Ancient History, Classical Archaeology, Travel blog

The ruins of Argos – report of a visit

Today was the first day of my big Peloponnesian adventure. My main goal is to spend a couple of days at both Messene and Corinth, two sites that I’m focussing on in my research as case-studies because a real wealth of Roman period material has been found at both sites. But I’ve decided to fit in a few other sites as well – mostly places I’ve never been to. Today, however, I began the trip by going to Argos, a place that I have visited several times already, because I wanted to spend a bit more time looking round the Roman bathhouse than I had before and to visit the museum because I couldn’t quite remember what Roman period stuff they’ve got on display there. The visit didn’t quite work out as planned.

After I’d managed to negotiate my way out of Athens’ frustrating one-way system I made good progress but then I stupidly took a wrong turn just before Corinth which ended up costing me a good hour’s travelling time. Stupid to think I’d really memorised the directions I’d looked up yesterday on the internet. I’ve now bought a very good map of the Peloponnese which I should have done before setting out! When I finally got to Argos I managed to got lost in that town’s one way system – I blame the poor signposting to the site – but I finally found the bathhouse, theatre and agora at around 14:45. I thought I would have a good hour and a quarter to look around but it turned out that the information I’d found on the internet was wrong and the site shuts at 15:00 rather than 16:00. On top of that it turned out that the museum is currently closed for renovation and won’t be open for a couple of years.

I did manage to quickly run around and get a few photos of the bathhouse and theatre.

The imposing remains of the Roman period bathhouse at Argos
The imposing remains of the Roman period bathhouse at Argos

The agora part of the site was completely closed and looking very overgrown. I expect that they will cut it back soon after leaving it for the winter. I didn’t mind too much that I didn’t get onto the agora because the site played a big role in my PhD thesis and I’ve spent quite a bit of time there. Despite not seeing the museum and only managing to rush around the bathhouse my journey certainly wasn’t wasted because I also managed to visit a few sites in the town that I’d never seen before. The other times I’d visited Argos I went from Athens by bus and the timing of the last bus back meant I was always quite rushed.

I drove up to take a look at the medieval castle on the Larissa hill overlooking the town, the old Acropolis of the ancient city (a bit hair-raising for someone with a fear of heights!); I also saw the remains of a sanctuary of Apollo at the foot of that hill. The most impressive thing I saw, though was a monument I’d wanted to see ever since Carole (@carolmadge) of the Following Hadrian blog (well worth reading and subscribing too!) tweeted me a photo of it a few months back- the Hadrianic Nymphaeum. Nymphaea are ornate public monumental fountain houses that take their name from the Nymphs (water-sprites) and which became very popular in the Greek world in the 2nd century AD.

The one at Argos was certainly constructed at the time of Hadrian and was possibly paid for by him. Hadrian was the most Philhellenic of all Roman Emperors and well known for his benefactions to Greek cities. Hadrian certainly did pay for an aqueduct to improve the city’s water supply by bringing water 30km from the surrounding hills because an inscription was found in the city that refers to that gift. The nympheum is located a couple of hundred metres to the east of the bathhouse and unlike that site isn’t fenced off.

The Hadrianic Nymphaeum at Argos
The Hadrianic Nymphaeum at Argos

An abundant water supply was seen as a sign of prosperity and success for Roman period Greek cities, which is a big part of why Nympahea became so popular in imperial times. Cities, of course, also needed lots of water for bathing in their new grand Roman-style bathhouses, of which the one at Argos, has some of the most impressive remains in Greece. The Romans, of course, were also experts at the technology required to bring water over great distances to supply cities which made such luxurious uses of water possible. It is, however, also worth recognising that there’s an important political dimension to this.

In the days before the Roman conquest there wouldn’t have been much point in Greek poleis trying to bring in vast quantities of water from far away because these city-states were constantly warring among themselves. In times of conflict, citizens retreated behind their city walls for safety. If they’d been reliant on miles of aqueducts for their water supply these structures would have been natural targets for enemies to demolish or damage. So, if one answer to the question “What did the Romans ever do for the Greeks?” is “Gave them aqueducts”, it’s also important to recognise that Roman conquest brought the political stability needed to make investment in aqueducts worthwhile. Whether that stability came at the cost of oppression is a tricky subject and one I’ll come back to in a future blog, as promised yesterday.

