification was built on it and a palisade constructed by Patroclus, who was admiral in command of the Egyptian men–of–war sent byPtolemy. . .tohelp the Athenians, when Antigonus, son of Demetrius, was ravaging their country."
This excerpt from the Description demonstrated Pausanias' broad grasp of history. By pointing out the temple of Athena at Sunium, the entrance to the Peiraeus, he emphasized the relationship between the goddess and the famous city that bore her name. The silver mines at Laurium provided the Athenians at the beginning of the fifth century B.C. with the coin they needed to build ships to protect themselves from the Persians. The ships gave Athens the power to defeat the Persians (who had the most powerful army in the world at the time) and to extend control over the islands of the Aegean Sea and much of mainland Greece as well, leading to the great Golden Age of Athens. The story of the forts built by Patroclus recalled more recent history, after the decline of Athens about 450 years before Pausanias wrote his guide. By relating these stories, Pausanias was providing his readers with an historical context through which they could more easily understand the sites they saw and gain a sense of shared history and ethnic pride in their common Greek heritage.
Pausanias also provided reports of ancient monuments that have proved to be invaluable to modern historians. One of his best–known descriptions is that of the statue that stood in the Parthenon, the temple to Athena Parthenos, the virgin goddess who protected Athens from her enemies. The statue was built during Athens' Golden Age by the great sculptor Pheidias, one of the greatest artists of the ancient world. "The statue itself," explained Pausanias, "is made of ivory and gold. On the middle of her helmet is placed a likeness of the Sphinx . . . and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief. . . . The statue of Athena is upright, with a tunic reaching to the feet, and on her breast the head of Medusa is worked in ivory. She holds a statue of Victory about four cubits high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent." Pausanias' description has allowed modern historians and archaeologists to make plausible reconstructions of Pheidias' work and to recognize what may be a surviving Roman miniature copy of the Athena statue.
Discovering the Ancient Olympics
The fifth and sixth books of the Description tell stories about the ancient Panhellenic games at Olympus, held every fourthyearinhonorofthekingofthegods,Zeus.Atthetimehe visited the site of the games at Olympia in the southern part of Greece, many of the cult statues dedicated to winners of the games were still standing. Pausanias related stories about these early heroes of the Olympics. One of the outstanding athletes was Milo, a wrestler from the Greek colony of Croton in Magna Graecia (now the southern half of Italy). Milo, a man ofprodigiousstrength,competedintheOlympicsandinother sacred games over a period of thirty years in the late sixth century B.C. He won Olympic crowns in six of the seven games in which he competed. Another story related by Pausanias concerns the athlete Theagenes of the island of Thasos. Theagenes competed as a boxer, in the pankration (a combination of wrestling, boxing, and judo), and in running. He was so successful that afterhisdeathhewasworshipedasa god on Thasos and, when his cult statue was lost at sea, Pausanias reported that his native town suffered from an intense famine.
Pausanias is also a major source for information about the participation of women in the ancient games. Although women were not allowed within the sacred precinct at Olympia, they nonetheless had their own games, which were held at a different time. The women's games were dedicated to Zeus' wife Hera and were known as the Heraean games. The participants in the events were all female virgins, divided into three age groups. They were largely treated the same way that male athletes were treated. They ran on the same race track, the victor was awarded a crown of olive leaves, and winners in all events were allowed to set up cult statues.
Used Pausanias to Understand Ancient Greece
Pausanias' work has allowed modern archaeologists and classical scholars to reconstruct the street plan of ancient Athens and has even permitted them to identify individual buildings. The unearthing of the Agora, the town square and marketplace of ancient Athens, was made easy for the excavators, who were able to retrace Pausanias' footsteps through the remains of the ancient city. "His description of the Agora," wrote Eugene Vanderpool in Hesperia, "although sometimes vague and often far briefer than we could have wished, is none the less of the greatest value, and we must confess that without it we would be hard put to identify the remains of the buildings that have been found with those known from other ancient sources to have existed in the Agora."
Recently, however, some scholars have begun to explore Pausanias' work as a guide, not so much to the sites of ancient Greece, but to understand the relationship between Greeks in the period of Roman domination and their past. Pausanias, wrote John Elsner in Past and Present, "used myths of the ancient Greek past and the sacred associations of pilgrimage to shield himself from the full implications of being a subject." Greeks in the second century A.D. may have read the Description as both a travel guide to their ancestral homeland and as a source of pride in their heritage at a time when they were under the thumb of a foreign imperial power.
So whether modern scholars read Pausanias' Description as a travelogue and tourist's guide to classical Greek sites or as a political commentary on the status of Greeks at the height of the Roman empire, the work remains an important source for understanding ancient Greek history. "A text which has been regarded as a pedantic and antiquarian tourist guide," Elsner concluded, "can be interpreted to show how Greeks coped with the burden of a distinguished past weighing on their cultural identity, with the contemporary politics of Greece's status as a Roman province, and with the profound sense of the sacred with which so much of ancient culture was imbued."
Arafat, Karim W., Pausanias' Greece: Ancient Artists and Roman Rulers, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5 volumes, edited and translated by W. H. S. Jones and Henry A. Ormerod, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1918–1935.
Pausanias: Travel and Memory in Roman Greece, edited by S. E. Alcock, J. F. Cherry, and J. Elsner, Oxford University Press, 2001.
World Eras, Volume 3: Roman Republic and Empire (264 B.C.E.–476 C.E.), Gale Group, 2001.
Past and Present, May, 1992.
Hesperia, January–March, 1949.
Flourished Cireca 150 c.e.
Greek Tourist. One of the classicist’s most important sources on ancient Greece is the Periêgêsis tês Hellados (“Description of Greece”) of Pausanias. In this work Pausanias, who himself traveled throughout Greece, describes the topography of each region, offering a treasury of precious information about places of interest to the tourist. He opens each account of an important city with a sketch of its history and then discusses its daily life, rituals, and folklore. Even today it is possible to take his work as a useful guide to the archaeological sites in the various parts of Greece. Pausanias offers along the way interesting stories and anecdotes that cannot be found anywhere else in extant ancient literature. He expresses a particular fondness for nature, and throughout the ten books of the Periêgêsis tês Hellados are discussions of the tides, the signs of an impending earthquake, the icy seas of the North, and the summer solstice in Syene (Aswan), Egypt, where the noonday sun casts no shadow.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5 volumes, edited and translated by W. H. S. Jones and Henry A. Ormerod (London: Heinemann; New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1918–1935).
Middle to late second century c.e.–Late second century c.e.
Traveler and antiquarian Pausanias left an extensive account of the parts of Greece he visited in his book Descriptions of Greece, including detailed descriptions of numerous monuments and buildings. The book also discussed the history of the site described as well as some of the local customs, systems of worship, and local myths. His accounts read very much like a modern guidebook. He was very interested in sanctuaries, tombs, and statues and wrote lengthy sections on Attica, Megara, Argolis, Laconia, Messenia, Elis, Olympia, Achaia, Arcadia, Boeotia, Phocis, and Delphi. He also took care in describing scenes of notable battles, and historic and artistic monuments. He was selective about what he described and omitted, calling attention to what he found important in the realms of architecture, culture, and art. Often Pausanias is the only surviving source for the original appearance of a temple or a sanctuary, at least as it appeared in his time. Little else is known about the man except that he probably was a native of Lydia and the time he lived and wrote can only be inferred from internal evidence in his text.
Pausanias, Guide to Greece. 2 vols. Trans. by Peter Levi (New York: Viking/Penguin, 1984).
J. J. Pollitt, The Art of Greece 1400–31 B.C. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965): ix–x.