The Nymphaeum at Argos must have been a very grand affair. The thing that impressed me most about the ruins was the way in which you could see how the lower part of the momument had been carved out of the hillside with steps cut away on which the upper, brick part of the building rested. The whole thing would no doubt have been covered in marble revetment, thin sheets of marble veneer, a cost-effective technique that the Romans developed to make their public buildings look suitably grand without having to make them of solid marble blocks. A large niche in the centre of the rear of the building would probably have held a statue, perhaps of the emperor Hadrian if he was indeed the building’s benefactor.

The Roman Nymphaeum at Argos (detail showing brickwork resting on rock cut construction)
The Roman Nymphaeum at Argos (detail showing brickwork resting on rock cut construction)

I did find myself wondering where the building might have stood in relation to the rest of ancient Argos. A helpful 3D reconstruction is displayed for tourists nearby with the locations of all of the structures that have been excavated in the city, including the nymphaeum and with the locations of some of those known to have existed from inscriptions or literary sources guessed at.

Reconstruction drawing of ancient Argos c. 160 AD
Reconstruction drawing of ancient Argos c. 160 AD

The drawing gives a vivid impression of what a town like Argos must have been like in the Roman period but the truth is that there are a lot of holes in our knowledge of the topography of the city. In fact, more than any of the ancient city sites I know in Greece it has been difficult at Argos to match the buildings that have been excavated to the ancient literary sources, and in particular to Pausanias’ mid 2nd century AD description of the site. What this means is that we don’t really know exactly what a lot of the excavated structures were and that a lot of the structures mentioned in the sources still haven’t been found.

The problem arises because, as at so many other Greek sites a modern town has been built on top of the ancient one so that excavation has only been possible at certain spots within the city. The photo I took from the Nymphaion overlooking modern Argos provides a sharp contrast with the reconstruction drawing showing a view in the same direction but from slightly further away. It gives a good idea of just how much of the ancient city may still lie buried beneath modern buildings.

The view of modern Argos from the Nymphaeum
The view of modern Argos from the Nymphaeum

In a few days time I’ll be visiting Messene which is a rare example in Greece of an ancient city that hasn’t had a modern town built on top of it – there is a modern Messene but for some reason it’s 20km further south. At ancient Messene the archaeologists have unearthed some of the most impressive remains of public buildings and monuments anywhere in Greece and it’s much easier to get a sense of the scale of the ancient site and see how the city fits together. I can’t wait to get back there and see some of the exciting finds that have been made in the last few years.

Now, after a day on the road I feel that I’ve earned a relaxing evening and am about to head out for a meal by the seaside. I’m staying in an extremely touristic place called Tolo where every other building seems to be a hotel and where you can get English breakfasts and the Germans can enjoy “Zimmer am meer” (rooms with a sea view – I didn’t follow that course for nothing!). Tomorrow I’m head off to Kalamata in Messenia so that I can get to Messene on Monday. First, tomorrow I’m going to see a few sites in Arcadia, the central part of the Peloponnese including Lykosoura, a rural sanctuary where some of the only actual cult statues in Greece were discovered in the late 19th Century and the museum in Tripoli. I hope it isn’t closed for restoration works.

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3 thoughts on “The ruins of Argos – report of a visit”

  1. Were the nymphaeae used for something? I mean was it just a pretty cool building with fountains, or would it have been used for washing and/or clothes washing or for collecting drinking water? “Public monumental fountain house” doesn’t give me any feeling of what it was for.

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    1. Thanks for that very good question. Nymphaea do see generally to have been places where people could collect water for practical use – we know for sure that one of the largest in Greece, at Olympia, was for drinking water for the crowds that gathered there. I suppose we can’t be certain how the one at Argos was used which was what I was trying to get at when I said it’d be nice to now more about where it stood in relation to the rest of the city-plan. We’d expect a fountain house like this in a public space like an agora or busy street, which is where they usually were. Without knowing more about this part of Roman Argos it’s difficult to say what kind of crowd would have come to the Nymphaeum. I suppose it could have been mainly used for religious purposes – water was important in festivals – but it’s more likely, I think that it really was for supplying people with water for whatever they needed it for. There are clear signs of channels at the front of the structure where streams of water would have come out for people to collect, otherwise running off in a drain along the front.

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